Q&A

What is your favorite color?

It changes all the time. But I am partial at the moment to Cornflower blue. (Update – 1/2011, it’s still cornflower blue, but I am using olive green and pink a lot….)

What do you use to make your pictures?

I use mostly black Prismacolor pencils (Ruby) or Steadtler Mars Graphic 3000 “brush pens” (“Growing Up” series) for drawing lines. But I have used cheap ballpoint pens (the first You Read To Me…) And Sakura “Gelly Roll” pens (second You Read To ME…) as well as Mars leaded drawing pencils and brown colored pencil.

I currently love Pentel “Twist Erase” mechanical pencils for sketching. I love the fat grip and the nice big replaceable eraser. But I often just use what is lying around. Mechanical pencils don’t need sharpening so they don’t break off in your bag if you go out sketching at the zoo or something. And you don’t need to stop and sharpen them.

For color I use a combination of watercolor in tubes and dry pastel depending on my needs.

For paper I use some kind of thin (90lbs) watercolor paper. It can hold up to a wash pretty well and hold onto pastel, as long as it is not too smooth. If it is too smooth the pastel will not stick to the paper very well. The brand depends on what looks and feels good to me at the time, but I always buy plenty of it. There’s nothing worse than running out of paper in the middle of a book and going down to the shop to find out they are sold out. As you can guess, it has happened. This goes for pens and stuff too. I buy’um by the box.  The thin paper is so I can use it on a light table. (see below).

I do the final artwork at a “light table”. This is a table that has a glass top that can be illuminated so I can see through paper like it was transparent. This is handy for doing final art from sketches. I can trace the messy sketches to save time. I also have been experimenting with photocopying my line art onto watercolor paper before coloring. This does save a little time but more importantly gives the art a loose, more “lively” look. Often the final art does not have the same look, or even look as good as the sketches. This is probably because you tighten up on the final instead of relaxing – too much pressure. So using a copy of the sketch is a trick to take the pressure off.

I do use the computer more and more for creating final line artwork and I sometimes put together different cover ideas with it to show to the publishers. I have been experimenting with scanning my black and white pencil sketch art and printing it onto watercolor paper before painting.

I use the computer for writing, but not all the time. Mostly for editing. I still use pencil and paper.

Where do you work?

I can work almost anywhere. Almost…

I had a studio all to myself on the top of an old factory building in Boston for ten years. I had to climb 7 flights of stairs to get there. I’ve worked out of my bedroom at my parents’ house. I’ve worked out of the corner of a single shared apartment. I worked in the attic for a summer at my publisher in London. Right now I work half the time in the living room, and half the time in a second bedroom set up as a studio in the house I rent with my wife in County Wicklow, Ireland.

I do artwork in the studio, but I often sketch or write somewhere else. Sometimes outside, in a coffee shop, at the beach, on a train or airplane, lying on the couch in the living room – or even in bed! (As I did when I was recovering from a broken back and leg in San Diego).

Do you ever make mistakes or get frustrated working?

Yes, I get frustrated, mad, worried, upset, and just feel like I never want to draw or write anything ever again. But then I do.

I make mistakes all the time. But I just crumple them up and throw them away.

I have a very, very big trashcan in my studio.

How long does it take to do a book?

It depends on a lot of things. What makes it hard to say how long it takes is because I am never working on just one thing at a time anymore. In one day I could sketch a little on one book. Then read the new text for another book. Then talk on the phone with my friend Robie about design changes to another book. Then go down to the library and research how a wolf sits. Some books can take three years from start to finish, others six months if I am only doing the pictures. Some books get started, then sit around for years waiting to get finished.

How early do you get up in the morning?

I try not to get up early in the morning. But I work at all hours. Sometimes late at night.

Who are your favorite Illustrators/authors?

Like any favorite, this changes. But I do admire the work or have been influenced by William Steig, Richard Scarry, Jim Marshall, Wally Tripp, Peggy Rathmann, Holling Clancy Holling, Marc Simont, Russel Hoban, Giovannetti, Ivan Gantchev, Lisbeth Zwerger, Dr. Seuss, Ernest Shepard, Mobius, George Booth, Larry Gonick, Terry Moore, Sempe, Robert Osborne, Jules Pfeiffer, and of course, my father, Ed Emberley.

Is Ed Emberley your brother?

No. The well-known Caldecott winning author/illustrator Ed Emberley is my father. Children’s book author and illustrator Rebecca Emberley is my sister. Singer, songwriter, actress, and recording artist Adrian Carney is my niece.

Where do you get your ideas?

