By Paula Nathan
Growing up, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to draw, how I wanted to draw it, and how I wanted it to look. My parents proudly displayed my early efforts on the refrigerator door and sold one to a great aunt for a nickel—my first money earned as an illustrator.
Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell provided early inspiration. I was mesmerized by the wonderful, colorful world Disney created in his fairy tales. Norman Rockwell’s idealized pictures of life in “the old days” also captured my imagination. I wanted to be able to create those worlds, bright with color and light and texture in my own illustrations. Browsing the children’s section of the local bookstores, I imagined that someday my illustrated book would appear on the shelves.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, I spent several years working as a graphic designer. I still spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to draw and how I wanted to draw it. In my free time, I experimented with colored pencils, watercolors, acrylics, and even wood carving.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I decided to try my hand at quilting so that I could “make something for the nursery.” The fanciful world that Walt created with friendly animals in friendly forests became my inspiration for a fabric wall hanging of a monkey and elephant in a tree. I quickly realized that working in fabric was more satisfying than any other medium I had tried. I loved the textures and patterns on the different fabrics. Not having a sewing machine, my “animal tree” quilt was hand stitched with embroidery floss. I would sit at the kitchen table from the time I woke up until dinner and wonder where the time went.
My original quilts used commercial fabric patterns. I drew on fairy-tale and historical subjects, remembering my early fascination with Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell’s paintings of life in the early twentieth century. I used fabric to fashion castles and princesses and medieval street scenes. I couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with all the ideas that were running around in my head.
As I became more skilled at working with the fabric, my techniques expanded. The people in my original quilts had blank faces. Later, I began using thread and, finally, fabric paints for the characters’ faces.
I then decided that I’d rather create my own textures and patterns instead of spending hours searching for “the perfect fabric.” I would begin with white cloth and decorate it with various media, including fabric and acrylic paints, oil pastels, pencils, embroidery floss, and even Sculpey. I used bright, saturated colors and quilted parts of the fabric to add texture. Each quilt probably took at least one hundred hours to complete, but I loved every minute of it. I kept thinking how I would love to use fabric to illustrate a whole book, and I tried to figure out how I could do this in a reasonable amount of time. I knew how long it took to create one wall hanging, let alone thirty-two. As usual, I spent a lot of my free time thinking about different ways to go about it. At one point, I thought maybe it would be better to just try to illustrate in a more conventional medium, like watercolor or pencil, but I knew that I could come much closer to my vision with fabric.
I decided it was time to take steps to realize my ambition of illustrating children’s books, so I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). I met a wonderful group of people who provided encouragement and support. I had recently gone back to work as a graphic designer and begun working with Photoshop, so I recognized that the computer opened up many new possibilities. The more I learned about Photoshop, the more I started realizing that the computer could be a terrific complement to the more traditional medium of quilting. Instead of creating the whole image in fabric, I could now create bits of the various elements, scan them, and assemble the parts in Photoshop. I felt like I could take the best parts of my fabric designs and arrange them exactly as I wanted. I had to be careful not to rely on the computer too much to create my final images, since I definitely wanted the fabric textures and patterns to be more prominent. After hours of working on a project, it would sometimes seem easier to just create an object in Photoshop. The results were usually disappointing, though, as I wanted the natural feeling of fabric.
After several years of refining my digital fabric style, I started sending out promotional packages to magazine and book publishers that I found in Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. I sent a self-addressed, stamped postcard along with each package, containing check boxes where the publisher could indicate his interest (or lack thereof) for my work. I was so excited to start actually getting the postcards back with positive comments. I felt like I had started making progress. I finally received my first assignment to illustrate a two-page story in a children’s publication.
One day, I received an email from one of the people I had met at an SCBWI meeting several years earlier, Mary Jo Reinhart. She had bookmarked my website and had now found a publisher, Gumboot Books, for her story Grinelda the Mad Hatter. If I agreed, she wanted to ask her publisher if I could illustrate her book. I read the story and was immediately drawn to Grinelda. She was a creative spirit who focused on her love of hats and creating them. She spent her time thinking about hats, how they should look, and how she would make them. I certainly could relate, having spent so much time thinking about what I wanted to create. I felt that my style, which relied so much on fabric and textures, was a perfect fit to illustrate Grinelda and her world. Mary Jo recommended my work to Gumboot, and I was hired to illustrate my first children’s book. I couldn’t believe it! Joining SCBWI not only gave me advice and encouragement, but it led directly to realizing my dream of illustrating a children’s book.
The next step was to decide how I wanted Grinelda and the other characters in the book to look. I wanted Grinelda to have her own unique fashion style as well as her own unique personality. I had a great time designing her outfits, trying to make sure she always appeared in distinctive clothing. After the sketches were completed and approved, I started coloring swatches of fabric to create the different elements in the story. I used different types of white and beige fabrics, such as muslin and corduroy, so I could take advantage of their different textures. I added color with paints, oil pastels, and colored pencils. Beads, buttons, lace and netting, feathers, and pipe cleaners added more depth and interest to the finished artwork.
Grinelda the Mad Hatter was published in November 2008. After spending so much time illustrating her, I miss spending time with Grinelda. I think she is a wonderful example for children—a young girl who is not afraid to follow her own heart and do what makes her happy, not worrying about what others think.
Paula Nathan lives in Lincolnshire with her husband and works in an art room filled with lots of fabrics and notions, similar to Grinelda’s. Her illustrations have appeared in Highlights High Five, Click, and Ladybug magazines. Visit her website at http://www.PaulaNathan.com.