Gina Perry – Illustrator Interview

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

[GP] I am an author/illustrator and I start with the words. Although some stories have started with a jingle. My made-up songs have been the inspiration for lots of different book ideas, and my next picture book. I have drawings or illustrations that beg for more of a story, but so far, words have started all of my completed manuscripts.

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

[GP] I grew up in Weymouth, Massachusetts. It’s a small city, south of Boston. From college on, I lived in Syracuse, New York and around Boston – Somerville, Cambridge, and Newton before moving to the seacoast of New Hampshire. I loved the diversity and activity of living in all those cities. I had a hard timing adjusting when I moved here fifteen years ago – the friendliness, the quiet, and nature filling in more space than buildings. Those are actually the things I cherish the most about living here now. I think the slower pace and the natural beauty have allowed me to feel like a kid again, playing in my backyard canopy. I still enjoy visiting cities, but I think my mind and heart feel more free in this quieter world. 

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

[GP] I drew a lot as a child. I copied cartoons and video game characters and made up comic strips. I adored Bob Ross and enjoyed making happy little trees. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of fine art or practicing artists, but as a teenager, I knew I wanted to attend art school. My high school art teacher, Mary Lou Montagna, was a great mentor and advocate. Now that I’m older I really see the power and impact the right teacher can have on a student – and for me, that was my art teacher. I was also really into computer games, so it wasn’t a surprise that I felt drawn to computer animation as a course of study. Syracuse University had one of the few programs at that time within a university structure, so off I went. I’m the youngest in my family, but I was the first one to move away, and to attend a university. It was an incredibly liberating time for me and perhaps the first time I really thought about what the world could offer me. I desperately wanted to take an elective illustration course but high enrollment for majors prevented me from taking even one class. Instead, most of my elective studio courses were drawing, painting, and printmaking. I found work in animation after graduation and really enjoyed that career for a few years. I had my lightbulb moment after two 100 hour weeks on a huge project. I was totally burnt out and looked at a friend and said, “I want to be an illustrator.” I was only 25, but it felt late and impossible. I found another path as a designer, and then art director in stationery while building up my skills as an illustrator and starting to take assignments. I had another huge shift almost nine years ago when my husband and I started a family and I stayed home to raise them. Our children have been a huge inspiration for my work, with the caveat that time to work was non-existent for many years. I never stopped working during that time, but I mostly became my number one client, pushing myself to complete picture book dummies and keep evolving my illustration style. I’ve been a late-bloomer my whole life, so it shouldn’t have surprised me that I would take fifteen years for me to reach that big goal of writing and illustrating my first children’s book.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[GP] I currently create art digitally using a Wacom Cintiq. I absolutely love how streamlined my process is now, compared to years of drawing, scanning, transferring sketches, painting, scanning final paintings, editing in photoshop, etc. I have very limited work time and now that I’m 100% digital I can enjoy every minute of the process, with none of the hassle.

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

[GP] I took the first spread in SMALL, and shared them in order of creation. I wanted an establishing shot of her scale against her big world, but I played with a lot of different devices along the way. Once the basic sketch was approved, I tested out a colorful backdrop. It didn’t feel quite right, but I completed the final spread as such. Once I worked on the following spread however, I knew that our colorful heroine and her adventure would be more impactful against a nearly blank city. If you have a keen eye you will notice the yellow cabs morphing in color as well. This was a change request from the publisher to keep the book flexible for international sales. I had actually wondered if taxi cabs were losing enough ground to uber and lyft that they were no longer ubiquitous so I felt pretty comfortable with the change.

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid? 

[GP] This question turned into a personal puzzle. I don’t remember ever buying a book as a kid! I either took books out from our small school library or they came in piles from Mrs. Claus at Christmas. Since I was very young, I loved making my Christmas book wish list. Mrs. Claus would even sign a few copies, like my favorite series from Madeleine L’Engle. What I do remember is trading books very often at a used book store. I think I lost a lot of my childhood book history by swapping, but it fed my endless appetite for books.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[GP] I’m incredibly stretched for space, especially now that I’m stocking books and swag, but I have every tool I need. To sit and work in this corner of my home is otherwise perfect – quiet, comfortable, far from my children’s bedrooms for working at night, and filled with natural light during the day.

