Blog Archive

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Artwork of Stories: An Interview with Traci Van Wagoner

How did you get involved with doing the illustrations for this book?
I worked with Pelican Publishing on a book before this, The Mermaid’s Gift written by Claudia Cangilla McAdam, and when I finished that book and sent in the final art, the Art Director liked my art so much he immediately offered me another project. He sent the manuscript for Cody and Grandpa’s Christmas Tradition written by Gary Metivier, and I was hooked. Grandpa reminded me of my Dad, and I love Christmas and traditions of the season, so this was a very appealing story for me to illustrate.

How much input does the author have in suggesting ideas for illustrations?
The author had very little input into the illustrations. Gary Metivier’s only suggestion was to have the middle part, which is a flashback, somehow differentiated from the rest of the story. I did this with an overall army green monochromatic coloring for these spreads with text bars on the side instead of having the text incorporated into the illustrations.

How often do you rework the illustrations for the author or publisher?
I’ve not had a lot of back and forth on illustrations with my books. With this one, I had more revisions in the beginning while establishing the characters to make sure everyone was happy with Grandpa and Cody. There were minor revisions to the sketches, and a few revisions to the finals, mostly making sure I had enough room for type and lightening some areas to make sure the text stood out.

Do you have a favorite book that you've illustrated?
That’s a tough question. Not really. Each book is my favorite as I’m illustrating it. And almost every book is not good enough by the time I done with it. I always feel like I could do better by the end of every project. That’s part of learning and growing and developing. If I didn’t feel that way, then I’d probably be stagnant. Daddy Did I Ever Say, I Love You Love You Every Day written by Daryl Cobb holds a special place in my heart since it was the first book I illustrated for publication.

What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?
I have enjoyed a few special traditions throughout my lifetime. My all-time favorite, a staple of my childhood, is the crepe paper ball. I came from a big family (eight kids) and on Christmas Eve, we would leave the house so Dad could do his thing. He would hide one gift for each of us around the house; write up silly rhymes with clues on where to find them. He had notes calling on each of us to perform — sing, recite a poem, tell a Christmas story, read the Christmas story from the Bible, etc. Then he would wrap a paper-mâché  ball with crepe paper, tucking in all the notes as he rolled it up.

That night we would sit in a big circle in front of the Christmas tree and unroll the ball between us. If a note landed in front of you, you got to read it and someone either performed or got to search for and open a present, which was usually pajamas. When we got to the end, we found the paper-mâché ball was filled candy, tiny gifts, and toys. Then we would all drink eggnog mixed with 7-up in our own Santa mugs with our names on them.

Now with my husband, our tradition is to wrap all our gifts in brown paper, and I decorate them with color pencils with a Christmasy theme for the year. It started out as simple brown paper packages tied up with string and evolved into creating art on each package.

What’s next?

I’m currently illustrating another book for Pelican Publishing, Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life written by Joan Schoettler. I’m working on setting up a book launch for that at David Zwirner gallery in NY who are the executors of her estate.

I will be working on another graphic novel for The Nelson Beats the Odds Series with Ronnie Sidney II by the end of the year. I have a picture book I wrote and will illustrate in serious consideration with Pelican. I have two other picture book projects in final dummy book stage and a middle-grade fantasy novel out on submission with agents. There are a bunch more projects in the works including new games with my design company, Imagine That! Design, but I’ll leave it at that.

Any special awards or achievements you’d like to mention?
The biggest achievement I can think of is having been able to be my own boss for over 20 years now, illustrating, writing and designing books and games for kids that hopefully bring smiles, enlighten, embolden, and encourage them to use their imaginations and have fun.

What’s the best tip you’ve learned about illustrating that you’d like to share?
Give yourself permission to draw pure crap at first. Not all of my sketches are pretty to look at, in fact most of them are not. At the beginning of every project, I have to doodle for several pages before I find my drawing hand again.  Going hand in hand with that is to stop worrying that it won’t be perfect or that you don’t know what you’re doing and just get it done, and you do that by drawing every day, good or bad.

This Chuck Jones quote says it perfectly: “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.” 

What do you know now about writing and publishing you wish you had learned sooner?
I wished I’d realized much sooner in life that I could be an illustrator and a writer. Books seemed to be this magical thing written by anyone but a normal everyday person like me who was no one special, just me. While considering what to be when I grew up, it didn’t cross my mind that I could write a picture book or a novel, and that I could illustrate these wonderful picture books that are so much fun for kids, like my childhood favorite The House on 88th Street by Bernard Waber. I mean how magical and cool is it that a crocodile could live in a fancy brownstone in NY?

Any last words or tips?
If your passion is illustrating children’s books, dive in and don’t give up, but know that it is a hard road with a lot of rejection along the way. So go easy on yourself and always try to have fun. If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point of doing it? Live. Laugh. Learn.

That’s all for today’s interview. Thank you Traci, for sharing your story on the illustrating side of the book. If you’d like to learn more about Traci’s illustrating or maybe hire her for your next book, here are some links to get in touch.

Celebrate the Little Things blog: https://tracivanwagoner.blogspot.com/
Get art prints and cards in my online stores: