Interview with Willow Dawson

Willow Dawson with her picture book, The Wolf Birds

This month’s interview is with author-illustrator Willow Dawson! Willow’s prolific portfolio spans several graphic novels, picture books and her latest publication, a collection of illustrated folktales aimed at adult readers. We catch up with her to discuss her work and her process!

View more of Willow’s work at WillowDawson.com

Hello Willow! Welcome to PictureBookers! What are you up to today?

Well, today specifically, I’m catching up on email and getting my taxes ready. I’ll be spending the rest of the week getting some new things ready for TCAF (The Toronto Comic Arts Festival), which I’m suuuuuper excited about. My book White as Milk, Red as Blood launches there this year and I can’t wait!

(Note: This interview was done before TCAF – for some neat pics of Willow’s book launch and other TCAF events, click here!)

Tell us a bit about your background – how did you get into illustration?

I grew up with a fine artist father so art is in my DNA. After highschool, in Vancouver BC, I started working at a toy store where I was put in charge of the book section and I started collecting picture books and fairy tales, almost entirely for the art. Around this time a boyfriend reintroduced me to comics, specifically the works of Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz, and I was amazed to see this fine art approach to book illustration! Shortly thereafter I left Vancouver to attend OCAD here in Toronto. When I entered I assumed I’d go through the fine art stream to get to illustration because what I wanted to do at that time was very multidisciplinary (collage, photography, ink, paint, sculpture, etc.) But I quickly realized I already had those skills, what I needed was a better understanding of illustration practice, business stuff, etc, things that could only be found at that time in the illustration program. When I graduated I was making a comic called Violet Miranda, Girl Pirate with author Emily Pohl-Weary. Kids Can Press saw those comics, they were inspired by the historical research and subject matter and asked me to illustrate No Girls Allowed with Susan Hughes. That was my first book with a big publisher.

The Wolf Birds

Your picture book, The Wolf Birds, got a bunch of award nominations (yay!). How did The Wolf Birds come about?

I was doing research for another book, one that still has yet to come, when I discovered that wolves and ravens hunt together in the wild. My editor at Kids Can Press took me out to lunch one day and asked if I had any book ideas brewing and I mentioned the other book, which is for an older audience, too old for her, but she thought the basic idea would make a great picture book. I did a bunch more research, contacted the ecologist Daniel Stahler in Yellowstone National Park who had done the only study to date on wolf / raven relationships in the wild and he was very excited. He sent me two papers of his, all his notes and I set to work writing it. The proposal went through many versions before it was officially rejected by Kids Can. I then submitted it through the Ontario Arts Council’s Writer’s Reserve program to several publishers and John Crossingham at Owlkids Books called me, he wanted it right away! Because of John’s musical background (Broken Social Scene, Not Of) he was the perfect fit and together we made The Wolf-Birds. In a strange and wonderful twist my editor from Kids Can moved over to Owlkids and she also became a part of it’s creation!

The Wolf Birds, interior art

You’ve also worked on several graphic novels for kids. Do you prefer illustrating picture books or comics? Why?

You know, that’s an interesting question. When I started the picture book I made the mistake of thinking, oh this will be so much easier! It’s like only 1/4 of the size of a graphic novel so it will be less work! But that was a total trap. Sometimes working with less space is much harder. You have to be way more concise.

But between picture books and comics? I know this will sound super lame, but I love them both. They’re totally different mediums and yet I love that I was able to take some of the elements I use in comics and apply them to the picture book medium, which I hope to do more of. I think picture books are seeing this really interesting renaissance right now. They’re getting so much more sophisticated with the influence of graphic novelists, animators and gamers like Jon Klassen, Sydney Smith, Jillian Tamaki, Kate Beaton, etc. The rule was always “repetition, repetition, repetition” but I think kids get plenty repetition all day–“Look! A caterpillar!” Even young kids of 3 and 4 are capable of understanding the kinds of picture / text relationships we use in a graphic novel: text that finishes the sentence the image started, for example. Or even text in complete contrast to the picture.

Hyena in Petticoats cover

Many of the stories you have illustrated feature historical elements. How important is research to you while working on such stories? And how do you manage to balance historical facts with creative artwork?

Very important. Historical graphic novels still have this weird stigma attached to them. As if all the facts contained within must be called into question simply because it’s a GN. Yet, I’d argue that any biography out there, any historical account, is never going to be 100% accurate. Nobody walks around with a tape recorder attached to themselves and turned on at all times, and certainly that was impossible 200 or 1,000 years ago before such a device was even invented! Even memory is full of holes and embellishments. So when I set out to draw something, I want to take as much of that question away from any critics as possible. It can get very time consuming, though. If it’s a piece of furniture I’m not only looking for what’s accurate in terms of the general time period and culture, I’m thinking, ok if this is a bigger item it’s probably a few years older. People didn’t replace things like we do today, they repaired things if they were broken. If it was handed down, then it might be 1 or more generations older than the scene I’m drawing, depending on the economic status. I also find interesting historical things that aren’t in the script and I love leaving little Easter eggs for people who know their history to find.

