Monday, February 16, 2009

Art Day Interview: Illustrator Wendy Martin

Today’s Art Day interview is with illustrator Wendy Martin. Read on to find out more about Wendy’s art.

Q:How did you get started illustrating for children?
A: I’ve been an artist my whole life. I’ve always wanted to draw and paint. I started out my career as a graphic designer doing fine art in my spare time. I was actually making some inroads into the gallery setting when I discovered I was pregnant. So my spare time was soon eaten up with child rearing. Once, a friend was over as I was putting my daughter to bed and listened with fascination as I told her some bedtime story in answer to a question she had asked. My friend declared I should write children’s stories and illustrate them, too. I laughed it off, but a seed had been planted and 5 years later I started my first children’s book.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the recent picture book you illustrated, RABBIT'S SONG, by S. J. Tucker and Trudy Herring.
A: S.J. Tucker is an amazingly gifted musician. Trudy Herring, who S.J. affectionately calls “Mama Dragon,” has studied Trickster tales for much of her life. S.J.’s performing partner (they are fire-dancers) was having a birthday a few years back and Mama Dragon wrote him a poem for it. She based the poem on her knowledge of Trickster tales and pulled from many different stories to complete the verses. Then she gave it to S.J. to set to music. The musical version came out on S.J.’s CD entitled “Blessings” in 2007. Someone at the publisher’s heard the song and approached them about making it into a picture book. The women agreed and then I was hired to do the illustrations.

The story is about the Trickster God and his search among all the animals of the world for those to represent him and his lessons to man. After his search he finds Rabbit, Coyote, Raven and Crow. The animals say they are not great enough for his needs, but he disagrees and shows them how they will help. The story is a feel good one where the nice guy finishes first for a change.

The art I created for this book really stretched me because there were so many characters. Most of the people who’ve seen my advanced copy make the comment about the illustrations being so detailed. It was a lot of fun to recreate the story Trudy was alluding to in the wording for each animal. I spent a LOT of time on research for this book.

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’m not under contract for any other projects right now, but I do have several I am perfecting before I start submitting them for possible publication. One is a really goofy picture book about a girl’s hair taking over the world. The ultimate in a bad hair day. I have been working on two YA fiction fantasies. And another author friend of mine and I started a adult non-fiction book a couple of years ago that we are revising (again) before handing it over to an agent to shop to publishers.

I also create monthly coloring pages for the yahoo group the publisher set up for me. The current series is called the ABCs of Lesser Known Goddesses. At this writing I am up to letter “L.” I do a lot of research for these coloring pages, too. Some of the old goddesses aren’t exactly appropriate for a children’s coloring page. So I have to be careful about which ones I choose.

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: I am a member of Watercolor Wednesday. It’s a group of 25 children’s book illustrators (both published and unpublished) and each Wednesday we are given a prompt to paint an illustration from. That’s just for fun. At least it was until just recently when I had the bright idea that we should be creating portfolio pieces! The other artists thought it was a wonderful idea, so now we have a month to work on a prompt for a portfolio piece. The newest prompt is to illustrate scenes from the Brother’s Grimm version of Snow White.

Last spring I was approached by a cross-stitch pattern maker to license some of my art. She asked for some of my older fine art florals as well as my newer style of Art Nouveau flavored kid’s illustration.

I think the only real difference between my single images and my picture book art is the need to include text and not have too much going on behind it. So the book art tends to have fewer background patterns and such.

Sometimes, if I have some spare time, I’ll do cartoony sketches for Illustration Friday prompts. But recently with all the books I’ve been working on, spare time is spent with my family. I travel a lot for book signings and that leaves little room for being with them during the time I’m on the road.

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: I’ve usually gotten some kind of notes from the book editor. They give me general direction in which to head. I’ve heard from writers that their characters take on lives of their own. The same thing happens to my characters when I draw them. I’ll have an image in my head but when it comes time to get it out the end of the pencil onto the paper details and things I hadn’t imagined originally just show up.

It happened a lot in Rabbit’s Song. Even with so many animals actually named in the text, other animals kept showing up while I was drawing. I’ve learned just to go with the flow instead of fighting it. I don’t know where it comes from, but I do know it really adds a lot to the look of the book pages.

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: For my first book, I was really inexperienced with book illustration. So the images are very straightforward and taken from the text, for the most part. I used my daughter as my model. At the time she thought it was really cool to be in a book and that I was writing and illustrating one “just for her.” I used a lot of friends and family members as characters throughout the book. It was a lot of fun when the book finally came out and they got to see what they looked like in my illustration style. I think most of them were pleased.

