Michael Emberley has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1979. He grew up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, has lived in Oakland CA, and in San Diego, Calif, but now he lives just south of Dublin, Ireland, between the Irish Sea, and the Wicklow mountains. He has no art degree, no writing degree, no kids, no house and no pets but he does have a lot of pencils and a pretty decent stereo. He also has a sister and father (Rebecca and Ed) who make children’s books, and a wife, (Marie-Louise), who also writes and illustrates children’s books, and talks with a funny accent. His hobbies include bicycle racing, bike riding, cycling, mountain biking, avoiding driving, and talking in a funny accent. He bought his first television set at age of forty so he could watch a bike race and his first car a few years later because there was no subway in California. He does drive still and cycle in Ireland almost as much as he did in America, just on the wrong side of the road….
HERE IS MICAEL SHARING HIS PROCESS:
Sketchbook page early in development of Priscilla character. At this point I’m toying with basic print pajamas with fuzzy ape slippers and “mask”. Notes are a typical technique for me early on.
Sketchbook page exploring Priscilla’s costume, hair style etc. Notice I circled one sketch and used arrows on several others. I do that to focus my attention later as I comb through hundreds of pages of sketches to refine what strikes me on a page. I have chosen more of a costume look rather than typical two piece PJs. Also I’m already going for ape like posture.
More realistic exploration probably looking at photos. I rejected the “hairy-look” suit but moving towards a one piece or, “onesie”.
little sketchbook I took on plane ride, and sketched directly from still framed sequences from the animated film, Tarzan I was watching on the seat in front of me…. Combined with other sources, I refined my sense of how a gorilla would stand and move. Something I wanted Priscilla to naturally to do.
just to get an idea how many sketches I do for one idea….these were all done on that flight.
these color sketches are compositions from scans of many later sketchbook pages, pulling out “circled” or ‘arrowed” pics, then adding a bit of color in photoshop. These are to show client and author to show them the direction I’m going in.
I assembled these just to show how a single idea threads towards final art. I was adapting the adult Tarzan and apes into a little girl, as she might mimic watching the very same film.
This Photoshop coloured composite is the end result of the movement /posture research. I showed this page, along side a colour book dummy to publishers in New York when my agent and author Barbara Bottner and I trekked up and down Manhattan taking meetings with editors. I wanted to show a bit more of her character, outside the story context.
How long have you been illustrating?
Since 1979. That’s a long time…
Tell us a little bit about where you live?
I live in Ireland now with my Irish Wife Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, also a children’s book author /Illustrator. I live in a small town, (they call it a village here) about an hour south of Dublin. Close to the Wicklow mountains, and the Irish sea, across from Wales.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
That would be my first book, Dinosaurs!… I did at 19. Before that, as a kid, we sewed hand puppets, like Jim Henson’s Muppets, and sold them at local craft fairs.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
After school???um, I illustrated children’s books as well as a little bit of illustration work for magazines.
How old were you when you took off to run around Australia and New Zealand? What made you chose to travel to these countries?
Ah, I was in my 20’s. My friend Chuck and I wanted to go. He has an aunt and uncle in Sydney. And this silly film, Crocodile Dundee, had an extraordinary effect on Australia’s profile in America as a tourist destination. I had us thinking…
Did you like it there? How did you pay the bills at such a young age?
I loved it..I I could fill pages with all the things I saw and people I met. I had saved some money see, working in Boston in the art department of an oil exploration training company, and thought, why not? I was doing computer graphics there – training videos, a brand new field then. I lied to get the job, letting them think I had a lot more experience than what I had… which was…none! I was a very quick learner and ended up being very good at it, but couldn’t imagine sitting in a dark, air conditioned room, staring at a screen, handling plastic all day… and so I impulsively, quit. Computers are so normal today it sounds silly to reject such a prospect, particularly as the money was pretty good. But, hey, I was young… I lived cheap and made it last. You can do things like that at that age…
After so many years living in the US, what inspired your move to Ireland?
