Stevie Lewis: Art on the Road
~ Hosted by Amanda Smith
Stevie has been living on the road for the past three years, furthering her passion for climbing, art, and the outdoors. Striving to live simply and tread lightly on the earth, she gathers inspiration from a variety of places, be it climbing in the high desert at Smith Rock, hiking in the forests of southeastern Alaska, or sharing laughs with strangers around a campfire. After working four years in animation at DreamWorks, she now illustrates children's books and creates art based on her travels. Her latest work includes PRINCE & KNIGHT (Daniel Haack; Simon and Schuster), THE FINDING SERENDIPITY series(Angelica Banks; Scolastic), and LOST IN THE LIBRARY (Josh Funk; Henry Holt & Co.), which will be on shelves August 28, 2018.
1. Tell us a little about your journey. How did you become an illustrator?
I remember always having a pencil in my hand as a kid. You would always see me doodling on the edges of my notebook, or on napkins in the restaurant. It just flowed out of me, and became the way I shared and communicated with the world. I decided to seriously pursue a career in art when I was a senior in high school, and ended up getting accepted to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. After working endless nights and creating, with my friend, Avner, our senior film, Defective Detective, I landed a dream job at DreamWorks Animation in the Bay area. After 4+ years of working there, I decided it was time to pursue children's book illustration.
2. You made a bold move, leaving a secure job in film animation, to follow a passion. What prompted this decision?
Working in animation was an amazing experience. I was surrounded by a wonderful team in the art department, and everyone who worked there was supportive, helpful, and full of team spirit. We were a small team of artists who got along really well. But, at one point we were unfortunate to have had a superior who wasn't the best leader. It was a rough time, and it affected everyone. Morale was low for a while, and I realized that a dream career in art shouldn't feel like that. It felt like the time to move on, and try a new venture. At the time, I had immersed myself in the rock-climbing world. I'd been taking several trips to Tahoe, Yosemite, and other local areas to learn how to climb outdoors. It had prompted me to move into the back of my Honda Element, and travel around the United States and Canada for a year. The combination of those two things happening in my life, convinced me to take the risk and do something completely new and exciting.
3. At an NESCBWI conference a few years ago, author-illustrator Dan Santat spoke about a similar move and how it had changed his art stylistically. How does your on-the-road lifestyle impact your art? Did you notice a big change in your art when you changed your lifestyle?
The change affected me in a really positive way and allowed me to be the artist I am today. When I left DreamWorks, my art became more about the outdoors and the wonderful people I met while traveling. I was inspired by how the rocks, trees, and lakes were rich with texture and life. I began to incorporate those elements more into my work, and share more of my art with others, through little portraits of them with their vans, or illustrations of all of us hanging out around a campfire. I felt like I reconnected with why I chose to be an artist in the first place. To share my experiences with those around me.
4. I’m an art supply hoarder. To me art supplies and a living out of a van sound incompatible. Most of your current art is digital. Did you make a decision about art media limits before you went on the road?
Ha, I know what you mean. I used to work with traditional media much more when I was in college. But, since I started working in animation, my work became heavily digital-based. It's incredibly easy to make changes, especially with big files and detailed pieces. Sometimes you'd have a note that would ask you to remove a few buildings and add a park with trees in its place. I can't imagine how hard that would be to do on paper. It's funny because I worked with a few guys who have been around since the PRINCE OF EGYPT days, and did all of their artwork with pencil, airbrush, or a variety of traditional techniques. Now they all work digitally and it's expanded their work to a new level. But it is nice to be able to go back to pencil and paper when desired. Living in the van, I've had to make a few sacrifices. While I don't have to pay rent, I had to limit what I could bring along (especially living with two dogs and a 6'4" partner). I pretty much have room for my computer, a small collection of gouache paints, color pencils, and some ink materials. Let's just say I have to make several trips to the art store when I'm working on a traditional project.
5. What is the one medium (besides digital) you have to have? Why?
Lately I've been experimenting a bit more with paper cutouts. It's been a change in pace and challenge for me. I like how I can reuse and recycle paper from old magazines or catalogs, and how it almost creates a sense of dimension off the page. Every year I try to focus on a new style or medium, just to mix things up. Next year I want to try screen printing!
6. When you first receive a manuscript to illustrate, what is your process?
After reading a manuscript for the first time, I immediately have ideas of what I want to illustrate. Once I’ve read it through a few times, done thorough research, and confirmed with my editor any details they want to see, I start sketching. They’re usually rough sketches, just to see my ideas on paper. If necessary, I’ll do research in person, for example, I flew out to the New York Library in Manhattan to spend some time sketching, taking photos, and gathering ideas for LOST IN THE LIBRARY, written by Josh Funk. Since that book took place in a beautiful, historical location, I wanted to capture as many details as I could.