This is the most often asked question of creative types. I’ll answer two ways:

Short Answer:

My ideas come from everywhere; Looking at books, talking to friends, watching people around you, even, but rarely, in dreams. I take notes sometimes, but most ideas just rattle around in my head for a while before they take shape and come out. I find the more I try to come up with ideas, the easier it gets. Sometimes you can’t stop it. Everything looks like an idea. I find myself saying all the time in conversation, ” Ooh, this would make a good book idea! Hey, that would make a good book idea!”

It can be very annoying for my friends.

Long Answer:

“Finding” ideas for stories or songs or pictures is something anyone can learn. Being creative is in everyone, but you need to really want to. It can be painfully difficult trying to think up an idea, even for a seasoned professional, but it does seem to get more natural the more you do it. Ideas are everywhere and everyone has them. Curiosity seems to be one of the more important traits to have. And the willingness to keep imagining new ideas even when people tell you your ideas are no good.

There really is no such thing as a bad question or bad idea. It is more a matter of timing. Obviously some ideas (and questions) have a proper time and a place. Think about it. Have you ever asked a perfectly good question but at a perfectly awful moment? Artists with bad timing are often criticized as being “behind the times”, or “out of touch”, if they time their idea too late. Not a compliment. But the very same idea timed too early is often applauded as being “ahead of its time”. A compliment. In reality it’s seldom any better to be “ahead of your time” than “behind the times”. Except in your obituary.

Some ideas are really good, but someone has already done something very similar, so people will say it’s unoriginal, and you want to give up.  Ideas take work. There is just so much to look at and listen to in the world that it can take a long time to sift through it all and get an idea that is original. You need to sort through so many thoughts and impressions of your experience. You copy things and you learn from them, and then you move on.  You could say that every artist has a thousand bad drawings in them for each really good one. So you just need to get busy, and get those bad ideas out of the way so you can get to the good ones a soon as possible. Hopefully before they write your obituary.

Do you ever have bad ideas?

Short Answer:

Yes. Lots. I throw them away.

Long Answer :

I do. But better artists than I have even more. Really great ideas come from people who have tons of really bad ideas. Their wastebaskets are more full than their portfolios.

That also comes from taking risks. You need to be brave and try things and be brutally honest about whether you like it or not. It comes easier to some than to others, but desire seems to be more important in the long run. You can’t give up. You have to believe the good one is there, just around the corner. And you can’t believe it will come by magic. Those “magic moments” come after much thought. And usually, much work. Most “overnight sensations” take about ten years. One of the biggest misconceptions about being an artist or writer is that it isn’t work.

How can I come up with a good idea?

Short Answer:

Be honest and personal, even if you don’t think other people will think it is interesting or like it.  Don’t try to guess what other people will like. What do YOU like? You are the number one expert on that. Chances are someone else will feel the same way.

Long Answer :

I think the best work you can give, the best artistic ideas you can come up with, are the most personal – your most painfully honest, individual view of the world – even if you work in science fiction or cartoons or fairy tales. Art is not about being pretty. That’s craft. A craftsman can also be an artist. But without being judgmental, it’s two different things. Art is an idea. A viewpoint. Not decoration.

One of the reasons people consider art good is when they recognize something in it. Something human. They recognize something about themselves, something perhaps in the back of their minds that had no name or shape or substance before, something that they recognize like a tiny piece of a puzzle, something like a familiar sound or smell, something, in fact, that they realize in some strange way, they already knew. You don’t think deeply about existence every minute of every day because you would go crazy. But no matter how you are brought up, everyone has some muddled concept of their place in the world that they carry around in their head. Art can provide insight – a provocative thought, a glimpse through a window.  Good ideas, good art, can be unsettling, or even disturbing, and ultimately, profoundly and unexplainably satisfying.

But it is only by being honest, and uncensored, that we can put down in paint or words one of those excruciatingly human observations that make us feel, and make others feel, if only for a moment, that we know ourselves just a little bit better.

It is often said that we take a vacation or travel to other countries to escape our lives, to get away, to see new things. But it is in looking back, and seeing our home from some new vantage point, that provides the insights that keep drawing us away. Looking at art, or reading a story, is like taking a trip. We travel, and look at art, not to look away, but really to look back, to look inside, and see ourselves.

Schug Theresia Germany - February 22, 2014 - 4:58 pm

Best wishes Theresia

Ian - January 4, 2015 - 4:24 am

Ever since I found your collaborative book, Forget Me Nots, I have been inspired to pursue more illustration of my own. There is something about your work that is far more inspiring than it is intimidating to me. The world is full of talent, dedicated artists, and I am often paralyzed by what I see out of the all-too-common fear of not being “good enough” or “educated enough” to ever do this kind of work. Instead I see such life and love in your works that it compels to em find my own voice and forsake all my concerns and simply put pencil or brush to paper.

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