Renee Graef has illustrated over 80 books for children including the Kirsten series in the American Girl collection and many of the My First Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder for HarperCollins. She served as creative consultant for five years, art directing many of the books in the Little House program.
She has also illustrated classics such as The Nutcracker and My Favorite Things as well as books on American icons Mount Rushmore and Paul Bunyan.
2013 – Society of Illustrators-West 52
Children’s Market category – Silver award & Honorable Mention: two illustrations from the Cedarburg book
Here is Renee discussing her process:
Usually, I have a pretty good idea of the perspective I want to use for a sketch. In this case, I was unsure. This is from Santa Comes to Little House. Ma is hanging up the stockings knowing that she cannot fill them because Mr. Edwards could not cross the flooded river with the gifts. It was a decision to focus on Ma or a hopeful Laura. I decided to let the drama of the light of the fire in the darkened room to carry Ma’s mood and focus on Laura’s anticipation.
I used vellum for the sketches so I can retrace and refine the sketch. Usually with a #2 pencil.
There was probably one more rough thumbnail sketch before #2. I like to add in the shadowing in the beginning because it affects the design.
Sketch #3 was shown to the editor for approval. At that point, I take photos for Ma, Laura and Pa. Fortunately, my neighbors and friends are very willing to pose. In this particular case, I rented a costume for Ma because of the folds of the dress. Usually I have the models wear something similar to what they would be wearing in the illustration. The horizon line and perspective points are drawn in.
This painting was done entirely in oils. My first book in oil paint was The Nutcracker and this was the second. There was quite a learning curve. I work from light to dark and then go back in with the lights. Large areas of color are blocked in first. A single page oil illustration take 20-40 hours, depending on the complexity. Nowadays, I paint a detailed underpainting of acrylic which is sealed with 2-3 layers of Liquin before I add oil paint. (See below)
A sample illustration was required at the beginning of the project. This is a second, more refined painting of the sample painting and cover.
I make thumbnails for each page of the book. Above is an example of four page thumbnails.
Once I am happy with the thumbnails, I work on the final sketches for the whole book. I do not make color mock-ups but in this case, a colored clothing painting was done for each of the main characters.
The acrylics are usually Golden or Windsor and Newton. They are watered down in the 2 oz. condiment containers. It lasts about 3-5 before I need to make new ones. I have been using Utrecht brushed lately. I will put a bit of the color into a cover and water it down for a lighter tone painting. I treat it very much like watercolor except if I need to change things (which I always do) it can be altered.
For my oil painting process, I start with sepia tone acrylic paintings.
Oil Paint Palette:
Once the acrylic paintings are finished and sealed, the oil painting starts. Jack Richeson has wonderful grey paper palettes. I usually use Winstor and Newton and Gamblin oil paints. I use Flake White Replacement for my white. The paints are used for about 3 days before I set up a fresh palette. Cresent 100 or 110 illustration boards are used. I did not use Photoshop for the artwork. The paintings are done at 125% of the printed size. This picture shows the Getty tapestry that inspired the book.
A friend posed as both Thèrése’s father and brother, Henri. I love the look he has on his face! It is so much fun to add in elements of interest. Charles Le Brun was the art director and painter for the king during the height of tapestry making at Gobelins in Paris. His painting is in the background. Later in the story, we see that the image has been woven into a tapestry. I tried to use the tapestries from the Getty collection in the book. (#10 in the above sketches)
Interior Finished illustration (#8 in the above sketches)
Ledges are wonderful for displaying work-in-progress. It is much easier to see contrast or design problems from a bit of a distance.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been illustrating full time for 35 years.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
In high school, I painted the words ”Big Orange” on an orange bus for a church.
Where did you study art?
I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for three years and transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two more years.
What did you study there?
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Fine Art.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
College helped with learning how to draw and see. My style(s) developed during a work-study job at the Department of Agriculture Journalism at UW-Madison as an in-house illustrator. I have a number of styles because I drew anything from cartoon to realistic art.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
After graduation, the work-study job merged into a full-time job for four years at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Publications. I illustrated brochures and informational publications. In addition, I started free-lancing with advertising agencies.
