Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheel­er

Eliza Wheel­er is the fas­ci­nat­ing illus­tra­tor of many books, includ­ing John Ronald’s Drag­ons: The Sto­ry of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Pome­gran­ate Witch, and Tell Me a Tat­too Sto­ry. You can read about her work on her Wheel­er Stu­dio blog. For this inter­view, we are focus­ing on a series she has illus­trat­ed for Can­dlewick Press, the Cody books by Tri­cia Springstubb.

Your atten­tion to detail is astound­ing. Do you work on an illus­tra­tion from start to fin­ish before begin­ning the next one?

Thank you! I don’t work on illus­tra­tions from start to fin­ish, but rather devel­op sev­er­al at a time. For the Cody books, I worked on all the sketch­es at once, then inked all the linework, then fin­ished with all the water­col­or wash­es. This helps when I’m try­ing to meet a dead­line, because each stage has its own unique set-up.

Do you decide where an illus­tra­tion is appro­pri­ate with­in the text?

Decid­ing on where illus­tra­tions will be is usu­al­ly a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the art direc­tor. I read through the book for the first time and make notes about scenes that stand out as ones I’d have fun draw­ing, but also we’re hav­ing to think about spac­ing illus­tra­tions out even­ly in each chap­ter. In the Cody book series, we tried to make an illus­tra­tion land once every 2–3 spreads.

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on

Do you fig­ure out if it will be a spot illus­tra­tion or if it will spread across two pages? Do you decide where an illus­tra­tion will be on the pages?

When I sign the book con­tract, it’s stip­u­lat­ed how many spots, half page, full page, and spread illus­tra­tions there will be. So when I begin get­ting ideas for the illus­tra­tions, I’m decid­ing which for­mat would work best for that par­tic­u­lar one (with the help of the art direc­tor). For the Cody books, I was encour­aged to find var­ied place­ments for the illus­tra­tions on the page, and as long as it worked with the text space, I tried to have fun with the posi­tion of the illus­tra­tion.

revised sketch for Cody and the Heart of a Champion

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, revised sketch

Do you work with an art direc­tor? What kind of direc­tion does that per­son give you? Do you have to edit your illus­tra­tions?

For chap­ter books I work with the art direc­tor, but for pic­ture books I’m often work­ing with both an art direc­tor and the book’s edi­tor. The art direc­tor helps me decide if an illus­tra­tion is work­ing, how the illus­tra­tions are flow­ing from page to page, whether I might be miss­ing details from the text, if a char­ac­ter isn’t look­ing quite right, or if I’m being con­sis­tent with scene details. There’s a lot of team­work involved in mak­ing books, and there are always many steps of edits and revi­sions along the way to get things work­ing well.

an example of Wyatt's t-shirts from Cody and the Heart of a Champion

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on Wyatt’s t-shirts

I love Wyatt’s t-shirts. Why do you take such care with design­ing them?

Wyatt’s shirts are fea­tured in a few places in book 1 and 2, and Cody is often “bor­row­ing” them from Wyatt’s bed­room.  This is Tri­cia Springstubb’s clever way of show­ing us more about Wyatt as a char­ac­ter, as well as Cody’s rela­tion­ship with him. Key advice that writ­ers hear is “show, don’t tell”, and I think Tri­cia is a mas­ter of this with this book series—she makes it look effort­less. Because Tricia’s tak­en the care of incor­po­rat­ing these visu­al ele­ments in the text, it’s become a part of who Wyatt is—he wears him­self on his sleeves! I like to infuse all of his clothes with his per­son­al­i­ty when I can.

Heart of a Champion illustration

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, pages 54–55

On pages 54–55 (hard­cov­er), all of the feet and the shoes are unique to each per­son. There is no sense that you’re draw­ing the same per­son over and over. How do you man­age this?

It takes a lit­tle extra time, but even when there are side char­ac­ters that don’t come into the sto­ry, I like to try to give them their own iden­ti­ty. One way that I do this is by look­ing up pho­tos of kids in groups, on sports teams, or class pho­tos. Ref­er­enc­ing real kids makes it fun and easy to design groups of char­ac­ters.

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, pages 88–89

On page 88, when you draw a bird on a branch, it has some­thing in its mouth. Why do you weave these details into your draw­ings?

Adding lit­tle scene details are always impor­tant to me, whether they’ve been described in the text or not, because I feel that they add valid­i­ty and inter­est to the sto­ry world. If we have a scene in Cody’s room, I try to add objects around that reflect her per­son­al­i­ty. Also, I think kids have a much bet­ter eye for details than adults do, and it’s some­thing I remem­ber car­ing about a lot as a kid (and still do as an adult).

Cody and the Heart of a Champion cover

cov­er art © Eliza Wheel­er,
Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on

How do you decide the sub­ject of the cov­er … and the col­or palette for that cov­er?

I try to come up with an image that I feel cap­tures the gen­er­al spir­it of the book—it should give a sense of the char­ac­ters, the set­ting, and any promi­nent themes in the book. When I start­ed the Cody book series with book #1, I gave the art direc­tor and edi­tor sev­er­al ideas for dif­fer­ent lay­outs to choose from, and we revised those ideas until we land­ed on what the book cov­ers are now. For the books that fol­lowed, it was a mat­ter of keep­ing the same gen­er­al cov­er lay­out, but try­ing to give it a unique theme and col­or scheme, so that the books look like they belong to each oth­er while also stand­ing on their own. One thing that helped was that each book hap­pens over a dif­fer­ent sea­son dur­ing one year, so I was able to be inspired by the col­ors of each sea­son.

Do you work on the illus­tra­tions for one book at a time?

For books in a series, yes, I work on one book at a time in sequence. Often the author is writ­ing the next book while I’m illus­trat­ing their pre­vi­ous book. In gen­er­al, I’m often jug­gling book projects; illus­trat­ing for chap­ter books, mid­dle grade, and pic­ture books at the same time, and jump­ing between book worlds can be chal­leng­ing!

Do you have any tips for draw­ing char­ac­ters con­sis­tent­ly?

Yes! That is a par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing task. I start the series by doing Char­ac­ter Stud­ies of the book’s char­ac­ters, and for each book add sketch­es of new side char­ac­ters as they’re intro­duced. After each book is fin­ished, I col­lage togeth­er a doc­u­ment with images of the char­ac­ters through­out the series, so that I can com­pare char­ac­ter draw­ings in the new book to make sure they look right.

Cody and the Heart of a Champion character studies

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, char­ac­ter stud­ies

Cody and the Heart of a Champion character collage

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, char­ac­ter col­lage

___________________

Thank you, Eliza, for help­ing us bet­ter under­stand how you infuse enchant­ment into the books you illus­trate. The care you and Tri­cia take makes Cody an unfor­get­table char­ac­ter.

Learn more about Eliza Wheel­er.

One Response to Eliza Wheeler

  1. David LaRochelle April 28, 2018 at 4:48 pm #

    Thank you for these insights. I can see why your work is in such demand!

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