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Developing as an Illustrator, Interview with Tara J. Hannon

tara-hannon head shotI’d like to introduce author/illustrator Tara J. Hannon. Tara did the fun and expressive illustrations for No Bears Allowed—picture book written by Lydia Lukidis and published by Blue Whale Press. In this interview, Tara shares excellent tips for remaining consistent from page to page, illustrating facial expressions and body language, dealing with creative direction, having the courage to help tell the story with your art, and more!

Interview Q & A

How did you get your start as a children’s book illustrator?

I always knew I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. I went to college for illustration and after I graduated, I steered myself towards every possible artistic outlet that I could find and said “yes” whenever anyone came knocking. Slowly but surely, experience led to growth and knowledge, and I was able to secure jobs illustrating books with self-publishing authors. The books that I have been able to illustrate for self-publishing authors helped me stay focused on my craft, improve my skills, and enjoy the kid lit world. I am thrilled that No Bears Allowed will be my first traditionally published book.

Cover from BWP site 978-0-9814938-9-3

How has your business Meant for a Moment Designs influenced your illustration career or visa versa? Which passion came first?

Meant for a Moment (M4AM) was born from my desire to make art my career. So the answer to this question might be a ‘chicken or the egg’ kind of thing. I always knew I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, but it took me a very long time to learn how to do that. Years ago, I had a graphic design job that was unfulfilling and terribly boring. I was starving for something more. So I created tons of little sketches on my lunch breaks that I turned into greeting cards. Meant for a Moment was born from these drawings and slowly evolved from there. M4AM gave me the platform that I needed to take on custom work. And every custom piece that I created gave me more knowledge and skill and time at my drawing desk, which was a dream come true for me.

You are also a writer. Which came first? Writing or art?

Illustration definitely came first. I went to school for illustration, and I still kick myself a little for not having the foresight to have snagged a creative writing class while I was there. Writing came much later. But I found that I loved it just as much as I loved illustrating. And when I discovered the magic that happens by balancing words and images, I was forever hooked. To me, a good picture book is like a good song. I could read it over and over again.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of your author/illustrator pieces, and it truly is magic!

Others have described your art as whimsical, playful, and quirky. I tend to agree with them. Do you have any artistic influences? If not, what does influence your style?

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My love affair with children’s literature and illustration began with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. I also used to spend hours copying Mary Engelbreit illustrations when I was in Middle School. In my early work, you can see strong influence from these artists. I think my style has evolved into its own space now but every so often, I can see a trace of them slip in. I still love their artwork so much, but have found so many contemporary artists to admire, like Peter Brown, Anita Jeram, and Kelly Light.

Do you have a preferred medium?

I really enjoy drawing digitally. About a year ago, I transitioned from primarily pencil and paper to a drawing tablet (Wacom Cintiq). I found that with a tablet I could take more risks, add more detail and LAYER to my heart’s content. It has been a really fun learning process for me and I am thrilled about it.

NBA_title page

What medium and process did you use for No Bears Allowed?

No Bears Allowed was one of the first books I illustrated with my tablet. I really enjoyed creating the textures of Bear and Rabbit’s fur and layering in all of the bits of nature in those outdoor scenes.

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Blue Whale Press is involved in the illustration process throughout book development. What was it like following a publisher’s process versus working independently?

Blue Whale Press was wonderful to work with. They were supportive throughout every step and they gave me a lot of independence to create. I’d say the biggest difference between working with BWP vs. working independently would be the technical support I received. At each phase of every illustration Steve was there to ensure that there was enough space for bleed, text etc. which was really helpful. It was also really nice having extra eyes to look out for any inconsistencies. It was a wonderful team effort.

You have been very gracious and such a pleasure to work with in all ways, but also in the area of creative direction. Do you have any tips for illustrators regarding how to keep from taking direction personally?

Oh wow, that is really nice to hear, thank you. I do think it is helpful to understand that when you are illustrating a picture book you are part of a team. And that team is stacked with experts. Trusting the input of others is certainly easier when you believe that you are part of a team of people who are all working towards the same goal. Feeling like a part of the team is helpful too and BWP did a great job of making me feel valued and heard.

