by Savannah Hendricks
Wendy Watson, known for writing and illustrating Bedtime Bunnies and for illustrating numerous children’s books, such as the award-winning Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes, is teaching this summer in Hollins University’s graduate certificate program in children’s book illustration.
Q: Media within the business of picture books have changed over time, and new ones have been added. What have you used and what are your thoughts on them?
A: I use pen and ink, with watercolor, Chinese pen, acrylic and pencil, and cut tissue paper. No crayons or colored pencils. The industry does not dictate what I use; change only comes because I want to change. But if society asked me to change my style of artwork I think I would flow with the change.
Q: Has the current economy affected how you go about creating your latest piece?
A: No—I have not been asked by my publishers to work digitally, even though that is less expensive for the publisher. I do use relatively inexpensive materials. Even the most expensive paper and brushes cost far less than computers. I do not use technology to format or work on artwork. I complete artwork the old-fashioned way and submit it through the mail. Colors are represented differently on a computer than on paper, which is one of the reasons I prefer working on paper. And things have changed with submissions once under commission. I feel the industry is more nervous than it used to be, because making money has become such a top priority. So publishers want to see and be able to control much more of the creative process. Detailed sketches must be submitted and some can be returned with up to ten revisions per page.
Q: Is your simple life reflected in your illustrations?
A: Well, I do not follow what is in style. Growing up in a small town with a thriving close community was and is the best way to live for me. These influenced my illustrations. Where I grew up, in Putney, Vermont, most of the architecture was typical old New England architecture-—as was the house in which my family lived. I got used to lovely hand-carved woodwork, chimneys (and houses) of elderly rose-colored handmade bricks, handmade glass in the windows (full of waves and ripples and bubbles), roofs with their irregularly hand-shaped slate “shingles.” The illustrations in many of my books were clearly influenced by my surroundings, in rooms, buildings, and landscapes (Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes is a good example). I feel very nostalgic for that time and place (which in a sense no longer exists). I loved it so much that I would probably always try to re-create that feel in my own home, even though my current house—in Phoenix, Arizona—was built in the 1950s. I draw the line at getting my water with a hand pump in the kitchen sink!
Q: Can you mentally go back to other landscapes?
A: I physically need to be there because it’s not as effective for me as going there in my head, although some things, like different eras—for instance when I illustrated The Cats in Krasinski Square—I try to re-create through pictures, music, and movies.
Q: You stated that being an author/illustrator is the only job you could really ever have. What is the most difficult part of your chosen occupation?
A: These days, making a living solely on book sales is hard. Ordinary book sales have gone down and the majority of authors, not on the best-seller list, find it hard to make ends meet. Publishing companies have been bought by non-publishing companies, which is one of the big issues. But don’t let fear keep you at bay because it can affect your creative process.
Q: How does being a parent affect your artwork?
A: When my children were younger I was absolutely directly inspired by them. I put many things in the illustrations that only they could pick out and know, like dishes that we owned or furniture.
Q: Explain a few things you do to assist opening or unblocking your creative process?
A: I rarely get stuck on illustrations, but I do on writing. I find cooking gives me a break from creative work. Having patience is important, too, because I know that a problem will get untangled eventually. I like figuring out different mediums prior to starting work, which eliminates problems later on. Getting outside and taking a good hike is always helpful. The most creative part for me in starting a piece is sketching, and it doesn’t just all spring up one day.
Wendy Watson, B.A. Bryn Mawr College, has written and illustrated twenty-one children’s books and illustrated more than sixty children’s books for other authors. She has been nominated for the National Book Award and her works have been included in “Best Books of the Year” lists published by The New York Times, American Library Association, and Publisher’s Weekly.
—Savannah Hendricks holds a degree in early childhood education and criminal justice/criminology. You can follow her blog at www.theseashellsoflife.wordpress.com.