Wallace West is a writer/illustrator who has studied with The School of Visual Arts in New York City and Parsons School of Design in Paris and am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and The Children’s Book Illustrators Group (CBIG).
He says, “Apart from a rather lazy beagle-mix named Sammy Joe, my influences span the spectrum from Quentin Blake to Edith Head. With a measured mix of ink, gouache, honesty, humor (both dark and light) and a little irreverence, my work is created to attract and encourage a non-restrictive audience.”
Wallace is represented by Marietta B. Zacker of Nancy Gallt Literary Agency
Here is Wallace explain his process: Working Girl is one of my favorite films so it’s no wonder that I am always referencing one of the lines as a creative mantra: You never know where the next big idea is gonna come from.
This illustration was sparked by a spread in a piece about dolphins in National Geographic. In the reference photo, the dolphins have little scraps of plant matter on their fins. According to the writer, the dolphins have adorned themselves with the plants, kind of like jewelry. So I thought, you know, there’s bound to be some glittery treasure on the ocean floor that some dolphins have tried to wear, right?
After an idea is sparked, I like to let it sit and marinate for a day or so, getting the gesture and feel of movement just right in my head. Where do I want the action to enter and leave the page? Who is going to be central? Is it going to be sweet, sassy, up to no good, or all of the above? Once I feel that click of decision, I set to paper with a 3B pencil to get the shapes and movement down. Then I look at the paper and say, man that’s terrible. And rudimentary. And awful. How did it look so good in my head?
After a few more rounds it begins to get life in it and with an HB or slightly harder pencil I start to throw in details of expression and texture. I don’t go overboard with details in a sketch because I find the pressure of replicating a precise sketch drains it of its life and also adds unnecessary restrictive pressure.
Once the sketch and composition are decided upon, I do color testing. This happens one of two ways. I either scan in the sketch and do some rough blobs of color in Photoshop to see if the tones are right or I lay a piece of tracing paper over the sketch and color the shapes with marker until I find a palette I like.
Then comes the illustration board. Using a lightbox to trace over is impossible with board, so I shade the backside of my sketch paper with graphite and then transfer the sketches (very little detail, just the main body contours, expression, etc) to illustration board.
After erasing as much graphite as possible with just a very faint outline visible, I begin to add color via gouache. Here’s where one of my favorite tools of organization comes into play. I rarely use a straight gouache color. Mixing is way more fun. I do so in recycled mini-honey and jam jars from hotels (I’m sure there have been some concierges watching me and thinking there’s no way he needs that much jam).
Once the color is laid down, I move back to the sketch to work out the textures and patterns I want to include. I’m crazy about textures and patterns. I’m always on the lookout for new hashmarks and ripples and plaids in magazines, on buildings, on some fashionable gamine in Soho. Using the sketch and a whole lot of tracing paper I find patterns that intermingle well with each other and add them and any line work to the final illustration with waterproof ink just in case I need to add some more gouache.
I’m also very into simple, simple backgrounds (spot illustrations are one of my favorite things) so this love of textures came from wanting to make sure that even though there wasn’t a bustling city saturated with activity behind my character, the image was still visually dynamic via unconventional detailing. I work in layers so each of the dolphins and their jewelry are all different layers that I merge in Photoshop. This is profoundly helpful when someone wants a spot from a main or if I want the tiara and the pendant necklace to switch from one dolphin to the next (which is exactly what happened). Once the composition is complete, I add pops of white and alter the tones and shadows if I need to in order to get the mood just right.
Then I sleep on it. If I wake up, look at it and smile, I’m done. If not, I grumble, groan, question my ability, breathe, shift what I need to and then share it with a varied audience of family and friends who I know have discerning eyes and won’t be over-complimentary. When I’m finished, I watch Working Girl again and wonder where the next idea will come from.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’m a neophyte professionally but have been drawing since before the dawn of the Internet.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
A pared down, monochromatic take on Little Red Riding Hood. I loved it so much in large format that I recreated it for myself, sold it again without trying then re-recreated it. It has a prominent spot above my coffee making station at home now.
Where did you go to college?
Southern Methodist University (alma mater to Aaron Spelling and Kathy Bates) and continuing education at School of Visual Arts.
What kind of art and classes did you take at The School of Visual Arts in New York City?
The first class I took was geared toward revamping a portfolio, which helped focus and inspire me immensely. There have been many graphic design, figure drawing and picture book creation courses since then.
How did you end up going to Parsons School of Design in Paris?
When studying with SMU in Paris I was able to double up with courses at Parsons. Paris is the city for everything—art, food, fashion, conversation, casually stalking Catherine Deneuve—and if you have the chance to draw sketches for an Issey Miyake exhibit in Paris and get academic credit for it, you’re a nitwit to pass it up.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
College helped encourage the pursuit but life developed my style.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
I made a lot of lattes then I did a lot of event planning (highlight: photographing Emma Thompson for an invitation cover and then taking a selfie with her before selfies were even a thing). All throughout I was as creative as I could be with my work, designing website landing pages, art directing program books, copywriting, and generally promoting myself as a multi-faceted creative person adept at conquering last-minute deadlines.
