November 9, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #197: Laura Vaccaro Seeger

I feel so lucky that I caught up with author-illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger to talk about her illustration and story process for Red. Red is the much-anticipated (but totally unexpected!) follow up to Green (2012) and Blue (2018) which both explore emotions through their respective color. Red tackles more fiery emotions, like anger and passion, and it was an honor talking to Laura about this book. Enjoy our conversation!

About the book:
Dark Red,
Light Red,
Lost red,
Bright red.

Separated from its family, a lone fox experiences, anger, fear, and ultimately love as it journeys home. Lost and alone, he makes his way through a dark forest, injures his paw, has glancing encounters with humans, and finds himself trapped in a cage, before an act of kindness returns him to the wilderness.

Let's talk Laura Vaccaro Seeger!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Red come from? And how does it play off the first two books in the loosely-knit series Green (2012) and Blue (2018)?

LVS: I’d actually resisted continuing the series – in fact, after Green, I even resisted making Blue, but as I always say, books tell us authors that they need to be written!

Red was really inspired by the division we’ve all been experiencing for the past several years. The conflicting views and disagreements with the most basic level of truth were bothering me so much that my editor, Neal Porter, encouraged me to channel that frustration into a book. Red was the logical place for that expression. Given that Green and Blue basically explore the many shades of a single color and the emotions those shades evoke, I knew that the color red would allow me to do a deep dive into anger, conflict, rage, and ultimately, empathy and love.

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?

LVS: My approach to making books is to first find subject matter that really interests me. I’ve always been a student of the human condition, and that’s why at their core, all of my books tap into relationships, empathy, and feelings. It’s really important that I’m deeply connected to the essence or premise of the book because it takes at least a year to complete each one, and it would be awful if I were to get bored halfway through the process.

Once I know what I want to write about, I then develop an art style specifically for that book – one that really matches the narrative. For example, with Red, Green, and Blue, a rich painterly art style suited the books because they are multi-layered both literally and figuratively. I try not to shy away from art styles that I am unfamiliar or out-of-practice with, and that challenge is actually one of the things that keeps me interested in the project, as well. I do, however feel that what’s changed over the years is that I’ve become much harder on myself. These days, I seem to write and paint a million versions before I’m finally happy with the final result.

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? Did you have a clear vision for the illustrations when you saw the text?

LVS: Because I write as well as illustrate almost all of my books, I find that the vision for the illustrations begins immediately along with the writing process. I’m really a visual thinker, so as I’m writing, I’m seeing pictures in my mind and thinking about the content of the illustrations. That said, I don’t begin exploring the appropriate art style until the manuscript is completely written, (though the text is truly ever-changing until the book is completed). The art style is wholly inspired by the narrative and the manuscript style, so that’s why the timing is important. If I were to decide on an art style first, then the book would be in danger of having a “forced” situation in terms of style and text.

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?

LVS: For Red, I used acrylic paint on canvas paper. I very much enjoy painting with acrylics. I love every part of the process from squeezing the paint from its tube onto the palette, to swirling and mixing it with the brush, to layering it onto the canvas. My very first book was painted in oils, but I quickly realized that oil paint is a medium that is not very conducive to revision – it takes too long to dry, and besides, I tend to be a very impatient person!

My process changes somewhat, depending on the medium I’m using. For example, with acrylic paint, revisions and changes can be done on top of an already existing painting. Since my style of painting with acrylics is one that incorporates many layers anyway, revisions are a natural progression in the process. With watercolors, it’s a whole different story. If something needs to be revised, it usually means starting that painting over completely. With collage, it’s a matter of layering or lifting elements and moving them around.

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

LVS: Right now, I’m working on a book called I'm Not Lost. It’s really a book about the distinction between being lost and wandering. It’s narrated by a self-aware young girl who describes the feeling of being lost, but basically, she owns it. The manuscript is complete and I’ve just begun the art. Actually, this book is another good example of how the narrative dictates the art style. For I'm Not Lost, I’m painting in pastels which is a first for any of my books. Here’s the first pastel study for I'm Not Lost:

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?

LVS: Oh, wow, what a wonderful question! And what a difficult one! I suppose, like all my books, I would need to see the completed text in order to envision the art style and then I’d probably have a better idea of who would be a good match to illustrate the book. Also, so many names come to mind and I’m not sure who I’d choose for fear of leaving out a friend! There are so many incredibly talented artists in the field of picture books, what a challenge it would be to choose somebody. This question really makes me appreciate the difficult job an editor has when matching an artist with a writer!

A bright red thank you to Laura for telling me all about her process! Red published from Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Holiday House, earlier this season!

Special thanks to Laura and Holiday House for use of these images!

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