Friday, December 12, 2014

Interview with author/illustrator: VANESSA BRANTLEY-NEWTON

My series of interviews with artists who have been in my SVA class continues with Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Her interview is brimming over with her talent, generosity and energy, just like when she was in class. I hope you enjoy hearing about how she got started and how she works on her beautiful books - she is a real inspiration!

Vanessa's first book was Let Freedom Sing published in 2009.  Since then she has been incredibly hard working and dedicated, and has illustrated about 20 books, several of which she have also written. Her recent book We Shall Overcome has won the 2014 The Jane Addams Peace Foundation for Children’s Books Honor, amongst other prestigious awards, and it is in the Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators.

We Shall Overcome was written by Debbie Levy and you are the illustrator. How did this book get started for you?
I had met Joann Hill of Disney-Hyperion quite sometime ago. After Monica's class I was taking another course on Children's Book Illustrations with Sergio Ruzzier. I had already done some illustration work and writing for Scholastic. Sergio took the whole class over to visit a publishing house where Joann was working at the time. She took a look at our portfolios that day.  He really encouraged everyone to bring theirs. Some people didn't listen. Lesson one:  When you get a chance to put your portfolio in front of an Editor or Art Director you make sure you do it!!!  Some people where quite upset when Joann asked me to come back for a possible interview for a project.  Be prepared!  I didn't get to work right away with Joann Hill, but a few years later, when I got an agent, she told me that Joann Hill remembered my work and has seen a couple of the books that I had done and wanted me to come in for a little interview, that they had a story that they thought I was perfect for.

So I was off to NYC to meet the people over at Disney! It was a great visit. As soon as they told me about the story I wanted to illustrate the book. Debbie's beautiful words seem to paint pictures for me. I worked with two wonderful editors and a great art director. I enjoyed and loved working on We Shall Overcome.

After the visit to NYC to the offices of Disney, they knew pretty much that they wanted to hire me and it was only a few weeks later I was asked to start working on sketches.

What were some the stages? 
Talking is one of the stages. They needed to get a feel for me and I needed to do the same.  Contracts take time and this one did take time, but not much. They gave me a generous signing fee and really worked very closely with me.  They did give me all the room I needed to create my work. Which I was very grateful for because sometimes you just don't get that. You can be overly art directed in some cases. They left me alone to do what I do.
There was much research. I looked online and found a lot of things. I interviewed family members who had lived through the Civil rights movement. I collected books and images to work into my illustrations.

What was your favorite part of working on this book? And the most difficult part?
Working on We Shall Overcome was emotional and that was very hard. I remember things as a child of the 60's and 70's. Not being able to do certain places or go to the same bathrooms and stores or restaurants as whites. The other was capturing the right moments to tell the story. Writers do their part and then as the illustrator we get to do our part of telling the story and so we are stretched because it's much more than illustrating what is being said. You also want to illustrate what is not being said. Telling your side of the story if you will.  

Tell us about your relationship with the author? Do you know her or have you met?
We met only after the book was done. Debbie and I have quickly become very, very close. We have spent wonderful time together. We visit her in Maryland and she has even cooked dinner for me. I call her my Sisterfriend!  

Where do you live and what is your studio like?
I lived in East Orange, NJ for many years. Now I happily live in Charlotte, NC in a little section called Sherwood Forest with my husband of 21 years and our daughter and fat cat named Stripes. I share my home with my talented sister Coy and her family. I use to have a wonderful room that double as my studio. Now my little studio is in the corner of our dining room. I hope to have my own space back again soon. This works however for now. It is filled with many, many books and three computers.   

What are your art materials? 
I adore and love art supplies!!! I am always looking for the next hot thing! I have tons of paper and collage elements. I have watercolor paper and paints and gouache and ink and pencils! I have it all. I am looking forward to getting back into traditional media very soon. I have done most of my books digitally. While I love digital illustration, I still love putting my hand and creative spirit to paper and feel the paint, pens, paper and such.  I work on 3 imacs with Corel Painter and Photoshop.

I did We Shall Overcome in Corel Painter 12, but I did the collage part with Photoshop. First I do a really rough sketch of the piece on copy paper or whatever I have and then I scan it into my computer. I then bring it into Photoshop and size the piece and put it into a layer. I lighten my sketch layer and draw over the top of it. After I finish drawing the illustration I begin to color it and place anything that needs to be on a layer. After I am happy with my illustration I bring it over to Photoshop and collage takes place. I collect papers from all over the world. I also sew so I have a closet of fabric that I use as well.  I even did a study on clothing from the 50's and 60's. I look for patterns and anything that has a retro flair to it!  After everything is placed just so I go back to corel and finish the piece.

Here is the book open to the page of the illustration at the Original Art show.
And I know people are very curious about each artist's journey to publication. When you were getting started, how did you find your publisher, editor, or art director who you first worked with? Have you had an agent since you started writing and illustrating books? At the very start I didn't an agent. I didn't even know you might, should or could have one.  I went to a SCBWI conference in NYC and I heard them speaking about having an agent and what they could do for you. I was working on some small projects with Scholastic when one of the really nice editors that I was working with said, " I really think you need to find a agent now Vanessa.  Your work is that good and I have a few that I can put you in touch with." Well, I started reading up on agents and I got my sister Coy involved.  She is excellent at putting letters and things together and so I worked on putting a great portfolio together and Coy started working on my letter. She put together for me a wonderful package that I sent out and actually got 5 agents that wanted to sign me.  I picked Painted-Words. Lori Nowicki.  I have been with her for 8 years now.

