Our featured illustrator for the winter is illustrator/author Mary Pat Kanaley. She is an accomplished award-winning author and illustrator of the children’s picture book series Imp’s Adventures. Currently, there are four books in the series and a “how to draw” with Imp too. Before diving into the Picture book arena, Mary Pat worked as an art director, editor, elementary school teacher, and freelance artist. She lives in Spokane, WA, with her husband, and is a mother to two sons (now fully grown)
Mary Pat, thank you for being our spotlight artist this season. Can you walk us through your artistic process from initial idea to final design?
I have created many types of illustrations but no matter the subject, I’ve always been drawn to the “story” in each one. So, it doesn’t get much better than actually getting to tell a story with pictures. I love illustrating my own stories, but also enjoy helping authors bring their stories to life by illustrating theirs too. Truly, the process I use for working with clients, is the same process I use when working on mine.
First, I take a kernel of an idea that I have, and these come from a myriad of places. Some come from doodles, things I hear children say, or from memories of my childhood, my own children, or past students and I play with it to see if it has the makings for a full story. Then I plan, write, edit, then edit that story again. Second, I hand it off to a few trusted friends, and I try not to wince when they say, “that’s got to go” or “that’s weak”. After they’ve had a go at it, I lay the story out in a storyboard, and create thumbnail (very rough) sketches. This allows me to see what more can be cut from the writing and that is better shown in the illustrations.
After that, I really focus on the cinematography of the scene. Angle, perspective and lighting. I then create a black and white dummy book.
My critique partners then help me with this as well. This is the most stressful part for me, because parts I think are funny or delightful, can fall flat. But truth be told, when I really analyze the comments, I often secretly knew it wasn’t working. On the other hand, there are times I’m completely caught off guard and delighted with a new observation or input that is spot on. When all is said and done, I cut again, and then decide on the color pallet, and then depending on the mood in the particular illustration, put in my earphones, and crank my music and paint!
When I finish, I scan the picture into Photoshop and clean it up digitally. I will sometimes make color changes or corrections digitally as well.
You work primarily with traditional mediums — watercolor + pen & ink — with some digital creation. What are the benefits of each and how do they help you as an illustrator?
I love watercolors, so that is my default. It has such a whimsical magical feel. Sometimes I add colored pencil, ink or gouache. Other times, if I need a bolder or darker feel, I use acrylic. I really enjoy the feel of the brush or pen against the paper. I relish the way the color spreads or absorbs into the paper creating beautiful textures. I’m trying to learn how to do more digitally because it really does make it more convenient to make changes without having to start over. It is also more portable, cleaner, and no scanning is required. Digital illustrating also allows you to work much closer without a magnifying glass, you just tap + and zoom-in. I really admire digital artist.
You have four books in the Imp Adventure series. What drew you to that character? What inspired you to create that series and how do you come up with fresh ideas?
Imp actually started off as I.M.P. the acronym for In My Pocket (A pocket-size mouse). It was a bedtime story I made up for my sons when they were little, then later for my students. He was a little mouse, a lot like “Ratatouille” before there was Ratatouille. But instead of a rat, he was a mouse, and instead of wanting to be a chef, he wanted to be an artist. He got in all sorts of trouble, met all sorts of artists, and learned all sorts of techniques and tips, and of course, got into all sorts of adventures. He has become simplified over the years, but still has his essence.
As for coming up with fresh ideas, that is rarely a problem for me. I have quite a lively imagination, and constantly got in trouble for daydreaming when I was supposed to be paying attention. My poor family was regaled with my made-up stories ad nauseum. My problem isn’t coming up with the ideas, it is finishing one story before the siren song of a “better” story draws me into a starting new one.
Your “Secret Tunnel” book has also been translated into Spanish. What was that experience like?
I’m so excited my Imp’s Adventures and The Secret Tunnel is out in Spanish, and soon to be French. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish, and only high-school level French, but I’m so fortunate, that my niece Isabel Conde is majoring in Spanish and education at college and was opened to translating my first book into Spanish. It has been awesome seeing that it is not only selling in the USA, but in Spain, Mexico and South American countries.
You joined SCBWI in 2019, can you describe how being a member has contributed to your evolution as an illustrator?
SCBWI has been a great resource for me. Prior to joining, I was trying to figure all the outs and ins of the process and the business on my own. Not only was it lonely, but I was often reinventing the wheel. I’ve now had the chance to go to both a local conference and a national one, and perhaps a digital one as well. I’ve learned so much and started taking more chances and experimenting. I’ve also taken advantage of all the great webinars and Zoom critique groups. But best of all are the friendships, sharing of ideas and the comradery of having like-minded people with which to talk shop.
