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Friday, July 15, 2011

An Interview with Stephen Aitken

How did you get started illustrating children’s book?

I majored in biology in university but I completed my degree dissatisfied. I then attended Architecture School at Carleton University and this reawakened my love affair with art and drawing, a love that had lain dormant for a number of years. I started a career as a biological artist - drawing aphids, spiders and butterflies for the Canadian National Collection of Insects, trees for Natural Resources Canada, wildlife for Parks Canada and museum displays of all kinds for the Canadian Museum of Nature. Then, about 12 years ago I met an author friend who asked me to illustrate a book he was writing on the fascinating subject of Norse mythology. The 108 illustrations that resulted from this 2-year collaboration were used to publish a set of Tarot-like cards by a publisher in Oslo, Norway. Odin’s Journey really stretched my creative skills. There was very little in-depth visual reference material for this pre-Celtic mythology but the author, Lars Ims. was inspired and we kept each other going. This project propelled my art to a new creative level and laid the basis for me to accept the challenge of illustrating for children’s books. I worked hard for the following year or more, largely for small start-up publishers, and assembled a respectable children’s book illustration portfolio. I’ve never looked back.

What mediums do you or have you worked with?

Mediums’ or ‘media’? I consider myself very fortunate. When I was quite young, my father picked up a hitchhiker who was a young graphics arts student. They got to chatting and made an arrangement for him to teach me art classes. For several years, every Sunday morning, I walked over to his studio with a one dollar bill (we don’t have these anymore in Canada so I am dating myself here). He gladly showed me how to use all the new media that he had been taught that week at art school - from letraset, to wood carving, to block printing, to painting on velvet with pastels. I became familiar with a variety of media. As an added bonus he drove me home on his motorcycle, which for a 10-year old was pretty cool!

A lot of my technical illustrations are created with a fine black rapidograph line. I have also printed line drawings onto watercolour paper and hand-painted each print with watercolours. For many years I painted large landscapes on stretched cold-pressed Arches watercolour paper and sold them through art galleries in the Ottawa area. I often use gouache now for details on top of watercolour illustrations though I am a bit of a purist when it comes to my fine art watercolours. Acrylics are another favourite, both transparently like watercolours, and in a thick opaque manner. I used to enjoy working in oils but the fumes from the turp oils ultimately turned me away from this medium. When digital technology came along, particularly Corel Painter, I started using digital oils. My illustration work for educational publishers using a fine dark line (3 pixels in size – yes, very small) painted over with artist’s oils or other digital media. The ‘real’blender brushes just keep getting better with each new version of the Corel software.

How did you start writing books for children?

I have been the Managing Editor of an international science journal called Biodiversity for the past 6-7 years. I have a lot of experience writing editorials, news stories and other science articles for the journal. In 2002 I received an email from a wonderful Canadian author, Sylvia Sikundar who had seen my website and knew that I was working in my Himalayan studio. Sylvia asked for my assistance in naming some of the characters for a novel she was writing set in India. Our discussions moved onto the plot of the story and the character development and my input ultimately reached the point where Sylvia felt I should be credited as a coauthor. That story, The Ice Berries, went on to published by Penguin India in a wonderful collection called The Puffin Book of Bedtime Stories, with the softest, hardcover you will ever find – perfect for placing under a pillow or bedtime reading. I was very fortunate that Sylvia encouraged my writing at this stage and she was very kind to send me many of her favourite children’s books. 

I went on to write news stories and articles for children’s magazines, largely non-fiction, nature-based articles. I continue to believe that the best training you can have for writing for children is to read the classics of children’s literature and the books of popular contemporary children’s authors.

Do you illustrate other peoples books too or just your own? 

I have illustrated about 25 books authored by other writers over the course of the last 10 years, in addition to the 15 or so that I have written and illustrated. For about 5 years I had a wonderful New York agent, Janet DeCarlo of Storybook Arts Inc. I illustrated books published by Zaner-Bloser, Santillana USA, SRA McGraw Hill, Sopris West Educational, Sundance Publishers and many more. I am no longer represented by Janet as I have quite a bit of work acquired directly from publishers through my own book proposals and projects.

A book that I am very proud of that I did not write (but wish I did) is the international edition of The Mountain that Loved a Bird written by Alice McLerran - a timeless classic. It is now published in 12 Indian languages, Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, and English. Alice and I are now working on a new edition to be released in North America in a few months.

How long does it take you to write and illustrate a book?

The time required for me to write a book depends on the book’s genre. I recently wrote and illustrated a series of 4 non-fiction picture books for ABDO books’ Magic Wagon imprint. These books are at the printer now and scheduled for release this fall. The 32-page books describe the effects of climate change on Earth’s living species. Each one of those books took 3-4 months to write and illustrate with 14 double spreads in each book.

Fiction for the trade market typically takes me longer to write and illustrate, sometimes as much as a year, rarely less than 6 months. Like eating Swiss chocolate, I don’t like to rush this process. I stay with the storyboard stage until I get everything right. All details in the illustrations are worked out at the sketch to final pencil stage. Time and care is needed to maintain the original inspiration as much as possible in each image and to revise the storyboard until the flow is perfect between art and text. Often the text can be tweaked again at the same time as the final art is being completed. I love this process. My favourite part is storyboarding and working on the small loose sketches to perfect the flow between text and art.

I miss the feel of a brush on canvas, whether it’s watercolor or oils now that I painting mainly digitally. Do you find that digital painting is easier than watercolor or acrylics painting and from time to time go back and paint with a brush?

I would not say that digital art is easier. If anything there are more details to be learned to create digital art. However, the same principles apply of creating good art, through drawing, value studies, design, color and rendering. For the educational market I almost always create the illustrations from initial sketches to final rendering with digital media. This allows me more flexibility to explore options at the dummy stage, compositional and color options in the illustrations, make changes requested by the art director, and perform subtle, final adjustments.

If I am illustrating one of my own fiction picture books I often start with traditional media, but it really is the story that determines the medium. Like you, I cherish the movement of brush on paper and the natural beauty of pigment dissolving into water, the textures of the various pigments and of the watercolour paper. But I always finish the art digitally because it is wonderful way to tighten edges, correct colors and tweak the final art. I work amost exclusively on Arches watercolour paper, whether working in watercolors or in acrylics and often for the latter will tone my paper with burnt sienna mixed with a bit of yellow ochre. This helps me to see the values better right from the outset. This of course can be done when working with digital oils as well. I work on a 21” iMac screen using either an Intuos 4 tablet or a 12” Cintiq tablet.

I would imagine studying biology in college must come in handy in drawing and painting for children. Has it? 

I would have to say yes, and then qualify it with a no. There is no doubt that biological illustration demands accurate, clear draughtmanship and an ability to sketch objects that are sitting in 3-D space. Drawing, figures prominently in my creative process. I do a lot of my color biological work on Arches Hot-pressed paper which I love because it allows me to add a lot of detail. I think the challenge for a biological artist moving into children’s book illustration is to let go of the need for realism and open up to other creative possibilities.

Do you find that being both the author and the illustrator makes it easier to know what pictures fit into a book?

I think that an author who can think visually and has the experience of illustrating a children’s book has a wonderful advantage. In picture books words are jewels - the recent trend has been towards even fewer words, 500 and below. I think a writer who is also an artist can leave out verbal descriptions, confident that they can be captured in the images. Also, subtle aspects of character can be added to the story through the images, giving layers of depth that may only be insinuated in the text. Who better to do that than the author himself? Who can know your characters better than you?

I wrote a series of books recently for Marshall Cavendish Benchmark on the Climate Crisis that will be released in 2012. Though I did not illustrate these 64 page books, I also think that being an artist helped me to make valuable suggestions for the placement of the high impact photos acquired by the publisher and provide suggestions for the layout of the 5 books in the series.

With the children’s picture book market so crowded would you advise illustrating for children to others?

I think you have to have a passion to communicate to young people if you are going to be an illustrator or an author of children’s books. It also pays to have multiple skills from which to draw your income if you are going to survive as an artist in children’s book publishing. Editorial, scientific, and decorative illustration can all supplement an artist’s income as he waits for the next book contract. Contrary to many people’s beliefs you probably will not get rich at this profession but it is infinitely rewarding both by creating great books for the young people of this world (who could be more important?) and also through the contacts you will make with other dedicated children’s book illustrators. The SCBWI is a wonderful resource when you are getting started and I would recommend joining for any artist considering children’s books as a focus for their career.

Being able to write your own books and stories is also a big plus in this field. Your writing skills can provide additional income as you wait for the treasured trade book contract that will give you a big six figure advance. I’m still waiting.

Lots of people make dire predictions about kids and reading and new media today. How do you see the future for children and reading?

I think physical books will exist for a long time into the future, but they will only be one of the options for readers. Regardless of the format I think publishers, if they are going to maintain the quality of books that the public demands for their children (whether they be e-books, apps or something new that hasn’t even be thought of yet) will need ‘content providers’ – and that means artists and writers. I believe it is important to be aware of the new digital formats for books and get into the game of e-books and apps as soon as possible. 

Are you currently working on or have plans for future projects?

Next week I will be signing a contract with a publisher in New Delhi, Katha Books, for Little Cloud’s Quest. This story was co-authored with Sylvia Sikundar. Katha Books is a wonderful charitable organization that promotes literacy for street children in India.

I am also creating additional art for a new North American edition of The Mountain That Loved a Bird, coming out shortly in the US and Canada. And I plan to do some plein air painting this fall in the Himalayan mountains of India.

Where can Manic Network members and visitors find out more about you and your work?

Check out my website
and for current up-to-date info on new writing and illustrating projects please visit my scribblesketch blog:
Thanks so much Jan and Michelle for your wonderful support of the rarely recognized, and even more rarely convened, children’s author/illustrators of the world. 


  1. Hi Stephen!

    A fabulous and warm interview!
    Thank you so much!


  2. Thanks Jan,
    I loved hearing more about your books and seeing your art too.

  3. Nice interview--it's always nice to see how people come into the children's book world!

  4. Fabulous interview, Stephen! We appreciate your time, and you do so much in the art world, we could all learn a thing or two from you!