I first saw Jen’s art work hanging in a gallery in Williamsburg, and she was easily my favorite artist in that exhibition. Then a few months later I met Jen in person in my neighborhood of Brooklyn, in what has now become my favorite writing café, 61 Local. I was introduced through another writing buddy, Marcie Coleen, and as is nearly always the case with other children’s lit writers, we hit it off immediately. You are going to love meeting Jen Hill and her art today!
Illustrator or author/illustrator?
I’ve considered myself an illustrator throughout my adult professional career, but have always loved to write as well. My main thing is creating characters. I’ll be doodling something and all the sudden I need to give it a name and come up with a few pals and a backstory. Sometimes they become books, sometimes they’re just one-offs. I’m an animator as well, and got into that because I loved to design characters and see them in action. It’s all part of the same package.
Agented or unagented? If yes, did you ‘sell yourself’ as an illustrator or author-illustrator?
Agented. I had the good fortune of not having to sell myself at all: I was approached by a few agents after the Perez Hilton book was announced.
For those who don’t know, Jen illustrated Perez Hilton’s picture book, THE BOY WITH PINK HAIR.
What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?
I’m an American mutt, but the Norwegian in me tends to dominate all else. Much of my fine art is set in my imaginary Norway. When I was little I had this game I used to play by myself where I pretended I was Norwegian and walked around speaking gibberish.
I love rainy and dark weather and could probably live very well in the Pacific Northwest or northern Europe. I’m the only person I know of who wakes up in the morning and gets excited when it’s dark and gloomy out. I work with more energy and enthusiasm when it’s bleak outside. It’s also tremendously cozy, and I’m really into my comforts.
Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
I can’t remember not wanting to be an artist. I always drew pictures and I always knew I wanted to do children’s books. In the fifth grade I created my first full-length book. It was about a pickle who runs away from home, titled “Dickle Pickle”. It will never be published for obvious reasons.
I went to Rhode Island School of Design and majored in illustration. There was no such thing as a children’s book major, but I took all the classes on offer. My senior thesis was a picture book called “You’re Not Cool” about a girl named Matilda who gets bullied by mean girls. I was fortunate to have David Macaulay as my thesis advisor.
After college I immediately began working at animation studios by day while I worked on my children’s book portfolio at night. I also began showing my fine art from time to time. Still doing various permutations of that practice, but with a lot more studio time as I work strictly freelance now.
For a time I played guitar and sang in a band too, but that’s a different chapter altogether. We were called the Holy Molys and it was Boston at the turn of the century. (How cool is it that we can say “turn of the century” in our lifetime?)
Ha, Do you have a preferred medium in which you work in the present century?!!
Gouache. I’m becoming very digital these days though, and do a lot of hybrid things with scanned paintings combined with digital “painting”. And I love drawing with regular pens in my sketchbook. Public events are great sketch sessions.
What does your workspace look like?
It’s a long Ikea desk in the main room of my apartment. I had a drafting table and a computer station in here but it got too claustrophobic. I’ve streamlined quite a bit over the years.
Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
Here’s a piece from a show I did a few months back.
After scanning all my thumbnail sketches, I compile in Photoshop and develop a color palette. I do a full color digital finish, which I print out to scale and tape to watercolor block. Using graphite transfer paper, I then trace the image to the paper. Here I am working on three images at once:
The it’s just color by numbers, really. (Tho happy accidents do happen.)
Sometimes I change things quite a bit afterwards. I often can’t make up my mind about palettes and need to try various permutations before committing.
Last year’s holiday card is a good example of that.
Initial sketch, digital color, gouache application:
It’s not working. Gonna try something entirely different. I re-paint with a different palette, then scan that and touch up in Photoshop. And voila:
Do you have themes or characters you return to again and again?
Woodland creatures, dumb-looking dogs, mystery forests, characters who may have something up their sleeve, creepy stuff, Ouija boards, a guy with an animal beard…
What books, authors or styles stand out from your childhood?
James Marshall is my all time hero. My mom would read the George and Martha books to us before bed and we would crack up every time. His wry humor is peerless. What impresses me most is his ability to glibly depict the foibles of human nature in a sweet way. He was a genius.
My dad traveled a lot and once brought me a book from overseas called “Bella” about a creepy doll in a French chateau who is possessed by an evil spirit. I loved that book.
Lois Duncan was a favorite. I devoured her Gothic teen stuff like “Down A Dark Hall” and “Stranger With My Face”.
