Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 10, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Simona Ceccarelli

Simona Ceccarelli grew up in Italy, with a passion for both art and science, a large library – which has been expanding out of control ever since – and the urge to open all doors and follow every path. Her first journey was to study science and work as a medical research scientist for over 10 years. 

Art eventually lured her back to follow “the road not taken.” She studied illustration and visual development at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. After a brief detour into scientific communication, corporate marketing and even art direction, she found her happy place in children’s illustration. Her main path now is from the coffee machine to her studio, where she has all the adventure, excitement, laughter and emotion she could ever dream – and more.

When Simona is not drawing she is laughing with her kids, plant flowers, ride horses and read books (not all at the same time).

She loves colors, characters, stories, and making children smile. She gets that chance through her books and more with Sterling Children’s Books, Amicus Publishing, Scholastic Education, Thienemann-Esslinger, Dressler, Carlsen Verlag, Harper-Collins, PI Kids, Rizzoli/Mondadori, Cricket Media, Parallel Games, Haba and many others.

Simona currently lives in Switzerland with one husband two kids, three nationalities, four languages…and a cat.

BELOW IS SIMONA DISCUSSING HER PROCESS:

My approach to an illustration project is different for picture books, mid-grade books, book covers and single illustrations (for example for magazines).Here is an example of process for a book cover.

I generally do a lot of planning, sketching and test illustrations, and borrow several tools and approaches from visual development. Character design, storyboarding and color scripts, for examples are an integral part of my preparatory work. 

Even though there are no interior illustrations to be done (as was the case here), I will often start with character design. Characters are such a fundamental part of a narrative illustration, I feel you can never spend too much time getting them just right, even if they only appear in one illustration.

For a book cover (or anything, really), I start by jotting down some very, very rough thumbnails. These are often done on paper — I prefer to use paper for brainstorming: it forces me to stay loose, experiment, and keeps me from getting into execution mode. 

I scan and refine my favorite 5-8 designs, drop some tone on them, play with lettering options, and then send them to the editor or art director. 

 The choice here was for number 2…but we were not quite sure about the pose of the main character. I created a refined drawing with two different options. In general, I find the more choices you offer at the beginning of a project, the more collaborative it becomes and the less editing you will have to do later on, when things become time-consuming to change. At this stage, I also drew the back cover: a less prominent part of cover design, but which I believe does a lot to elevate the quality of the book presentation.

The editor loved the design, but was not quite convinced about the main character yet: so, on to some more variations! At the same time, I also started working on color scheme options for the wraparound cover.

With a final choice for both colors and characters, it was now time to go on to the final painting! At this stage, I can relax, knowing that all decisions have been made and approved. I put on an audiobook or some nice music and enjoy the uninterrupted flow of painting and rendering all the details.

The final layout is the remit of the book designer, but I rarely hold back from making a proposal anyhow!

INTERVIEW WITH SIMONA CECCARELLI: 

How long have you been illustrating?

Professionally since 2016…for my own enjoyment since I could hold a pencil!

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork? 

I honestly can’t remember…it happened in a time when I did not care much about getting paid for art. I used to do little cartoons and illustrations for science magazines and occasionally illustrated brochures for my employer before becoming a professional illustrator. One or the other of these “clients” have occasionally paid me. Before going freelance I worked for three years as art director in corporate communications, and there obviously I was being paid for doing art.


 

You say you studied Science and worked as a medical research scientist for more than ten years. Where you creating art during this time?

Yes! I’ve always had sketchbooks. I created a whole collection of science-themed cartoons which the world will never see. I switched from science to science communications and then to corporate communications before going freelance as illustrator. During those years I did a lot of illustration work. I also attended the AAU during that time, so I was obviously creating art for courses and assignments.

How did you find you way from living in Italy attend San Francisco’s Academy of Art University?

Wow, that’s a whole life story! I left Italy in 1999, when I started working as professional scientist. That’s a career with a fair amount of traveling and international collaborations, so the world became just one big village. After more than a decade of that, the idea of attending art school remotely at an academy based in SF did not seem far-fetched at all.

What made you choose the San Francisco’s Academy of Art University to study illustration?

