Illustrator Interview: Hazel Mitchell

PROFESSIONAL BIO: Hazel Mitchell
Children’s author and illustrator, Hazel Mitchell is originally from England and now lives and works in Maine. Her childhood was spent in a seaside town in Yorkshire. She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawing, and still can’t be left reliably alone with a pencil. When she wasn’t creating art, she was riding horses or rambling along the beautiful Yorkshire coast. She attended art college in the UK and then spent several years in the Royal Navy. She worked as a graphic designer for many years. Now she’s doing what she always dreamed of – creating books for children. Her first trade book was published in 2011 and latest books include Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl and 1,2,3 by the Sea. Her first book as author and illustrator, Toby, will be published in 2016 by Candlewick Press. Her work has been recognized by Bank Street’s Best of Children’s Books, Society of Illustrator’s of Los Angeles, Foreword Reviews, Reading is Fundamental, Learning Magazine and Maine Libraries ‘Cream of the Crop’ 2015. She is represented by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown, NYC. See more of her work at http://www.hazelmitchell.com or online in all the usual places.

1) How did you become an illustrator of children’s books or similar works?
My route to children’s illustration was winding. I was always interested in illustration, and writing, from an early age. Unfortunately, back in the 1980’s when I attended art college, courses in children’s illustration were thin on the ground or, rather, non-existent. It seemed to be a career you just ‘fell in to’. So I studied fine art and then had a long career in graphic design until I moved to the USA. I was working in commercial illustration at that time, as well as painting fine art pieces, and wondering how I could enter the field of children’s illustration. In 2009 I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators) conference and began to put together a portfolio specifically directed towards children’s illustration. I began to mail postcards to editors and art directors in publishing. In 2010 I was offered my first book contract, which was for a non-fiction book about autism, and I’ve been illustrating for children ever since. I’ve just written my first book for children about a poodle, ‘Toby’, to be published by Candlewick in Fall 2016.

2) Describe your illustration style and creative process. What makes your illustrations unique and different?
The first thing that people say about my style is that it’s ‘very English’!  I guess there’s no denying my roots. M style is quite traditional. I think my line work is the most recognisable. It’s like my handwriting. It took me a while to realize that my line work identified me, now I’m developing that and becoming looser and freer. I think my drawings are a little ‘quirky’. When you begin to illustrate I think you try to cover up your ‘quirks’ but really, those oddities are the things that make your work individual. So now I embrace them!

I’m quite disciplined in my creative process, I think that comes from years working to deadlines as a graphic designer and from being in the military. I usually begin by writing some written notes about an illustration project. What it embraces, what springs to mind, connections … all kinds of things. I write in a sketch pad. Alongside, I’ll start to noodle around with sketches, characters. I think about the setting. The age of the reader. The characters. Is it black and white or colour? What’s the mood of the book? It’s a synthesis that starts to come together. I may start by researching place, people, animals – depending on the story. Maybe I’ll take some time to look at other books along the same lines. After I’ve sketched for a while I’ll dive straight into thumbnail layouts of the book, see how the words and pictures might work together. What the arc of the story is and the climax points. Sometimes I’ll make a grid of this, with the pages, emotions, situations and feelings listed. This is the exciting part. Anything can happen and most things are possible! I think I enjoy this stage the best.

Then I’ll get into larger page layouts, working out composition of the pages and where the ‘page turns’ will happen. All this is building towards that final page which will tie the story together. I often work in different styles and mediums depending on the content of the story. I love to draw in graphite, add water colour washes and colour on the computer (photoshop, usually). I also like mixed media and pen and ink. I’d love to do some work in oils, but haven’t as yet! It makes it fun and interesting. I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of illustrator who only works in one style – discovery makes the work fun! The longest part of the process for me is the drawing stage. Getting everything right before moving on to the final images. And the hardest part is keeping the vision you had in mind at the beginning of the project fresh in the final art.

3) When did you realise you could make a living from your talent?
Hmmm. I don’t think there was ever a choice for me. It’s all I was good at! So as soon as I left college I earned my living from art somehow, although not always in the field I wished for. I wish that there had been more choices when I left art-college, but the path I followed led me to where I longed to be in the end. I am lucky to make a living from doing what I enjoy … mostly I have always worked as a freelancer. It’s not an easy life. But I wouldn’t change it!

