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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

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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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