JD: My mom was my first teacher. She wrote songs, poetry, helped us put on plays, and encouraged creativity in every moment. We went to the Yale Art Museum often–I liked to stare at Hopper's "Rooms By the Sea"–and to the library to hunt for the books wearing Reading Rainbow stickers.
I was hooked on picture books. When school time came, I took every art class we could afford, and any offered in public school. I ended up in A.P. Studio Art in high school where Ms. Bednarczyk helped me prepare for art school. I attended the Art Institute of Boston for my BFA in Illustration.
CW: What courses or training were helpful in beginning a career in illustration?
JD: At AIB, it was important for me to take as many life drawing, color theory, and traditional media classes (like watercolor) as I could so I could build a strong foundation first, and worry about style last. My advice is: work hard, play and make a giant mess. Let go. Seek out teachers who will push you through a comfort zone into a new place in your art, who will REALLY critique your work. Take typography and design courses too, even if they aren't in your "illustration curriculum". Typography lives with your art in a book and it will be the bridge to the story you are illustrating.
CW: Besides illustrator, what are other jobs you have had?
JD: I've worked at a daycare, florist, children's bookstores (The Alphabet Garden in Cheshire, CT and Curious George in Cambridge, MA), AIB's slide library, one full day as a store-front mannequin dresser.
CW: How long after school did it take to get your work published?
JD: I signed my first contract with a publisher the year after school, and my first book, an early reader about Sojourner Truth, came out later that year.
CW: Do you have any rituals that you go through before you can get to work?
3. Hide and seek with cat (above)
5. Music/talk radio
6. Coax napping cat from artwork (page 12 of Dotty below)
7. START! I can't work without audio. Sometimes I listen to old movies while I work, I just had "Harvey" on last night, but my Audrey Hepburn collection is in rotation right now.
CW: Every illustrator finds inspiration from somewhere. I for example look always go on walkabouts to focus and be inspired by exploration. What inspires you?
JD: Possibility, picture books, words, messy children, libraries, bookstores, fellow artist blogs, the Boston cityscape (home), classic Hollywood, vintage fashion, runway magazines, ethnic costume, all things historical, scientific, spiritual, ghost stories, passed-down family tales, antiques, music, nature, and COOKING. Something about experimenting with ingredients unlocks part of my art brain when I hit a block. I invented a recipe for mascarpone cheese brownies while working out the Dotty dummy. I would LOVE to illustrate a cookbook!
CW: How would you advise other illustrators on getting their work published?
JD: Have your work ready to go and believe in it, always be reinventing it. Follow it to where it needs to be (look in bookstores and libraries and magazines for clues). Network, attend events and have an online presence, be it blog or website. Let your art be seen and seek constructive criticism. Some illustrators opt for an agent to help promote their work to publishers but it's up to you!
CW: You have illustrated numerous books so far in your young career. Do you see yourself writing in the future?
JD: Yes! I would love to very soon. I've been writing all my life, but I am very careful with it and a little shy. I put my stories away until art school was finished. They are surfacing again and keep popping up on scrap paper, so, yes, things are underway in that department.
CW: When developing Dotty where did you come up with the concept for Dotty?
JD: I was in a coffee shop, sipping something too sweet and eavesdropping on a conversation next to me, doodling on a stack of paper. By late afternoon, Dotty and Ida's characters transformed many times. I just let Dotty do her thing. Here is some concept work for both characters (click to enlarge images!)
Dotty and Ida's FINAL FORM (above)
Author, Erica Perl, sent me amazing pages of her own sketches of what she thought Dotty looked like. I loved her little goat concept (above). I took her lead on the horns!
CW: How did you develop your style?
JD: I just took my art education and pushed and pulled what I wanted out of it. Like many artists, I began as a hyper-realist, and drew mechanical still life and rendered figure drawings per my traditional classes before I loosened up. When I was finally making work that looked more like the "style" I have today I was a senior in art school, and created my last painting of a little girl and a rabbit, "The Cinnamon Rabbit". She became a jumping off point.
Once I began to get illustration jobs out of school, is when I really had style overhaul. It's only recently that I am finally loving some of it and I feel like I'm finally there, at the starting point. This is due not developing a "look" but happened with little steps toward embracing freedom and joy within any job, in various styles. It is also an extreme blessing to get an art director or editor who assists you in letting go, urges you past your own limitations, and waits with you to see what happens. Having the confidence of an art director/editor is being able to run with the manuscript into your happy place!
