This week's interview is with illustrator and author Gail Ross. Her love for animals and the wild Colorado countryside are clear in her work. She has given us a thoughtful and inspiring interview, so I'll get right to it!
How did you get started in illustration?
I have always been involved in painting fine art and graphic art, but I didn’t venture out into illustration art until six years ago. Sally Burr and I have been friends for over twenty years and have always talked about writing stories for our children. Six years ago, we both realized that we each had a two year old granddaughter, and we had never written those stories. So, we decided we’d better get busy and write a story. We thought it would also be fun to sell them to our friends and family through the Black Forest Arts and Crafts Guild where we are members. In 2004, we wrote and illustrated our first story, The Black Forest Friends. I had a great time painting the illustrations. I never realized how deep down satisfying it was to bring a story to life in pictures! We printed two books for our granddaughters, and ten to sell at the guild’s Fall Show. This was done in our home offices on our printers. They were very simple and certainly didn’t look anything like a professionally produced book at that time. They sold out in less than five minutes. The rest of the weekend was spent with almost no sleep while we printed and built books to sell. We sold close to 175 books that weekend. That was fun! But then, people started asking when the next book was coming out. What a surprise, they liked it! So, we’ve spent the past six years writing and illustrating children’s books, with our twelfth book, Friends Forever, due out next month. In 2007, we signed with a great publisher so, thankfully, the all night printing sessions are a thing of the past. What excites me almost more than the wonderful stories is how well received the illustrations are. I’m definitely hooked on illustration art!
What is your favorite medium? Can you describe your usual work process for us?
My most favorite medium is watercolor, and I work primarily with transparent paint. I adore the translucency, the depth of color, and the unexpected things that happen when the paint touches the paper. My work process always starts by studying the subject I’m about to paint. I spend a lot of time photographing the subject and doing extensive research about it. After that, come the sketches. I work through the sketches several times over a period of several days adjusting shape, form, and perspective until the picture comes into sharp focus for me. Then I transfer the sketch to watercolor paper and start painting. I was introduced to Adobe products a short time ago, and adore working with the final painting in Photoshop for clean-up and final adjustments to the illustrations. I’ve also started experimenting with strictly digital art, and love it. However, it’ll never take the place of watercolor as my favorite medium.
Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you?
I love to write, but the words don’t always come first. When Sally and I are working on a book, we tend to think of the writing process as a combination of both words and pictures. Sometimes the story comes first, but sometimes a picture comes first. Doodles on paper while I’m waiting on my ancient computer to do its thing are often sources of ideas for illustrations, and even great story ideas. A recent painting I did of a baby polar bear and a baby penguin as a Christmas present for my nephew has evolved into a children’s book idea. No matter which is first, the art always seems to insert itself throughout the whole process.
Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job? How do you balance the different aspects of your life?
Up until last year, I was self-employed full time as a real estate appraiser. I never minded the work all day and paint all night lifestyle, because both jobs were what I loved to do. Managing kids, home and somehow, work always seems to work itself out. In 2008, I started illustrating books for other authors, and last year, I decided to take the plunge and illustrate full time. It’s definitely much easier to balance life, work and family with only one job, and it’s a thrill for me to finally be able work full time doing what I’ve wanted to do all my life.
Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio and include some photos?
I live in Peyton, Colorado. About a year ago, we moved our family, two dogs, two horses, one mule and all my roses and irises from the Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs out onto the prairie just east of Colorado Springs. What a big change of scenery! I love the sunrises and sunsets from the decks of our little house here on the prairie, but I do miss living in the forest. At our other home, my studio was in the smallest of our bedrooms, so it was always a juggling act just to move around. My studio is currently located in the lower level of our home. Because of the large windows on this level, the lighting is nearly perfect most of the day - what a blessing. It’s great to have elbow room at last!
Tell us about your education and training. Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?
