Bridget Marzo – Illustrator Interview

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 bridget-on-2016-10-01-10-06-19Bridget hails from some cultures I know well and love, and is for me an example of a true European! And this weekend she has been in New York City introducing her latest picture book, TIZ AND OTT’S BIG DRAW at Bank Street Books and Greenlight Bookstore.

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

[BM] I often say I am an illustrator-author. Pictures (usually of my characters doing things)
are the first to land on the page. Very occasionally it is just a word or a funny name that
gets me started.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[BM] I don’t feel like I’m from any one place though I have a British passport. My father was a Londoner, and earned his living as a free-lance artist and portrait painter having started out in now long-gone commercial art studios of Fleet Street and of course he was a major influence on me striking out as a free-lancer. My mother, Julia Marzo was Catalan, born in Barcelona. Her family fled to France in the Spanish Civil war. Every year as a child, I spent days in the back of a car travelling with my parents through France, visiting my mother’s family in Paris and sometimes touring Spain. France has always felt like another home to me with that same northern and Mediterranean mix I found in my own family. And I love the strong light and shapes of the south, the many lush greens of England and the chromatic greys of Paris.
Right now I’m excited to be heading to the US again for Tiz and Ott events
york/ ] in New York and some meetings and time with my partner. My friends there make the US feel like another home for me. When I was less than 5 years old, my parents and I sailed above the boiler room on a liner to New York. We traveled down on the Greyhound to San Antonio, Texas, where my dad had some portrait commissions and I picked up a Texan accent for a while. As a teenager in the dull, if green, outer suburbs of London, I returned to that lost America of my early childhood through books and films.
Teachers encouraged me to apply for Cambridge rather than art school and having
entered King’s College to study English literature, I decided to study something I knew
little about: Chinese language, history and culture, along with Art History. That opened
up new visual paths for me. It wasn’t until 2 years ago that I actually made it to China
thanks to an invitation from the China Bookworm festival. There I met a publisher who
told me Tiz and Ottis marks reminded her of Chinese characters! The book has just
come out in China.
Art history made me even more critical of my own work but to my surprise
I was accepted to study Fine Art at the almost free Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts
near the Louvre. There wasn’t much useful teaching there then, just impressive old studios to work in when I wasn’t earning a crust. I learnt new ways to see, getting a few
commissions to copy old master paintings in museums. And my first taste of publishers
came with translating art history books. I translated Monet’s letters for Little Brown UK
who later did my first children’s books and spent 9 months co-translating a huge book
on Matisse–a real eye-opener! I feel I have yet to absorb all those rich influences.
I was lucky to land an old artist’s house an old cathedral town north of Paris for a low
rent. I eventually bought that town house for the price of barely one room in Paris or
London. But in my early 30s, my young son and I were lucky to survive a fire there. Oak
beams and thick stone walls withstood the heat but I lost most of my oil paintings. That
shook me into action. I focused on what I really loved – picture books–and drawing
children and animals in places I knew and visited with my young son. Three years later
Toto in Paris, my first book and the first of a series of travel adventures was published by
Little Brown UK.
I still had a lot to learn but living and raising children –and cooking – seemed easier to do in France than anywhere else on an illustrator’s income, particularly when I became a single mother.
Around the mid 1990s when I remarried and my daughter was born, I worked with an
international team in Paris brainstorming and storyboarding ideas for new media.
Anyone remember the lost world of CD-Roms? It got me my first computer and set me
onto a new path–quite literally here.
Part of my unpublished pull out novelty book, Sail Along.

Drive and Sail Along led to me illustrating and designing graphic games for Bayard’s amazing French children’s magazines and that led to doing two of the first big doodle books to be published after Taro Gomi’s first draw-inside books came out for older children.


The original cover of the Big Book for Little Hands, created along with The Big Book for The Big Book of Shapes, in collaboration with my Bayard Pomme d’Api editor, Marie-Pascale Cocagne, and illustrated by me and co-edited with the Tate UK / Abrams US.

Also in the mid 1990s Erzsi Deak launched SCBWI in Paris – the first region in Europe and got me helping with illustrator content in what came to feel like a parallel career. We ran memorable conferences in France, Greece, Spain and finally the ‘day-before’ conferences in Bologna where I met like-minded creative souls from the world over, including publishers equally as as passionate about their role in getting good books to kids. It was an honour to have been on the SCBWI International board of advisors for some years and I miss those meetings of generous and inspiring kids lit folk!
Meanwhile in France, illustration commissions for books and French children’s magazine enabled me to tackle subjects that mainstream UK/ US publishers avoided.


Bridget Marzo ‘ When baby wolf was born he had the evil eye of his grandfather’ illustration for a Belles Histoires magazing story.

I never seemed to have time to work up my own stories so when my mother died in 2008 I took time out and first of all, created a website about my father’s work [].

It gave me the chance to stand back and rethink. I wanted to live in the big city so I followed my bilingual children’s desire to study in England and set up a second base in East London.   Another dream was to a work in a shared studio – and I found one, a bike ride away from my new East End home. I could escape distractions and at last focus on my own stories again.

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

[BM] One of my first memories is painting at a little easel, the opposite end of my father’s studio in London. When I was in my early 20s I painted him in his studio.


A portait ( lost in the fire ) that I did aged around 20, of my father John Strevens, painting in his studio

He never taught me directly but I watched him paint and stretch canvases and there were lots of art books and illustrated books, old and new which taught me different ways of seeing from his. I own a very battered compendium of Golden books stories which I still treasure. Can you ever have too much art? As a child I took it for granted that all walls had pictures on them, so I was never ‘wowed’ by art as a child , not like I am now.

