Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 6, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Laura Freeman

Originally from New York City, I now live in Atlanta with my husband and our two children. I received my BFA from the School of Visual Arts and began my career working for various editorial clients. I have illustrated over thirty children’s books, including Hidden Figures written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the Nikki & Deja series by Karen English and Fancy Party Gowns by Deborah Blumenthal. In addition to illustrating books and editorial content, her art can be found on a wide range of products, from dishes and textiles to greeting cards.

Laura has won many honors and awards. In 2019 she won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Hidden Figures and the NAACP Image Award – Outstanding Literary Work for Children for Hidden Figures. That same year she won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Pies From Nowhere. Hidden Figures was selected as a Children’s Book All Young Georgians Should Read.

HERE IS LAURA DISCUSSING HER PROCESS:

1. The initial sketch portrayed Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson and Babe Zaharias

2. color study of first sketch

3. revised sketch adding present day athletes Megan Rapinoe and Simone Biles.

I don’t normally include faces in my early sketches as I realize that things are going to change a lot and I don’t want to put a lot of energy into capturing a likeness until I feel the everything is in it’s final position.

4. Second revision, we decided it should be all present day figures and ended up only including Simone Biles, Megan Rapinoe, Serena Williams and Chloe Kim.

5. Finally the finished art

INTERVIEW WITH LAURA FREEMAN

What made you decide to attend School of Visual Arts to get your BFA?

I chose SVA because I already knew I wanted to become an illustrator and I was impressed with their illustration teachers. All of them were illustrators first, teachers second. I felt that they really had first-hand knowledge of the field. Also, I lived in NY already and back then, although it was expensive it wasn’t as outrageously expensive as it is now!

You mention on your website that your art can be found on a wide range of products, from dishes and textiles to greeting cards. Do you accept jobs to illustrate those type of things?

I’ve licensed images to companies that produce these products, but I’ve been so very busy with illustration assignments that I haven’t been able to do this for quite a while now.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

I decided I wanted to do this when I was five years old when my mom told me it was an actual job! That aspiration morphed into wanting to be a ballerina and then into becoming an editorial illustrator but I eventually found my way back to my first love J I still love to do editorial work though.

What a great way to kick off 2021 with three picture books. The first one on January 5th was The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy by Kekla Magoon and published by Quill Tree Books. When did you start working on this book?

I got the manuscript in May of 2019 , I think that’s when I started working on the sketches.

I Just featured your second book, Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums published by Sleeping Bear Press that came out on January 15th. I loved this book and all the illustrations. How long did you have and how long it take you to illustrate this book?

I got that manuscript in November of 2019 but I don’t think I was able to begin working on sketches until April of 2020 and I handed in the final art October 1, 2020. I didn’t work on it that whole time though. I knew I had a long deadline and there were other projects in between the time I received it and when I sent in the finals.

Standing on Her Shoulders by Monica Clark-Robinson came out on Feb 2, 2021 by Orchard Books I don’t have the book, but the cover is fabulous. Did Orchard give you free reign on how to illustrate this book?

That book went through a lot of iterations. When I sent in my ideas, my sketches, the editor and art director had a bit of a different vision for how the story would be told, so I sent in revised sketches. Then it all came to a halt because there was a staff change and after many months of it being put on hold it was back to the drawing board ..literally! It ended up being one of the most difficult books I’ve worked on because of all the changes of direction and timing but the Art Director who I ended up with: Brian LaRossa was phenomenal and it all worked out.

During my research of your work for this interview. I discovered you illustrated Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was published by HarperCollins in May 8, 2018. Did you have any idea that you would become a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honoree and be recognized with an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children for your illustrations in this book?

No, I was stunned! It was a great honor to be offered the project to begin with and I never dreamed it would win any awards. It just didn’t occur to me.

It looks like Hidden Figures really set you up as the go to illustrator for non-fiction picture books about black women. Where you aware of this when you were asked to illustrate A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown that came out in January 7, 2020?

By the time I was offered A Voice Named Aretha I had already done a few biographies of inspiring black women. Fancy Party Gowns: the Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal and Pies From Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained The Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito were already published and I had just finished working on Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis; Fleet-Of-Foot Girl by Megan Reid. I know that Hidden Figures put me on the map!

