Leeza Hernandez is an award-winning illustrator and children’s book author, hails from the south of England, but has been living in New Jersey since 1999. In 2004 she switched from newspaper and magazine design to children’s books, and hasn’t looked back. With a few books now under her belt, she’s currently working on three new projects: a follow up to Dog Gone! called Cat Napped; a sequel to Eat Your Math Homework called Eat Your Science Homework, other released this year. In 2013 she illustrated a picture book written by acclaimed actor and author John Lithgow. Follow Leeza on Twitter @leezaworks. She also took over my place as the Regional Advisor for the New Jersey SCBWI chapter and is doing a great job.
Below is Leeza at six years old with her cat Minnie Weasle!
Here is Leeza explaining her process:
The cover of Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo took a fair amount of working out—between not giving too much away and showing to little that it looked too vague. The images show a handful of the different covers that were sketched up, then the progression of the final color cover.
These are the thumbnail sketches for the book layout.
Because there were so many animals in Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo, I kept all my research pictures organized in a jumbo ring binder.
But, no matter how hard I looked, I just couldn’t find an image of a yak playing a sax so had to use some creative license!
Below you can see the process of the cover art.
Below is an up close look at the final cover.
What caused you to move from the UK to the US?
Work. I took an art director position at a newspaper in the late 90s which was the field I worked in back then.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
It wasn’t a conscious decision really, but in the early 2000s I discovered Illustration Friday (www.illustrationfriday.com)—a great source of inspiration but also a way to help you create illustrations for yourself based upon a weekly word prompt. Browsing through the site, one link led to another and I eventually landed at SCBWI (www.scbwi.org) and that was that!
This image was created for the Illustration Friday prompt “Wisdom” and received an American Illustration selection back in the early 2000s. I added it to my portfolio among a handful of painted images and it was what art directors responded to the most. I was encouraged to create more!
What was the first picture book that you illustrated? And how did that contract come your way?
Eat Your Math Homework was the first trade picture book I was hired to illustrate, which came about after attending a Rutgers One-on-One Plus conference (ruccl.org). I met an editor at the luncheon who took my promo postcard away with her and about six months later the designer reached out to my agent asking if I was available-yay!
How did you connect with John Lithgow to illustrate his book, Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo ?
I was asked to do some samples (along with some other illustrators) for a book written by a ‘high-profile’ author but I didn’t know who it was until I found out I was picked for the project. It was all very mysterious and exciting!
Have you met John Lithgow?
Yes, he’s lovely. We launched the book together in New York, it was so much fun. He sang his songs. I spared the audience and did not sing!
How long did you have to illustrate Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo?
This was one of the quickest turnaround books I have worked on and it was 40 pages. From initial sketches, through revisions and to final art was a little less than eight months total.
I see you illustrated a second book with Ann McCallum this year, titled Eat Your Science Homework. Did you sign a two-book deal when you illustrated Eat Your Math Homework in 2011?
No two-book deal. It was simply an organic progression. Ann had an idea and submitted her proposal for the science book and a few months after they acquired the manuscript, Charlesbridge asked if I’d
Will there be a third book with Ann?
Yes! Eat Your U.S. History Homework is due to release in late 2015.
I am assuming that Cat Napped! published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons came about due to the previous book you wrote and illustrated titled, Dog Gone! Can you tell us the story behind these two books?
Back in 2009 I won the Tomie de Paola portfolio award at the New York SCBWI conference—which was amazing. As a result, I was invited in to the Penguin offices to meet with an editor, publisher and art director and they looked at my work as well as a sample and manuscript for Dog Gone! and they took it. I was beyond thrilled and so, so grateful for the opportunity.
During the time I worked on Dog Gone! I had this idea that I wanted to create a cat book in the same vein and I already had the title Cat Napped! noodling around in my head, but it took a while to flesh out the story. I remember having submitted the story along with a couple of other ideas to the editor and right after Dog Gone! released they took it.
Have any of the books you worked on won any awards?
Eat Your Science Homework was awarded a 2014 Junior Library Guild selection—awesomesauce!
Do you have plans to write and illustrate another book?
Hahaha, yes of course! I hope I never stop.
What do you consider your first big success?
Wow, that’s a tough question. I’m not sure I can measure one big success that easily. Having a book published is amazing, but I also consider the ever-evolving process as a series of successful stepping-
stones and I do a little happy dance each time I move to the next one—because they all teach me something about myself and/or my work. Creative folks are such sensitive creatures and it can be
intimidating to put our work out there in front of people, so each time we are brave and face our fears head on, that’s a success. Actually, when I attended a SCBWI conference for the first time, I was so overwhelmed I almost didn’t go back the next day—so I’d say not giving up right off the bat was my first big success!
For pencil work, I use 2H, HB, 2B and 5 or 6B pencils on Arches hotpress 140lb paper.
What is on the drawing board now?
My schedule has been a little nuts lately so I am taking a rest-of-the-year break and finally getting around to updating my website, which has been somewhat neglected.
Do you ever use Corel Painter or Photoshop when illustrating?
