Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jen Corace

h1 December 2nd, 2014 by jules


Illustrator Jen Corace is visiting 7-Imp this morning. Turns out that she takes breakfast pretty seriously, because when I asked about her breakfast-of-choice, she said: “Oh, man. I love breakfast so much. Pretty much all of it’s ‘of-choice.’ At home, what I like most is something called a taco sundae. It’s a crisped-up corn tortilla, refried beans, sautéed kale, and a split, soft-boiled egg on top with hot sauce. Not-at-home I like having someone to go split-sies with — half-savory, half-sweet. I never want a full stack of pancakes or a whole waffle. I want just a bit, and I want that just-a-bit to mix and match with some polenta or over-medium eggs or just-right home fries. So yeah. I love breakfast.”

I actually really love breakfast, too, so let’s do this.

Jen, as you’ll see below, has illustrated a handful of picture books since 2005. (It occurred to me while working on this interview that her children’s book illustration has been around about just as long as I’ve been blogging, yet I had thought her career had started sooner.) I always like to see what Jen will do next. She’s capable of over-the-top fun (see her illustrations for Mac Barnett’s Telephone, which came out this Fall) and dark (Cynthia Rylant’s Hansel and Gretel from 2008), and she has a style all her own. It has an inherent quirkiness I like, though “quirky” is so overused in children’s literature. I may be able to find a better word after we have our coffee.

Here is our taco sundae for breakfast:

Yum. I wish these interviews were real and in-person. Why can’t I do like Seinfeld and drive around and pick up picture-book creators for coffee?

Anyway. Enjoy the chat! Jen sent lots and lots of art.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Jen: I’m an Illustrator with Author aspirations. I still love working on manuscripts written by other people. I hope to keep doing that well into the future. But I have a few ideas of my own. They’ve been sitting patiently in the back of my brain, waiting for me to finish work on two solo shows. Once I’m past the solo show work, I can start figuring out how I write.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?


Jules: What is your usual medium?

Jen: I use a mix of ink, watercolor, gouache, and pencil, either on Saunders Waterford paper or Rives BFK.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Jen: Providence, RI! I love it here. Love it. You can’t swing a dead quahog around these parts and not hit the ocean. It also has an amazing community. I’ve found my family here, and they’re the smartest, funniest, most caring bunch of sass mouths I’ve ever known. They’re my people. Also, Rhode Island does fall right. It’s my season.

Pictured below: Early sketches and watercolors for Mac Barnett’s
Telephone (Chronicle, September 2014):

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Final art (without text) from Telephone:

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“Tell Peter: Fly home for dinner.”
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“Tell Peter: Something smells like fire!”
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Final endpapers
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Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?

Jen: It wasn’t until I was 27 that I decided to become serious about illustration as a career. I had done work here and there for friends, band work, an odd magazine piece here and there, side jobs for Anthropologie, but it was landing the cover for The Portland Mercury that made it all click for me.

I moved back to Providence. The cost of living is lower, my people were here, and Providence has an amazing artists’ community that I thought would be more supportive of my new-found focus. I did all the things — set up an online portfolio, regularly updated my online portflio with new work, sent out promotional postcards and packets, and waited. And waited. And waited. Annnnnnd waited — maybe two or three years.

By the time I was contacted by Chronicle to work on [Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s] Little Pea, I had already established myself in the DIY/illustrator-as-gallery-artist world. [See some gallery work pictured below.] It was an interesting exercise pulling back from the more fine art style I had established to retool it a bit to make it more flexible for children’s work.

And then the whole, organic snowball took off. I was offered Little Hoot [pictured below]; Steven Malk, who mostly knew my gallery work, stepped on board as my agent; and my whole world has opened up.

Pictured above: Color test and illustration from Little Pea (Chronicle, 2005)
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Pictured above: Sketches and art from Little Hoot (Chronicle, 2007)
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Pictured above: Sketches and art from Little Oink (Chronicle, 2009)
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Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


Early sketches from Cynthia Rylant’s
Hansel and Gretel (Hyperion, 2008)
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Final art from Hansel and Gretel
(you can click most to enlarge; see more art here in this 2008 post)

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Jen: The school visits I do fall into two age groups — young, elementary school-type kids and art school, college-aged kids.

