Carol Schwartz’s illustrations are resplendent with color and texture in detailed, accurate scenes showing wildlife and ecosystems rendered for children. She specializes in science and nature books which she carefully researches, then uses skillful composition to create compelling scenes. This award winning illustrator, and charming person, has had her work in The Original Art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York, the Illustrators Club of Washington, D.C., has had her books selected as Outstanding Science Trade Books by the National Science Teachers Association, worked on illustration projects for the National Geographic Society, Time-Life, and the Washington Post. Carol has illustrated sixty picture books. She has spoken at hundreds of schools and libraries and taught illustration at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Her career is remarkable.
JAZ: Carol, thank you for taking the time to share a bit of yourself here. Congratulations on the 2017 release of My Busy Green Garden!
CS: Thank you, Joyce, for inviting me to share some of my experiences as an illustrator. When I first read the manuscript for My Busy Green Garden I visualized pictures in my mind for how each page could look. Terry Pierce gave me just the right amount of story to spark my imagination. I was also remembering my past experiences of enjoying my own gardens through the years. An illustrator draws from many sources when creating a picture book. The text, personal memories and reference material all contribute. How fascinated I was as a child to discover a praying mantis looking like some alien creature in my backyard.
JAZ: Your colors are beautiful. In the video on your website you are working on your underpainting. Then you go over that with gouache, right? Can you describe your technique?
CS: I work in gouache because of the brilliance and saturation of color I get with these opaque watercolors. After I have each sketch finalized, which can take several rounds of sketching and approvals, I transfer it to Strathmore 3 ply Bristol board using a transfer paper. I make a quick color or value sketch using colored pencils so I have a plan when I start painting. Then I paint my underpainting and build color, layer by layer. The layer amount varies depending on how dark and saturated I think an area needs to be and how each color reacts to what is next to it. I apply at least three layers, light, medium and dark. Gouache is tricky to master but well worth it. I love how versatile it is. The paint can have a translucent or opaque look, depending on how it is applied. The secret to adding life to the look of the painting is to let the light of the paper shine through and that takes practice.
JAZ: Many of the compositions I saw during your exhibit at the Salisbury library are carefully considered. There’s lots of movement and texture, yet conscious use of simple negative spaces.
CS: All composition is developed at the sketch stage. The last thing I want to be doing is reworking a piece after I’ve started painting. I hate revision and starting over. I’d rather put considerable time into carefully planning at the beginning. I try to think about a dynamic, unique and suitable way to portray a subject. I also want to direct the viewer’s eye in such a way that the story is told with a good pace and rhythm.
Negative space is just as important to consider as positive space. Balancing areas of simple negative space with highly detailed subjects gives the eye a place to rest and also lets the viewer know what is important in a scene.
JAZ: Judging by the fine texture and amount of detail in each painting they must take a significant amount of time to complete. How do you decide when they are done?
CS: I’m kind of a fanatic about detail and texture. I love to study patterns and textures in reference photos or from life and I’m compelled to put them in my illustration work. I see them, I’m fascinated by them and I must recreate them. It is time consuming but often the repetitive nature of creating details is soothing and relaxing. It’s like meditation for me. I try to finish painting a double page spread in one and a half to two days, depending on the detail and size. When a piece has all the physical features painted and there is a good balance of values, I stop and put it aside. It’s good to wait a few days and then look at it again with fresh eyes. I squint to study the values and critique it. I scan each piece with my large format scanner and then correct, change or continue to “paint” in Photoshop.
JAZ: Recently you were an Artist-in-Residence for two weeks at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island in Maine. Lucky you! Will the art you created lead to another book?
CS: I hope my experience as Artist-in-Residence at Shoals Marine Laboratory will lead to a book. Being so close to nature opened little windows of discovery about seagulls, terns, tidal life, and the ocean. The scientists there were so knowledgeable and I was able to sit in on marine biology and oceanography classes. One concern that echoed throughout my time there was the fragility of the ocean and all the creatures that call it home. There are fewer fish, more endangered species and more pollution. It really shocked me to hear some the scientists say that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish, by weight, in the ocean. That would be a worthy cause, to work on a book that would draw attention to the appreciation and protection of the ocean.
JAZ: WR readers are always curious about how successful authors and artists found their way into this demanding business. What was your early professional process and did you find work, or an agent, first?
CS: In college when I realized that illustrators created the pictures in children’s books, my goal was to move into the children’s publishing market but I didn’t know how. I started out doing a variety of illustration work, editorial, advertising and educational. Sometimes early in my career I would get feedback from art directors saying that my work was too whimsical, sweet and not sophisticated enough for them. I was lucky to live in the Washington, DC area for many years where there was a wealth of children’s book writers and illustrators. I started going to seminars and conferences about children’s books, learning as I went along, and at one seminar I had the opportunity to have my portfolio critiqued by agent, Dilys Evans. She told me what to add and change in my portfolio and invited me to send it to her again once I followed her advice. A year went by before I felt I could contact her again. I had illustrated two books for a local Washington, DC publisher, which I sent. She invited me to New York for another critique and, by the way, there would be a charge for the critique. I went, even though it was an expensive gamble. The day I met with her, she showed me the F & G’s for a new book, Tuesday, by one of her artists, David Wiesner. I soon came to realize that she was one of the most successful agents in New York. I had a favorable critique and she offered to represent me. She never asked for her critique fee. With all her connections, she opened doors that I could not.
