Illustrator Interview – Matt Phelan

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MattPhelanA few weeks back I posted a review in our Perfect Picture Book Friday series of the first book Matt illustrated, THE NEW GIRL…. AND ME. I had so many comments on this post on my Facebook page from people who love his artwork, and being such a fan myself, I felt compelled to shoot off an email and see if Matt would be willing to join us in this Wednesday Illustrator Interview series. Et voila.

Welcome, Matt!

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

[MP] Author/illustrator who also illustrates for other authors. I guess the books I’ve written have begun as images, but mostly in my head as opposed to in the sketchbook.  I’ll daydream scenes or sometimes just a sense of atmosphere for awhile before sketching. When the real work begins, I always start with a fully written manuscript before the art. I want to know that the story works first and then worry about how I’m going to illustrate it.

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

[MP] I live outside of Philadelphia and I’ve lived in or outside the city for my entire life. I guess it has influenced me in that I have so many friends and family members here. The Brandywine Tradition of Howard Pyle and the Wyeths has always been a strong influence.

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

[MP] I’ve drawn my whole life but in college my focus turned to filmmaking and acting. I did enough screenwriting after college to realize that I didn’t want to work in the film industry. All during that time, whenever I was asked what my dream job would be, I answered “children’s book illustrator”. Eventually I realized that actually trying to do that would be a good and essential first step. Since I had also spent much of my 20s working in bookstores, I knew what was out there, so I devoted about five years to bringing my skills to as high a level as I could manage. A 15-minute portfolio review at an SCBWI regional event opened the door to my first two books (The New Girl…and Me by Jacqui Robbins and The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty Birney).


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

[MP] I most often use a mix of pencil, ink, and watercolor. Watercolor is fascinating and frustrating in equal parts.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

[MP] It’s not exactly a theme, but I’m always interested in body language and how characters can communicate without speaking. My books always have long passages without text.

[JM] How does the process of illustrating a picture book differ for you from illustrating a graphic novel?

[MP] Aside from the sheer number of pages, I think they are essentially the same. In each you are creating the world for that story. You are concentrating on gesture and composition, focusing on page turns (and for the novels, the transition from panel to panel). It’s all sequential storytelling when you think about it. I even use the same media.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[MP] I had a studio built in my backyard last year by a company called Studio-Shed. It’s wonderful. Just basic electric, nice windows, and my art supplies and books.



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

[MP] Here are some images from my new picture book DRUTHERS which is the first I’ve also written (Candlewick Press, September 2014). The first step is an extremely loose sketch. It’s tiny and more scribble than sketch. The second image is a tighter drawing from the dummy. And finally, a detail from the finished spread (pencil, ink, watercolor).




[JM] Which of the books you have illustrated has taken the most research, and can you tell us a little about that?

[MP] Around the World was the most intensely researched. There was quite a bit of reading in addition to the first-person accounts I was basing the book on, such as biographies and books on the history of the bicycle. I love research so it was never a chore. I do wish I had had the time and means to actually go around the world myself. That would have been splendid.

[JM] What art do you have hanging in your apartment?

[MP] In the house there’s a spread from Around the World which had been framed for a Society of Illustrator’s show. The kids have prints from Greg Pizzoli and Jaime Zollars on the walls. My studio has a David Small sketch and a Frank Dormer illustration. Very inspiring.


Five Fun Ones to Finish?

[JM] What word best sums you up?

[MP] Tenacious.

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

[MP] Maybe a nice island. And by nice island I mean the kind with treacherous winds and crashing surf. Put a lighthouse on it and I’ll keep that going, too.

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

[MP] Coffee is both a snack and a drink. And a friend.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[MP] Kids.


[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most?

[MP] I’ll pick Dracula. In Stoker’s novel, which is brilliant, there is no romanticizing of Dracula, no long-lost tragic love that is often added to the film versions to give him “back-story”. He’s much darker and scarier because of that. For children’s lit, I’ll cheat and say Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus who is at best an anti-hero but such a fantastic character that I’d follow him even if he were all bad.

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

Sketch blog:


Twitter: @MattPhelanDraws

Matt, I Ioved discovering more about you. I think you should try Maine for wind, rain and wave-lashed lighthouses on islands! Dracula is definitely the purest, meanest bad guy so far! I am so excited about your new authored and illustrated DRUTHERS and wish you continued success with all your projects.

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23 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Matt Phelan

  1. You did Joanna! Wonderful interview with Matt! Lovely to read!

  2. Iza Trapani says:

    Such atmosphere in his work- and so fluid and unfettered. I love it! Thanks for introducing me to this wonderful artist. I look forward to his new book!

  3. Nancy poydar says:

    I love the body language. There must be a mirror in that fabulous studio! Another terrific interview, Joanna.

  4. Great interview! It’s so interesting to see how an illustrator approaches his work.

  5. Body language indeed!
    So looking forward to DRUTHERS. Thanks Matt and Joanna!

  6. I am a big Matt Phelan fan! And that’s ever since I was publisher at Atheneum when THE NEW GIRL…AND ME was published! Always lovely to see where artists work–their work spaces are so beautiful, artistic, and creative –and colorful! Great interview!

    • Joanna says:

      Yay, Emma, it must be so satisfying when you are one of the ones to spot and further new talent and then you see that person go on to such work on such wonderful books.

  7. Lori Mozdzierz says:

    Huge fan of Matt’s work! He truly is a gifted artist.

  8. Yay Mr. Phelan! I loved learning more about Mr. Phelan (love his studio!). 😀

  9. I really enjoyed THE NEW GIRL AND ME. The artwork was beautiful. What a gift. And, I look forward to Druthers! That sounds a bit more complicated, but a lot of fun. Enjoyed learning move about Matt and his work. Great interview.

  10. Had to laugh about coffee being a friend! Thanks for bringing us another great interview, Joanna. I loved Bluffton and Flora’s Very Windy Day – what a cover! Just put more of Phelan’s books on hold after visiting his website. Thanks again.

  11. Joanna says:

    BLUFFTON is a favorite of mine and well, yes, coffee has been a friend of mine too since high school, so it is nice to know we have mutual friends, Matt and I!

  12. I’m so glad you introduced us to “The New Girl…and Me” because I loved it! I’m also glad you’re profiling Matt Phelan. He sounds as fun as his illustrations. 🙂 I now have serious studio envy. Oh to have that kind of space to work in! I’ll be looking for his other works.

  13. I’ve said it before, he is just one of my favorite people. I’ve been a fan since the day I found the Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs on a shelf in the bookstore. And Matt never seems to disappoint. Thanks for the stellar interview.

  14. Rhythm says:

    What a great interview Ms Marple! You’ve done it again. I really enjoy Mr Phelan’s work and he sounds like a pretty fun guy. Thanks for sharing!

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