Easy question – I met an Irish woman, fell in love, and followed her to Dublin. Her mother needed care and she had no choice but to stay there. I had been living in San Diego with my South African partner of five years when we met, at a children’s book conference in Frostburg, Maryland (Maryland actually has mountains). It was not an easy thing, to explode my life and move across the sea. But… sometimes you know, eh?
How does Ireland publishing opportunities compare with the ones you had in the US?
There is very little interest in my work here in Ireland. But…publishing is quite small and closed here. Between all the amazingly talented Irish artists and writers, then the UK talent, I would be a distant third no matter what…unless I was a million zillion seller, super talented, with Irish roots, a celebrity, and young and handsome, or better yet – all four. (read Oliver Jeffers here) there’s no room for me here. I’m contentedly “the husband” at my famous wife’s* events :0)
*My wife is one of the most decorated children’s book illustrators and authors in the country. She has won the highest prize in Irish children’s literature four times… (Once called the “Bisto”, after it’s sponsor, now the Children’s Books Ireland award.)
I see your father was an illustrator, too. Do you feel you picked up some of his talent and techniques while living at home?
Oh of course. He was in the house upstairs working all day, how could we not be? But maybe not how you might think. You don’t inherit drawing genes in the blood. But you do inherit a familiar exposure of the life of a freelance illustrator working for a book publisher. A book illustrator falls somewhere between an artist and writer. You are telling stories in art, working in and around words, either your own, or another’s. It’s an unusual life that you don’t learn at art schools. I fell into it. It was normalized. That’s what we picked up.
What do you think helped develop your style?
Style is something you try to choose, then it chooses you. My father showed a real disregard in his career for perfecting one single style, and that I think rubbed off on me. Studying illustrators I liked such as William Steig, Richard Scarry, Tomi Ungerer (who lives in Ireland), and Marc Simont. Among others…also had it’s influence.
Have you seen your work change over the years?
I seem to stick to one style lately. I am more interested in expressing emotion and movement through gesture, than looking pretty. Message over looks. Probably why I’m interested in writing.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I joke that I didn’t decide until I had been doing it for ten years, Because I began doing it just to make some money while I decided what I’d do with my life…Then found out I couldn’t do anything else.
Was THE PRESENT your first book?
No, Dinosaurs , a drawing book I did in 1979 was my first, then three books, and ten years later, Ruby, was my first story book, written and illustrated by myself. (Published in 1990. But you always finish the art a lot a year before the book hits the shelves, so I actually did it in 1989.)
How did that contract come about?
The first book, Dinosaurs!, came about because I was doing a bit of work on my fathers books, as my sister and mother also had done on and off. I was completing an entire section in a book of his called, The Big green Drawing Book, it was the dinosaur section. It ended up not looking enough like my father’s style, so he suggested I could re-do the entire thing, or try and make it into a separate book. So I did. Went in to my father’s wonderful editor, John Keller. And he took it. It sold well so I did a couple more, then I went to OZ and NZ, then came back and understood you needed to write as well as illustrate to make a living, so, by trial and editor, I taught myself to write (well enough) in a few years, to submit five book dummies to my old editor, John. Four were published. Ruby was first, and The Present was the second one. The Welcome Back Sun came third.
I see you have a new book coming out the first week of March. How did you get the contract to illustrate PRISCILLA GORILLA?
I met the author Barbara Bottner at a book conference in LA, and we chatted, found out we were fans of each other’s work, (I loved Bootsie Barker Bites), then she sent me a text to read, and I liked it! (of course). Priscilla Gorilla is the fourth book we have done together. We both understand the subversive child…
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
As I said earlier, I have written a few picture books already. But I have dedicated myself for more than ten years collaborating with three authors: Barbara, Mary Ann Hoberman (the You Read To Me, I’ll Read To You, series), and Robie Harris (the non fiction family library series about the facts of life, including, It’s Perfectly Normal.)
