Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lynne Avril, Illustrator Extraordinaire: The Illustrator's Side of the Process by Kathy Halsey

Make friends with illustrators, picture book writers. OK, yes, I tracked illustrator Lynne Avril down at Changing Hands Bookstore.  BUT, when you find the illustrator of over 80 books, including the new Amelia Bedelia series doing story time on a Saturday, what would YOU do? 
Kathy, Lynne and a spontaneous Lily McBloom in background
We chatted over lattes and shared mutual experiences. Authors and illustrators have LOTS in common, and Lynne graciously let us in on the illustrator's side of the picture book process. I hope you learn as much as I did from her thoughtful answers! 

KH: Can you explain how you begin to tackle the art for a manuscript?

LA: First, I want to say how awed I am by the writers I work with, and the wonderful stories they give me to work with. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, than illustrate these creative works of imagination.

The ideas start flowing with the first read of the manuscript. The author’s words create the scene in my imagination, and I go from there to bring it into “reality”. Because what I create is truly a reality for me. Sometimes, and I’m sure I share this experience with authors, I come out of “the zone” and hours have passed, and I feel like I’ve been somewhere else – in whatever storyland I’m working on at the moment!

There are so many things to think about at first. It is a lot like directing a movie, where a book is turned into film. There are characters to create (casting), background scenes to create (on location, props etc), clothes to design (costume department), and especially and most importantly, the ACTING, as you feel and describe the emotions of the characters.

You don’t want all your books to look the same, in fact it’s impossible, as each story is special, and each has a feeling that comes with the first reading from the impressions you pick up of the author’s style. So you may choose from a variety of techniques – maybe watercolor, gouache, pastel, outline, no outline. Even if you work digitally, there are many choices. You may approach the story realistically or whimsically. The colors may be wildly glorious, or darkly somber. But it all has to come together to tell the story.

To make a long story short, then come piles and piles of sketches, overviews and corrections by the editor and art director (and sometimes the author if he/she has clout), and then on to the final artwork – all this takes months and months. And after that, a LONG year until the book is printed, bound, and released. Lots of work!

KH: What suggestions do you have for writers in making sure we leave ample room for illustrators and their magic?

LA: Well, if you are a picture book writer, you already know the mantra, “less is more”. That is not only good for your writing, but gives us illustrators something to add! A picture book is known as a marriage between words and pictures. Each side adds a dimension to the story.

KH: Many writers I know debate about adding illustration notes in their work. Your opinion, please…

LA: There are instances where I receive certain short notes from the author in the manuscript, which can be very helpful. But if you have written a strong story, and you have a good illustrator on board, your work is done. Sit back and hand over the reins. You are the word person, and the illustrator is the visual person. You may be pleasantly surprised!

KH: You’ve illustrated scores of picture books, including the Nellie Sue “Every Cowgirl” series by Rebecca Janni, the new Amelia Bedelia picture books, I Can Read books & chapter books. Is your approach to picture books different than early chapter books? Do you have less work in telling the story in a chapter book?

LA: Believe it or not, the Amelia Bedelia chapter books are as much work, or more, than the picture books. The picture books are 32 pages, and the chapter books are about 140 pages with multiple pictures on each page (more in mine than the normal chapter books!). The art is in black and white, and ranges from spots to full scenes.  I do them in black line, and paint them with ink washes. There is so much to do – so many details to figure out, like the floor plan of the house, the decoration of a room, the furniture, street scenes with architecture. The chapter books I did several years ago for Random House (Starvation Lake) had one scene per chapter, and that was a piece of cake. But I love these, with all the art – the books have a LOT of energy!

KH: I love your newest books, I’M GONNA CLIMB A MOUNTAIN IN MY PATENT LEATHER SHOES and UNDERPANTS DANCE. Does the tone of the story play a part in which medium you choose for illustration?

LA: Yes, I use different mediums for different stories. Amelia Bedelia is painted in gouache with black pencil outline.  UNDERPANTS DANCE was also done in gouache, but outlined with my favorite ink pen, which has a very fluid and thin line, to express her movement. I wanted to show a lot of white spaced in that book. CLIMB A MOUNTAIN is actually done in chalk pastel, rubbed into the paper, and mixed with matte medium, because I was more interested in double page spreads with full bleed and large areas of color and texture.

KH: You really engaged the kids at your presentation the Saturday we met. How does a writer/illustrator make that happen?

LA: Well, I think they always like to watch somebody draw – I know I do! It’s almost like a magic show. And most kids at that age still like to draw too. It’s kind of sad when that disappears in most people. And if you, as a writer or illustrator, are excited about what you do, the kids catch on to that and respond enthusiastically!

KH: We discussed deadlines and edits for illustrators and authors. I don’t think we writers maybe appreciate what all goes on from the artist’s perspective. Can you enlighten us?

LA: My art director, Sylvie LeFloch, at Greenwillow (Amelia Bedelia books) is a GREAT partner! She is often my second set of eyes, and much like an editor is to a writer. We have great teamwork and do everything we have to do to get the work done on time. And I have never been late for a deadline. It can get pretty intense, but I thrive on that.

KH: How do feed your creative side? I know you travel yearly to Paris and play bass in a blues band.

LA: Travelling to Paris is very important to me, to recharge my artistic energy. I find when I’m there, I can’t stop drawing. I’ll work all day, and then I go out to relax, and I’ll find myself at a sidewalk restaurant, with my sketchbook out, DRAWING. There is so much culture there – all kinds of art expositions, beautiful architecture, bookstores everywhere. As far as the music, living and working alone is very important to me, but I need to get out and be with friends too. Music is very energizing and healing.

I was thrilled to meet Lynne and hope you have a better idea of how a master illustrator works! THANK YOU, Lynne!!!! Now go out there and climb a mountain in your patent leather shoes!


  1. Great interview, Kathy! Thank you, Lynne, for your insights into the illustrator's process with a book. I was especially surprised with the amount of work that needs to go into the Amelia Bedelia books -- I guess like many people, I would at first think older book = less work for the illustrator. How wrong that is!

  2. Excellent interview, Kathy and Lynne. I've read many of Lynne's books.

    1. Appreciate the support, Tina. Thanks for reading this. I was most surprised about the process for the Amelia Bedelia books.

  3. Fantastic interview! I loved hearing her advice to picture book writers and learning about the process she goes through for different projects. Excellent! Thank you!

  4. TY, Todd, for stopping by to read. Lynne is fabulous.

  5. Kathy: How amazing that you met and interviewed Lynne Avril. Her illustrations are so playful and whimsical. I am thankful for her thoughts and tips that she shared. It is so interesting to know how the process comes together for her.

  6. Dear Kathy, Luv this interview! First, I am a big fan of illustrators but especially those whose artwork illuminates childrens' stories. I can't get enuf on their process, tips for writers on working with artists & a peek into their imaginative world. Then, Lynne's name & her titles are appreciated by me - especially the Ruby Valentine books & her rhyming story book with one of my favorite children's poets Mary Ann Hoberman - The TWO SILLIES. Thank you for finding her in Phoenix (or was it another AZ city?) & since I have relatives in AZ, perhaps I will be able to stumble upon one of her bookstore presenations some day! This is a gift post to us all.
    And Happy Holidays!
    ~ j a n