Jane Smith

Jane Smith

Jane Smith Interview

Jane Smith

Children's Illustrator

Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?

Growing up my mom was a school librarian, and consequently, books were a HUGE part of my childhood! I was always reading and writing and drawing. And I certainly read every single book my mom brought home for me. Books offered freedom, adventure and discovery, and they were without a doubt my first true love. In the end, it was an easy and immediate leap to want to become an author-illustrator, and I started early: I wrote and illustrated my first books in elementary school and never looked back.

Tell us about the creation of your favourite character from one of your books.

Miss Meow, the title character in the new picture book I authored & illustrated that releases in September 2021 with West Margin Press, is my absolute favorite! Miss Meow is a bright, spunky little girl who loves playing dress up as a black cat. Not only does she wear cat ears, whiskers and a tail, she also chases her toy mouse, laps water from a bowl and purrs when she curls up with her mom for story time.

Miss Meow began as a doodle in my sketchbook. Like most illustrators, I keep a sketchbook that I regularly doodle, sketch and brainstorm in. Often when I’m ready to start a new picture book project, I’ll revisit my sketchbook to rediscover favorite doodles so I can take them to the next level. That’s exactly what happened with Miss Meow.

I knew a children’s book character inspired by the nearly universal childhood experience of dressing up as a cat and pretending to be one in all ways would be an absolute hit! So, I began drawing Miss Meow in lots of different poses with lots of different expressions. Then I choose a set of three favorite poses to take all the way to finished color art. At this stage, the Miss Meow character art helped set the stage for writing the story that later became the finished picture book, Miss Meow.

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Talk us through the process of creating one of your latest illustrations or books.

My creative process, whether it’s a one-off illustration or a full 32-page picture book, always begins with rough sketches and thumbnails on paper with pencil. I begin very loosely so it’s easier to play around with composition and expression.

Then I move onto tighter, more detailed sketches, also on paper with pencil. When I’m happy with my sketches, I translate them into plain black line art with either a drawing pen or colored pencil. Then I scan the black line art into the computer and manipulate it in PhotoShop, cleaning it up and coloring it as needed.

Then I select a palette of colored papers, fabrics and collage materials, all of which I also scan into the computer. I block in color behind the linework, thinking in terms of shape, primarily using the masking tool. Sometimes I add a bit of digital paint, sometimes I don’t.

When I’m happy and think I’m all done, I usually let the artwork sit for a little while—sometimes an hour, sometimes a full day—and then assess if it needs any final tweaks. After the finishing touches, it’s all done!

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What is your favourite children’s book and why?

I have so many favorites, it is impossible to choose! As a child, I loved Watch Out for Chicken Feet in Your Soup by Tomie DePaolo, the Baba Yaga folktale, and all the James Marshall books, especially the George and Martha series and Space Case. I adored the humor and laugh-out-loud fun of them all!

These days, my favorites are always shifting as I am always reading and discovering new picture books! Lately, I have been really enjoying both Three Little Vikings, written and illustrated by Bethan Woollvin, and Lala’s Words, written and illustrated by Gracey Zhang. Three Little Vikings is a bright, fresh feminist folktale with smart girl heroes and fabulously bold, graphic art.

Lala’s Words also has striking artwork, in a limited palette of black and white with bright pops of yellow and green that are used to excellent storytelling effect. The story is at once energetic and sweet, highlighting the power of the words we speak and their effect on the world around us.

But my most favorite at the moment has to be my own new picture book, Miss Meow! I love the bold, expressive artwork! I love the mystery, action and adventure! I love the salty main character turned sweet, and I love ALL the cats—real and imaginary!

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

My studio is an extra bedroom in my house in Wilmington, North Carolina with a big walk-in closet for storing art supplies, files and artwork. I have an L-shaped desk make from two salvaged doors I rescued from the side of the road many years ago propped up on cinder blocks. On top of my desk sits my computer, complete with two large cinema screens and a mess of drawing materials and sticky notes. I am a sticky note junkie!

In the corner sits a huge set of flat files that is an absolute beast! It is filled with collected papers, past book projects, on-going book projects and a hodgepodge of this and that—paper pads, tools, old dummy books, art my daughter made in preschool, etc.

The walls are lined with display shelves for my own picture books as well as some of my favorite children’s books that inspire me. I also have three framed art prints from the artist Lisa Congdon that set just the right mood for the studio. My favorite is the large one in the middle that says, “Begin anyhow.” I always try to approach my time in the studio with this attitude in mind!

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What makes a good children’s book?

It goes without saying that a beautiful balance and interplay of pictures and words makes for the best children’s picture books! I would also add that a good children’s book requires the main character to grow or change in some way. Additionally, all the parts of a story need to be present, too: introduction, rising action, climax and resolution. And perhaps most important of all, a good children’s book, whether funny or heartfelt, needs to tap into the universal story, which is to say that it touches upon sometime real and true about the human experience and reaches out to touch the reader right in the heart. Maybe the touch is a tickle. Maybe it’s a hug, but either way it’s connection.

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