What do you like about the illustration profession? How is it different from what you expected?
I’ve been a commissioned portrait artist and a free-lance artist for a long time, and I still marvel at how magical it feels to create something from a blank slate and watch it develop. That is not to say it isn’t super frustrating at times when you can’t quite put down on paper what you see in your mind’s eye. Especially when illustrating picture books, I love having the story come to life on the page. I think that is a huge part of why I Illustrate other author’s stories. I like sharing that excitement and joy.
You also do author visits. What do you like about them? What do you learn from them? And how does that inspire your work?
I absolutely love author’s visits. The children are so excited to see you. When I teach them how to draw so they can illustrate their own stories, they are so passionate and pleased with themselves. They want to share everything with you. I have presented my books and how to draw a mouse to the little guys (kindergarten and first graders), and to the upper grades how to create a picture book and illustrate it. I show them the steps I described earlier, and show them samples, and then provide materials for each of them to create their own. Combining the writing with the illustrating, they really get the idea of SHOW, don’t TELL. Some of the children have sent me their dummy books for critique, and that is the best!! I’ve learned a lot from these visits as well. Like the saying goes “From the mouth of babes”. They really don’t hold back. It is really funny watching the teachers try to rein them in saying “don’t say that she is our guest.” But I don’t mind. They are my target audience, and I need to know. The grown-ups may be the ones buying the books, but it is the children who ask for it to be read over and over and want another one with Imp. I currently have the drawing workbook How to Draw with Imp, three Imp books in the Imp’s Adventure series, and one in the Imp’s Holidays series, with a new Valentine’s Day one in the works.
How do you prime yourself to be creative?
Prime myself to be creative? Oh boy, when I wake up I can’t wait to draw. If I’m not writing or drawing or painting, I’m thinking about it. I even bought a waterproof notebook and pen to keep in the shower. I see characters and faces in the water splashed tile and glass doors. Ideas come to me as the hot water washes over my closed eyelids. This is Blinky…I saw him today. But like I said, I have to finish the stories I’m working on before Blinky gets more than a page in my notebook.
What do you do when you have “creative block?” How do you overcome it?
I’m not going to lie, and say I never get stuck, but I remember a writer I admire tell me “You just have to convince yourself there is no such thing as WRITER’S or ARTIST’S BLOCK. A surgeon doesn’t scrub up, walk to the operating table and say, “Not today, I’ve got SURGEON’S BLOCK”. We can’t give in to the luxury of anything block if we want to be professionals and succeed.” I have lived by that, and when it gets hard, I push forward and wear my bracelet I had made that quotes Steven Pressfield “Do the work”.
Do you have a favorite artistic companion — a certain pen, pencil, sketchpad that you take everywhere you go? Why that one?
Sketchbooks in all shapes and sizes (and as mentioned waterproof ability) are always with me. I love using black pens, and my Sketch and Wash pencil. I am trying to include my iPad, but I’m still afraid of losing it or breaking it, so I stay with traditional drawing materials.
Who are your top five favorite illustrators or artists and why?
Only five? Ok, here are my top five. All of them are traditional and fairy tailish. I’m a big Brother’s Grimm fan. Other than watching Disney movies, these are the artist I learned from the most. Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Rein Poortvliet and Maurice Sendak. I love these illustrator’s linework, their magical feel and how their art transports you to imaginary worlds you can believe exist.
What are you working on now? What projects are you looking forward to and why?
Currently, I’m working on several projects. I have two commissioned picture books (possibly three, I’ve submitted a grant with another SCBWI writer to create a picture book). I’m working on my next Imp’s Holiday book-Valentine’s Day, and a stand-alone picture book. Two book covers, one for a Young Adult dystopian novel, and a Cozy Murder Mystery. While I’m enjoying each of these projects, at times I do feel a little overwhelmed. But when that happens, I take a deep breath, and say out loud “one step at a time.” It is kind of like the way I ski. If I look down the mountain, I’ll freeze and not start. But if I say just go from point A to point B, and then from point B to point C, I’m done the slope before I know it, looking back up with pride and say “Wow, that wasn’t so bad, let’s do it again.”
What advice would you give to up-and-coming illustrators who want to do what you do?
The advice that I’d give anyone who wants to do what I do, is:
1. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
2. Just do the work.
3. The more you do it, the better you get.
4. Have fun with it, because the joy you find in creating it will come through-kids can sniff out authenticity.
5. Remember “no one does you better than you.”
Where can we find more of your amazing work?