Shennen Bersani has two million copies of her books cherished and read by families throughout the world, including Astro: The Steller Sea Lion and The Glaciers are Melting! for Sylvan Dell Publishing. She has been a freelance illustrator since 1989, and her art delivers a unique blend of realism, heartfelt emotion, and life lessons for all ages.
How does art impact other areas of your life?
The art of illustration is somewhat unique, but it has similarities to artists working in other forms of art, e.g., ballet, music, photography, and painting. People who are successful in these areas and want to stay on top of their game, must work at it for long hours every day and have little time for much else.
Since my art is somewhat less typical in that it provides more emotion, near-realism, and detail throughout, it takes longer and more hours to create. I also spend time and doing up front research and referencing, many times traveling to far away places. This provides better accuracy and allows me to create the level of detail normally found in my books.
Based on these needs, the time required per week is very demanding. However, the time spent while working is very enjoyable to me. It does get challenging though, when you have children with many types of needs, you want some time with your friends, and you have a day-to-day home to operate. Somehow though, it miraculously works. Mostly, because all the people in my life are supportive of me and my work, and they understand what drives me.
What is the most difficult thing about illustration/being an illustrator?
I find the most challenging aspect of my career trying to juggle doing my work and making time for my loved ones. As noted in the previous answer, my illustrations take far more hours than typical. When a need arises during the day and pulls me away from my work, I will typically work throughout most of the night to keep from falling behind.
Do you think that the digitization of so many areas of book publishing-especially picture books-is a good thing or bad thing?
I do not believe it is a good or bad thing. I do believe it’s inevitable.
Certainly computers have impacted my illustrations for the better. Instead of having my finished art sent out to be photographed or drum scanned, obviously I do all that now in-house quickly and conveniently. I see the biggest impact on time management, especially with using colored pencils. Once upon a time I used colored pencils exclusively. It isn’t a very forgiving medium. It’s challenging erasing and making corrections. Actually, rather frustrating if you make a mistake. Now, with Photoshop, I feel free to experiment and make mistakes, for I can easily change them – on my illustrations. A much different world if I am creating fine art to be exhibited. Every stroke needs to be thought out in my head. There’s no ‘history’ window with a rubber eraser.
The world of data, text, print, photos, video, and film have always been in a considerable state of transition. The speed at which it transitions will continue to increase more and more over time. The reason publishing seems like such a big change, is because the sources of information the general public uses every day are changing much more rapidly than in the publishing business. It becomes expensive for everyone to keep up with the current technology.
Digital books are great in the fact that a person can download them quickly and easily. I have many of them myself. But personally, I dislike being a slave to a power cord. I’d rather hold a book in my hands, touch the art, turn the pages. I don’t feel sitting in front of a computer for any length of time is a healthy activity for a young child. Nor would I want to give an expensive iPad to a toddler to drop onto the floor. I’m hoping the world always has a place for a physical book.
How do you think it has impacted your art?
The Cintiq I use allows me to create art directly on it’s screen. This provides better clarity, detail, and better results with repetitive strokes.
Another effect is in the layout of the art. Most art is not adequately designed for use on eReaders. Borders, text size, design layout, and text contrast to background are all areas that need to be adjusted. I now need to make more room for digital text than I had for printed books.
What is your favorite technique or medium for illustrations?
I like to use my colored pencils. I used a mix of colored pencils paint and some crayons, before adding some elements using my Cintiq. I find the Cintiq very effective for drawing in whiskers and fur on my animals.
How do you create the life-like quality seen in Astro and The Glaciers are Melting?
First, I research my subjects extensively and become very familiar with what I am illustrating. I’ve graduated from planting gardens in my yard for reference to traveling around the country, seeking out the best reference material possible. This will include bringing home actual items, on-site field sketches, and taking photos.
I create my finished illustrations larger than they will be printed… it is amazing how loose and sloppy they can look blown up as compared to when they are shrunk down. I also use many layers of color, one on top of another. I feel this gives my art depth.
Do you try and do all your research before starting on a project, or add details as you go?
I become immersed in a project right at the beginning! With Astro The Steller Sea Lion my research brought me from Boston, MA, to Mystic, CT, San Francisco, CA, Sausalito, CA, Corte Madera, CA, and Santa Cruz, CA. All before I ever picked up a pencil to do preliminary sketches. The on-site research allows me to provide more accuracy and detail, which show up as more realistic too.
As someone who is such a long-standing and successful illustrator, what advice do you have for anyone interested in working with children’s picture books?
I get so wrapped up in creating my illustrations I find very little time to do anything else. I admit I am very poor at answering emails, phone calls, mowing my lawn, and dusting. Not that I desire to neglect these other areas of my life, it’s just that everything eventually takes a back seat to my work. Creating art is my obsession.
I’d suggest an artist get wrapped up in their work and make it their obsession. Go to the library, hang out in bookstores. Read and reread as many picture books as you can. Get a feel for characters. Sketch often. Bring your sketchbook with you everywhere you go. Take classes. Take more classes. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators. Network with fellow illustrators. Go to art exhibits, visit museums. Observe, observe, observe. And most of all, believe in your self and follow your dream!