VSS Illustrator Interviews

In doing these interviews, we hope to give you a glimpse into our artist members' unique personalities, a new perspective on their wonderful work, and the opportunity to know what inspires them!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Diane Dawson Hearn

Our featured artist Diane Dawson Hearn has been busy working in children's illustration for quite a while and has over 50 picture books published! She has lots of good art, inspiration, and history to share as well as taking us through her work process. After reading her interview you can check out her website at www.dianedawsonhearn.com.

How did you get started in illustration?

My mom tells me that I've been drawing since she caught me scribbling on the walls when I was two.  She made sure I had plenty of drawing materials after that.  Here is a drawing I did when I was seven. 
I've liked cats since I was little, and my best friend and I used to make believe that we were cats.  I also liked playing with plastic dinosaurs.  It seems fitting that my first two published stories were about a dinosaur and a cat.

From the time I learned about books I began to write stories and make pictures for them.  My first book was called The Funny Bird, and was quite long, though most of it consisted of various bird squawks and chirps.  I guess you could call it chick lit!  When I was young Japanese monster movies often played on TV, and some of my stories were about monsters that destroyed all the atom bombs.  I also wrote several animal stories, one about a canary named Mary who decides to visit her sister on the Canary Islands, and one about a kidnapped kitten named Inky who has to brave the terrors of the big city in her effort to return home.  Though I loved to write, I tended to get more attention for my artwork, so I guess it was natural that I decided to go to art school when I graduated from High School.

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design and then transferred to The School of Visual Arts when our family moved to Manhattan.  There I studied illustration, animation, painting, figure drawing and anatomy, comic art and a lot of other wonderful courses.  During my senior year in college my teacher happened to meet an artist representative who was looking for children's book artists, and he recommended that I get in touch with her.  She took me on and I soon was given my first book to illustrate, a book of Halloween poems by Lillian Moore called See My Lovely Poison Ivy.  
This  illustration from that book is still one of my favorites.
One of my all time favorite books that I did not write myself is Mother, Mother, I Want Another by Maria Polushkin.
You may notice that this and the cover of the former book were not done in full color.  Back then, unless you were well known, most books were done in a process called color separation.  Usually only two or three colors were used (instead of full, four color printing) and the artist had to paint the colors on separate layers, using black and gray to get the various values.  It was a real guessing game.  I can't say that I miss having to do my art that way.

What is your favorite medium? Can you describe your usual work process for us?

I use crowquill pens and ink,  and paint with Acrylics, sometimes watered down and sometimes used in a more opaque fashion.  To illustrate a book I start by laying the book out in a dummy.  Here is a dummy page for my book Dad's Dinosaur Day. 
My dummies tend to be very sketchy, because they are mainly to show layout and flow of the story. You'll notice the yellow post it notes where the editor made her comments.  From the dummy I go on to character sketches. 
I like to draw each main character in various poses, because I'll have to keep the characters consistent throughout a 32 page book, so it's good to get to know them.  Though I don't use live models, I do research and sometimes pose to get the feel for various positions.  Then I do the sketches for the book.  
This is a finished sketch, done on tracing paper.  I usually draw a sketch at least three times to get to this point,  even turning the paper over to draw it backwards, which helps to see any faults in the drawing.  I know this could probably be done on the computer, but since my computer skills are not on par with a lot of people, I don't know what I'd do without tracing paper!  Finally, using  light box, I trace my drawing onto  my "finish" paper, and paint it in. 

Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you?

I have illustrated over 50 books, but I  also like to write, and have had a few published besides Dad's Dinosaur Day.  
With me, the story usually comes first.  Once I've written a draft or two, I do a storyboard to see what part of the story can be told in the art instead of the text, then I rewrite and make a dummy.  I like to think of a picture book is being like a dance between the art and the text, with each one playing their own part.

Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job?  How do you balance the different aspects of your life?

Sometimes I jokingly say that I write and illustrate when I'm not doing something more important.  Unfortunately, there always seems to be something to get in between me and the drawing board.  If I am given a book to illustrate with a deadline I am much more diligent than when I'm working on my own projects.  Self motivation can sometimes be a bit difficult for me if I don't have an assignment.  It's amazing what the tyranny of the urgent can do to squash the muse.  There are always chores demanding my attention, and many time wasters lurk everywhere, waiting to grab my attention.  If I can just get my started, though, I get absorbed in the work and time flies. 

Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio and include some photos?

I have a wonderful studio space with plenty of room for doing my art and writing.  

My studio has a big window looking out on my garden here in Virginia.  I am surrounded by photos of my kids, art books and supplies, my pterodactyl collection and my vintage Peter Max clock on the wall that has been working since the 60s, as well as various other knickknacks. In addition to being my work space, my studio can tend to become a catch all room, so is often not as tidy as it should be.

Tell us about your education and training. Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?

I mentioned that I graduated from The School of Visual arts, where I was able to explore and grow as an illustrator.  Though I don't think art school is necessary to a successful career,  those years of concentration on my artwork, completing various assignments to a deadline, gave me good training for working in the field of illustration.   Of course we never stop learning and growing as artists, so I think my art school training and my own life experience combined to make me the illustrator I am now.

Please list any of your publications and let us know your website.

I showed a few of the books I've done.  My most recent published book is a nonfiction easy reader called Rain Forests by Nancy Smiler Levinson.

I did these in acrylic paints on paper.  It was a huge job, taking me two years to complete (including waiting for editorial comments).  You can see some of my other work on my website at www.dianedawsonhearn.com.
*Diane has a page on her website that lists her published books HERE.

Tell us about your current project.

Right now I've just completed a dummy and finish for a book I wrote based on my two cats.  Since it is just starting to make the rounds for hopeful publication, I probably better not say any more than that.  I'm starting on a new story that was inspired by a title that popped into my head, something that also happened with my book, Bad Luck Boswell.  I hope it doesn't take me five years to come up with a story for the title, like it did with Boswell! 

Who are your favorite children’s illustrators or authors?

In my early years I was greatly influenced by Arthur Rackham,  Edmund Dulac, Maurice Sendak, Nancy Burkert and Dr. Seuss, as well as Persian miniature paintings.  I still admire those artists, but am adding new ones every year, including Shaun Tan, Peter Sis, David Wiesner, Brock Cole and Brian Selznick, among many others.

If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?

Wow, that's a hard one.  I think for me it would be a toss up between Eloise who lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York because she is mischievous  and curious and has a great imagination, and Pippi Longstocking because she is so fun loving and adventurous.  You can't keep either of these two girls down.

What inspires you?

As an illustrator, my biggest inspiration comes from the words of a story I am illustrating.  As I read the words I begin to visualize pictures and characters in my head.  Give me some words and my pencil almost starts to doodle by itself.  As for stories, that's a little different.  Dad's Dinosaur Day came from a doodle I drew one day when I didn't have any work to do.  Bad Luck Boswell started with a title.  I've written a story inspired by a next door neighbor who overfed the birds, and my newest project was inspired by my two cats.  Story ideas can come from almost anywhere!
What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to write stories and draw pictures for them.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

When I'm not working you might find me in the garden which needs constant pruning in the summer.  I can't say I like it, but I do try to exercise and I enjoy a little tai chi.  I love to read and I'm also a big fan of the movies and some tv shows.  Though I don't do it as often as I'd like, I enjoy spending time with friends and having game nights and fellowship dinners with the people in our church house group.

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?

I sometimes think I might have gone into anthropology if I hadn't become an artist, because I enjoy reading about all kinds of different cultures. 

Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?

I know it is much harder to break in now than it was when I got started.  Heck, I'm still trying to break in!  Unless you become very well known this is a career where you will constantly be looking for work or trying to get a story accepted.  Having "made it" is rare in this business, and it takes constant perseverance.  The pay is, for the most part, abysmal. Disappointments are many, but the reward of having a story published and seeing a child enjoy that story is worth all the effort.  I tell people that if they can do anything else, do it, but if they really have to be a children's book author or illustrator, work hard, keep improving and keep trying. Do not compare yourself to others, because that will lead only to frustration. Do the best you can, knowing that there is no such thing as perfection, and, above all, have fun!  When it's no longer fun it's time to do something else.  
Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
No.  I think I've rambled on quite long enough!  Thanks so much for putting all these interviews together.  I've really enjoyed reading what the other artists have to say.


  1. I've always loved your style and perspective, Diane. And even at age seven, you showed great artistic ability (especially the color being all over the page) most kids don't have the patience for that. Art was certainly in your blood from the start.

  2. Great stuff you have. And the illustration from Mother, Mother... is my favorite also-
    Kit Grady