Vanessa Brantley Newton is a largely self-taught artist, and took classes at both the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in fashion and children’s book illustration. Vanessa is the illustrator of the Scholastic book series Ruby and The Booker Boys and Tori Spelling’s debut picture book. Presenting…Tallulah. She wrote and illustrated Let Freedom Sing and Don’t Let Aunt Mabel Bless the Table, both published by Blue Apple Books. Her forthcoming books include Magic Trash,from Charlesbridge, about the Heidelberg Project in Michigan, and a collaboration with Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella, from Chronicle Books. Visit with her on her blog at http://oohlaladesignstudio.blogspot.com/.
Q: When did you start illustrating for children? What did you do before?
A: I started illustrating children’s books in 2003. I did a job for Scholastic Inc for the Read and Rise Program. Before that I was a phlebotomist for RMA of NJ.
I have been doing for phlebotomy for about 27 years.
Q: Your newest book, released this month, is “Justin and the Bully” by Tony Dungy, & Lauren Dungy. How are ready-to-read books different to illustrate than a regular picture book?
A: The turn around time is crazy. Where you have 6 months to a year to do a regular children’s picture book you only get a couple of weeks to go from sketches to finishes. They are still 32 pages and the stories that Tony and Lauren did are like life lessons for child. How to share, how to listen, how to stand up for yourself. They are excellent. The illustrations are a little bit loser then my picture book style. There is detail, but it’s not tight. More like pen and ink.
A: These two books where so much fun. I got to work with my favorite media which is collage. I love collage. I am inspired by everything Ezra Jack Keats and Earl Carle. There was some back and forth with the characters that Cedella and the editors had. We decided that the first would be a girl. Cedella gave her the name, “Little C” named after her. There were elements that she wanted that represented her father so we did their house number and added the music element to the story. As for, “Every Little Thing” Cedella wanted the character fashioned after her little boy who has bright blond locs which I thought was pretty cool. We added other element that again represented Bob and the family with their 1960’s VW bus which was yellow and again the house number 56.
Q: Who came up with the story lines present in the illustrations?
A: We all contributed to the storyline. The Editor really wanted to see what I would come up with first and then we blended my story with she and Cedella’s ideas came up with the storyline.
Q: Do you have another book planned for the series? Anything you can share with us about it?
I don’t know if there will anymore books, but I’m pretty sure they have something in the works. Right now I know of nothing.
Q: What other children’s books have you worked on?
A: Drum City, Let Freedom Sing and Don’t let Auntie Mabel Bless The Table written and illustrated by me. Tori Spelling’s Presenting Tallulah, Ruby and The Booker Boy Series, Magic Trash and Think Big.
Q: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other art projects you’d like to talk about?
A: I am working a few books. I just finished three books that will be out in the 2013. One with Disney-Hyperion, We Shall Overcome, Mister and Lady Day with Houghton Books, The Girl Who Heard Color with Penguin Books. Right now I am working on my first Golden Book with Random House and another book called, “Zulay. It’s about a blind girl attending a regular public school. I am also doing a book with, Lee and Low called, Hula Hoopin’ Queen. I just started working on the sketches. Looks like it going to be fun.
Q: Do you do non-children’s book art (licensing, fine art, etc.) or art just for fun? Is that art similar or different from your children’s book art?
A: Yes indeed I do. I have lots and lots of fine art. It’s centered around my Gullah Geechee roots. Gullah Geechee people are from the low country of South Carolina and mostly live in and around the Beaufort, SC area. They are decants from Africa’s Sierra Leone. Brought here as slaves they grew and worked the rice fields and plantations of the low country. My fine art is centered around my Gullah Geechee culture. I tell stories of my childhood and where I spent my summers. It’s usually cut papers and scrapbook paper and fabrics. Sometimes found objects and things just laying around.
Q: Can you explain your art process?
