Q and A with Heidi Woodward Sheffield
Tell us about the banner you've created. How and why did this piece come about?
This pup was originally created for the Ann Arbor District Library’s “Born to Read” program and earned ALA recognition. This CD of songs and stories was given out to new moms. The idea came about when I was looking at an old button one day. As I gazed at it, the distressed texture, hair and face looked to me like a much-loved puppy.
How long have you been illustrating and how did you get started?
I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon, somewhere around two or three years old. I loved using bright beautiful colors, which is ironic as black was one of my favorite crayons to use. They just ran out faster than others. As a kid, I always wondered why there weren't two to a box. Drawing has always been something that I didn’t just like doing. I needed to do it, every day. I have a degree in art, but I wasn’t taught how to create. I was just born that way.
After earning a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan, I attended College for Creative Studies, where I'd hoped to study illustration. Little did I know they were transitioning illustration out of their program (cut to 2014, where it’s been added back in). At the time, many teachers told me illustration was a dead art. One instructor felt a little sheepish and researched things for me. The only program he came up with for studying children’s book illustration was in Switzerland, at the time! (Yes, it was long ago.) So when the same instructors introduced advertising and design to me and said I’d make a great art director or copywriter, I went with it. “I’ll pursue illustration after I build up a nest egg and have children,” I thought. (Ha! I had no idea the path was so difficult and circuitous!) Around 2004 I began pursuing illustration full-timewith a series of posters for the Ann Arbor Book Festival. The Ann Arbor District library contacted me about creating work for them. Many of these illustrations were recognized by the ALA. They became springboards for picture book ideas.
What are some of the things you learned in your advertising work? Has this informed your children's writing and illustrating in any way?
You can’t work in advertising unless you can tell a good story. Ads are emotional. Great ads are elegant in their simplicity without being simple. With copywriting, I learned to use each word. Wisely! You also throw proper grammar out the window. You learn to write in sentence fragments, because that’s the way people think and speak. Another thing you do as an art director and copywriter is pitching ideas to the client. Tell them the story, get them to identify with it, and make it their own. Other things? You learn to fly by the seat of your pants, follow deadlines—“be creative” at the drop of a hat, and trust your instincts. That experience directly translated to elevator pitches in publishing and cold calls at conferences. It helped me introduce myself to various editors, art directors, and agents. That’s how I got my first agent. I was amazed with one of his talks at SCBWI NY. Afterwards, I introduced myself and thanked him. I kept it very brief, gave him one of my illustration postcards with a few words about how his speech had resonated with me. Within two weeks he offered me a contract.
What is the one thing in your studio you couldn't live without? What are your favorite tools? What mediums do you work in? The one thing I can’t live without is a window. Something about looking out, beyond yourself, when you’ve spent the whole morning looking inward. Favorite tools? Plain white 8.5 x 11 paper for storyboarding and Uniball Deluxe Micro pens. The pens are hard to find, but nothing feels so right to draw with.
I love thumbnails—the fastness, the fluidity, the looseness of them. Keeps you limber and your thoughts flowing. It’s something from my advertising days. More often than not, I take the thumbnail and blow it up to create final art. If your art (and concept) can hold up as a postage stamp size, it’ll be good as a larger piece, too. Blowing up the thumbnail to use in the final helps maintain the vigor and freshness in the final piece.
Other tools? Gouache paint, water-soluble oils, Photoshop, a 8.5x11-inch wacom tablet, plus a Canon Digital Rebel for creating collages. And a crazy huge monitor. I use my camera a lot, but don’t consider myself a photographer. I use the Rebel over other cameras because it takes photos in real time with no shutter lag. That’s especially important when taking reference pictures of children. I’ve taken literally thousands of texture pictures, which often inspire different stories from the get-go. I must have been a bowerbird in another life, for my studio is chock full of bright and shiny things, buttons, and old stuff in general. I like to think about the person who lived with that item. What their lives where like. I also surround myself with hand-stitched embroidery from various cultures, old paper, books, textiles and vintage clothes. My new office mate Buster Brown, (a Boston terrier) helps keep things real.
When you're absolutely stuck, where do you turn for inspiration?
It’s unusual for me to get stuck art-wise. I’d say the writing side is sometimes a bit stickier.
I have a tiny 2-inch x 2-inch photo of my family when I was five. Looking at it immediately transports me to a simpler time. I read quotes taped to the bottom of my computer: “Without fear, there cannot be courage,”—Aragon, “Do not let great ambitions overshadow small success,”—fortune cookie wrapper, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit,”—Richard Bach.
If I’m having a hard time letting my guard down and getting into the nitty gritty of an emotionally-filled piece, I listen to the blues. There’s something about the raw power of human emotion. I might listen to introspective tunes like “Help Me,” by Johnny Cash, “Let it Be,” and “The Long and Winding Road,” by Paul McCartney. When I’ve chosen a direction to pursue art wise, I celebrate and amp up the volume listening to vintage Beetles, stuff like “Hard Day’s Night.” It helps keep my art loose and organic and keeps me moving forward, rather than nit picking details. And the experience becomes extra sweet, living in the moment. The art becomes truly organic, taking on a life of it’s own. There’s always something that surprises me.
Other things for inspiration? My seven-year-old daughter Lauren. She’s a whimsical little pixie and she inspires many sketchbook ideas. I go to the museum. Or visit online museums. I look at closeups of brushstrokes. Something about feels immediate, intimate, like the artist and I are present, together. The brushstrokes themselves feel private, like a secret that the artist is sharing with me. Sometimes I call my good friend Charlie. His enthusiasm inspires me. He makes me feel like I’m standing on my head and all the ideas come rushing down. We take cameras and go shoot stuff. Mostly pictures of the ground. We get lots of strange looks. But it’s worth it! Try it sometime. Look down. There’s a world in the granite you stand on.
A huge thanks to Heidi for creating our first blog banner and participating in our first Illustrator Interview!
SCBWI Nevada Mentorship program. Come back tomorrow for part 2 of Heidi's interview and learn about her mentorships - maybe one of them will be a good fit for you, too. In the meantime, learn more at http://www.heidibooks.com/.