2016 SCBWI Bologna Illustrator Interview: Erin Bellingham

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Erin Bellingham grew up in San Diego, where you could usually find her playing make believe, running around outside, reading a book, or doodling. She studied illustration at Cal State Fullerton and moved to Oregon shortly after graduating. 

She now lives in Sherwood, Oregon with her husband Ryan and their dog, Scout. She still enjoys reading and playing outside (usually with Scout right beside her). 

And of course she loves to draw and play make believe; only now, she’s working at making a career of it. 

Erin has been a member of the SCBWI since 2008 and recently signed with Danielle Smith of Red Fox Literary.

Congratulations on having your illustration Tree Climbers selected for SCBWI’s Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery. SCBWI will display your illustration at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. As a long time tree climber, I was especially drawn to your illustration. Tell us about the inspiration for this work.

The initial idea popped into my head while I was poking around on Pinterest. There was an image of this great tree with a mom and her kids posed sitting in the branches. It reminded me of some of the trees we’d seen on a trip to Costa Rica that seem to expand across your whole view. And it looked like a great tree for climbing.

So I started thinking about a tropical tree that stretched across the whole page and all the fun things kids could do in its branches.

Side Note: we just went to Maui and I saw this scene actually happening in real life on a tree near a playground. It was just about the coolest thing ever.

How did you get started illustrating?

If I’m going all the way back, it started with me pasting an image of a painter in the “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” section of an “All About Me” collage in Kindergarten.

Add that goal to years of my loving, supportive family being just crazy enough to continuously tell me, “That’s a great idea! Be an artist!” and you get me, heading to Cal State Fullerton to study illustration.

There I decided I wanted to illustrate children’s books and met a couple of amazing professors/mentors. They taught me the importance of narrative in illustration, showed me what it takes to create submissions for publishers, and even got me an internship at a publisher in Los Angeles. Then, one of them introduced me to the SCBWI.

After joining SCBWI, I went to at least one conference a year and always made sure I got a portfolio critique. That gave me the feedback I needed to keep developing my craft and my style. I would also submit my portfolio for the showcases at the conferences. Eventually, a couple of digital educational publishers picked up my postcard and I got my first official illustration job.

What comes to you first a character? A story? An image? Something else?

It’s probably a pretty even split between an image inspired by something I’ve seen and a story.

A lot of times I’ll start with the piece of an image (a cool tree, a bright red barn, boy scout uniforms, the tiny bubbles underwater after you jump in a pool) then expand from there until I feel like I’m telling a story with my illustration.

I also like to write stories so sometimes I’ll draw from just the idea of a story, which then helps me flesh out the writing of the story.

And other times I’ve basically finished writing and I’ll start a dummy book, picking a few images to finish out. (I say basically finished because I always end up changing the text once I start sketching.)

Every once in a while a character will pop into my head that’s so cute that I have to get it down onto paper. Or I’ll be doodling and I’ll draw a kid or animal that I fall in love with and I’ll create an image or two from that.

What is a typical work day like for you?

I usually go for a run or do a workout in the garage if it’s raining (which is a lot) when I first get up. Then I’ll check my e-mail and poke around on social media while I eat breakfast.

At this point, Scout starts getting restless, so we go play until she is sufficiently worn out to leave me alone for a few hours.

When we get home, I head upstairs to my work space. If I have a project/job going, I’ll jump right into that. If not, I’ll take a look at my website, see what kind of things are missing from my portfolio, and start listing ideas.

I’m a big list maker. I have a ton of story ideas, observations, and even pictures of things that inspire me on my phone so I’ll refer to that if I’m having an “uninspired” day.

Another option is going through the stories I’ve typed up to see if I want to develop any into dummy books. Then I start sketching and see what I fall in love with and start working on that.

After a while of this, Scout starts poking my arm with her nose (really not helpful when you’re trying to paint/draw), which means… lunchtime! After I eat, I take Scout on a walk to the park and throw sticks for her in the woods.

If I’m painting, this is when I let my first layer of paint dry but it’s also just a great time to let my mind wander, stretch my legs, and see if there are any stories going on around me. For example, someone builds these amazing fort-like structures up against the trees in the park that are really cool and mysterious. I just know there’s a story there waiting to be told.

When Scout is tired again, we head home and I keep working on whatever I started in the morning, or if I finished something in the morning, I start the process of deciding what’s next all over again.

Then around dinner time, I call it quits for the day and relax on the couch with my husband and still tired dog. Or if I have a tight deadline, I’ll go back upstairs and work until I feel like I shouldn’t be anymore (AKA I’m tired and I’m about to start screwing things up).

What advice have you received that has been helpful to you as begin your career as a children’s illustrator?

One of the best and for me the most challenging pieces of advice came from a workshop lead by Steve Malk, agent extraordinaire (that’s his official title, I’m pretty sure) at the summer SCBWI conference a couple of years ago.

He emphasized the importance of refining and re-refining your submission, whether it be a novel, picture book, or portfolio, and with that, patience.

It’s so easy to want to finish something and send it off right away or to complete enough pieces to fill a portfolio and assume you’re ready for work right now. But you want what you’re submitting to be the best you can possibly do.

So, as tempting as it is to rush through a dummy book or throw in a couple of mediocre pieces to finish out your portfolio, it’s always better to stop, look with a critical eye, and revise it again.

When you think about it, taking a few extra weeks, months, or even years to create the most polished product you can and become the best at your craft that you can, will all be worth it, and seem like nothing when you start your hopefully lifetime career. With that in mind, enjoy what you do, work hard at it every day, and patience!

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie
(Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a
Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social
Studies Book for Young People.

Angela Coordinates the SCBWI Bologna Interview series, volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is a Cynsational reporter in Europe and beyond.