Elementary school visits for me involve reading books and then a drawing activity related to the book I’ve read in class. I’m not very performative, so it’s a real casual affair. I like hanging and drawing with kids.

For art school visits, it’s usually more career-oriented. I present my work and talk about my history, the hows and whys and what-fors. I try to have my lecture be more question/answer-based, because I want to know what they want to know, and I also want to provide an opportunity for the students to ask any questions they want. I let them know ahead of time that I’m an open book. Usually, these visits also involve me critiquing their class work at the end. I love critique sessions. It involves a specific language about how to talk about work being successful or not, according to specific parameters.

Cover sketches and final cover art for Cynthia Rylant’s
The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Abrams, 2013)
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Sketches and art from The Steadfast Tin Soldier
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Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Jen: Currently, I don’t have any titles or manuscripts that I am working on now, but I’ve got projects-a-plenty right now.

For the past year, I have been pulling together work for two solo shows that are running back to back. Without opened on September 11th at Land Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Within opened on October 11th at Art Star Gallery in Philadelphia. One month apart, very much back to back.

Ultimately, the two shows work together as one large body of work. I wanted to explore the ideas of community and how one relates to nature as an indoor creature vs. an outdoor creature. There’s also good doses of girl gangs, occult activities, and lite witchery mixed in.

Sketches and art from Deborah Hopkinson’s
The Humblebee Hunter (Disney-Hyperion, 2010)
(Click all but cover to enlarge)

This past year I worked on a card game with my brother, Jason, called Lords & Ladies [pictured below]. The object is to create the greatest family legacy according to Edwardian society standards, while avoiding the backstabbing and gossip from other familes seeking the same status. Once both solo shows are put to bed, Jason and I will start working on a second game. I don’t want to talk too much about it at its infant planning state, but I will say that I am looking forward to all of the research and reference material-mining ahead of me.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got more coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Jen again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Jen: When I get a new manuscript. I print it out immediately. I tend to skim reading material on a computer screen and need a hard copy to stare at, bring around with me, make notes, make doodles, that sort of thing. I sometimes use a pagination grid to break up text and images in a way that fits in the book and makes for proper pacing. But mostly, I just make page notes on the printed-out manuscript and write little bits of notes about what I’m thinking about doing for each spread.

Paginations from Cynthia Rylant’s
Hansel and Gretel
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I’ll push those ideas around for awhile, and then it’s time for the most important phase in anything that I do — staring and thinking. Sometimes I stare and think while sitting. Most of the time I lie on the floor to do my staring and thinking. No music on, just the ambient sound of my house in this neighborhood. I hold the project loosely in my head and let my brain work around it. Nine times out of ten it gives me a good foothold of where to start and to see how the overall book is going to play out.

A basic sketch
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Color sketch
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And then I just jump in. In about three rounds of sketches, involving back and forth with my art director and editor, I’m ready to start final art. Generally, I know everything that is supposed to happen—the color, the composition, the flow—which is great. It feels solid and makes for steadfast confidence in producing the final art. But there’s always a little wiggle room for invention or spontaneity, and those are the secret sweet spots of working on a book — or any piece of art for that matter.

Examples of initial sketches
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2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Jen: My studio is a sunny, oddly-proportioned room on the second floor of my house. It has pine board floors, sadly inoffensive wallpaper, and when I look out the windows, I get to stare at a house that’s painted the best shade of pink. It looks great as the sun starts to go down.

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I have a lot of surfaces in my studio. I love horizontal surfaces — for paper, for paint, for bottles of ink, for sketchbooks and reference books and scrap paper, pencils, lists, cutting mats, containers full of paintbrushes, random craft projects, cups of coffee, a late night Manhattan, and on and on an on. My desk is a split top. Two thirds of the work surface bevels, which is useful when I am working with watercolors. To the left is a taboret, where I keep on top reference books relevant to the project at hand. The drawers of the taboret are essentially art supply casseroles. Some might call them junk drawers. To the right of my desk is a large, vintage card table, where I try to keep an organized selection of inks and paint. My growing collection of ceramic mixing pallets lives there as well.