By the time I worked on the next book, I’d learned a lot more about book design/illustration. This book didn’t use a model for the main characters. I was also having some health issues with my hand – a kind of tendonitis in my thumb, which made it really difficult to actually hold a pencil or paintbrush for very long periods of time. I think the illustration suffered for both of these things. But in this book, there are hidden pictures in most of the pages. Kids go crazy for the interactive quality of the book. The book is about a fall harvest ritual and I have a squirrel collecting acorns in his own story line completely outside of the text.

In Rabbit’s Song, the character of Trickster was based on a musician friend of mine. He was totally thrilled to be asked to model. He was even more thrilled when he saw the art and realized that he’d modeled for a starring role. He told me he was very honored with the way I had rendered him.

Q: Can you explain your art process?
A: A couple of years ago I decided to do a time-lapse explanation of one of my paintings. So I’d work on the image a little and then scan it in, work on it some more and scan it. Then I created a web page on my site and explained what I was doing in the images. I plan to update my process page in the near future with how I go from thumbnail to finished book illustration, too.

Q: What is your favorite color?
A: I have a limited palette for most of my paintings. Occasionally, I’ll switch out one color for a “new” color in the same hue. I did that for Rabbit’s Song. I got a new blue. It’s my current favorite color for painting. The company calls it Intense Blue. To see it look at Raven. He’s mostly that blue. There’s also a lot of the blue in the sky. I had 5 different blues on my palette for the book. Each one different.

But my next book may have a completely different favorite color. I love color. It’s hard to have just one favorite.

Q: What is your favorite medium to work in?
A: I work in both watercolor and digital art. At this point, I think my style is matured enough that it is hard to tell the difference in the finished images. The project I am working on really dictates which media I use. I love both of them for different reasons, but if I absolutely had to choose just one, I’d probably go with the watercolor. I am a traditionalist at heart, and while digital art is wonderful, the happy “accidents” that happen with actual paint and water just can’t be repeated on the screen. At least not yet. Some of the new software comes very close, but there’s still that bit of control the digital world has that watercolor doesn’t.

Q: What childhood art supply brings back happy memories?
A: I loved coloring with one of my babysitters. She would outline images in very dark color and then lightly fill in the rest. I still remember trying to color with my crayons the way she did. I guess I had some hero worship or something going on there. After all it was just crayons and a coloring book.

I still use crayons. They are so easy to pack. They are self-contained and because they are “children’s art supplies” I have a psychological license to play. I highly recommend buying the big box with the sharpener in the back for creative bocks. Works every time.

Q: Do you have a favorite childhood picture that you remember making?
A: It’s framed and up on the wall in my dining room. I must have been in first or second grade. We had been instructed to draw a turkey. Always the rebel, I drew a turtle. He was crying. When I was asked why, I said because all his friends were turkeys and they had their heads chopped off so they could get eaten. It was in crayon. The paper used to be black or dark blue or something like that, but the drawing is so old, the paper has changed color to a dirty grey green. It makes me smile every time I see it.

Q: Did you always want to be an artist when you grew up?
A: I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.

Q: Do you use models / source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?
A: I do both. I use reference and models to make sure things like proportions and body mechanics are accurate, but once I have those things buckled up, the sky’s the limit on what my characters may be doing.

Q: If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?
A: A spoiled house cat.

Q: What gets you through an illustration you’re having trouble with?
A: I tend to eat chocolate when I am having problems with an illustration. I guess I should try another tact. I’ve put on 20 pounds since my first book!

Q: What was your favorite toy, stuffed animal or doll when you were growing up?
A: I never really had one. I still have the first stuffed animal I ever received. My grandfather was so proud of me. I was his first grandchild. I had bright red hair when I was born, so instead of a teddy bear he bought me a lion. I’ve been collecting lions ever since.

Q: What illustrated books do you remember from when you were a child?
A: Go Dog Go, Fox in Sox, Palutchkia and Tak-tak, Where the Wild Things Are, The Little House series, The Narnia series, Myths of the Greek Gods, and The Patchwork Quilt

Q: Are there any children’s book illustrators whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now?
A: David Catrow and David Weisner

Q: Did you like to tell jokes or stories as a child?
A: No. I was terribly shy. Still am. But, I have learned to tell stories to kids now.

Q: If you could be a kid again for just one day, what would you do?
A: Daydream and watch clouds, read my favorite books and be lazy all day long.

Bio: In addition to illustrating children's books, Ms. Martin has worked on projects for such well known companies as Baker, BIC, Caldors, Physicians Health Service, May Company, Purina, Sears Portrait Studios, Southern New England Telephone, Yale University and The US Veterans' Medical Administration. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the Graphic Artist Guild, and the St. Louis Watercolor Society. Visit her web site to learn more:

Thanks for the interview Wendy!
All images in this post © Wendy Martin.