Illustrator Interview – Diandra Mae

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photoI don’t know about you, but when I have time, I spend my first half hour in the morning with a coffee and perusing social media, especially FB, and I confess, some illustrators’ daily doodles I search out regularly for a boost, Diandra is one of these.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?

[DM] Illustrauthor. Pictures come first for me, but more and more stories are coming to me demanding to be written. The comics work I have started this year also requires me to write as much as I draw.

[JM] What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?

[DM] I’m Texan. I know that technically it’s not a nationality, but we do have that motto: “It’s like a whole ‘nother country.”  Haha.  Actually, although I don’t look it my father is Puerto Rican and my mother is American with mutt genes from England, Norway, and Scotland sprinkled in there. It makes for a fiery temperament, I’ve been told. Both of my parents tend to live life boldly, and that I think has made me less fearful about taking certain risks and that goes for my work as well.

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

[DM] Like many artists, I’ve created since I was old enough to hold a crayon or pencil. I was known as the “artist” among my circle of friends throughout school, drawing a weekly comic strip for our school newspaper in middle school, and by default one of my elective choices in high school was always Art. I didn’t pursue art school following graduation however. I was overwhelmed by the cost, and the very real possibility of not being able to have a job following graduation. Instead I went to a small state school which was probably the best thing I have ever done. My studies in Communications (Advertising & Public Relations focus) as well as English led me down paths I couldn’t imagine, and more importantly gave me a solid foundation of skills I have used in my career since. I did take Art classes, but the instructors were very into Modern Art and that just didn’t jibe with what I wanted. It seemed soulless to me, and I realize now it’s because there were no stories being told. I took a break from creating art to focus on becoming a teacher, and it wasn’t until I was in the classroom every day, being surrounded by kids that the urge to create came back to life.

So I started doing a now well-known weekly art challenge called Illustration Friday. I was rusty as heck for a long time, but after joining SCBWI in 2005, I put myself into it for all I was worth. Teaching used a lot of creative juice, so it was slow going for a while. It wasn’t until I stayed home with my first child and could devote more energy into creating illustration that I think I was able to make the leaps in growth as an artist that I needed to make.

[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[DM] I love to hold a 2B or 4B pencil, but when I’m not using the magic of Photoshop to paint I experiment with gouache. I have started dabbling with water-soluble crayons and watercolor pencils as well. I’m in early stages, but it’s been fun getting my hands dirty. I don’t often get a chance to work off the computer as my studio is currently open to the rest of the house and my children have little regard to how much a tube of Windsor Newton Designer’s Crimson Red may have cost.

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

[DM] We’re currently in a rental while our home is being built, so my workspace is a stingy little table in the landing area of our upstairs. However, for six years my studio looked like this:

stud1 stud2 stud3

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

[DM] It varies a little from project to project, but usually I start with the basic outline of a story. In this case, it’s breaking down what happens in a short comic. Here you can see me figuring out the pacing of each basic plot point, figuring out possible page count, and how the page will break down.

Thumbnails One

Thumbnails One

Thumbnails Two

Thumbnails Two

Then I write the script. This will include dialogue, action-direction, setting, mood, etc.



I take the script, go back to my thumbnails, and fill them with rough sketches so I can get the gist of what I’m trying to do. (thumbnails two) I’ll also do a few pages of character/emotion studies so I can stay consistent throughout the project. Later I’ll go to much larger sheets of paper where I’ll refine the sketches, then scan them in, clean them up, and adjust the levels in Photoshop.

sketchpg3(I currently use my sketch lines as my final line work.) From here I add as many layers as needed and digitally color each part of the page. page3 (This page is mostly finished, but I still need to go back and add more shadows and dramatic lighting.)

If I were doing a picture book or early reader, I usually get the idea for a character or story and I capture it in a sketch. I’ll write the manuscript out, sometimes scribbling thumbnails in the margins as I write. Then it’s on to storyboard thumbnails, full size drawings, and depending on the project either adding color in Photoshop, or printing out the line work onto watercolor paper and finishing it with gouache, inks, and pencils.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to again and again?

[DM] Food. Haha!


Seriously, if you follow me on Twitter you probably see my tweets on cooking and baking. When I can’t think of a conflict or plot, inevitably food plays a role in me becoming unstuck. Also, animal characters come to me so easily and they are a joy to draw. Humor is also present in everything I do, although it’s not necessarily I think about putting into my art.

poloI tend to write or draw things that make me laugh. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy what you’re doing, right? And if I’m lucky others find it funny, too. I will say that as I explore longer formats (like graphic novels) I do find myself drawn to the legends, fairy tales, and folk tales I loved growing up. There’s comfort in the familiar, but the challenge of spinning new threads from old yarns is intriguing.

[JM] Being an illustrator(author) can be very isolating , how do you combat this?

twit[DM] Twitter is my water cooler! I have found social media to be the single biggest aid in preventing that feeling of isolation. (Especially weekly chats like #kidlitart -9pm EST, Thursdays) Having a cyber community where we share trials and triumphs is hugely beneficial. I don’t do as much of it now, but blogging is how I first became part of the online illustration community when I started out years ago. Also, making real-life connections with online friends and then maintaining them through video chats and email goes a long way when you have those days of “What am I doing?!”  I love my critique groups.

