Sunday, November 16, 2008

Art Day Interview: Illustrator Deborah Freedman

Today I’m interviewing author and illustrator Deborah Freedman for Art Day. Deborah’s art and writing are a whole lot of fun for kids. Read on to find out more about Deborah and her work.

Q: How did you get started illustrating for children?

A: After I had my first baby, 20 years ago, I started making little books for my kids. I slowly started taking those little books and myself more and more seriously, and eventually put an illustration portfolio together. After a few editors encouraged me to do my own books, I concentrated on writing - I had a bit of a learning curve with that though!

Q: Tell us a little bit about your first picture book, SCRIBBLE.
A: Like a lot of artists, I’m inspired by children's drawings and have always wished that I could be that loose, that imaginative. One of the things I love about the art of young children is that so often there is a wonderful narrative that goes with it; I know that my own kids often asked me to write little descriptions or stories down at the bottom of their pictures. After years of looking at and thinking about their artwork, one day I had an idea for a book - about two sisters who draw together, and the story behind their drawings.

Q: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other books or art projects you’d like to talk about?
A: I always have a few picture book projects going, in different stages.

Q: Do you do non-children’s book art (licensing, fine art, etc.) or art just for fun? Is that art similar or different from your children’s book art?

A: Sometimes I like to do art for myself that is just a little edgier or more oblique than what I can do for the picture book crowd.

Q: When illustrating picture books do you include a visual storyline that’s not in the text or include animals or people you know?
A: Just as I was about to begin the final sketches for SCRIBBLE, we adopted a tiny kitten, Milo. I thought it would be fun to have a "real" cat alongside the pretend one, reacting to what is going on or sometimes one step ahead of the other characters, and Milo made a great model. So he is there, on every page. Although I don't expect him to show up in every book, he is the main character of a book I am working on now.

Q: Can you explain your art process?

A: When I first have an idea for a book, I dedicate a little sketchbook to it so that I can keep track of my thoughts and doodles. Once I have things worked out in my head, I move to a thumbnail, storyboard format. I write and draw at that stage for a long time, working out the overall visual theme, arc, pacing, etc. I usually do a sample or two at that point, to test out my ideas for the art. Then I slowly blow the sketches up to make room for more detail.

For final art, I like to work on the whole book at once, if I can. I do like things in batches to keep them consistent – like settings at once, each character at once, etc. Then I scan everything and assemble it on my computer. And I try to make it look like it hasn’t been pieced together!

Q: What is your favorite color?

A: That's an interesting question for me.

Most of my projects start in my head with some sort of big visual theme or hook, and color is an important part of that. I don't necessarily have one, forever favorite color, but I do have a favorite of the moment - one color that sets up the palette for the rest of the art in a book. I use that color in a very deliberate way, as critical element in my story. In SCRIBBLE I focused on yellow and pink, which some readers may find an odd or even unappealing combination, but those two colors helped me add depth to my characters and drive the theme of the book. Right now I'm working a lot with blue, a calming blue, maybe as an antidote to all of that pink and yellow!

Q: What is your favorite medium to work in?

A: I both love and hate the unpredictability of watercolor. On days when I don't have the patience for it, I like pen & ink.

Q: What childhood art supply brings back happy memories?
A: Play-Doh. Mmmm, that smell…

Q: Do you have a favorite childhood picture that you remember making?
A: I don't. Isn't that sad? But I do remember that when I was in nursery school, I painted lots of girls with hair that flipped into swirly curls at the end, like Princess Aurora's in SCRIBBLE. I also remember the different houses that I built from blocks, and the funny outfits that I sewed for my brother’s and sister’s stuffed animals.

Q: Did you always want to be an artist when you grew up?
A: I don't know that I ever said to myself, "I want to be an artist", but art has always been a part of my life. My sister and I took art classes together after school and in the summers, throughout our childhoods. My grandparents were avid art lovers, and often took us to museums and galleries. Largely because of their influence, I majored in art history in college. But in the end I decided that I needed to be "doing" something artistic and not just studying it, and so I went to architecture school.

Q: Do you use models / source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?

A: Mostly my imagination; it's hard to pose a child doing something like flying through the air. Also, I find that my drawings are less rigid and more emotive when I work from my head. But when I'm having trouble with a pose, I do look at myself in the mirror or go to photos. Or I give up and change the pose!

Q: If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?

A: Do I have to be something else?

Q: What gets you through an illustration you’re having trouble with?

A: My husband and I have a large collection of art books, so when I'm stuck I often go to those for inspiration. Sometimes I even steal from them (don’t tell). Or I take a long walk. Or a nap.

Q: What was your favorite toy, stuffed animal or doll when you were growing up?

A: I had (still have) a stuffed lion with a winsome face and legs that were sewn on backwards.

Q: What illustrated books do you remember from when you were a child?

A: I actually have a list of my old favorites on my website, here. From that list, the single book I've always remembered most vividly from my childhood is THE SNOWY DAY. Ezra Jack Keats’ images - Peter dragging his stick and making angels in the snow, the snowball melting in his pocket - have always stayed with me. And the words too. “Down fell the snow – plop! – on top of Peter’s head.”

Q: Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now? (You can list more than one.)
A: Ooh, tough question! I don't know where to begin or stop. My taste is all over the place, ranging through Sendak, Peter Sis, Stephen Gammell, to William Steig and my buddy Frank Dormer.

Q: Did you like to tell jokes or stories as a child?
A: No, never! I was the one who liked to make things; my brother and sister always accused me of abandoning them once their stuffed animals were dressed and the block houses were built, when it was time to PLAY. They think it's funny that I'm the one telling stories now. No wonder I have so much trouble with plots...

Q: If you could be a kid again for just one day, what would you do?

A: Lie on the grass and daydream.

Bio: Deborah Freedman lives with her family in Connecticut, and is the author and illustrator of SCRIBBLE (Knopf 2007), a Book Sense Pick. Please visit to learn more about Deborah and her work.

Thanks for the interview Deborah!

All images in this post © Deborah Freedman.


  1. Fabulous interview, and another book to add to my Christmas wish list for my kids!

  2. Ooh! My kids LOVE LOVE LOVE Scribble, and with good reason; it's wonderful.

    Great interview -- thanks.

  3. Oooh, those pen and ink trees are lovely.

    Fun interview---I love hearing artists talk about their work.

  4. Great interview Steph and Debbi! I love to hear how illustrators/artists think.

    And me and my kids LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Scribble!

  5. Wonderful interview! Deborah's art is so lovely . . . and so is she!

    I can't wait to read more of her books.

  6. Great interview. I'm also inspired by kid's art. I haven't read Scribble but it looks delightful.

  7. Great interview and fun questions. Thanks ladies!

  8. Thanks everyone. Stephanie's a great interviewer!

  9. thank you, debbie and stephanie! great interview! debbie, whenever i read scribble to sweet pea, she always says "that's not very nice!" when the little sister scribbles over her big sis' drawing. haha!

  10. That was a wonderful interview, Stephanie.
    Love your fun illos and your PB's back story, Debbie!
    :-) Edna

  11. Great interview! Your book, Scribble, looks delightful and so original, too.
    These interviews are very inspiring.