Jo Gershman has illustrated over thirty-five books, both for children and adults, and exhibits regularly in galleries. Jo’s watercolor paintings are full of pattern, color, and complexity. Her favorite illustration subjects are animals, although her book illustrations range from ballet dancers to fairy horses. Her gallery exhibits feature still lifes inspired by a passion for food, from simply glorious fruits and vegetables to well-prepared dishes elegantly served. She also loves teaching watercolor and encouraging a sense of wonder in the possibilities of this versatile medium.
Here is Jo discussing her process:
In Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream, the goal was to make the bad dreams looks different than everyday life but not too spooky or scary because they were bad dreams, NOT nightmares. Sometimes I nail something in a single color comp and sometimes….well, it takes a good while.
Original Quick comps.
I paint in watercolor mostly with Daniel Smith paints, but also some older Winsor Newton tubes, some M. Graham, Maimeriblu, and Holbein colors too. The palette depends on the subject matter and the mood I want to project—The Land of Walloo, a lullaby really, had a lot of soft pink, cyan and green, but Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream was more indanthrone blue and hansa yellow. I find that my palette has become much more limited over time; once I figure out my base colors, I then mix almost everything else from that. I feel that a consistent palette really reinforces the story flow from page to page.
Playing with the color properties—hansa yellow flows beautifully into indanthrone and cyan blues. A hake brush can help control what is happening with the feathers and also smooth out washes if you gently, gently brush them out.
Getting closer to what I want.
I paint in layers and I do a lot of dry brushing and scumbling of paint. Sometimes I feel like I am “sculpting” forms with my brush. Washes are difficult for me and I have to practice them a bit when I need to do them. I use synthetic brushes for much of my painting; there are some very fine cheap — and not so cheap ones — out there. I use my Isabey sable detail brushes for very fine work. If the mistake is really bad, I may have to start over, so I always try to do the most difficult thing first. For me, that is a clean, light wash. If I mess that up, I can reprint the piece and start again, which happened twice with that pink beach on The Land of Walloo cover. Meanwhile, Mr.Clean’s original sponges can work wonders, a University Bright #127 brush is very good for drybrushing and erasing. If I erase a lot, I sometimes lay a piece of the same paper, same side texture down, on top of the dry erased area and go over and over it in different directions with a bone folder or an old stylus burnisher, somewhat restoring the texture before continuing with the painting (an old calligraphy trick). I also occasionally use Aquacover liquid watercolor paper for small areas.
Final double page spread.
I prefer that the art be professionally scanned. I have a fantastic local guy I use, or I send the original art to the publisher. For very small jobs, I do the scanning and corrections in Photoshop myself, but for larger jobs and complex paintings, I think scanning and color adjusting to match the original is a talent unto itself.
I work primarily on Arches 140 lb cold press paper. Occasionally I stretch the paper, but usually I weight it overnight throughout the 2-4 days of painting the illustration, and then wet the back and weight it until the end of the job, with my “very sophisticated” system of lots of heavy books and a few dumbbells on top of those. I print my final drawing very lightly, along with crop marks and contact information, on my Arches watercolor paper using an Epson printer. I rarely transfer drawings by hand, but when I do I use Saral transfer paper now rather than a light table, which I have actually given away.
Some Book Covers
Usually, art directors have been more interested in color comps for the cover rather than for the whole book. I do small comps, scan and send them. For myself, I do color and value comps for every illustration. For a recent 8” x 10” landscape book, the first color comps where I am figuring things out are pretty small—1.5” x 4” spreads printed out on an inexpensive watercolor paper. When they are that small, it takes a few minutes to splash on the paint, trying different approaches. The final color comps are larger—2.75” x 7” and are printed out on the Arches 140 lb paper. The more problem solving I do at this stage, the faster and more freely the actual painting flows.
How long have you been illustrating?
When I was six, I had my mom trace the pictures in my all-time favorite edition of Black Beauty (Random House 1949) so that I could color them in over and over. This beloved book is now literally falling apart into sections. I used to redraw the illustrations to all of my Nancy Drew books when I was 10 or 12. In high school, the main reason I passed chemistry was because my high school teacher loved my lab illustrations. So I guess the answer is really “since forever.”
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
I did an acrylic painting (pretty much my only one ever) of a little girl in a miniskirt with pigtails, with her hands behind her back. It sold in a show at our local arts center and I earned a whopping five dollars!
Did you go to school for art? If so where and why did you pick that school?
I started out as a French and Spanish major, but one day was so numbed by an education class that I switched immediately to a more impractical major, English literature. I’ve never regretted it because I love words and languages. But I did take some art classes while I was in college.
What did you study there?
