Ellen Beier started drawing as a small child at the side of her artist grandmother. Ellen says, “We’d take the train from her Brooklyn house to Coney Island Beach, to sketch the sleeping sunbathers. After architecture study (Cornell) and art courses in London, I graduated (BFA) from California College of the Arts.”
In London, a friend showed me Arthur Rackham’s books and an early ‘Alice’ illustrated by Tenniel. Working at the time as an architectural draftsperson, I filled the margins of my blueprints with fairy tale sketches.”
In Hamburg, Germany, where I lived 1987-97, I began my picture book career with ‘Mrs. Peachtree and the 8th Avenue Cat’ by Erica Silverman, ‘The Blue Hill Meadows’ by Cynthia Rylant and a Mrs. Peachtree sequel. Other books include ‘The 18 Penny Goose,’ ‘The Promise Quilt’ by Candice Ransom, an adaptation of ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ and Andrew Clements’ Pets to the Rescue nonfiction series. In 2011 ‘The Christmas Coat: Memories of my Sioux Childhood’ by Native American author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, drawn from her childhood winter in 1945, won several major awards. I just finished illustrating an abridged version of ‘Les Miserables.'”
Here’s Ellen Discussing her process:
For the book that I have just completed, Les Miserables, the text was divided up into chapters, with 8-9 images per chapter. Part of my process was to read the original Les Miserables—as a source for details and background. (The abridged text that I was illustrating fairly closely followed the original.) After reading, I sketched out thumbnails on tracing paper for the chapter (about 1.5”x1”):
I used many sources for reference, including library books and images from the internet. For this particular image, I found a beautiful etching of a 19th-century French street, accompanied with a text that mentioned this etching had been copied from an earlier painting … I decided to continue the tradition and use it as a basis for my illustration, Chapter 2, image 5, of “He fled from the bishop’s house and the town as fast as he could,” referring to Jean Valjean:
I also used sources from earlier illustrated renditions of Jean Valjean:
I also found images on the internet of stormy skies, to enhance the mood:
My b/w sketch looked like this:
The thumbnail sketch had been scanned into Photoshop, enlarged, sketched over, rescanned and tweaked and then submitted as above. Once the sketch was approved, I transferred it using pencil on a lightbox to a piece of Arches 140 lb cp watercolor paper, adding an 1/8” for bleed. Then I placed the paper on a 3/16 birch-plywood board, a little larger than the paper, wet the back of the paper, allowed to absorb the water, then turned over and stapled down with a staple-gun. (Generally I do this all together, when all the sketches are approved, I use the lightbox for all and then stretch all).
The next step is my favorite: painting with watercolors, pushing the paint around on the surface of the paper until it tells the story in the text:
Then I scan the image into Photoshop again, do any tweaking necessary, and submit to the publisher online.
How long have you been illustrating?
I started illustrating as child. The first drawing I did was at Coney Island Beach alongside my grandmother – she was a sculptor and painter, and always carried a sketchbook and pens. I spent some long periods with her from the age of three—she gave me my own sketchbook—and I filled it with drawings of people on the beach. I lost that sketchbook later on but I never stopped drawing.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
The first paintings for which I was paid told the story of ducks, ducklings, a wise old owl and a field of flowers—commissioned for a slide show to promote the work of Dr. Ben Feingold, the allergist whose groundbreaking research in the mid-70s linked food additives with hyperactivity in children. (The first drawing for which I was paid was for a wine label: a sketch of the fox terrier and the gramophone—”His Master’s Choice”—not Voice—for a private vintage!)
How did you end up taking art courses in London?
I started college as an architecture student at Cornell and left in the third year to study in London. I felt my skills were in drawing, not design, and transitioned in London from architecture to art—drawing, painting, photography. My best education in those days was at the British Museum, where I wandered the halls often.
What made you want to attend California College of the Arts?
I was fortunate enough to stay three years in London, because officially I was still on a “matriculation” visa for architectural studies. During the third year I spent some time crouched in a musty, dark, wood-paneled room at University College, London where college catalogs lined the walls, including those from U.S. art schools. From London I sent applications to several schools in the California Bay Area, and chose CCA when I arrived.
What did you study there?
My classes at CCA (it was California College of Arts and Crafts then) were a mix of drawing, printmaking, and graphic design. In an illustration class I completed my first series of paintings for a children’s story: a girl who follows a (rather single-minded?) snail, to destinations that actually closely resemble the magnificent California outdoors I was discovering then for the first time.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
My style has developed from years and years of using the tools of brush, paper and watercolors, primarily. Occasionally in the past I used some colored pencil, liquid acrylic, or even some pastel on top of the watercolor. I was really only in college for a short time—although I still use watercolor, both my tools/materials and the way I use those tools has changed significantly over time.
What inspired you to study architecture study at Cornell?
