Maria is a freelance illustrator and artist. She is from Barcelona, Spain, but she currently lives in Chicago with her husband and their two little children. She is passionate about bringing her art to the children’s picture book industry.
Her clients include Lerner Publishing, Editions Anna Chanel, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill among others. Maria has worked in the educational field and for the trade market and she regularly collaborates with magazines too.
Maria creates her work both digitally and in traditional media, often combining both. She specially enjoys bringing new characters to life. When not creating children’s book dummies, she enjoys playing with her children, reading and photography. Most of the times doing everything at once. With a cup of coffee, of course 🙂
Picture Books: Atout Coeur, Nathalie Collon-M.Mola, Ed. Anna Chanel (2008)
Le vieil homme et la fée, Jerôme Ledorze,M.Mola, Ed. Anna Chanel (2009)
La fabulosa historia del secador mágico, Martín Piñol, Maria Mola, Edebé (2011)
Antonio´s Birthday Fiesta, J.H. Herrera, M. Mola, Pearson (2011)
Jeremy´s Dreidel, E. Gellman, M. Mola, Kar-Ben Publishing (2012)
Maria is member of the SCBWI.
Here’s Maria discussing her process:
Sketches. I usually sketch in Photoshop directly with the tablet. I think it’s easy to be bold and keep the spontaneity, AND you can make infinite variations playing with layers to add different backgrounds, trying different colors… Plus Command+Z is an amazing feature!.
Color. Once the sketches are approved I move on to color. I love this step, it is when everything comes alive! Since I started my career with acrylics I like to add a subtle textured look. I have several textures that I made with real paint and paper and I have scanned.
I place the texture on top in an overlay layer and lower the opacity till I like it. Then I usually start with the background which can change several times, but it helps me built the color of the characters. Lately I have been consciously trying to limit the number of layers to avoid having huge files.
An illustration is kind of a living thing, until the very end I can add details or the publisher may ask for modifications that were not in the original sketches.
Interview with Maria Mola:
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been illustrating since 2007. I can’t believe it’s been nine years!
When did you leave Barcelona to live in Chicago? Why did you decide to move to the US?
We moved to the USA in 2007 because my then
fiancé (and now husband) started a PhD in Philadelphia. After 4 years he found a position as a professor at Northwestern University and we moved to Chicago with our one year old, Pau. (cont.)
Illustrating came hand in hand with moving from Barcelona in 2007. I started an illustration course the year I left and I was really excited about it. So when we arrived and I couldn’t work full time with the visa I originally had, I decided to work more on my portfolio and started sending emails with samples to publishing houses everywhere.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
It was a children’s book for a French publisher, Atout
coeur. One of the hundreds of emails I sent around the globe got to a french publisher and they loved one of my illustrations, the baby elephant, and they wrote a poem-like story for a children’s book based on that character. The characters in that book (the elephant and a little mouse) are still my favorite! And here and there I have been ‘tributing’ them.
Did you go to school for art?
I didn’t go to Art School for formal education.
After years working in several positions, in communication, and then clerical positions at the local government I felt that something was missing. I contacted the Francesca
Bonnemaison School in Barcelona that has workshops in illustration and other arts, and the illustration teacher very kindly allowed me to attend a class to see if I was interested. I did and I felt very intimidated by the high level technique of the work of the students, many of which came from a formal art education, and I left the room without enrolling. But one year later I don’t know how I dared to enroll that same course with the same teacher, fabulous illustrator Ignasi Blanch. Best decision ever!!! (cont.)
Through that course I learned about a workshop with Anna Laura Cantone in Italy, and I had the pleasure to spent a couple of weeks in Italy learning from her — she’s so brilliant! That was only one week before moving to the States, what a Summer!
After moving to the US I have been taking classes and occasional workshops on art and design at institutions like Moore College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia), and the School of the Art Institute (Chicago).
What did you study there?
