Lauren A. Mills has won national acclaim as a book author and illustrator and as a sculptor and painter. She was greatly inﬂuenced by the 19th century artists, especially the symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites for their focus of the natural world, sense of wonder and mythical subject matter.
Lauren Mills received her Bachelors degree in Drawing and Painting from UC Santa Barbara and her Masters degrees in Book Illustration at San Jose State University in California. She is a visiting associate professor of Children’s Book Illustration at the Hollins University MFA Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books summer program in Roanoke, Virginia. Mills has also taught at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts and at Paier College of Art, and at the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Mills began writing novels in 2010. Minna’s Patchwork Coat is her first novel that she also illustrated with fifty pencil drawings (Publication date: November, 2015 by Little, Brown). She won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Best Picture book for her story, Fairy Wings, which she co-illustrated with her husband, Dennis Nolan. The Rag Coat, a story both written and illustrated by Mills won New York State’s Charlotte Award for best picture book and Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins won the New England Design Award. Mills’ work has exhibited in galleries and museums across the country including at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Here is Lauren explaining her process:
I sketched very small at first (thumbnails sketches which are about 1″ by 2″) so I could think and draw ideas quickly. My process is to sketch out the thumbnails, then gather the reference to look at, and then I draw from my original thumbnail sketches and the photos, a combination of both. At times I didn’t have the reference for a certain scene and went only from my sketch.
The best designs turn out this way. I then enlarged them on a printer machine and sent those into Little, Brown for their comments and approval. The two editors, Deirdre Jones and Andrea Spooner along with the art directors gave me much feedback. Then I gathered all the reference… I took over one hundred photos and did many thumbnails sketches… but only 50 final drawings ended up in the book.
Other reference, besides photographs, included actual things, such as the antique crazy quilt that hangs in our home, dolls, and the vintage looking clothes from Magnolia Pearl. The photographs were taken in Massachusetts, where I live and in Virginia where I teach in the summer, and at the West Virginia Coal Mine Exhibition. The dolls were my daughter’s dolls, who was in college and it was difficult to wrangle, Belini Bear away from her, but he behaved very well during the model session.
This is the last scene in Minna’s Patchwork Coat.
Transferring a line drawing with HB or softer pencil onto the final paper
Loosely roughing in the darks and smudging with tissue…
Going back and forth putting down darks, smoothing with tissue, lifting out with a kneaded eraser, going back in with pencil )the same method I use when I’m figure drawing from life. Refining it.
Refining it until finished
Final Sketch for book cover
Interior Art from Minna’s Patchwork Coat
Interior Art from Minna’s Patchwork Coat
Lauren proudly showing off the published book.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been illustrating since I could hold a crayon and remember walking the neighborhood with my fellow artist/playmates exhibiting and selling our work or happily taking cookies in exchange. I always knew I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, and my desire was all the more grounded when, at fifteen, I saw Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s Snow White. The cover, especially, instilled such a magical feeling in me, and powerfully brought me out of a teen age depression. I thought then and still do, that painting and writing fairy tales was my bliss to follow. For years I have had the poster of Burkert’s Snow White hanging in my studio/home. (see attached).
What made you decide to get your BFA in Drawing and Painting from UC Santa Barbara?
I lived in Connecticut until I was sixteen, then we moved to Oregon for a year and then Minnesota for three years. I studied English, Psychology and Art for two years at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota thinking that I’d be a child psychologist and, on the side, a writer and illustrator of children’s books since I was forewarned that one doesn’t usually make a living doing children’s books or painting pictures. While I was at school in Minnesota I was illustrating my stories in art classes and discovering mentors in the books store such as Carl Larsson and Sulamith Wulfing, and the contemporary illustrators of “Fairies”, Alan Lee and Brian Froud. But while at school there, I had a life changing encounter with a young visiting printmaking professor who critiqued everyone’s work but mine. After class I asked her why she had skipped over my work. She told me that my work was illustration and that illustration was not considered art and hasn’t been for a long time. I asked her what art was and she showed me her work of strips of ripped paper hanging from the ceiling. I went back to my dorm room and cried for the first time for something I believed in. I then decided to change my major to art and to go to a warmer place – UC Santa Barbara. I waitressed in Colorado and Santa Barbara first, ran a craft center and studied and taught calligraphy and ceramics before returning to school full time. But, alas, the same prejudice was at UCSB. I didn’t realize there were schools that focused primarily in Illustration and that those classes often cover classical principles of drawing and painting. While in school and after I illustrated for the local newspapers and designed and pasted up advertisements and calligraphed signs for the bookstore (all before computers, of course).