Then, I’ll spend a bit of time doing color thumbnails, to try and layout the lighting and color progression of the book. With LOST IN THE LIBRARY I started with neutral earth tones until Fortitude stumbles upon the children’s room, full of fun shapes and color. It’s really fun to see it all come together from rough sketches to final color, something to be proud of!
7. What does your typical work day look like?
Since I live out of my vehicle, my mornings are usually slow. After making a cup of coffee and enjoying some yoga and a light meal, I get myself ready for the day with podcasts and music. Most days I work out of my van, which has a table to work on and solar panels to charge my tablet computer and other electronics. I’ll usually work a few hours in the morning, and take a mid-day break and go for a hike with my dogs. I’m very lucky to be parked in national forest, with endless access to biking and hiking trails. Then I’ll work for the rest of the day until my boyfriend gets off work. When I’m not working out of the van, I’ll end up in a coffee shop or at a library for most of the day.
8. There is a lot of dialogue about the importance of all children being able to recognize themselves in the books they read. Is this something you think about during the initial concept art of a book? How can an illustrator contribute to diversity and representation in kidlit?
It’s true. As a first generation Asian American, I’ve struggled to fit in throughout my life, especially when I was a young kid. I can’t think of any kids’ books growing up, that I read, which represented someone like me. I’ve always wanted to see diversity in animation and children’s books, and advocate for it when I can. Luckily, the few publishers I’ve worked with have been on the same page, if not pushing for it right at the beginning. When I worked on PRINCE & KNIGHT, we went back and forth on which main character would be the person of color, but it wasn’t a question that there would be diversity throughout the book. It’s hard to reach everyone, but it’s incredibly important to try. You never know if your book will be the one to make someone, somewhere in the world, feel like they belong.
9. You have also illustrated some middle grade books. How does the process of illustrating an MG differ from PB?
Honestly, the process wasn’t too different. I mostly approached it the same way, with plenty of research and sketching before jumping into the project. The major difference was the number of colored paintings in picture books. It was quite overwhelming at first, and I was nervous because I had to finish the entire full-color project in the same amount of time it took me to work on a middle grade book (color cover plus B&W interiors). What’s really fun about working on picture books was that I felt I had more freedom to explore different ideas, compositions, and lighting. I think it was because of the different format and the fact I had entire pages to fill.
10. While working on LOST IN THE LIBRARY, what was your greatest surprise or biggest challenge?
Before starting work on LOST IN THE LIBRARY, I’d never done a rendition of such a large, beautiful building, and I was nervous I wouldn’t do the best job since I hadn’t visited the library before. So I flew to NYC in hopes of seeing the library in person, and spending some days sketching, taking photos, and planning out the book. Oh, and I also never drew a lion before, so that was a challenge as well! But, in the end it worked out really well, and I feel like it all came together nicely. I’m really proud of the book, and thankful for the team at Henry Holt for believing in and trusting me with such an amazing project.
11. When I first saw illustrations from LOST IN THE LIBRARY, the expressions on the lions’ faces made my heart soar. What brought you the most joy in illustrating this book about Patience and Fortitude?
I loved creating a portrait of these lions. They’re so sweet and charming, and iconic for those who frequent the library. My favorite part of the book was when Fortitude discovers Patience in the children’s room, a place full of joy, learning, and most importantly, fun. For children, that’s what a library is all about. It was such a nice way to tie the book together.
11. During the last couple of years. Have you stumbled upon a parallel, epiphany, or metaphor regarding climbing and creating that you can share with our readers?
With any serious hobby or passion, you’re bound to find those parallels. For me, I’ve found that climbing is surprisingly a creative, thoughtful sport. As with art, climbing pushing me to think outside the box, especially when I’m stuck on how to climb something, or when I need to overcome worry of heights, safety of the gear, or fear of failing. The way you need to move your body to find the easiest way to ascend the rock requires placing your body in different ways, and getting creative. Another parallel I’ve made is how difficult being creative can be, when you feel stuck. With climbing, I’ve gone a few long stretches of not climbing either because I’ve been injured, working, or simply uninspired or motivated. And, I’ve come to terms with the fact that we as artists or climbers, shouldn’t blame ourselves when these moments happen. Sometimes they’re out of your control, and the best you can do is get back into it when it feels right.
Thank you, Stevie, for sharing your journey, process and amazing art with us!
To learn more about Stevie Lewis, visit her website here.
LOST IN THE LIBRARY will be in book stores, August 28. If, like me, you cannot wait, it is available for pre-order at indiebound and other book retailers.
To learn more about Josh Funk, 24 Carrot Writing contributor and the author of LOST IN THE LIBRARY, visit his website here.
8/20/2018 11:01:43 am
Wonderful interview! Love the images and little escape to see how you live! Congratulations and looking forward to reading this new book. :) (From one who is living in an RV and writing, with a 6'1 hubby and crazy cat).
8/20/2018 11:36:23 am
What a beautiful and inspiring journey, so full of passion and courage. Thank you for sharing. 💖
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