Last fall, when I received a copy of No Mush Today, written by Sally Derby and illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, I was wowed by the story and art. I hoped for an opportunity to feature Nicole in some way, so when her name turned up repeatedly during our nomination process for 28 Days Later 2009, the opportunity became clear.
In No Mush Today, a young girl, fed up with her crying baby brother and squishy, yucky, mush for breakfast, sets off to spend the day with her Grandma. But after spending a day in a world full with grown-ups, she reconsiders her decision.
Nicole’s watercolor illustrations are crisp and airy, and her color pallet is dreamy. Her characters are so full with life, they seem like people you know.
In addition to this book, Nicole has illustrated many others, including Fatuma’s New Cloth (Moon Mountain Publishing, 2002), Josias, Hold the Book (Boyds Mills Press,2006), and I’ll Do The Right Thing (Judson Press, 2003), just to name a few.
On day number three, I’m happy to present Nicole Tadgell…
Don: How did you become interested in illustrating for children?
Nicole: Somehow I never really “grew up”! My artwork has always been pretty much whimsical and childlike, so doing children’s books was a natural progression.
What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career?
I majored in Studio Art while at Wheaton College – I took all the art classes: drawing, painting, sculpture.
What is your mission as an artist?
To communicate and connect with children and adults of all races and backgrounds. To always improve my skills and techniques, and to grow as an artist.
What is your primary medium?
Watercolor and pencil, occasionally with gouche and acrylic. I really love pastels and would love to do a book in that medium.
Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.
Oh, the call is the most exciting part! Usually, though, it’s an email. :) So after I dance around and cheer, I read the manuscript. I read it a lot…sometimes I memorize it. I think about it a lot. Driving to work, grocery shopping, walking the dog. I imagine what it feels like…I feel out how it might look. I think about the setting, the season, the weather. I think about what the characters lives were like before the story. I do research. Then I do sketches. Characters, scenes. I make storyboards, and break the text so it all fits into a 32 page book. Then I show it to the publisher, if they like it, I make tighter pencil sketches, do more research, find & photograph models, get perspectives right, that sort of thing. After these are approved, I print the drawings onto watercolor paper and start painting. I often work on 2-3 paintings at a time, because they need drying time. When everything’s done, I wrap them carefully and ship them off to the publisher.
What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics you prefer?
I love drawing faces and expressions best, so any story where the characters go through a lot of emotion is really fun for me. Sci-fi and fantasy stories would be awesome to draw, too. The world of make-believe is fun! I enjoy drawing character growth and relationships between characters.
What was the biggest challenges in illustrating No Mush Today? (or other books)
In NO MUSH TODAY, one challenge was that the model I wanted to work with was a bit too young for the publisher (she was four, the character in the book is six). So I had to find a new model, and I ended up making a blend of the first girl’s personality, and the second girl’s appearance.
For some books, it’s difficult finding a balance of doing work that’s satisfying to both the publisher and to me. They may have something different in mind than what you have! Sometimes, you have to stand your ground and fight for your way. Sometimes, it’s better to find a compromise – often, the compromises work out even better than what either of you had wanted!
How long does it take for you to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other activities?
It takes about a year to do a really good job. Roughly 3 months for research, 3 months for storyboarding and character development, 3 months for rough pencils, 3 months for final paintings. Including revisions and corresponding with the publisher. Balancing work and family isn’t easy…I do have a full-time job, and I consider them my BEST client. If I have a book project, I tend to get up early and work on it for a couple hours before work. Then I’ll also spend 4-8 hours on it over the weekends.
Do you visit schools, and can you speak a bit about your program?
Yes, I do school visits and they are fun. I don’t get to do a lot of them, so I stay pretty much locally. I like to give a presentation on how a book is made, with sketches, work in progress, using models, etc. Then I do a question and answer session and give out bookmarks and coloring pages for kids. For high school and college students, I focus more on illustration as a career, and we’ll have in-depth discussions.
What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?
I enjoy hiking, birdwatching, quilting, baking, watching sci-fi, and of course, reading.
What were some of your favorite books as a child, books that influenced you as an artist?
Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why.
Jerry Pinkney, E.B. Lewis, Trina Schart Hyman, Jon Muth. Because they can capture light, mood and expression in both characters and environments AND make it look so easy. Because when I look at their work, it stays with me for hours or days.
As an African-American children’s book illustrator, do you ever feel pigeon-holed, or feel pressured to illustrate only certain topics?
Sometimes I do. It does seem like some of the illustrations I’ve done as self-promotion get a lukewarm response because publishers feel the style or subject matter won’t sell well. Fantasy and science fiction for example. It seems that folks are most interested in stories that have some kind of trouble, tragedy, or lesson – like slavery, poverty, overcoming racism. These things are very important, of course, but I wonder why there can’t be just as many books featuring African-American children who go on space adventures, or see fairies, or… just have fun!
Who are your cheerleaders?
My mother, of course, is number one! Followed closely by my husband. The rest of my family – Dad, sisters, brother have always rooted for me, too. I’ve got great friends as fans, too.
What advice can you offer to aspiring illustrators of children’s books.
Don’t stop drawing! Keep improving, keep getting better, don’t give up.
What can your fans look forward to in the future?
Stories that I’ve both written and illustrated!
Read more interviews featuring Nicole Tadgell:
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Book Talk: An Interview conducted by Lori Calabrese of Lori Calabrese Writes!
Big A Little A