March 23, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #172: Nikki McClure

I got a chance to chat with author-illustrator Nikki McClure about her recent, stunning counting book 1, 2, 3, Salish Sea, and I found myself as enraptured as I thought I would be! We also talk about how her process has evolved since she started creating children's books thirty years ago. Enjoy our conversation below!

About the book:
A celebration of the unique Salish Sea ecosystem, this counting book will inspire kids to learn more about the creatures who are found here, like stubby squids, lumpsuckers, banana slugs, orcas, nudibranchs, and sculpin.

Let's talk Nikki McClure!

LTPB: Can you talk about your research process for 1, 2, 3, Salish Sea? What drew you to this topic? And did you always envision this as a counting book?

NM: The research for this book began a long time ago. I decided I was going be a marine biologist after my 5th grade class took a cruise on a ship in the Salish Sea. We dredged the sea floor and examined the creatures we had dislodged. We even cooked up and ate a sea cucumber! Crazy that that was environmentalism then, but it worked its magic on me. The most transformative moment was seeing the projections of live plankton swimming about huge and intricate and alive, yet totally unseen in a drop of water. That was the moment. There are creatures that we cannot see that we live with, who are our neighbors. 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea started then as a quest for awareness and knowledge about the place I lived: the forest and the sea. I studied Natural History at college especially Botany, Ornithology, Entomology, and Marine Biology. I collected data in the Olympic and North Cascade mountains for bird studies. And, I sailed; around Vancouver Island, to Alaska, and up into Canada to the quietest, most wild little spots we could find. 

All this learning and exploring slowly gathered in my mind. My quest to know more was led by the idea that my Mother always told me salal berries were poisonous. They are not. They are delicious! But she grew up in Michigan, and moved to Washington state where I was born. She didn’t know her new home. She told me what she knew of her home, but it wasn’t true for my home. When I had my child, I wanted him to know his home, every creature he shared it with. He learned mushrooms so well, he made a field guide to mushrooms book when he was 3! 

I am also a swimmer. Not the crawl stroke lap after lap kind of swimmer, but the kind who transforms into otter or bear swimming to a far island to see if there are ripe berries there. So my son swam too. We went to Hawaii and snorkeled and he became determined to be a scuba diver as soon as he was old enough. We all became certified scuba divers when he turned 10 and swam-flew over forests of giant plumose anemones on our last day of class, almost making it worth it! (It was February. We were swimming off of Tacoma, Washington, not Maui!)

We discovered that we could snorkel much easier and cheaper. The life underwater in the Salish Sea is incredible too. There is coral, but it is different. There are rockfish in bright colors; kelp and algae waving about; nudibranchs dancing by; and walls of rock covered in purple, orange, yellow, red sea stars. THAT! That is what I wanted to share with this book.

There is a complex and beautiful world all around you full of creatures living their lives. They are your neighbors. You just need to open your eyes and begin noticing. Counting is one way to do that. Sitting still in one spot all day and night is another!

I also wanted to make a book about the sea for the Northwest kids that wasn’t based on the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem. A book so they could know and celebrate their home, their place.

LTPB: In my experience, it seems like most of your books deal with nature and its beauty! Why is that subject special to you?

NM: My lengthy answer to the the first question probably explains most of this! But I’ll try another approach.

Why is nature and beauty important to me? Because it is the world we all are a part of. Beauty and nature is what this world is made of. There is disease, famine, war, racism, pollution, coal mining, plastic, mean grumpy people, and terribly sad events. There is solace, there is healing, there is love, in nature and beauty. And we are a part of that. I want to help children feel connected to place so strongly that they are of that place. That they have the strength and beauty of that place to overcome the parts humans have shadowed with big grumpy people.

LTPB: How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far? What is your process for approaching each new project with a new creative energy and fresh ideas? 

