Heidi Woodward Sheffield – Illustrator Interview

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Heidi is an alum of the SCBWI Nevada Mentor program. She did it the year before I did, but I am pretty sure she will agree with me that there is a special bond between those of us who have had this good fortune (and we consider ourselves honorary Nevadans!) For many of us, it was a key puzzle piece in our long creative journey. Heidi has also just sold another picture book to Nancy Paulsen at Penguin/Paulsen and she was the recipient of the SCBWI 2017 La Mentorship Award and SCBWI 2017 Portfolio Award honorable mention.

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

[HWS] Gosh, they’re all different. With my debut picture book BRICK BY BRICK, (2020 Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers) the words for the first few pages came to me quickly. Half the text was Spanish and half in English. It was like I was taking dictation from this voice in my head and the visuals flashed in between. There was a lot of quick scribbling going on, that’s for sure! My second book, ICE CREAM FACE (2021, Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers) started with this phrase and a rough sketch. I started playing with collage and a blissful boy enjoying his ice cream emerged. The story grew from there.   

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

[HWS] I was born in Michigan, but lived abroad in Spain and England briefly. I have traveled throughout Europe and have family in Germany (the Bremerhaven area). In addition, I’ve been to Egypt and to Mexico. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of countries I’d like to explore.We now live near the University of Michigan, which attracts folks from all over the world, which gives the area a beautiful vibrance. The joy of discovering a new culture, being surrounded by a new language, new customs and new people really makes my spirit soar. I enjoy revisiting past travels and have a huge library of photographs I have taken along the way. Many of these textures inspire my work. I love the differences and similarities of us all and see the world as an antique quilt, texture upon texture, layer upon layer, criss-crossing every which way, stories and stitches overlapping in the most beautiful collage.                      

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

[HWS] Ever since the wee age of 3, I have felt compelled to create. My mom suggested that I illustrate children’s books, which planted the seed in my teens. That seed took root, but it took many years working in advertising as a copywriter, art director, and illustrator and finally discovering SCBWI before that seed grew into a plant that bore fruit.

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

[HWS] My style is always evolving, though I’m presently known for my “tradigital” collages. I like to take traditionally done elements like drawings, paintings and photos and bring those into the digital realm to assemble the collage together. Digital collages allow me to access thousands of possible textures and layer them in fun and unexpected ways. Often just cutting and pasting  a texture in a wonky or random way can take the piece in an exciting, unexpected direction.

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

[HWS] My collages are pretty organic. I often see images within other images. For this picture, I was going through my sewing box and saw this old button. It gave me pause, because the more I looked at it, the more it looked like a puppy’s face. I took a photo, brought it into Photoshop, where I enhanced the elements I liked, making the spot around the puppy’s eye bigger, accentuating this tattered tuft of cloth and making hair out of it. More elements followed and before I knew it, I had this puppy. I did not begin with a sketch of the puppy, but going forward, as I flesh out his story, I will use sketches to get the continuity right, ghosting it back and overlaying it with textures.


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

[HWS] My parents paid for them, but I LOVED the Scholastic Books that were available for a dollar or two. FROG & TOAD were favorites. I was a teen when I had earned my own money. While visiting family in Germany, I swooned when I found books by Lisbeth Zwerger. I bought HANSEL UND GRETEL, DIE SEIBEN RABEN AND ROTKAPPCHEN (forgive my lack of umlauts).

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[HWS] HA! It’s often completely trashed, with printouts, reference, movie ticket stubs, fortune cookie wrappers and other ephemera. I often think it looks like a big jumbly collage itself. Then I take a picture of the cool bits and clear off enough space to work. I also have this hospital table I bought for $10 that can be put up and down that’s nice to stand at and work.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters that you keep returning to?

[HWS] Textures. I adore them. It’s often the fragment of something that I see that inspires a story. And exploring other cultures is a constant for me.

[JM] I love that for you it is textures more than themes! What artwork do you have hanging in your home? 

[HWS] I have found some really unique items in second-hand shops. Perhaps my favorite piece is an antique Asian hand-painted piece on silk(?) of this little fellow flying a kite child. It’s a very intriguing, odd piece. When I’m thinking about my projects, my eyes wander up to this piece to ponder. I also like this piece of calligraphy (that splash of ink’s incredible!), but have no idea what it actually says. I love oriental art in general. I also like this scratchy, palette knife piece, which looks like a city and port in Spain, or some fantasy place.

Little Boy Flying Kite

Asian Calligraphy

[JM] How important has the SCBWI been in your journey?

[HWS] I wouldn’t be here without SCBWI, which I joined in 2003. Everything I learned about the business was through this amazing organization. All of the conferences, workshops, and above all, friendships—really helped me hone my craft and stay persistent in my goal. It was years of putting in the work and dedication. Participating twice in the SCBWI Nevada Mentorship program was also helpful and amazing! It fortified my spirit as a creator and surrounded me with incredible, generous and talented people I still keep in contact with. Being chosen as both a Portfolio Showcase Honoree in NY and an LA Mentee was the culmination of so many years of effort. They were huge breakthroughs for me. Through the LA Mentorship Program, I met Nancy Paulsen, President and Publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers, and Cecilia Yung, Vice President and Executive Art Director, who both took a shine to my work. 

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

[HWS] I love Central Park. My mom grew up in NYC, and I like to imagine her as her 8-year old self enjoying the park.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[HWS] Here’s Buster Brown! He just celebrated his 4th birthday. Buster is my office buddy and receptionist. He can often be found sleeping on the job.

Buster Brown

[JM] I LOVE Buster! Please recommend a coffee shop or restaurant for me to visit in your city!

[HWS] Brown Dog! Homemade ice cream (get the Aztec chocolate—it has cayenne pepper in it. Somehow it makes the chocolate all that more satisfying!)

[JM] What was your first paid job out of high school?

[HWS] Swim teacher and lifeguard.

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

[HWS] I love the occasional piece of chocolate, but can’t keep it around because I’ll eat it ALL. But I like a little trail mix before I start working. I also drink a cup of tea. Sometimes cinnamon, sometimes green tea. And lots of H20—yes, boring, but it’s essential as your brain is 73% water. I can feel a definite lag in my energy if I don’t drink enough water.


I am so excited for the two books you have coming out with Nancy Paulsen. What a great imprint to debut with.


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2 Responses to Heidi Woodward Sheffield – Illustrator Interview

  1. Heidi’s textures and collages are so unique and make you want to study each piece. I find her interest in visiting and studing different cultures inspiring and look forward to reading her upcoming books — I hope to see that reflected in her work. The Nevada Mentorship program works turns out so many gifted artists and authors.

  2. Joanna says:

    Yes, I love the textured art. SCBWI has some awesome mentor programs.

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