There was one fabulous night class at the (then) Philadelphia College of Art with an incredible teacher whose name I sadly cannot remember (!). She said that illustration was 3% talent and 97% perspiration and she was absolutely right. I also took one watercolor class in college in which the teacher wanted delicate, clear paintings and I rubbed and pushed and scumbled the paint all over – we battled out the semester, met half way by the end, and I got a “C.” I also took quite a few calligraphy workshops. Calligraphy really helped to shape my sense of design and negative space, and brought out the best –and the worst—of my drive for perfection. It was also how I made my living for 20 some years.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
Immediately upon graduation, I began to work on a children’s illustration portfolio to take to New York. But for a day job, I started out in the now unimaginable world of paste-up. This was (gasp!) before computers and Photoshop and InDesign and even the early program Page Makeup. I first worked putting together TV Guide magazines—every entry had to be cut out from a galley sheet and pasted down on a master sheet with rubber cement. Black photo line borders came from Letraset and the corners had to be cut on the diagonal—mortised—to fit together. It was exacting and also boring, but I was earning money in the art field! I also learned how to measure really well and to have a very good eye for precise spacing.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
I continued to take calligraphy workshops and began to take commissions for illustrated manuscripts including Ketubahs (Jewish marriage contracts). Eventually I did that full time, creating individual ones and selling prints to shops all over the country. It was kind of like creating a one page book. I had to integrate text and art, synthesizing the client’s individual taste and objects that they wanted portrayed into an overall design. There were initial sketches, revisions, color comps, and deadlines — everything involved in picture book illustration.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Oh my gosh –yes, yes, yes! It’s been a long time, so it would be pretty sad if there hadn’t been any growth, improvement and change! But my loyalty to watercolor has remained steadfast.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I think that Black Beauty book was truly inspiring to me. I wanted to be that illustrator, Phoebe Erickson, when I grew up! Her animals were very real but also had distinctive personalities.
What was your first book you illustrated?
Ahh. Technically, my first book was The Tattooed Torah for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. There was no art director and I was basically on my own to design the 32 page book, spec the type, and create two-color art –which meant a grayscale painting for each color, one on an overlay. I hated the cover that they absolutely insisted on. Later on, Martin Lemelman did a beautiful full color version of the story. I learned and taught myself a lot on that project, and for a newbie with no experience or help I think it was a pretty good effort.
But in my mind, my first “real” book was The Key to Life for Peter Pauper Press in 1995. I labored over 40 hours on each 3” x 4” illustration, and loved every one of them. It was a lovely project to work on and one of their all-time best sellers.
How did that contract come about?
The Tattooed Torah came about just after college. There was a small grant to publish the book, and my name came up because someone knew of my work with the Jewish marriage contracts. Connections, connections. The Key to Life was a different story. When I first saw Peter Pauper’s little gift books, I knew my work would be a good fit. I sent samples to the editor every few months, and when my husband and I were planning a vacation that would take us through White Plains, I gathered my courage and gave them call. I was invited in for an interview, given one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had –a book cover in a style completely different than mine—and then began to work on a series of lovely books, beginning with The Key to Life.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
6 picture books, 12 early chapter books and about 20 gift books and albums.
Have you ever won an award for any of the books you illustrated?
Yes, The Nutcracker Ballet (Peter Pauper Press 2008) won a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award and a NAPPA Honors Award. Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream (SmartLove Press LLC 2012) won some 13 awards and honors, including the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) Ben Franklin Award: First Prize in Children’s Picture Books. I was especially proud of that because I designed the book in addition to illustrating the story.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Absolutely. I always have my own projects that I work on when I have time. I’ve gotten some beautiful rejections and some wonderful advice on three projects that are always simmering on the back burner, two written by me and one by a friend.
What book do you think was your biggest success?
Well, The Nutcracker Ballet was very hard for me because I always prefer to illustrate animals and that book involved over 40 human characters. One of the nicest comments I ever got on that was when someone said to me, “You must have taken ballet classes, because you really got the poses right.” I have always loved the ballet though I never took a class, but all of my research paid off! Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream was very special to me because it gave me a chance to design the book from scratch as well as illustrate it.
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
The closest I have come is adding a story in the pictures that is not in the accompanying text. I love working with minimal words, so I think wordless would be a lot of fun if the right idea occurred. Dennis Nolan’s Sea of Dreams was a huge inspiration for the book I just finished, and David Wiesner’s Tuesday and Eric Rohmann’s Time Flies sit happily on my shelves. I am always drawn to wordless books!
Do you have an artist rep? If so, who and how did you connect?
Do you illustrate full time?
