By Susan Edwards Richmond
I’m here with Stephanie Fizer Coleman, who has generously agreed to be interviewed about her perspective as an illustrator of children’s books. When Vicky Holifield, our editor at Peachtree Publishing Company, told me that Stephanie Fizer Coleman had been selected to illustrate my debut picture book, Bird Count, I immediately went to her website. The first thing that caught my eye, besides the wonderfully whimsical illustrations on her home page, was a tab that said simply, “100 birds.” I felt instantly that she would be the perfect illustrator for this book—and that feeling has continued to grow throughout our publication journey.
Hi, Stephanie! Welcome to the On the Scene in ‘19 blog and thank you so much for speaking with me. I feel so fortunate for our collaboration on Bird Count. Your birds really bring the story to life. Not only are they accurate in color and dimensions, but they each seem to have their own personalities. Could you tell our readers a little bit about your interest in birds, and about the “100 birds” project featured on your website?
Hi Susan! I’m so happy to be chatting with you about Bird Count.Growing up in a rural area fostered a love of nature in me from an early age, but my earliest memories of noticing birds revolved around my grandmother always happily pointing out “Mr. and Mrs. Red Bird” and “Robin Red Breast” along with other favorites. She was a special lady and I often think of her when I’m drawing birds, even vibrant tropical birds that Gram’s probably never even knew existed!
My 100 Birds project came into being a couple of years ago as a way for me to explore my artistic style. I chose birds as my subject matter for a 100 day style experiment, because I knew I wouldn’t tire of drawing them and that I would find nearly endless inspiration in them.
One of the things that impressed me most about your initial sketches for Bird Count was how each spread seemed to have a unique design, which made it exciting to turn the pages and discover what elements you would use next. Can you describe how you come up with and carry out a vision for a picture book, and for this book, in particular?
Generally, my ideas are slow to develop so I’ll start with pages and pages of random sketches that will eventually lead the way.
For Bird Count,I started by doing sketch studies of all the birds the reader would be spotting throughout the book. At the same time, I was perusing references of snowy rural scenes while making notes and scribbles about the setting.
Next, I worked up a series of thumbnail sketches, small sketches with bare bones elements, to get a sense of the book’s flow and to see if my ideas would work.
Finally, I sketched all the various birds, characters, and settings in a sketchbook then scanned everything into Photoshop where I did a final version of the sketches to send off to our wonderful art director, Nicki.
I love the characters you created for Bird Count of Ava, her mom, and Big Al! Could you talk about the process of conceiving and developing characters for a picture book?
Thanks! I knew right away that Ava would have gorgeous wavy hair in an unusual color, so the Bird Count character development started there. As with sketching the book spreads, character development is a slow process for me.
It begins with notes about the characters, information gleaned from the text, and ideas I have brewing about each character including personality traits and quirks. Because Bird Count takes place in winter, I spent time looking at photos of winter apparel as well.
Having made all the notes and put off the toughest part of the process as long as possible, I grab a stack of copy paper and my favorite pencil and get started with character sketches. It’s a process that involves lots of scribbles that even I can’t decode later, a few good drawings that make me think I might be on to something, many cups of tea, and a bit of talking out loud to myself.
Ava’s character arrived fairly easily this time, but Mom and Big Al took a bit more coaxing!
The Bird Count cover featuring Ava with her binoculars is getting a lot of attention. In fact, Peachtree decided to choose it for the cover image of their fall catalog. Congratulations! I feel so lucky to be along for that ride! How did you choose that image, and what do you hope to convey to your readers in a picture book cover illustration?
How wonderful to have the art featured on the fall catalog cover!
You know what though? I can’t even take credit for the concept because our wonderful Nicki came up with it! She mocked up the idea using a bit of my sketch from the interiors. I worked up a more complete sketch and added some hand lettering to give it an extra special feel.
I hope readers see that cover and find themselves wondering what she’s looking at!
What other projects are you particularly proud of or excited about, and what are you working on now?
The most wonderful thing about my career now is that I’m illustrating the books I would have loved when I was a child. There’s something special about that and about being able to share my love of nature with a younger generation.
There are some amazing book projects on my drawing table at the moment, including a sweet story involving peacocks and another bird-centric book from Peachtree that I’m particularly fond of at the moment. I can’t wait to share them with the world!
What else would you like our audience to know about you?
It might surprise readers to know that I didn’t start drawing until I hit my mid-20s, that I first pursued a career in dance, and then finished a BA in history before I realized I wanted to be an illustrator. Some folks know exactly what they want from life right away and some folks, like me, take a circuitous route with learning experiences around each curve.
Following the dream of a creative career can be a challenging journey but I’m a firm believer that practice, a strong work ethic, and a general stubbornness are the best vehicles for that journey.
I’m grateful for this career I’ve built over the last few years and am especially grateful to have illustrated Bird Count, a book that held a special place in my heart from the first moment I read it.