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January 21, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #129: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Get ready, everyone! Today I'm talking to the incredible Vanessa Brantley-Newton about her newest book Just Like Me, which showcases her expertise in using a wide array of mixed media and textures to heighten the overall design of her books. Vanessa took time to chat with me about what it's like to be writing and illustrating books, how her process has evolved, and what she has on the docket next. Enjoy!

About the book:
I am a canvas
Being painted on
By the words of my family
Friends And community

A collection of poetry filled with engaging mini-stories about girls of all kinds: girls who feel happy, sad, scared, powerful; girls who love their bodies and girls who don't; country girls, city girls; girls who love their mother and girls who wish they had a father. With bright portraits in vibrant colors and unique patterns and fabrics, this book invites readers to find themselves and each other within its pages.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Vanessa Brantley-Newton!

LTPB: How long did it take you to write all of the poems in this book? What kind of research did you do to make the poetry and illustrations feel as inclusive as possible? 

VBN: It took about 3 months to write all of the poems. I talked to children as I went all over the country for the last year and a half, and I asked questions of them from my presentations as well as watched them while they talked to other students. Some of them shared their feelings when I asked question about what it felt like to be excluded from a group. Or what does it feel like when you are trying to make friends and you're too shy to ask someone to be your friend? I was overjoyed at how candid a lot of them were. Their willingness to be open brought me back to my own childhood, and I begin to write from my own childhood memories and such. Blending the two together to form these poems.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book?

VBN: I think I must have used almost everything I have in my studio to create the illustrations for this book, LOL! I used Posca Pen, which is just acrylic paint in pen form, watercolor, crayons, pencils, oil pastels, vintage papers, my own painted papers and cheap temper paint sticks. It's really all mixed media. 

LTPB: Is this your preferred medium? 

VBN: Ooh my goodness it is! I get to play with everything. The book is really mixed media, and I like that, as it gives lots of texture and lift to the page. Simple cheap art supplies can really give your illustrations life if you know how to work them. Cheap temper paint on school type manilla paper is awesome for creating patterns that can be scanned into my computer and used to overlay or use a pattern for a dress on a character or what have you.

LTPB: How does your process change from book to book? 

VBN: If I had my choice and the time, I would paint all of my books. In this industry that is moving so much faster than it use to, I just don't have the time. Book turn-arounds are so much faster. I am however working on my own books and illustrating them now, and I have a little bit more time to do what I want to do. Sometimes I get to work with real paint and art supplies and other times I work digitally and I enjoy that as well. Creating my own photoshop brushes and textures help to take that raw digital look from the work and make it look more vintage and authentic, if you will.

LTPB: What can you tell us about the design of the book, like the casewrap-dust jacket combination, or and the incredible canvas dust jacket(!)? How involved were you in adding these details? 

VBN: I was so thrilled about the dust jacket for the book. I painted it on canvas and then painted the girl on cardboard with Posca pens and oil pastels to give it some dimension . We all loved the textures so much! It just gave the book extra punch! My art director then took it from there and kinda said, "Let me do my thing!" and her thing was awesome. I am still learning design where books and publishing are concerned. If you say, "Vanessa, design a dress or shoe or handbag,” that would be easier for me to do. I tend to break a lot of rules in that area. I just know what feels good. 

LTPB: How do you use design elements like the dust jacket, endpapers, and casewrap as extensions of the central story? 

VBN: No two people are alike, we come in different sizes, shapes and colors and cultures and doing this book in a mixed media way really is an extension of this thought. This book has texture, color and energy all throughout its stories and pages.

LTPB: You’re in pretty high demand these days! How do you keep your process fresh with every new book? 

VBN: Now that is the question indeed! It's not easy. People ask me to teach them my process or tell them how I create my artwork and illustrations, and I really can't do that because I don't know how I even do it sometimes. It is very frustrating to try to tell them the process since it is different every time for me. Every time I do a new book it's like I am doing it for the first time. It get's old to me. I just want to develop a process that I can depend on, and this is never the case for me. I have to feel it. Not trying to be artsy or anything, it's just how it flows for me. Every book is different and has a different feel to it. I even have soundtracks for books that I am working on because music moves me through the art making process. I can't work without it. It, too, is an art supply for me. When I am working on a book that is about the civil rights movement I will listen to songs from the 60's or songs about marching, freedom songs etc. It helps me pick the palettes for the work. It will even tell me what brush or pen I need to use for the piece whether digital or traditional. So every book gets what it needs.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?

VBN: Man, this is so different. When I work on my own stories and illustrations, they are such a part of me, and I have somehow worked on it in my own head. Kinda like a music video. I often see the pictures before the words. Being dyslexic, it is a process of its own. Sometimes I am able to come up with the story before the picture, but for the most part, I do the pictures before the words. I know already what style I want the book to be in and colors I want to use. When working on someone else's book it's way different: I don't know what is in the author's mind, which can be rather frustrating as well. While other illustrators have shared with me that they don't like artist notes, I find them very useful in some ways. What did the author have in mind when they were writing this story? I don't need a whole lot, but if they can point me in the direction of an idea I find it very helpful and useful. Sometimes it can feel like I am trying to read someone's mind, and I don't like it. LOL! We have to tell two different stories that work together on the page to let the reader in on the story.

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

VBN: It is a new book with Random House and Knoff Books, and it is called Becoming Vanessa due out in 2021.

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

VBN: Ezra Jacks Keat hands down. Being a child of the 60's and early 70's I didn't get to see myself in picture books, and I LOVED MYSELF some picture books. I didn't talk much in school, and I swore I was invisible. When I first laid eyes on Ezra's The Snowy Day it changed my life. I could read the words, but the pictures really told me a beautiful story. It said to me that I wasn't invisible, as I had thought, that someone saw me in this world. Ezra painted my life in such vivid detail. From the collaged wallpaper and garbage cans to Peter's little chair and Mom's chubby brown arms. I mean, even down to Peter's Mom's gingham yellow house dress LOL! He saw! Every time I pick up The Snowy Day or Peter's Chair it's like going back into my childhood home, and it makes me feel safe and warm and loved. I would have LOVED for Ezra to paint my life, but then, he already did.

A million thanks to Vanessa for taking time to answers some questions, share videos, and talk about her process! Just Like Me published last week from Knopf Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Vanessa and Knopf for use of these images!

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