Illustrator Interview with Hazel Mitchell

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It is a great delight for me to introduce you to a gifted communicator today, whether that be: orally, writing, painting, sketching, or playing the penny whistle! I remember seeing some photos last spring, that Hazel had posted on a friend’s FB page, of an amazing sailing schooner, the Isaac Evans. Once I had stopped drooling, I read her FB profile and discovered that she was not only a sailer and writer, but also a fellow expat Brit. The deal was sealed! She is a member of that illustrious band of illustrators, Pixel Shavings, a committed SCBWIer and lover of all things Yorkshire! Hazel is a published illustrator, including books such as “How to talk to an Autistic Kid”,  Hidden New Jersey, which I recently reviewed, and Anastasia Suen’s All-Star Cheerleader series. Hazel, welcome, pull up a chair and let’s have a natter!

[JDM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?

[HM] Illustrator, but writing my own books too. Hopefully they will find a home in the future.

[JDM] What’s your nationality and where do you live?

[HM] I am British, born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England. Now I live and work in Maine USA.

[JDM] How has moving across the Atlantic impacted your work?

[HM] A great deal. In the UK I never felt that I could be a full time illustrator. It wasn’t even offered as an option when I went to college. I am sure there were courses (I was just never told about them!), but it was viewed as a ‘lesser’ art, or something you did in your ‘spare time’. You had to be Quentin Blake or EH Shepherd to make a living. Now, of course, it is much more highly regarded. So when I came to America in 2000 I realized that I might begin to fulfill my dream. Even now, after the crash, there are so many more opportunities here. It is still hard to break in … but the windows are there if you are prepared to work hard and take the downs with the ups and not give up. But that goes for life in general.

[JDM] Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.

[HM] They say everyone’s journey is different and mine has certainly been circuitous, I’ll give it that. My family roots were typical British working class. My Dad was a van driver and my Mum did everything from telephonist to cleaner. I was expected to get a job and earn a living when I left school. (When I got into Art College my Dad said I would be better off working at Woolworth’s, bless him.) I found I could draw at about 13, I thought about being an artist. And a writer. But drawing came first. I didn’t see how though. I didn’t know any artists or writers. I loved horses and I did see how that could be a job, and I decided to work to become a groom. But my art teacher stamped his feet and I got into the art school foundation course in York at 18.

It didn’t go well. I floundered, feeling that fine art was the only thing I could do. (No one mentioned illustration). I think I thought you had to do fine art and then illustration was part of that. Sad really. I was offered a place on a glass blowing BA (hons) course (I guess they needed people to fill up the places!) I am useless at thinking that fast and hated the heat and speed needed. So I dropped out.

I went home and worked with horses for a while and then I joined the Royal Navy. (My brother was a sailor). It seemed like a good idea at the time and it was! They taught me to be a graphic designer, I worked on everything from technical aircraft drawings to exhibition work. Because I could paint I got to do portraits – even one of Princess Anne! And I got to work on the first batch of computers. When I’d had enough of being a sailor (or Wren as we were called back then), I left and started up a graphic design and litho printing business, which I ran for 10 years in England. Then I moved to America. And finally (after a few years of painting portraits and teaching art) I got up the courage to pursue my dream of illustrating children’s books. The biggest push I had was discovering the SCBWI organization and basically giving myself a crash education in the business by going to as many conferences as my credit cards could afford, reading, networking and working on my portfolio. It only took me 30 years since I left college …. [JDM] Forgive me, Hazel, but I confess to some snickers as I pictured you near some heaving furnace busting your gut on the glass-blowing… mmm I am thinking there’s a picture book in this, you know, along the lines of the pixie that rebelled against her glass-blowing family business, and became a star leaf artist?? 

[JDM] What is your favorite medium for your artwork?

[HM] Right now I am working part by hand in graphite and pen and ink and then digitally colouring. I fell in love with photoshop in about 1991. At first this was because of speed of use, now I love what I can do with it. I would like to work more in watercolour again though, and mix that in with my digital work.

