Violet Lemay was a stage designer, a college art professor, and an editorial illustrator before arriving at her dream job: illustrating books for kids. Violet has illustrated over twenty books, a handful of which she also wrote. If she’s not at her desk drawing, she’s probably in the backyard feeding the birds, who think she is Snow White.
Through illustration, Violet has come to realize that not everything turns out the way you expect, in life or sketches, and that’s not a bad thing!
Introducing Violet Lemay!
Tell us a little about your background. What led you to become an illustrator? I used to be a set and costume designer, that’s what I studied in university. After about five years of working in NYC on a whole bunch of different shows and becoming a member of the local scenic designers union, I realized that I missed drawing. I was spending lots of time shopping, for clothes, fabrics and props, and also sewing costumes and making scale-models of sets. All of that was a lot of fun and I loved it—but the travel and unstable lifestyle were wearing me out. A friend reminded me that I had once said, “I would love to illustrate children’s books.” That comment stopped me in my tracks. I went back to school, to study illustration this time, started illustrating for magazines even before I graduated.
Tell us about your process. I begin with line work. This is the most difficult part of my process, because 1) I am super fussy, 2) Keeping characters (and wheelchairs!) consistent in various poses, from different angles, is challenging, and 3) all of this requires a lot of focus. When I’m drawing, it has to be super quiet so I can concentrate. After that, everything is much easier. I have a palette saved for each character, so when it’s time to paint him or her all I have to do is load that palette and fill the “given” colors (hair and skin tone, maybe shoes if the same pair is featured, etc.). Then I decide what colors to paint the clothes, based on the overall composition. I used to teach 2-D design to university art students, so I am very careful about using color placement to create a smart composition. Each character is finished off with highlights and shadows. Usually I paint the background (the colors of which have been in my head all along) at the end, but not always. Sometimes—especially if a location repeats two or more rimes in a book, I might paint all of those scenes at the same time, right off the bat. Depends on my mood. One thing for sure: the final step is my favorite. At the very end, I go back and tweak things, and add tiny details. That’s when the image really comes to life.
What was fun or surprising about the illustration process? The best surprise was learning to trust my character studies, which are approved before I create the illustrations for the book. My sketches for each scene tend to be extremely loose, because I am impatient and like to plow through, sketching the entire book as quickly as possible. The looseness of these quick sketches is very appealing to me. Sometimes I prefer them very much to the approved character studies, which are tighter. This happened many times when I began creating final art for Yes I Can! For example, the character Aamira wears glasses. In certain rough sketches, her glasses were huge, and her eyes were much more simple than in the approved character study, and I loved the way the loose sketches looked. I thought it would be better to re-design her face based on the loose sketch, rather than re-work the sketch to “match” the approved character. But every time I went down that road, I was disappointed. This was a difficult lesson to learn, but I’m very happy to have figured out what to do in this situation… which happens to me all of the time! My new plan is, whenever I love a loose sketch that doesn’t look like an approved character study, I redraw the sketch to match the character study, and save the sketch for another project down the road.
What was your favorite book as a child? Do you have any favorite illustrators? I don’t remember specific books from when I was very little, but I do remember loving images made by Eric Carle and Richard Scary. When I learned to read, I was never without a book. My favorites of all-time were probably Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, illustrated by Garth Williams. One of my favorite illustrators now is Lauren Child. I also love Laura Cornell’s work. Both of these ladies create such lively, energetic work. This delights my eyes as well as my heart. Giselle Potter is also a favorite… I love the depth of soul in her art. Gorgeous.