In Conversation With Violet Lemay
Costume and set designer, art director, book designer, illustrator, College professor, children’s book author - very few artists have Violet Lemay’s talent or vast expertise in order to cover successfully so many professional areas in the arts.
Having published her first illustrations while still at College, Violet has been working steadily for more than twenty years in the editorial and children’s books market, and her illustrations have been published by some of the most important book publishers, including HarperCollins, Penguin, Scholastic and Random House.
A true globetrotter, who's at home in her native St. Louis, in New York, or in Malaysia, Violet’s illustrations are joyful images full of candour and positivity that not only capture the best qualities of children and pets (two of her favourite subjects), but also reflect her own kind view of the world.
Some of her children’s books include “The Obamas: A Lift-the-flap Book”, “Babies Around the World”, “Yes I Can! A Girl and Her Wheelchair”, “100 Pablo Picassos”, “Artists and Their Pets”, “Isabella’s Shoe Studio”, “How a City Works”, and “NY Dogs”, many of them written by Violet herself.
With her 40th Children’s Book, “Healthy, Healthy. Love, Love, Love”, being released by HarperCollins next month, Violet has generously taken time off from her busy schedule to answer our questions about her work and career, explain to us the differences between several careers in visual arts, what separates editorial and children’s books illustrations, give us tips on how to start off a career in illustration, how to find inspiration when nothing seems to come, and explain to us her very worthy personal mission.
Come and join us to learn more about this amazing artist and her incredibly versatile career.
A Curious Culturalist - Violet, How did you decide to become an illustrator?
Violet Lemay - As a theater designer living in NYC, sometimes I worked on local productions, but often I worked on shows that were out of town. I would take the train to Philadelphia or Buffalo, live there for a month or two and then return home for a while, only to be sent off again to the next gig. It was fun and exciting, but also quite draining and it could be lonely, at least for me.
After working as a theater designer in NYC for 5 years, I decided the lifestyle was not for me. I wanted a job in the visual arts that required less travel.
I reached out to a former professor with my plight, and she suggested that I look into pursuing a masters degree in Historic Preservation. (Architecture history is a big part of the theater design curriculum.) I wasn't sure about Historic Preservation, but got a course catalog and read about all of the different majors. Illustration seemed perfect. According to the catalog, it was a good profession for someone who wanted to draw for a living. I drew well, and I wanted to draw for a living. So I moved to Savannah, got my MFA in illustration, and I've been an illustrator ever since.
ACC - Although you hold a College degree in Theatre Design, when you decided you wanted to become an illustrator, you went for a degree in Illustration. Many would have thought that the first Arts degree was enough to work in the field...
VL - I really didn't know that it was possible to pursue a profession - any profession - without a degree.
While working in New York in show business, I heard constantly that without an MFA from Yale, a theater designer's career would be limited. I'm not sure that's true anymore, but it was my experience in the 1990s. After an initial rejection, I did eventually get into Yale's MFA theater design program, but I deferred, twice, because my heart just wasn't in it.
Also, I certainly didn't understand what an illustrator was, or how to pursue a career in illustration. My undergrad experience in the Theater Conservatory at Webster University had been fabulous, and had all of us working on professional shows throughout our time as students. At the end of the course of study - Poof! You were a professional, ready to work. I just assumed that getting a degree was the natural way for a career to develop.
To top it all off, I was incredibly, painfully shy, and would never have been able to forge my way into any industry without help and guidance.
ACC - Sounds hard to believe from someone who has worked as a costume and set designer, as an illustrator, as a professor of illustration, Book designer, and Art Director - an incredible set of accomplishments! How do each of these activities differ from each other? Do they have any points in common?
VL - All of these careers involve the visual arts and a love for creating, but the lifestyle of each is quite different.
Costume and set design both require research, imagination, a flare for design, and the ability to collaborate. Costume design involves a lot of sewing and shopping, while set design is more carpentry and painting. Each is it's own little world. I loved both, except for the constant travel.
Being a professor of illustration is an academic life: faculty meetings, planning life around the school calendar, attending countless campus events, grading myriad student works, advising students to help them plan their course loads, occasionally meeting with parents, and, of course, teaching - all while being encouraged to contribute to one's specific field. Never a dull moment!
Art direction and book design are, in my experience, the quietest careers in this list. Art directors and designers are similar in that they work together to create files that are ultimately printed and bound into books, and they can work full-time for a company, or can be freelancers. But although the art director may influence the overall design of a book, it's the designer who does the actual designing of the book.
Sometimes designing books can be a bit methodic and technical, but designing all of the little details is fun and satisfying. This is a great career choice, especially for people who enjoy fussing over tiny details.