When did you decide you wanted to get a Masters Degree in Illustration from San Jose State University?
When I moved up to Santa Cruz and looked for any type of job… waitressing, etc… I found I was one in fifty applying for those jobs. I knew of the Ford’s Department store that had a few fashion illustrators illustrating the ads that went into the newspapers. I spoke to one of the illustrators and she showed me the paper and mediums they used, and so I put together a few pieces and was hired there. They soon saw that I liked drawing children, so I was usually given the children’s ads. But one day my boss pulled me into his office and complained that all my children looked like sad orphans. I confessed that I wanted to illustrate children’s books, (and I remembered that conversation when I illustrated Anne of Green Gables.)
At that time, I was also working on my portfolio of illustrations and had been to some writing workshops, including a couple with Jane Yolen, my favorite author. While working in Fashion Illustration I contacted the illustrator, James LaMarche from Santa Cruz and he was sweet enough to look at my portfolio and suggested I go over the mountain and take some illustration classes there to “polish up” my work. So, I traveled a treacherous backroad and met with Professor Bunny Carter, thinking that, with her name, she’d be the illustrator of children’s books. I explained to her that I already had a degree but just wanted to prepare myself for a career in children’s books. She told me to sign up for Dennis Nolan’s classes because he had illustrated some children’s books. When I heard his name, something again, magically happened, almost as if I’d known him in another life. There are very good rules in place now about teachers and students, but luckily they weren’t in place in California then. My own bias aside, I learned more from Dennis than all the art classes put together. His training from his teachers goes back to Eakins, the French academy, Botticelli, and beyond. I didn’t marry him for his fantastic art instruction, but it has certainly been a perk. 🙂 I decided to get my Master’s Degree in Illustration, and Bunny (Alice Carter, author of The Red Rose Girls) was my advisor. I was the first in the California State school system to do so. After that I talked Dennis into leaving California and moving to the east coast where most of the publishers were and where Jane Yolen ran the SCBWI writing groups in western Massachusetts. We still live in Massachusetts and Jane is a member of our Illustrators’ guild that meets monthly. Dennis and I are also still meet with an offshoot of that original SCBWI writing group.
How soon did you teach after receiving your Masters degree?
In 1986 when we came east, Dennis was hired to start the Illustration program at the Hartford Art School and I was hired to teach a couple of illustration classes at Paier College of Art. I actually brought my portfolio to Paier to show in order to take an oil painting class, since that wasn’t a medium I had studied at San Jose State and really wanted to know. The director saw that I had a Master’s degree and he needed someone to teach, and so I was hired. I’m still in touch with a couple of those students from that first year who are illustrators. I continued to work in watercolor and graphite and it was years later that I studied and painted in oil.
What was your first book you illustrated and how did that come about?
It was even hard in the 1980’s to get published, though I admit there was a children’s boom and no computers competing, so, in comparison it was easier than it is today. As shy as I was I am pretty shocked at the aggressive means I took back then. When I was still an undergrad I went to an SCBWI conference and slept in my car in LA because I couldn’t afford the hotel. While I was getting my Masters degree, Dennis and I went to an ALA conference by getting name tags through his library friend he had worked with. I brought a few pieces of work with me. While editors were sitting at tables trying to sell books I showed them my work or offered to and said that I’d be coming to the east coast and asked if I could make an appointment. So, before we moved out there we made our rounds to publishing houses, basically calling editors, reminding them that they said we could see them and that we were only there a short time (and couldn’t just drop off our portfolios for the day as was usual). Once I even walked up the back steps into an office. Unbelievable! Then when we moved east we continued making appointments. I didn’t have any luck in NY. Most of the people looking at my portfolio were female around twenty-nine like I was and therefor didn’t trust me. Some older editors said I was too classical and though suited for fairy tales (I was showing Thumbelina and my own stories) I wasn’t famous enough to be assigned one.