[JM] How as being a member of SCBWI benefited you?

[DM] I can’t even…I have lost count of all the ways being a member of SCBWI has helped me. I went from being a member to volunteering for the organization, and it has enriched my life in so many ways. The connections made while helping fellow illustrators on their journey are hugely gratifying. I have met my best friends via SCBWI and its events, and some of my most memorable experiences with those people are often connected to SCBWI. It has enriched my personal life in countless ways.

Attending SCBWI events is often like receiving a college level course in so many different areas of craft, marketing, and promotion. I could not have grown as an illustrator without the push of SCBWI opportunities and challenges. Workshops, conferences, portfolio reviews-they have all helped me take those leaps and bounds to the next level. In addition, having the opportunity to make face-to-face connections to those in the publishing industry has been priceless.

[JM] Which artists/illustrators have been a great inspiration for you?

[DM] Growing up it was Crockett Johnson, PD Eastman, William Steig, Sid Hoff, Richard Scarry, Garth Williams, and James Marshall.  I also grew up on a hefty diet of cartoons, so Chuck Jones, Charles Shulz, and Carl Banks as well.  These artists helped me develop my sense of comic timing as well as helping develop my taste for anthropomorphism.

These days I am inspired to push and grow by Peter Brown, Melissa Sweet, Renata Liwska, Sergio Ruzzier, Viviane Schwarz, Marla Frazee, David Small, Sara Varon, and Luke Pearson. Artists whose work I find refreshing and sometimes a little dazzling: Isabelle Arsenault, Juana Martinez-Neal, and Alice and Martin Provensen.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?

[JM] What word best sums you up?

[DM] Enthusiastic.

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

[DM] Summers here in Texas have become pretty unbearable in the last five years, so I would probably live somewhere mild and gorgeous from June to September- like Ireland or Scotland. I’d also love to explore the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?

[DM] Gum. I pop and crack it like crazy when I’m working in the Zone. I’m going to have to give up my chewing habit as I’m pretty sure I’m giving myself TMJ. I have a giant jug of water that sits on my drafting table as I work (that goes a long way to refreshing my brain) and a handful of pistachios with a few mini m&ms mixed in is always good for a kick of salty and sweet.

[JM] oo, I do like the idea of pistachios mixed win m&m’s!

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[DM] Dogs. My dad was an instructor for the canine division in the Army when I was growing up. We always had a pack of dogs around, and I like their “Let’s go!” attitude, whether it’s hiking, or lying around for the day.  Plus, they are great foot warmers when you’re working in a chilly studio. Haha!  (I do like cats, but my husband is severely allergic.)

[JM] If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, dead or alive, with whom would that be?

[DM] Hmm. That is a tough one. Either Melissa Sweet or David Small. I’ve heard both of them present at conferences and they were both so inspiring and craft-oriented. I think it would be amazing just to spend the day working together, discussing technique and media, and playing in a studio setting.

[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?



Twitter: @DiandraMae

[JM] Diandra, thank you so much for sharing your journey with us today. I especially appreciated the detail of your process! I am still sniggering at the swimming pool scene! To your continued success in all your endeavors, and don’t hold back on that graphic novel!

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9 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Diandra Mae

  1. So wonderful to get to know more about this dynamic wonder! I have Diandra to thank for so much, little does she know! Through Diandra’s ‘Unofficial Gallery’ of scbwi entries for the TdP award in 2011, I found out about PiBoIdMo, albeit it too late, and 12x12in12, which changed my life! Nothing would please me more than to hear of Diandra’s achievements and success! Such a generous personality, Texas is lucky to have her! Thanks for bringing her forward and introducing her to more in the community, Joanne!

  2. Dana Carey says:

    I really enjoyed finding out more about Diandra and her work. Cute fox! I love seeing her posts online too. Had a fun time doing “sweet squares” when Diandra started those last year. Thanks, Diandra and Joanna!

  3. DM is an amazing illustrator and artist! I adore her style and her boldness. She is so very talented. I love her sketches and it nice to learn more about her!!!
    Looking forward to seeing more from her!!
    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  4. Nina Crittenden says:

    What a fun interview! Diandra is a real gem! I was lucky enough to spend a weekend with her at the New England SCBWI conference (’12) and she is so fun. Sweet and spunky, just like her artwork! 🙂

  5. Super interview, ladies! Love that fox! Very inspiring.

  6. Enjoyed the interview ladies and learning more about Diandra’s process and work. I love her unique style. Her work is amazing. Love the fox. And, the bright green work area — wow!

  7. I’m very fortunate to have DM as part of my SCBWI group. She is very kind and helpful and she is always giving us the ‘heads up’ on what’s happening in the illustration world that would be of benefit to us. Plus she’s quite talented! Thanks so much, Diandra, and thanks Joan for having gotten her interview. 🙂

  8. Diandra! I already knew she was one of my faves, but describing herself as “enthusiastic” and mentioning a persistent food theme made me remember why. Love this interview!

  9. Great interview! I learned a lot! I like her snacks! 🙂

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