Illustrator Wednesday Kirwan answers three questions she has always wanted to be asked in this special CBC Website Feature!What’s the difference between illustrating a book written by another author and illustrating a book you’ve written?
Illustrating a story, whether my own or some one else’s is always a treat. When working on a book some one else has written, it’s an exciting collaboration of ideas. An author has the challenge of starting from scratch to create the heart, the characters, the drive and the pacing of the story. As an illustrator, I get to piggyback off of what the author has created and fill out some of the universe in which the story exists. I have a blast adding fun little details like specific props, textures and patterns that help support the feel of the unfolding story. The most important aspect is honoring the emotional journey that the author has created for the characters.
When writing and illustrating my own book, I start by envisioning the illustrations first. I say to myself, “What would I really like to draw right now?” I often can’t start writing until I have some sketches of the look of the characters. Once I know what the character looks like, the story and the rhythm of the writing comes easier.
What is gouache and why do you use it for children’s books?
Gouache is a type of opaque water-based paint that is good for bright, flat color. It is often used by illustrators because the smooth matte finish reproduces well. It has a reputation of being difficult to use, but in children’s books, some of the charm of an illustration can come from the imperfection and result in “happy accidents.”
I originally studied oil painting in college. I went to school in the midwest where I was able to work on life-size canvasses in a large, well ventilated studio. I was given my first set of gouache paints as a graduation gift from my older brother who is also a professional artist. I didn’t use them until I moved to a cramped one bedroom apartment in San Francisco and needed to find an art medium that lent itself to small space and paper rather than canvas. This change in medium was my first step towards becoming a children’s illustrator. Now more than a decade since, discovering gouache was my own ‘”happy accident” and is my favorite way of telling a story.
Where do your ideas come from?
My ideas come from the quiet times in between everything else. My favorite quiet times have come while walking my dog in the the woods. That’s when I can turn off my thinking brain and let my mind wander and stumble upon ideas before they are fully developed. These walks are when I’ve had my best “Ah Ha!” moments, where I’ve figured out the key element that is going to make a story or illustration work. I’ve also had entire stories come to me and I’ve worked them out completely in my head before the end of the walk. Nowadays, my dog is 15 years old and the walks are fewer and shorter, so I have to remember to leave quiet times in different places in my day, whether it’s turning off the radio in the car on the way to the store, or choosing to walk home from the train station rather than taking the bus. I don’t have creative thoughts on every walk or drive, but I know an idea won’t come to me unless I give it room and time to find me.
About Wednesday Kirwan
Wednesday Kirwan is originally from Duluth, MN where she grew up in an artistic family. After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2002, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue illustration. She’s been illustrating and writing books for children now for over a decade. She lives in Oakland with her husband and small dog.