JAZ: You are a member of a number of professional groups like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the College Art Association, The Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC, the Picture Book Artist Association and others. Has that been a factor in your success?
CS: As will most illustrators, I work alone with little interaction with other artists. The isolation can be stifling. Everywhere I’ve lived I have sought out other people to share inspiration and information. Creativity is so much better and life is richer with like-minded friends. The Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC was one of the first groups I joined 25 years ago. Networking and sharing information are a big part of being successful. My membership in organizations that support my career are very important to me. Teaching has also made my illustration work better. I am more thoughtful about how and why I am an illustrator because of teaching.
JAZ: What project(s) are you excited about working on now? What is in your future?
CS: I never know what is around the corner, which is both terrifying and exciting. At the moment I have six projects on my desk and I start teaching this fall. One project I’m working on is illustrating a 32 page picture book that peeks into the world of insects and animals in a 24 hour time period. As far as the future, I’m always looking for more things to explore and more books to illustrate. I have discovered that making time to work on art just for myself and not for a client is really important for my growth. I have a number of sketchbooks where I add things when I can.
JAZ: Have you any plan to write a picture book of your own?
CS: Yes, I have lots of ideas but little time to really devote to making them come to life. I do have one that is maybe ready to submit, but I suffer from the need to make it perfect. It will never be perfect and so it sits in a drawer.
JAZ: In your video you mention doing research to figure out what type of parrot the author was writing about. This suggests that when you receive a manuscript there are no illustrator’s notes from the author to guide your art. Is this the way it works even with non-fiction?
CS: It all depends on the publisher, author, art director and specific manuscript. I like having minimal instructions and the freedom to envision a story in my own way. It’s difficult to be creative if there are too many guidelines. That is not to say I don’t appreciate guidance. Collaboration and establishing a direction are important to creating a great book. It is surprising that I don’t communicate with an author, even on a nonfiction book. Everything is relayed through the editor or art director. With nonfiction, there is much more of a need to be technically correct and often there are fact checkers employed by a publisher to make sure everything is correct. I probably devote too much time to research. I create a digital folder for each project where I keep the job specifics, reference material, sketches and feedback. Final artwork also goes in the folder since all my work is sent digitally. Some assignments are traditionally painted and scanned, others are completely created in Photoshop.
CS: I have had the good fortune to illustrate books by many very talented authors. I’ve corresponded with some authors after a book has been published. I’ve done book signings with Joy Hulme, author of Sea Squares and Wild Fibonacci and we’ve shared a stage talking about our books. I’ve met Connie and Peter Roop, whose nonfiction books for Scholastic were always a delight for me to illustrate. They have purchased some of my art. I was excited to illustrate How Strong is an Ant for Sterling Publishing, written by my friend, Mary Kay Carson, a Cincinnati-based nonfiction author. If we had gone to a publisher to try to work together, we never would have been accepted. It was serendipity that it happened.
JAZ: As you were developing your career, what helped you most? A breakthrough? A shift in strategy?
CS: Having an agent definitely propelled my career. As I was offered more and more nonfiction books, I found that I enjoyed them more than fiction. I was good at including detail and interesting information. When I started to understand that my research not only led to more accurate nonfiction illustrations but infused my work with enthusiasm and information, I had a process that worked for me and that I could build on.
After being an illustrator for many years, teaching illustration at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design led me to want to further my education with an MFA in illustration in 2014. My love for illustration was renewed through inspiring, wise and talented professors at the University of Hartford under the directorship of Murray Tinkelman. It was a time of growth.
Another time of growth was attending the Golden Apple Art Residency in Harrington, Maine in 2015. There I learned just how much I needed to be working on personal art projects. It also was the start of consciously seeking out scientific illustration work.
With each book I work on, I learn something and I grow. After 60 picture books, I’ve had a lot of learning and much more to do.
JAZ: What made you focus on science and nature books?
CS: Science and nature books are a good fit for my personality. I have always loved animals and learning about the natural world. I grew up in the Midwest camping with my family. Many of my relatives had farms where my brother and I visited for weeks at a time. The subject I like to illustrate the most is anything associated with the ocean. As an adult, I spent many summers with family at the Jersey Shore on Long Beach Island. I’ve discovered a lot about sea life walking along that beach. Wise advice I have heard time and time again is, “Do what you love.” If you are passionate about something, it shows and you shine.
JAZ: Is there any goal that you have not yet reached?
CS: There is always more to do, places to visit, books and art to create. New areas I would like to explore are finding my way into galleries and selling prints of my work.
JAZ: Do you have any final advice for illustrators who are trying to break in?
CS: I tell my students to be adaptable and look for opportunity. Not every job is traditional and sometime you have to make it happen. Social media is a powerful resource for connecting people and finding opportunity. Also, do what you love.
JAZ: Carol, thank you for sharing!
CS: Thank you Joyce!
To see more of Carol’s work, check out her website.
Or go to her Facebook page.