This month’s interview is with illustrator Alice Carter, whose debut picture book, Angus All Aglow, was just released last month! We speak to her about her art, life and what working with baboons brings to the creative process.
View more of Alice’s work at alicecarter.com
Hi Alice! Welcome to PictureBookers! What are you doing today?
Hi! Thanks for having me. It is a really cool, rainy Sunday here in Ottawa. Right now I am at my local community centre enjoying a coffee and some quiet while my daughter is at her dance class. My week days are super busy so on the weekends I try to remember to make time for stillness, recharging and play.
Tell us a bit about your background – how did you get into illustration?
I was a kid who spent a lot of time adventuring in my imagination. I was always drawing and making up stories, and knew from quite a young age that I wanted a creative career. A very encouraging highschool teacher noticed the narrative quality of my work and suggested I pursue illustration. I don’t know if she remembers that conversation but it was quite a pivotal moment for me! I studied illustration at OCAD in Toronto and worked on and off in editorial illustration for years while juggling a second career in animal care. I had always dreamt of illustrating picturebooks but that dream got a bit buried somehow over the years. It came into clear focus again after I became a mother and decided to finally focus on picture book illustration wholeheartedly.
That’s great that you had an encouraging teacher! And wow… a second career in animal care? Do you feel your experience working with animals has helped or informed your current art for picturebooks?
Yes,I have been lucky to have crossed paths with many encouraging teachers and artists over the years. I feel like I have a little filing cabinet full of their tips and words of wisdom in my mind that I can reach for whenever I need them.
Animals have always been a passion of mine so years ago I decided to take a one year Animal Care program. I then worked in veterinary hospitals and volunteered in wildlife rehabilitation, and made another dream of mine come true when I worked with orphaned baboons in South Africa. Spending time with and helping animals has always made me feel grounded and whole in the same way making art does. I think my time working with animals acted as a reminder to pay attention to and cultivate that place where I am being true to myself. I feel like that is where my best work comes from, so anything that steers me to that place is helpful. I also love getting to really know an animal, their unique traits and quirks, and I think that has helped me infuse my animal characters with lots of personality.
You use watercolor really effectively to creative a sense of whimsy in your art. Was watercolor always your favorite medium?
My parents gave me a watercolour set around 11 years of age and I instantly loved the way the colours moved and took on a life of their own when using lots of water. At art school, when we were required to use a specific medium for an assignment I often put up resistance saying “but I already know I want to do watercolour!” In the end I was thankful that my professors insisted I experiment with other media. I discovered a lot of other techniques that I carried with me when I returned to watercolour. It all contributed to the mixed media style I use now.
Experimentation in art is tough! But it can be very enriching. Do you still find yourself experimenting with new media or techniques? If so, do you have a process for trying out something new?
I really love combining media so I am always looking for new things to throw into the mix! I don’t have a process for trying something new beyond setting aside time to just play. My daughter loves to make art too and she inspires me constantly. Children aren’t concerned as much with how things are supposed to be, they naturally test and try and experiment. Amazing creations come from that kind of freedom! One of my biggest challenges as an illustrator is staying loose and not overthinking everything. Not losing sight of having fun helps me a lot. I’ll never be bored because I have a long list of things I’d like to explore someday; screen-printing, encaustic, animation, sculpture, puppetry….
Your debut picture book Angus All Aglow came out this September – congrats! Tell us a bit about how that came about and what it was like to work on illustrating your first book?
Thank you! I just had my Ottawa launch party yesterday and am still blissed out from all the love and support I received from my community. When I decided to focus on kidlit I updated my portfolio and then sent it to several Canadian publishers. It caught the eye of Orca Book Publishers who thought it would be a good fit for Heather Smith’s story of a boy who loves sparkly things and what unfolds when he wears his Grandma’s bright, colourful necklace to school. I feel really lucky that the first manuscript to come my way was so meaningful and beautifully written. Illustrating my first book was a big, incredible learning experience in so many ways; I learnt a lot about character continuity, I worked through a lot of my insecurities as an artist, and focusing week in and week out on the same project opened me up to new ways of working. I felt extremely challenged but totally at home at the same time. In the end I was very happy with how everything turned out and eager to take everything I learnt into my next project.
Besides books, you’ve also illustrated for many magazines. What are some of the differences in illustrating for a magazine versus a book?
I still do the occasional magazine work and really love it . The magazine world moves much faster than books, so you get to enjoy and share your work in print much sooner which is really fun. Most of the magazine work I have done has been single images or a sequence of two or three pages so there isn’t as much opportunity to get to know the characters you are illustrating. I love the immersive aspect of book illustration. There is time to let a story percolate, to really develop characters and explore an array of moods and compositions across the numerous spreads. I love the limitless possibilities of picturebooks!
Cake or pie
This is an easy one! Pie! Always pie. I was the weird kid who had lemon meringue pie with candles in it at my birthday parties.
What’s your advice to aspiring picture book illustrators?
My advice is to work hard on a strong portfolio that reflects your unique artistic voice. Try not to worry too much about trends or what you think will sell. I think if you focus on creating work that feels authentic and meaningful to you, it will come through in the illustrations and will resonate with others. I strongly recommend joining SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I have found the resources and especially the connections I have made through being part of it to be invaluable. Illustration can be a very isolating career so spending time with others who understand what you are going through, what compels you to do it, and to share in the ups and downs is super special. Oh! And having unwavering patience and perseverance helps too! (If anyone finds the magical spell to make that part easy, please let me know!)
Do you have any upcoming news to share?
It is always a joy to combine my love of picture making and my love of animals, so I am super excited that my new book, Our New Kittens, written by Theo Heras, and published by Pajama press, is coming out November 2nd! It is a sweet story of two young brothers who adopt two kittens and learn to care for them.
Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful work with us Alice! Be sure to check out her website at AliceCarter.com