Eliza Wheeler grew up in northern Wisconsin in a family of artists, musicians, and teachers. Her picture book, Miss Maple’s Seeds (Penguin), debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She has also illustrated other children’s books including Wherever You Go (Little Brown) by Pat Zietlow Miller, the middle grade book Cody and the Fountain of Happiness by Tricia Springstubb (Candlewick), Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel Doll Bones (Simon & Schuster), and Mara Rockliff’s picture book The Grudge Keeper (Peachtree). Most recently, Tell Me a Tattoo Story by Alison McGhee (Chronicle) and Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe by Tricia Springstubb (Candlewick) were published in April.
Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza currently lives with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at www.wheelerstudio.com
Describe your workspace.
I live in a small studio apartment with my husband in Los Angeles, and my drawing table is tucked into the corner of our main living space (it takes up about 1/8th of our apartment!). It can be a challenge to have a workspace that I stare at in my off hours–with my projects staring back at me—but it is a cozy and inspiring place to work. My desk moves up and down, so when I start painting I often stand. I have a lot of visual inspiration taped up on the wall while I work. As another work station, my husband Adam built a little fold-able work table for our couch where I do sketching or computer work.
Describe a typical workday.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a good balance for the work day, and have found a routine that seems to be working really well: I wake up between 8-9am and have ‘creative free time’ to read or write before I turn on the phone and computer. I then have breakfast, check my work email, and go for a 2-3 mile walk. When I get back, I silence my phone/email for a workday that usually goes from 11am-7pm. I’ll usually end the day catching up on correspondence. Deadlines can sometimes throw this routine out the window and I end up going off the radar, working late into the night.
What media do you use and which is your favorite?
I sketch in pencil, then create final art using dip pens with India ink, watercolors, and gouache on cold-press watercolor paper. The inking part of the process is generally my favorite.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1) I recently put up a new shelf above my pin-board which holds all the books I’ve worked on, as well as the Miss Maple doll that I made to model for my first book.
2) This mug (sitting on my grandma’s dishware), given to me by my brother and sister-in-law, stamped with my hometown name. It’s a little piece of home, and with tea in it, it’s about the most comforting thing I can think of.
3) This edition of The Wind in the Willows that my husband found for my last birthday. It’s the first edition that was illustrated by Ernest Shepard, so it combines my favorite words with my favorite pictures.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I usually light a candle when I start working, which is somehow grounding to me. Maybe the psychology behind it is simply that if I leave the vicinity it might burn the place down. Haha! But the actual effect is very calming. I also set a timer to go off every 45 minutes for breaks to stretch, read, or meditate. Doing creative work for long hours can burn me out, so these are things that help sustain my energy.
What do you listen to while you work?
When I’m writing or brainstorming I listen to film soundtracks. Then while I’m doing less brain-crunching work, like sketching, inking, and painting, I go between mediocre tv shows (if they’re too good or too bad I can’t focus), books on tape, and other audio podcasts, radio shows, interviews, etc.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Green tea, and ice water. The challenge, for me, is usually in NOT snacking!
What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?
The main challenge is in trying to capture the image that’s in my head. This image goes in and out of focus; it’s nebulous and elusive. It’s the carrot on a string, and I know it’s part of what keeps me excited to get to the drawing table each day.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
In my fantasy, I would share a space with illustrator genius Lisbeth Zwerger, but on second thought, I’d probably just stand behind her, watching her work all day, so that would be terrible for both of us. In reality I share a workspace with my husband, Adam. We get along super well and respect each other’s need for focus.
What is the best piece of illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?
To study the work of your favorite artists to guide you in the search for your own voice. It’s not about emulating or copying one person, but it is about observing all the elements that excite you – one artist might have beautiful color palettes, or another could be about their use of line and wash. I think a lot of questions about one’s own work can be answered through those influences and interests.