I grew up surrounded by books. My parents were quasi-hippies who wouldn’t allow a television in the house, but instead encouraged us to read, read, read! Because of this exposure, I think I always wanted to illustrate picture books, although like most people, my life took various detours first. I completed my BFA in Illustration at BYU a long time ago, but it’s only been in the last 4-5 years that I’ve been able to work on my own projects. Once I started diving into creating my own picture books, I soon found I had, and still have, so much to learn!
Congrats on your website design for Kidlit411. Tell us about how you approached this project
The idea of the colorful snakes came before this banner project—bear with me on a little personal history.
One of my first projects when I decided to seriously pursue creating picture books (before I took any actual courses or knew what to do), was a lyrical concept book about color morphs in animals (likening them to diversity). Through a conference, I paid for an agent review when the project was basically at an idea stage, very un-edited, and it honestly read more like a TED talk. I had done so much research into color genetics in animals and hadn’t yet distilled it down (the sidebar word count was in the 1000s). The poor agent who reviewed it made a comment: “You know this is for kids, right?!” (I’ve never had the courage to query her with any other project!)
Through the research process, though, I learned about the fascinating rainbow array of color morphs in snakes of the same species. I wanted to play with this idea for the KidLit411 Banner Challenge, incorporating the symbolism of the rainbow of colors (for diversity) in a linear illustration format. I worried snakes were too scary for kid’s books, but then I remembered a beloved book with a snake… Do you recognize their bedtime story?
You have a distinctive illustration style. Tell us about your process.
When my kids were in Elementary School, I would create paper hallway displays for their teachers. I discovered how much I enjoy working with paper sculpture as a medium, and researched how to use paper sculpture in illustration. A well-respected industry friend gave me the advice to add information about my process on my website, because no one understands how I work (!) and this makes my art seem inaccessible. I’ve updated my process information on my website at www.joninemeth.com, where there is more detailed information. I’m still looking for where my illustrations will fit in the world of picture book art, but I’m confident they will.
In a nutshell, I start with a tight drawaing which I break down into shapes for colored paper, similar to collage.
I design the illustration digitally first. I love the way I can edit and manipulate my initial sketches (which are very rough!) in a digital format. Still digitally, I will make color and value studies. I break down the pencil sketch into shapes, which I transfer to tracing paper. I have to really think through the process in the planning stage, but in the actual fabrication stage, the paper always seems to take over my plans and surprise me with unforeseen possibilities. I use various colors of paper, then further colorize the pieces through ink and/or pastel. I shape the paper shapes through a damp embossing process.
In the muddy middle, it is a giant jigsaw puzzle of pieces, and there is no way to “fake” completion at this stage, which is challenging when I’m working towards a deadline. The pieces are assembled to add additional depth, mounted on foam core, and then photographed. Lighting effects can greatly change the mood/narrative of a piece.
I’m currently querying several picture book dummies: a humorous romp about a koi-stealing otter, and a more serious, lyrical work about the aftermath of a wildfire, based on the experiences of my two firefighter brothers.
My personal word for 2020 (which I picked Jan 1) was FINISH—to complete at least one manuscript I felt query-ready. I now have 3—although I had NO IDEA how many roadblocks 2020 would throw up in the way of achieving that goal!
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
After college, I worked for 13 years as a medical illustrator. When I moved to paper sculpture I was really fascinated with animals, and I’ve had to force myself to include more figurative work. So, people who’ve come across my more recent work are sometimes surprised that I can draw people too!
Facebook I use mainly for family and community, and I probably comment/post too much on the KidLit411 group page!
Joni Nemeth grew up climbing trees, reading books, and always drawing. These days, she’s more likely to be in a hammock by an Arizona lake, reading and drawing under, rather than up, a tree. Joni writes and illustrate children’s books that explore darker themes combined with heart and humor to build empathy in young readers. (Although she’s a ginormous wuss who still covers her head with a blanket at the scary bits). Joni is currently seeking representation.