Gianna Marino – Illustrator Interview

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I remember in the fall of 2012 when I had just arrived in the US, I decided to visit my dear author friend Kristin Clark in Cali after a weekend mentor retreat with SCBWI Nevada. Among the touristy stuff we did in and around S/F, Kristin took me over the Golden Gate bridge to a book shop where a friend was doing a presentation. This is where I met Gianna and her gorgeous artwork and whimsical storytelling (Too Tall Houses.)



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

[GM] I am an author/illustrator, although I should probably write “illustrator/author” since I am more comfortable with images than words!

Each book is different. Sometimes I will start drawing images first. I shuffle the images around until they eventually give me an idea for a story. Other times I write a manuscript first and, once it is as clean as I can get it, start the images. Most of the time there is a lot of back and forth between changing the words and pictures as I go. I think the most important part of creating a story is those early, magical days when the idea is forming. Almost like it is a fragile. I spend a lot of time thinking and visualizing layout before I write one word or lay pencil to paper. More things are figured out while hiking than while sitting at my drawing table.        

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

[GM] I am from San Francisco. I can’t say a specific place has influenced me, since most of my stories revolve around animals and its not like I grew up on a farm! However, I did have a very animal-friendly father and he somehow talked my mother into letting me have ducks, chickens, lizards, snakes, rabbits and endless birds in our house and backyard. So while it was not the location that was an influence, I did have access to nature. I guess you could say San Francisco influenced my story “Too Tall Houses”, about neighbors who build their houses too tall and block each others views. That story was inspired by real life neighbors when I lived up on Twin Peaks. I had this amazing view of the city, which was eventually blocked by neighbors building a very tall house in front of me.                                     

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

[GM] My path to being an artist started when I was a kid. I was extremely shy and would hardly talk to anyone, except my family. I used to drive my mom nuts talking too much while she was trying to get something done and she would say, “go draw something.” And so I did. My mother also enrolled me in every class she could find, from ceramics, watercolors, film-making, painting, piano, flute, and violin to horse back riding, and ballet. I had a creative upbringing. My father was a photographer and when my mom wasn’t taking me to a class, she was deep in her own projects weaving or dying yarn. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, but at the age of 15 I passed out while watching a blood draw from a little dog and decided to go into architecture. That, however, had far too many rules for me and I ended up designing toys for children. The book writing started on the side. Even though I was doing a lot of conceptual work in the toy business, there was a lack of creativity. With the books, finally, I could do anything I wanted.

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

[GM] Gouache. I have tried other mediums and I just can’t get them to do what I want! I just love gouache. It can be washed out like a watercolor, or thickened up to be opaque. I sometimes use it with Gum Arabic or other additives to create different effects.  I also love charcoal, but have not worked with it for years. I fiddled with acrylics a bit and some day would like to try something I have never done. But for now, I have a sweet spot for gouache.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

[GM] Splotch just came out May 2. This book originally started as an assignment from my writer’s group. I landed the subject “death” when pulling words out of a hat (a hat filled with words on taboo children’s book subjects). I went right to a child experiencing death for the first time and a goldfish popped in my mind! This is a very early and tiny dummy. I like to work very small and fast when I am starting a book. The goal is to get the idea on paper before I forget it and to not worry about detail. This first round is just a few inches tall.

Finished cover


interior sketch


interior sketch


[JM] I love how you shared the tiny quick initial dummy with us. Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?

Gosh, I wish I could say I wanted to spend my money on books as a kid. I liked books when I was little, but didn’t have a sense that I should use my hard earned money on something I could find at school on the bookshelf. Instead I saved up to buy a parakeet.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[GM] I went to my first artist residency in Wyoming last September for one month. Each artist was assigned a giant studio to work in (with heated floors!). I always wish for a bigger space to work in, to have more things on the wall and make a big mess. But for now, my little studio works just fine. It is mostly quiet and I can stare out the window for deep procrastination.

