Christy has been an art director and designer for over 25 years, working in house at Dutton, Putnam, Philomel, Bradbury, Macmillan, Four Winds, and Simon & Schuster; and as a consulting art director for numerous other publishers. New and seasoned artists have won prestigious awards for books they worked on with Christy, including ALA Notables, Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards and Honors, John Steptoe New Talent Awards, New York Times Best Illustrated Books, and Pura Belpre Awards and Honors.
By JEANNE BOWMAN, SCBWI Montana
In several interviews you have stated that you have an experimental art making process. What does that process look like and how do you deal when you run into “dead ends?” Do you only experiment at the beginning of the project, or is it something you continue to do throughout?
Each book is its own world and calls for a different response. I always create sample art for each new project. I flounder a lot before I decide on my approach, sometimes thinking I’ll use one approach, only to decide it’s not working at all and then go in a different direction. Experimenting does not stop. I will redo pieces multiple times, especially if the art is overworked. Then I know I need to simplify.
If I’m stuck, I put the art aside and focus on another piece. Solving the next one may unlock solutions for the problem one. Also, stepping away allows me to return to the earlier work with fresh eyes. Additionally, I am part of a wonderful critique group. We meet monthly and show each other work in progress. These regular meetings spur me to keep at my work so I have something to share and they give me an opportunity to enlist others help to figure out what is and is not working. I inevitably leave the meeting feeling excited to revise.
Though I sometimes layer and cleanup work digitally, I much prefer the freshness and tactile aspects of work done by hand. My work is intentionally not slick. I started my career as an art teacher with an extremely limited annual budget, so making the most of materials at hand is a familiar and fun challenge to me.
My bilingual book Todos Iguales: Un corrido de Lemon Grove/All Equal: A Ballad of Lemon Grove is set in 1931 Lemon Grove, CA. I wanted to evoke old fruit box labels, so I worked on brown craft board. I cut stencils from kitchen wax paper and rolled color ink into the open areas. This gave me defined graphic shapes and rustic texture. To suggest trees receding into the distance I stamped dowels of varying sizes into ink and printed them.
I make rubbings and prints of various textures. For my book The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan, I wanted to nod to Japanese woodblock prints, so I rolled pink ink on my weather-worn back steps and printed the wood grain. To suggest the patterns in kimonos, I used business envelope liners. In Antsy Ansel, I used kitchen parchment paper for the sand. A wood-grain rubbing suggests the water. The leaves in this scene from Out the Door were modified from a flower punch. One semester while I was studying at Pratt Institute, I did a papermaking apprenticeship. I often incorporate my own handmade papers into my collage art, like the sidewalks in this scene. Paper is made from cut up rags. The texture seen in the gray is from a Burberry wool coat. I collect decorative food packaging, corrugated and texture packaging materials. I make my own stamps with gum erasers. On and on. Anything can be a resource.
How do you collect your ideas as they come to you? Do you have a method for making connections between disparate ideas?
I jot down ideas on scraps of paper. I have folders of these! Some of these ideas are now decades old, but I haven’t given up on them. I strongly believe that each book has its own incubation period. Here’s a little video about how my ideas developed for Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building. This book was all about making connections between children’s building play and iconic architecture. Once I had three ideas, I wondered if I could find enough for a whole picture book. I started making lists and doing research. I use the 32-page dummy to build my ideas.
In addition to being the author-illustrator for many of your books, you are also the designer. How does the design of the final book inform your writing and illustrating? Do you think of each stage separately, or are they intertwined from the beginning?
These are intertwined from the beginning for me. I am writing, sketching, and designing back and forth as I go along. I’m very appreciative of the way the Communication Design program is structured at Pratt. Every illustrator also takes courses in design and typography.
You have been an Art Educator and have also taken a lot of art education courses yourself, earning a B.A in Fine Arts and a Masters in Teaching. Who were the teachers that made the greatest influence in your artistic development and what were the most important lessons you learned from them?
While I was earning my B.A. in Fine Arts at Lewis & Clark College, I was also getting certified to be a secondary art teacher. Many of my friends were working toward elementary education certification. I lobbied to take two classes available to them, but not offered for secondary educators. One was “Art in the Elementary Classroom.” I don’t recall the teacher, but what I do remember was playing with lots of different materials in a very open-ended way. It was a wonderful counter to perfectionism. The other elementary education class I pushed my way into was a course in “Children’s Literature.” For my final project I illustrated several poems by children’s poets. Again, the teacher’s name escapes me, but she introduced us to many wonderful authors and illustrators.
One very important teacher was my art history teacher. I took five art history classes my freshmen year. He then asked me to be his work-study student, so the rest of college, I worked closely with him. We are still friends and I have sought his input on some of my books about artists and architects.
In Dreaming Up and Copycat, you have this fabulous method of presenting the concept you are trying to convey through showcasing poetry, illustration and photography side by side and then you allow the viewer to make the connection on their own. How did you decide that this was the best method for this book? Did you try more traditional narrative forms before you settled on this one? How do you know for certain when something “works?”
Thank you. Initially in Dreaming Up, I had some of the back matter information in the body of the book. It looked clunky. My editor suggested moving that to the back so that there would just be the visual connection—after all that was how the whole concept had started for me—as a purely visual connection. In an early submission, I had shown her a couple of entries with concrete poetry. She suggested that I create concrete poems for all the pairings. I communicate back and forth with my editor, constantly revising until we both feel things are working.
Copycat was always intended as a companion book, so I knew the format would be the same. Since the book focused on nature, originally, I planned to use haiku for the poetry element. Again, it was my editor who suggested considering tanka. The structure of tanka turned out to be perfect because the first two lines relate to one image, the last two lines to another image, and the middle line connects them both.
What is something you haven’t done yet that you wish you could do with your work? Do you have a goal that you are trying to push yourself towards?
I have loads more ideas for picture books. I need horse-blinders to focus on one project at a time. My husband and I are developing an early reader series. On a way back burner, I have a middle grade novel in a pot that needs stirring.
In addition to being the author and illustrator and designer on many amazing books, you have been an Art Director at many incredible publishing houses. What is something you would love illustrators to know about the collaboration with the Art Director and the Editor?
Be confident that you are all on the same team with a common goal of making the best book possible. If you have been selected for a project, it is because your talents have been recognized. Keep this in mind when you are asked to do revisions. Revision work is part of every creator’s process. Trust that the professionals are confident in you and want to push you to become even better.
As an Art Director, what are the qualities in an illustrator’s work that makes you certain you want to work with them?
Can the illustrator expand the story?
“The writer’s job is to pare a story or experience down until the essence remains, spare and shining. The writer distills. The illustrator expands.”
—from “Half the Story: Text and Illustration in Picture Books,” Horn Book
What is your favorite part about using words and illustration to create such compelling stories? Conversely, what is the part of the process that you fear/ hate/ struggle with the most?
I love that I get to play with ideas and that those ideas can find form in a book. The other illustrators in my critique group and I all feel with each new project, like we are starting from scratch, learning to illustrate all over again. We are always fighting imposter syndrome. There is no magic time when everything becomes easy. So much is like a wrestling match, but I love it!
By JEANNE BOWMAN, SCBWI Montana July 24, 2023
Jeanne is the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI Montana and a published illustrator. Recent works include The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde for Familius Publishing as well as Charlie Russell and the Gnomes of Bull Head Lodge by Emily Crawford Wilson for The South Dakota Historical Society Press.