Judith Valdes Breidenstine
Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?
I always liked to draw. As a child growing up in Mexico, I would look for a place to hide, where I could lose myself in my sketches. I had already received Bachelor and Master Degrees in accounting and international affairs, respectively, and decided later in life to pursue my passion through a Bachelor’s Degree in Illustration at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. While I did well on the written assignments, I especially enjoyed allowing my images to speak for themselves.
How and why did you decide to pursue illustration as your career?
As I painted, sketched or used other media to create, I felt like I had something to say, a unique story to share with others like me. There is a growing population of multicultural children, and I want to be able to empower them with my works.
Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?
I attended art school and learned to use watercolors, acrylics, oils, pastels and gauche. As a child, I also took classes in poetry and went on to publish my poems in school publications.
Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?
While I currently live in Bangkok, I grew up in Mexico and have also spent many years in the United States, London, and Brussels.
Was creativity part of your childhood?
As a child, I used to sketch, paint ceramics, sew, needlepoint, knit, make candles, and handbags, while also writing poetry and short stories. I found refuge in my stories.
Have you always loved to draw?
Yes, I still love to draw. I carry a sketchbook with me always.
Who or what have been some of your major artistic influences?
Growing up in Mexico, I was drawn to the murals and frescos of Diego Rivera. During my studies, I became quite fond of the works of El Lissitzky and David Hockney. Among the illustrators that have influenced me most are Sir Quentin Blake and Maurice Sendak.
Which books from your own childhood really stand out?
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer. I also have wonderful memories of Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
Do you have a favourite picture book or recall one of the first picture books you saw?
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Snow by Uri Shelevitz are two of my favorites.
Who or what has been your greatest mentor?
I have great admiration and respect for all of my teachers at school, but Ella Goodwill was one of my favourite professors/mentors at the University of Hertfordshire. She was very encouraging in helping develop my own style of illustration.
What was your first commission as a professional illustrator?
When I graduated from school, I was not very sure about the direction that I wanted to take in my career. I produced a number of logos, letterhead and promotional materials for schools and companies in Mexico, as well as in the United Kingdom.
Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.
I best work with colored pencils, gauche and pastels – hand crafted and digitally refined. After visiting a 2011 Hockney exhibit in London, I uploaded the “Brushes” App on my iPad and began to create images. Eventually, however, I moved to pencil colors for finishing my images with the help of Adobe Create Suite.
What piece of software or hardware could you not live without and why?
Adobe Photoshop, as I draw the images by hand, scan them and then "remove and refine" that which is not part of the image.
What is your favourite medium to work with and why?
I like colored pencils, as I can more easily control the outcome. I can create handmade images, which have my fingerprints all over them.
Do you keep a sketch book?
I take a sketchbook with me wherever I go. I feel empty when I do not have it with me. Whether I am on the metro, waiting for an appointment, sipping coffee or lying in bed, my sketchbook is always there.
Tell us about the creation of your favourite character from one of your books.
The Armadillo from my book, “A Part of Me”. Even though he plays only a peripheral role in the story, I find a bit of myself in him. He has a shell to protect himself, is Mexican and is very textured.
How many times do you tend to draw a character until you are happy with it?
Many, many times, as I refuse to move on until I like the character just the way it is. Often, I have to walk away and come back later to ensure that it is “ready”.
Which project has been most instrumental in developing your personal style?
I started creating the characters for a children's book “A Part of Me” while I was still at the University of Hertfordshire. As I developed the images and thought through the story, I realized that “this is what I really want to do”. I wanted to illustrate children's books.
Talk us through the process of creating one of your latest illustrations or books.
1. I first came up with the idea of what I wanted to say, my message – which was to empower children and make them feel proud of who they are and where they come from. I explored how my own children felt being bi-cultural, third culture kids.
2. Then, I wrote the story and created a storyboard.
3. I began to sketch out in greater detail the spreads that coincided with the story that I wanted to tell.
4. I then began the spreads, one by one.
5. As the spreads sometimes took me in a different direction, I revisited them again and again.
6. There was a constant process of refining the spreads and refining the manuscript.
7. I tested early versions of the unfinished work with elementary school children, as well as with my own.
Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.
No. I like my style.
Have you ever thought about trying out a different technique or a different style?
I have not thought about changing my technique but would like to try adding collage to the work that I am already doing.
How long does it take on average for you to finish a spread, from initial sketch to final colour?
It depends, but I like to give myself at least three to four weeks to work on them.
What do you hope children take away from your drawings?
I hope that bi-cultural children will find their place and identity in my stories, and that other children will learn to appreciate greater diversity in their communities.
What do you do in your spare time?
I sketch, read children’s books, run, swim and cook.
What is your favourite children’s book and why?
I do not have any one favorite book. There are many books I like.
What would you say is a distinguishing feature of your artwork?
There are many messages in the images beyond the one story – stories within the story. A child or an adult may look around for a few minutes and find stories behind the main one.
Where do you get the ideas for your characters?
Mostly from my childhood.
Share your favourite piece of artwork from your portfolio and walk us through its creation.
Butterflies from the Day of the Dead scene in “A Part of Me”. The butterflies represent the souls of those who passed on, returning to reunite with their loved ones, like the monarch butterflies that migrate each year back to Mexico. I started by sketching 40 or so butterfles in different ways convey the scene as I had envisioned. I initially tried to find the one that children would find least scary and then chose that one for my book. It is now one of my favorities.
Which 4 words would you use to describe your illustration portfolio?
Magical, respectful, authentic, and colorful.
Outline your dream project.
Working on illustrated children’s books with a theme that resonates with bi-cultural or third culture kids, recognizing their uniqueness and the richness of their backgrounds. I also would like to work on illustrated books addressing climate change and the plight of animals facing extinction.
Which area of children’s publishing excites you the most?
Watching a work become areality with the final publishing.
Have you visited any schools to speak or hold workshops?
I once spoke to children at the British School of Brussels about my career as an illustrator.
Do you have a favourite soundtrack you listen to when you’re working?
Instrumental music, mostly guitar, as well as the sounds of nature.
Are you an author/illustrator?
What things affect your creativity?
Positive/Negative feedback about my work, appreciation, moving from one country to another.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
Do not do it for the money and do not give up.
What was your last ‘lightbulb moment’?
I have lived a unique and authentic life, thanks to my parents. Despite their limited resources, they instilled in my siblings and me important values that now form the bases of many of my stories and characters.
What makes a good children’s book?
It adds value to one’s life – whether of an adult or child – and really contributes something.
Which project are you most proud of?
My children's picture book "A Part of Me".
When you are not drawing, how do you like to relax?
Being with my family
What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
I have a black belt in Tae Kwan Do
How important is it for you to be part of a creative community of people?
It is very important, as I will turn to the community for empowerment and support during times when I am struggling with a project or lacking clarity.
If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?
Elementary School Teacher, either for art, mathematics or astronomy
How do you overcome a creative block?
I walk away from the project and do something completely different and unrelated.
What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?
People and animals. I would love to illustrate space.
How do you get your creative juices flowing?
I read, look at children’s books, visit the library, visit museums or the aquarium.
Animals feature heavily in children’s books – do you have a pet?
Yes, I have an 11-year-old black Labrador named, “Matilda”. We had a 10-year-old yellow Labrador named, “Poolo”, but we lost him to cancer this past May. It was, and still is, heartbreaking. And, of course, my fish. I love my fish.