NM: It has shifted. My first book I made with papercuts is Apple. My ability in drawing humans has improved, I hope! My college studies trained my eye and hand to draw leaves and insects and birds. I did not put in my hours at life drawing classes. I was out in the woods drawing sticks on waterproof paper and walking home with sodden pants full of moss and twigs. Apple is very crude and cartoonish compared to the work I do now. I am more willing to try to make people recognizable and to tackle the details of bodies: fingers, elbows, ears, fingernails, hair twists and curls.

I experimented with 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea. I painted with watercolors to make the color layers. Monocolored dense, dark paper didn’t suit this wet watery place I was depicting. It was the first image that started that experiment; the stubby squid. They are spotted all over and change color at will. To reduce all that prismatic life beauty to a solid black wasn’t right. So I painted the paper and speckled it with paint, and played! Really played! I’d run outside with paper if it started raining hard and let the rain contribute to the pattern. By playing, I wasn’t afraid of messing up and even sharing those mistakes because the one thing all my looking and drawing taught me was that nothing I make could ever, ever, ever be as perfect as the creature I am drawing, and even that creature is not perfect. Nothing is. 

My next book, Old Wood Boat (Candlewick 2022)  took all that play back to a narrative based story where pictures had to have continuity from one scene to the next…and one of those characters is an old wood boat! So many lines, and shackles, and blocks, and winches, and cleats to keep track of! And all the weird angles and shapes!! A planing puzzle. Yet, 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea informed that puzzle. Each book leads me to the next. The experiments on the last lead to different ones on the next. My next, next book will be just painted papers of ephemeral things and ideas; things that have no edges and no need to make sure the number of stanchions remains consistent.

To approach the new work, I usually go down to the beach and start writing, sitting on the rocks. I keep making scratches on paper until something crawls out. 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea came to me while sailing the Salish Sea. The title came first with the desire to share this wonder of place.

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?

NM: I keep answering your next question in the previous section! 

I used black paper and water colored papers to create the images for this book. The paints are Beam paints, indigenous woman made. The paper is Strathmore charcoal paper. I cut with an X-acto knife (#11 blade). I sketch and sketch and sketch and look at field guides, photos, videos. I work really tiny at the beginning and make a small dummy book to see how it feels to turn the pages.

I usually just use black paper and then color is added digitally. I scan the original art and then my friend Scott cleans it all up, makes vectors, and colors it in! I guide him by using color pencils to color in my black and white images. I am very analog! I use tape and glue and a knife and pencil and pencil sharpener. Once sketches are done and approved, I take a black piece of paper, cut it to size, draw on it, cut it out, and then repeat until I have a book.

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

NM: My next book is Old Wood Boat, to be published in Spring of 2022 by Candlewick. We got an old wood boat several years ago to be able to sail to wild swimming places in Canada. The book is about that, yet there is a heavy sprinkle of fiction despite feeling like non-fiction. There is snorkeling! There is mast re-finishing!

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?

NM: Woah. I didn’t answer this one already. You really caught me off guard here with this question. A very interesting one!! And it is taking me a long time to consider it! I keep closing my eyes to imagine the visuals of what that story would look like with the touch of favorite illustrators’ hands. It would have to be someone who did wonder and blurring of self and nature, swimming and water, mother love and heart circulation, atoms and molecules, foraging and teaching, desire and action, and an old lady gazing out the window talking to birds. Will you ask Michaela Goade for me?

A big thanks to Nikki for taking time to answer questions for me! 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea: A Pacific Northwest Counting Book published last month from Little Bigfoot!

Special thanks to Nikki and Little Bigfoot for use of these images!

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  1. As a mom and an illustrator and lover of all things wild on my island home in the Salish Sea, I love this book! Hope to find it in all our local libraries and schools; what gorgeous bold design!!

    1. I whole-heartedly agree, Aidan! The design is on-point!

  2. Fantastic! I loved reading about where Nikki finds inspiration and her illustration process. I look forward to sharing this post.