July 7, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #148: Ellen Rooney

I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Ellen Rooney about her illustration technique for Grandmother School, written by Rina Singh. Ellen has a lot of projects out this year, so it was fascinating to talk about how her process depends on the manuscript and to get a closer look at how she customizes each new book. I hope you enjoy our conversation!

About the book: 
Every morning, a young girl walks her grandmother to the Aajibaichi Shala, the school that was built for the grandmothers in her village to have a place to learn to read and write. The narrator beams with pride as she drops her grandmother off with the other aajis to practice the alphabet and learn simple arithmetic. A moving story about family, women and the power of education--when Aaji learns to spell her name you'll want to dance along with her.

Let's talk Ellen Rooney!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Grandmother School?

ER: So far all of my projects have started in a fairly typical way: someone at the publisher sees something in my work that feels like the right fit for a manuscript. Rachel Page at Orca was the designer on the project. She was the one who had seen my work and put my name forward to illustrate Grandmother School. (Thanks Rachel!) The funny thing was that a few years earlier I lived just a few blocks away from the Orca offices in Victoria BC. I even interviewed for a job there once, back before I had illustrated my first book. The Orca folks are wonderful.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

ER: First I read the text a few times and make notes. I try to get a feel for what the most important jobs the illustration needs to do. Is there a strong central character? Is there a dominant mood or atmosphere? Whatever it is, I start there and begin to experiment.

My mixed-media style allows is similar each time but I adapt to each project. I mix collage, drawing, and painting to make textures, but I vary the mix from project to project. For one book I might use acrylic paint and tissue paper. For another I might lean choose drawing paper, colored pencil and gouache. I try out materials and ways of combining them until I find what seems right for the story.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the book? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations change?

ER: Rina Singh’s writing is very vivid and alive, so right away I had a sense of the personalities and love between these two main characters, the grandmother (Aaji) and her granddaughter (the narrator). So I started with the characters. I reviewed the text again and made notes about the characteristics they would need to show: affection, pleasure in learning, pride, joy, tenderness. These two characters actually have a lot in common, but one is very young and the other an elder, so I tried to figure out how each quality would be expressed differently in each one. I did a lot of sketching! Often it takes me a while to get the character to feel young enough or old enough, and that was the case here.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

ER: Making textures for a new book is one of the most fun parts of the process.

From the beginning Rachel (Orca's books designer) and I wanted to draw inspiration from patterned textiles. This was my opening to include some type of stamping or printmaking in my process. This is the first book where I included stamped textures. The stamps are very simple shapes carved from eraser or soft relief printing blocks. I combined them to build up patterns based on textile motifs.

Apart from the stamps, one of my favorite textures from this book is the pink sari texture. That is acrylic paint and acrylic medium on tissue paper. I like the streaky quality and the color blending that occurs.

As the book moves to final artwork, I take a lot of the handmade elements and scan them in to work on digitally. Sometimes I think of the finishing stage as “painting with texture”. I use digital painting and drawing tools, cut out scanned textures, combine and add details. The overall process of producing final art is roughly the same for each book, but I’m always tweaking it.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

ER: I have a few projects underway. Here’s a peek at Sounds All Around, written by Susan Hughes, coming Spring 2021 from Kids Can Press. It’s about the science of sound, and Susan has written it in a really engaging style for younger kids. A companion book about light is scheduled for Fall 2021. 

I’m also working on a biography of basketball player Sue Bird (by Sharon Mentyka, from Little Bigfoot) and later this year, a lovely book about Maria Mitchell, the 19th-century astronomer (by Laura Alary, from Kids Can Press).

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

ER: Ooh, interesting one to think about. I’m torn between Alice and Martin Provensen and Beatrice Alemagna. The Provensens painted such beautiful environments that feel like places I have been. And I like their way of rendering people. I don’t think I’d want to be a cartoon. Alemagna is a touchstone for me – my illustration isn’t like hers but I wish it was. I think we all see the world with our own imperfect lenses, looking from the inside out and rebuilding the outer world in our own mind. I think her way of tapping into something true, but in a weird way, would suit my autobiography!

A big thanks to Ellen for taking time to answers some questions! Grandmother School published from Orca Book Publishers earlier this year!

Special thanks to Ellen and Orca for use of these images!

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