There was this awesome series called “Dark Forces” of about a dozen or more books written by various authors with occult themes. There was one called “Waiting Spirits” about a girl who gets possessed doing automatic writing. I absolutely loved those books. They’re impossible to find now.
So basically I have a penchant for the silly and ridiculous and the dark and scary.
Any tips for those just setting out in this field?
A huge part of success is being friends with people. That person you knew in college may one day be a Creative Director or editor somewhere, so be nice to everyone. Make lots of friends in the field and hang out with them; you will rub off on one another. Intern at a publishing house if you can. Ask an artist you admire if you can visit their studio. Work for an artist as an assistant. Stop being shy. Most importantly: charm your way into things while you’re still young and sweet. And do a lot of good work of course, but that goes without saying.
For those who’ve decided to pursue a picture book illustration career later on down the road, I’d advise to be patient and persistent and work, work, work. And please don’t put watercolors of still-lifes in your portfolio. Do your research. A lot of people think it’s a lark to just be a children’s illustrator, but it’s actually a terribly competitive battlefield where broken hearts bleed themselves dry. I’m being hyperbolic, but not really.
Fabulous advice. And now – Five Fun Ones to Finish?
What word best sums you up? Gemini
If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go? Norway
What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing? Coffee in the AM, bubbly water all afternoon. At night I’ll occasionally have a nice Belgian beer while I work.
Cats or dogs?
Obsessed with both, but if I had to choose: Pomeranians.
I confess I always think that Pomeranians look like stuffed toys!
If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, dead or alive, with whom would that be?
Where can we find/follow you and your work?
I also have a flickr, a tumblr, a pinterest and a google+ but I don’t want to overload you.
Thank you, Miss Marple! Delightful to chat with you.
I now have to see DICKLE PICKLE and know if you have actually been back to Norway? I really do hope you get to spend an extended time in Europe some day as from what you have shared I think you would love the quirky slightly creepy side to many European picture books. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jen, and I wish you continued success with all your creative projects.
Jennifer and I met in a couple of different Facebook groups (uTales and 12×12) and really I friended her because I can’t wait to
beat play her at scrabble! Jennifer is a writer, poet, editor, and as you will discover, collaborative artist. I also felt it was about time I interviewed someone from down under, to maintain the breadth of this blog’s multicultural focus. Jennifer writes for children and education under J.R.Poulter and under J.R.McRae for literary verse, artwork and for short stories [and will do for novels].
- Illustrator or author/illustrator?
[JRP] I’m an author who is teaching themselves to illustrate with digital images and photography. I am in awe of professional illustrators, they have such vivid visual insight into the imagery of words!
- What’s your nationality and where do you live?
[JRP] I’m Australian, living in Queensland near a large park, which means lots of wildlife [birds, possums, water dragons, snakes] and dumped pets. One of our cats was a dumped kitten that followed two of my sons home from the park.
- Can you tell us of a couple of your stories that have a unique Australian flavor?
I try to write stories that relate to children anywhere but my recently published chapter book, “All in the Woods” has an Australian setting complete with a possum as a central character. The other story that has an Australian flavour to it is “Mending Lucille”, illustrator Sarah Davis even used part of a map of the Australian outback as background to one of the illustrations.
- What place do animals and nature have in your writing?
[JRP] I think when you are writing for children, that animals and nature are almost inevitably a part of the story, even if at a tangent. Most of my stories feature elements of nature and /or animals.
“Mending Lucille” has an injured bird as one of the themes running through the story. “All in the Woods” has a possum as one of the main characters and a large eucalyptus tree features significantly in the story. “Gelati Supreme”/”Ice Cream Supreme” has pooping pigeons and stinky rats as part of the comic element. My story, “The Stray” features a stray dog.
- Tell us a little of your beginnings as a writer and how visual this process is for you?
[JRP] I’ve written as long as I can remember. I have always loved ‘story’ and making up my own stories seemed a natural progression. Interestingly, I have been described as ‘a highly original and visual ‘ writer. I’m not sure why this is – perhaps because I have always loved art and can ‘see’ my stories as well as express them in words. I am a right brainer so the stories sort of emanate from the end of the pen or the keyboard. It is an adventure getting to know the characters and the story as you write it.
To have an illustrator who resonates with your story and gives it visual life is always awesome! Sarah Davis did a wonderful blog on her process of illustrating Mending Lucille. My own story of our collaboration and how I wrote “Mending Lucille” is on my blog.