4) Has technology changed your trade and the way you work?
Yes, like most of my generation I started out doing a lot of mechanical art, especially in graphic design. Cut and paste etc. I was lucky to be able learn how to use computers back in the late 1980’s. I have always used computers throughout my career. In my illustration work, though,  there has always been a hand drawn element and I think that gives it my ‘style’. I love to incorporate the use of computers in my work. I don’t think I can work without them now! From the ease of changing compositions in the beginning of a work, to adjusting the final images they are so useful. And I use digital colour a lot. Of course, the ease of creating full colour images is huge in all visual industries these days. Plus the ease of proofing and submitting finished work makes life easier for all. But maybe one day I will just send my publisher a big crate of canvases to scan!

5) Who are your biggest influences in your artistic career and why?
I am still very much influenced by the illustrations I loved as a young person created by artists such as E.H. Shepherd, Pauline Baynes, Edward Ardizzone, Arthur Rackham, Raymond Briggs, Ralph Steadman, Quentin Blake, Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, and so many Victorian and Edwardian illustrations that I used to pour over. In fine art I was a sucker for pre-raphaelites, the art and crafts movement, impressionism, fauvism. I loved detail and richness. I was also hugely influenced by children’s cartoons on the BBC. So much good work! I still love to watch them. Very different from American tv … but I did love Disney and Tom and Jerry, too! However, I now probably know more about the USA children’s illustration field, because I’ve had a crash course since moving here. My modern favorites include David Small, Garth Williams, Emily Gravett, Helen Oxenbury, Loren Long, Maurice Sendak, Marla Frazee, Ashley Bryan, David Weisner, Tony Diterlizzi to name a few.

6) When collaborating with an author or a client, how do you ensure you are able to translate their words into art and convey the message they are trying to portray?
I think that’s a kind of alchemy. Luckily I seem to have been creating something that fits the bill so far. I do feel quite responsible when I receive a manuscript and you know that that author has their own vision. But the publisher is hiring you to do a particular job as the  illustrator and you bring your own vision and ideas to the table. The art director is the person one relies upon to make sure the book is satisfying the translation of the text. I like the team work that comes with working on the making of a book. Sometimes you’ll receive a brief from the publisher, or guidelines, sometimes the artwork is totally up to you. A book is a sum of many parts – the vision of the author and the vision of the illustrator, brought together by the publisher. If there are too many constraints placed upon the illustrator, then it’s likely that the end result will not contain that ‘spark’. There has to be freedom to develop an idea and add that ‘something extra’ to the words. The author has done their job in creating their story and the illustrator must bring it life with the space that the author has left them. A good collaboration between words and pictures is where the magic happens for the reader – who of course brings their own creativity to the story by way of their imagination!

7) Tell us about the proudest piece of work you have done.
That’s a hard question! Often the work I am proudest of is the last project I worked on! ‘I did it!’ Sometimes, when faced with a new book or idea, starting it can be the hardest thing. (Can I do this again? Will it be any good? So much fear, in the beginning!). So, I guess I’ll say I’m very proud of ‘Imani’s Moon’ by JaNay Brown-Wood from Cahrlesbridge Publishing, (my lastest book) which is about the aspirations of a small Masaai child who wants to touch the moon. It’s my first book with a child of colour as the main character and I got to use a lot more hand-done techniques in it.

8) What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators?
Know this is a journey. Enjoy it. Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Practice your craft and be open to learning at all stages of your career. Read and feed your soul!

9) Please provide a short brief of each of the pictures you have submitted
One Word Pearl – Mixed media, created with layers of collaged paper scanned and type added, graphite line work and coloured digitally in Photoshop.

One Word Pearl

Imani’s Moon – Created using graphite and watercolour underpainting, coloured digitally in Photoshop.

Imani’s Moon

Seagulls – Graphite line art, digitally coloured in Photoshop.

Seagulls

Where Do Fairies Go In the Snow? – Hand drawn line work coloured digitally in photoshop.

Where Do Fairies Go In the Snow

Should you wish to know more about Hazel Mitchell, here are her pertinent details.

Hazel’s social media connections:

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