Did the college help you get work?
Directly, no. Indirectly, yes. What I mean is the life experience of being away from home, being more independent, being able to study film and French and art without anyone dictating that I should be pragmatic and study business was empowering. And scary as hell sometimes.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I don’t remember deciding so much as just knowing. There hasn’t been a question of whether or not to, just when. I began being more practical than dreamy about it and shopping my work around after working as an editor with many illustrators on an ed pub job. I thought, you know, I’d rather be drawing than asking someone else to.
What was the first illustration to get published?
An article about winter produce for Chickpea magazine. Lots of blood oranges and grapefruits and a vintage wool ski cap.
Have you ever worked with any educational publishers?
As a writer and editor but not an illustrator. I wrote an ed pub story about an elephant saving her friends from a flood that I would have loved to illustrate though. I’m pretty sure she would have a 60’s era neckerchief.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Add an ‘s’ to ‘book’ and end the sentence with ‘in the French countryside with a pack of dogs sleeping at my feet’ and the answer is yes, yes, a million times yes.
Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how did you connect. If not, would you like to find someone to represent you work?
I am represented by the incredible Marietta B. Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency. When I shared my portfolio with Lucy Ruth Cummins she really dug a piece of mine with animals on bicycles. She suggested I create a dummy around it and submit it to Marietta. A few months later, said dummy was complete, I submitted it and it turns out matchmaker Lucy Ruth was spot on.
Have you ever thought about trying your hand at a wordless picture book?
At least once every other day. Talk about a true test in illustration. It takes a profound amount of trust to give an illustrator the reigns to tell a story visually. I’d love those reigns. Bluebird and Where’s Walrus? still get me.
What type of things do you do to promote yourself and get your work seen?
I think a lot of writers and illustrators are by nature introverted. I’m a social person who conversely really digs holing up and drawing and writing and forgetting anyone else is out there. That doesn’t really work in terms of getting seen so I remove myself from the comfort zone of seclusion, gouache, annoying my dog at home, and a committed relationship with Netflix and instead attend events and workshops and tell everyone I meet that I am a writer and illustrator.
Have you ever worked with a self-published author?
Would you be open to working with one? I have but the project never came to fruition and it burned me a little bit on the process. I don’t know that I would do it again. Unless Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey was said self-publishing author.
What types of illustration do you do, other than for children books?
Commissioned pieces for personal art collections, food illustrations, stationery, anything to make an envelope look better than plain in my personal correspondence, and whatever my nieces and nephew in Texas tell me to.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
3B pencils have so much life in them. I am a total sucker for just ink and 80lb white paper. I have Edward Gorey to thank for my love of textured, patterned black and white. I’m suddenly embarrassed to say that my portfolio doesn’t include black and white! Note to self…
If I don’t take them I image search online. I think it’s part of not being stale and still. Some people like Quentin Blake draw from memory. I need to see anatomical rules before I can bend them in order to put a purple hippopotamus on a Victorian unicycle.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Always. I am left-handed and inevitably smear. Plus I work in layers as I feel more liberated doing so, kind of like electronic collage.
I live in approximately 3 square feet in Brooklyn which also serves as my studio as well as showroom for the 9,000 decorative pillows I own. I like to think of it as part gallery, part Moroccan textile bazaar, part apartment. My dog likes to think of it as his own and grunts when I interrupt his naps.
What are you working on now?
A picture book and a YA novel and trying not to lose my mind in the summer heat.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
After NJSCBWI ignited an idea, I have been working on a picture book about a very sweet character who is oblivious to why she is alone for a certain special occasion.
What do you consider to be your biggest success?
Signing with my agent was a landmark. Leading up to that, the first portfolio review I had that didn’t result in a ‘keep working it at it’ but rather a ‘I like your style and it’s consistent’ was inspiring. Believing myself when I say ‘I am a writer and illustrator’ is a success as well as compliments from the peers whose work I admire.
What are your career goals?
Writing and illustrating picture books, incorporating illustrations into YA, illustrating for another author (spots, books, covers), illustrating for magazines, character design, more gallery shows, licensing, and never having to work in an office that isn’t mine again.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
Illustration board is a dream for multimedia. Tracing paper is invaluable in trying to get gestures just right. Pens that aren’t as smeary for left-handers are out there (Micron pens have a healthy representation at my desk).
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
A lot of great ideas come from just being around other like-minded people. Take advantage of resources around you (SCBWI national and local chapters, librarians, local booksellers, book launches), and practice and learn and dare. Also see no. 23. Get out of your way and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. And you’re kidding yourself if you think you don’t have to work on your craft at least 6 days a week (Sundays are for pigging out and watching so many bad sci fi and horror movies).
Thank you Wallace for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.
To see more of Wallace’s work, visit his Web site, http://wallacewest.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Wallace. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!