Let’s talk process! What materials do you like to use for your illustrations? Do you have any routines or habits when you are illustrating?

I used to illustrate strictly in black and white, then colour digitally. The result looks very flat to me, now. Four years ago when I started my family I realized I wanted to do more with my art (and writing). I wanted to build my skill set, which I suppose we’re always doing, but I kind of took a great big leap. Not only trying to draw better, but also incorporating more texture into my work. I’m using grey washes and overlay filters more now and I think the result is quite stunning. I still love ink on paper. I always will. But digital is becoming a bigger part of what I do. I ink the lines in black on a mixed media paper then scan them in bitmap (black and white, no grey). I knock out all the white areas and lock the flat black linework so I can colour them if I want later. I ink the grey washes on a separate piece of paper, scan them in greyscale. Then add everything together in a layered file, adding colour and overlays and filters until it’s exactly what I want. I’m using a wacom tablet and stylus for the digital end of things. I also paint sometimes in acrylic on cardboard. I think I’m going to try gouache soon, it scans better than acrylic.

1) Ink lines which are scanned in Bitmap and touched up digitally
2) Ink washes scanned in Greyscale, touched up and ready to be layered into the final art file
3) Final, coloured artwork which is sent to the publisher in CMYK

Your upcoming book, White as Milk, Red as Blood, is a collection of illustrated fairy-tales. The book is not meant for kids though! Was it a challenge to illustrate fairy tales for adults instead of children? Why?

Oh, this is such a good question, I’m glad you asked. You know, during the long genesis of this project (six years, to be precise) my approach to this type of illustration and my expectations of myself, have changed dramatically. The history of fairy tale illustration is sort of mostly about illustrating the scene of most impact in the story, so either making the romantic part even more beautiful / romantic / picturesque, or making the scary parts feel larger than life / more terrifying. I adore this type of illustration and this is where I started out. I had no idea what the actual stories were like (I don’t read German) so my proposal was full of pretty things.

White as Milk, Red as Blood – cover

The book came about after I discovered an article stating that 500 new fairy tales had been discovered in Germany. People were really excited about this material, it was over 150 years old and the author was a linguist. He wanted to preserve dialects so the tales were pretty much untouched. I could only find three stories translated into English when I pitched the idea to an art director and friend of mine at Random House (Yes, this was before they merged with Penguin). We didn’t have much to go on at the beginning, just blind trust that we would turn coal into diamonds if they were not good tales. It wasn’t until Shelley Tanaka, our awesome translator, began digging into the archives that we were able to see the books full potential and the direction became clear to us, too, that it would be a book for adults. The material was actually very good and quite intense and the whole team (Shelley, my art director, our editor and I) agreed we wanted to retain the rawness, the tension.

Interior page from White as Milk, Red as Blood

In some cases fairy and folk tales might have functioned sort of like gossip, you’d insert your neighbours name into it and everyone would have a laugh at him or her. But in other cases it was quite clear that the stories were cautionary tales. I also realized that what made the scarier tales so frightening was not what was said, but what was not said. What was left out of the story but hinted at. Once I realized that and with the new freedoms that illustrating for an adult audience afforded, I think illustrating this book came very naturally. I was able to go quite deep into those worlds of fear almost effortlessly. Oddly, though, in many ways this book is an exploration of childhood fear for me. The fears my mother filled my head with in order to keep me safe as a girl and young woman learning to navigate a world that was sometimes not safe. So my role sort of grew out of the tales themselves and the freedom to illustrate for the older audience. I became the interpreter, the storyteller, if you will. Not simply illustrating the romantic or the scary parts in an exaggerated way but diving right into the subtext, adding layers of meaning.

What’s your advice to aspiring picture book illustrators?

Join an illustration group or start one yourself. Get feedback from peers, not your aunt, or your kid, or your cat. Your family adores you and will always love your work. Your cat just wants food. What you want is a critical eye.

And try not to take criticism personally. This is a super important first step to publishing anything. Whether you become an author or illustrator your editor will have feedback and you have to learn how to incorporate that feedback in a way that retains your voice and improves the work.

Willow’s art drying in the studio alongside her son’s art.

Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful work with us Willow! Be sure to check out her website at WillowDawson.com

Charlene Chua is a children’s illustrator. She has illustrated several picture books, and hopes to eventually illustrate a book featuring a cat. Visit CharleneChua.com to view her work.

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