Julie Downing


Artist Julie Downing is stealing the show on LitPick’s Six Minutes with an Illustrator! Julie is an internationally published author and illustrator. She has written and or illustrated over 40 books for children. This San Francisco artist is known for her innovative approach in illustrating traditional stories, and her list of books include: The Night Before Christmas, Lullaby and Goodnight, and The Firekeeper's Son. Downing is most noted for her rich, jewel-like watercolor illustrations. Her work has been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States and England. She currently teaches watercolor and Children’s Book Illustration to both graduate and undergraduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

How did you get started as an illustrator?

I published my first book in 1984, long before email, websites and blogs were around. (It seems impossible to imagine life without the web.) I started my career by taking my work around New York City. I have many memories of dragging my big black portfolio around to different publishers. If I was lucky, I was able to see an art director or editor. Often I dropped it off and wandered around New York and went back and picked it up. Sometimes art directors made suggestions and I read all of their comments, came home and did new samples that incorporated their ideas. In the meantime, I did jacket covers, illustrations for textbooks, and even had a job dressing plush Snoopy dogs. It took almost two years before I landed my first book contract.

Today, it's much easier to keep in touch with editors. I email, have a Facebook page, write a blog (very occasionally!) and have a website. But I still love going to New York and seeing people face to face.

Who influenced you?

I am lucky; my Mom and Dad were so supportive. My father believed it was important that you find something you love and do it, so he encouraged me to become an illustrator. Today I am part of an amazing group of illustrators who are both my best critics and biggest supporters. We get together once a month and show each other what we are working on, and I get great feedback from everyone in my critique group.

Do you have a favorite artist/subject/medium?

There are so many wonderful artists out there; it would be impossible to narrow it down to a short list. As for subjects, I am interested in lots of things: light and shadow, family dynamics, and history. I choose my books based on what I like to draw as well as how much the story affects me. I tend not to draw cars and trucks and technological things; I think they are hard to draw. I mostly draw and paint with traditional mediums like watercolor, colored pencil and pastel. Currently, I am experimenting with drawing everything traditionally and combining them digitally. This technique allows me to me looser in some areas, try different paper surfaces and generally experiment more. I thought it might be faster, but it still takes me almost a week to finish each spread in a book.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an illustrator?

Look at books! Spend time in a book store or library and get familiar with what type of books are being published. I am always surprised when people tell me they want to be a children's book illustrator and they really haven't looked at a book since they were children. Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a great organization that helps new and published illustrators. Follow blogs: my favorite is Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings. Julie Danielson writes about lots of different illustrators and they all show their process on her blog. I love reading about how other illustrators think about their work.

The only other piece of advice I would give an aspiring illustrator: be patient and stay in the room, meaning keep working on your goal. Things don't always happen right away, but if you know what you want to do and where you want to go, you will get there.

Where is your favorite place to work?

I have a rooftop studio in San Francisco that, on a clear day, shows a bit of the Golden Gate Bridge. Originally built as a place to watch the San Francisco 49ers play at Kezar Stadium, I have used it for almost twenty years. Of course, if you ask my family, they will tell you that I like to work anywhere and everywhere. Right now I have my watercolors spread out all over the dining room table.

What else would you like to tell us?

I love what I do. As an illustrator, I get to make lots of decisions and think about telling the story visually. An illustrator's job is to expand the story and show something that isn't in the text, and my biggest challenge is always how to expand the story. I am lucky to get to have a career that is challenging, flexible and never gets any easier.


Thank you for spending six minutes with us, Julie! Your illustrations are truly beautiful. :) Everyone, make sure to check out her long list of wonderful kids’ books! ‘Don’t Turn the Page’ got a five-star review on LitPick. Check it out: http://www.litpick.com/review/dont-turn-page-review-sisto8