By the time we went to Boston I was pretty discouraged. From a phone booth across the street, I called up David Godine’s office and mentioned that David had sent me a letter saying he liked my work, which he had, and I asked if I could see him rather than the art director. This was denied. I told Dennis, who waited in the car, that if I didn’t get a contract I was going to cut my hair off and wear glasses in order to look like a studious man. Then I said, “O.B. One, Godine, you’re my only hope,” and walked in.
A young, female art director, my age, sat in the hall with me, flipping through my portfolio while my heart sank. Then, another magical thing happened. One of the salesmen walked behind me, glanced at the work, then came back with David Godine! From there David took over and told me I’d be perfect to illustrate George MacDonald’s “At the Back of the North Wind” and asked me if I’d read it. I promised to read it as he loaded my arms with tons of their books. When I came out to the car, with my arms full and a smile on my face, Dennis said, “Does this mean you won’t be cutting your hair off?”
So, my first illustrated book was that novel and then David asked me to illustrate “Anne of Green Gables”. The next book was a Jane Yolen book. She had liked all my botanical paintings and little fairy like creatures and so she wrote, Elfabet, an ABC of Elves and presented it with a sample illustration I did, (something that is usually not done.) Maria Modugno of Little, Brown contracted the book and while I was illustrating it I got pregnant and by the end of the book I could hardly reach the art table. Curiously, my baby turned out looking quite a bit like the elves I painted. During this time I sent Maria a very long text for my version of Tatterhood which she deftly cut in half. I also told her about a song I’d heard on the radio years back about a little girl and a coat of scraps, written by Dolly Parton. I wanted to illustrate the song, but as I recounted what I remembered I added different parts, changing the theme. Maria told me to write the story I told her, which became my first written book, “The Rag Coat” which has been my biggest success and has been in print in hardback since 1991.
How many books have you illustrated?
I’ve illustrated fourteen children’s books, nine of which I also wrote, and I’ve illustrated a few gift books. After the two novels, Elfabet, The Rag Coat and Tatterhood, I illustrated a Russian tale retold by Robert San Souci, The Tsar’s Promise , and the rest were all my own original stories such as The Dog Prince, Fairy Wings (winner of SCBWI Golden Kite Award) and Fia and the Imp that I co-illustrated with Dennis, The Goblin Baby, and retellings such as The Book of Little Folk ( a collection of stories and poems) and my last picture book, the fairy tale I finally got to do, Thumbelina. But by that time, 2005, the children’s boom was over, computers were here, 911 had shaken up NY and the whole book market and our society had changed. Nostalgic, longer fairy tales, classically illustrated were a thing of the past.
Why did you start sculpting?
After our daughter was born in 1990, I got some clay and began sculpting her. Dennis noticed I really took to sculpting and since we needed to move to a bigger house anyway, he suggested we go to Lyme, CT to study sculpture at Lyme Academy where we also worked on our book projects for a year or so. When we returned to Massachusetts we sometimes went down for a class. I also began sculpting one of a kind dolls and selling them, but eventually had to give up sculpting to focus on the books and raising our daughter.
Years later, when the market crashed and it was harder to find work someone suggested I change my name and change my style, but instead I went back into sculpting. I also started a fine arts gallery with a friend who had a frame shop. I studied classical drawing, painting and sculpture at the Grand Central Academy and painted some portraits in oil and made portraits and figures in bronze.
I thought I’d never return to children’s books, but when I joined a stream of conscience writing group I started writing The Rag Coat as a novel as well as the beginning of other fantasy novels. I also saw read posts on Amazon about my books changing lives, especially one on Tatterhood and how it helped a girl who felt different get through childhood. I approached Andrea Spooner and Deirdre Jones at Little Brown to see if they’d like to see my novel version of “The Rag Coat”. They both were wonderful and worked with me on the editing process, which I loved, and now it is finally a novel, my first novel, Minna’s Patchwork Coat, published November and 2015 illustrated with 50 pencil illustrations. And I didn’t have to change my name or style, although it’s fun to reinvent yourself, and now I am trying new approaches.
How did the sculpting and other classes affect your style?
I don’t know if I can say that the classical studies affected my style, but they definitely helped me understand and observe form better which improved my drawing skills and they helped me be a better teacher. I teach people how to observe and understand what they’re seeing in the natural world via anatomy, value, perspective, color theory, and using sculpture. Style comes from your own personal preferences and from within. Education will never hinder your style but will give you the tools to do what ever you want with it.
