Matt Tavares is the author-illustrator of numerous books including Crossing Niagara, Zachary’s Ball, and Becoming Babe Ruth. He is also the illustrator of Lighter than Air, written by Matthew Clark Smith, The Gingerbread Pirates, written by Kristin Kladstrup, and many more.
His most recent picture book is Red & Lulu. Gorgeously illustrated, the story is set in New York City during the holiday season. It’s my latest favorite holiday read, although I think it’s a book that can be read year-round too. The story is tender, the illustrations have the feel of an enduring classic, and I loved learning something new about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
I love Red and Lulu so much, in fact, that I’m giving away a copy along with a $25 gift card to the independent bookstore of your choice. (US entries only.) You’ll find more information about the giveaway and how to enter at the end of this interview.
Describe your workspace.
My studio consists of two rooms in my house. The room where I spend most of my time was designed as sort of a 3-season room (though I use it year-round). It’s in the back corner of the house, and two of the walls have nice big windows. So it’s nice and bright, which is great for painting. The other two walls feature built-in bookcases which are filled with books and art supplies. The original owners of the house called this room the library, which seems fitting.
The other room of my studio is mostly storage- boxes of books, flat files filled with artwork, stuff like that.
Describe a typical workday.
I usually start my day with a walk. This has become an important part of my work day, especially when I’m writing. Seems like whenever I’m stuck on something, the best way for me to get unstuck is just to take a walk and let my mind wander. I rarely solve writing problems sitting at my laptop.
What media do you use and which is your favorite? (If you do digital art, what software do you use?)
I do all my preliminary sketches digitally, using Sketchbook Pro. Working digitally allows me to move things around, save different ideas, and place the text on the page to see how the words and images work together. But then once I get to the final art, I still work the old-fashioned way, with watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper. Watercolor is the medium I use most often, and I usually use Arches 300 lb hot press paper. It’s nice and thick so it doesn’t buckle even when I really soak it.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
My drawing table. It was a birthday gift from my parents when I turned 10 years old. It’s still my favorite place to draw. Oddly, it still has the price tag on it. I’d say I’ve gotten my $119.99 out of it!
The windows. On warm days I can open all the windows and it feels almost like I’m working outside. They keep my studio nice and bright. I spend a lot of time in here, so it’s nice to not have to feel like I’m cooped inside up all day.
The picture book wall. This is a relatively new addition to my studio, an idea I stole from my friend, author-illustrator Scott Magoon. I keep a rotating display of some of my favorite picture books up o the wall. It helps keep me inspired.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I guess I have a few. I pretty much always arrive at my studio with a cup of coffee and a glass of water, which I keep to the left of my drawing table (paint, brushes, and other drawing supplies are to the right). I usually start the day by going through whatever paperwork or other non-creative nitty-gritty stuff I need to get through, so once I get to the creative stuff, I can just get lost in my own little world and not worry about sending invoices or replying to emails. I also keep all of the pages up on my wall (in the room with the flat files) as I’m working on a book, so I can see the whole thing as it’s developing.
What do you listen to while you work?
When I’m writing, I don’t listen to anything. When I’m illustrating, it varies. Sometimes I zero in on one playlist, or one type of music for a certain book. For Red & Lulu, I listened mostly to a playlist of instrumental music from Pixar movies. I know it might sound weird, but there is something about that music that really lends itself to storytelling. It felt like the soundtrack to my book. And sometimes I’ll listen to audiobooks and podcasts.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
That can be a challenge, especially lately. Seems like every day, there are so many things going on in the world that are far more important than the book I’m working on. But I try my best to set aside a good chunk of the day when I ignore social media and tune out the outside world. I find that it’s much easier to focus once I get to the final art of a book, where there are long stretches of time when I can get lost in the picture I’m working on. In the earlier phases of a project, it’s much easier to get distracted.
What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?
The very beginning of a project is always tough. There are too many variables, and too many unknowns. I have an easier time once I start filling in some of the gaps, then it becomes more a matter of finding the right pieces to complete the puzzle. But at first, I sometimes have a hard time knowing what to do. Also, crowd scenes.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
Both. I start out in a notebook, then eventually move to the laptop
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
I usually make a series of vague outlines. Honestly, I don’t have a clear writing process. Seems like it’s different for every book. For some, it’s pretty straightforward, linear process, from outline to rough draft, etc. But for others, it’s just a big confusing mess until it’s done.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
David Wiesner. I could watch a master at work, and pick his brain. Plus he’s a nice, mellow guy and seems like he’d be pretty easy to share a studio with.
What is the best piece of writing and/or illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?
The best advice I’ve gotten came from my college painting and drawing professor, Joe Nicoletti. His advice was this: “Sweep the floor!” His point was that being an artist is work, and you need to be productive every day, even if you’re not feeling inspired every day. If you’re having a day when the art just isn’t going well, you can’t just wait around. Sweep the floor. Clean your studio. Do something else. Pay bills, reply to emails, or whatever. That is advice that has stayed with me. This is a job, and I need to be productive every day, even on days when I forget how to draw.