Interview with Children’s Book Author/Illustrator – Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a published writer and illustrator based in Toronto, Canada, and is represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis-Brown. She recently illustrated I’M BORED, a picture book by actor / comedian / author Michael Ian Black, due out from Simon & Schuster in 2012, and she has an illustrated short story coming out in YA fiction anthology, TOMO (Stone Bridge Press, 2012). You can find her at her website or on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
When you’ve read through the entire interview, remember to leave a comment for Debbie to be entered to win your very own copy of I’M BORED.

Q: When did you get started illustrating for children? What did you do before?

A: After graduating from the University of Toronto with  a B.Sc. degree, I worked as a programmer/analyst for the head office of a Toronto financial company. The money was nice, but I enjoyed the work less and less and finally my boyfriend (now my husband) convinced me to quit so I could pursue my writing.

I’ve had one nonfiction book published (The Writer’s Online Marketplace, Writer’s Digest Books), many short nonfiction pieces for print and online publications, some short stories and poetry. I also gradually worked on my novels for young people and sent them out through my agent – although I’ve gotten very close a few times, none have sold yet. During this time, I also made money working in a children’s bookstore and a library, among other part-time jobs.

I started illustrating for children at the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, when I

  1. was chosen for the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship program,
  2. won an Honor Award in the overall Showcase, and
  3. was approached by Justin Chanda to illustrate Michael Ian Black’s new picture book, I’m Bored, for Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. That event was a much-needed creative kick in the head; up to then, I had only been focused on writing.

2010 was definitely a career-changing year for me.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the illustrations behind your recently released book , I’m Bored. Truth be told, were you ever bored working on this book?

A: The illustrations for I’m Bored were all done digitally. Little known fact: I began using Corel Painter but partway through, switched to Adobe Photoshop…and had to learn the latter from scratch.

Why did I switch? Because even though Painter could export in CMYK format, weird things sometimes happened to some of the colors in the conversion process. My Mentors in the Illustration Mentorship Program had all strongly advised me to learn Photoshop, and now I could see why.

One of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to duplicate my favorite brush from Painter, using Photoshop. I tend to like gloppy and uneven lines in my art, so it took a lot of experimenting to get the same line.

My initial sketches for I’m Bored were too polished-looking. Justin Chanda (the editor) and Laurent Linn (my art director) wanted more of the rougher look that Justin had seen in my portfolio at SCBWI-LA. That’s when I decided to adopt the woodcut look I ended up using in the final art for I’m Bored. Some people think it’s a special brush but it’s actually a pretty time-consuming process for me — to get the effect, I have to zoom in and manually etch away the digital ink, one tiny bit at a time.

As for your question about whether I was ever bored working on this book, the answer is a resounding NO. Even when I was doing the woodcut etching process mentioned above.

I loved working on I’m Bored. It was my first children’s book and WAY more fun than I expected it to be.

Q: I’m Bored recently won a prestigious award. Can you tell us what that was and what the selection committee’s purpose is for these awards?

A: I was thrilled to find out that I’M BORED is a Junior Library Guild Selection for this fall! The JLG editorial team reviews thousands of new titles each year, in manuscript or prepublication stage, and end up choosing what they say is “the best of the best.”  According to the Junior Library Guild website, nearly 95 percent of their selections go on to receive awards and/or favorable reviews.

JLG’s mission is to help libraries sort through the huge number of books published every season and pick what’s best for their collections. You can read about different ways that schools and libraries have been using JLG to cope with staff and budget cuts as well as make the right selections for different types of schools here.

Q: I understand you have another book in the works? Anything you can share with us about it? Are any more books planned?

A: I was thrilled when Simon & Schuster BFYR contracted me to do two more picture books with them. One will be to illustrate a book (project still to be chosen) and the other is to write and illustrate a picture book. I’m still in the early stages of mss writing and sketches with my editor (Justin Chanda), and having a lot of fun with it. I’m blogging about the process, for those interested: http://debbieohi.com/pbcreation

I’ve also been working on a YA novel and a middle grade novel. The YA novel mss was nominated for the Sue Alexander “Most Promising For Publication” Award last year. It didn’t win, but the great feedback and nomination have reminded me not to forget about novel writing. I’ve shelved my old projects for now and am looking forward to finishing these two books and getting them sent out.

Also…I just recently had some exciting news about a new project! Hope to be able share more info soon.

Q: Have you worked on any other children’s books?

A: I’m Bored was my first published children’s book.

I’ve worked on novels for young people in the past, as I’ve mentioned above, but none were published. I’m optimistic about my new projects, though!

Q: Do you do non-children’s book art (licensing, fine art, etc.) or art just for fun? Is that art similar or different from your children’s book art?

A: I do a Daily Sketch purely for the fun of it, and post some of these on DebbieOhi.com. Some of it is similar to my art in I’m Bored, but much of it is experimental…trying new techniques, new ways of drawing old subjects, or just a quickie 30 second doodle just to see what comes out of pen when I set it to my tablet.

I did investigate art licensing at one point because I kept getting companies approaching me about using some of my drawings for money (and it’s so hard to turn down money, especially for drawings I’ve already completed), and after attending an art licensing panel at a SCBWI Illustration Intensive. I even started an Art Licensing Blog at one point.

BUT after doing some research, I realized that in order to be successful at art licensing, I’d need to invest a big chunk of time and effort in setting up an art licensing portfolio, promotion and marketing, and networking in that industry. I decided that I’d rather put that time and focus into writing and illustrating more book projects for young people instead: picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels and YA.

Q: When illustrating children’s books do you include a visual storyline not mentioned by the text or include animals or people you know?