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Watercolor, hands down. I love it. Occasionally I add in some color pencil, watercolor pencil or pastel pencil.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I research extensively. I took a workshop with Justin Gerrard a few years ago, and he suggested spending a few days or even a week just getting to know an animal without worrying so much about the character in the book, learning its anatomy, movements etc. That was very good advice. I download pictures from google, both realistic and cartoons, check out YouTube, raid the library and look at what other illustrators have done for inspiration, but I am very careful not to copy anyone’s work, including photographers’. After I have spent some time researching an animal, if it is possible I will draw and photograph from real life at a farm, zoo, aquarium, etc.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
I use Photoshop primarily for resizing things and moving them around in the sketch stage. I also scan the finished drawings, make them very light and then print them out on watercolor paper. During the painting process, I often check my values by scanning or photographing the painting, converting it to grayscale and then playing around with the values to get it closer to my value comp. When I have to provide the color scans for a job, I will work on adjusting them in Photoshop – which has taught me to have a great deal of respect for the people who do this for a living!
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
Do you do exhibits to show off your art?
Yes. One of my favorites was when the Washington State History Museum blew up an 11 x17 INCH illustration into an 8 X 10 FOOT wall hanging. They silhouetted the little girl in the original, and then visitors could pose as though they were running with the herd of animals.
Would you be willing to work with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?
Yes. Both Mommy, Daddy, I had a Bad Dream and the picture book I just finished, The Land of Walloo (Mascot Books 2016) are self-published. Many prospective self-publishers don’t realize the amount of time, work, and money involved in producing a quality book. In fact, I find that they often look for and talk to the artist/designer LAST—and then need everything done very quickly, and they often have very literal and specific ideas about their illustrations, rather than being willing to engage in a collaborative process. But both of these authors were terrific to work with.
I work traditionally in a very detailed style, and that is a slower process. A 32 page book can take up to a year. So, while I get a lot of inquiries, it takes a while until the right project and author comes along. I love the freedom to design a book from scratch although it is also a little scary to be the designer, illustrator and coordinator. Thankfully I have a fabulous critique group. I also love working for publishers where I can give my input but the art director has the final responsibility and someone else puts it all together.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Some of my calligraphy was in a spread in Somerset Studio Magazine. In fact, I just sold a piece this past December that the buyer saw in an article over ten years ago. You never know!
Do you have a studio in your house?
Yes, I have a wonderful studio with a north window and a lovely view. This was a priority after many, many years of working out of a corner of the living room.
Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?
I think my studio library is too extensive to fit this answer. So, I have a wonderful old haberule type gauge which I love and still use all the time—to measure all of those tiny spaces.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I attend SCBWI workshops and webinars, and I usually take one or two illustration or watercolor workshops each year. I know my best time for working each day and I always listen to “that little voice” when it tells me to STOP. I also meet with my sharp-eyed critique group each month. I’ve been fortunate to have some very nice projects over the past three years, but in my spare time, I am always working on my back burner projects.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes, I am starting work on the sequel to Mommy, Daddy, I had a Bad Dream, about a little kangaroo who has terrible temper tantrums.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
It is so much easier to contact publishers, authors, and illustrators — which is great. And it is so much easier to send in work up to the very last minute, instead of mailing something out days before the drawings are due! But I also begin to resent the computer as being the great time sucker—we definitely have a love-hate relationship.
What are your career goals?
I hope that my work will continue to improve and grow. I try to challenge myself with every project—better drawings, different points of view, perspective, design. It would be nice to have one of my own books published.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
I do my final line drawing of an illustration and then print it out very lightly on 140 lb Arches cold press watercolor paper. I keep the lines light so that I am free to redraw and “sculpt” with the paint. If I make a mistake, it is easy to print it out again and I don’t have to spend time transferring the drawing by hand, which is actually something I enjoy doing but there just isn’t time on a book project.
Two watercolor erasing tips: Mr. Clean’s original magic eraser is terrific, when gently used. And the University Bright 237 series brushes (long handled) are terrific erasers and drybrush scumbling tools.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
There are so many incredible learning opportunities available now—both brick and mortar and online. I would learn to draw really well through practice with drawing tools and paper in addition to digital work. The knowledge will always shine through everything you do. I would recommend a calligraphy class to learn about negative space, design, and also the importance of your breathing when you work. And, especially in the beginning, I would highly recommend being flexible in accepting jobs that might not be the subject matter or the pay scale that you would like. Look at each job as a learning experience. Sometimes the route to what you want to do is very roundabout, but you can learn an incredible amount along the way. I fell back into children’s books just as I thought I might have to give up the dream and stick to gift books and greeting cards. But all of the experience along the way prepared me to take on the Nutcracker book, and allowed Peter Pauper to entrust me with it.
Thank you Jo 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 Jo’s work, you can visit her website at: www.jogershman.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Jo. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!