In 2011, when I decided to pursue illustration “seriously”, I was working full time and had one small kid and a second on the way. The AAU was the only school to provide full remote education, a very sophisticated online platform and a lot of experience doing college-level education remotely for people based both in the US and abroad. We’re getting a lot more used to that idea these days (possibly one of the few positive consequence of a global epidemic), but the AAU has been doing it since 2000, and they’re extremely good at it. Even students who live in California or in SF itself attend a big proportion of classes online: it’s much more convenient than facing a daily commute. And for me, of course, it was a unique and life-changing opportunity. 


Did SFAAU help you find illustration work before or after you graduated?

Not directly, but I can confidently say that I would not be working as a professional illustration if not for the AAU.

How did you end up now living in Switzerland?

I came to Switzerland in 2002, as a scientist. The North of Switzerland has some of the best private research facilities in Europe, so it is not unusual at all for a researcher to end here. I never intended to stay this long….but it turns out Switzerland is a pretty good place to live (and that’s a major understatement…).


Was it hard to learn a new language when you moved?

I grew up bilingual (English and Italian). That makes learning new languages easier. I speak four now, but I still have a few decades left to learn some more 😉

Does the town you live in have a vibrant artist community?

It has a vibrant….contemporary fine arts community. I could never connect to an illustrators’ network here. My network is all over the world, on messaging platforms and social media. That makes it probably more interesting, diverse and vibrant than it would be locally pretty much anywhere. 

What type of work did you do when you started your career?

It’s a little hard for me to pinpoint when my career in illustration started, as I was doing so much illustration work already before focussing on children illustration. In this space, my first job was illustrating high/low readers for a Canadian educational publisher.

What made you decide to illustrate children’s books?

I’ve always been passionate about book illustration. As a child, I used to stare at book covers for hours. The way images make fictional worlds and characters come to life fascinates me. At the academy I fell in love with animation and I ended up switching major from Illustration to Visual Development. But at the end, book illustration was my first love and children books combine both worlds.

What do you think helped develop your style? 

The one and only thing: drawing my head off! A style is pretty much like the way you walk or the way you write. At the beginning, when you’re learning, it may be all over the place, but as you develop your skills, your view of the world, the things that interest you, your hands, body, and mind all flow into what you do. The only way your identity emerges is by doing lots and lots of work and gaining confidence in how you express yourself. Then you’re free to do what you want and even to work with different processes, mediums or stylization levels: your personality shows in everything, it’s unavoidable.
When I was learning my way into the illustration world, I realized I loved colors and action…and I think that’s part of what makes my “style”: bright colors and dynamic scenes.

How did Pragma Media find you to illustrate TSSOP gets ZAPPED by Jeffrey C Dunnihoo and published on Sep 22, 2019?

They chose me because of a detail in the background of an illustration I had posted on social media: an electricity pole. It was a purely incidental detail, but the fact that it was drawn in a technically correct way gave them the confidence that I could make child-friendly illustrations with a technical subject matter. It ended up being a three-book contract and a very rewarding and interesting collaboration.

Was this the first English picture book you illustrated?

No, my first English books were educational books for Rubicon Publishing.

How did you connect for representation with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency?

Sheer luck! Andrea was building her illustrators’ roster at the time and she liked my portfolio. Since TA represents worldwide, both in the US and in Europe, it was a good fit for me. We had a long chat and the chemistry was right.

Did Andrea find the opportunity for you to illustrate IF YOU HAD A BIRTHDAY PARTY ON THE MOON by Joyce Lapin with Sterling Children’s Books?

Yes, that’s entirely Andrea’s doing. I can easily contact European publishers, but it’s a bit more tricky to introduce yourself to the large US-based publishers. A good agent can build that connection.

How long did Sterling Children’s Books give you to illustrated the book?

I think I had about four or five months.

Did you sign a two book deal with Sterling when you sign the contract for IF YOU HAD A BIRTHDAY PARTY ON THE MOON?

No, it was a single book contract. “The Little Spacecraft That Could” was only an idea in Joyce’s mind at the time.

How long after finishing IF YOU HAD A BIRTHDAY PARTY ON THE MOON did you start working on THE LITTLE SPACE CRAFT THAT COULD?

It was about a year later. Lots happened in-between!

