Illustrator Spotlight: Tamara Traylor
|© Tamara Traylor
February 23, 2017
Today we are happy to present illustrator Tamara Traylor. Tamara is the illustrator of the ebook, 12 DANCING PRINCESSES (Ustyme).
Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children?
I have always loved stories and was raised in a family that treasured books and encouraged reading. I grew up very close to my maternal grandparents who told me folk tales and stories of their own childhood growing up in Appalachian Virginia and North Carolina.
It was really my grandmother who taught me the powerful storytelling possibilities in a single image. Each year she’d receive a new Norman Rockwell Calendar and, on the first of each month, she would unveil the featured illustration and tell me a story about it, from of her own imaginings. My young mind was always astounded that she knew all the characters by name, what they were feeling, where they were going and where they had been. Of course, it was all made-up but that was the amazing thing…she was able to distill an entire world from one image.
I knew from a young age, that I wanted to create books for young readers. I pursued art and writing through high-school and then went on to Virginia Commonwealth University, choosing to study graphic design and illustration in order to learn everything there was about making books. From the typography and page design to the illustrations and the carefully stitched binding, I was fascinated by the alchemy that produced a book.
I wish I could say that I jumped right into children’s publishing after graduation, but my path was a winding one. I took a job in print design and that stretched into two decades of art direction in corporate design. Sadly, a full-time design job left little time for making illustrations.
It was nearly a decade ago that I stumbled across the SCBWI website mentioned by some fellow illustrators that were participating in Illustration Friday. I’d been doing online art challenges to build my atrophied illustration skills. I joined almost immediately and soon found myself taking on the co-editorship of the regional newsletter, meeting and learning the business from bona-fide published illustrators and writers who were all lovely, sharing people.
Those early SCBWI experiences set me off on a new path toward a career I’d long desired, illustrating for children.
And guess what? I’m still on the journey because I believe in the endeavor to write and tell stories to our most precious possessions, our children, we never truly arrive at any set destination. Rather, at the end of our own story, we pass the baton to the next traveller.
You work in graphic design and do creative work in your day job. How does that affect your illustration work?
The practice of graphic design certainly informs my illustration. It keeps me strongly aware of the importance of composition and white space and the rule of first, second and third read—all design principles that crossover into illustration.
It has, more in the past than now, affected my job. A full-time, creatively-demanding job paired with raising two children made it very hard for me to find the time and creative energy to devote to nurturing an illustration career. I chose to leave that full-time world about six years ago.
I currently do freelance design for children’s educational publishing and work part-time as a Library Assistant. This gives me more time to work on illustration and writing projects while I help pay the bills.
I try hard to balance the ups and downs of freelancing without having to take on so much that I spend all my creative capital on my “day job.” Although I have to be creative with freelance work, I don’t have to be at my library job. It’s fun because I get to be around books and see which books kids love. It recharges my creative batteries.
“Don’t quit your day job,” is possibly the best piece of advice I’ve been given about pursuing a career in illustration and my only addition to that admonition is “Find one that doesn’t drain you of all your creative energy.”
Who or what are your illustration influences?
My earliest kidlit-illustration influences are Garth Williams, who is known for the Little House on the Prairie books, and Bill Peet (CAPPYBOPPY is one of my favorite books for children. Who doesn’t love Capybaras?).
I’m also greatly inspired by the work of Brian Selznick, Henry Cole, Tony Diterlizzi, Edward Gorey, Brett Helquist and Carter Goodrich. Do you see a pattern here? I’m inspired by black and white, highly expressive artwork.
The stuff that inspires me is so random…Russian Laquerware miniature artwork, vintage portraits and photography and the URBEX explorers and their photos of abandoned places. (Here there be stories!)
Congratulations on your book 12 DANCING PRINCESSES. What did you learn from that project?
NEVER put something in your portfolio that you aren’t comfortable drawing a thousand times.
A spot illustration of a prince and princess mouse I painted in homage to Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding got the attention of the Art Director and Editor and they decided, based on that, to do their whole retelling of the 12 Dancing Princesses as rodents. Needless to say, I got to draw a LOT of mice.
Also, it’s good to develop a workflow that is comfortable enough to be consistent and efficient. I made the decision early on in the book, with encouragement from the art director, to use a fully digital process. Everything from sketch to final art was digitally produced. That really slowed me down in the conceptual stages as I’m more comfortable drawing traditionally. I found this incredibly frustrating (to the point of actually crying over my tablet monitor several times). After I finished the book, I did a complete 180° turn back to analog pen and ink and pencil illustrations for almost a year. Now I mix things up, working both digitally and analog but in a way that makes me most comfortable. Tears on your artwork is never a good thing.
What projects are your working on now?
I have several picture book projects I’m working on, one wordless and with limited color that is a real challenge. Another PB I’m developing is about an immigrant girl’s flight to America to escape her homeland that is being marred by war and natural disaster. It’s based on stories told to me by my husband’s grandmother, who survived a massive eruption of Mount Etna and immigrated from Italy, barely escaping the outbreak of WWII and Mussolini’s Fascist Regime.
I am also writing two middle-grade manuscripts, one historical-fiction that takes place during WWII’s Manhattan Project and a contemporary novel about a middle-school honor student who is falsely and very publicly accused by two of his classmates of plotting a school shooting and the long-reaching consequences of that accusation.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same you would give to other aspiring illustrators?
Draw every day and don’t give in to that inner critic whispering “poseur, amateur, loser” into your ear.
Be authentic. Stay true to who you are and make the art that you were meant to make. No one else can or will make it for you.
Keep pushing, even if you fail—fail forward and learn from your failure and move on.
I’d most definitely give this advice to other aspiring illustrators. That negative inner voice is a common occurrence in creative folks and we need to know it’s ok to tell it to shut up.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I used drag race motorcycles with my husband. The fastest I’ve ever been on two wheels…220 mph! It was nuts.
Where can people find you online?
My porfolio can be found at www.traylorillo.com.
I’m @traylorillo on Instagram and @tamitraylorillo on Twitter and facebook.com/traylorillo (Feel free to friend me…)
Tami Traylor is an illustrator, designer and writer who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in 1993. She has more than 20 years experience as a creative professional and has been a member of SCBWI for at 12 years. Her debut picture book The 12 Dancing Princesses (an e-book) was published in fall 2015 by ustyme, inc. She’s inspired by mid-century illustration, Russian lacquer miniatures, vintage photography, lost cities, abandoned buildings, junk shops, paper ephemera and, of course, stories that touch the heart and ignite the imagination. She lives in central Virginia with her husband, two kids, and a herd of rescued animals: three cats, two hamsters and six guinea pigs.