How long have you taught at Hollins University’s MFA program in Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books?
Ruth Sanderson, the co-director, hired me in 2012 to teach the Drawing Fundamentals. Then, only a certificate program in the Illustration component was offered. At some point I suggested that we combine the Illustration program with some of the MFA writing classes to make a one and only MFA in both Writing and Illustrating. Amanda Cockrell, director of the Children’s Literature program loved the idea and within a year it was installed. It’s a wonderful program that is taught for six weeks in the summer for a few summers. Besides the regular great professors, we have wonderful guest authors, illustrators, agents and editors come down to speak and teach. I’ve also been teaching Watercolor in the Illustration Department at the University of Hartford for the last couple of years.
Have you thought of doing a wordless picture book or other formats?
As an illustrator, this may sound funny, but I really like words telling the story. I paint and draw for the beauty of it and to show emotion. I could see doing a novel with lots of pictures and words to tell the story, such as Wonderstruck. Dennis Nolan, my partner has illustrated a couple of wordless books very successfully. But for him, the images come to him first. Wordless books are a wonderful tool for children to find the language to make up their interpretation of what they observe.
For me, the words, the story and the emotions and conversations come first. In today’s market, I’m not really a picture book author/illustrator. Editors now want the word count to be no more than 300. For some reason, the majority of the picture book audience has changed to toddlers or perhaps to parents who don’t want to spend more than three minutes reading a book to them. I could write a whole article on what I feel about this, but here’s the short version: From my experience watching our own daughter as a toddler recite long passages from fairy tales or make up layered stories of her own, using beautiful adjectives she’d heard us read out loud, I believe strongly that young children need, more than ever, intricate and evocative stories and pictures, especially fantasy tales. You can ask any long time high school or college teacher today if students have the same ability to focus and create using their imagination as students had fifteen years ago, and they will tell you that they do not, and furthermore that most students now lack passion and motivation. Years ago, I wrote about all of this in my forward to The Book of Little Folk when research had been done on the importance of fairy tales on the imagination and the damage to a child’s development caused by our push-button society. Since then we have accelerated our push-button entertainment and communication even more and the effects are noticeable and frightening.
I think publishers, educators, and marketers of children’s books and toys have the responsibility to save our culture by the products they push in front of fragile minds and souls. The art and writing you are exposed to at an early age forms you. It’s a little like: You are what you eat. I happen to think beautifully, well-crafted pictures and stories with heart, soul, and ethics of kindness are what children deserve to be fed on. I’ve been told by an agent and an editor that my illustrations are “ too precious” and not “edgy” enough and my writing “too quiet”. I’ve also been told by a top executive at Random House that her children would love my fairy poems. She took my poems to read to them, but she said that she couldn’t publish poems in today’s market. And I’ve sat at a table selling books and have seen mothers with young children ask me if there’s anything scary in the book. I don’t shy away from scary, because I think it’s important as long as the child in the story is given the agency to overcome adversity. But I don’t believe that so called “humorous” books with endings where one larger, scarier character gets back at another smaller character by destroying them is a comforting or guiding message to give a small child, especially in today’s world of shootings, etc… These books may sell well, but is it the adults who are buying them that think they’re funny? Our moral obligation to children should come before anything else. Perhaps we should have children guide our content in books the way Bank Street worked with children to figure out what to publish.
Do you do research for your books?
For my writing I usually start writing stream-of-conscience. It’s almost as if dreaming on paper, and that part is very magical and exciting just like pretending as a child. Then the hard part comes when I need to figure out where the story is going. I then have to go back and work on the beginning and rewrite as well as research where needed.
For my illustrations I start with small “thumbnail” sketches to get the idea and composition and feeling. Then I often pose models for the reference shots. It’s always fun to work with little kids, especially those who like to pretend. I also take reference shots outdoors and set up objects to draw directly from.
Do you work in a studio inside your home or outside?
I’ve done both, but prefer having my studio in my home which can make the place messy. We used to live in a 30’ by 60’ converted post and beam barn on fifteen acres of woods and gardens. It was a perfect place to raise a child and create children’s books. We had two whippets and a host of wild animal friends, some of whom ate from our hands and some, (mice and toads) modeled for us for awhile before returning to the wild. We didn’t and still don’t have a TV and we sent our daughter to a Waldorf school where they discouraged television watching.