The art director is the project manager, and may be overseeing many design projects at once, so he/she is is a liaison, meeting with editors and production staff as well as managing the designer, illustrator, and any other contributors of visual content (type designer, photographer, etc.), keeping track of deadlines, making sure team notes are circulated and handled, and, in some cases, making sure the files have met all printer requirements.
I felt that one of my most important roles as art director was often as "art whisperer" - encouraging all of the contributing artists, making sure they stayed happy, helping them solve problems. I spent lots and lots of time rewording emails, trying hard to make sure that no one's feelings would get hurt when circulating feedback. Designing a book doesn't involve all of that interpersonal stuff. It's mostly just pure design.
Illustration is my true love. Like theater design, book design, and (sometimes) art direction, illustration is a solo affair. Illustrators are freelancers, moving from one assignment to the next, working (hopefully) for many different clients. Illustrators usually work from home, although I know a few who rent office spaces.
ACC - It’s not often that we can talk to someone so well-versed in so many areas of art and design. How do you think your previous Stage and Costume design background influenced your illustration style?
VL - My background in theater taught me to analyze characters. What would this person wear today, and how would she decorate her sitting room? Where would she shop? This skill has helped me quite a bit in my illustration work.
Construction of costumes and architectural elements taught me how pieces fit together to make a bodice, or a Shaker bench, and also turned me into a bit of a stickler for historical accuracy. Surely these skills have also crept into my illustration style, but often I wonder if this is an asset or a detriment. I think all of this expertise causes my illustrations to be a bit too stiff and precise. I wish my work could be a bit looser and more playful.
ACC - You worked in editorial illustration before turning to children’s illustration. Why did you pick children’s book illustration in particular? Could you explain to us what’s the difference between these two markets?
VL - First, the difference between the two. An editorial illustration is an image that accompanies an article in a magazine or newspaper - opinion pieces, news, short stories, etc. The market is typically adult, and assignments tend to be small in scope, and quick in terms of schedule. Children's books are completely different. The projects are much bigger, with longer timelines.
I became an illustrator to illustrate children's books, because they were all I knew of illustration. In my Masters studies I learned about editorial illustration, developed a portfolio of editorial images as part of the course of study, and had several works published in various magazines while I was still a student (times were much different then - there were many more magazines and newspapers, and there were fewer illustrators.)
After I graduated, I bought a mailing list and sent out postcards to various art directors at magazines and newspapers all over the US, and I got assignments. I also entered, and won, several illustration competitions in the late 1990s.
Art representative Anna Goodson saw my work in one of the illustration annuals and she invited me to join her group, Anna Goodson Management. I was a member of Anna's group for 10 years, during which I made illustrations for nearly every magazine and newspaper imaginable.
I had my son during my time at AGM, which was a monumental life change. I got inspired by his growing collection of picture books. The beautiful colors and playful stylizations were very enticing to me. Also, the illustrations were so big, and fun, and splashy, and you could hold them in your hands. Of course you can hold a newspaper or magazine and flip through it to find your art, and that is very exciting too, but there is something very solid about books that I love.
And of course, the intended audience - children! I thought it would be wonderful to devote my life to making art for kids. Anna's agency focused on editorial work, so eventually I had to make a change. I am now represented by MB Artists, a fantastic agency representing exclusively children's book illustrators, and I could not be happier.
ACC - Could you describe your work process? Do you sketch a lot? What tools do you use at work?
VL - Traditionally I haven't been much of a sketcher. In the past I didn't sketch much, if ever, for fun, which is one reason, I think, that I had to become an illustrator as opposed to a fine artist. However, in recent months I have actually started sketching and doodling on my own, for fun, and am loving it! For the first time, I'm settling into a habit of daily sketching. It only took me 25 years!
I think my sketch process when I'm working on a book project is probably fairly typical: I start by sketching characters, usually many options for each main character. These ultimately become tight pencil sketches, maybe even close to final art with color. After characters are chosen, I begin sketching thumbnails of each spread in the book, exploring every idea that pops into my head. Sometimes I can see five ways to design a spread, sometimes I can only see one way. It varies.
After these thumbnails are approved, I make tighter sketches, and after those are approved, I move to color.
For the past five years I've been working digitally, using both my laptop and my iPad Pro. I use an app called “AstroPad” to mirror my Mac's monitor onto my iPad, essentially converting it to a drawing tablet. I create all of my work in Photoshop by drawing with an Apple Pencil on my iPad. Soon, though, I'll install Photoshop directly onto my iPad, which is new and should be much simpler.
ACC - How long does it take you to complete the illustrations for a book like “100 Pablo Picassos”?
VL - “100 Pablo Picassos” was written by my publisher friend Mauricio Velázquez de León. I am honored to have been asked to illustrate that project, which is an unusual book. The illustrations are extremely involved, and required tons of research, which added more time, and I painted this book using acrylics - not digitally - which took more time, too. I think I spent a few months on that book, from start to finish, working very long hours because the deadline was tight.