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

[GM] I like to hang work from people I know. I have some work of Lisa Kristine and Christopher Erin. I have some of my father’s photographs and, because I live in a small house with little storage, some of my own work that I didn’t have anywhere else to store.

[JM] What got you the nickname Boomerang?

[GM] I never wanted a full time job and persuaded to my boss that freelance was the only way to go. The reason for this, of course, was that I wanted to travel every year for several months. I always came home (had to make more money to do it again). Hence the nickname… 

[JM] I know you ride horse and I know you are an avid traveler, so tell us about an interesting location in which you have ridden, and/or a characterful horse you have ridden?

[GM] I have not done a lot of riding while out traveling. Mostly because I have such a deep connection to the horse I ride at home, that riding a stranger’s horse would almost feel like wearing someone else’s hiking boots! With that said…. I did visit a friend in Vermont several years back. She had one horse (for herself) and had borrowed one for me. We loaded our camping gear and rode around Vermont for a few weeks. She didn’t know a thing about this borrowed horse and that first windy day out, I wondered how I would stay on his back (he was feeling quite spirited). I gave him room to be himself and get his energy out on that first day and we just got along. Became friends. It is a wonderful experience to spend 24 hours a day with an animal. You get to know each other very, very well. By the time I had to fly back to California, I shed a few tears saying goodbye to my new friend.

Oh, man, seeing Vermont on horseback sounds wild.                                              

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

[GM] Point Reyes National Seashore. Of all the places in the world, that is still my favorite place to hike, ride my horse, sit and watch a tree grow. If I ever wake up on the wrong side of a bed, a few hours out there usually sets me straight. I love that on one hike you can go through rolling fields, fern forest, giant trees, fog, sun, wind, heat and ocean.

[JM] I’ve been to this park when I stayed in Santa Rosa a couple of summers ago! Cats or dogs? 

[GM] Dogs. Oh, so dogs. I have always had a dog or two. Could not imagine life without a dog close by. Olive, the circus dog, is my current best friend. Seriously, we spend 24/7 working, hiking, gardening, sleeping, eating, etc. Picked her up at the pound years ago. She was so crazy from being in a cage for 30 days, the dog handler actually snatched the leash away from my “I want a dog” reaching hand and said, “This is a very excitable little dog.” What he didn’t know was that someone loved her and trained her to play dead, roll over, high five, jump through my arms, etc. She rides my horse (bareback), paddle boards, bike rides and amuses everyone who meets her. When we arrive at a friends’ house without Olive, they almost don’t let us in the front door.

[JM] This photo is so darn cute! Yay for the Olives in our lives! Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[GM] I love to figure things out and fix things. I used to follow my dad around the house when he was working on little projects. He taught me that you can figure out almost anything. You just have to keep uncovering clues and get to the root of the problem.

[JM] What was your first paid job out of high school?

[GM] I drove horse carriages in Golden Gate Park, apprenticed a muralist and a jewelry designer and, hey San Francisco locals, worked at Le Video on 9th Avenue. I couldn’t just have one job. Four made it quicker to save up for a trip.

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

[GM] On a good day? Almonds, peanut butter, humus or avocado on rice cakes. On an even better day? CHOCOLATE!

For more info:

Thanks so much for chatting with us to day, Gianna. Now I need to get my hand son Splotch.

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5 Responses to Gianna Marino – Illustrator Interview

  1. Another terrific interview where the artist’s spirit and energy really shines through! Thank you, Gianna and Joanna!

    • Joanna says:

      Thanks. It isn’t always the case, but I just love it when you really feel you have sat down and met with the artist over a coffee!

  2. Patricia Nozell says:

    I so enjoy these interviews, Joanna, and this one is particularly interesting, as I’m familiar with & love Gianna’s work. I can tell you are kindred spirits – working to travel: love it!

  3. What a fun interview with Gianna. I enjoyed watching the dummy grow into beautiful illustrations. Her work is full of energy and humor.

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