At Francesca Bonnnemaison, I studied a course of Introduction to illustration. A 101 generic class about methods, illustrators, trends, styles. I had a full-time job at the time, but that one class a week, gave me a lot of “homework” and I felt so happy to buy new art supplies I had never heard about. I felt like a little kid entering a new parallel magic world. I was totally mesmerized by the children’s books I was learning about. Through that course I began to investigate the children’s book world and went to some fairs like Salon Jeunesse at Paris, where Rebecca Dautremer herself was signing books.
What helped you to develop your style?
I think the fact that I was not coming from a “traditional” art background was both a challenge and an opportunity as I was starting to find my own voice. It was a challenge because I did not have the technical skills that some other people had. At the same time, it liberated me from having to make some choices (e.g., which technique, etc) and from overthinking the technical aspects of my work when I was starting — ignorance is bliss! I just did what I could, and I focused on the “soul” of the characters rather than on technical execution or following a trend. And I think that in a sense that helped me develop my style.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
When I moved to the US I could not work so I focused on developing my portfolio and improving my technique.
Did they help you get work after you graduated?
Not directly, but Ignasi, the instructor of the course I attended in Barcelona, was always very supportive and encouraged me to be bold and try to make illustration my profession, which was something I was not originally considering, since for me it was more like a hobby when I enrolled his class.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Yes. The main change from my early work was going digital.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
As I mentioned above the course that initiated me in illustration was run by Ignasi Blanch, who is a children’s illustrator himself. The class focused mostly about children’s illustration because he was in the field, and he was a very good connoisseur of European illustrators, and very passionate. I had enrolled that course as a hobby but started to entertain the idea that illustration could become a profession.
Was Jeremy’s Dreidel your first book in English?
My first book in English was in fact ‘Anthonio’s Birthday Party’ for Pearson. It has some words in Spanish since it’s about a Mexican family. Very cute story.
How did that contract come about?
I was already working for educational books with Tugeau2 and was interested in getting some work on pictures books too. Another illustrator was supposed to do this book, but had a personal problem and could not work on it. They offered me to jump in. The timeline was super tight, I had around one month to do sketches and color, but I was so happy to work on a picture book!
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Yes!!!! When I was little I really liked to write short stories, even as an teenager. But… my English is not great.
When I came to the States I didn’t speak much English, and I met a group of Spanish speaking friends so I never really improved much. Besides, working at home as a freelancer it didn’t give me the chance to. (cont.)
Paradoxically, I feel that somehow now I have started to think in English, and I have been forgetting my Catalan and Spanish writing skills. So now I don’t feel confident in any language to write my ideas!
… but yes, I would love to write my own stories. In fact, my favorite part when drawing a character is to imagine his life, what he wants, it’s something that I do unconsciously. I have written and illustrated some dummies… Let’s see if some day I can sell them or self-publish them.
What do you think is your biggest success?
I think I had ‘the beginner’s luck’. My biggest success was sending all those emails with the only 4 or 5 images that I got from that course I went in Barcelona. Without overthinking if they were good enough, just curious to see if somebody would reply back with some feedback….And it worked with Atout : they wrote a story for my baby elephant illustration. The success was the days spent sending those emails pretending I could be a professional artist… This happened in my first days in Philadelphia. Actually around the same time I discovered hazelnut flavored coffee… which I drank in large amounts!
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
No, I haven’t. But because of the language barrier I made a book for little readers with just a few sentences per page to try to skip my handicapped language barrier.
I see you’re represented at Tugeau2. How did you connect with Nicole and when was that?
Hazelnut flavored coffee! Those days that I sent emails everywhere. I came to the conclusion that in the USA the illustrators that I liked were associated to agencies. So, I sent that portfolio to a few of them, and that led me to Nicole, who has been very helpful.
Do you illustrate full time?