I ‘collage’ in Photoshop. I take all the pieces that I create by hand, scan them in, then slice ‘n’ dice them into a final illustration. I think of Photoshop as my digital scissors and glue, but I don’t actually illustrate with Photoshop if that makes sense, like, I’m not drawing or painting digitally using brushes and filters.
Do you own a graphic tablet?
No. If you mean a Cintiq or Wacom, that is. I’ve seen them in action though, wow!
Is there one thing that you did or happened that you feel really pushed your career to the next level?
I joined SCBWI. So far, this has been an amazing journey of education, connections, opportunities, projects and rewards, but it all started with this incredible organization that continues to play a role—LOVE SCBWI!
Do you take pictures or other research before you start a project?
Before and during—yes. Having reference material gives me a much better understanding of what I am drawing than simply imagining. I like to begin by drawing realistically before I think about characterizing for a book because it gives me an accurate sense of anatomy, behavior, body language, etc., even though they’re very loose drawings. There were a number of animals in Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo that I hadn’t drawn before, so I filled a ring binder with reference just for that project.
The original pick-up truck for Cat Napped! was a struggle, but after sharing with my editor, we realized it was too square and modern, so I went back and researched vintage trucks from the 40s and 50s. The end result was a bit of a hybrid but its softer, curvier edges suited the tone of the book far better than the angular truck I had originally drawn.
The internet is a powerful tool—National Geographic (nationalgeographic.com), Nat Geo Kids (kids.nationalgeographic.com), NASA (nasa.gov), and Pinterest (pinterest.com) are some of my favorites but discipline is key. The amount of research I do depends upon the project but I have to be careful with the amount of time I spend researching versus creating the art.
I use a timer to stay on top of it. And even if I am not researching for a particular project, I carry a sketchbook with me and either have my phone or camera for taking any pictures. Inspiration strikes when I least expect it so I like to be as prepared as possible.
Have you found most art directors and editors give you a lot of freedom when illustrating a book? Do they want to be involved all the way through the process?
Once, I was given very specific art notes for an educational book but the turnaround time was tight, so the notes were helpful for me to jump right in. I’ve received minimal notes for nonfiction projects if there was a point that needed to be demonstrated visually for some specific text. For example: the Homework books sometimes have charts.
For the fictional projects, I’m pretty much left to it for the first round of sketches, then the art director and/or editor and I discuss together. Sometimes, I’ll offer up additional sketch options for a handful of spreads if I have lots of ideas and can’t decide which direction to go. There can be a lot of back and forth on the cover, though.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
My art materials—pencils, brushes, paper, inks, sketchbooks—I’d be kinda lost without them!
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
Yes, even if it’s only for ten minutes, that’s my rule.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
To travel, keep making art, and continue creating books for young readers—that would be lovely!
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
I discovered a Hobby Lobby (hobbylobby.com) near me recently. They have a better selection of art supplies (including papers) than my local crafting stores—although I do love Dick Blick (dickblick.com) too—they always have what I need.
For my pencil drawings I love to work on Arches hot press 140lb paper. Canson Pro Marker Layout pads are good for ink work and hold black gouache really well with minimal buckling—great for lineart and expressive brush work.(http://www.dickblick.com/products/canson-pro-layout-marker-paper/). I use Borden & Riley Boris layout paper (http://www.dickblick.com/products/borden-and-riley-boris-layout-paper-for-markers/) for sketching rather than tracing paper. Good transparency, less smudging.
A friend recently got me into aqua brushes (http://www.dickblick.com/products/sakura-koi-water-brush/?clickTracking=true&wmcp=pla&wmcid=items&wmckw=09094-1030&gclid=CI_Ev6GQicICFShp7AodSgcAZA). Paired with a travel watercolor palette (http://www.jerrysartarama.com/discount-art-supplies/watercolor-paints-and-mediums/winsor-and-newton-water-colours-and-mediums/winsor-and-newton-cotman-water-colour-sets.htm) they’re great for field work, sketch crawls, or just having handy for that moment when inspiration strikes!
I use the Levels function in Photoshop to clean up sketches before sending a submission. You can set a white point with the highlights eyedrop per and use the sliders to reduce increase contrast and rid your sketch of any unwanted smudges.
Skillshare.com is a great resource especially if you want to try your hand at something new before committing to a large investment. The sit e features short video tutorials given by working artists, entrepreneurs and gurus, ranging from art and design, to photography, public speaking, business and beyond. There’s a minimal monthly subscription fee to have full access but it’s totally worth it. You can even submit projects for feedback based upon the course you are taking, which is great if you need a little motivation.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Hmmm.. I will share what others have shared with me: stay true to yourself, go with your gut, always be open and willing to learn, spend at least 10 guilt-free minutes a day to nurture your inner creativity, smile, don’t give up, and practice gratitude through all the ups and especially the downs. While the ups help spur us on, the downs help us learn and grow.
Thank you Leeza haring your journey and process with us. Can’t wait to see your career go forward. You can visit Leeza at her website: http://www.leezaworks.com to see more of her work.
If you have a moment I am sure Leeza would love to read your comments. I enjoy them too. Thanks!