When I was a child, my family spent frequent weekends walking through half-built houses, even though we’d already moved into our own house in a suburb of New York City when I was four. I had started drawing as a toddler by the side of my artist grandmother, and those drawings—of people at first—soon included their domiciles, complete with furnishings and the latest cars. I drew each family, their home and then made up stories in my head about them. By the time I was in high school, my house designs had become quite complex, and then I found myself pursuing architecture. However, I knew that my passion was the drawing. I worked for several architects, both in my home town and in London, while I was studying—however my blueprints often ended up covered with illustrated vignettes from my hand.
Did you take a job using your talent for architecture after you got out of school?
After graduating CCAC, BFA in Design I worked in paste-up/layout for various magazines in the Bay Area, first on staff and then freelance. After a few years I was entirely freelance, doing layout and illustration for magazines, advertising agencies and other clients. My first children’s illustration was for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Educational in San Francisco, where I worked with the staff on a Social Studies program for several years before they moved to Orlando.
How did you end up spending ten years in Germany?
During my stay in London, I traveled with my musician housemates to participate in the magnificent Festival of Fools, Amsterdam 1975. While there, as support crew for some of the performers, I met Stuart Curtis, woodwind player with the Salt Lake Mime Troupe, an American performance troupe whose members have become my lifelong friends.
In 1987 I moved to Hamburg, Germany where Stu held the woodwinds chair in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Cats,” and later we married and had our son, Sam. Soon after I arrived in Hamburg, an American children’s book agent, with whom I’d worked occasionally, offered to represent me. Soon after, I was illustrating early biographies, such as Beethoven, Einstein, John Lennon and many others. Researching biographies set in Germany was a bonus—the Beatle’s first club gigs were located right on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, but I was thrilled to travel to Bonn to visit Beethoven’s home, sketching on the spot.
We returned to the U.S. in 1997 and settled in Corvallis, Oregon, in the lovely Willamette Valley, where I live now.
Do you feel the market is different in the US when you compare it to Germany?
I never worked for German clients but I know that for my German friends, the market was more difficult to break into, and harder to survive in. Of course there were fewer publishers to work with, especially in the children’s book market. One lovely advantage, however, was the annual visit to the Bologna Book Fair, which I was so fortunate to attend several times. Before we started driving down there and combining it with a spring ski trip (glorious!), we’d get on the train at midnight in Hamburg, and arrive in Bologna the next morning. I met some of my favorite illustrators there—Roberto Innocenti, Lisbeth Zwerger, Jerry Pinkney, Etienne Delessert, Michael Foreman, Tony Ross, Alan Marks … actually when I met Lisbeth Zwerger at first I opened my mouth to ask a question and no sound came out! But then later I was able to “chat” with her and others, about paper, ink and pens. That is an afternoon I will never forget!
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
When I lived in London I started doing sketches based on children’s literature—I was not one of those kids whose parents read fairy-tales to us before bed, however in London one of my British friends would sit and read aloud Alice in Wonderland and other stories by Lewis Carroll—I remember Sylvie and Bruno was a favorite. Another friend, one of several Scottish housemates whose affinity for the fairy-folk was palpable, gave me his treasured childhood book of fairy-tales to keep. My interest in children’s stories started there.
How did you get the contract to illustrate ‘Mrs. Peachtree and the 8th Avenue Cat’ ?
While I lived in Hamburg, my agent arranged the contract for “Mrs. Peachtree and the 8th Avenue Cat,” written by Erica Silverman—my first 32-page picture book. I based the character of Mrs. P loosely on my own grandmother, however I could not picture her dress pattern—light, dark, somber, playful? I had finished all the paintings but the dress was blank! I called my editor from Germany – it was night in Hamburg, afternoon in NYC, and she called the author on the west coast where it was late morning … the author wrote out a perfect paragraph of adjectives to describe Mrs. P’s taste in fashion, faxed it to the editor who called and recited it to me. The next day I was able to finish the paintings.
What other noteworthy picture books followed Mrs. Peachtree?
Mrs. Peachtree’s Bicycle was a sequel, followed by The Blue Hill Meadows by Cynthia Rylant, about one Appalachian family during the four seasons of one year; then, a picture book version of Anne of Green Gables by M. C. Helldorfer and The Promise Quilt by Candice F. Ransom. The Promise Quilt is a beautifully written tale of the Civil War told from the point of view of a young girl whose father does not return from fighting for the South.
How did “The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood” with Holiday House come your way?
The art director at Holiday House, Claire Counihan, was familiar with my work for several years, and had said to me that one day she would find the perfect manuscript for me. That was, indeed, The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. The author, who had written a short story version of this text many years earlier, and included it in her amazing autobiography Completing the Circle (1995), had also written many books for children about Native American life. This story particularly was drawn from her childhood on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota during one winter in the mid-20th century. Before illustrating this book, I read as much literature as I could—poetry, novels, biographies— by Virginia and other Native American authors, particularly of the Lakota Sioux. The Christmas Coat won several major awards, including the Smithsonian and American Indian Library Association Best Picture books. I have heard from a number of Native American readers that they see themselves in that book, and that is the best reward.
How Many picture books have you illustrated?