A: I try to include something in the art that enhances the story somehow even if it’s not referenced directly by the text. I especially had fun with this while working on I’m Bored, and Michael’s text left a lot of room for the illustrator.

Q: Can you explain your art process? (please include a URL link to any visuals you may have on a blog or web site)

A: I know many illustrators who work digitally start with a pencil sketch, then scan it and work from there. I start with a blank digital canvas in Photoshop, then do a very rough sketch on a separate layer, then the ink line art, then color and sometimes texture. I tend to work with a lot of layers.

You can see a more detailed description of the process I went through for one illustration (rough sketch to finals) for I’m Bored:

Q: Do you have a favorite color or palette?

A: My favorite color is red, especially if it’s a stark contrast to everything around it.

I don’t really have a favorite palette. I find it depends heavily on what I’m illustrating.

Q: What is your favorite medium to work in? Have you always worked in this media? If not, why did you switch?

A: My favorite medium has always been digital.

I occasional try different physical art media like acrylics or pastels or watercolor, but digital feels the most natural to me…probably because I was using digital when I began taking my illustration more seriously.

Main reason I started using digital tools for my art in the first place: I used to have a very tiny office with zero air circulation, and I didn’t have the space for many physical art supplies.

Not having had formal art training, I never learned how to properly use real-life art media. I did buy some student-grade acrylics a while back and dabble a bit, but I still don’t really know what I’m doing.

I’m also so aware of the costs — if I screw up an illustration on my computer, it’s no big deal. I can undo mistakes and remove layers, or just delete the file and start again. With a physical canvas and paints, I don’t have nearly as much experience and am much more aware that if I totally mess up, then I have to throw out expensive art materials.

Q: Do you use models/source pictures or do you draw from your memory/imagination?

A: In preparation for drawing character sketches of the snarky potato in I’m Bored, I bought a bunch of different types of potatoes to examine. But then I ate them.

Seriously, though, I didn’t really use real-life models for I’m Bored.

For the book I’m writing and illustrating for Simon & Schuster BFYR, however, I’m doing a lot more character sketching from life ahead of time. The main character is loosely based on one of my young nephews, so I’ve been taking a lot of photos of him in all kinds of poses. He’s growing up so quickly, though! I may need to find another little boy to use as a model before long.

Q: If you could be anything other than an artist, what would you be?

A: I currently consider myself both an artist and a writer, and I am more than content.

If you’re asking me what other career I might have chosen, and if I had to choose one NOT related to illustration and writing…hm, let’s see. I’d have to say musician. I love making music with other people, and have been writing music for and performing with Urban Tapestry for ages.

I’ve also done some informal session work as a flautist on friends’ albums. Examples of where you can hear my flute:

Alien Jellyfish track on ALIEN SALAD ABDUCTION with Chris Conway (UK musician)

Still Can’t Buy Me Love track on LESS THAN ART with Ookla The Mok (Buffalo area nerd rock band)

Dorothy track on STARS FALL HOME with Seanan McGuire (California sf/fantasy writer)

Q: What gets you through an illustration when you’re stuck for inspiration?

A: A long walk. I do this for when I’m stuck in my writing as well.

I used to always listen to audiobooks or music while I was walking. Now I usually just enjoy the quiet, observing what’s going on around me and just letting in whatever random thoughts and images bubble up through my subconscious.

I find that sometimes the best way to sort through a tough creative problem is to NOT think about it for a while.

Another solution that works for me: I call my sister, who has illustrated over 50 books for young people (some of which she has also written) – http://RuthOhi.com.

Q: What book do you remember from when you were young?

A: Some of my favorites, off the top of my head:

Q: Is there a children’s book illustrator whose work you gravitate towards in the bookstore now?

A: Hard question — I’m attracted to different types of illustrators and illustrations for a wide range of reasons, including

  1. because I know them personally and want to see what they’re up to,
  2. because their illustration style is like mine but better,
  3. because their illustration style isn’t like mine but I love how they bring the story to life.

The one illustrator I always check out every time I visit a children’s bookstore: my sister’s work.


Q: If you could illustrate any writer’s new work, who would it be?

A: This is such a hard question! I’d love to illustrate any other picture books written by Michael Ian Black, of course — I had such fun with I’m Bored.

Overall, though, it depends heavily on the story. If the story appeals to me and I can tell it would fun to illustrate, that’s a more important factor to me than whether I’m familiar with the author.

I’d love to try illustrating a book that is a bit more quirky, odd or dark than the average picture book. I’d also love to do b&w illustrations for a chapter book or middle grade novel someday.

Thanks for visiting, Debbie. Good luck with I’m Bored. You’re an inspiration for all you accomplished so far.

13 thoughts on “Interview with Children’s Book Author/Illustrator – Debbie Ridpath Ohi”

  1. This is such a great interview, I just had to comment. Every interview I read with Debbie adds more to my understanding of the picture book process as well as to my knowledge of Debbie and her wonderfully creative self!

    Thank you, Wendy, for interviewing Debbie today. But don’t enter me in the draw – I already have a copy of I’M BORED, so someone else should get a chance at it. It is a WONDERFUL picture book.

  2. Thank you for this interview — Debbie’s path is such an inspiration to all of us behind her on the path to publication. She’s a really great person, too!

  3. Great questions, thoughtful answers. Inspiring energy and a good angle for when you’re stuck, especially the reminder to get out and observe… absorb… let things bubble though that experience. I’m off to give it a try.

  4. Wonderful interview, Debbie! I’ve been such a fan of your work for a long time (seriously, you have made POTATOES adorable!), and the story of your journey to publication is so inspiring. In this piece, I especially enjoyed hearing about the process of creating in photoshop. I had no idea what it took to make those woodcut lines. Looking forward to seeing the evolution of all your new projects!

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