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Simona Ceccarelli

Simona Ceccarelli

Simona Ceccarelli Interview

Simona Ceccarelli

Children's Illustrator

Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?

When I was five and learning to read, my 15-year-old brother shared his books with me: Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, Scandinavian mythology, science fiction, and heroic fantasy. I was mesmerized by the covers of those books: they were like windows in other worlds. That's when I first felt the drive to create illustrations and look into fantastical places of my creation. Although many of those images were inappropriate for a five-year-old girl they shaped my love for illustration above any other form of art. 
I took a long and winding road to get there, but I finally wield the wand that opens those windows. I choose to look into colorful and fun stories rather than at muscly heroes and half-clad girls. My taste, at least, has evolved!

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Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?

I have an MFA in Visual Development from the Academy of Arts University in SF. It was excellent training in both the design and technical aspects of illustration as well as in concept art, character design, animation, and 3D modeling. After that, I went on to learn more about children's illustration with the Society of Visual Storytelling (SVS). I still compulsively collect courses and books...anything around illustration interests me.

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Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.

Studying visual development had a big influence on how I approach a project. It bred the idea that there are multiple solutions to a visual problem and that a project needs to work as a whole. It gave me terms and tools that are very useful when approaching illustration for books: character sheets, color script, etc...

I start by reading the manuscript and briefing very carefully, making notes and thumbnails to capture my initial ideas and reactions. I then dive into the development phase: visual research, mood boards, studies, sketches. When I feel I've found the groove for the project, I draw character sheets - lineups, expressions, and poses. This is the first material that a client will see.

Once we agree on the main characters, I create a physical dummy of the book including the paginated text and any relevant notes (in words or pictures). I use this dummy as a sketchbook to draw thumbnails of each page - often a few alternatives per page. Going through the dummy I can see how the images flow, and if there is sufficient variety in point of view, emotional tension, full spreads vs vignettes, etc... That helps to choose the best thumbnail for each page.  

At this point, I´m ready for sketching. With all the preparation, this is generally quite fast. Before delivering the sketches, I also draft a possible color script, so that an art director can review both the drawings and the colors. Sometimes I also finish one sample illustration, especially if there is no clarity on what the style should be. This is the time for troubleshooting, discussion, and revisions.

Once this package is through, the creation of the final illustrations is a very relaxing process. I put on my headphones, a good audiobook (or more like several good audiobooks in the course of a project) and paint, knowing that all decisions have been taken, the deadline will hold, and that everything should work out. My sketches are quite tight, and with the colors and style already approved I rarely have revisions on the final illustrations.

The cover has a separate process, as I normally work out 3-5 alternate sketches. I love to design covers and play with typography and I sometimes get carried away. Once I delivered 12 different designs - not a good idea, as it took a long time to settle for one!

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What is your favourite medium to work with and why?

Along the years I've worked with nearly every medium, including a brief stint with an airbrush. At the academy, I received foundation training in charcoal, pastel, and oil and I fell in love with those mediums - particularly oil and pastel. But then, digital came along and it was like a sunrise after a cold, long night.

I love the endless possibilities and speed offered by digital media, the ease with which you can experiment and change things and how you can ignore the limitations of paint and pigment. I like my digital work to look hand-crafted, so I work mainly in Photoshop and ProCreate, with very few layers...but I'm also a software geek, so I eagerly learn and use different graphical software, incorporating it in experimental workflows. I love to try out new things, and digital media make that very accessible. 

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Do you keep a sketch book?

I keep a scratch book - a mix between a sketch book and a scrapbook.  My scratch books are a jumble of notes, pasted-in scraps of paper from various sources (if I have an idea, I'll draw on whatever is available), my kids' drawings, unformed ideas, studies from life or photos, thumbnails, color notes,...occasionally even a good and halfway complete drawing! I love them and they love me back, providing tons of inspiration when I leaf through them and giving me trust that every idea is captured and preserved, no matter how random or vague. I only really sketch on the computer or tablet - paper is reserved for things that are more flimsy and precious.

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Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.

Recently, I started including some vector work in my portfolio in parallel to my more rendered, painterly style. It's a refreshingly different way of working and I think a more graphical approach is very suitable for infographic-style illustrations and for younger readers. I've been able to use it for a couple of recent projects with Scholastic Education. 

I've worked as a designer for a few years and that taught me that the images have to serve the mood of the story. My aspiration is to work with whatever approach is best suited to express the atmosphere of the book. And yet, as much as I like to experiment with different workflows, people tell me my style is pretty recognizable. I guess art is too much an expression of self and that shines through regardless of the technicalities.

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Take us behind the scenes and describe your studio / workspace.

My studio is also the family room. It's a large and light-filled space, with my digital workstation in one corner, walls of books all around and a large table in the middle, a custom build of cherrywood and chests. It's very welcoming and makes you want to do things. The best part of it, however, is the view - we live directly on the river Rhein, so we see this large expanse of water, ever-flowing North. When the large barges sail through, the whole building vibrates, and sometimes we have to barricade the gate with sand sacks against floods - but it's well worth it.

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Are you an author/illustrator?

It's one of the things on my bucket list at the moment, though I hope to get to it sooner rather than later. I've worked on at least 30 manuscripts and five of my own book dummies in the past few years. One of them has received some interest, but no strike yet.

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How important is it for you to be part of a creative community of people?

Enormously important.  The combination of being an artist, owning an independent business and working alone makes a prime breeding ground for self-doubt, second-guessing and procrastination. Finding your tribe can buffer the sense of loneliness that comes from long hours in the studio. Some days, having a chat going on on the side is a real mood booster - on top of being a source of advice and feedback. It´s also important to be with people in real life - family, friends or fellow creatives, even from different fields. Without a constant watering of human interaction, creativity withers and dies.

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What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?

I like drawing practically anything, but I have the most fun with characters, particularly animal characters and fantasy creatures.

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Are there any children’s classics you’d love to illustrate and/or re-tell?

Oh yes! I'd love to illustrate The Mouse and His Child by Russel Hoban. It's one of my favorite children's books and one that I re-read at regular intervals, always discovering a new layer of meaning. I'd also love to work on an abridged, illustrated version of The Neverending Story. I love that book and I think it deserves a modern take.

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