Rocking and rolling with picture book artist Carolyn Dee Flores

Picture book artist Carolyn Dee FloresPicture book artist Carolyn Dee Flores hails from San Antonio, Texas. She illustrated the picture book Canta, Rana, canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing (Piñata/Arte Público Press) and the YA biography Daughters of Two Nations (Fall 2013 – Mountain Press) written by Peggy Caravantes. She is currently illustrating her third book, Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers, written by Rene Saldaña Jr. due out in 2014. Some of Carolyn’s original artwork may be found in the Permanent Collection of the Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books, and at the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.

WMI: When did you get started illustrating for children? What did you do before?
Carolyn Flores: I worked as a computer/programmer analyst after college, but mainly I played professionally in a rock band – first as a musician and a performer, later as a composer and producer. I did that until 2000, working as a composer writing soundtracks for small independent films, some T.V., educational films, and later commercials.

I also worked as a painter – large murals, portraits, and abstract expressionist pieces in oil. The largest piece I did was 40 feet by 25 feet. Then, I switched over to children’s illustration about five years ago.

picture book artist Carolyn Dee FloresWMI: Your newest book “Canta, Rana, Canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing a retelling of a traditional folk song came out in May 2013. What is it about?

Carolyn Flores: “Canta, Rana, canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing” is a cumulative story based on a traditional Mexican children’s song about an underwater singing frog who is “shh”ed by a fly so that the fly can sing, who is in turn “shh”ed by a spider, and so on and so on … until it gets to a baby, mother, father, and grandmother. The song is hilarious. I have a link to it under “Froggie Links” on my website.

WMI: What did you like best about working on this book?

Carolyn Flores: Since it was my very first book – of course, I liked everything – the whole process – from concept piece, to black and whites, to revisions, to final art. I think what I liked best, though, was the way the frog came to life and then took off on its own. I felt like I was a spectator – albeit a very involved one, watching it evolve into something much bigger than what I had envisioned. My publisher Arte Público had a lot to do with that. They did a wonderful job!

WMI I understand you were working on a non-fiction biography book around the same time. What is that book called?

 picture book artist Carolyn Dee Flores

Carolyn Flores:  “Daughters of Two Nations” written by Peggy Caravantes and published by Mountain Press. It is a YA biography about nine different Native American women who were just amazing warriors, and ballerinas, and writers and leaders. I loved working on that book. It will be out this Fall.

WMI: Was it difficult juggling multiple projects with similar deadlines?

Carolyn Flores: It is crazy hard! I’m not complaining though. There is nothing I would rather do.

WMI: I understand Canta, Rana, Canta received several honors shortly after publication. What were they?

Carolyn Flores:

  1. The Mazza Museum: International Art For Picture Books has added two pieces of original Prismacolor artwork from the “Canta, Rana, canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing” book to their permanent collection.
  2. The Arne Nixon Center For the Study of Children’s Literature in Fresno, California has also added an original piece of artwork from the book, as well as the original watercolor Frog Concept piece, and various notes to their collection.
  3. “Canta, Rana, canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing” has been #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases Multicultural Children’s Books List a number of times in the past two months.
  4. At the Official Barnes & Noble Book Launch here in San Antonio, Texas – we sold over a hundred books!
  5. The ABFFE (American Booksellers Foundation For Freedom of Expression) asked if I would donate a piece of original artwork from the book for their annual art auction at the Book Expo in New York City – which I did! I felt very honored to have been asked.
  6. “Canta, Rana, canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing” just made the Mamiverse Recommended Summer Reading List for Picture Books. Yay! When I saw the other books on the list – I could not believe it! Awesome.
  7. Cecilia Horn and Terri Diebel – librarians from The Kenton County Public Library in Kentucky – will be doing a presentation “Connections: Literature and Art Beyond The Line” at the Mazza Museum in Findlay, Ohio on July 15,2013, featuring picture book artists and various mediums, including a table devoted to the Prismacolor colored pencil technique in “Canta, Rana, canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing.” I am very proud of that. I sent them a whole bunch of used pencils from the book, along with a big sheet of mounted Grafix film!

WMI: What other illustration projects have you worked on?

Carolyn Flores: Illustrations – a few. Paintings – hundreds.

picture book artist Carolyn Dee FloresWMI: What are you working on right now? Do you have any other art projects you’d like to talk about?

Carolyn Flores: I am currently illustrating my third book – a counting picture book titled “Dale, Dale, Dale/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It” about a boy’s birthday party and his piñata, written by Rene Saldaña Jr. I cannot believe how much fun I have been having with it!

WMI: 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?

Carolyn Flores: A few years back I curated an Art Show at the “Central Cultural Aztlan Art Gallery in San Antonio, Texas called “The Three Carolinas” because all three artists were named “Carolyn Flores.” There was world renowned artist “Carolina Flores,” who we were very lucky to get – then me, “Carolyn Dee Flores”, and also “Carolyn A. Flores” – who is a wonderful young painter from New Mexico.

