Exclusive Q&A with Breadcrumbs illustrator Erin McGuire

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a children’s book illustrator? Today Novel Novice chats with Erin McGuire, illustrator of our Middle Grade Book of the Month, BREADCRUMBS. Erin shares her experience working on BREADCRUMBS, her journey becoming an artist, and offers some great advice for aspiring book illustrators. Enjoy!

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

Not exactly. I always liked drawing when I was young, but I was interested in everything as a kid, not just art. I read all the time and had a lot of various hobbies, including art. As time went on and I discovered comics, I started keeping a sketchbook. It took a bit of time before I realized I could really have a career doing illustration, and I was lucky to have a family that loved the arts as well.

What first inspired you to use your talent as an artist for children’s books?

During my time at art school, I immediately became interested in book illustration. My mother is a 6th grade teacher and always kept me up to date on what her students were reading, and I worked for several years as a student librarian. I’ve always been in close proximity to the children’s book world, so it felt very natural to me. As far as actually getting work in the industry, I sort of fell into it on accident in 2009, when an art director from Candlewick saw my work online and I started working on my first picture book. Around the same time I worked for a few months with William Joyce as an art assistant, and that experience really showed me behind the scenes of how to do a picture book, and the possibilities in this industry.

What drew you specifically to BREADCRUMBS?

Anne Ursu’s writing is such a pleasure to illustrate. I found the story to be beautiful, haunting, and having a bittersweet tone similar to my illustrations. It felt like a good fit for my work. I also identified with Hazel and thought she’d be a great heroine to draw.

Walk us through your creative process for illustrating BREADCRUMBS: Did you read the book first, develop some concept ideas, and then decide which “moments” were most pivotal to paint? Or did you go into the process with a basic idea of what you were going to do?  

This process is different depending on the book. Sometimes I come up with a list of moments I think would make nice illustrations, but in this case the editor had a wish list of subjects for the illustrations. Much of my time is spent on thumbnails to work out the different compositions for each scene. After I pick one I like, I work on sketches, and go back and forth with the art director and editor to get everything to work. Sometimes we’ll have a sketch picked and it just doesn’t work, and we have to change gears. Some of the Breadcrumbs illustrations really changed towards the end, but the spontaneity made for better pieces.

The cover of BREADCRUMBS is particularly beautiful (it’s what drew me to the book in the first place). The moment is magical and telling. I love the way the girl is looking back while her body is moving forward into the woods. Why did you choose that particular scene for the cover? And what was your thought process behind using the beautiful pinks and purple?

The editor and art director knew they wanted to illustrate the moment of her crossing into a new world, as it’s a very pivotal moment in the story. Similar to my process with the interiors, I did a lot of rough sketches, thinking of every possible angle that this could work. The pinks and purples were almost on accident; at a certain point my colors were very subtle, and the art director sent me back a version with the color cranked all the way up, and it really did make it feel more alive and magical. We also worked a lot on how Hazel looked, to make sure her character really looked right.

Do you work closely with author when developing concepts for illustrations?

I work closely with the art director and editor, but rarely do the author and illustrator get to communicate during the process. Sometimes an author will step in to correct something if it’s not true to the story, but usually the illustrator is given a bit of freedom and ownership as far as the art is concerned. I always hope the authors are happy with what I draw though; it’s a big responsibility to bring someone else’s world to life and stay true to their vision.

What was your favorite part about working on BREADCRUMBS?

My favorite part of working on any book is after I’ve read the story and started to do some sketches. It can feel overwhelming to start a big project, but once some sketches are out of the way, I’ll get in a good groove and start to really think of all the cool pictures I could make for the story. Tapping into the possibility for great illustrations, that’s my favorite part.

Do you have a favorite illustration from the book?

I think my favorite is Hazel asleep in the flower garden. It’s a very spooky and surreal moment, and I got to draw crazy flowers and a lot of hair.

What is the most challenging part of being a children’s book illustrator?

For me right now, the most challenging part is time management. I also work at an animation studio, so juggling both careers has been a balancing act. Publishing has always been really competitive, so it’s hard to feel like I’m keeping up with all the illustrators who only do books full time.

What’s your favorite color to use in your paintings?

I like warm golden hour lighting. Hard to pick just one color, but orange is fun.

Any advice you would give to aspiring children book illustrators?

Really research your industry through blogs, conferences, and books. Read children’s books, see what your predecessors did that is still timeless. Draw all the time. I went to school for illustration and it was entirely worth it for me to really learn my craft. Aim to always be improving.

Thanks stopping by, Erin!  Happy reading, everyone!

Erin McGuire is an illustrator living and working in Dallas, TX. In addition to her work on picture books, she is a concept artist at Reel FX Studios. Her work can be found online at www.emcguire.net.

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