Illustrator Spotlight: Jonathan Voss

© Jonathan Voss

April 3, 2020

We're pleased to feature illustrator Jonathan Voss and his new picture book, WHOO-KU HAIKU: A GREAT HORNED OWL STORY by Maria Gianferrari (G.P. Putnams Sons, Mar. 3, 2020). Enter to win a copy!





Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. Once family members discovered my inclination, it was always drawing pads and colored pencils for Christmases and birthdays. It wasn’t until about the third grade, though, that I realized I was doing something different from other kids my age. They started coming to me for pictures instead of doing the drawings themselves.
Other than two years in a magnet high school for the arts, I really didn’t have any formal training. After high school, I began to do a lot of portraits. This was the first time I made real money from my art. But things changed when I was introduced to computer programs like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I took a design job at a local company, and it stuck. The art never went away, but traditional painting and drawing took a back seat to computer graphics.
© Jonathan Voss


In 2004 I saw the movie version of The Polar Express. Sadly, I hadn’t been familiar with the picture book (I know. I know. I can hear your audible gasp.). But once I got my hands on the book, I was smitten. I wanted to do THAT. I wanted to tell stories with pictures.

It was a few years before I whole-heartedly committed. But in 2010, I went for it. I created a new portfolio. I learned—well, I’m still learning—how to write for kids. Then I signed with my wonderful agent, Catherine Drayton. Finally, in the summer of 2013, I received the call to do Winnie. The rest, as they say, is history.
© Jonathan Voss


 Congrats on your new picture book, WHOO-KU HAIKU: A GREAT HORNED OWL STORY, by Maria Gianferarri. Tell us about how you researched and approached this assignment.

Thank you so much! It has been such a privilege to be a part of this project.

At some point I discovered that the publisher would be consulting with an owl expert to make sure all the art was correct. I thought about panicking, but I like a good challenge. I reached out to a local raptor center and explained what I was doing. They were thrilled to help. They gave me access to a huge image library and happily answered any questions I had. Beyond the raptor center, I spent countless hours scouring the internet and watching videos. In the end, all the effort paid off. I only had to make a couple small tweaks. Everyone seemed pleased with the outcome. 
© Jonathan Voss


As for the creative side, I really wanted to play with perspective. I use perspective a lot anyway. But with this, I wanted to push harder. For me it’s like taking a movie camera and mentally moving it around a scene until I find the angle that fits best. Each image I create is a single frame pulled from a longer action sequence. I want to capture the perfect moment.

After spending time watching videos and studying the owls, I put everything away. I don’t use any references to create my first sketches. I know roughly what the birds look like and how they act, so I just dive in. This is an important step for me, because I never want a reference to dictate the outcome of an illustration. If I’ve already decided on a direction. References simply help me fill in the blanks.  

Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?

With this book, it was probably more like long and winding. I honestly can’t remember everything that came up, but it was more drawn out than usual. I think one reason our timeline was thrown off may have been because we had the extra step of making sure details were correct. Consequently, the back and forth was necessarily slower—on both ends. When we realized our original timeline was not going to work, the publisher had to push back the release date by a year. 
© Jonathan Voss


What projects are you working on?

Right now I’ve got a couple projects in development. One of them is my own book. I’m working with Christian Trimmer over at Holt. The second is illustrating a book for another author. And, as always, we’re trying to find homes for several other manuscripts.
It’s not always easy. There is a lot of heartbreak in this business. But, if you keep going, good things do come. I’m super grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had. 

© Jonathan Voss

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Don’t give up.

© Jonathan Voss

If you have a talent, master the craft. Run mach 3 with your hair on fire toward your goals. I have been rejected more times than I care to think about, but you have to keep trying. Occasionally, you’ll hear about the outlier who has a magical ascent to the top. That is not the norm. And that is certainly not my story. If you have a gift to share with the world, keep going.

In the very beginning, when I was querying agents, one reply was particularly harsh. Usually an agent will send a generic rejection letter if your work isn’t right for them. If they see promise, they might personalize the rejection. In one instance, I had an agent go out of their way to tell me how my art was not right for the children’s market and that I should do something different. Maybe they thought they were helping, but it didn’t feel that way. I had to make a choice. Do I quit? Or do I keep going? I licked my wounds, then I went straight back for more. Fortunately, it was only a couple days later that I heard back from Catherine. Don’t give up. 

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

I love Christmas music. I actually listen to it year ‘round. I have the fondest memories of my own childhood Christmases. I guess I love the warm fuzzies I get from the music, regardless of the time of year. 

Where can people find you online?

In this day and age, as an author, it’s hugely beneficial to be socially diligent and relevant. Sadly, I am not particularly diligent with it. Consequently, I am not relevant either. I do dream of achieving a high level of awesome in this area. I’m just not there yet. That said, I can be found at:
https://twitter.com/vosswriter
https://www.facebook.com/jonathan.voss.777701




Jonathan D. Voss writes and illustrates stories for children. Growing up, he was never far from a pencil or paint brush and began working as a portrait artist right out of high school. Jonathan is the author and illustrator of the Hoot & Olive stories Brave Enough For Two and Imagine That. He is also the illustrator of Sally Walker's Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh and Maria Gianferrari's Whoo-Ku Haiku. Jonathan lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids.
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18 comments:

  1. This is the book I wish I had written and had the privilege to illustrate. It's so rich on so many levels.

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  2. I am in love with what I’ve seen of this book! I so wish I had it to read during quarantine. Thanks to Jonathan for sharing his journey with us and thank you so much for such wonderful illustrations! 💖

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  3. I love Maria's books and now I'm a huge fan of your glorious illustrations--congrats!

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  4. So grateful to have had the chance to work with Jonathan and the team at Putnam/Penguin on this book! What a delight to learn more about Jonathan and his process and his love for Christmas tunes too. We need more of that joyous, holiday spirit right now more than ever!!

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  5. I adore Jonathan's illustrations and I love Maria's haiku. They created an amazing book.

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  6. This book is gorgeous! I can't wait to study the artwork in person. Congrats to author and illustrator for a beautiful book.

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  7. I love Maria's books, and Jonathan's illustrations look like the perfect match. I can't wait to see this book in person!

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  8. This looks beautiful and your story is do inspiring, Jonathan!

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  9. Haiku plus amazing illustrations? The best combination imaginable.

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  10. This looks wonderful. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

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  11. I enjoyed learning about your journey as an artist. Can't wait to read the book.

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  12. Really enjoyed hearing about you and your work. Look forward to seeing this latest accomplishment! Sounds amazing.

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  13. this book looks great & wonderful interview!

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  14. These two are some of my favorites. Can hardly wait to read this book!!!

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  15. That's so interesting that the publisher did consult with an owl expert.

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