Today’s Art Day Interview is with illustrator Susan Dill Detwiler. Read on to find out more about Susan and her art.
Q: How did you get started illustrating for children?
A: I have loved making art from early childhood, and was always attracted to books with great illustrations. By the time I was in high school I decided that being a professional illustrator was my goal. To prepare (and because I enjoyed it) I sought out ways to use art at school; I was active in the art program, volunteered to design and screen print all the posters for the theater productions and was the art editor of our school’s literary magazine. I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art and studied graphic design and illustration. While I was a student I worked part-time as a sign painter. After that I got a job in the art department of a printing company, where I learned about how artwork is reproduced. I was hired as a staff illustrator for an advertising agency and while I worked there I also began freelancing at night and on weekends. I liked freelance work so much that I decided to do it exclusively. My favorite assignments are for children’s publishing and so I seek them out, with help I have found from the SCBWI. I love a good story, whether in books, or movies, or on television. I think that pictures help to tell a more complete story, and I hope that my pictures touch people in the same way that I was affected by the illustrations I saw as a child.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the recent book you illustrated, ONE WOLF HOWLS, by Scotti Cohn.
A: One Wolf Howls is a picture book written in verse, which counts from one to twelve, following wolf activity through the months of the year. It is beautifully written and as I read the manuscript for the very first time, I got images in my mind’s eye that I was eventually able to reproduce as paintings.
Q: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other books or art projects you’d like to talk about?
A: Right now I am completing a humorous holiday card design for a company that cleans and repairs microscopes. Using caricature, I depicted the staff of the company as elves doing the work of the regular staff. It was loads of fun! I have also started work on a Hidden Picture for Highlights for Children, and I have written and illustrated a picture book based on Aesop’s The City Mouse & The Country Mouse, for which I am seeking a publisher.
I have illustrated two picture books previously; The First Teddy Bear by Helen Kay, and The Wonderful Bicycle Parade by Susan Borges. I did the pictures for two 12-book series of readers entitled Reading Roots: Shared Stories, and I have illustrated magazine stories and poems in Ladybug and Highlighs for Children.
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 have an agent at Creative Connection Incorporated, who licenses my images for use on greeting cards, paper products, jigsaw puzzles, etc., and I take freelance assignments from advertising agencies. Each assignment calls for a different approach. The variety of styles and subjects I am asked to produce make my job more interesting, I think. Just for fun, I enjoy making ragdolls and stuffed animals for children I know, and when I am at the beach I make large sand sculptures of animals and figures.
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 consider the pacing of the story and, although showing the most important scenes is usually the way to go, the best illustrations add to the text rather than just depicting exactly what is written. The preliminary work of choosing scenes and establishing the pace of the narrative can be difficult and time consuming, but it is crucial. My work tends to be very detailed because that’s what I liked as a child; the details help create a believable world.
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: There is a little bit of my German Shepherd, Molly, in every wolf I painted for One Wolf Howls. She was a very helpful model! My Country Mouse has a pet ladybug which I’ve included in the illustrations but not in the text. Also, the boy holding a teddy bear on the title page of The First Teddy Bear looks remarkably like my younger son, although I had no children at the time I painted it.
Q: Can you explain your art process?
A: Clients contact me, either by phone or email, and describe an assignment; if I am interested and available we negotiate the schedule and the payment, and then I gather reference material and produce a pencil sketch, sometimes with color added. Some assignments require a contract and several sketches, and in the case of a book, a dummy. I make thumbnail sketches first, so that the composition of the entire page can be depicted quickly and changed easily, and when I’m working on a picture book those thumbnails are all on one sheet of paper so that the book can be seen as a whole. The sketching process is the real work, for me, and it may take many tries to get to the point where I am satisfied enough to show it for approval. Once the sketch is approved, I proceed to completion of the final art. I transfer the image to Strathmore 500 series illustration board using my overhead projector, and then I apply the color.
Q: What is your favorite color?