However I was a bit of a prodigy at drawing realistically and could impress my school mates with that. One day when I was around 12, the art teacher announced to the class that although Bridget could draw, another girl in the class was a ‘real’ artist. That knock to my confidence may have sparked my self doubt but I was persistent as well as adaptable.   It took me some while to find my own true voice and know what I wanted to really say.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[BM] I feel like I’m starting from scratch every time I work on a new book project. I try out different materials in search of a new way to work that both excites me and fits my idea.

Tiz and Ott have given me the freedom to play with a variety of pens, paints and crayons. I draw them with a Pentel brush having grown them and their story out of these early action sketches:


Early action sketches for Tiz and Ott.


I painted the storm in Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw with Turner acryl gouache, adding some Neocolour II watercolour pastel and collaged in my characters.

Before I moved to London I used to work digitally in a self taught messy way using Photoshop with my small tablet and pen. Now I prefer to work more spontaneously on paper, doing my own scanning to adjust layouts and make final tweaks. ‘Pixel perfection’can so easily kill the life in a picture.

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

[BM] Tiz, the high-energy drawer and Ott the low-energy painter are both sides of me – and my two children, according to them!

I want to work some more with a generic furry family that children find easy to draw. Are they pandas, or dogs or..?


They started out in coloured pencil for a novelty word book my French publisher Bayard entitled Bridget’s Book of English.


I also have this little Ice age girl buried under a mound of words and sketches who I really must dig out one day.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP or TIZ & OTT’S BIG DRAW , and the process of creating them?

[BM] I about to head off to the US so here is just a peek of work in progress in a heap on my desk right now – including some more Tiz and Ott.


From teaching for over a decade in a Bauhaus-inspired art school and giving workshops around the world, what have been one or two of your favorite experiences?

Working in Parsons Paris School of Design for over a decade, one my favourite projects was getting Foundation students to make marks with all kinds of materials on squares of paper and work together to compose them like this.


The colour mixing and painting workshops that I do now in museums and libraries started from teaching that Foundation class. Such fun to watch kids launch straight in and prod their reluctant parents to do the same!

Even in schools it is fun but not always easy to get teachers drawing as well as the children.

When I was invited to the Beijing Bookworm festival I managed to get a huge hall of children and teachers drawing on the floor.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 


[BM] So lucky to have one and a half workspaces. In London I cycle across to Clerkenwell to a shared studio. Back home I turned a king size bedroom into a workspace which allows for my spread – and rolling about on a ball seat!

You can see the big sheet of galvanized steel I hung, using magnets to pin work up and things that inspire me. Some work stays up there for longer than others!

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[BM] Traditional and abstract works including three of my dad’s flower paintings (here’s one alongside a canvas Bayard put together of my doodle pics…


and portraits of me and my ma – you can just see her on my dad’s old easel in thisrather messy corner of my workspace!


On the right of my picturebook case are giclée prints by Tibor Gergely (whose Scruffy the Tugboat I loved as a child) and a Shaun Tan which reminds me of the street art I can see nearby in Brick Lane.

[JM] At what point in your process do you consider the endpaper design?

[BM] Interesting! Endpapers for me are often a way to develop the visual vocabulary of my books, early on in the process.   In my Toto’s Travels series they were simply a picture vocabulary of objects and food in the story.

In Mini Racer I started with the endpapers too, lining up all the characters I invented. Get set – go!


For my Tiz and Ott stories, I first invented their vocabulary of marks – scribbles and blots which inspire kids to invent some more of their own in workshops.


Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                              [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

[BM] I love all parks as places to watch and sketch people and animals.

Perhaps my dream park – for its name too – is the Garden of the Humble Adminstrator in Suzhou, China. I discovered it with the brilliant author-illustrator Frané Lessac when we were invited to the China Bookworm festival.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[BM] Here’s the answer – from a story about Princess Alice who loses a tooth for Bayard’s Belles Histores magazine.


[ BMarzo CATS Princesse Alice BellesHistoires]

[ BMarzo CATS Princesse Alice BellesHistoires]

[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?The best prize I won as a child was for an essay on ‘happiness’ I sent to the Puffin club. It came with this hand written card from non other than Puffin book editor, Kaye Webb herself – a book token hidden in a balloon to blow up and burst – and a pin cushion!puffinclub-prize-note-from-kayewebb

[JM] What was the first book you bought with your own money?

[BM] Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield – a Puffin paperback – I loved Shirley Hughes drawings of ballet dancers even if I was a tomboy.

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[BM] TuoCha Ginseng tea (I buy bulk from French supermarkets – no sign of the tea in London or China) oh and I learnt in France that a glass of Cotes du Rhone at lunch can work wonders!




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4 Responses to Bridget Marzo – Illustrator Interview

  1. Patricia Nozell says:

    Wonderful post, Joanna! I see you as two kindred spirits! I hope you will be featuring Tiz & Ott’s Big Draw as a Perfect Picture Book this week – I can’t wait to see more.

    • Joanna says:

      I do agree about the kindred spirits! I haven’t gotten my hand on a copy yet of Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw, but I sure will have to soon to review it!

  2. Bridget has led such a fascinating life, with her travel and studies. Wow, I love that she studied Chinese language, history and culture, along with Art History in college. She’s done so much to help others too through SCBWI in Europe. I loved this interview and particularly loved the painting she did of her father in his studio. Her style is unique. Look forward at getting a peek at Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw when you review it. Thank you ladies.

  3. Lovely interview! Thank you!

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