What do you think is your biggest success?
Well, overall I’d have to say my collaboration with author Robie Harris on the series for various age kids on sexuality and puberty. They have been a game changer for me and for the field of comprehensive sexuality education. The two of us worked at times like one mind, designing and composing the books with the only mantra being, “What’s in the best interest of the child?” I must have spent an entire year out of the ten we worked on those books as well as others, in Robie’s kitchen, crafting, tinkering, writing, pushing for the best we could do. It was all for a higher cause I guess you could say. The lives of children, their health and well being, were all that mattered. People say they like one of my books, but these books people have thanked us for producing. I’ll never be thanked like that again, I’m certain. We contributed to a genre of children’s non fiction that is being copied to this day. 20 years and over 30 languages later, they’re still going strong.
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
Yes, I have done several, all unpublished. I even tried to get a few of Robie and my projects to go wordless, but we never worked it out. My genius wife however, has just had her first wordless book come out over here. (I contributed a tiny, tiny bit..) Titled, Owl, Bat, Bat, Owl, it will be out in the USA in May, I believe. A perfect antidote to all the division and intolerance brewing around he world. A simple tale of accommodating newcomers and respecting differences. Check it out.
Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how long have you worked with them?
I have been working with Rick Richter for two years. My first agent. It was time. The business is changing and I wanted to share the navigation through stormy seas.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I like pencil and watercolor, but I just like to be loose. I like line better than colour. But I’m just more relaxed with line.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Only for the books on babies I did with Robie Harris – one is titled, Happy Birthday!. The new born babies I did in a realistic style so it made sense. I went to three live births as research.I recommend it to everyone to see where they come from…Photos are so limiting though, I found it hard. The real thing was majestic. I knew I’d never did it justice, but I tried.
Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?
No, not really.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes, I use Photoshop more and more for working on sketches primarily, putting together dummy books and tweaking drawings for constancy of character and age etc.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
No I haven’t. But my wife does.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Do you studio a studio in your house?
Yes I have a studio in my house just now, but I have also had one in the village for several years. The building owner kicked us out to renovate the building… it may take years….I need to find a new space or my wife and I will kill each other sharing the same tiny spare bedroom…
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
Sure, my table that is a hand made glass surface light box. I have drawn on one since working with my father years ago doing paper color overlays for his pre-separated illustrations. I use it to trace my own sketches to refine them. But nowadays I also use the computer for some of that.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Oh could I tell you exciting stories of what I have going… Pull up a stool and let me get this next round… Listen, I have written several novels, chapter books, and countless picture books, as well as some grandiose non fictions books explaining the universe… all unfinished or unpublished…
But to simplify – I have a young animal novel that I’m focusing on, it’s been edited and needs my next round of cuts. I have a picture book under contract – one for Charlesbridge Publishing in Massachusetts, for an art director I worked with over 20 years ago…
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
In a word, no. But I think it’s better for older readers like chapter books and YA.
What are your career goals?
To live long enough to publish everything on my plate.
What are you working on now?
The Charlesbridge picture book, the non fiction book, the novel, and a development project for an actress, signer/songwriter (my lips are sealed) helping her with a picture book idea. Oh, and several other picture books I keep teasing into ife that either are not done or rejected at least once… I never do one thing at a time. Did you notice?
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
Oh man, just fool around with everything and see what turns you on. But it’s unlikely you will escape needing some computer graphic skills in publishing. That genie is long out of the bottle. But otherwise, it’s up to each artist. Play! Have fun. I will show in your work if you are having fun.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Yes, write, and draw from the heart. And don’t be afraid of strong emotions. Children are no less sophisticated than adults, just less experienced. And remember you’ll have to go through several layers of adults before getting to the final audience – the kid. So the work needs to work on at least two levels.
Thanks for reading! Slán, Michael.
Thank you Michael 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 Michael’s work, you can visit his website: http://www.michaelemberley.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Michael. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!