Unfortunately, no. Or maybe fortunately, no. I have two little kids, ages 4 and 6. My husband travels a lot so a lot of my time goes to taking care of the kids. I work while the kids are at school, but the little one is at preschool so it’s only like four hours a day four days a week. At this time, I am working on two books and have a deadline in 15 days, so I have to put more hours at night and in the weekends.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I have been working digitally since my second book Le vieil home et la fée. I love acrylics and watercolors, but when working in my first book I realized how messy it was, how many times I had to redo some images to get consistent characters, and how expensive art materials were – specially at a time when we lived on student stipend. While working on my first book I was also experimenting with digital painting, and I felt confident to go all digital for the second picture book.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Generally, no, but this is something I have recently been forcing myself to do. I tend to spend more time with characters — that is the first thing I think about when I read a text. There are many aspects in a book where research is very helpful for context, but I usually think about this in a later stage, which sometimes results in redrafting.
Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?
Yes, I have been working for educational publishers
in the past like Pearson or McGraw Hill. There are more creative constraints. Instead of the freedom to interpret the text that is typical in the picture books industry, you often have very specific instructions of what to draw/size/palette etc. At the same time, work is more predictable.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes, Photoshop is these days my main tool.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I use a graphic tablet, I have been debating for a long time
on whether to move to the next level and buy a Cintiq, but I feel so attached to my tablet and my almost 10 year old iMac, which I bought with my first paycheck after I arrived to the States.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
I was contacted by a literary magazine in Spain for an illustration for an article about children’s literature, Que leer.
I would love to do more of this type of work. There are some advantages to one-illustration jobs, as opposed to ones involving a sequence, because there are less constraints (e.g., consistency), and you can be more spontaneous and creative. I would like and expand to other audiences beyond children.
Do you studio a studio in your house?
I have an office in our apartment. I share it with my husband, and I would love to have a separate place for me and my stuff, since with the printers, scanner, light box…, it feels too crowded. I have to get rid of his desk and computers. Some day.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
My computer? (old iMac).
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
In the last years there’s been a different routine each day, because of the kids. I have tried to get up early, like around 4.00 or 5.00am, but they have a sensor or something and when I get up early, they get up early too. Sometimes I try to stay late at night. Now that both kids have a consistent schedule I am trying to make the most of the hours I am by myself. I have to say though, that when I come back to the office after preparing breakfast and getting them to school, I feel like I need to rest already…(cont.)
Finding efficient routines is one of my pastimes. I love to read about productive tools, and try them like pomodoro technique, to do lists, this kind of nerdy things, but interestingly I don’t stick to them long enough.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
I am currently working on two picture books. ‘Koala Challah’ is for Lerner, I loved to paint the koalas — I love animals! And I am working on ‘Sparkly Boy’ for Lee & Low, a cute story on a socially-important topic.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Absolutely. I can’t imagine the life of an illustrator before Internet. Because of Internet I could access to publishing houses contacts, check their books on the websites to see what they like, and send them my portfolio address or a few images
in an email. Coming from a little village near Barcelona, I illustrated my first book in the US working for a French publishing company I had never met!
And working from home is one of my favorite parts, since I am a bit introvert.
What are your career goals?
At this point, to keep a constant level of work. Being a freelancer, the balance between working and finding new work can be challenging, and there are very busy and also not so busy times. I would love to expand to other types of illustration, like magazines. I would love to be a creative for Disney.
Oops, just dreaming.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
As I have mentioned I have been working digitally. I have an Etsy shop, where I sell some art prints, and I have found that my favorite paper to print on is the Epson Ultra Premium Presentation Paper Matte. I wish there was a thicker version, though. I recently purchased a great (and huge) Epson R3000 to go with it, and it is one of the reasons why I need to kick my husband out of the office…
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Work on what you love and make sure you love
what you do. And don’t hesitate to show your work.
Thank you Maria 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 Maria’s work, you can visit her at website at: http://www.mariamola.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Maria. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!