Vesper means “evening prayer”, but my parents named me after a James Bond girl–the original Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, who was James’ first love, and maybe his only love, from Casino Royale. She was loyal to Bond even to death. Well, I suppose both namesakes are worth pursuing.
Hilary Knight taught me to draw as a child, in the wee hours when I would copy page after page of his “Cinderella” in painstaking detail. Everything I did was filtered through my wandering eyes; every leaf of every tree; the ubiquitous graffiti in pre-Giuliani Manhattan, the beauty marks on my mother’s face.
I set off to art school at the tender age of 13, always knowing that I’d travel through life with a paintbrush in my hand. It was at LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and Performing Arts in New York City that I discovered new worlds in children’s book illustration and theatrical scene design. After a year at North Carolina School of the Arts studying scene design, I was driven back into the arms of my mother City and earned my BFA in Illustration from Parsons School of Design in 1998.
Below is the cover of the book Vesper illustrated for self-published author, Stephen Roach. You can use this link to watch a book Trailer to hear from the author and see Vesper in action. http://vimeo.com/14677755
Vesper Explains her process:
I usually start with character sketches. Usually I see the character fully formed in my mind, so the sketches aren’t that laborious, and I can concentrate on exploring physicality, costume, etc.
The character of Satchel in Satchel Willoughby and the Realm of Lost Things by Stephen Roach was easy. I knew that the story was somewhat autobiographical, so I took a photo of the author and scaled back the years on him to make him the main character.
I saw a kid in the supermarket one day—while I was on the phone with the author—who was wearing the perfect costume for the character, so I surreptitiously snapped a photo of him with my phone, and used it with no change in the book!
While I’m in this process, I’ll be doing loose color sketches of the scenes, not paying attention to my spread compositions, just to get the feel of the scene and the characters in the space. These are hugely informative later as I’m going to final, because they help remind me of the fresh initial idea so that I don’t tighten up too much.
Live model posing is vital as I go to the final sketch phase. For Satchel, I used my 8-year old as my model, and my 5-year old daughter posed for Scump. She has amazing limber, expressive, dancer-like movement that was perfect for a little flying animal. That was easy! I did pay them, I’ll have you know. Kids do need their Legos, after all.
Then I’ll do color sketches of the character to see how the paint agrees with it once I feel I’ve understood it well enough, and make some notes about personality and conventions for consistency. Sometimes working on the color sketch will show me fundamental things I need to change about the character.
The character of the Scump, on the other hand, gave me no end of grief for weeks. I could see his vague form and personality in my mind, but no amount of sketching seemed to help. Finally he made his appearance as a sort of mole-mouse fashionista.
Once the characters are alive to me, I’ll go through the text and underline passages that spark a visual to me and do very, very small thumbnails just for composition. Then I’ll do a little bit tighter sketch for the spreads.
After that I’ll loosely lay out the text over the sketch.
First I lay down a light, tight pencil of the scene. Then I work with frisket (drawing gum) to block out the fine details that I want to remain bright white. I’ll then lay down an overall tone to set the mood, then build up the washes as I go.
Sketch to Final Art.
Then I’ll go to paper. I work on Arches 140 lb. hot press with Sennelier watercolors. (file 10) I used to work in Golden acrylics, but Satchel actually got me working in watercolor again (the author insisted on it) after years of being away from it. I did a lot of watercolor in high school, and won awards for it, but in college, I switched over to acrylic because all my favorite children’s books were in acrylic. I feel very at home in watercolor now. I still use acrylic but in a totally different way that’s informed by watercolor.
As I’m working on the book, I work on all the pages on a rotation. Once I bring one painting to a certain level, I’ll do it through all the pages so that they look consistent in feel.
Sometimes I’ll go in at the end with pencil or a modest amount of pen-and-ink to pick out only the most important details. Then it’s done!I had some questions for Vesper and wanted to share her answers with you:
QUESTION: What was your first paying job for your illustrations?
My first illustration job was an album cover for my boyfriend when I was 13. It was a watercolor of a rainbow aura around a person in the mouth of a cave. Barf! But I still have it, and it makes me smile. And guess what? The bulk of my illustration work continues to be album covers!
QUESTION: How did you connect with Stephen Roach to illustrate his book?
I was on tour with my band, Ben + Vesper, and Stephen and I met at my show in Chapel Hill, NC. We got to talking and I mentioned that I was an illustrator. He said he had a book that he had just completed and had gone through several attempts to find an illustrator. I did some comps for him and he felt it was a perfect fit.
