Sunday, November 9, 2008

Art Day Interview: Illustrator Diane Dawson Hearn

Today’s Art Day interview is with illustrator Diane Dawson Hearn, who creates wonderful images of children and animals. Read on to find out more about Diane’s art.

Q: How did you get started illustrating for children?

A: I started illustrating when I first learned to write, and would draw pictures for my own stories. I tended to get more recognition for the drawings when I was small, and so I think this lead me to focus more seriously on my artwork. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York I was given my first book to illustrate called, SEE MY LOVELY POISON IVY, by Lilian Moore. I've been illustrating ever since, and have also had three of my own stories published called DAD’S DINOSAUR DAY, BAD LUCK BOSWELL and ANNA IN THE GARDEN.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the recent picture book you illustrated, RAIN FORESTS, by Nancy Smiler Levinson.
A: I had illustrated two other books for her called DEATH VALLEY, A DAY IN THE DESERT, and NORTH POLE, SOUTH POLE. All of these books are nonfiction, which is a challenge for me since my art leans more toward the humorous and whimsical. I needed the artwork to be accurate enough for children using the book as a learning tool. Needless to say, I did a lot of research for RAIN FORESTS and enjoyed learning about the flora, fauna and human inhabitants of both temperate and tropical rain forests. The book took me two years to illustrate (with some delays in the editorial process) and there were lots of corrections made along the way. Considering I am not a scientific illustrator, I'm pretty happy with the result. (sruble note: check out the amazing cover. It looks like you’re really in the jungle, staring down a leopard, doesn’t it?)

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A: I am working on some illustrations for some of my own unpublished stories right now. I need to update my website with new artwork and I would also like to get a few stories circulating to publishers. I've included a drawing for one of my stories, which is about a troll.

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: My husband keeps encouraging me to try my hand at some licensed work, but so far I haven't given it much of an effort. It's tricky, because what works for greeting cards or licensed work doesn't necessarily work for children's books, and my artwork seems to always look like a book illustration. And I fear that I don't have a fine art bone in my body. I remember once in college my professor was trying to get me to think more like a fine artist, and he told me to bring in some of my doodles that I would do in the margins of my notebook in classes. He expected to see the sort of abstract designs a lot of people do when they are doodling, and he was dismayed to see all my doodles were of little animals, monsters and fairies! I think he gave up on me at that moment!

Q: When someone else has written the text for a picture book or novel, how do you decide what scenes and details to draw?

A: If the story is well written the ideas just seem to flow naturally from the words. I rarely have trouble thinking of scenes and images for books; the words are like fuel for the fire of my imagination. The dummy stage of illustrating a book is one of the most important, because it's at this point where I begin to think of the flow of the story, what I want to illustrate on each page and the design of the book. Often at this stage I'm not thinking of the little details, just the overall ideas. Once I've done my necessary research and have designed characters and settings I start to think about more details.

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: It depends on the story. I like to do it if it's not intrusive. In several of my books I've included a floppy eared stuffed dog like one I had when I was a child, and I'll often add a pet. For instance, in my own story, Dad's Dinosaur Day, I included a cat who was not in the text, but he appears on many pages reacting to what is happening in the story. I've never included people I know, probably because I'm terrible at portraits.

Q: Can you explain your art process?

A: One of the most important steps when I've received a book to illustrate is to let it sit with me for a time, to give my imagination a chance to get going on it. If necessary, I'll do some research for various elements in the story such as setting, costumes or animals. Then I draw character sketches to get an idea of the cast, and I create a dummy to show basic design. After that I do sketches on tracing paper and transfer them to heavier paper. Then I ink or paint them, using acrylic paint. Sometimes I water down the acrylic and sometimes I use it in an opaque method.

Q: What is your favorite color?
A: I know this sounds crazy, but I don't really have one. I've noticed, though, that recently when buying clothes I've tended toward teal a lot, and ultramarine blue. But I don't necessarily use those colors a lot in my artwork.

Q: What is your favorite medium to work in?

A: Pen and Ink and Acrylic paint on paper.

Q: What childhood art supply brings back happy memories?

A: I remember when I was about nine my mom bought me a set of magic markers. They were a new thing back then, and very smelly, but I was enthralled by them. I still have the cardboard box they came in!

Q: Do you have a favorite childhood picture that you remember making?

A: When I was in fourth grade every week my teacher would read us a chapter from Sinbad the Sailor, without showing us any pictures from the book. Then we would illustrate the chapter. Other than illustrating my own little stories I was writing at the time, this was probably my favorite memory of drawing.