[JDM] What have been your strongest influences the past couple of years in your work?

[HM] Discovering a whole new country of illustrators, writers and their children’s books. People think that the books in England must necessarily be the same as here because we have the same language! But no … so I have been on a fast reading programme to educate myself in the USA children’s book culture. It’s not a bad idea to immerse yourself in another country’s children’s literature – maybe next I will do France! [JDM] You would indeed find that even in translation French children’s literature is very different from American!

[JDM] You have illustrated several children’s books, do you have one that stands out as far as the pleasure it has given you as an illustrator?

[HM] I am really enjoying illustrating Anastasia Suen’s chapter book series ‘All-Star Cheerleaders’. I love doing pen and ink. It’s nice to get to know the characters over a series. I have also started work on a book  for a publisher involving the seaside and a dog and I LOVE the ocean and dogs so I think this will be my favorite so far!

[JDM] What books and/or illustrators influenced your childhood?

[HM] I moved on to novels and also adult reading pretty quick I think. I don’t remember many picture books from my childhood. I loved Enid Blyton (all kids did), Milly-Molly-Mandy, ANY pony books (especially the ‘Jill’ books and I DO remember the lovely black and white illustrations in those). The first book I recall reading was ‘A Child’s Garden of Verse’ and Winnie the Pooh, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan’s silly poems and Hillaire Belloc. Later Alan Garner, Bronte’s, Austen, Dickens, Asimov, Arthur C Clarke.  Quentin Blake, EH Shepherd, Raymond Briggs, Kate Greenway, pre-raphaelite’s (more illustrators than fine artists I always thought!). It’s an odd list. Which might explain some things 😉 [JDM] Very eclectic, though I recognize many of my favorites, too!

[JDM] What does your workspace look like?

[HM] It’s the top half of the first floor of the house with lots of windows and a wood stove and it is L shaped.

[JDM] Can you share a piece or two with us, and the process of producing them?

[HM] The first one is called ‘The Wee Girly and the Orange’ and it is totally digital and a new style I am working on. I am using a limited palette and working straight on the screen in photoshop.  There is no pre sketching – it’s straight on the screen to capture the immediacy, which is the hardest thing I find … keeping the freshness. Of course, I can delete and rework as much as I like on screen without worrying about messing up what I did before. I’m really trying to simplify my work and be more spontaneous.

The second is a different style from a book I am working on now about a girl and her horse. It’s a fantasy graphic ‘novellette’ aimed at middle grade children. I love horses and I love the sea – so this encompasses my great loves! It is first drawn in pencil, scanned and then coloured in photoshop. I like to keep the digital work painterly, and a lot of people can’t tell. Except for other illustrators and AD’s, of course.


Five Fun Ones to Finish?

[JDM] What word best sums you up?

[HM] Enthusiastic! 

[JDM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?

[HM] Scarborough, Yorkshire [JDM] For the uninitiated, this is northern England – Bronte country!

[JDM] What do you do for non-art related relaxation?

[HM] Swim, garden, go to the ocean, look after my animals, cook.

[JDM] Music (if so what genre), radio or silence while you work?

[HM] Mainly BBC radio 4 when I am working, sometimes music (classic, celtic, or whatever I find on Spotify!) and silence when I am writing or reading. I play the tin whistle badly in between.

[JDM] Drink of preference when you work?

[HM] TEA!!!!! What else – I am a Brit. Milk and sugar please. 🙂 

[JDM] Hazel, I feel like have just sat down at the kitchen table with a big mug of Yorkshire tea, and had a good old chin wag! How glad I am that you weren’t wasted on Woolworths! What a journey and what perseverance you have shown to arrive at the quality of work you are creating today. The illustration of the girl and her horse is one of my favorites of yours. You capture mood, movement, emotion and tension so beautifully. Hazel, I am sure it is just a question of time until we see books on the market with your name as both author and illustrator. If you ever have the chance to meet up with Hazel at a conference, grab it. She is highly relational and you will rapidly find you have made a bunch of new friends. Thank you for sharing your unique artist’s way with us! And please tell me, does the orange survive?

