The Year I Didn’t Go To School
Years ago, when I returned home from living abroad, a friend handed me a copy of author/illustrator Giselle Potter’s The Year I Didn’t Go to School, and I have been a massive fan of her work ever since. Cecil the Pet Glacier written by Matthea Harvey and Illustrated by Giselle Potter is a recent favorite of mine. I can’t wait to get my hands on her new book (it’s out now!): Want to Be in a Band? written by Suzzy Roche. Now, let’s get to it!
THE DIRT ON: Giselle Potter
Hometown: Stonington, CT
Now lives in: Rosendale, NY
Favorite children’s book as a child: Babar and Zephir
I have a big, old copy with beautiful pictures of Zephir’s monkey village and his voyage to save princess Isabel from the island of monsters.
…as an adult: I still love that one but I have more appreciation for William Steig books as an adult: The Amazing Bone, Amos & Boris, Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving, and all of them. He writes so well and his pictures add just the perfect amount to his stories.
I have collected tons of picture books over the years and some of my other favorites (and my daughters’ favorites) are Lottie and Herbie books by Petra Mathers, Gaspard and Lisa books illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, Shaker Lane by Alice Provenson, James Marshall books especially, Someone Is Talking About Hortense. And our all time favorite is The Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown.
Favorite thing to draw: People…mostly their faces and expressions and deciding what they should wear.
Cat or dog: Both. My cat is old and tiny. I found her in Brooklyn, 18 years ago and she has turned into a country cat. My dog, Olive, is some kind of terrier, hound mix from a local shelter. She is also kind of old. We used to have chickens and we have a fish named Pearl.
Favorite thing to read: Right now I am reading The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I love her writing and Flannery O’Connor and I read The New Yorker a lot too.
YouTube you can’t stop watching: I don’t look at YouTube much.
Must read blog: Same thing.. I don’t really know about many blogs except my husband’s (kieranwoodworks.com) because he shows it to me.
I have one but I never remember to put anything on it.
Generally, I haven’t really tapped into the endless web. I know there is some good in it but there is way too much and when I spend too much time looking I feel irritable and sick and even uninspired (when my intention was to be inspired.)
Night owl or early bird: Neither.
I am definitely not a night owl. I do like the morning when the sun rises (which isn’t that early right now) but I don’t start working until after my kids are off to school.
What materials do you work with and how did that come about?
Gouache, ink, watercolor and collage.
I started with just inks and watercolor. I got some really nice ones when I was living in Italy and I like their unexpected textures and muted colors. When some jobs (laundry soap ads) required brighter colors and I wanted to try something new and thicker, I moved into gouache. Now I am back to using inks again and switching back and forth. I need to change how I do things every once in a while so I don’t feel stale and boring. Recently, I was doing a lot of collage but usually I just add a little here and there. I also embroider pictures on my husbands shirts and pillows.
What and who are your creative influences?
All the children’s books and artists books I have around give me inspiration but mostly when I am enjoying life; eating delicious food with fun people or taking walks in beautiful places, I feel happy and then I want to make things.
Occasionally, a good show will make me feel really inspired. I’ll never forget one I saw at the Brooklyn Museum, of Persian paintings. I love Alexander Calder’s Circus. Good movies like I Am Love, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, To Catch a Thief, The Birds, Chinatown, Wes Anderson movies.
We love hearing about process: could you take us through a piece: from the idea/sketch phase to a finished piece?
For children’s books, first I break up the story into parts that I can imagine drawing. Then I figure out if those pieces are the right amount for a 36 page picture book and which pieces should be big spreads or little spots. Then I make pencil sketches on whatever paper is around and glue pieces of the writing into my sketches so I’m sure there is room for the text in my art. That is all the hard part.
Then I wait for a long time for the editors to look at those and make their comments. Then there is a second round of sketches. When I am ready to start painting, I hold my sketches up to my window, so the light comes through, and transfer them onto better watercolor paper. And then I am so happy to finally just paint on my own for months.
Do you have an agent?
I don’t have an agent for books…I just never felt I needed one. The first children’s book I did was offered to me by the same editor I still work with now, Anne Schwartz. She saw a New Yorker drawing I did and asked if I wanted to illustrate Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: a Greek Folktale. Since I mostly do books with her it feels straight forward and uncomplicated, and for the most part I have never had any complications with other publishers either so I haven’t felt the need to involve an agent.
I do have artist reps for other kinds of illustration (which I haven’t been doing as much lately) because I have found (especially with advertisement) the contract negotiation really complicated and the agencies and design firms illusive.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
I can’t imagine not making anything but maybe if I didn’t make pictures for a living, I would make other things like clothing or food or furniture. I would always make pictures even if I had to do something else to make money. I always feel lucky that I do make a living with what I enjoy doing the most.
How do you work through a creative block?
I look at art books: Self-taught and Folk art, Indian art, botanical prints, bird and audubon books or old found photographs of people.
Or I take a nice walk or a little trip into the city.
Sometimes the best new ideas come to me when I am lying on the couch staring at the wall.
Do you have any books that you love that have been rejected?
I was offered a few exciting projects that didn’t work out. One that still haunts me was illustrating a new edition of Flannery O’Connor stories…it seemed too good to be true that I could be asked to illustrate my favorite author, but I think my pictures were not creepy or mysterious enough. Another project that fell through was a pop up book of the story of Persephone but the publisher ran out of money.
How big of an influence was your time abroad (as a child in Europe, and later in Indonesia and Rome) on your work? Can we look forward to more books about your childhood abroad?
Traveling has been a huge influence on me. Memories tucked somewhere in me pop out in my pictures. Those experiences tint how I see things still. I haven’t tried to do any more books about that but I have been trying to write about my grandparents who were also a big influence on me. My grandfather was an eccentric, lively, artist and my grandmother was also a painter but she was severely arthritic. I spent a lot of time with them and they had a big part in forming me. I also have been trying to write about my own children’s experience of having my dad (also a exciting, eccentric artist) as a grandfather.
You are an author/illustrator (The Year I Didn’t Go to School, Chloë’s Birthday…and Me) and an illustrator for other authors (The Boy Who Loved Words, Gabriella’s Song, Shrinking Violet) how does the illustration process differ when it’s your own story versus that of another author?
The books I wrote were about my family and memories so my pictures for those books were filled with more emotion and nostalgia. It was little constricting trying to make my family look like my family and the memories and places look like I remembered them. When I illustrate other people’s stories I try and figure out what I relate to in the characters so they become real to me and I can give them life. In some ways, I am more free to decide how things will look in other people’s stories. But now I am starting a book I wrote and it is not real, it is about dreams; so it will be a whole new experience that I am very excited about.
Why children as your main audience?
I love doing children’s books because they are books of pictures not because they are for kids. The best children’s books are for adults and children to share together.
Some seem like they are even more for adults than children.
I have bought many children’s books just for the art..like a little art book.
AND FINALLY: Your ads for Persil are fantastic! Your work really seemed to lend itself well to animation. What was that like for you to make your illustrations move!? Is there more animation in your future?
Oh I wish! That might have been a once in a life time experience. It was so fun and so lucrative.
It all seems like a dream now that I was sent to England and saw the animation studio filled with people and boxes of the exact paint and colors I used, all copying my pictures so they would move. They were really good at what they did. They knew just what they needed from me,“key frames” and they did the rest.
Click below to watch her Persil ads: