Our featured illustrator for the summer is author-illustrator Pierr Morgan. She grew up in Seattle with five brothers and sisters, working puzzles, mastering circles on an Etch-A-Sketch, and writing poetry in a lockable diary. In the 6th grade, when Mrs. Fountain read Where The Wild Things Are, Pierr chose her career. From then on, she took art and writing classes in high school and at the University of Washington then studied illustration and painting at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She currently lives in Spokane, working up art for her latest picture book.
Pierr, thank you for being our spotlight artist this season. Can you walk us through your artistic process from the initial idea to the final design?
You bet! First I read the text over and over out loud until I start to see pictures in my mind. Then I make a 32-page dummy (folding eight pieces of 11 x 17” paper in half and numbering their lower corners from 1-32). Next, I cut the manuscript up into sections and tape them onto the pages with removable tape, same with any doodles and sketches. This is very important. Because I might change my mind about the pacing, or there may be an editorial change in the text and removable tape makes it easy to lift things off and move them when they’re not glued down permanently. I never draw on the dummy pages. I draw on scrap paper or tracing paper and tape those onto the dummy, sometimes moving things around like puzzle pieces or cutting arms and legs to refigure them like paper dolls. There are always blank pages. Rarely do I see the art all at once.
For The Children’s Garden: Growing Food in the City, by Carole Lexa Schaefer, both Carole and the publisher thought 5 children of ethnic diversity would be nice to follow throughout the book. They wanted to see some character studies. I have a big box of photo ‘scrap’ – pictures I’ve taken over the years that I rummage through. People I choose are for body posture and color reference, not meant to be portraits. My nephew kneeling on an alligator raft looked like he was digging in the dirt. And a young friend stirring ingredients for chocolate chip cookies held the spoon like she might hold a rake or a shovel. I keep refining the sketches till I’m satisfied.
Place is very important to me. Even if it’s imaginary. Place helps ground me in the story. I used to travel to sketch and take photos – Italy for The Bells of Santa Lucia, by Gus Cazzola for Philomel Books – England to retrace Will Kemp’s steps in 1601 for The Nine Days Wonder, by Marilyn Hollinshead for Philomel. Now I travel to the library or the internet.
The Children’s Garden is a real place in Seattle. A date was scheduled with Carole and the Editor at Large to meet there so I could photograph the area for accuracy of the Tilth building and surrounding grounds and any details that might spark my imagination. Like a row of colorful wheelbarrows stacked against a shed under an old apple tree…painted for the Dedication & Copyright pages, and used again as the back cover of the book.
Gouache & ink resist seems to be your go-to mediums. What drew you to that combination? Do you find it easy or challenging to work with?
Actually, I was taught the combo during my studies at Art Center by the late Dwight Harmon in his Media Experimentation class. I was already very familiar with gouache, having studied with Francis Celentano at the University of Washington in the early ’70s. Celentano is all about color mixing and color relationships and only had us use gouache. We learned to mix it nice and flat without streaks. So when Dwight showed us the magic of the Gouache (gooWASH) and Ink resist technique, I was all in.
You mix small pools of melty-ice cream-consistency gouache and apply color (even white) backward – details first, general color over the details – leaving the white of the paper wherever you want black or a black line
Next, you cover the gouache with Higgins “Black Magic” waterproof ink.
Once the ink is dry it gets a rinse or spray under running water at the kitchen sink.
The gouache dissolves and pushes the ink off itself in black flecks. Colors that touched the paper first, stain it and end up being on top. The ink stays in the lines or where gouache wasn’t painted thick enough to resist the ink.
I naturally think backward, so I find the process easy. The challenging part for me is not having 100% control over how it’s going to look after the rinse. I never know for sure. I can spend hours, days, on a piece and have the ink stick way too much in the wrong place or the gouache stain not hold to the paper, running down the drain, leaving me with hours and hours of touch-ups on my hands – especially when it comes to tiny faces and their features.
But this challenge is a blessing as it forces me to let go to that ‘happy accident,’ maybe a texture or design element I never would have thought to try on my own. And gouache is opaque. It lives for the details, ultimately creating a color-rich illustration.
You have illustrated over 24 books and are currently working on #25 for Little Bigfoot, a division of Sasquatch Books in Seattle. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way that have helped you carve out such a successful career?
I have three:
I am time-line driven. A lot of people are not. Communication is key and yet it’s often hard to come by. Let too much time pass without a word and you see me pacing the floor wondering how to move forward without ending up being wrong and/or having to do things over again. So many parts of this business are out of my control. It’s good to remember the editorial staff and art & design staff are working with an office full of interruptions. And they’re working collectively on many books on a list – not just mine. Control over my attitude is my best line of production. “Patience, Grasshopper.”
This is one thing I have in spades. I spell it PIERRseverance.
When I first started out I visualized where I wanted to see my work someday. I had a list of my top 5 publishing houses. I pursued any leads, met editors and art directors in person whenever I could, and took care of my work by keeping track of where it was, how long it had been there, who to contact. I even had a calendar of book events to track when an editor might be out of town or busy getting ready, ‘out of the office.‘ I’m not near as vigilant these days, but I’m not pounding the pavement much. I still persevere though, in keeping a schedule of mini-deadlines for a large project, communicating with the editor, art director, or designer via email with photos to update them on my progress.
