Monday, September 7, 2009

An Interview with Julie Paschkis

Illustration from Summer Birds by Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Reading Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast last Thursday, I got a peek at some of the sketches and finished art for the recently released picture book, Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, written by Rachel Rodriguez and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Julie is a remarkable artist whose talents go many directions - I have one of her original cut-paper figures - a mermaid & her double - framed up & hanging on the wall in my dining room. Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams (written by Janet Wong) was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book, and Julie has teamed up with many writers to help get picture books onto the "Best Books" list of Booksense, the Kirkus Review, the New York Library, Parents Choice, the American Library Association and others. She illustrated two of my books (seen in the sidebar below) and is a friend, and she's kindly consented to an interview with Jacket Knack about the process of creating cover art and illustrations.

JL: Hi, Julie - Your trip to Barcelona to research the artwork of Gaudi certainly paid off - Building on Nature is stunning. Congratulations! Here are some questions that I think people who are not familiar with cover design and illustration might ask you if they could. Let's start with your primary considerations when coming up with the cover art of a picture book. How do those considerations differ from those you have when working on the interior illustrations?

JP: The cover needs to illustrate the whole story - not just one scene. It needs to grab your attention and make you want to look inside the book. I pay a lot of attention to the cover. I usually don't begin to sketch the cover until I have completed all the interior illustrations. I want to understand the book as a whole before trying to sum it up.

JL: At what point does an editor or art director enter into the process, or do you make most of the decisions (typography, layout, etc.) on your own? Can you explain the relationship between an art director and an illustrator?

JP: More people are involved with the cover than with the interior art. It's different with different publishers. Despite the old saw, a book IS judged first by its cover so a lot of people put in their opinions. The editor and art director have a say. In some houses the sales force also comments on the cover design. Usually I talk with the editor about ideas and then I sketch different options. The editor chooses which one to go with, with my input. I am careful to only submit a sketch that I would want to paint! In the sketch I indicate where I think the type should go but the art director makes the final decision and placement. The art director picks the font but I usually have input on that. There have been many instances where I have asked for more font options; I care a lot about the lettering. I've attached some cover sketches that were used and some that weren't.

Above: Preliminary Cover Design Sketch (not used) for Building on Nature

Above: Sketch for Final Cover Design for Building on Nature

Above: Final Cover

Above: Preliminary Cover Design Sketch (not used) for Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

Above: Final Cover Design Sketch

Above: Final Cover

JL: For Building on Nature, you traveled to Barcelona to see Gaudi's architectural masterpieces in person, and for an upcoming book about the writer Pablo Neruda you'll be spending some time in Chile. Can you share with us how this up-close research influences your approach to projects?

By traveling to these places I get to understand not only the work of the artists but the context in which they created it. My hope is that the sense of place seeps into all of the pictures. I wasn to get the details right and I can get a lot of that through research in books and on the internet. But I don't think I can get the feeling of a place without going there. I think place had a big impact on Georgia O'Keeffe, Gaudi and Neruda. Also, when I get to illustrate a book I feel like a door is opening in my life and I want to walk through it. Unfortunately I pay for the travel myself. Fortunately it's worth it. Now if I could just figure out how to time travel!

This is the second book you've illustrated that focuses on the life of an artist - the first, also written by Rachel Rodriguez, was Through Georgia's Eyes, about the painter Georgia O'Keefe. Was it difficult to maintain your own style while picturing someone else's artwork?

I also did a nonfiction book about the folk artist Grandma Prisbey who built the amazing Bottle Village in California out of things she found at the dump. The book is called Bottle Houses

and it was written by Melissa Slaymaker. Yes, in every instance it was scary to try to depict someone else's artwork. I felt that especially with Georgia O'Keeffe because she was a 2-D painter. How could I paint the book without merely painting slightly worse versions of her paintings? I was so relieved when I thought of doing cut paper illustrations because it meant that I could translate her imagery instead of just copying it. Now I am relieved that Neruda was a poet and not a painter!

Have you been stopped in your tracks by the covers of any books lately? Let's include picture books, chapter books, YA books, books for adults - any kind of book! Whose artwork is catching your eye? What pulls you over in a bookstore and makes you want to pick up a book?

I get attracted to books by their shape, size and feel as well as by their covers. I often like small books with matte covers. I've attached several book covers that I really like. They're not new but they are good. In all of them the art and the type work together, and they all delight me. They all do a good job of telling you what the book is about.

JL: Can you tell us about any other mediums you've been working in or directions your artwork goes besides books?

JP: This spring and summer I've been doing designs for fabric. Years ago an editor said that she wouldn't want me to illustrate a book but she'd love me to design fabric for a couch! Well now her dream (and mine) can come true. Actually, it's cotton fabric for quilting. I designed a line called Folklorica for In the Beginning Fabrics.

Fabric Design - Folklorica Line
(Note: I added links to Julie's designs as well as a link to In the Beginning, just so people don't have to email Jacket Knack to figure out where it's sold!! - JL)

Besides the Neruda biography, do you have other projects in the pipeline?

I've got two books in the pipeline right now that I am excited about. I've attached a scan from each one. One is Summer Birds by Margarita Engle (see illustration at the top of this interview - JL) which Holt is publishing. It's a nonfiction picture book about the 17th century scientist/artist Maria Sybilla Merion. The other is Where is Catkin? It is written by my sister Janet Lord and will be published by Peachtree. It is a hide and seek book. (Note: Julie illustrated two other books written by her sister: Albert the Fix-It-Man and Here Comes Grandma!)

Illustration from Where is Catkin? by Janet Lord

JL: I can't wait to see the newest books (Note: And I'm going to call around to some of our Seattle stores to see if they carry Folklorica - gad, those designs are beautiful! Which makes sense, of course: No matter what it's designed to cover - a bed? a book? - Julie's artwork is wonderful!)

Thanks again for sharing your answers with Jacket Knack readers, Julie.


  1. I remember wanting to roll around in the paint when Through Georgia's Eyes came out. Such lovely, lovely stuff.

  2. Hi, I just saw your post about Julie. We will be having our 19th Annual Children's Book Illustrators Art Show & Book Signing on Dec. 4th. Julie is one of our illustrators this year, along with Gennady Spirin, David Diaz, Patrick O'Brien & S.D. Schindler. The event will also be benefiting Ronald McDonald House. Perhaps your followers would be interested. Please call or e-mail if you have further interest. Karen Raab at Chemers Gallery 714-731-5432 or

  3. Thank you for posting this lovely interview! I've followed Julie's work since her early exhibitions at a gallery in Seattle. Never could afford to buy one, so was really pleased when she started doing book illustrations. Then, as a quilter, I discovered her fabric and went nuts! Always, her unmistakable style. I know of no other artist with such a "thumbprint." This insight into the designing of a book cover is really a treat!