A: I cannot honestly say that I have a favorite; colors work for me when they work together. If I was forced to choose only one, it would probably be something neutral like gray or black because I like drawings so very much. There are, however, colors I prefer in my wardrobe, such as rose.
Q: What is your favorite medium to work in?
A: Nothing beats pencil, but I like watercolor and gouache for painting, and I enjoy drawing in ink, either with a pen or a brush.
Q: What childhood art supply brings back happy memories?
A: Oh, Play-Doh! I made animals and figures and little plates of tiny food for my dolls; I even saved my baby teeth and embedded them in a purple Play-Doh dinosaur’s mouth (complete with silver fillings). I learned color theory from the top of the Play-Doh box (red + yellow = orange).
Q: Do you have a favorite childhood picture that you remember making?
A: I drew this picture several times: a cut-away view of a house several stories high, showing all the family members and pets within engaged in various activities.
Q: Did you always want to be an artist when you grew up?
A: I always wanted to make things when I grew up, but the idea of earning a living from drawing and painting didn’t really dawn on me until I was in high school. I still marvel at the concept of getting paid for doing what I love to do.
Q: Do you use models / source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?
A: It depends on the assignment. For One Wolf Howls, I did lots of research and collected many photos of wolves and landscapes to use a sources, because I needed to be accurate in my depictions. I have a four-drawer file cabinet filled with reference photos clipped from magazines and other printed material, and I even more frequently use the internet to find images. However, there are some times when I draw only from my imagination; creation of a character, for example.
Q: If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?
A: I think I would like to run a bakery and make wonderful breads and pies and cookies.
Q: What gets you through an illustration you’re having trouble with?
A: Simply taking a break and doing something else (like baking!) for a while can give a fresh perspective on a challenging aspect of an illustration. I often find that when tired I’ll have trouble with something that works out much more easily the next morning. If a drawing stumps me---just looks awkward somehow, and I don’t know why---I’ll reverse it in a mirror or in Photoshop, and the solution is often apparent.
Q: What was your favorite toy, stuffed animal or doll when you were growing up?
A: I had Barbie dolls, a whole family of them, including Ken and Francie and Skipper and others, and my sister and I would play with them for hours on end! I made furniture and sewed clothing for my dolls, and my sister and I would sometimes empty a bookcase to create a house or apartment building for our little families. I still look at objects in terms of Barbie-scale, bottle caps become tumblers, Cheerios become donuts, etc.
Q: What illustrated book(s) do you remember from when you were a child?
A: I had my mother’s original Raggedy Ann Stories, books by Johnny Gruelle, and I was a fan of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and illustrated by Garth Williams. In fact, anything illustrated by Garth Williams attracted me; Charlotte’s Web, Stewart Little, and A Cricket In Times Square are a few of those titles. Harriet The Spy, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh was hugely influential in my life.
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 greatly admire the work of Paul O. Zelinski, David Shannon, Ashley Wolfe, and Helen Ward.
Q: Did you like to tell jokes or stories as a child?
A: There are games I made up that I can fondly remember playing over and over again with my siblings and friends. Sometimes I told stories with pictures; I would cut heads from magazine photos, glue them to paper, and add bodies and speech bubbles. Great fun!
Q: If you could be a kid again for just one day, what would you do?
A: I would spend the day at an old-fashioned amusement park, and go on all the kiddie rides and eat sweet, sticky treats and laugh and scream with joy... but only if I could do it with a friend!
Bio: Susan Dill Detwiler is the illustrator of several books for children. Her artwork has also been used in advertising, on apparel and decorative tins, for games and puzzles and many greeting cards, and has appeared in children’s magazines. She and her husband, also an artist, have two sons. They live in Baltimore where Susan works from her home studio. For more information and to see additional artwork, please visit Susan's website, Sylvan Dell Publishing (publisher of One Wolf Howls), or her licensing agent, Creative Connection, Inc.
Thanks for the interview Susan!
All images in this post © Susan Dill Detwiler.