- What sort of collaborative projects have you been involved in and how do you regard the process of collaboration?
[JRP] Readers are much more visually oriented than earlier generations. I commented to my agent over a year ago that we would start to see volumes of short stories and volumes of poetry increasingly produced with illustrations. Within a year, reviews of such works started cropping up in the papers in ever increasing numbers.
I love the collaborative process. It opens up a whole world of possibilities and adds new dimensions to your written creation. Someone else reading your words adds their life experience and worldview to the reading. This means their interpretation of your story will add layers to the story, which may or may not have been there, it will make the words ‘three dimensional’. The illustrator may add in an illustrative subtext of their own. The important thing is to be open to how the illustrator sees your story and let the richness of their vision add to yours.
My explanation of the illustrative process goes something like this – the illustrator reads the story – the words becoming a whole world in their head. The story, e.g., tells of a family in a kitchen over lunch – the illustrator sees the family in the kitchen but explores the ‘world’. This might mean looking through the kitchen window, going out the kitchen door and exploring the house, upstairs to the attic, downstairs to the cellar, into the intimacy of each bedroom’s toys, sports things, make up and bling etc, outside to the yard, down the street to take in the locale.
My first picture book, “Mending Lucille” was a richly rewarding collaborative process. It resulted in a major award win and among other things a ‘Children’s Choice Award’, which was the icing on the cake for me! For Sarah Davis, as a new illustrator, it meant she was established as an illustrative ‘force’ in Australia and had more work than she could cope with from then on. My junior novel, “All in the Woods” was a fun collaboration with American water-colourist, Linda S. Gunn that resulted in a nomination for the OPSO Award.
Lots of picture book projects, an illustrated novel and a chapter book are sitting with publishers waiting for decisions…
NOW for something for everyone else – an opportunity, a chance to collaborate on a story with some amazingly talented illustrators courtesy of Lyn Midnight’s ‘Apocolypse for Kiddies” project.
- What books and/or illustrators influenced your childhood?
[JRP] A story with stunning illustrations was “Pookie”, a story about a little rabbit with wings. I think it had been my mother’s. I wish someone would re release it. I remember my grandmother had her copy of Arthur Mee’s stories based on the Shakespearean tragedies. I was allowed to revel in these but not allowed to read Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. As soon as I was able to take myself to a library, I rectified that! Images by illustrators like Rackham, Gustav Dore, Tenniel, Dulac and many more inhabited my childhood. My grandmother also had copies of May Gibbs’ beautiful Australian based fairystories and an amazing multi volume set called “People and Places”. Many of the peoples photographed and discussed in its pages had already died out by the time I read about them. I loved Lewis Carroll’s wonderful tales and his crazily inventive verse. I went through all Dickens’ books bar Pickwick Papers, which I still haven’t read… Kahil Gibran was a favourite and I discovered Tolkien at school! My Aunt Mary had a superlative collection of art and archeology books with absolutely stunning reproductions and photography – I knew all about Howard Carter and Tutankhamen before I knew about the crossing of our Blue Mountains. There were lots and lots of stories that I remember with real affection!
- What does your workspace look like?
Ummm…. Messy… :}
- What projects are you working on at present?
[JRP] “Fox Shadows” will, hopefully, be coming out with Windy Hollows in September and is in final stages now. Wish I could give you a peak…
I’m working on numbers of picture book projects with illustrators from all over the world. The subjects as diverse as Octopus and sea turtles to sea legends and biting babies. A mysterious dolls’ house in a forest is the subject of a graphic novel and there’s a black and white illustrated novel about cats that are guardians of a motley assortment of people. I have a short story collection and a poetry collection on the go, both of which will be illustrated. I’m also working on two adult and one YA novel.
Five Fun Ones to Finish?
- What word best sums you up?
[JRP] “Dreamer” – always dreaming, daydreaming – ideas, ideas, ideas, STORIES!
- If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[JRP] That’s a hard one – I’d love to visit Great Britain and Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, well, all of Europe and the Russias, China, South America… I’d also like to live a month in Tasmania and Melbourne and on a Great Barrier Reef island!
- What do you do for non-art related relaxation?
[JRP] Word games have always been a passion. As a kid, if I couldn’t get my hands on a book to read, I made up games using the dictionary. The other thing I do to relax is write stories or poems to go with the un-story project related images of illustrator friends. I enjoy movies and documentaries too.
- Cats or dogs?