You followed this up a week later with DREAM BUILDER by Kelly Lyons published by Lee & Low. Was this the first book you illustrated about a black man and his accomplishments?

No, actually I had already illustrated a book about Dr. Chester Pierce the professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who made history when he became the first black player to break the college football color line. His varsity team at Harvard played the University of Virginia in 1947 when colleges in the South didn’t play with or against black Athletes. It’s called Follow Chester: A College football Team Fights Racism and Makes History by Gloria Respress-Churchwell.

Did you learn anything about Aletha that you didn’t know while illustrating Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl by Megan Reid in Jan 21, 2020 published by Balzer + Bray?

Not having been a tennis fan before starting, the only names I really knew well were Venus and Serena Williams, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King so absolutely everything was new to me!

After illustrating Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes and published by Atheneum 0n Aug 25, 2020, how did it feel to have her end up becoming Vice President of the United States?

I was thrilled! I would have been happy even had I not worked on the book but that just took it over the top!

Do you think illustrating Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal and published by Little Bee Books in Jan 17, 2017 got you noticed by HarperCollins and helped get your contract with them to illustrate Hidden Figures?

Absolutely! Fancy Party Gowns was the first book I illustrated in that style. Before that my work was a little different. I didn’t incorporate the patterns and textures as much.

Obviously, Little Bee loved your work on Fancy Party Gowns, since they asked you to illustrate Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito which came out on Nov 6, 2018. How long did they give you to illustrate the book?

I don’t remember exactly when I started it but I handed in sketches end of October and final art was due in December of 2017. So it was probably around 3 months.

In 2009 you illustrated book one of Nikki and Deja with Clarion. Did you know you would be illustrating six books at the time of signing?

No, that took me by surprise!

It looks like you illustrated one book each year. Did you follow a schedule to finish the work by 2014 or did you end up being ahead of schedule?

Most of them came in one at a time as Karen wrote them and I never knew when and if I would get to do another.

How many illustrations did you do for each book?

Since these were chapter books, there were a lot of interior illustrations. I did the color cover and about 40 B&W interior illustrations for each one. Most of the interior art were spots but a few in each book were full pages.

When did you sign the contract to do an illustrated series, the second series of books that Karen English wrote?

Each of those books had a separate contract as well. The first Nikki and Deja book came out in 2007 and the first Carver Chronicles book, Dog Days in 2013.

Was there anything different that was required in The Carver Chronicles six books series than you what did with your first series of books with Clarion?

The Carver Chronicles were the boy version of Nikki & Deja. It used the same format except there were some different characters. Even though it was the same world, the same neighborhood, each of the boy books had a different protagonist, and Nikki and Deja were background characters.

I noticed some of the books are being published in Spanish. Do you expect all of them will follow suit?

It would be nice. I’ve been learning Spanish and it’s fun for me to read them in another language!

Was A Brave Spaceboy by Dana Kessimakis published by Hyperion in 2005 your first picture book?

I think my first hardcover picture book was Jazz Baby by Carole Boston Weatherford in 2002. I’ve been doing this a long time!

Did you have an agent in 2006 when you signed a contract with Lee & Low to illustrate Jazz Baby by Carole Boston Weatherford that came out in March 2006?

I did but actually it only looks like Jazz Baby came out in 2006 because it went out of print for a few years and then was reissued in 2006. I began working on it in 2001 and It was first published in 2002.

Was Natalie’s Hair Was Wild! published by Clarion, the first book you wrote and illustrated?

It was.

Do you think you will write and illustrate more books?

I don’t know if I have another one in me as an author. I first wrote that story and created the book dummy in the 1990’s before I had illustrated any books. I did the book dummy as a way to break into children’s publishing.

How did you connect with Janet DeCarlo at Storybook Arts? And how long have you been with them?

My first agent was Bernadette Szost at Portfolio Solutions. She was wonderful and I was heartbroken when she retired. She was the one who recommended Janet. They used to be partners.

I visited your page at Storybook Arts and saw an illustration for Daisy Bates: A Civil Rights Leader, but couldn’t find the book on Amazon. Is this something you are working on now?

