I don’t think I shall ever hear the word CUPCAKE now without thinking of Joyce Wan (check out her website if this means nothing to you). Somehow, a frosted pink, mouthful of scrummy yum, that makes you wanna yell Mmm, Fun and More! I have been following Joyce for a while on FB because Marcie Colleen, a mutual friend, lambasted me one day in our local Brooklyn bar with, ‘What, you’ve been in New York 4 months and don’t know Joyce Wan?!!” Well, I finally got to meet Joyce at the SCBWI LA conference this summer (where I have actually met the majority of my kidlit friends), and she was one of the reasons for my SCBWI rave post, here!
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?
[JM] What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?
[JW] I am Chinese-American, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, but have been living in New York City for about 17 years now.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[JW] Art always interested me, even as a child, and has always been a pursuit and a passion of mine. I designed a greeting card when I was 6 years old for a city-wide greeting card design contest. The design won first place and was subsequently sold through a major department store chain. Because of the contest, I even got to meet the governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, and had my picture in the Boston Globe.
As you can imagine, this experience left a major impression on me as a young child and it encouraged me to keep drawing. I grew up on welfare and food stamps in low-income housing in inner-city Boston for a greater part of my youth. Coming from an immigrant family with limited means, art was not necessarily encouraged – not as a means to make a living anyway. I went on to study architecture at Barnard College thinking it was the “practical” thing to do for someone who was interested in the arts. However, after working in the field of architecture for a couple years I realized it was not very fulfilling – in fact, I hated it. With no formal art education other than a college figure drawing class and a huge leap of faith, I started Wanart in 2003 with an initial focus on designing and manufacturing my own greeting card line. When I first started Wanart, I was working at a 9am-6pm job at an architectural firm. I would spend the night/early morning hours on my own business with only a few hours of sleep in between the two “jobs”. I did this for two years before I quit my full time job to pursue my own business full-time. I spent the early years taking lots of continuing education classes, taking odd jobs here and there when I needed money, reading lots of marketing books, trying many different things, making many mistakes, teaching myself design programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, spending lots of money (or, I like to call it, investing in myself), and drawing—lots of drawing, relying on nothing but hope and passion to keep me going most of the time. I continually put myself out there and exhibited my products at trade shows all over the country such as the National Stationery Show and the New York International Gift Show. Between the trial and error (and tears!) were some small successes, by this time I also started to license some of my designs, and then a major break came when I met the art director from my first publisher in 2008 at a gift show. The art director told me they had seen my cards in stores, had been following my work, and even had some of my cards in their office. This led to the publication of my first book Greetings from Kiwi and Pear which was based on one of my best-selling greeting card lines. I’ve had 5 books published now with 6 more under contract in the next few years. I’m working with Cartwheel/Scholastic, PSS!/Penguin, Beach Lane Books/S&S, & FSG/Macmillan. My designs are also found on stationery and gift products sold all over the world. It is a dream come true.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[JW] People know me for my digital work but I have been working more with pencil (my first love) lately and have a book coming out next year that I’m excited about called Sleepyheads with Beach Lane Books, which is drawn entirely in pencil and then colored digitally.
[JM] What does your workspace look like? (Photo if you like??)
[JW] I have a studio space right outside of New York City in Union City, New Jersey in an old industrial building that was a silk mill in the early 1900’s. These photos show my studio at its neatest, but it does get quite messy especially when I’m on deadline!
When I’m working late (which I tend to like to do these days because I find I do my best creative work between the hours of 12am and 3am) I will work at home right on my dining table.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[JW] I’ve included some images from a book coming out Fall 2014 from Beach Lane Books that I illustrated and was written by Sandra Howatt called Sleepyheads.
I always like to draw thumbnails first. This helps me plan the general layout of each page and text placement without having to worry too much about the details at this point. I also jot down any other ideas or questions I may have for each page.
Since this book did not contain any recurring characters, I went straight to the drawings. If there were characters, I would do character studies which involves drawing the character with different expressions and poses before advancing to the drawings. I wanted this book to have a soft, cuddly classic feeling so I drew this book entirely with a good old-fashioned pencil on fine art cotton fiber paper. Because of all the rendering I must have gone through over 25 pencils for this book and even a few sharpeners. It felt really nice to get back to basics and almost meditative in some ways.
After all the drawings were done, I scanned each one, inserted the text in Photoshop, compiled the files into a PDF, and emailed them to my editor for comments. My editor, Andrea Welch, and I had a phone meeting and we went through each page together and she shared her comments and requests for changes on layout, composition, character expressions, etc. I went back to the drawing board, had to redraw some of the pages and additional drawings had to be created, such as the title page and the cover. Afterward, I sent a new PDF with all the pages. Once the last round of drawings were approved, I went to color.