Please visit Hazel’s website and blog for more information.

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35 Responses to Illustrator Interview with Hazel Mitchell

  1. jamiepeeps says:

    I love hearing about Hazel’s background and seeing her studio!
    We illustrators are a curious lot, and we’ll stamp our feet if we have to.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Joanna says:

    That studio looks like a hive of activity, Jamie! Keep stamping! I am loving getting to know more illustrators!

  3. She’s fabulous! And her studio brims with happiness. Hazel, you are a super artist. I could look at your illustrations all day and never tire of them. They’re beautiful!

  4. What a wonderful interview! And what an interesting journey you’ve had Hazel! I love seeing your studio and I think your illustrations are fantastic 🙂

  5. Thank you ladies. I thorouhly enjoyed learning more about you Hazel! I love your artwork — the horse is my favorite too. It shows strength and beauty of both horse and the girl. I also enjoyed your illustrations in “How to Talk to an Autistic Kid!” I hadn’ a clue that you began in the Royal Navy — it sounds like that opened many doors for you and gave you the training you were seeking as an illustrator. The military is always ahead in computer technology and you arrived at the right time. Loved learning about about your rocess. A portrait of Princess Anne — impressive. I’m glad you’re doing what you love most. Just a great interview!

  6. Heather says:

    I love Hazel’s work and it’s fun to read a bit more about how she came to be a children’s book illustrator. I hope the little girl gave the poor orange a hand, he looks a bit stuck. Great interview!

  7. wonderful interview Joanna and Hazel!!! I love your work!

  8. Leslie Rose says:

    What a cool journey. Circuitous is right. I love Hazel’s stick-to-it-iveness. When our creative core keeps singing to us, we can’t deny it for long. The sky and the sea in the second illustration are mesmerizing.

  9. Nosy by nature, so I enjoyed the glimpse of your workspace Hazel. I like the piece you just finished coloring for the poster contest. It reminds me of the work of an early childhood favorite, one I tried hard to mimic: Joan Walsh Anglund. In that piece I am invited to imagine, that beyond your cozy workspace is a world of pleasant comfort, soft clouds and fresh air! Thanks Joanna and Hazel!

  10. Thanks Hazel and Joanna. I love this interview series. I appreciate you sharing your workspace and how you work. And, am so happy you are able to do this work, so many years after school.

  11. I absolutely loved this interview with Hazel (how I wish I’d met her in person at SCBWI last summer!) Thank you!

    The wee girlie caught at my heart. I loved the horse and girl and sea, too, but the wee girlie really touched something in me.

    Somehow I’m feeling like getting out my photos of Yorkshire. (and having a good tuck in to some roast beef and Yorkshire pud!)

  12. I love looking at other people’s work spaces. Hazel’s illustrations are wonderful. Such talent. I believe I walked past her at SCBWI LA last summer. There were so many people there I saw in passing. I should’ve made a greater effort in saying hi. Well, I’m saying hi now. 🙂

  13. What a great interview! Thanks so much for sharing! And Hazel, your art is absolutely beautiful!!! 🙂

  14. I loved seeing your workspace, Hazel. It looks like the perfect place to be inspired, work through drafts and sketches, and generally make magic happen.

    And I’m so glad you followed your heart and pursued illustration, even though it wasn’t an “official career.”

    Thanks for the interview!

  15. Ishta … I love my workspace. It is very peaceful and inspiring. Thanks for your encouragement 🙂

  16. Oh What! loved to draw as a kid, loved horses, Enid Blyton, Milly, Molly, Mandy….. and a workplace that looks warm, inviting and lived in….. my kind of person….. What a shame Hazel we never met up. Although I think we may have passed each other at last Summer’s SCBWI. I know we text a couple of times trying to catch each other. Maybe next time! How come I missed this post Joanna, this was excellent.

  17. Pingback: Interview with JaNay Brown-Wood and Hazel Mitchell, creators of Imani’s Moon | Miss Marple's Musings

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