Q: Did you always want to be an artist when you grew up?
A: Yes, and specifically a children's book artist. I also was interested in cats and dinosaurs, as you can see by the little drawing of a cat I did when I was seven. Interestingly enough, the first books I wrote myself that were published were about a cat and a dinosaur! Go figure.

Q: Do you use models / source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?
A: I've never used models because my artwork is stylized, but I often used research from the library, internet and my own picture file I've been keeping since I was a student. I had a teacher tell us to start saving photos and magazine images on all kinds of subjects in an organized fashion. I now have two tall filing cabinets crammed with images of every kind, neatly filed into categories like bears, plants, cars, etc. and I refer to them on just about every assignment I get. The photos are jumping off points for my imagination, as I rarely directly copy them.

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

A: It's hard to say, since I've been focused on the art for so long. But as a student I was interested in France and Russia, and I have a fascination for tribal peoples, so who knows where that would have led?

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

A: Prayer and hard work! Usually I do lots of thumbnail sketches to iron out my composition, so by the time I'm doing a sketch I have a fairly good idea about where I'm going. Since I don't use a computer I often have to cut parts of the sketch out and flip, or rearrange them to get what I want, but it usually works out eventually. And when I get to about page 23 of a 32 page book I often think I'll never make it (kind of like a marathon runner "hitting the wall"). At that point I just have to make myself keep that brush moving, knowing that if I do I will reach the end.

Q: What was your favorite toy, stuffed animal or doll when you were growing up?
A: I've mentioned earlier that I had a floppy eared stuffed dog I called "Oggy Doggy" after a cartoon character of the time. I still have him, all worn out and threadbare, very "real", like the rabbit in the Velveteen Rabbit. I also loved playing with little plastic dinosaurs and I had a big boxful of them. I would have loved all the crazy plastic monsters and creatures that are available now.

Q: What illustrated book(s) do you remember from when you were a child?
A: Ferdinand the Bull, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Red Balloon, and Eloise, to name a few.

Q: Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now? (You can list more than one.)
A: I enjoy the work of Lane Smith, Brian Froud, Peggy Rathmann, Brock Cole, and David Wiesner, among others.

Q: Did you like to tell jokes or stories as a child?

A: I love jokes, but I can't make them up myself. Though I wrote stories, I think I was too shy to tell any out loud. I would read some of my stories to my mom, though, before bedtime.

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

A: When I was young, living in suburban New Jersey, we used to follow streams as they meandered through backyards and under streets. If I were young today I'd be tempted to follow Tom's Creek that runs nearby our house here in Virginia, to see if it would take me all the way to the New River.

BIO: Diane has been drawing since she was very small, and has known she wanted to write and illustrate children's books since she learned to read. Over the course of her career she’s illustrated over 50 books for children and has had three of her own stories published. You can find out more at

Thanks for the interview Diane!

All images in this post © Diane Dawson Hearn.


  1. Great interview! I just love hearing the story behind the talent. Those illustrations are amazing!


  2. Diane, I am so glad to see the rain forest cover! Good Job!


  3. Thanks for introducing me to another wonderful illustrator. Now I know what my girls are getting for their birthday, because I adore these illustrations!

  4. Even if I didn't know you, Diane,
    and even if I weren't really lucky enough to have had you illustrate
    three Holiday House readers (for which I wrote the text), I would
    praise your work highly. And I would loudly applaud both the good questions asked on this interview
    and your well-thought out and very interesting, terse, well-written, detailed answers. I loved learning more about your childhood and your art process.
    And the illustration you did at the age of 7 is amazing!
    Any one could have seen your artistic talent seed then.
    For now, I just express my thanks to you again and add that I am happy to have you in my life.

    Love, Nancy

  5. Great questions! Loved learning more about Diane and her beautiful illustrations!

  6. That was a great interview, Stephanie! Thanks for sharing it on your blog.

    Diane Dawson Hearn is truly an amazing writer and illustrator. I love all of her work, but have to say that I'm really intrigued by that troll. Very cute!


  7. A great interview with a great artist! Diane, the life and color of your work keeps me smiling! What a feast for the eyes!

  8. Thanks to all of you for your encouraging comments, and thanks as well to Stephanie for providing these interviews. I encourage all of you to check out her site and look over the other artist interviews. They are all interesting and informative.


  9. Thanks Diane for the interview and thanks to everyone else for reading and commenting about Diane's wonderful artwork!

  10. Beautiful work. I will check out those books