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

[GP] We have an amazing gallery nearby in Portsmouth called Nahcotta. Twice a year they have the Enormous Tiny Art show – my favorite pieces have come from there and live in our front room. I have several older pieces by artists before they became children’s book illustrators: Jen Corace, Susie Gharameni, Meg Hunt, and Mark Hoffman. I also have a few of my own favorite pieces – my Fire Tiger and a few Buddha paintings.

[JM] When during a PB project do you start to think about the end pages? 

[GP] I know I should think about endpapers (and the back cover!) far sooner in the process, but so far it’s come towards the very end of final art. I think there is some logic in thinking of them at a later stage. You have final art to picture the final book as an object, not just as a story. I wish I could share the endpapers from my next book – they are super fun, full of detail, and really reference the whole story.

[JM] I know you have Celiac disease, I have more than one friend with kid(s) who have Celiac and I was wondering if you had considered writing a picture book that includes some of those challenges?

[GP] I do wonder how I can impact Celiac kids in a way that doesn’t ‘call out’ something that is already getting awkwardly called out – whether it’s social or by way of media mockery. I actually have been working on an early reader series proposal that revolves around cooking (one of my favorite hobbies!) and includes gluten-free recipes. Celiac isn’t a part of the story line, but something that is normalized by way of inclusion. Thank you for asking about this – your question bored it’s way into my brain and a current picture book manuscript that I’ve been noodling this week. If it lands somewhere on a bookshelf, those Celiac kids can thank you, too!

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

[GP] I haven’t travelled enough of our beautiful world, but until I do, Odiorne State Park in Rye, New Hampshire is my favorite park. I’ve only lived in New Hampshire since 2002, but I can’t think of a more picturesque place to spend time. I’ve enjoyed many happy days there; pushing my kids on swings while I look out to sea, searching the rocky beach for crabs, walking directly under under perched hawks, and biking on trails with my son.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[GP] Neither. Currently our family has two very dear cory catfish – Big Mama and Inky. Big Mama has long outlived her aquarium life expectancy so every day she’s still swimming is a little miracle.

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[GP] Over the years I have become increasingly anxious about mispronouncing names and words that have two possible pronunciations. Say I’m in a restaurant and want to order my favorite seafood, scallops. I will play it over in my head a million times, ask my non-shellfish eating husband his opinion, finally blurt out something to the waitress, then immediately forget which version I used. It’s far worse with friends and colleagues. I would give you an example but then you would guess who I’m talking about and it would compound my anxiety!

[JM] What was your first paid job?

[GP] Over or under the table? I was always doing odd jobs for money as a kid. But my first official job was at a bakery (pre-Celiac). I hated having to wear all white, but I enjoyed the paycheck. I managed to not get locked in the deep freeze or chop off a finger using the bread slicer. I could have done without the 5:30am start time on the weekends during high school but it was otherwise pretty fun.

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[GP] I’m a total author cliche – I love my tea and chocolate. A cup of hot chai and a Green & Black’s milk chocolate almonds bar are fuel for getting things done at the desk!

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2 Responses to Gina Perry – Illustrator Interview

  1. Gina has certainly had an interesting art design career before she began illustrating books. I chuckled when she said at 25 she wanted to be an illustrator, but thought it was too late. Her experiences in life have led her to her real calling and passion — illustrating children’s books. I enjoyed the progression of an illustration she shared in her book SMALL. Also have wondered how illustrators decide what to put in the endpapers. Look forward to seeing her book published. Lovely interview.

    • Gina Perry says:

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Patricia. I also look back and chuckle at the idea that changing careers at 25 was too late! If only we could go back and talk to our younger selves – not that we would listen. I hope you get a chance to read the book.

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