SCBWI Bologna 2010 Illustrator Interview: Bridget Strevens-Marzo

Interview by Rachelle Meyer for SCBWI Bologna 2010

I really enjoyed the presentation you gave when you can to speak to our chapter in The Netherlands last October. There was a nice balance of personal history and creative process. Do you like to give presentations and workshops? What do you like about them?

For a start, I love sharing my problems with others! Seriously, we are all on a similar journey. A number of obstacles I met on my own path, plus a strong self-critical streak, meant I meandered about a bit, especially after my first books were published.

I could easily have given up when a couple of books I wrote and illustrated were bought by a good French publisher but were never published.

Instead, a chance encounter with the great author-illustrator David McKee encouraged me to contact French magazines, take on any job offered, and “expand my repertoire.”

I recovered my lost confidence, and I came up with new approaches and processes. More books, different books, came later.

If anything I’ve learnt can give someone else a shorter cut than the path I took, or a wider picture of their journey, then I’d be delighted.

But in any case, I am an incurable enthusiast, especially about other people’s work–I just have to share and people have to stop me!

How do you adjust your methods when teaching young children, college students, or adult professionals? What do you get out of the different experiences? Has SCBWI played a big role for you in connecting with people and making friends?

I feel most at home with children, five-year olds especially. I think we share a love of living inside pictures, a habit which often disappears when children learn to read.

Up to that point they “read” the world directly, from observation. Illustrators continue to do that into adulthood. Children–and illustrators–will notice the tiniest details of a picture which most adults miss.

I’m lucky to be able to do occasional workshops with young children, but I’m not a teacher in the way that I am with my art students at Parsons Paris once a week. I try and give students the education I never received myself at art school.

As they say, the best way to learn is to teach. I’ve become much better at composition as a result.

It’s also fascinating to see how we all share a fundamental sense of design and balance. Yet even the tightest assignment can prompt a variety of responses I’d never have imagined myself.

Learning never stops, neither does the struggle, at least, if you are serious about what you do. Oddly that’s perhaps one of most reassuring things about meeting other SCBWI professionals. You can get that ever-precious feedback from people whose work you like and respect–and vice versa.

Bad news for people who’ve not published their first book yet: the struggle begins anew with each project–it certainly doesn’t stop when your first book is published.

That’s where meeting other SCBWI pros helps. You are not alone at whatever stage you are in your career.

Do you think social networking sites like facebook and Twitter are a great way to break out of the isolation of illustrating, a hopeless source of distraction, or a bit of both?

Twitter is not visual enough for me, I guess. I find facebook an easy and unintrusive way to keep in touch with others, especially in the business. I especially like being able to share discoveries without buttonholing anyone in particular.

But like chocolate, I have to control my consumption or else…

How has living in a foreign country affected your work?

It’s opened my eyes to other ways of looking and other publishing models. The French kids book industry is arguably less driven by their marketing departments than the U.K. and U.S.

Up to now at least, there has been more money to buy books within the public library system.

And there’s also a high turnover of quality children’s magazines, so a constant need for illustrators and new images. That has kept me going–and learning–at times when book projects were harder to come by.

Alongside working for what the French term “Anglo-Saxon” publishers, I’ve been able to do work here that would have been regarded as too risky elsewhere.

I was delighted when Bayard France actually managed to sell an English version of one of these “risky” projects to the Tate U.K.: The Big Book for Little Hands (distributed by Harry N. Abrams in the U.S.)

I think your work has a great sense of composition and movement. For example, I love the sweeping movement between the mommies and babies in How Do You Make a Baby Smile? (Harper Collins U.S., written by Philemon Sturges). Is this something you recognize or strive to develop in your own work? What aspects of illustration do you tend to clarify and edit through the sketching process?

A lot of book illustration for me is about making connections between characters across a page or spread. This is helped by direction of character’s eyes, the interchange of glances, and also by lines of flow across the composition.

My art students know all about lines of flow after a semester with me! Copying Renaissance paintings as a student helped me understand this.

So, yes, I am conscious of movement.

For me, it’s like giving the picture the kiss of life. I strive for that at the outset however subtle the movement may be.

As for the sketching process, it depends on the book, but generally I like to start by mapping out the colour.

Then I make a right old mess so everything has to get clarified and edited little by little.

How much of your work is created digitally? Do you consider yourself a digital-friendly artist, or are there some things you’ll only render with traditional media?

I’d say over half of what I do now is digital. But I don’t obsess about either digital or traditional media, even if enjoy gouache and the pentel brush pen as much as messing about with my Wacom pen and colour in Photoshop. Whatever it takes really. For me, the media is simply a means to an end; the content of the picture or story.

How much liberty do you get when interpreting a manuscript? For example, it seems like you had a lot of input when it came to creating the characters in your upcoming release Mini Racer, written by Kristy Dempsey (Bloomsbury).

I think any good publisher–and author–gives the illustrator room to create their own part of the picture book–sometimes quite differently than the text might suggest. And creating the characters is part of that.

In Mini Racer, my input was not just with the characters and their vehicles. There’s a visual subtext going on which I think kids will spot before most adults.

On each spread, one of the racers drops out. The text doesn’t refer to this at all. And there’s no suggestion in the text who the winner is. That was my choice; not the gaz-guzzling crocs or the haughty giraffe in her SUV, or the heavy metal biker dog, but a small snail on a skateboard.

If this “eco” message had been in the text, it would have sounded a little preachy. In the pictures it might pass unnoticed–but that’s fine by me. I’m writing my own story in pictures alongside the text. The text provides the impetus and the sound effects.

But my snail skater wins–yay!

Cynsational Notes

Based in France, Bridget Strevens-Marzo illustrates for publishers internationally. Her books include Margaret Wild‘s Hush, Hush! and Kiss, Kiss! (PW star review) and The Big Book for Little Hands (British Book Design shortlist). How do You Make a Baby Smile? was a U.S. Bank Street Book choice. She shares her love of books with students and SCBWI members worldwide. As International Illustrator Liaison, she is on the SCBWI Board of Advisors.

Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator whose recent books include My Favourite Children’s Songs and Mijn Grote Sprookjesboek (Kid’s Marketeers). She also writes her own picture books and has an interest in expanding into graphic novels for adults and children. She moved to Amsterdam in 2006 after living in New York City for eight years, and originally hails from the fine city of Austin, Texas. She volunteers as the Illustrator Coordinator for The Netherlands chapter of SCBWI.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

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