ACC - It sounds like a tremendous effort, but one that was well worth is because "100 Pablo Picassos" is a wonderful book, with splendid imagination. Where do you draw your inspiration from, Violet?
VL - I have been lucky enough to have so many deadlines looming so consistently throughout my career, that I have to forge ahead working, whether or not I feel inspired. This has taught me how to dig in and get moving, no matter how I'm feeling. This is great when I have a deadline, but it has left me out of practice to drum up inspiration between jobs.
Whenever I'm feeling dull and uninspired, I get very depressed, which makes it even harder to sit down and draw anything. Taking a walk usually helps me, especially if I can walk to a coffee shop, or walk among people.
During the five years that I lived in New Zealand, we lived at the beach and I could walk for hours, soaking up the beautiful scenery, which often included tons of adorable children and dogs. Usually I find inspiration there : I love drawing babies and dogs. Recently though, we moved away from the ocean and inspiration was lacking.
I learned an important lesson: If I simply sit down and draw anything, whatever is right in front of my eyes, inspiration will follow.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love”, wrote a wonderful book about artistic inspiration, called “Big Magic”. Her premise is that every inspiration is a roaming spirit, searching for a vessel. When ideas come flitting around your head, jot them down and get busy, or they will fly away in search of someone else to realize them. So whenever ideas pop into my head I jot them down, and whenever I have time, I work on those ideas. It is a very important part of my job.
VL - I love all of the impressionists, especially Van Gogh, and am also a fan of Picasso. Any and all folk artists - I love them! Illustrators.... my goodness, I have too many favorites to count. There are so many contemporary illustrators whose work that I love, I feel bad listing names for fear of leaving anyone out, but I will share a few. At the moment, Laura Zarrin has got my attention due to her colors, drawing style, quality of line.... I also love the highly styled, beautifully designed books illustrated by Hsinpin Pan and Sara Gillingham.
Lauren Child is a perpetual favorite. Aaron Meshon, Calef Brown, and James Yang are also illustrator heroes of mine ever since I first began studying illustration. And when it comes down to the very core of me, my ultimate favorites among children's illustrators are nostalgic: Aliki, Mary Blair, Margaret Bloy, Roger Duvoisin, Mirosav Slasek, etc.
ACC - Two subjects appear repeatedly in your books: babies and animals, particularly cats and dogs. Do you feel a special connection to these?
VL - Yes! As a mom and former pet owner, I feel a strong connection to babies, dogs, and cats because I have given my entire heart to them in my actual life. I love them all and never get tired of drawing them, which is lucky, since they star in many children's books!
ACC - In recent years, children’s illustrations have become more stylised and simple in terms of line and shape - do you think this shift is a consequence of the prevalence of digital media, or a reflection of the current aesthetic preferences of the public?
VL - I think the rise of illustration courses in higher education is a huge contributing factor. As more young artists study illustration and are exposed to so many cool styles, naturally they will emulate them and will also feel free to move away from realism. This, along with trends. Just like in fashion, interior decor, and all of the practical arts, preferences come and go.
In general, I suspect that in recent decades, the availability of channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon have influenced not only illustrators, but also children, toward a preference for fun, stylized art.
ACC - Lauren Child’s illustration style, like yours, is also very loose and colorful. Do you think children prefer illustrations that echo their own drawings over more finished art?
VL - First of all, thank you for comparing my work to that of the amazing Lauren Child! I'm relieved to see any description of my work as "loose and colorful". Whew!
Regarding the visual preferences of very young children, science has found that they prefer super high contrast, because their eyes are developing.
Regarding children's preferences in art though, my goodness, I can't say. I assume preferences will vary from child to child. When my son was small, he was thrilled to look at any book that I would read to him. As he grew up, his preferences began to develop, he formed opinions about illustrations, and began to be drawn to realism. He very much prefers realism over style now, he has a classic taste. I hope he's still a fan of my work, but honestly, I'm not sure.
ACC - You taught Illustration at College - could you tell us about this experience?
VL - Over a span of about 15 years, I taught in the illustration department, off and on, at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I taught both full-time and part-time in the classroom, and eventually taught a few on-line courses. There were gaps in there when I wasn't teaching at all, for maternity leave, and some large spans when I left the classroom to focus on my illustration career. I have a ton of respect for professors. They work very hard!
Ultimately, although I loved my students and I did enjoy being in the classroom, I had to give it up because my true love is illustration, and I am only able to pursue one career at a time. My hat is off to other professors who are able to both teach and illustrate. I don't know how they manage it.
ACC - What would you advise illustration students about to start their careers right now?