Did the college you attended help you get work when you graduated?
The work-study job changed my life. The art director and designer at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Publications taught me about the art of illustration. That was after college though.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Yes and no. I still love creative problem solving by illustrating in different styles. But hopefully, my skills have improved.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
A dear friend showed me her children’s book collection which included Chris Van Allsburg’s book ,“The Garden of Abdul Gasazi” and books by Edward Gorey. That did it.
What was your first book you illustrated?
Meet Kirsten by Janet Shaw for the American Girl Collection.
How did that contract come about? I worked on the presentation/product development boards with the founder of Pleasant Company /American Girl in 1985 at the beginning of the company. Afterwards, she offered me the “Kirsten” books.
Did you do other types of illustrating before you got the book contract?
Yes, I worked for the University of Wisconsin-Extension Publications and did extensive work with advertising agencies.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
Over 80 books at this point.
Have you ever written and illustrated you own picture book?
What book do you think was your biggest success?
There is not a particular book. The “Kirsten” books were a huge success. It was an incredible experience to work as an illustrator and art director on the “My First Little House” program for HarperCollins for over five years. It was so wonderful to be a part of such a talented team. The Nutcracker with HarperCollins continues to be a hugely popular book. The alphabet books with the wonderful Sleeping Bear Press have been so fun.
My most recent experience with creative team at the Getty Museum has been truly been amazing. I love collaboration.
Have you ever thought about doing a wordless picture book?
Do you have an artist rep?
Yes, I have been with Cornell and McCarthy, now Cornell and Company, for twenty-some years. Merial Cornell called me after seeing my ad in an illustrator’s directory.
I see you like hats. Is that your trademark?
Yes. It has been my trademark for over twenty years.
Do you illustrate full time?
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I love all of them: oil painting, acrylic painting, airbrushing, colored pencils, pen and ink and digital work.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I do as much research as time allows. It is so much fun to learn about history and culture.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes. Two digital illustrations won a Silver and Honorable Mention at the Society of Illustrators-LA show a couple of years ago in the Children’s Book Category. They were from my first book that was illustrated in Photoshop. My second digital book: “B is for Beacon: Lighthouses of the Great Lakes”. I am mostly a traditional illustrator but lately I have been tweaking some of the finished illustrations in Photoshop.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
Yes, but not on all books.
Do you do exhibits to show off your art?
I’ve had three solo shows.
Would you be willing to work with a self-publisher picture book writer on a project?
Yes, I have worked with a self-publisher. It all depends on the story.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
I’ve done a cover for Cricket magazine as well as work for Highlights and High Five Magazine.
Do you have a studio in your house?
Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?
Caffeine. And a pencil sharpener. I dislike dull pencil points.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I usually work around the clock to meet deadlines.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes! I am working with children’s book author, Barbara Joosse, on two book proposals. She has written over 50 books including Mama, Do You Love Me? (over 2 millions sold). We have worked on one book together and are eager to “cahoot” on more!
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
On the information side, I am always listening to podcasts and youtube videos about the business and art of creatives. One of my favorite podcasts is smartcreativewomen.com. On the online side, I’m looking into connecting with readers and artists thru my website/newsletter about the process of illustration.
What are your career goals?
To work on heartfelt books/projects.
What are you working on now?
My website. This is the first time in over four years that I am caught up with book deadlines. It is so nice to have a bit of time to update my website.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
There are so much to say! I’ve developed two main techniques over time: One is my mixed media technique incorporating airbrushing, colored pencil and gouche. The other technique is oil painting with an acrylic underpainting. I plan to start sharing this information in a newsletter.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Yes! One is to work on your skill and expertise as an artist. Study anatomy and prespective. It will help even if you have a cartoony style. That is the outer path. The inner path is just as important. Believe in yourself. Connect with friends. Go to museums. Read books. I personally love the books of Wayne Dyer as well as others like him. Follow your heart but be willing to go outside your comfort zone.
Thank you Renee 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 Renee’s work, you can visit her at website at: http://www.graefillustration.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Renee. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!