Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview with Illustrator Wendy Martin

I had the pleasure of interviewing children's book illustrator Wendy Martin, whose new book Smoky and the Feast of Mabon is out now. You can find my review of the book here. She is an amazing artist and it was wonderful getting an inside glimpse of her creative process and how a book develops from the artist side of things.

Here is a short bio from her website:

"Born in New York, Wendy Martin grew up in Suffolk County, Long Island. She gave her first one person show while still in Jr. High. Ms. Martin studied art in high school and upon graduation, was awarded 'Honors in Art'. She continued her training in New York City. She received her Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the School of Visual Arts in 1988. Ms. Martin's art has been accepted into numerous juried exhibitions, plus she has received multiple honors and awards for her work throughout her career. Her artwork hangs in several private collections as well as a museum in Central America."

How did you get started doing illustrations?

I have been illustrating ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil. Being an artist is all I’ve ever wanted to be.

How did you find your style and has it evolved over the years?

I think my style found me. Looking back over my work through the years it is fairly obvious, at least to me, that it is created by the same artist. I think, as with any craft and skill, the more I work at it, the tighter the images themselves become. I’ve been training myself to work in a more stylized, Art Nouveau feeling for the last several years. I love the swirling hair and exaggerated placement of hands and feet. Plus, the style itself is just beautiful and balanced in a way I find very pleasing in the Art Nouveau masters’ work and what I am working on emulating in my own.

I enjoyed the playfulness of Smoky and the Feast of Mabon. Can you describe your work setting and creative process.

My studio is long skinny room on the east side of the house. I share it with my husband. His stuff is at one end and my stuff is at the other. I have a computer desk, a light box table, a drafting table and bunches of file cabinets, drawers and book shelves. Recently, I have been spending a little time every week to actually organize all the stuff in those cabinets, drawers and shelves. It’s amazing to me how many old client files I have. This month I threw out receipts for a job delivered to a client who had been dead for 6 years. It’s a pretty good bet I won’t be working for him again.

My day starts at 7 am with checking email. I answer anything that needs answering then. I also make a list of tasks I wish to accomplish during the day. I put quickly accomplished tasks on the top of the list because marking stuff off gives me a feeling of accomplishment that spurs me to do more. I usually start on art related projects by about 9:30-10 am. If I am starting a new one, the first step is research for whatever the subject happens to be. I like to be accurate when portraying wildlife or foliage, even if my art is highly stylized. Depending on the subject, research can take less than an hour or several days. If I am already working on a project, I’ll just jump in where I left of the day before. Working in watercolor, all my paintings go through an ‘ugly’ phase. I try not to stop a painting at an ugly stage because if I do I end up wanting to start over instead of pushing through to a place when it becomes pretty, again.

I use both traditional and digital tools to do my illustration. Many of my watercolor illustrations get a dose of retouching, color adjustments and such before they are “done.”

Smoky and the Feast of Mabon is one of your more recent children’s book releases and the illustrations are vibrant and lovely, did you have a lot of creative freedom on this project or was it a collaboration between you, the author and the publisher?

I didn’t have any contact with the author about the illustrations other than the direction that Smoky was a dark-haired girl. I sent the publisher three revisions of rough pencil ideas until they were satisfied with what I had planned. Except for their comments on what I was proposing, I had complete freedom to do what I wanted with the illustrations. I’ve worked with the publisher for a while, so they are comfortable giving me free rein.

When getting a book ready for publication, what is the process like?

I see a manuscript 12 to 18 months before the book’s planned print date. I usually have a few months to think about the story and how to it illustrate best. About 9 months out from the print date, I have to get the publisher a complete set of thumbnails of all pages. These are usually pretty loose and about the size of postage stamps. The publisher looks these over and either asks for tighter sketches or suggests another direction. I usually only have a few weeks to get the tight pencils back for review. These will come back with either an approval or a list of things to change. I’ll make the changes until the publisher is satisfied. Then the bulk of the work comes into play. I work at 100% of size, so I need to take these tiny pencils and bring them up to the final size of the book. This is the step where I add tiny details like wrinkles and fur or patterns in cloth. Once more, the images are sent for approval. Things can still change a lot at this stage if what worked at a tiny size just isn’t working at full size. Things are added or taken away, and sometimes I’ll have to start an illustration from scratch if the editor or art director has an idea how something might work with the story better. This process can take a long time, and the whole time my deadline is creeping closer. At last I get the final go ahead to paint final art. At this point I am fighting the deadline for delivery, so I am working nonstop on only the book art. I get what I like to call book-brain, where all I can think about, talk about or work on is the book. After several weeks of intense painting sessions, I am out of time and I have to scan in the art and prepare the files for delivery. It’s about 3 months before the ARC print date. There may be minor changes from the publisher to this art, which I do in the computer. Shortly after I send in the final files I will get a press proof, to check for color and to make sure the printed pieces look close to my painted art. I mark these up and send them back. Then I wait. The next time I see the book is as an ARC. I get really excited to see it, but then the waiting begins again. First I wait for prepublication reviews, then there are the blogger reviews. These usually happen a few months before the book’s on sale date. Then the last waiting period is until the book is actually released for sale to the public.