A: I find that I have a need to be inspired so I always do a little research on the project that I’m about to begin. If it’s a book I will go to Barnes and Noble and sit for a couple of hours looking around at the books that are on the shelves at the time or I go on a big old web search and look at what inspires me. Pinterest has been such a wonderful place to get inspired. I love to look at my collection of vintage children’s books. The old masters knew how to create fabulous work. I always have something from Ezra Jack Keats around as well as Mary Blair.
Sometime I have the works of Eric Carle or Fiep Westendorp around to inspire. I do sketches over and over again. Sometimes I do thumbnails and then there are times when I will just jump head long into the process and see where the illustrations or sketches take me.
At times I really need to get the ideas out of my head and on to paper and then go back and see what sticks. After doing a bunch of sketch, I than scan them into my computer and play around with them in Photoshop. They become the bones of what I will create later with Corel Painter. I have learned to create things in layers now and this helps so much because I don’t have to go back to redraw the whole thing if I mess something up. Some people can draw right into Photoshop, but it doesn’t work for me. I have to use Corel or hand draw it first. Corel works so great for my style. It allows me to create just as I would if I were doing it naturally with pen and ink or watercolor and gouache. I can create the work flat and paint it and add textures or distress something within the program. The trick is not making it look like it’s digital. I get asked all the time is my work digital or traditional. I use a little and a lot of both. If you have to ask then I did it right.
After creating my layers I then finish the work in Photoshop. I am able to collage the piece or adjust the colors and sizes of characters or almost anything I want. I do work traditionally as well. I work flat on heavy watercolor paper or canvas. I usually work with gouache and watercolor, Pencil and colored pencils. I layout the work in pencil and then paint over it. When adding collage I do it after everything is laid out.
Q: What is your favorite medium to work in? Have you always worked in this media? If not, why did you switch?
A: Oh my goodness me!! I love to work in almost everything!!! I do mean everything. I love watercolor and oil pastels. Colored pencils and pen and ink. Almost anything I can get my hands into. I just started working with paint pens! They are simply fabulous! I have always worked in these media because my style is still evolving if you will. I am always in learning mode. Always trying something different. Looking for a different effect. Digital is great. It has it’s place as a tool in my art bin, but I like using everything.
Q: Do you use models/source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?
A: I draw from my imagination at times, but I do use reference and I snatch up a few people around the house to help me figure out a pose. Google search is another way I find what I am looking for as far as models for pose.
Q: What gets you through an illustration when you’re stuck for inspiration?
A: Sometimes you just have to walk away. Go for a walk. Talk to an artist friend. Have a cup of tea and watch some cartoons if necessary! I do all the previously mentioned.
Q: If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?
A: A voice-over artist. I would love to do commercials and cartoon voices for movies.
Q: What book do you remember from when you were young?
A: I was hoping that you would ask this question. I am dyslexic. It was very hard for me when I was a youngster in school. They didn’t know how to deal with me. Picture books always spoke to me. One day a wonderful teacher read Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day. It was the very first book that I had ever seen with a black child as the main character. It was beautiful and inspiring and it made me feel special.
I love the way Peter was drawn. He was beautiful in his little red snow suit. His neighborhood looked like mine. His mother looked like my mother. Even the flowered wallpaper looked like the kind in my room. I loved the book so much that I asked the teacher could I read it and while I couldn’t read the words as she did, I read the pictures and they have been with me for all these years. I have about 10 copies of The Snowy Day. I went to the Jewish Museum in NYC and saw the Erza Jack Keat show. I cried from the time I entered the hall until I left. He will never ever know how his work has effected my life as a mom and illustrator of children’s books.
Q: Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now?
A: Yes indeed. I love Leigh Hodgkinson , Melissa Sweet, Sean Qualls, David Catrow, Stephane Jorisch, Betsy Synder, Janice Nadeau, Brian Karas and Peter H. Reynolds just to name a few.
Q: If you could illustrate any writer’s new work, who would it be?
A: Honestly I don’t have a clue! I would be open to almost anyone!