QUESTION: Would you illustrate another self-published picture book? I ask because it is a lot of work to create a picture book and most self published authors do not have the money to pay well.
I get regular contacts from people that have a book they want to do. Most are unaware of industry practices, and so I direct them to SCBWI and tell them they don’t need to find an illustrator unless they want to self-publish. With Stephen’s book, I was very up front about the cost of hiring me. Since I illustrate full-time, this wasn’t a crisis for me; if someone can’t afford my full rate, I can’t do their project. There are a lot of people out there that think this is something we do as a hobby; that we should be grateful to do a 32-page book for $200! I would say that illustrators should communicate their worth without apology and let the chips fall where they may. There are so many ways to raise money to pay artists that there’s no excuse for self-published authors to cry “poor”.
Stephen Roach is a major people-person, and he launched a microfunding campaign on IndieGoGo that went very well. He’s also a successful musician with his band, Songs of Water, and he promoted the fundraiser everywhere he went, from here to Australia. He raised my entire fee in no time.
QUESTION: How long did it take you to illustrate the book?
Because we wanted to get the book out in time for Christmas, it was a major rush. I took about two months to do the background work—sketching, character development, etc.—and then three months—three months!!—for the final artwork. No guts, no glory, as they say! And it was a 44-page book, so that’s several more spreads than usual!
QUESTION: Did the author look at some pages and say you had to change them?
I was very thorough in the sketch phase, and I was also up front about doing changes being a major hassle in the short time frame, so we took care of most changes in sketch. But I did have to do one piece over because the composition wasn’t satisfactory to myself. I’m thankful that Stephen put an awful lot of trust in me. He knew his role as the author, and didn’t try to infringe on my role as the artist. It was a very symbiotic relationship.
QUESTION: Did you have any ideas for the text?
Stephen’s text was really more appropriate in length for a middle-grade than a picture book, but he had a strong vision to have it fully illustrated. We did go back and forth with editing suggestions, only because I was more familiar with picture book formatting (I would never dare do this in traditional publishing! Don’t worry!), and in the end we cut something like twenty or thirty pages from his text to get it to an affordable length for his book run. But because he was self-publishing, the world was his oyster.
QUESTION: Did you have a formal contract made up by a lawyer, before you started working on the book?
Since I’ve been illustrating for a long time, I’ve had enough experience with contracts via trial-and-error and looking at lots of others’ contracts to have drafted one for Stephen that was satisfactory to me. Because there was a lot riding on this for him, we were very careful in negotiating the contract until it was something we both felt completely comfortable with. I would never, ever work without a contract, especially for a huge project like a book. Murphy’s Law seems to be overactive in the world of creative work!
QUESTION: How did you cover yourself from having the author keep you doing and re-doing pages? Did you discuss that up front and have it in writing on the limit?
I specified in the contract that changes really needed to be worked out in sketch phase. Things like color choice were worked out in color character profiles before I went to final. I tried to be very thorough in my explanation of the process, and wrote into the contract that anything beyond the scope of what was explicit in the contract, or a change that took place after a certain phase was signed-off, was subject to hefty fees. That can militate against the author feeling he or she has open access to your work. I was also up front about the illustration being my interpretation of his work, and that I had just as much ownership over the end product as he did. Thankfully, he saw that right away. I’m not under illusions that every self-publishing relationship would be as easy as this was.
QUESTION: Have you ever thought of writing your own book?
Of course! I’m currently shopping two of my books and working on a wordless graphic novel. I have about ten or twelve more of my own stories in various stages of development. One of them has been a fourteen-year project! Even though I’ve always written songs and poetry, I always seemed to get stuck when I’d try prose. I never thought of myself as a writer, but it clicked when I realized that my work is “story” by its very nature, and that because children’s books have been my food and drink forever, it’s in me already. That made all the difference, and I just decided to go for it.
QUESTION: Do you use any computer software programs to clean up your work?
You know, I really do not like to do that at all. I am perfectly comfortable with the technology since I’ve done a lot of graphic design in my business as well, but I want everything to be as authentic as possible, for my own satisfaction. If I have a major change, where I need to repaint a character and Photoshop them in, that’s another matter, but there’s no tactile enjoyment for me on the computer, so I try to avoid it.
QUESTION: You mention that you moved from acrylics to watercolors to do this book and that your style is different when you use watercolor vs. acrylic. That happens to me, too. Would you elaborate on that for everyone reading?