VL - Don't give up, and never stop trying to improve - being a free-lance artist is insanely competitive. Take advantage of social media: post new art as often as you can. Target a genre (editorial, portraiture, children's books, etc.) and get so good at it that you can't be ignored. It's possible to create a career for yourself as an illustrator, but it won't be easy, so promise yourself that you won't take rejections personally. And never give up!
ACC - Wise words. Is it indispensable for an illustrator to be represented by an agent in order to get commissions?
VL - No. I always recommend that "newbies" post their work at HireAnIllustrator. Darren and Jane di Lieto, who run that website, are former illustrators who have dedicated their lives to getting work for illustrators. For a small fee, they will host your work on their site, and they almost act as agents, funnelling work to their artists. It's a wonderful service, and can be useful in helping to get yourself established as a working illustrator. The site is not only for new illustrators, plenty of established artists participate. But it's a great first step.
And if not that, post away on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. It's all free! Never stop posting images. Use hashtags to build an audience. Create some sort of website for yourself (even a free one—a free blog, if money is tight), and include clear links to it in your various social bios.
ACC - Violet, you’ve illustrated more than 20 children’s books and you’ve even written a few of them yourself. Do you have any favourite among them?
VL - Actually, I recently signed a contract for my 40th book! Amazing, I can't believe it.
I have a few favorites: “The Obamas: A Lift-the-Flap Book”, “New York Baby”, “Artists and Their Pets”, “Isabella's Shoe Studio”, “100 Pablo Picassos”.
My two very, very favorites are so recent that they aren't out yet: “Healthy, Healthy. Love, Love, Love”, which I wrote and illustrated, will be released by HarperCollins in December. And right now I'm working on a book about friendship, also for HarperCollins - which I also wrote - that won't be released until 2022. We're working on that right now.
ACC - Wonderful! We can hardly wait for them! Now, Violet, you’ve lived in St. Louis, New York, Savannah, Ningbo (China), and now Auckland (New Zealand). What experiences have you drawn from each of these different locations? How have they inspired your work?
VL - I have lived in all of those places, and I'm currently in the process of moving to Forest City, Malaysia! The main lesson I've learned from living in all of these different locations is that the world is incredibly diverse, but all people are basically the same.
My husband and I say it all of the time: people are people. Everyone loves their kids, loves their family, and wants to live a comfortable, fulfilled life. People are full of love, all over the world. Racism, social injustice, horrible acts of terror and gun violence targeting different groups because of race or religion... it's all so horrible.
My family has had the unique privilege of living all over the world, and that experience has helped me form my personal mission: to bring people together through children's books, and to help every child feel loved and accepted, just as they are.
ACC - A very worthy mission indeed, and with the warmth and positivity evoked by your lovely illustrations, we have no doubt you’ll accomplish it. But, talking about the illustration career as a whole, what do you like the most and the least about working as an Illustrator?
VL - There are two things that I like the most: First, the work-at-home lifestyle. I LOVE being self-employed, and being able to work from anywhere has allowed my family to travel all over the world for my husband's job. Second, interacting with kiddos. I absolutely love this aspect of illustrating children's books. It's SO fulfilling to see photos of babies and children enjoying the books! And events at schools, libraries and bookstores - although temporarily on pause, thanks to Covid - make my heart absolutely sing.
What I like least is the lack of financial stability. Illustrating books can pay well, or very, very little. And whenever the economy tanks (which seems to be happening every 10-15 years), artists are the first to feel the pinch, and they suffer the longest. It's a shame that artists are not considered essential workers. I think we are as important to life as any other professionals!
ACC - Absolutely! Artists create works that feed our minds and souls with beauty, fun and imagination - without them, life would be terribly dull. Now, to wrap this interview, is there any children’s book that you haven’t yet illustrated and that you’d like to illustrate?
VL - There are a million books that I would love to illustrate. Many are ideas that I'm developing, all of which are in various stages of completion. But I'd also love the opportunity to illustrate all kinds of books written by other people: picture books, fairy tales, chapter books, middle grade novels. I love books and I love to illustrate, and I hope to illustrate many, many more books in my career.
ACC -We certainly hope so too! Thank you so much for your time, Violet, and for sharing with us your advice, wisdom and valuable insight. It has been a privilege to talk to you. We can’t wait for the release of "Healthy, Healthy. Love, Love, Love" and your upcoming 2022 project. We wish you all the best with both.
For More Information
To learn more about Violet and her work, please visit her official website
Also, her blog "Illustories", where she shares interesting anecdotes behind her works:
You can also follow Violet on Facebook at:
To see Violet’s portfolio of works at Mela Bolinao Artists, and commission her work, please go to:
All images ©Violet Lemay
"Healthy Healthy Love Love Love" cover used by kind permission of the author and HarperCollins Publishers