In February 2020 This Book Is Upside Down came out. Did you have to come up with a working plan to meet your deadlines for the publishers?

You always need a working plan to meet deadlines! I used to manage big teams and big projects, both as a scientist and as an art director. Time management and task planning is very important for me and luckily comes rather naturally. 

I know many people cringe at the idea of too much planning, so here’s the other side of the medal: that book was completed during a long camping holiday in Canada and some of it was painted sitting on a beach in Tofino. That’s what time management can do for you: it does not restrict your freedom, it actually gives you more of it.

Did you sign a two book deal with Phoenix International Publications for This Book Is Upside Down and Beasties Love Booties – An Adorable Kids Book About Dogs?

No, those were both single book deals.

Willow came out in October 2020. Love the cover. How many B&W interior art interior did you do for this book?

Willow has about 90 illustrations. A typical number of illustrations for midgrade interiors is between 50 and 100 in my experience. Many of those are small: chapter vignettes, decorative elements, etc…10 to 30 may be larger and more complex.

Where you working on Willow: Book Two for Planet! while you were working on Book One?

No, book two was not even on the horizon then. Only after the success of book one, it was decided to extend the series.

My Room Is a Zoo! by Jerry RuffIs coming out in August 10, 2021. Have you finished all the illustrations for this book? 

Yes, since a long time! The delivery deadline for those was June 2020. Corona delayed many publication plans.

Have you been able to use any of the scientific knowledge you picked up from your 10 years in medical research helped you with your illustrating?

When I started illustrating children books I thought my playground would be non-fiction because of my scientific legacy. While “If You Have Your Birthday on the Moon”, “The Little Spacecraft that Could” and the Pragma Media books are creative non-fiction, it turned out the majority of my work is in the fiction space. That works well for me! 

I loved working in science and I love being an artist (and I thoroughly enjoyed being an art director too!). All I have seen and done defines who I am and how I work, even if the connection may not seem obvious. I truly love all aspects of illustrating books. I enjoy the rigor and research of the non-fiction space as much as I enjoy designing fictional characters and worlds. At the end, I’m happy to create narrative images, whatever the format.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate a picture book?

I do and I have. I have created several book dummies and book pitches in the last few years, and Andrea has steered a couple very close to a sell. It can be a bit frustrating, as I think everybody who has tried knows…
But, there’s always more ideas and the last one is always the best one!

Do you have a studio in your house?

Now I do! We moved to a new house in September 2020, and one of the reasons for moving was that I could have a separate studio. What I called “my studio” before was actually our big open-space family-living-playing-working room. Now it’s a rather messy room but it’s only mine and has a door!

Have you done any illustrations for children’s Magazines? If so, who?

Yes, I’ve done illustrations for Spider, Ladybug and Babybug.

Is working with a self-published author to illustrate their book something you would consider?

I very much prefer working with publishers. It is thrilling to collaborate with a team of professionals, each a specialist in their field. My schedule also tends to fill up with a lot of advance at the moment – I already have deadlines two years from now.

What do you think is your biggest success?

That I enjoy every single day! Ok, apart when I have to do administrative stuff…

I also love it when authors contact me to tell me they liked my illustrations. It’s a great achievement when you feel you have interpreted and amplified the soul of a book.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I work only digitally, mostly in Photoshop, sometimes in Illustrator and sometimes on the iPad with ProCreate.

Has that changed over time?

Before the AAU, I only illustrated traditionally, mostly in ink. At the academy it’s required to work with traditional media until the sixth semester or so and to learn to use at least two mediums: I loved pastel and oil. But digital has so many advantages that, once you master it, there’s almost no reason for going back. I’ve used mixed media for a while, but at the end digital won.

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

Yes, I work on an old (2014)  24” Cintiq. And on the iPad of course.

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

My physical tools are only a sketchbook and a pencil (or a crayon, marker or stolen ballpoint pen….whatever I find that makes a mark on paper). My hardware includes the Cintiq, a MacPro a second monitor and the iPad. I also have a high-quality large-format printer: it’s not essential but very useful.

My software toolbox is quite extensive, including several components of the Adobe CS suite as well as a number of third-party plug-ins, and additional software for special tasks (for example, I like to use SketchUp to create reference for interiors). And ProCreate on the iPad.