So long answer short, maybe my "style" is finally here. It's the best place to be: I have the struggle behind me and the messy possibility ahead of me, and tons of room to grow and improve.
CW: What about your style are you still learning as you approach a picture book project?
JD: That I have to let go. Style for a book can't be forced, it has to be an intimate real relationship with the text. Each book and story has a voice that translates into a mode of line and color palette and certain degree of realization or stylization. I read a manuscript and listen and imagine and wait to "see" it. Sometimes I immediately see everything clearly, but other times I can't see the story until late in the game, and I have to be patient with myself.
Dotty switched styles a few times right up until the end. I played with line weight a lot in Dotty, using childlike line and intentional line together, because of the nature of the story. I am learning to block out mental direction and go with the gut. This requires lots of balancing between intention and happy mistakes. It's thrilling when you have no idea what might happen next.
CW: Do you also have time to do your own personal work? If so what is it all about?
JD: I squeeze in sketches when I can. Usually my personal artwork involves me plugging into music, entering the zone and leaving with a big experiment. My goal is to always bring what I learn from my personal work back into my narrative work for clients. I need to constantly be developing as an artist and pushing my style limits to keep my client work fresh, to keep me feeling alive. I am currently teaching myself to loose control while maintaining recognition and life in a character. Things are getting sillier.
My personal work is character centered and about breaking rules. I love pushing the paint out of the lines in flat shapes, but teasing the render line back toward reality. Or mixing odd eras of clothing and time periods to pull something new from the character. Fashion is such an important element in storytelling to me. It is more than costume, because it denotes that character's choices, reality, and beliefs.
I am always wanting to push the limits on time period too. I think the way we view "time" is way too linear (my dad is a major sci-fi/time-travel buff, so that probably explains a lot), and I guess I see time as another rule that can be broken on paper with imagination. It's another facet of character to be played with. I want to push the limits on how we think of who we are and when we are from, and why those things are important to the story we are a part of.
CW: Is there a difference between illustrating a “celebrity book” versus illustrating a professional children’s book author's text?
JD: Based on my recent experience with this (illustrating My Little Girl) I found the differences fell more in the realm of the production of the book...there was an extra team of people attached to the celebrity, through which my work had to be approved. Luckily, I was given ample freedom in my style for the book, which I am grateful for. I enjoyed making art for it, Tim was gracious and I definitely learned a lot from the experience too.
Another difference is the third element beside author and illustrator not always present in picture book creation: the celebrity factor. Good and bad can come with this. There is dangerous potential for the focus to be only on the name branding of the book and the marketing alone, rather than caring for the written and artistic content, sadly making the book into more of a "venue". A celebrity name may generate sales for a while, but substance is what will make it stay on the shelves. I respect the picture book as an art form. I respect its creators, both celebrity and non celebrity, but what's inside the jacket must be held to the same unwavering standard, no matter whose name adorns that jacket. A successful celebrity book will have its heart in the right place.
CW: What makes an extraordinary picture book in your eyes?
JD: A work of art and literature, a trip, a teacher, a friend and home rolled into one square little thing. An extraordinary picture book allows a person of any age to open it, go to a new place, close it and leave, without the book ever really leaving them. Picture books are not just for children either! Amazing things happen to adults when they read them. Good picture books are like friends, ones that you will visit with many times, and even search a lonely bookstore for no matter how old you grow to find that exact book, even when you've forgotten its name.
When I worked in the bookstore, adults were always coming in and asking for a book from childhood that had a “cat that maybe went on a trip, and the colors were all yellow and red, and there were tiny houses in the background...do you know the the name of it? I've been looking for it for years!” That's a powerful thing!
CW: What is a book that has blown your mind lately?
JD: Madeline! I recently fell in love with Ludwig Bemelmans. Like many, I grew up with his books all around me, but this fall it just clicked. I started to see his work with fresh eyes. You can tell from his spontaneity that he trusted his art making. He respected his audience and children with his art. His work seems to be so joyful and tongue in cheek all at once. It encourages me to be more free in my own work. Miss Clavel and the girls have been good studio company lately.