Telling you my little story as fast as I can.  Okay, My husband was out of work as an Aerospace Engineer.  He couldn't find work anywhere. We had no money. Seriously NO MONEY coming in.  I tried to find work and found some small jobs that brought in a little money, but bills where piling up and it got really ugly.  I started working for a Reproductive Medicine Center. They hated me! LOL! , But I went to work every single day and when I got home from work I would read and study everything I could get my hands on about Children's books and illustration. I put enough money together and took Monica's illustration class. I honed and worked on my portfolio just hoping and praying that something good would happen. Then I took Sergio's course all the while building a portfolio. I created a blog where I could show my work and I made friends with other writers and illustrators. I joined SCBWI and honed my illustration skills even more.  My dining room table was not used for eating only. It was my creative space as well. My family was pretty upset because it was filled with my work. Everywhere was some kind of illustration I was working on. My next project. Something.  My husband got so upset with me and begged me to clean the table off.  I got a call from a friend who said she wanted to pop in for a second.  She and I had been friends for many years. I knew her to be a dancer and I was singing at the time.  We decided to get together on a Sunday afternoon just to meet for a bit.  My husband asked again. " Please, Please Vanessa! Clean off the table!!!!"  I tried. I really did. I couldn't get everything cleaned up. Karen showed up and there was my table still covered with artwork.  Karen asked," V, who did all the wonderful illustration work??" We had been friends for many years, but we never talked about what each others did besides singing and dancing. I told her, " I did." She said, " Vanessa in all the years we have known each others I didn't know that you had this talent! Do you know who I work for??" "No," I said shamefully.  "Vanessa I work for Scholastic Books and YOU ARE HIRED!!" I have been working in publishing every since.  Blue Apple Books is where I got to do my first picture book that I wrote and illustrated. It was hard work, but I still cherish those hard and scary days.

Did you have some rejections along the way?
I did get some rejections along the way. I think it keeps us grounded in a lot of ways.  I am every grateful to be doing what I do. Only 1% of people get to do what we do.  Rejection pushed me to  really find my own voice in illustration.  I found that multiculturalism was at the heart of my illustration style and work.  I knew that I could draw all cultures and that was valuable to me.  I wanted to be diverse when I illustrated.  It was very important to me that ALL children see themselves in picture books!  

What are some of the difficulties? 
Picture books are hard work and sometimes we are not given the time it takes to produce the work anymore. It use to take a year to do a book now they want it in less than 6 months. Sometimes the crazy deadlines can really get to you. Being overly art directed is very frustrating and can leave one doubting ones ability to create. I work from home so long hours can take from you. I have to remember that I am not single, but I have a family that needs me. Critics are sometimes not very nice.

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Hone your craft! Develop your signature style by trying all kinds of media. Digital, traditional, watercolor, ink, chalk, grease pencil.  If you are wanting to do children's books, take a course or 3 and collect children's books from the past and present. Create your own library if you will. Create a blog or post your illustrations to facebook, Instragram, Twitter. Join and then find the chapter nearest you and be a part of it. They always have critique groups to join and publishers and agents are found there as they do visits! Rejection is a part of the process. Embrace it as best you can. ONLY SHOW the work YOU LOVE. Please don't put anything out there that you are not proud of.  Be positive. Seriously, stop saying what you are afraid of and what won't happen for you or others. Start saying to yourself what you wish other to say about your work. " Your work is amazing and quirky! We would like to hire you."  Surround yourself with encouraging and creative people. Believe in your creative self and what you bring to the creative table. No one can do what you do so bring your A game. And remember that there is no competition, because no one can illustrate like you do. No one has your illustrative style.

Looking forward to many more wonderful books from Vanessa! Here is her next book due out in January 2015
For more of Vanessa's work at her agent's website: Painted Words
Here is her blog: OohlalaDesignsStudio


Unknown said...

That was awesome. I know you and your story, yet your words painted such incredibly enlightening and encouraging pictures for my heart and eyes. V you are one of the best story tellers around. Thanks Monica for showcasing my talented and wonderful big sister! Carry on!

monicawellington said...

It is great, Coy, that you and your sister are so close. I loved hearing how you have helped each other so much. Vanessa's stories are so vivid!

Kyra Teis said...

Beautiful illustrations. I love that quote, "There is no competition, because no one can illustrate like you."

monicawellington said...

Thank you for writing, Kyra. Congratulations on all your books - I looked at your website and it was interesting to see that you also design and sew costumes for ballet!

O'sClothes LLC/Quest Designs said...

Awesome! I enjoyed reading and the insight of the process. Kudos!

O'sClothes LLC/Quest Designs said...

Awesome! I enjoyed reading about your journey and love the look of the book!

Debbie Levy said...

What a great interview! Vanessa, there are so many layers to you and your story. I'm so happy to know you and I can't wait until we work together again--but until then, I'm lucky to have you in my life. Monica, thanks for asking Vanessa these great questions!

monicawellington said...

So often the writer and illustrator of a book never meet each other - it is wonderful the two of you have become close. I hope you do more projects together!

clare pernice said...

Wonderful and inspiring :) Vanessa you are Oh so amazing and you Truly have talent!!!! Congratulations on your latest award and beautiful books.