With two little boys in my life I have, over the last several years, come to really appreciate the art of illustration and in particular illustration for children’s books. I have also always wanted to learn to draw and have in the past month, finally began to work towards that goal. In looking around at the sites of illustrators for inspiration I became acquainted with the work of Maurie J. Manning. She has been in the illustrating biz since the 80’s and does beautiful work. I asked if she’d be willing to do an interview and she agreed! This is the first interview I’ve ever published on this site. I hope you enjoy it.
1. You’ve been in the illustration business a long time. How has your craft changed since you began?
Oh man, yeah! We were using those cave walls you know . . . haha, just kidding!
Well lately it’s changed a lot as far as making a living goes – and we’re all hoping it’s a temporary turn in this economy – some of our major clients in the field of educational publishing (where probably most of us in the children’s book field earn our bread and butter) have started outsourcing our assignments to India. Yes, it’s true – we never thought it would hit us in our little niche, but this is what we’re dealing with today. Also, many of the great long standing children’s magazines (like Cricket and Ladybug) are having terrible money trouble which is passed down to us. Most of us in children’s books are realizing we really need to start to diversify and are supplementing our income with school visits, teaching, writing and non-children’s illustration, licensing and design work. Oh, and waitressing.
2. How did you get into professional illustration? What tips do you have for those looking to illustrate as a career?
I attended Mass College of Art as an illustration major, but never really felt school was that that important. If you have talent, passion and a thick skin you have everything you need. (I would say perseverance is the single MOST important quality for an illustrator.) Do a lot of research so you know who’s buying art and what type they’re buying, but it’s really important to develop your own style. There’s a lot of competition and your art should be unique. Sketch ALL THE TIME.
I’ve always had my sight on children’s books, but took any job where I could draw. I spent years employed in companies drawing M16 rifles and army jeeps for military textbooks, then drew dentists and real estate agents for yellow page ads and even drew machine parts that did who-knows-what. Around that time, in the late 1980s, I was also beginning to send out art samples to book and magazine publishers. My first freelance break came with Hidden Pictures for Highlights – which I ended up doing dozens and dozens of. I still think puzzles are a great way for new illustrators to break into publication.
By 1990 I got the first full time job I really loved, which introduced me to drawing using a computer. It was for Josten’s Learning Corporation – drawing illustrations for their educational software programs. We used Tandy computers that had mega sized pixels and a mouse to draw with, really clunky but there were about seven of us in that revolutionary art department – some of the most talented artists I’ve ever worked with actually. I got to illustrate stories like Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” in 16 glorious colors including magenta! After that, I worked for another educational software company as an art director (by then Wacom had developed the tablet and stylus that would make all our digital drawing lives better), then went into computer game illustration drawing dragons and monsters for a while before taking the plunge into freelancing.
By the way, another piece of advice I would offer to illustrators whose goal is children’s books is “learn to write!” An author/illustrator has a HUGE leg-up in the world of children’s trade publishing. I was able to get a wonderful literary agent a few years ago and have actually published with the exact house (Clarion Books) that I had set my sight on 25 years ago as a college student. I’m currently working on the sketches for my second picture book with Clarion, “Laundry Day.”
2. What tools do you use to create your illustrations?
My favorites are pen, scratchboard, sepia pencil, watercolor, chalk and pastel . . . all digital. I’m what you could call a “tradigital” artist. I use a program called Painter (by Corel) and a Wacom Cintiq and stylus to draw/paint. Except that my pen is touching a computer screen (the Cintiq) my hand moves the same way it would if I was using a crow quill pen or Windsor Newton watercolors.
3. What is your process for creating an illustration?
Normally I have a task in mind, say a spread for a picture book. I open my Painter software and create a nice big file (officially called the “canvas” to work on.) I’ll usually start rough sketching at full size on a layer (like a piece of tracing paper might be used by a traditional artist.) If I get a second idea, which I normally do about halfway through the first sketch, I’ll just add a new layer, hide the first and start sketching again. I like to work at 300 dpi, the size that we need digital art to be for printing, even at sketch stage because very often I’ll like the lines I’ve got going and want to use them in the finished art.
Some of the lovely things about drawing on my software are:
1. Erasing doesn’t wreck the surface of the paper
2. I don’t need a light table or tracing paper (In fact, my whole art studio fits on my desk come to think of it.)
3. I can save as many versions as I like, and test out as many styles as I want.
4. I can flip and resize elements in seconds.
5. Corrections are simple and seamless.
6. I can send all my sketches digitally to my art director or editor, and upload my finished art to my FTP site for them to download. No more post office lines.
7. Nobody can guess I did it digitally unless I tell them.
4. Where do you find inspiration for your work?
From everything! Normally, even my writing starts with an image. The silliest visual details stick in my mind and amuse me, a Band-Aid on a knee, a loose shoelace, how the front rung of a chair gets worn by feet, how a man stoops sitting in a too-small car, how a bra strap looks under a spaghetti strap shirt . . . I’ve got kids and pets and lots of nieces and nephews who all drip inspiration, but really, inspiration is everywhere.
My book Kitchen Dance started with a sketch I did for fun of a husband/wife dancing in the kitchen — and that sketch came from a childhood memory I had of seeing my parents being romantic in the kitchen and realizing they had the gall to also have lives independent of us kids! Sometimes it takes months or even years for the whole story to gel in my head enough to start typing it out in manuscript form, but I can see there’s a story in some of my images and if I’m patient it will come out. If I draw it, and keep it nearby, it will flower. “Bronte (hearts) Bella,” an illustration I have up on my site is currently a story well into the germination process.
With the digital stamps, this is the first time I’ve allowed my “true” art to be used for other than my trade books. I mean the art that comes from my heart and soul. I’m selling crafters limited rights to use my illustrations (for handmade projects only.) I do get a great kick out of seeing what beautiful projects they can make using one of my illustrations as an element.
With educational illustration – and any time I am forced to produce illustrations that are WFH (work for hire) – I have sort of a “work” style, which is quicker and not as dear to me. Stock illustration isn’t really something I’d be interested in, but I would like to explore other forms of licensing like toys, fabrics, traditional cards and such.
6. What do you find most challenging about your work?
Probably the self-doubt that tends to creep in when I isolate myself too much. One of my friends calls the computer our “digital water cooler” and it really has become that. Finally all of us freelancers dotted all over the world can hop onto email and “toot our horns” about an accomplishment or moan about a really ridiculous deadline or ask for instant comment on a new contract.
7. What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Definitely hearing that someone likes my work. I got an email and photos from a mom a few years ago whose two year old daughter had insisted on dressing up for Halloween as “the little one” in the yellow rain slicker from my book, “The Aunts Go Marching”. Mom made a costume for little brother of the little dog in the story and dressed up herself as one of the umbrella-wielding Aunts. Can’t get better than that!
8. What are your favorite children’s books you’ve written and/or illustrated?
My favorite so far is “Kitchen Dance”, I just love drawing people dancing (which is pretty funny since I don’t dance myself.) I love “The Aunts Go Marching” too – both have been extremely well received critically, which is nice, but not nearly as nice as a two year old wanting to dress as one of your characters! As for books I’ve illustrated, I love “Getting to Know Ruben Plotnick,” written by Roz Rozenbluth. I got to draw a dancing grandmother throughout. When I first read Roz’s manuscript, I got a lump in my throat at the last page, which is always a great sign in my opinion.
All illustrations © 2009 Maurie J Manning