CW: Have you seen Werner Herzog Read Madeline?
JD: YES, I love that Werner Herzog video. Best line is about the vines: "The Norman forest trying in vain to reclaim its ancestral land." I laughed for a good while about that. And poor stifled Ms. Clavel.
CW: Have you ever had an imaginary friend?
JD: No! I was jealous of my younger sisters who had REAL imaginary friends (named Plo-Kla, Kuddongs, Lion and Flea-hat) So I drew my own imaginary friends one day and decided to have two fakes. “Doodie-Dye” was a purple and furious looking squiggle with a bow (similar to Katya's in Dotty-see below) and “Noonie” was a banana with eyes . . .
It’s Ida’s first day of school. She carries her new lunch box and a long, blue string with her special friend Dotty attached to it. A big, colorfully spotted pal with horns, Dotty just happens to be invisible. On that first day of school, Ida and Dotty find out there are plenty of other imaginary friends in attendance. But as the year passes and fewer and fewer imaginary friends come to class, Ida begins to wonder if Dotty is welcome at school anymore . . .
Perceptive and warmly funny, with charming art from exciting illustrator Julia Denos, Dotty is a celebration of the power of friendship and imagination.
DOTTY with Julia Denos
Here is the origin story on DOTTY by Erica Perl, author:
EP: When I was a kid, I had imaginary friends. I told my parents that two of them were twins but were not the same age (which they found funny, though I didn't understand why for years) and their names were Sahti and Dahti. I was probably about three or four at the time, which I know because we moved to Rhode Island when I was four and these memories predate the move. I also had an imaginary pet (a sheep) when we lived in Vermont, where we didn't move until I turned eight. But by then I was pretty sure that I'd get teased if anyone found out about my imaginary sheep, so I didn't tell anyone. I think the initial idea for DOTTY came out of both of these experiences: having an imaginary friend that interested and amused others, as was the case with Sahti and Dahti, and having an imaginary friend that might be a source of ridicule. And, of course, the name "Dotty" came from "Dahti."
On writing the manuscript:
EP: When I first wrote the story, I relied on this memory I have of overhearing a girl gossiping about me to a friend and the friend replying, "Who's Erica?" And then the first girl pointed me out by saying, "Hey, ERICA, I like your sweater." But when I went to storyboard out the book, I was surprised by the intensity of Ida's —and Dotty's —reaction. This sometimes happens when I write a piece… it is much neater in word form, but if I start sketching and drawing, ideas flow and things happen. It's why I always encourage writing students to draw, even if they don't want to be illustrators. Sometimes you don't know what you want to say with words until you get an image.
Erica Perl on the evolution of Dotty:
EP: When my draft of the manuscript was finished—long before Julia was selected as the illustrator—I started reading the story aloud as part of my author visit presentations. I'd ask the kids to raise their hands and tell me what kind of animal Dotty was. And the kids would tell me: she's a bull! she's a goat! she's a giant guinea pig! So I realized for the first time that maybe Dotty was an animal unto herself . . . or a one-of-a-kind combination of many kinds of animals.
On selecting Julia Denos:
CW: It was actually kind of hard. Erica Perl ( author) remembers talking with Susan Van Metre and telling her here ideas and hearing hers. We were on the same page, both of us wanting someone who could capture the whimsical qualities of the piece without making it overly sentimental or losing the humor and range of emotions. Julia Denos was my pick among other. On a rare occasion do i find and illustrator from a mailer. Yet this is how I cam across Julia. Erica recalls checking out her online portfolio (after I sent here Julia site to review ) and thinking "YES! Oh please let us get HER!"
FOLLOW Julia at here Blog http://www.thecinnamonrabbit.blogspot.com
So we begin. Julia and I worked out a time table for sketches and final art as well as other contractual items.
Here are Julia's first sketches
Kay was Benny’s. She had razor-sharp teeth, but Benny swore she would never really hurt anyone. Beeku was tiny. She swung back and forth on Katya’s braids, chattering all day long.
And there was Dotty. Who kept mostly to herself, nibbling the rug. "
First round character and layout sketches
Ida Brunnette . . .
and slow began to look more like a buffalo
then more cow like
Other Imaginary friends