November 2, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #196: Samantha Cotterill

I was so lucky to get a chance to chat with one of the most versatile illustrators I've ever met, Samantha Cotterill! If you take a look at Samantha's body of work, it's clear she works hard to create a unique illustration experience based on the tone of the text she's illustrating, and Thankful was created in her incredible diorama style (one of my favorites!). Samantha let me pick her brain, and our chat is below--enjoy!

About the book:
I am thankful for a home where I am safe and warm.
Thankful for parents who read me stories and comb my hair gently, gently.
Who whisper the same poem every night when they tuck me in.

When the first snow falls, a little girl writes down the things she's thankful for on strips of paper and links them together. As one idea leads to another, her chain grows longer. There's so much good in her life: a friend, things that are warm, things that are cold, color, things that can be fixed. This beautiful story is a much-needed reminder to observe and honor life's small joys.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

And check out the book trailer:

Let's talk Samantha Cotterill!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Thankful? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Elaine Vickers’ text? 

SC: I was asked to illustrate Thankful by my editor at the time for Paula Wiseman Books, Sylvie Frank (We had previously worked together on Jinx and the Doom Fight Crime by Lisa Mantchev and The Secret Rhino Society by Jonathan E Jacobs). Elaine Vicker’s lyrical narrative about gratitude based on a tradition in her own family was a perfect match for working in a 3-dimensional format (3D paper chains...I mean, that’s kind of a given).

The first image that came to mind when reading Elaine’s poignant book was one of a cozily lit bookstore. There’s nothing quite like the sensory experience of walking across creaky floorboards, surrounded by the wonderful aroma of books as you find that cozy little nook for curling up to a good book. I’m a very aesthetically driven person, and having a chance to illustrate how those little joys come together to create an atmosphere I’m grateful for was one I couldn’t wait to jump on. (And I’m slightly obsessed with interior spaces, so there’s that too.)

LTPB: What ended up being the most rewarding and most challenging moments for you in creating these illustrations?

SC: The most rewarding moment in creating Thankful comes from the simplest visual spread in the entire book. Elaine so wonderfully wrote “I am thankful for a friend that waits for me at recess, and a teacher who knows when I am trying my best,” and little did I know how challenging this second stanza was going to prove for me visually in terms of supporting and enhancing her prose. Thankfully, I have an incredible team at Paula Wiseman, and my art director Lizzy Bromley knows when I need to put a pin in something and just give it time to percolate. Thinking is just as important of a step in making books, and the ideas that come from the numerous walks, baths, and household projects during this time support that belief. There are usually two spreads in each sketch dummy that are left blank, with bold lettered statements of “I NEED TIME ON THIS ONE” sprawled across where illustrated linework should have gone. Not every image will come during the sketch phase, and sometimes I need to be in the throws of final art to let those parts reveal themselves. For this particular moment, trying to visualize a moment where a child is trying their best in a manner that’s 100% positive, supportive, and inspiring proved much harder than anticipated. I spent many a day banging my head against the wall on this one, and worried that I’d fall short of finding that missing piece of the puzzle. It wasn’t until I remembered my son’s Montessori days of learning to spell thorough the focus on letter sounds did it suddenly come into focus. The minute that light bulb moment happened (no doubt during bath number 3 of the day), everything came into place fast. 

As far as the most rewarding moment, I’d have to direct that answer towards the “I am thankful for color” spread. Figuring out how to weave multiple paper hot air balloons without wreaking havoc on my rheumatoid arthritic hands was an obstacle I was determined to conquer. Two things I’ve learned with chronic disease and art: 1) Be adaptable. 2) Be flexible. The hot air balloon pieces had to be large enough to hold and weave without pain, so everything was scaled up in size to allow that to happen. And having a flare up during the creation of this spread meant a digital approach to adding small figures to the background and baskets instead of cutting them out. Basically it comes down to determination and will. If you really want to make something, find a way to do it.

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?

SC: The illustrations for Thankful were made using cardboard, balsam wood, paper, ink, paints, and those drawers of unused crayons you have accrued after buying kids’ school list supplies every year from Kindergarten on. (When you have an 18 and 16 year old, that’s a lot of crayons over the years). Each set was built on a surface area averaging about 3’ x 4’, and subsequently lit and photographed with a DSLR camera. 3D for me just comes more naturally than working 2- dimensionally, and while it may seem like a lot more work, time goes by faster as I’m more zoned in and just enjoying the process. The added ability to jump around between different stages of the book-making journey also satisfies this ADHD brain very much so. Boredom can come very easily to me, so keeping things fresh with the opportunity to change things up is key (probably why I loved reading only short stories or choose your own adventure books as a kid. I like being able to jump around vs going in a linear order from beginning to end). Having the choice to focus on either drawing, construction, set building, photography, or post photography editing on a particular day limits my chances of losing interest and keeps engagement in check.

In terms of process from book to book, I try to sit back each time and let the heart of the story direct the visual direction it needs to go. While 3D is my preferred mode of working, it’s not suited for every story, and some benefit from a focus on 2D instead. That being said, Thankful was pretty much a no-brainer when it came to heading down the 3D path. A book about strips of paper linked together? Well, that was a perfect opportunity to use all that unused school construction paper up too :). With Thankful's story centered around a meaningful kid friendly activity, I set out to create accessible spreads that could inspire further craft exploration. By seeing the edges of cardboard and materials used in a more raw state, kids will hopefully find themselves rummaging through drawers of supplies to create their own dioramic worlds of art.

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

SC: I’m currently in the stage of sketching for an upcoming book by Gabi Snyder, entitled Look. This particular manuscript is about a child who seeks out patterns in the world in order to make sense of it (When things feel jumbled, look: can you find new patterns?): zigzags, concentric circles, checkerboards—all can be found when we take the time to look closely. Naturally, this one will be in 3D as well. Right now I’m fighting through my usual imposter syndrome phase that seems to be required with every book I start.

In July, my next 3D book with Paula Wiseman will debut. Jean Reidy authored an incredibly warmhearted story entitled A Grand Day. Through this rhyming wonder, readers will follow all kinds of family configurations as grandparents and grandchildren celebrate togetherness. I really enjoyed creating some of the interior spaces in this one, AND finally got over my fear of nature scenes...for now.

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?

SC: If I don’t want to be disowned, I better say my mum. (She’s a fantastic painter. Patricia Cotterill. Look her up.)

A million thanks to Samantha for taking time to answer questions! Thankful published earlier this season from Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books!

Special thanks to Samantha and Paula Wiseman for use of these images!

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