The book was colored in Photoshop mostly using the “multiply” blending mode so that I didn’t lose any of the pencil texture. Anyone who’s familiar with my work know that I use a lot of bright, cheerful flat colors so coloring night scenes, which I had not done much of before, was a fun, new challenge. I wanted to create a dreamy, peaceful, soothing atmosphere – a lullaby in visual form.
The colored drawings were then emailed to my editor in a PDF for comments again. After some more back-and-forth, the book was complete! The final drawings files were then uploaded to their server without the copy. The art department usually places the text.
I recently received the proofs for the book to review. Besides some minor adjustments I need to make, I am happy with how they look and I’m excited to share this book with the world!
[JM] Are the two art forms of card design and illustrating and writing books for children related and, if so, how?
[JW] Yes, at least in the types of books that I have been working on which are books for the very young – those that are not even quite reading yet. I spent many years working on greeting card designs (my collection now contains around 200 designs). Greeting cards are about communicating emotions and universal sentiments like love and joy which in a lot of ways are what picture books are about too. Going from greeting cards to picture books seemed like a natural progression. Eric Carle once said that when he’s working on a book every spread has to be able to stand on its own like a poster. I feel like it’s the same way with greeting cards and is something that I carry over into my books.
[JM] How do you approach the marketing/business side of the picture book world?
[JW] I’m a bit pro-active when it comes to marketing. having my gift business all these years really prepared me for the marketing/business side of the book world. I was already used to ‘selling’ and promoting my art before picture books were even in the pciture. I look at creating picture books as an extension of my design business and the picture books as another line of my products. I think creative people often feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by marketing and business. THINK BIG, ACT SMALL, but ACT nonetheless- ONE STEP AT A TIME towards your goals. This helps to keep dreamers and idealists rooted, and leads one towards successful fruition of ideas and dreams.
[JM] What authors and/or illustrators influenced you growing up?
[JW] There are so many but here are several of my favorites: Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, Tomie dePaola, Lois Ehlert, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and James Marshall.
[JM] What advice would you give new illustrators trying to break into this challenging business?
[JW] Have the courage to keep putting yourself out there, surround yourself with people who believe in you (stay away from toxic ones!), be honest with yourself, focus on what you do best, play up and promote what you do best, create from your heart and soul (not what the next person is doing), never stop learning, and keep drawing/painting/writing! Also, I keep hearing this more and more from people in the industry and at conferences and it’s something I also wholeheartedly believe—you have to work really, really hard, probably the hardest you’ve ever had to work. Go the extra mile in everything you do and everything you put out there.
Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[JW] Hawaii during the frigid months here in NYC would be dreamy. It’s such a magical, mystical, and joyous place: warm ocean, perfect sunlight, gentle sea breezes, lush green vegetation, sacred nature sites, the freshest fruits of the sea you’ll ever eat, awe-inspiring landscapes, full rainbows, fragrant flowers, friendly people, and SPAM, eggs, and rice (need I say more?).
This is a full rainbow I saw while on a last-minute Hawaiian getaway a year and a half ago. I had to stitch a bunch of photos together using a photo app because the rainbow was so immense I couldn’t fit the whole thing in one photo. As I gazed in awe at the rainbow that I spotted in the middle of a field while driving around the Hawaiian countryside (after making my friend pull over on the side of the road so that I could take pictures!), I was reminded how important it is to take a break from work and do something spontaneous and out-of-the-ordinary sometimes to reconnect with our childlike sense of wonder, discovery, and delight. [JM] Thanks for the reminder and visual!
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
[JW] Skittles, specifically the one in the purple packaging which are the Wild Berry flavors, or, the Fruit Salad Haribo Gummi candies and a nice strong cup of coffee.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[JW] Either – they just have to be chubby! [JM] Garfield meets Deputy Dawg?
[JM] If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, with whom would that be?
[JW] That would be Eric Carle, but if they don’t have to be living I would also love to have been able to spend the day with Richard
[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work, Joyce?
Visit me online at www.wanart.com.
Connect with me on: Twitter: @joycewanbooks
Joyce, I love how you have known only shared yourself and your work, but I also really feel like you have graciously taught us much in this interview and shared your expertise with us. I think Marcie and I need to take a trip to visit you in your super studio space! To your success, especially with the adorable SLEEPYHEADS.