A Peek at the Creative Space of Aaron Zenz
Aaron Zenz is the author/illustrator of Chuckling Ducklings and Baby Animal Friends and The Hiccupotamus, and the illustrator of the Howie the dog “I Can Read!” series (written by Sara Henderson), Nugget on the Flight Deck (written by Patricia Newman), Skeleton Meets the Mummy (written by Steve Metzger), and numerous other books.
He is also the host of my favorite picture book review blog, Bookie Woogie where he reviews children’s books with the Z-Kids (his children). Here’s the description from their blog: “Here at Bookie Woogie we pick our favorite books, review them, and create some accompanying fan art. We’ll alternate week to week between new releases discovered at our local library and older favorites from our own personal collection.” It’s fantastic–there is a transcript of their conversation about the book and the children’s artwork inspired from the talk. It’s such a fantastic example of how to make books a family affair and chronicle great childhood moments at the same time.
I am fortunate to have a whole room in our house to claim as my workin’ place. It is full of my favorite things. . . favorite books, favorite knickknacks, prints from my favorite artists. It’s as if a bit of what goes on inside my head all day leaked out into the room.
I have drawings from my kids lining all around the ceiling.
I have a nice window with a green leafy view.
We have bookshelves all over the house. . .
I believe there are 10 big bookcases in all, and every inch of them is tightly filled.
My room has a bookcase housing my favorites, and the girls’ room has a wall of shelves where the majority of our children’s book collection resides.
We have over 3000 titles in just the children’s book collection alone. We love books!
I work a self imposed third-shift. I have six wonderful kids, and my lovely wife homeschools them. And I work from home. So we are all home, all the time. I’ve tried on numerous occasions over the years to get work done during the day, and it just doesn’t happen. About 5 years ago it dawned on me that I had the freedom to set any schedule I wanted. So I work the “other” 9 to 5… that is, 9 at night ’til 5 in the morning. . . and then I sleep until around noon. After that I’m up and can be with the family for the whole rest of the day.
It’s great! I get to work while it’s quiet. The family gets to have me around longer than if I were holing myself away during typical daytime work hours. It works out swell for everyone!
I’d have to pick some treasures that my kids made me…
I love this set of Fraggles that Gracie cut out for me:
This lizard that Isaac sculpted for me is pretty cool:
And it may not seem like much, but this simple cloud that Lily painted once-upon-a-time has been a particular bright spot for me during difficult times:
I am very much an “attack one thing at a time” kind of person. I’m the guy that works his way around the dinner plate, eating each item in turn. This shows up in my working life in a few different ways.
I like to wrap things up neatly in single sessions. So rarely will I leave part of an illustration unfinished to pick up the next day. I’ll work an extra hour or two in order to get something done on the day I started it. Or I’ll quit a little early rather than get part-way through the next item on the list.
I also tackle projects one at a time. I may do the all sketches for one book, then all the final art for another book, and then back to the final art for the first book. But I really can’t overlap. I can’t alternate between sketches for one and final art for another over the same period of time.
During the writing, designing, sketching, planning stages I have to work in silence. But when I launch into creating final artwork, I don’t have to be as focused. Then I like to listen to a wide variety of things. I listen to audio books. I’m a huge fan of movie scores, so that’s where I turn if I’m feeling musical. I listen to a lot of podcasts: A Way With Words, This American Life, Studio 360. Lately I’ve been listening to the sermons of John Piper online.
I’m a cereal guy. I always eat a big dinner with the family. But other than that meal, I chow on cereal all throughout the rest of the day.
If everyone else in the house is asleep, I have no problem keeping focused on work. I easily plow straight through the night.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I start out with lots of notes scribbled on scraps of paper. But when it comes time to pull it all together, I type it up on the computer.
I like to live with stories in my head for a long, long time. In my head, stories grow and flourish and change. Once I take the plunge and commit an idea to paper–when I formulate actual words–then it’s very hard for me to imagine the idea any other way. So I live with stories in my head as long as I can.
What media do you use and which is your favorite?
For some projects I create art with colored pencil and for some I create art digitally. I’m a firm believer that “form follows function.” So I’ll turn to the computer if it makes sense for the subject matter (for instance, if there will be lots of geometrical forms.) I’ll also go digital if the deadlines are really tight and speed is required for the project. When I work digitally, I create everything in Photoshop.
However my favorite medium is colored pencil, and I choose it whenever I can. I work completely with Prismacolor colored pencils – no mixed media. And I use them in an unconventional way, pressing extremely hard for solid coverage so that not a speck of paper shows through. People are often shocked to find out they are viewing colored pencil. To achieve the look, I go through a huge number of pencils for any given project and break hundreds of pencil tips along the way.
As a freelancer, I’m constantly working with different people. Each project introduces new art directors, new editors, departments full of new people. It’s like getting a brand new boss every couple of months. So in addition to tackling the fresh book on my plate, I also have to figure out all these new people as well–what they like, how they communicate (or fail to), how much control/freedom they expect. The artwork is the easy part.
It would definitely have to be another Creative. Someone who understands the demands and process of creativity. But I’d want it to be someone whose work inspires me–someone who does things I can’t do. Someone who works in a different medium or has a vastly different style. I’d want to be awed at their output and encouraged to step up my own game.
A person really has to be familiar with their desired field. If you want to write picture books, then read lots and lots and lots and lots of picture books. If you want to write YA, submerge yourself in that world. Learn from both the good and the bad. Figure out where other people fail and why. Learn what works and why.