One Visit Over Coffee with Maria van Lieshout

h1 May 7th, 2009 by jules

You guys, yesterday’s birthday wishes were so, so kind. How can a girl get so lucky to have such friends — and a blog partner-in-crime who will get Barry Manilow to sing to her?

Anyway, thanks again, and onwards and upwards…

Ah, just look at that watercolor creation. This comes from author/illustrator Maria van Lieshout, and it’s a sneak-peek from one of her upcoming titles, Sleep, Baby, Sleep, to be published by Philomel in October of this year, and written by Maryann Cusimano Love. Here’s another sneak-peek:

I’ve posted before about one of Maria’s books — back in February of last year after the 2007 release of Bloom! Somehow I missed Splash! (2008), the second title in this series of hers from Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan — these compact, sparsely-illustrated, small-format titles about…well, they all seem to be about life’s extreme highs (post-lows) in one way or another. With subtitles like A Little Book About Finding Love and A Little Book About Bouncing Back, you can see what I mean.

From Bloom!: “But the flying flower twirled away. Higher and higher.
‘Hey, come back! Don’t leave me down here!'”

Illustration from Splash!

I enjoyed the latest title, Peep!: A Little Book About Taking a Leap (March 2009), and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to ask Maria to stop by for a while and talk a bit about her work. But, even if I had forgotten, my five-year-old’s very loud hoots over the book and her repeat—and, boy howdy, do I mean REPEAT—readings of the title would have jogged my memory anyway. I haven’t had a chance to test this title, so to speak, on a big group of kids in, say, a story time, but my own preschooler found it pretty much hysterical. Or, as Julie Just in the New York Times writes, “the wit of the drawings…makes the book very appealing.” Yeah, when Peep, our tiny chick protagonist is screaming in frustration and there’s a huge blob of angry yellow scribblings over him, on the generously white backdrop of his world, I’d say the wit of the drawings is what makes a five-year-old hoot and holler and hee-haw laugh.

Maria’s artistic style—at least in her books thus far (you never know what an illustrator will try next)—quite distinctly falls into the less-is-more category. As Betsy Bird put it in her 2008 review of Bloom!, calling it a “finely-honed” book that “packs a wallop with apparent ease”…

This book is all thin black lines and understated swoops of the pen. Van Lieshout then combines pen-and-inks, watercolors, and crayons at strategic points. The result is sometimes very spare and often quite striking.

Not surprisingly, since this is the third title in this series, Peep! is very similar: Minimalist art work (pencil, ink, and watercolor, with a bit of help from the computer) and a very concise text that merge in such a way—probably in large part thanks to the design work of Molly Leach—to make it all look much easier than it actually was, I’m sure, to create. Deceptively simple, as they say. And all told from a perspective—and herein lies the primary appeal—similar to a child’s (which means wide-eyed, innocent, and emotionally volatile — with a dollop of unabashed bravery).


I welcome Maria this morning with a pipin’ hot cup of coffee. I asked her to tell us a bit more about her work, and she shared lots of art work, including more sneak-peek art, so let’s get right to it…

* * * * * * *

When I illustrate, I try to capture energy and emotion. This also dictates my choice of media. I use a mix of watercolor, ink, pencil, crayon, computer and collage. I find myself using watercolor often, because I am drawn to the imperfect, whimsical, unexpected nature of it. It’s often the accidents/splashes/spills/drips that help me achieve the feeling I’m after.

But when I can’t achieve a particular feeling, I try different media. When creating Bloom, I wanted to capture her frustration, and watercolor felt too soft and elegant, so I reached for colored pencil, which I scribbled like a kid. That did the job.

From Bloom!: “‘No thanks,’ said Bloom. ‘I’m not in the mood for puddles.’
She felt like dancing and singing.”

From Peep!: “tic-toc-tic-toc-tic-toc-tic-toc-tic-toc…”

I am currently working on Hopper & Wilson {to be published by Philomel in Summer 2010}. In this book, two friends journey in a little boat to search for the end of the world. I wanted to accentuate the fragile position they are in, bobbing in their tiny boat somewhere on the large angry ocean, so I decided to use collage. The newspaper boat felt quite vulnerable in the large watercolor sea. Watercolor is a wet medium, and newspaper is a dry medium. The tension between the two is heightened, because we all know what happens when newspapers get wet; the two do not go together well.

I was born and grew up in Holland. I came to the U.S. in 1997, and shortly after arriving, I came across the picture book The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. That book rocked my world. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen! To me, it belonged in a museum. It helped me realize what an extraordinary art form picture books are. And it sparked my dream of creating picture books one day.

Imagine how I felt seven years later when I showed the idea for the little book series to my agent, and he suggested we send them to Molly Leach, the book designer behind The Stinky Cheese Man (and a slew of other insanely well-designed books) to see if she wanted to help me design them. Molly agreed to give shape to the little book series, and I am so proud of what she has done. As I try to capture energy and emotion in my work, she was able to use typography to communicate energy and emotion, too.

And the fact that she designed The Stinky Cheese Man, which has played such a crucial role in my decision to pursue this in the first place, makes it all extra sweet!

Thanks again to Maria for stopping by; I especially love it when visitors remark on what an “extraordinary art form” the picture book is. Durn skippy, I say.

* * * * * * *

All images, with the exception of the book covers, are © Maria van Lieshout and used with her permission. All rights reserved.

7 comments to “One Visit Over Coffee with Maria van Lieshout”

  1. I love the smudges of color that accompany the sketches; it gives them such a feeling of movement. These books are full of heart.

  2. Watercolor is such a difficult medium, an Maria is a master. I’ve loved all her books, and PEEP is the best of the lot. The ending is a hoot.

  3. Hurray for Peep!

  4. Beautiful work, Maria~I love the energy in your line and wash! And I look forward to reading Peep!

  5. Beautiful , delicate yet hearty work! Looking forward to the newest Maria creations.

  6. wow! thank you so much for introducing me to maria’s work. i love it. it’s so spare and delicate and wild yet precise. i can’t wait to see more when i’m back in the states. super.

  7. […] some technology to pull it all together,” it seems to be primarily watercolors. When Maria visited 7-Imp in 2009, she talked about working on this book, writing: In this book, two friends journey in a little boat […]

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