I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon, and I’m pretty much self-taught. I’ve spent hours and hours studying on my own to find the art techniques that work best for me. Over the years, I have also taken classes and workshops from other artists. I’ve particularly enjoyed all I’ve learned from watercolor classes I’ve taken in the past with Thomas J. Owen here in Black Forest, CO. I guess I’ve learned more through my own studies than through school because I’ve mostly studied on my own. It was harder in some ways to learn on my own because I had to find all the information I needed by myself. To have awesome instructors with ready-at-hand storehouses of knowledge, advice and experience, however, is a wonderful gift.
To date, I’ve co-written and illustrated the twelve books of The Black Forest Friends Book Series, The Black Forest Friends, The Lost Moose, J.P., You Can’t Skate, The Mystery of the Old Red Barn, Where Do the Butterflies Sleep?, The Apartment Tree, The Very Dark and Scary Night, Oh No, Violet!, Ducks Are Not Fish!, The Sparkling Treasure, Not Now, Newton!, and Friends Forever. Also, I have illustrated, Badger the Dog, and Badger’s Busy Day, written by Barbara Tyner and Laura Johnston.
Our EverAfter Stories children’s book website is www.EverAfterStories.com, and my online portfolio can be seen at www.theheartoftherockiesstudio.blogspot.com and in SCBWI’s illustrator’s gallery at www.scbwi.org
Tell us about your current project.
Currently, I’m working on illustrations for our next three books, I Wish You Were Here, Out of Pocket, and The Snail’s Tale. I’m finishing the illustrations for Pa’s Christmas Goose, a children’s book I wrote when our kids were little, which will be available in 2011. I’m working on illustrations for a sequel to that story which is a chapter book, and an adult mystery novel. I’m also working on illustrations for Karen Gentry’s first children’s book, Paula the Koala, probably the best rhyming story I’ve read since Dr. Seuss. I’m very excited that this book has evolved into a series because the stories and the characters are so much fun!
Who are your favorite children’s illustrators or authors?
Illustrators: Mark Ludy, K. Sean Sullivan, Jan Brett, Robin James, Beatrice Potter
Authors: Dr. Seuss, Mark Ludy, Bruce Hale, Shel Silverstein, Laura Engels Wilder, Mark Twain, Stephen Cosgrove
If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?
I’d definitely be Winnie the Pooh. He loves honey, has great friends and adventures, and he lives in the woods. My kind of people!
What inspires you?
Everything in nature is amazing! I have the hardest time on my morning walks because I’m so easily distracted by sunrises, bees, butterflies, a blade of grass with dew on it ….. And how can you not be inspired by people? There’s a whole lifetime of stuff to see in each face no matter how old or how young. The lifetime of creases and lines on a grandfather’s face or the gentle soft curve of a child’s cheek leaves me scrambling for paper and pencil to capture that just right expression or that delicate balance of light and shadow. My husband, Chuck, is very patient, and has become accustomed over the past 36 years to my ever present paper, pencil, and camera. Camping trips usually result in more sketches and photographs than camping gear!
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An artist, or an author, or wouldn’t it be great, God, if I could be, maybe, both?
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I love travel, hiking, camping, reading, great old movies, gardening, music, and spending time with my family and friends, all of which result in tons of photos and sketches. It seems that my work has become an intrinsic part of my life!
What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?
Easy question, an author.
Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?
Never stop learning everything you can about your craft. Illustrations are powerful tools. They bring the author’s words to life, and provide a portal for readers to enter the author’s world. Art colors our world, inspires powerful emotions, and creates memories that last for a lifetime. To be a part of all this is an incredible exciting experience. Learn all you can, and never stop being amazed at the world around you. Putting that amazement onto paper is the key that transforms black and white words into colorful worlds that capture the hearts of the people who experience your illustrations.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Whether you are an author or an illustrator, or want to be one, learn everything you can. Personal study is great, but always try to learn from others whether in art classes, degree programs or from your peers. You draw strength and grow from your associations with each other. Knowledge is power. Never stop learning.