KidLit in Color author Kirstie Myvett interviews illustrator LaTonya Jackson about her upcoming picture book.
Congratulations on the cover for Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit written by Esau McCaulley due for release in May 2022. It’s beautiful, colorful, and detailed. Please tell us a little bit about the book.
Thank you so much! I view this project as my interview to get into the illustration industry. My background is in the fine arts, so I have a lot to prove in terms of showing that I can do more than create standalone pretty pictures.
I want to go on record to say that I painstakingly drew those braids on the cover one by one because I wanted them to be as exquisite as I could possibly get them to be from afar and up close. I can hardly wait for little hands to pick up this book, and dive into its words and pictures.
Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit is about a little girl who has reservations about being different—her hair isn’t straight like the other girls at her school. On an outing with her dad to shop for a new red dress and to get her hair braided for Pentecost Sunday service, Josey learns a valuable lesson about the beauty in our differences and how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
Those braids are beautiful, by the way. Tell us how you started this project and what mediums you worked with.
I always start with reading the story carefully—highlighting and taking notes on very specific descriptions mentioned in the text, for example, the color of the characters’ clothing and the characters’ behaviors. After that, I create a storyboard to map out my initial ideas in quick pencil sketches on paper. I also create a mood board—a la Pinterest boards—that serves as style and color scheme inspiration. For this project, I chose to work digitally using the Procreate app.
Did you have models for this project or was it free-formed in your head?
No, I didn’t have any models per se for this project. However, Esau sent me a picture of his daughter who is around the character’s age, so I took my inspiration from that.
This is your illustration debut and I know you must be so excited. How long did it take you to complete this project?
I am over the moon! This is a lifelong dream that dates back to third grade when I was writing and illustrating my own stories about unicorns on pieces of copy paper stapled together. I still have a couple of them, by the way.
From conception to final color illustration edits, it took about 5 months. I did a lot of overtime work on it during the summer. I knew that once school started and I had to return to work, subsequently, my progress would slow down. Therefore, I woke up at 6am daily the entire summer (which, under any other circumstances, is summertime blasphemy). In retrospect, I am so relieved that I did!
Did you collaborate with the author Esau McCaulley for input and if so how was that?
Yes, this project was a collaboration from start to finish. I appreciate Cindy Kiple, the art director, Esau McCaulley, the author, and the rest of the team working on this project for allowing me some creative license, trusting my aesthetic, while also giving me those necessary nudges about certain elements of the story. Fortunately, it worked out that they approved of most of my ideas. I know sometimes, imaginatively speaking, I can get a little carried away with my head way up in the clouds. Sometimes, I need to be wrangled a bit and brought back down to earth.
What, if any, lessons did you take away from this project?
One lesson I learned was to throw away nothing! All of those “bad” drawings or drawings that were not approved could be reworked and used as assets for other illustrations in your book project.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on refining some of my manuscripts that have been sitting on my desk. I am also working on a dummy for an informational fiction picture book, an adventure tale that I wrote about animal tails. This particular story is evolving into a wordless story which makes the dummy even more important in communicating my vision.
When you’re not drawing or painting we can find you?
You can find me playing with my son, reading, or sleeping!
Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
1. There are many outstanding artists in this field. Believe in your special gift and know that there is room for your unique voice, experiences, and vision in this industry.
2. Always remain a lifelong student of your craft—sketch daily, study the work of those artists that you admire, experiment, work on your areas of weakness, and go about living (your best ideas come when you are away from your desk and simply living life).
3. Share your work! It’s scary (we artists are often sensitive about our work), but do it anyway.
4. Start where you are with what you have.
That's great advice. Thank you LaTonya and best of luck.