It wasn’t a book but an editorial illustration for a website called Illustrated Impact. Unfortunately the site no longer exists but I like the image so I keep it in my portfolio.

Did you have representation earlier on in your career?

Bernadette at Portfolio Solutions was my first agent. I think I first signed with her in 2001.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Hidden Figures is still my most well known and successful book to date.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I work digitally in Photoshop now. I love the flexibility the computer gives me. I am always changing my mind about color right up to the very last second!

Has that changed over time?

I’ve worked in a few mediums over the years. I’ve illustrated projects using pencil, scratchboard, oils and pastels before starting to work on the computer. Before Photoshop I used Painter.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

I use a small Wacom drawing tablet and pen.

What materials and/or tools do you use to create your work?

I draw directly into the computer using my Wacom pen and tablet.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

Lately I’ve had back to back deadlines so I haven’t put much time into just sketching and painting for fun although I know I should.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Both. I research on line and I take photos.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

I think Instagram and my website have gotten me work, and it’s definitely made life easier too. Before the internet I used to have an enormous picture file of my own.. I had boxes and boxes of pictures stored everywhere in every corner of my tiny NYC apartment, even my loft bed. You’d open a closet and boxes and boxes of old magazine clippings would fall on your head! I never seemed to be able to find what I was looking for so I would always end up using the picture file at the NY Public Library anyway. I don’t know if it exists any more. It was a place where you could borrow pictures, photos, magazine clippings of almost anything.

In addition to making research easier it’s also made it easier to get work. I started in the days when you had to call magazines and publishing houses to try and make an appointment and more often than not they would have you drop off your portfolio instead. You’d drop it off and pick it up the next day and hope that someone had seen it. Even just having a portfolio is so much easier. Illustrators didn’t include original art in a portfolio that would be dropped off overnight. Since I didn’t have very many tear sheets (cut outs from magazines of my published work) I used to have professional prints made. It was expensive. Back then you either got C-prints or transparencies of your art. It’s so easy now to just upload something to Instagram or a portfolio site and change it or add to it for free whenever I feel like it, or have the time!


Will the U.S. Open Show that Big Events Can Return to New York?

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

I feel like my dreams have already come true! I’m so fortunate to be doing exactly what I love!

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up the finals for a book for MacMillan called Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth by Michelle Duster and am starting on A Seat at the Table: The Nancy Pelosi Story by Elisa Boxer for Random House.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

Since I work digitally now I’m a big fan of Photoshop and Kyle’s brushes. A Photoshop subscription is pricey but if you’re a student there’s a discount. I haven’t spent much time on it but it you have an ipad or tablet it’s more cost effective to use Procreate. I’m just used to using Photoshop and am comfortable with it.

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Since it took me at least 25 years to become an “overnight success” I’d say my secret is persistence. If you want something bad enough you’ll do what it takes to make it happen. In my case that meant: keep on painting/drawing and don’t give up. The time put in, the “10,000 hours” improved my work, which in turn improved my chances at getting work and being able to do what I love.

Laura, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and sharing your process with us. You artwork is amazing. I loved every minute I spent working with your illustrations. Please let me know when you win an award or have finished another book. I am sure everyone would like to hear about your future successes. 

You can use these links to see more of Laura’s work:

Website: https://www.lfreemanart.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/laurafreemanart/

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laurafreemanhines/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurafreemanart?lang=en

Agency: https://storybookartsinc.com/artists/laura-freeman/

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing your beautiful art!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Inspiring interview!

    Like

  3. All I can say is, ” How Impressive!”

    Like

  4. Wonderful! I especially love the illustration from Natalie’s Hair was Wild.

    Like

  5. Gorgeous work! Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  6. Wow so many beautiful illustrations.

    Like

  7. I love everything Laura illustrates. That’s why I was thrilled that she agreed to illustrate my book, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY. Her work is realistic but at the same time whimsical and relatable. For me, she is just the perfect biography illustrator!

    Like

    • I love her work, too, and I loved all the illustrations she did for your book. Seeing them mad it impossible for me not to ask her to be featured. You are so lucky to have gotten her for an illustrator.

      Like


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