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Interview with Meredith Johnson – picture book artist

picture book illustrator Meredith JohnsonPlease give a big welcome to Meredith Johnson. A prolific illustrator with 100 or so picture books to her name. Her bio on Picture Book goes like this:
“So do you have kids?” the editors ask, and Meredith always says “Yep, they’re my scrap.” Picture scrap, that is. Twenty-three years of illustrating children’s books and she’s not out of material, yet. Meredith lives nestled in the foothills of La Cañada, California.
Thanks for joining us today, Meredith.

When did you get started illustrating for children? What did you do before?

I did my first books in 1985. I was working as an art director in an advertising firm, Olgivy & Mather in LA. I simply did books nights and weekends for years.

Tell us a little bit about the recent books you illustrated, The Princess Twins and the Abby and Tess Pet Sitters series.

The Princess Twin and the Tea Party Abby and Tess Petsitters Goldfish Don't Take Bubble Baths
The Princess Twins and the Tea Party is a series of 4 easy readers for Zondervan, full color, 2 little girls as princesses sort of in the Middle Ages. Goldfish Don’t Take Bubble Baths (Abby and Tess Pet-Sitters) is a series of 8 chapter books. Each features a different adventure in pet sitting a different exotic pet. Each book has about 12 B&W illustrations for each chapter. These were fun to do because the stories are zaney.

What are you working on right now? Do you have any other books or art projects you’d like to talk about?

I’m working on an author’s self published picture book now, about a little girl and manners. I’m working with the book designer, a close friend,  all the way though, so it should be a very cute book. I’m also working on two easy reader picture books and a little bit of educational work in between.

cat bath by Meredith Johnson
Do you illustrate full time? If not, what else do you do?

I have been illustrating full time for the past 12 years, since getting out of full time agency work.

Your signature style has been consistent for years. Have you ever wanted to experiment with something different?

I do have  a signature style, and it would be nice to experiment, but I manage to stay really busy, so I stick to what I am comfortable with, and what I’m hired for.

my cowboy boots illustrated by Meredith Johnson
When you illustrate a picture book how do you decide what scenes and details to draw?

When I first get the manuscript, I read it over several times to get the ebb and flow, and the feel for what the lead character should look like. Then I do really rough pencils, just thinking on paper. The pictures are meant to tell the story as much and more than the words, so I suppose it’s my way of “telling” what the author wrote.

When illustrating picture books do you include a visual storyline not mentioned by the text or include animals or people you know?

I always show more than the words show. I just about always add a pet as a sidekick, for more action in the pictures. A well written picture book is sparse on description, to let the pictures to be a grand show. A different illustrator would have a much different take on the same text.

Can you explain your art process?
My process is pencil or pen line, and markers on bond paper. This comes from years and years of storyboarding when I worked as an art director. I worked on Mattel Barbie commercials for 22 years, and every commercial had to be storyboarded several times. I was also doing 4 to 6 picture books a year then, so my most comfortable fit was marker made to look as much as possible like water color. My web site is meredithjohnson.net

Milo and dog by Meredith Johnson
Do you use models/source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?

I don’t use models, but I do use Google to look up visuals of things I don’t have a good working knowledge of, like animals I’m not familiar with, things like that. Mostly I draw from memory. Because I draw children so much, I keep catalogs or magazines once in a while to use for ideas about the latest of what kids wear, and what they do with their hair.

If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?

I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than books, but publishing is getting smaller and leaner, so maybe I’d like to travel more instead of working all the time at a desk.

Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now?

The books and illustrators I admire are Carl Larsson, Arthur Rackham, Rien Poortvliet, Lisbeth Zwerger, Trina Schart Hyman, Sergio Martinez, Shirley Hughes, Hilary Knight, to name a few.  At bookstores now I get overwhelmed at the lovely art everywhere….there’s a lot of competition out there!

Thank you so much for taking time out of your hectic schedule to give us a peek into your illustrator’s life.

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