What Do You See?
Sarah Harvey & Jane Heinrichs talk about how all of life is research - without actually saying so.
Sarah: If you could study with one picture book illustrator (alive or dead) who would it be?
Jane: There are so many! When I was starting out, I was entranced by Trina Schart Hyman and her beautifully rendered drawings of fairy tales. She added so many details from the Middle Ages into her backgrounds. I also loved Carl Larsson’s paintings of his family’s life in Sweden and the way he captured the Nordic light and the details in their house. I love the pen and ink draughtsmanship of Chris Riddell and Maurice Sendak. But I think if I could only pick one person to study with, it would be Rembrandt. I am in awe of his drawings and prints, and how he can capture a mood, a gesture, a slant of light, or a moment in a story with such effortlessness. I also love the series of self-portraits that he did, accurately and honestly showing how he aged and matured throughout his life.
Sarah: How did you get into illustrating kids’ books?
Jane: Do you want the long answer, which is full of adventure? Or the short and easy answer? I’ll tell the one with adventures…
As a teenager, I challenged myself to draw every day, and I filled sketchbook after sketchbook. But when I went to university I wanted to learn languages and history, so I studied History of Art, Classics/Archaeology, Latin and German instead of Fine Art. I worked for my Roman Archaeology professor as an assistant, and she asked me if I knew anyone who might be able to draw a few reconstructions of a Roman tomb complex. I was fairly confident that I could, so I said that I would try. That was the start of a decade of working as an archaeological illustrator. With the University of Manitoba, I went on archaeological digs in Tunisia in North Africa and I drew reconstructions of the buildings and small objects. I loved sitting by the Mediterranean Sea and imagining that the things I was drawing and holding were once made and used by ancient Romans, who were not that different from us. All this time, I was working on my children’s book portfolio. I went to London to do a Masters in Art History, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is half an art gallery and half a university. I was inspired by my time in the gallery to write and illustrate a children’s picture book set in the gallery, which was later commissioned by the director of the school for publication. That was the start! It’s a long, winding adventurous road, and there are lots of twists and turns!
Jane: You write children’s novels as well as picture books. How is the process different (or similar) for each genre?
Sarah: My first book (Puppies on Board) was a picture book and I knew nothing (and I mean NOTHING) about the process of writing a good one—I had what I thought was a good idea (based on an episode in my own life) and I just went from there. I had encouragement from Carol Shields, who thought I had what it took to be a writer. Who was I to argue? After I joined Orca as an editor, I started to read and edit YA fiction, had an idea for a novel of my own and started writing. Similar process, just a lot longer. But not necessarily more complex. Every single word counts in a picture book and you have to learn to let the illustrations tell and show parts of the story. When I re-read my books—any of them—I always think “You could have cut that!”
Jane: When you write a picture book, do you have a vision for how the illustrations might look when it’s finished?
Sarah: With Puppies on Board, since it was based on my life, I wanted it to accurately convey the island where I lived and the boat I lived on, so I sent the illustrator old photos. She did an amazing job, but I was VERY surprised that she modeled the mother character on me, and rendered a lovely portrait of my then-boyfriend and our El Camino.
Sarah: Do you have direct contact with authors, or is your communication usually with the book’s editor?
Jane: Normally I communicate about the actual work of the book directly with the art director. I often communicate with the author of the book while working, but it is more social chatting, rather than work-related. It is easier and clearer to keep all communication about the illustrations flowing through the editorial team. However, I have become good friends with some of the authors!
Sarah: What do you do if your vision for a book is radically different from the publisher or author?
Jane: So far this hasn’t happened! Normally the art director gives me a brief of their vision for the book; just a few pointers so that I can be steered in the right direction. Some of those pointers might be from the author’s comments; sometimes from it’s a vision the editorial team might have for the book and how it might fit into their list. I love receiving those notes. A picture book is a collaboration. I will give the art director my notes in return, and the book grows from there. A book is a living thing, nurtured by many creative people. For What Do You See I imagined that it was a jewel, and so I used a rainbow colour palette. And I imagined that it was told from two visual points of view: the baby, and the narrator who is asking the questions. The baby’s point of view is always on the left-hand page in a circular illustration, and the reader’s point of view is on the right-hand page, always showing what the baby can see. As we get deeper and deeper into the baby’s world, and two points of view merge.
Sarah: Rhetorical question: How much do you love the Ahlbergs?!
Jane: I love the Ahlbergs so much! My daughter absolutely loves the Jolly Postman books, and I would love to do a modernised version of those books someday. She also had “Each Peach Pear Plum” memorised by the time she was three, and “read” it to herself almost daily. The pages hold so much fun detail that recurs and connects each illustration.
What is your favourite book by the Ahlbergs?
Peepo! I was so excited to be able to read it to my grandchildren after reading it hundreds of times to my own kids. What Do You See? is an homage to the Ahlbergs.
Are your illustrations all done by hand or do you use a computer program?
Jane: I start by hand. Everything is drawn in pencil (and rather messily!), just to get the composition, emotion and gesture. Once the drawings are approved, I use my lightbox to trace the illustrations onto hot pressed watercolour paper. Then I ink them using various sizes of brush pens and paint with watercolour and gouache. That is all done by hand. Once an illustration is “finished” I scan it into photoshop and play around. For example, in What Do You See I added some drawings onto the wall of the children’s bedroom that were done by my daughter at nursery school. I might deepen shadows. Or, if there are last-minute edits (of which there were a few for this book) I can paint a new section, and then collage it into the final illustration in photoshop so that I don’t have to do the whole painting over again. My illustration professor at the University of the Arts London (Camberwell College) said that when one uses photoshop it should be done with sleight of hand so that the viewer doesn’t know what is painted by hand and what is digital. I hope I have accomplished that!
Jane: Do you have a writing routine?
Sarah: I do not, unless you count not listening to any music with words. Since Covid I have been pretty unproductive. I wrote one picture book, which is out in the publishing netherworld, and an essay about why I decided not to write a book of adult creative non-fiction that I had been researching for years.
Jane: Which children’s books do you read when you need inspiration?
Sarah: When I need inspiration I stop writing (and reading) and go for a long walk. If I let my mind wander away from what I’m working on, insight usually follows.
Jane: How do you take your coffee or tea?
Sarah: Weak tea, lots of milk. Known to my family (fondly) as Old Lady Tea.