Interview with Award-Winning Illustrator Anna Raff
Get to know Anna…
Anna Raff has illustrated several books for children, including WORLD RAT DAY by Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, SYLVIA’S SPINACH by Katherine Pryor, and THINGS THAT FLOAT AND THINGS THAT DON’T by David A. Adler.
She is currently at work on THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED, a picture book for G.P. Putnam’s Sons written by Lisa M. Bakos; SIMPLE MACHINES, a non-fiction picture book by David A. Adler; and LITTLE CARD, a picture book for Candlewick Press by Charise Mericle Harper.
Her illustrations have appeared in New York Times, The Washington Post, and Kiwi Magazine, among others; on TV on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and MTV’s “Woodie Awards.” In 2010, she created Ornithoblogical, a blog of bird-related imagery. Anna is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts Illustration Summer Residency Program. She has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, a BA from Connecticut College, and lives in New York City, where there are reportedly four rats per human resident. To learn more, visit her website.
What is the last thing you paid money for?
My dry cleaning.
What do you often make fun of?
I wouldn’t know where to start.
What is the best thing about staying at a hotel?
My boyfriend’s employee rate.
What is one thing you do with determination every day?
If you could have your mailbox shaped like an object, what would it be?
A largemouth bass.
What healthy habit are you glad you have?
Nora Ephron once said, “If you’ve only got a finite number of meals in a lifetime, why would you have a bad one?”…or something like that.
What’s your worst habit?
I’m too introspective.
What topic would you like to know more about?
There are too many to chose from, but I’m reading a book about WWI at the moment.
Knowing what you know now, what would you change about your high school experience?
Get a haircut.
What is the first thing you notice when you meet someone?
To quote Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set, “Whether the person is male or female.”
If you could travel back to 1492, what advice would you give Columbus?
Don’t be a dick.
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
Long walks have become an integral part of my process, and I’m lucky to live in between two great parks in Manhattan. One of my teachers in grad school, Mirko Ilic, stressed that our time away from our desks was just as important as our time at them, and I take that seriously. What he meant was we need space to process things, and you can’t force yourself to think creatively all the time. For me, it’s a comfort to know that my down time isn’t just down time, and my walks are a subconscious way to brainstorm. So I’m actually multitasking—I’m exercising and enjoying the trees, and the birds, and the flowers, but my head is working in the background. I always go back to the drawing board more prepared to solve a problem that daunted me earlier.
Can you visualize a finished product before you begin a book?
Usually just a few parts are very clear in my mind—the rest comes later.
Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?
Like a lot of people, I get good ideas in the shower.
Who or what has helped you to persevere through the challenges?
Knowing I have mortgage to pay is a great motivator.
If you were no longer able to illustrate, how else would you express your creativity?
I’d probably bake a lot of pies.
What has been your greatest sacrifice that has enabled you to become the illustrator you are today?
I suppose the peace of mind and stability that comes from having a 9 to 5 job. But it was my choice to pursue illustration as a career, so I’d better not be whining about sacrifices.
What words of inspiration were given to you that you would like to pass along to others?
If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?
When did you realize that you had a gift for illustrating?
When I was a kid, I was always drawing and encouraged to draw, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it into a career, so I became a graphic designer. Shorty after I turned 40, I went back to school to get an MFA in Illustration. That was two years of a complete restart to my career, and more importantly, my working habits. About halfway through my second year I thought I might be able to pull it off.
How do you balance your personal life and your creative endeavors?
It’s a challenge, but I finally figured out that this is not the kind of job I can just turn off. In some way or another, I am always thinking about it, trying to solve some visual puzzle. That being said, I always make time for relaxation, seeing friends, vacations, etc. whenever I can.
What is your typical day like?
At the moment, it’s pretty crazy. I’m filling in for an art director on leave, so I’m getting up really early to do some drawing before I leave for the office. My regular schedule is a bit more reasonable. Typically I work from about 7 or 8 a.m. to about midday, when finally I get out of my pajamas and break for a lunch. At that point, I’ve usually got about 2-3 good hours left in me before I need a serious break which I fill with a walk, errands, or a coffee date with friends. After dinner, I might be able to work a little more, but I’m most creative and productive early in the day. I don’t have the stamina that I used to into the wee hours, and I’ve never believed in all-nighters.
How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
I’d say more of my personality is reflected in my work rather than my actual day to day life.
Do you have family members who are writers or illustrators?
No, but they’re all graduates of excellent liberal arts colleges. Does that count?
What was your childhood like?
I was very fortunate to grow up when and where I did; I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Did your upbringing influence the way you illustrate today?
Definitely. Dinner time was sacrosanct in our house, and tardiness was not permitted. Only Walter Cronkite and “The Muppet Show” had the power to delay. I think that just about sums up the values with which I was raised.
Which of your books gives you the most pride or satisfaction?
I’m pretty happy with how World Rat Day turned out.
How do you think you differ from other creative people in your genre?
I hope my work is honest and unselfconscious—at least that’s what I strive for.
Has your creativity changed stylistically as you have matured? If so, in what ways?
“Style” is a word that makes me bristle. I was trying to explain this to my students recently.When most people talk about their illustration style, it implies some sort of external trappings used to create work that you put on, like trying on someone else’s coat. We all draw best when all that stuff falls away, and we just draw the way we draw. So I suppose that’s how my work has matured—I’m learning how to get out of my own way, and not think about it so much.
When do you feel the most energized?
At different times—sometimes during the sketch stage, sometimes when I’m putting a finished piece together, or in the coloring stage, because I’m in as much suspense as anyone as to how it’s going to turn out. And of course, I really get a real rush when I hit “SEND.”
Does your illustrating reflect your personality?
If I’m doing my job well, I think that’s inevitable.
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