Eliza Wheeler – Illustrator Interview

elizawheeler2016_webI am committed to being open with my readers so let me just say that I picked up a copy of Miss Maple’s Seeds in 2012 solely because of the title! I was so glad I did. It is a kind of Miss Rumphius meets Maple picture book celebrating the potential found in each tiny seed. It encompasses my love of nature and a wonderful life philosophy. I am not sure why it took me so long to interview Eliza, but here it is.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[EW] I usually say illustrator/author: I do more illustrating than writing, but when I do write, I go back and forth between words and pictures. I always see the story visually first, and start with some thumbnail sketches. Then I begin outlining the words to craft a first rough draft.             

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[EW] I grew up in northern Wisconsin, but have lived in Los Angeles for the past 9 years. I believe this has been a huge influence on my work – I feel a bit like an animal that’s been removed from its native habitat and placed in a city zoo. But I think that separation has given me a strong emotional connection to aspects of my country life, which has forced me to live there often in my imagination. I think homesickness can birth great creativity. But now I have the newer influence of coasts, cities, and mountains to mix into my landscapes too.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[EW] I’ve been a constant drawer since before I can remember. I loved being told to “go to my room”, because that’s where I could be alone with my paper and pencil (an introvert from the start). There was never a point in my life where I understood that illustration could be a way to make a living, so when entering college (at the University of Wisconsin-Stout), my parents and I thought the choice for an artist was between teaching or design. While I got my degree in graphic design, I never enjoyed working on the computer, and squeezed as many painting and drawing classes in as I could on the side. My husband and I moved to Los Angeles after college where I did in-house and freelance graphic design work. I felt really out of place in that field (I’ll be honest, I hated it). I continued drawing as much as I could on the side. I entered a piece into a Society of Illustrators show, and the judge that year was children’s illustrator, Joe Cepeda. He turned me on to SCBWI, and that national LA conference was where I learned to build and revise a body and work, and it’s where I made all my professional connections. I’ve been illustrating middle-grade and picture books full time since 2013, and I love it. Incidentally, the graphic design skills have come in really handy with an understanding of typography, book layout and design, and with self-promotion.

[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[EW] I work with dip pens and India ink, watercolors, and watercolor paper. I’ve been experimenting with paper weights and types: right now a mix of Arches cold and hot press papers.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

[EW] Maybe not characters so much as themes: seasons, animal worlds and miniature worlds, and anything magical. Themes I began with in my portfolio work have, I think, continued in my work, which is that of The Dark and The Light.

SCBWI piece

SCBWI piece

[JM] I love that you see themes even before characters. I see that you have worked with many different publishers. How does the process differ, it at all, when working with a small publisher like Little Pickle Press (whom I love, btw) to working with one of the Big Five? 

[EW] I’ve worked with a mix of large and small publishers, and what I’ve noticed is that it has less to do with the publisher, than the actual personal I’m working with at each publisher. Each editor and art director has their own way of working, and I like that diversity. Some are hands off, and some are more involved. One big difference for illustrators is that the advances are usually higher with the bigger publishers.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[EW] I have a new book coming out this April called TELL ME A TATTOO STORY, written by Alison McGhee. Here is the process of how one spread developed from thumbnail sketch, to final sketch, color test, and final painting.

WIP_2_TattooStory_SketchWIP_1_TattooStory_thumbnailTATTOO r2_high res.pdfWIP_4_TattooStory_final

Tattoo Story Cover

Tattoo Story Cover

[JM] MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS was one of my favorite picture books of 2013, though I had trouble not adding an R to the name every time I read it. 😉 Where did the seed for this idea come from?

[EW] Haha, I can see why adding the R would be an easy slip for you. Actually a lot of people do that whose names aren’t Marple, but that’s what I get for choosing a name so close to a mystery icon. Thank you for saying that about MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS! I first got the idea for that character at an SCBWI conference – I saw the most adorable woman in a purple hat (or red? Now I can’t remember), and I made a little sketch inspired by her in my sketchbook, and labeled it “the acorn woman”. I decided she would be a gardener of some kind, but that she would be flower-sized. The book sort of wrote itself from that point.

MissMaple_firstSketch

Miss Maples first sketch

MissMaple_cover

By the way, I later became friends with that adorable woman; she’s a fellow L.A. illustrator, Diane Browning. [http://www.dianebrowningillustrations.com]

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

Workspace
[EW] I work out of my small studio apartment, shared with my husband. Space is tight, and my process usually engulfs the space. If you want more photos and details, see this feature on Tuesday Tours with Andrea Skyberg. [http://andreaskyberg.com/eliza-wheelers-studio-tour]

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[EW] I love this question!


  1. a. Poster of Tolkien artwork from THE HOBBIT                                                                 b. 
    An Edward Gorey wordless story that we laid out as a print                                    c. An early 20th century Wisconsin travel poster
  2. a. In our bathroom; a bunch of favorite children’s book pages and covers                
  3.  a. Franklin Booth illustrations                                                                                        b. An illustration of mine; this is the same piece I mentioned earlier that I entered into the Society of Illustrators Show.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                                  [JM] What’s your favorite park (state, urban or national) in the world?

[EW] So far, my favorite has been the Redwood National Forest in northern California. Giant trees along rivers – that’s about as good as it will ever get for me.

[JM] Cats or dogs?
[EW] Cats AND dogs.

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[EW] I can’t eat or drink anything without spilling it on me. I’ve learned not to wear white.

[JM] First paid job after high school?                                                                         [EW] Driving the beer cart at a golf course.

Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?                                                    [EW] Loose-leaf green tea with milk and honey. Mmmm!                                                           Thank you for letting me share with you, Joanna! Happy Holidays to everyone!

[JM] Thanks for finding time to do this during this busy holiday season. And I wish you continued success, Eliza, especially with TELL ME A TATOO STORY coming out April, 2016. Happy holidays to you and your family.

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One Response to Eliza Wheeler – Illustrator Interview

  1. Thanks for the lovely interview, Joanna and Eliza. Hearing about the art on other people’s walls is always fascinating, as well as how someone can manage to produce great work in a small space!

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