Each of us had to do a new self-portrait for the show. I did an oil painting of myself in black and white, surrounded in color by paint brushes and my bass guitar. That sums up my life. I love what I do!

WMI: Can you explain your art process?

Carolyn Flores: I think a major part of the illustration process is listening. When I get a manuscript, I read it over and over out loud at least 30 times before I ever start on a concept. The book will tell you what it wants to be! Then I do very scribbly-scrabbly, B/W thumbnails to get a starting point – work loosely on design – value studies, pacing, and tons and tons of character sketches.

picture book artist Carolyn Dee Florespicture book artist Carolyn Dee Flores

For me the beginning stages are agony. I draw each spread many, many times before I ever start with models. It’s necessary, but here’s the thing. Once I start taking pictures of real people – everything changes. I have never had an original piece end up in the book. The energy you see in real life – especially with kids – is so awesome – you want that in your artwork.

Then, finally, rendering the colored artwork is the icing on the cake! I love it. Rendering final art is the reward you get for doing all that hard work in the beginning.

I document a lot on my website and  blog: www.carolynflores.com

WMI: Are you a full-time artist? What is your typical day like?

Carolyn Flores: Yes, full-time. I usually have 12-16 hour long sessions and work a lot at night. When I am on deadline, I do nothing else. I wake up, have breakfast, check my email, and then go straight to work. It’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work! I have a very organized studio. Also, every project I do has a Playlist or TV series associated with it. For instance, throughout the “Froggie” book, I listened to “Star Trek Next Generation” episodes on Netflix while I worked. It’s probably Pavlovian, but every time I hear Patrick Stewart talk, I go straight to my desk and start drawing.

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

Carolyn Flores: I use ONLY Prismacolor colored pencil for illustration. It’s like my second skin. I was an oil painter, and it’s not usually practical for illustration.  Martha Rago, senior art director at Harper-Collins – did a portfolio review of my work at an SCBWI conference in LA two years ago, and suggested I use Prismacolor pencils to inject more color into my work. I took her advice and I couldn’t believe how well it worked! Prismacolor transmits light. It’s perfect for scanning. It makes sense to me. I’m obsessed.

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

Carolyn Flores: I use models. It’s impossible to do the type of artwork I do (which is a really saturated reality) without reference. My favorite thing to do is see something in someone I think is cool – and then really emphasize it in the artwork.

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

Carolyn Flores: Reading.

WMI: What one piece of advice would you share with an illustrator wanting to get into kid lit?

Carolyn Flores: Take criticism well. Seek it out if you have to – and don’t take it personally. If you have a dummy or concept piece you’re working on, go to a conference, sign up for a portfolio review, and then ask them to look at your dummy or sketch book instead. Listen. Don’t expect compliments.

Some people are close to doing something great and don’t even know it, because they lack self-confidence. They want someone to tell them, “Here, this is your next step.” It doesn’t work that way. There is not a single person in this business who has done well, by doing what someone else told them to do. You have to find your own path. But, if you can get good advice – use it.  It puts things into perspective. Then, on your own, you WILL HIT that “aha” moment, and everything will fall into place. Too many people expect someone to come along and “discover” them. You need to “discover” yourself.

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

Carolyn Flores: “Johnny Tremain”  – and “Homer Price” because of Robert McCloskey’s illustrations.

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

Carolyn Flores: There are so many awe-inspiring giants in our industry! Right now I am really into the work of Pat Cummings. Her design is impeccable! I love the way she captures people!  I even made my own Pat Cummings calendar, so I can look up at her artwork while I’m working.

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

Carolyn Flores: The obvious answer is my mother, of course – author Lupe Ruiz-Flores. We’ve never worked together – but she has this really cool idea about a dyslexic rock-n-roll Pinto horse obsessed with learning, that I would love to draw! Two years after she wrote it, someone pointed out that he thought the Pinto horse was based on me!  (I’m dyslexic.) I called my mother up and asked her, and she said “You didn’t know that?” Don’t know how I missed that. 🙂

There are many, many other people I would love to work with, as well, including many close and very talented friends. Maybe one day! *fingers crossed*

6 thoughts on “Rocking and rolling with picture book artist Carolyn Dee Flores”

  1. I like very much that you work with primacolor pencil. With just my little 24 pencil box from Walmart, I also have been “at home” with that medium. I trust it since childhood. I love what you do and your advice based on experience “don’t wait to be discover, discover yourself”. I am totally agree with that. The industry seems like a big monster to me anyway.

  2. Thank you for the inspiration, I love how you’ve linked music/sound tracks to working, I will try that too. I also love prismacolor pencils. Best wishes. Monica

  3. Great interview. Love the way your art partners so well with words to bring children immediately into the story. Looking forward to the next book.

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