[JRP] Cats – they are affectionate without being pestiferous, playful without being boisterous, they are relaxing to watch and inspiring with their mysterious ways…
- If you could spend a day with one children’s book character, with whom would that be?
[JRP] Mmmm… Gandalf or Oliver Twist… not sure.
Do check out Jennifer’s work further on:
Also I do encourage you to check out Lyn Midnight’s “Apocalypse for Kiddies” project as you may be just the writers they need! I am so impressed that you are teaching yourself to illustrate, Jennifer! I loved hearing your thoughts on collaboration. This past week Maja Sereda, who is illustrating my first uTales books, sent me a bunch of sketches, and wow, I was so excited to see the story growing, enriching and coming to life. I look forward to “Fox Shadows” being published! Thank you so much for sharing some of your journey with us.
Last week we were in Israel, but now we mosey along the Mediterranean coast and travel way down the continent of Africa to its tip. Today’s illustrator, and wonderful uTales collaborator, Rico, lives in South Africa. He posts snippets of his work everyday on FB, which always give me a chuckle. He seems to be able to add a humorous illustrative twist to even the serious subjects.
Illustrator or author/illustrator?
Rico: I am primarily an illustrator, but sometimes also do some writing. I especially love working on story ideas and to design characters.
What’s your nationality and where have you lived?
Rico: Born in 1966 in Linz, Austria, but have lived in South Africa most of my life.
How have these cultures/languages influenced your art?
Rico: German was my mother tongue and my upbringing was a mix of Austrian and South African culture (which in itself incredibly varied … there being for example 11 official languages in South Africa). My mother encouraged me to become a voracious reader and this helped shape me as an artist – but I confess that most of the early influences were European and American comics and children’s books. I had a large collection of Richard Scarry, Tintin, Asterix and classic Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse adventures.
Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.
Rico: It goes right back to my youth … I covered every piece of scrap paper with drawings and got into lots of trouble at school for constantly drawing in exercise books and even on school desks.
After finishing high school in 1984, I began studies in first graphic design and then architecture … but especially the former allowed no room for my first love, which was cartooning. After less than a happy experience with tertiary education, I decided to pursue cartooning and illustration and was lucky to get hired by a newly formed satirical magazine as first a freelancer and then a staff artist for the publisher … working on a wide variety of things including children’s material, magazine illustration and even greeting cards.
When this publisher closed down, I formed a partnership in 1992 with writer Stephen Francis and we created the comic strip Madam & Eve, which we have kept going to this day.
What is your favorite medium for your artwork?
Rico: My favourite medium is by far pen and ink drawings and watercolours.
I know you are not only a book illustrator. What other expressions does your art take?
Rico: I see myself primarily as a graphic storyteller … and try and even tell a story or develop as much character as possible in even a single frame image.
I also work as a comic strip artist, cartoonist and editorial illustrator. I’ve had lots of varied opportunities in my career … which include animation design work, advertising, educational cartoon graphics and comics and work for corporate communications.
I also paint.
What art or artists have influenced you most?
Children’s art: Maurice Sendak, Oliver Jeffers, Scarry, Sempe
Comics: Herge (Tintin), Uderzo (Asterix), Carl Barks, Moebius … and too many to mention.
Comic strips & cartoons: Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), Berk Breathed
What are the deciding factors for you in accepting a project ?
Rico: Fun and intergrity and will it challenge me creatively?
What does your workspace look like?
Rico: I have sunny studio at home with doors that open to a stoep, … it currently looks relatively neat after a recent tidy up … give it a few months and it’ll fill up with comfortable clutter.
(in the attached photo you can see my cat, Charlie, on the window sill and the foliage of the magnolia tree through the window)
Five Fun Ones to Finish?
What word best sums you up?
Dogs or cats?
What do you do for non-art related relaxation?
Rico: Playing boules, reading, military history and computer wargaming, movies
What’s your drink of preference while you are working?
Rico: Coffee (some say way too much) and water
If you could spend a day with one children’s book character, with whom would that be?
Rico: Not strictly children’s book character … but love to spend a day with Calvin & Hobbes… for a no-holds game of Calvinball.
Rico, this is far too tidy a studio for an artist, but we appreciate you tidying it just for this blog post! A boulle-player AND Calvin and Hobbes fan….. that’s why our collaboration worked! Seriously, the artists and comics/books you have mentioned here, all played an integral part also in my childhood reading. I think you have a tremendous gift of imparting so much character just from one image. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Rico. To your continued success!
If you want to discover more of Rico’s talent, and I know you do! Check out these websites: