Illustrations by Rebecca Green
Multifaceted is an apt word to describe artist and author Rebecca Green’s life, from her clients to her materials and mediums to the places she calls home. Green discusses her path to success, process for illustrating a book, and sources of inspiration.
Were you a fan of any illustrators growing up? Who are your current favorites?
As a child, I was fascinated by types of images, more so than who was creating them. I remember being drawn to illustrations that had hidden details or side stories—characters that were telling their own quiet narrative alongside the storied text. Currently, I’m inspired by the work of Roger Duvoisin, JooHee Yoon, Jillian Tamaki, Sang Miao, and 100% Orange. I love the simplicity and skilled spontaneity of these illustrators.
What was your road to getting published like?
I’ve been drawing my entire life, but I never thought it could be an actual career. After taking a couple of community college courses, I decided to attend art school at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I loved narrative work and design—I didn’t really know the term illustrator then—so I enrolled first in the graphic design program. When I realized all my designs were actually narrative paintings, I switched programs and got my BFA in illustration.
After graduation, my career consisted of fine art, design, and editorial illustration. Before signing a contract for my own book, I’d illustrated two classics: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (for the Folio Society) and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (for Salamandra Publishing). I was interested in picture books but had little experience with them. When I wrote my book, How to Make Friends with a Ghost, I viewed it more as a limited zine than an actual children’s book. I was thrilled when I got an offer to publish it with my editor, Tara, at Tundra Books. She’d visited my website to hire me for another job based on my illustrations for A Little Princess when she saw my book on my blog. It wasn’t the traditional path of submitting a manuscript, but it all worked out in a roundabout way. I signed on with a children’s book agent, who handled the contract with Tundra and opened more doors in the publishing world for me to illustrate for other authors.
What medium do you work in?
I work primarily in acrylic gouache and colored pencil. I love experimenting, so I also use water-soluble crayons, cut paper, ink, and more. What I value most about gouache (besides its vibrancy) is that there are so many ways to paint with it. You can apply it watery and thin, textured and lush, opaque,
Your style is very recognizable. Are there times when you dream of creating something different, perhaps in a different medium?
Yes! I deal with this tension every day. From my perspective, my work changes constantly, though I realize that, from the outside, it’s hard to see it. I often feel limited by a perceived idea of what I’m supposed to be making, especially in publishing. The project timelines are long, and by the time the book comes out, I’ve already moved on style wise—yet I still have to promote the book, which for an illustrator is like a calling card. When getting hired by clients or publishers, it’s often for a style of work they’ve seen from me before, which makes sense. It’s therefore beneficial to work with an art director who trusts my vision and gives me creative freedom to grow as an artist. Aside from dreaming about developing an alter ego (which I do!), I also switch up materials quite often to keep myself challenged.
Have you always worked best with a set routine, or was that something you arrived at slowly?
I realized quickly after graduation that routine is key. As freelancers, it’s easy to get swept up in the tide of everyday life if we don’t have boundaries around our work. Setting a time for work not only signals to others that we’re serious about our career but also helps to curb our own anxieties about not having a “real job.” Additionally, it’s helpful to understand our personal creative process to harness efficiency. For example, I am most productive (creatively and technically) immediately after waking, so I usually draw and paint early in the morning and reserve my business and menial tasks for the afternoon.
Being a freelance artist grants you a certain amount of autonomy and freedom. What does that mean to you?
It means everything to me. I’m so grateful for it, though I’m sure there are times I take it for granted. I worked many jobs in high school and college, and my family mostly works in factories, which means they don’t often travel or have time to pursue things they love. In that respect, I’m wildly lucky, not only to have freedom in my schedule but also the ability to focus on my passion.
How long does it take you to complete a piece?
I wish it was predictable. The same illustration can take two hours or it can take two days. Sometimes I have to do multiple drafts of something to really narrow down its essence. I strive for spontaneity even though my work is quite controlled. When I’m in a ‘flow state’ and the art gods are on my side, I can surprise myself and make things quite quickly. Other times, it feels like I’m being dragged through the mud and I just can’t get things right—so those pieces take way too long.
You were born in Michigan, have lived in Arizona, Colorado, and Tennessee, and currently reside in Japan. How have your travels inspired you and your work?
In all the places my husband and I have lived or traveled, I’ve been drawn to historical buildings, muted colors and textures, stories from people (especially older generations), and the atmosphere. Regarding our move to Japan, we wanted to move overseas before settling down in the US, and my husband has always had a fascination with Japanese culture. He’s a high-school English teacher, so it was easy for him to get a job here teaching English, and I’m lucky enough to be able to work from anywhere. It’s tough for me to articulate what an incredible experience it’s been, as I’ve been humbled, inspired, and moved in ways I didn’t anticipate. I’m quite inspired by the picture books here, the care in the details, and the subtle, lived-in nature of so many buildings.
Animals are a common theme in your illustrations. Are you an animal lover? Which are your favorites to draw?
I’m absolutely an animal lover. I almost majored in animal sciences. With my profession, though, I’m able to collaborate with amazing naturalists like Sy Montgomery. I illustrated her memoir, How to Be a Good Creature, and, most recently, the picture-book version, Becoming a Good Creature. So I’m lucky that I get to combine two big parts of my life: animals and painting. I love drawing rabbits and mice—their ears can be so expressive. In contrast, horses and other hoofed animals are so hard to draw. You don’t realize how oddly proportioned their legs are until you draw them!
What’s the dynamic between you as an illustrator and the author you’re working with?
This may come as a surprise, but I have very little contact with the authors I illustrate for. I work with the editor or art director on projects, and while they’ll get input and approval from the author, I don’t directly communicate with them. This balance keeps the book at the forefront of the conversation, especially when the marketing and sales teams also have a say. It takes a community to make a good picture book, and this distance is really healthy. Once the project gets rolling, though, the author or I usually will reach out just to extend our excitement or gratitude. We’ll also communicate more when the book is released so we can be on the same page for marketing and events.
Do you hope to write more? How does writing satisfy you creatively versus illustrating?
Yes, I have lots of plans for books! I finally feel confident enough to pursue writing—for a long time, I didn’t consider myself an author, which kept me focused on illustrating. As far as picture books go, the wonderful thing about writing and illustrating your own content is that you have more control over it. Also, since this endeavor is new for me, I don’t feel the pressure around it like I do when I’m making visual art.
What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s considering a career in illustration?
When I was starting out, I asked Susy Pilgrim Waters this question, and her answer has remained at the forefront of my own process: make the work you want to get. If you have work in your portfolio that does not reflect your dream job, take it out. You have the power, especially at the beginning, to steer your career in the direction you want. Clients will hire you for what they see, not what you think you can create in the future. Besides that, make connections often, be kind, send work in on time, and make sure you have a community of other artists who understand and support your goals and dreams.
For more info, visit myblankpaper.com or follow Rebecca on Instagram @rebeccagreenillustration