I have to say the team at Little Bigfoot has the best communication plan I’ve ever experienced. Ever. From the start, I received a printout of what was due and when, and when to expect feedback for each step. While the duration was over a year for this last project about chickens (written by Carole – too soon to reveal title – pub date March 31, 2021), it was wonderful to work with them. Which brings me to the 3rd and most important lesson…
I didn’t get to where I am alone. In grade school, my goal one day was to write and illustrate “my own” stories. To receive all the credit. All the rewards…all the money (tee-hee)! I didn’t understand how community of like-minds and hearts expands something, makes it even more than I could imagine, or create on my own. Partnerships of all kinds have brought me here.
Had I never met Carole – whose serendipitous collaboration with me on The Squiggle twenty-six years ago continues beyond our now 12 published books – I’m not sure I would have come this far in my career or stayed this long at the party. We have a synergy. It’s pure play. Even the hard business stuff of lighting fires under editors’ chairs taking care of our works in progress. We sort of breathe picture books when we get together. We once wrote a story on an airplane cocktail napkin returning from a book convention. The project was rejected several times over the course of a few years and put away. Until recently, when we updated it and sent it to the first editor who’d rejected it 20 years ago. The editor was pleased to hear from us. Another amazing partnership.
To all my friends and colleagues I am in deep gratitude for your time, humor, expertise, attention, for cheering me on, talking me off the ledge in times of self-doubt, your love of the craft, encouragement, and kindness. Thank you.
You joined SCBWI in 1987, can you describe how being a member has contributed to your creative evolution?
When I first began learning whatever I could about how to go about writing and illustrating books, I didn’t know of any resource available to guide me. I studied the tiny print on the © page of my favorite picture books and sent them stories in my 20’s over the transom. Then I learned of SCBWI and their ‘To Market’ pages, conferences to attend, people to meet. Many long time friends I’ve met through SCBWI events. Since moving to Spokane and joining the Inland NW chapter I’ve gained even more friends. Feels like my Tribe.
You are also a crafter of unique fabric hand jewelry displays called HAND-Stands. How did you become interested in that creative outlet?
I love to sew. Small things, free form. Twenty years ago a friend and I were window shopping at an antique store and I spied a beautifully carved wooden glove-maker’s hand. It was very expensive and my friend said, “You like to sew. Why not try making one with fabric?” So I did. I’ve been selling them in my Etsy shop for nine years.
During the quarantine, you also made A LOT of face masks. I liked the western women series — buckarettes. Is your love for fabric and design inspired by your father who was an Interior Designer?
Definitely. Dad was a huge influence on me creatively. He would bring me and my older sister and younger brother to his office on a Saturday to hang out while he worked on things. I loved the colors and designs of the samples; huge ringed collections of carpets and upholstery fabrics, and thick bradded wallpaper books to leaf through. Then there were the office supplies and the drafting chairs and tables..! I wanted to be self-employed like him doing what I love every day, in my own sort of clubhouse. He always brought home sculptures and paintings that clients decided they didn’t want or weren’t right for a job. He had a knack for meeting and befriending up and coming Northwest artists, as well. Our home was a museum of color, art, and design. Dad gardened too.
What do you do when you have “creative block?” How do you overcome it?
Under deadline (even self-imposed) with a big project (contracted or not), it helps to work on it every day. At least a little. I always have Pandora albums on – Jazz, Motown, adventure movie Soundtracks. I’ve got a wooden timer shaped like an egg (see it there on my drawing table in the first photo?) The timer isn’t to see how fast I can go, but to keep me in my chair for a time of least resistance. Blocks are fear. So if my block is really big, I might set the timer for only 5 minutes. I’ll sit and look at the painting or blank paper until the timer goes off. Then I’ll get up and move around, do some yoga, take a walk, return and try another 5 or 10 minutes. Usually, something gives and I can move forward.
If not, I’ll text a friend, ask for a check-in say, in an hour? Or I’ll send them a photo of something I’m working on for a different perspective or an ‘atta-girl’. If I’m really stuck I’ll call and say it’s a crisis. They’ll give me a pep talk or reminder of what my fortes are, help me reframe how I’m thinking about the problem. I’ll take notes.
Other times I just need to create something that will give me an immediate sense of
accomplishment. Writing a letter, making a postcard to send my grandson, sewing a HAND-Stand. Whatever, it’s important to be kind to yourself. This too shall pass. It always does.
Who are your top five favorite illustrators or artists and why?
Beatrix Potter – Her line quality and realistic atmospheric perspective, and the tiny details in the set interiors and costuming of her animal characters.
Garth Williams – Endearing, lively and personable, unforgettable characters using zillions of tiny thin pen lines.
Ed Young – Movement and dramatic quality achieved no matter what medium he uses – cut paper or pastels, paint, or markers, especially his early work. Eyes of the Dragon by Margaret Leaf is my fave.
Trina Schart Hyman – That wispy airy way she drew and painted children and animals.
Melissa Sweet – Engaging aspect of her collages, little details to get lost in, a perfect match with text, enriching the story. Delightful. Inspirational.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming illustrators who want to do what you do?
Create a room, a cupboard, or corner in your home where you can set up your art supplies – a play station – so you don’t have to keep putting it away. Keep following your interests and learn what you need to learn. If you’re a list maker, make lists of what you love. Post Oprah Winfrey’s words, “You have to know what sparks the life in you.” Visualize where you’d like to see your work someday. Make that a heart goal for yourself. Always follow your heart.
Where can we find more of your amazing work?
pierrmorgan.com (website + Etsy shop)
pierrmorgan.etsy.com (Etsy shop)