I love that tip of remembering that everyone is working toward the same goal. This is so true!

Poster correctI love the little extras you put on every page of No Bears Allowed. Of course, my favorite is the illustration with the survival list. It cracks me up. How do you get over the natural instinct to show only what is in the text and instead put some of yourself into the story by doing a little something extra or special on each page? Does it take courage to express yourself and help tell the story? Do you have any tips for illustrators for going beyond the text with your expression?

Oh yes, it does take courage. It has taken many years of picture book observation to understand that illustrations are allowed, and encouraged to go beyond the text. No Bears Allowed has such a playful tone (my favorite kind of story) so it felt really natural to add those bits into the images. I think every added detail should add to the story in some way. And when you think of it that way, the illustrations become a lot more about storytelling and less about simply mirroring the text. Example: If you are drawing a messy room, are the undies on the floor white? Or do they have super heroes on them? Or is the character so wild that they’ve thrown them on the lamp instead of the floor? Does the character have a ton of stuffed animals? Or just one ratty overloved teddy? Is there evidence of a tea party still set up? (You get the idea right?) It is really fun to make decisions in artwork that compliment a character’s disposition and help tell a history of the scene. And I think every detail that you add like this will be noticed by a child, and that is a really cool thing.

Wow! These are fantastic tips!

In No Bears Allowed, you do an excellent job of showing mood and emotion via facial expression and body language. And on animals, to top it all off! How did you learn to do that? And do you have any tips for illustrators on developing that skill?

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Bear and Rabbit have a ton of personality, so it was a lot of fun creating their expressions. I suppose I learned this through observation. I think it is common for artists to observe the world in a unique way. I tend to dissect art as I view it. An example of what I mean is, when I watch a cartoon with my daughters, I notice the way the art is drawn. I watch how the eyes squint or widen during certain scenes or how the posture changes with the mood of the character. It is a really fun practice and has actually been very helpful. I do this in real life too. And I often make the face or gesture that I am drawing to work out exactly how it should look.

I really like that idea of studying cartoons. And making the face yourself is an excellent tip. Shadra Strickland has a course where she actually looks in the mirror to see how her face changes with different expressions and emotions.

I believe one of the most difficult things for an illustrator is to remain consistent from page to page—especially with characters. What is your trick for remaining consistent?

Yes, consistency is very challenging! Character sketches are super helpful and very important. I used them obsessively while creating the art for No Bears Allowed. Beyond that, one thing that helped me for consistency was that the characters felt really natural to draw. I drew Bear and Rabbit a bunch of times in rough sketches to give my hand a muscle memory of their shape and proportions. So when it came time to start the book I really “knew” the characters.

Interesting, muscle memory and really getting to know the characters by living with them by drawing them for a long time makes so much sense. Another great tip!

You recently signed with an agent as an author/illustrator! I was so excited to get that news. Congratulations! 

Thank you so much, Alayne! I am so grateful and excited to see what is next.

It is an absolute pleasure to work with you, Tara. Your work has brought us so many smiles and chuckles over the last year. And the visual story you have told is amazing!

I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to work with you and Steve. This experience has been nothing but a joy for me. Thank you so much for choosing me for this awesome book. XO

About Tara

Tara Hannon has always loved to illustrate. As a child, her wish lists included only one desire: more art stuff! Now that she is an adult, her wish lists really haven’t changed—the more art stuff the better! She is truly grateful to be doing what she loves for a living.

Tara’s illustrations have been described as whimsical, playful, and quirky. She works happily from her home studio in Crownsville, Maryland.

When Tara is not illustrating, she can be found playing in the sand with her two daughters, jogging, and drinking strong coffee. It is her dream to find a way to do all of these things at once. To learn more about Tara, visit her website.

Get tips about writing and surviving the writer’s life and learn more about author Lydia Ludikis and her journey to publication here.

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