Wow, I don't think I could have ever imagined the process being so long, it's amazing to hear how it develops. Once ready, how do you market/promote your work?

I have a web site for both my writer name and my illustration name. I blog on both sites. I have a Facebook, LiveJournal and Twitter account. I talk about illustrating, writing and such on those places. In addition, I arrange speaking engagements and book signings for a book’s release.

How do you choose the projects that you are going to work on?

At this point in my career, I don’t have a lot of choice on the projects I am offered. If a job looks legitimate and profitable, I’ll usually accept it. I get a lot of emails from people wanting to hire me to illustrate their stories, so far, none of those have panned out. Most people have no idea how long it takes to illustrate a picture book. Many new writers are also under the impression they need to have their story illustrated before they submit their manuscript to a publishing house. When I tell them the publisher will pick an illustrator if they buy the book, they are usually very happy to hear that.

What was one of your favorite assignments?

My favorite assignment is always the one I’ve just finished, right now, I am really excited about Smoky and the Feast of Mabon.

Do you ever have creative slumps? How do you work through them?

There is no time for a creative slump. If I wait for inspiration, there are any number of other illustrators who keep working and getting their work out there. The ones who do that, get the assignments. I work everyday, some days my work is better than others, but work that’s not quite what I want it to be is better than no work at all.

What is the best part about what you do?

The best part of this job is getting letters and emails from the kids who read my books. One of those messages can make my whole week.

That must be a great feeling, I think that is something that all artists/writers aspire to and appreciate the most! Do you belong to any illustrator communities? If so, are any of these communities good for young, aspiring illustrators to join and learn more about the industry?

On Twitter, I co-host a Tweet chat with the hashtag #kidlitart. It’s Thursday nights at 9pm Eastern time. I also have memberships in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Graphic Artist Guild, and the St Louis Watercolor Society. There are numerous blogs and support groups on the internet as well. For many years I was on a Yahoo Group for illustrators. I am too busy these days to keep up with them. I belong to three crit group blogs. One is private, but the others are open to new members. They are Watercolor Wednesday (for children’s illustrators working in water media) and The Illustration Board. I get a lot of support from fellow artists via email and IM messages as well.

I think it's so great that you are involved in your community of artists, it's a great way to help others and learn more about your craft at the same time. How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?

Balance? What is this thing you call balance?

Ha, I hear ya on that. What fun activities do you enjoy outside of your professional art work?

There are activities outside of art work?

Do you have any tips for budding artists who would like to become professional illustrators?

Draw every day. Draw from life. Find what you love to draw. Draw it. A lot.

What has been inspiring you lately?

I have been learning to paint faces and watching a lot of youtube videos showing other artists’ techniques. I visit deviantart.com and browse through the art there. My crit partners are also pretty amazing artists, so viewing what they are working on is very inspiring.

What are your newest projects? Anything we should look for?

The last project I worked on will be published in a spring 2011 girls’ magazine. There are several other book projects in the works however nothing I can talk about yet. More waiting. :D

Thanks so much to Wendy for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions, it was a pleasure! So for all you budding artists and writers out there, put the remote down and start working! The best way to learn is to pick up your pen or paintbrush and create something magical. All your hard work, will be worth it in the end!


  1. It was my pleasure. You asked some great questions. :D

  2. Very interesting interview, Charlie. I was recently at a SCBWI conference and sat in on a break-out session with Tammie Lyon, also an illustrator, who discussed similar things. It's fascinating to get a glimpse of what goes into the production of a book. :)

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