Thirty books all together, 15 of them picture books. The others are chapter books, ready-to-reads, middle-grade fiction, etc.
Do you illustrate full time?
I have been illustrating full time, however I am about to embark upon a new chapter in my career: a few years ago I returned to university and earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. For my thesis I created a syllabus of “the history and future of books.” I will start teaching book history at Oregon State University this fall.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?
I have several unfinished manuscripts, which I’d like to finish and illustrate. I have even more great ideas! Too many things, not enough time.
Do you have an agent? If so, who and how did you connect. If not, would you like to find an agent?
I do not have an agent at the moment—luckily, I have been contacted directly by clients who found me online for many years and have been given great assignments. Having just completed a huge project, I have a vision of where I want my work to go—if I met an agent who shared that vision—well that would be a worthwhile partnership. My favorite genre of book to illustrate is historical—I hope to illustrate more rich texts in the future.
Have you ever worked with a self-published author? Would you be open to that?
I worked with one self-published author, J. P. Curington, on a book titled Where Are My Animals (2007). We worked well together, she offered me a reasonable fee, and we made what I believe is a beautiful book, produced by Amazon’s Create Space and available on-demand. The project was limited in distribution, which can be a problem with self-publishing; however it was the first step in a series of successful entrepreneurial pursuits by the author.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I use pencil (graphite) and watercolor on watercolor paper.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I use a vast assortment of research images—some photos I take myself, some from library books, some from my own picture collection, and from the internet. For many years I used to pose people—all my neighbors, family and friends—for my characters, however now I draw figures out of my head, occasionally taking an odd pose and looking in the mirror.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
I use Photoshop to scan and tweak my sketches (grayscale)—and later to scan and minimally tweak my finishes (in color). The job I have just completed—over 250 illustrations for an online version of Les Miserables for a Korean publisher—was submitted online as well, so in other words the final versions of these images are not paint on paper, even though they were created on paper. The book is released serially—kind of a throwback to Dickens in the 19th century—and by subscription: another throwback as well as a new model of the book for today.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
No – I do not have nor use a graphic tablet.
Do you do exhibits to market your art?
I have exhibited my work in the past—it was not for marketing purposes but rather to sell original illustrations or glicees.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
I have done many illustrations for the Carus magazines: Cricket, Ladybug, Spider, etc.
Do you have a studio in your house?
I work in a north-facing back (bedroom) studio in my house. It’s a smallish room but with a big window, high ceiling, big closet, and a bathroom off to the side. There is plenty of room for my drawing table, book shelves, assorted other tables and supplies. My computer and printers are in my living room, as well as an easel and flat files.
Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?
I have several cork-boards in my studio covered with photos and other memorabilia, copies of paintings from my sketchbooks, copies of my son’s poetry from his childhood, items from favorite illustrators, etc. I also have sketchbooks: whenever I travel, or start a new illustration project, or a research project, I make a new sketchbook out of various kinds of papers, and bind it myself or have it ring-bound. Those notebooks are on shelves in my studio closet—so much fun to pull out and look at. I always tell young artists to carry a sketch book and some pencils just in case they have a chance to draw. Or even make time to draw.
What are you working on now?
For almost the past two years I have been illustrating Les Miserables for a South Korean publisher—an abridged, online version for middle-school children overseas. Producing such an enormous volume of work has been fantastic—of course few texts are as fine as Victor Hugo’s classic. The process resembled somewhat the production of a different kind of narrative such as a graphic novel, since there are multiple sequential images to express each action.
My illustration work is presently on childrensillustrators.com (ellenbeier.com) as well as several other sites (SCBWI, picturebookartists.org) —yes, the internet opened doors for me in that I was found on these sites through images that I had uploaded there. My next marketing goal is a website to feature my illustrations for Les Miserables. Currently I am focused on preparing a wealth of fascinating material to share with students in my upcoming book history course—hopefully these two aspects of my work will merge in the future.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
I work with professional grade watercolors on Arches 140 lb cold press watercolor paper, using a #1 and #000 squirrel mop brush, and several Cheap Joes round wc brushes: #2 and #000 for details. I use mostly Winsor Newton wc paints because I find these have the fewest mold issues—important in this heat! The squirrel mop brushes are remarkable in that they hold a ton of liquid yet come to a fine point. Sometimes I work on Fabriano papers as well. With pencil (graphite/mechanical) I draw (trace) on the light-table and stretch paper onto 3/16″ birch plywood boards that I have cut to various sizes, wet the back of the paper and staple on with a staple gun.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
My advice to aspiring illustrators is: pinpoint a story that inspires you, and illustrate it in, say, five finished images. Pay attention to narrative, consistency of characters, and a solid degree of finish. Put yourself right inside the story to tell it. When you have completed that work to a degree of finish that is satisfying, choose another story, and do it even better. In this way you can build up a portfolio which will demonstrate your story-telling skills, and of which you can be proud.
Thank you Ellen 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 Ellen’s work, visit her Web site, http://ellenbeier.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Ellen. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!