Now we live along side a bike path and lake in an old brick factory building with many other artists on the fourth floor. Businesses are on the other floors, including a restaurant, gym, hair salon, printer, photographer, knick knack shop, gallery space and a figure sketching club… all of which make life very convenient. Our studio apartment is also 30 x 60 and with windows 20’ high. Our living area is between Dennis’s side and my side of the studio and is where we hold our writers’ and illustrators’ meetings, so basically, we have our home in our art studio.
What is your working routine?
We wake up and do yoga stretches, still half asleep, then go downstairs to the gym or outside for a walk. Then we have a smoothie, shower and eat the rest of the breakfast. We then start our work day of either writing or painting, but so many times there are other things and people that need tending to. I help my parents who live five minutes away and with teaching there is always something to tend to, besides other chores or emails. So, to remedy the days getting broken up with chores that hinder the concentration and ability to go into “fairy land” we schedule “retreats” where we turn off the phone and computer and do nothing but work (and eat). We started by scheduling writing retreats with our writer’s group… going to one of our homes and pot-lucking the meals. We’d spend concentrated hours writing, then critique and eat, then write, then critique and eat. It’s heaven! So, we thought we should try to schedule it at home more often in order to focus and get work done. Otherwise, it’s too easy to first tend to all the things you’re “supposed to” get done and your creative work time ends up getting cut up into pieces or disappearing altogether.
We also have been figure drawing from life two to three times a week which is like exercise for artists. And even if our day was filled with errands, if we go figure drawing at night we still feel like artists and have accomplished something. We try to meet with our writers’ group, usually at our place, at least a couple of times a month, which also keeps us disciplined.
Is your daughter an artist?
Yes, she graduated from the Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford where she had her dad as a teacher. She also studied music at the Hartt School. She has painted on the “Raft of the Medusa” and other old master copies for Jeff Koons who sold them for millions. But now she is a part time nanny, paints figures and abstract paintings, belly dances with snakes and has just finished her first album, Voice of a Siren and music videos that you can see on you tube under Genevieve May.
Do you use photoshop or a graphic tablet and has the internet opened doors for you?
If I could wave a magic wand I would live in a Medieval village where everything is handmade and people walk to all the shops and homes. I work with my hands and use photoshop when I’m sending work via the internet. I have a website and facebook and pinterest that I keep up with. I do like gathering favorite images and quotes and sharing them and seeing what other people share. I actually shared my idea of an artist/eco village and a childhood friend’s daughter responded asking me to help her design a village on her land in Costa Rica! So, in that way the internet has been wonderful. I also love this blog and have my students subscribe to it for the valuable information, and I sell some giclees on Etsy, but other than that the internet has not, that I know of, helped my career, unless people are buying my books because they’ve seen me or others posts about my books. My work has appeared on blogs and in actual magazines and perhaps that has helped sales, but I can’t tell.
What are you working on now and what are your goals?
I am working on a faerie novel loosely based on Tatterhood and have other novels at various stages. I also am working on a series of oil paintings which may turn out to become illustrations to a story. Sometimes it’s fun to have the image inspire the story. I also want to combine the sculpting and the painting in my work.
On a large scale, I really would like to see this Utopian village I imagine come to life. I will put it into a story, but I also would love to see these villages spring up all over the United States. I think we would be happier people living in hand-made storybook villages where people make and are taught the old arts.
Are there any painting tips or materials you can share with others?
We are now liking Fabriano, hot press, extra white paper which is very smooth and allows for detail. The brushes we still like are Raphael Kolinski sable brushes.
What advice can you give to aspiring artists?
I always tell students to “follow their bliss” as Joseph Campbell said, and take their art and themselves seriously by practicing and listening to their own voice… be their own best friend, and keep looking at favorite artists of the past and present as well as observing nature. I also tell students to love what they do and do what they love… One of my favorite quotes is by John Burton: “It is the love of the process that pulls one through the discipline necessary to master the demands of that craft.”
Thank you Lauren 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 Lauren’s work, you can visit her at website at: http://laurenmillsart.com/illustration.html
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Lauren. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!