I used to be very influenced by people like Lane Smith, Mark Teague—illustrators with very bold, graphic paint handling, as well as European and Coptic iconography. Acrylic lent itself to that kind of look, and because I love fine detail, I was able to move along with acrylic and make all the changes I wanted. I had a technique down pat, from underpainting with red oxide and pthalo blue, to little teeny white dots at the end. It was predictable. But often the nature of the medium would cause me to seize up and get too controlled. And I think I was largely doing the work that I thought would be more marketable, not the work that truly moved me.
When Stephen Roach said that he wanted his book in watercolor, I initially panicked. I had sent him two color comps in watercolor. Big mistake! Ha! But it meant immersing myself in watercolor and challenging myself to re-learn it. At first, the unpredictability of watercolor really freaked me out. But now it’s the very thing that keeps me loose, experimenting, and enjoying the moment. That fine detail I crave is now more carefully chosen. I feel much more creativity with the medium than I ever felt in acrylic. I’ll still use it sometimes, but only as it serves the watercolor; for instance, if I want to lay down a wet-on-wet wash that I don’t want to lift, I will do the wash in diluted acrylic or an acrylic ink. The Golden acrylics work really well for that, I find. Some artists that are really helping me learn new approaches are Lisbeth Zwerger and Shaun Tan.
Ben + Vesper’s latest album cover.
QUESTION: Do you use any sprays or glazes to help preserve your watercolors?
I wish I knew what those were! I’m still learning the medium. You tell me—I’ll try it!
QUESTION: Do you market yourself to children’s book art directors, editors, and artist reps? If so, what do you do?
Marketing is the hardest part of it for me, and I think it’s because I’m already illustrating full-time, so work is always encroaching on my time. I try to send out quarterly postcards and email art directors that I’m already in contact with when I have a body of new work. I also try to make personal connections by being real, friendly and never, ever opportunistic. I think people can smell a schmoozer a mile away. Can I say this? I hate the term “networking”! Editors are humans, too! With real private lives! And who wants to be used for a connection? I just figure my work will speak for itself, and I’ll just try to be someone who cares about and respects folks. I’m not the type to hunt someone down at a conference and push myself on them. I’ve found that the best connections are ones that happen organically, by permission, and by always seeking common ground.
That being said, one of my projects this year is buckling down on my marketing. I learned a lot in Leeza Hernandez’s class at the NJ SCBWI conference on branding for illustrators. Like I said, it’s easy to let other work pile up and not take that recommended 25% of your time to market yourself. But that is vital.
QUESTION: Do you have a studio in your home?
I do, but it’s too separate from the family, so I tend to work a lot on my kitchen table. My husband, who’s a filmmaker, has his editing station in the kitchen, too. However, during the summer, having my kids home means I have to take my work to Starbucks or the library. The maternal instinct takes over and I let myself be far too accessible. We’re trying to move, and a good studio space is a prerequisite for our new place. It’s very comfortable for everyone, but not as efficient as it could be. I dream of uninterrupted 9-5 days!
QUESTION: You mention that you are in a band with your husband. How long have you been doing that? What instrument do you play?
Our band is called Ben + Vesper. It’s essentially Indie-pop, pretty fun and abstract, a la The Beatles or Magnetic Fields. We’re on a record label called Sounds Familyre, with some great bands, including Sufjan Stevens, Danielson and Wovenhand. He and I sing as a duet and play electric guitar, and I play accordion, and we have four other guys in the band. We’ve both always done our solo projects, but we started collaborating only about five years ago after our second child was born. It also led to artistic collaboration. Before he was a filmmaker, Ben had a degree in painting. He’s fantastic. So we collaborate on all our album art and we’ve done some gallery pieces. He draws and I paint the drawings. It is so much fun to work that way, and we’re dying to do a book together!
**Note: The collaborative pieces are the “natural disaster” pieces, and the ducks in the bathtub. That was all done for Ben + Vesper album art.
Vesper has illustrated and designed everything from sneakers and motor oil to midwives and musicians, stirring up the muse with my band, Ben + Vesper, and making all sorts of handwork on Etsy.
Thank you Vesper for sharing your illsutrations and process. The other week, I mentioned how so many of our writers & illustrators have musical and other hidden talents. You definitely are in that category. To see more of Vesper, here are her links:
Buy Satchel Willoughby: http://www.realmoflostthings.com/
Ben + Vesper: http://www.facebook.com/benandvesper
Buy Ben + Vesper music: http://www.soundsfamilyre.com/