Continuing with the Skink on the Brink fun, I am thrilled to welcome children’s book illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo! Skink on the Brink (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) tells the story of Stewie the Blue, a skink going through an identity crisis when his tail stops being his favourite shade of blue. Suzanne stopped by the blog to talk about playing with plasticine, science vs. art, and more.
Bookish Notions: Did you always want to be a children’s book illustrator?
Suzanne Del Rizzo: I had always been an artistic/creative person since I was a little girl—always drawing or painting, or sculpting—but I was also very interested in science. I ended up getting my H.BSc. in Life Sciences from Queen’s University, figuring I could always do my art as a hobby. I guess you could say the science side of me won out. After university I worked at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute as a Medical Research Technician for a number of years before having my children. Having children can be a life-changer for many, I know, but for me there was also a perspective shift that occurred. Although I loved science and found the lab’s groundbreaking research rewarding, I noticed how much I missed creating art. I had fallen back in love with children’s books, especially the dimensional illustrations by such artists as Kim Fernandes, Barbara Reid, and Janette Canyon—I wanted to be part of THAT! To be able to create in a capacity that would entertain and inspire children was something I felt would be even more meaningful to me than any science discovery.
After some long talks with my husband and his encouragement, we decided now was as good a time as any to take the plunge and make a career change. So once the children were in school fulltime (one in half days) I got to work experimenting with my plasticine medium to find my unique style and then create a portfolio. I spent many late nights, once the kids were tucked in, researching, making connections, and absorbing everything I could about the Kidlit industry. Even though I took quite a meandering path to get to where I am today, I really feel like it is right where I am meant to be, and I’m loving every minute.
BN: How did you get involved with Skink on the Brink?
SDR: I had sent out my very first round of promo postcards, with little bookmark take-aways to various publishing houses. I was absolutely thrilled that a month or so later, I received a phone call from Christie Harkin, Children’s Publisher/Editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside saying that she was interested in discussing a possible project. It turns out she happens to collect bookmarks! And she liked my postcard. Christie sent me Lisa Dalrymple’s Skink on the Brink, a new manuscript for their Tell-Me-More Storybook series, and asked for some sample illustrations to present at the next sales meeting. I was immediately captivated by Lisa’s story, and smitten with Stewie the skink. The artwork was well received and Christie offered me the contract to illustrate Skink on the Brink. I feel very fortunate to have worked with such wonderful people on this book. Because of the nature of the Tell-Me-More books with their cross-curricular back matter, Christie encouraged me and Lisa to work together, to share and discuss our research, in order to create a unified vision. I couldn’t be more proud of the result.
BN: How did you get into working with plasticine?
SDR: I have always been drawn to dimensional illustration. The magical, tactile quality it brings about—making you want to run your hand across the page—is something I find very appealing and fun. I had worked with polymer clay to make jewellery and small illustrations after university and tried plasticine one day, after reading one of Barbara Reid’s incredible books with my kiddos. I was hooked! I love the squish-ability of plasticine, it’s so malleable and fun to sculpt, and I especially enjoy the challenge of creating different textures in plasticine. It’s also a really kid-friendly medium that is readily available at art supply and craft stores, so it’s easy for kids to try it out and create their own plasticine art. Visiting classrooms to play with plasticine, umm… I mean do plasticine workshops with children is one of my favorite activities as a dimensional illustrator.
BN: What was the most challenging part about creating the Skink on the Brink illustrations? What was the most enjoyable?
SDR: One of the challenges I encountered while creating the illustrations for Skink on the Brink was how to maintain character continuity, that is, ensuring Stewie was recognizable as himself throughout the book even though he was growing over the seasons and changing colour. To help, I made a maquette, a little polymer clay model of Stewie, so I could position him or change his facial expression and view it in three dimensions.
The entire process from preliminary sketches to final art was all immensely enjoyable. But one aspect I particularly enjoyed was researching, and incorporating other animals or habitat friends that would actually live within Stewie’s natural environment. I chose to incorporate a little deer mouse that follows Stewie throughout the story—he’s often hiding (in reality he’d be a potential meal) so the reader has to search the illustrations to spot him. I hope that the book not only inspires children to want to find out more about endangered animals and their natural habitats, but also reminds then to embrace their own uniqueness.
BN: What advice do you have for aspiring children’s book illustrators?
SDR: One piece of advice I would give to aspiring children’s book illustrators would be to continue to hone your craft; whether it’s taking fine art drawing courses, practicing a new technique in your medium of choice, or experimenting to keep things fresh. Art directors and editors are always on the lookout for outstanding new and unique artwork. I didn’t come from a formal art background, so I struggled initially with self doubt. I practiced and practiced until my own unique style started to emerge. Be brave, experiment and think out-of-the-box to push yourself creatively.
Join SCBWI and CANSCAIP, and attend their meetings and conferences. Not only will you be able to meet some amazing Kidlit people, and learn from industry veterans, but you’ll make lasting connections. I also suggest joining a critique group. I belong to several and many can be found through SCBWI and CANSCAIP. Another great resource is zero2illo. This site was created by Jonathan Woodward, an illustrator, who saw a gap in the resources available to aspiring illustrators. It gave me the tools I needed to develop a business plan, design a portfolio website, and get organized to make the most of my new illustration career. It also has a wonderful critique group/support network and a private Facebook group called z2i confidential.
And most of all be persistent! Your work might catch the eye of an editor or AD but they might not have the right project to suit your art at that moment; it often comes down to timing. Send out your very best work to your dream list of clients; keep honing your craft, and send out more of your very best work- and repeat.
BN: What project(s) are you working on now?
SDR: I have a few projects with Fitzhenry & Whiteside in the works, including another Tell-Me-More storybook and a book cover for an upcoming novel. I hope to be able to share more about these exciting projects soon. I have also been working on a few of my own manuscripts that I’m mocking up into book dummy submissions. And I am presently creating some new portfolio pieces in preparation for the annual LA SCBWI conference.
Suzanne Del Rizzo is a dimensional illustrator who especially loves squishing plasticine. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children. Skink on the Brink is her first picture book.
Also, be sure to check out this interview with Skink on the Brink author, Lisa Dalrymple.