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

I try to reserve an entire day per week: I call it a “Growth Day”. I may use it to study specific topics like composition, character design and such, or just browse art books or try to improve my lettering (very useful for book covers and also for picture books!). Admittedly it has become difficult in the last year or so because of the amount of project work. But, as I see it, every day spent illustrating is a day where you improve your craft.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

That’s an almost rhetorical question….is it even thinkable to do anything without the Internet today?

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

My only dream is to always enjoy what I do and always be excited about the next project. I’ve been very privileged and lucky in that sense. Even if I did write and illustrate my own books at some point, I don’t think I’d ever stop illustrating for others — there’s magic happening when two or more creative minds join their strengths.

More than dreams, I have a list of things I want to do: for example, I want to design for products and have a licensing portfolio at some point and I want to illustrate (or to write and illustrate!) a chemistry book for pre-K children.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I’m working on the second volume of “Willow,” by Sabine Bohlmann for Thienemann/Planet, I’m creating illustrations for a philanthropy campaign and I’m sketching for a picture book coming out in early 2022. No time to get bored!

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.

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

One of my favorite quotes: “Eighty percent of success is showing up”. 

I mean this very broadly. Show up at your desk, studio or sketching corner; complete projects; show your work; attend events and workshops; talk to the people in the industry; introduce yourself to editors, art directors and agents at every occasions; follow briefings; meet deadlines; and always do the best work you can do. Contrary to my previous careers, there’s no bosses, commitees or roll calls in this profession: you have to show up to yourself.

Simona, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and showing us your process. Please let me know about your future books and successes so I can share them with everyone. 

To see more of Simona’s work, you can visit her at:

Website: http://www.smceccarelli.com/

Agency: https://www.transatlanticagency.com/about-us/agents/cascardi-andrea/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/smceccarelli/

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

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/simona.ceccarelli/?hl=en

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Simona! What a wonderful interview. I love seeing so many of the illustrations as love as well so many I haven’t seen yet. It was so fun to see the process for making a cover and learning a few more tidbits about you and your process! Congrats on all your success! Can’t wait to see what you do next!
    Great interview Kathy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! what a great interview!! So much wisdom. I have been struggling with some aspects of trying to illustrate children’s books and this interview shed a light on a lot of things so thank you so much for your openness. What incredible illustrations too!! I was oohing and ahhing at every one!!

    Like

  3. Gorgeous illustrations Simona. Congrats!

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  4. HOW AMAZING! Thank you, Kathy, for sharing Simona’s work – I was a fan as soon as I met you in Italy, Simona, at the Bologna Book Fair in 2019…but I had no idea of the breath and scope of your talent. I hope one day we will be able to work together – my words and your art – that would be a dream to have you illustrate one of my books.

    Like

  5. Simona, I love your work! I laughed out loud at the dinosaur Easter bunny! LOL. Great colors and excitement and surprises! Thanks for sharing with us!

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  6. Oh my gosh – so much fun! So amazing! Incredible details…and the bear in the fridge—my fave!

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  7. Love the rich color palettes! Actually, I love everything about these illustrations. They make me feel like I’m inside of each scene. Wonderful!

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  8. Amazing work, Simona! You are SO super talented 😍

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  9. Read about how she attended the San Francisco Academy of Art Institute – remotely from Italy.

    Maybe Delenne will be able to do the same thing some day.

    Like

  10. So much fun in all these illustrations. I can’t pick out a favorite. They are all so good. Thanks for a great post.

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  11. The gloom of a cloudy Saturday morning has been totally evaporated by my journey through Simona’s amazing art and story. So many intriguing, fanciful, colorful, creative illustrations that transported me to so many different worlds and places! I am smiling broadly and creatively energized! Thank you for sharing, Simona. And thank you, Kathy, for providing the forum and format for this peek at Simona’s process!

    Like

  12. […] Simona currently lives in Switzerland with one husband two kids, three nationalities, four languages…and a cat. Simona is represented by Andrea Cascardi. Don’t miss learning more about Simona and seeing more of her wonderful art. Here is a link to: Simona on Illustrator Saturday. […]

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