On the wall directly in front of my desk and on the ceiling that juts out above, I keep a changing menagerie of reference and inspirational images that speak to the work at hand. It’s helpful for me to casually absorb these images as I work.

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Outside of the desk hub, there is a ’60s-ish-style bookshelf I found in the park one day. It houses reference books, old sketchbooks, and my copies of books that I work on. I have a double stacked flat file system. The top half, for the most part, houses blank paper and wood panels for woodprinting. The bottom half contains finished artwork. None of it is particularly well-organized.

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3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Jen: As my youngest reading self, I Know An Old Lady [pictured below], illustrated by Abner Graboff, ate up my brain. I loved it. All of it. The colors are amazing; the shapes are bonkers; and the “I guess she’ll die” spread was a wallpaper for my laptop for a long, long time.

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[Ed. Note: This cover of the book, you may have noticed, has Lane Smith’s name on it. That’s because I got the image from the wonderful blog about subversive books
that he once ran with Bob Shea.]


After that, I was obsessed with the Ramona Quimby series. Whatta scamp. As a pre-teen/teen reader, I loved the Hitchhiker series, anything Vonnegut, and I was definitely part of the dark circle circulating all of the V.C. Andrews novels.

Sketches and art from Rose A. Lewis’ Sweet Dreams (Abrams, 2012)
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4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Jen: Ohhh … let’s see. Maira Kalman, because … c’mon. How is that not going to rule?

Hori Narumi. I know little to nothing about her, but she is capable of creating beautiful, minimal illustrations, as well as edge-to-edge-chock-full-of-girls-and-botanicals paintings.

The third would be Tomi Ungerer, because he’d keep it dialed in with his insight and way of speaking about things. Also, we’d skip the coffee and the wine. I’d be making everyone a Manhattan.

Sketches and art from Randall de Sève’s
Mathilda and the Orange Balloon (Balzer + Bray, 2010)
(Click all but the first two and the cover to enlarge)

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Jen: My media schedule while working is currently this:

I listen to music when I am trying to figure something out, trying to find my path in a book. So, that includes pacing, character design, composition, and color palette — anything that requires quiet concentration. Music gets me into that space. I listen to Antony and the Johnsons, Angel Olsen, Sam Cooke, and Future Islands a lot right now.

I listen to podcasts or audio books when I’m working on repeat patterns or any repetitive work. Because it’s more of an automatic movement for me, it frees up my brain to be able to listen to stories. Right now my favorite podcast is The Hearty White Miracle Nutrition. I don’t have an audio book that I am listening to right now, but the last one I listened to was Stealing God’s Thunder by Philip Dray. It’s about Benjamin Franklin, who is my favorite get-yer-freak-on smarty pants.

And then when everything is sort of set—the major bones and structure of a piece is down, and the more nebulous aspects of the composition or color have been solved—I can go on autopilot, and I binge listen to bad TV. Right now I have five and a half seasons of Millionaire Matchmaker under my belt. I might be experiencing some Stockholm Syndrome with Millionaire Matchmaker at this point, because when it works out for the far-and-few-between sweet couples, I tear up a bit.

Sketches and art from Jill Esbaum’s I Hatched! (Dial, January 2014)
(Click all but cover to enlarge)

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Jen: I tried out to be a cheerleader in the first grade because I really, really, really wanted the skirt. But, as I was a real shy, introverted, self-conscious, four-eyes, that didn’t go so well.

Sketch and art from Leslie Muir’s
Gibbus Moony Wants to Bite You (Atheneum, 2011)



Sketches and images from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s
This Plus That (HarperCollins, 2011)
(you can click most to enlarge)

7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Jen: What’s your favorite nickname?

“Wildfire.” I gave it to myself, after the song “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphey. It was a song that I listened to a lot while falling asleep when I was a wee me. It gave me a dark anxiety that I loved.


* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Jen: “Shenanigans.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Jen: “Moist.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Jen: Gardening, ocean-swimming, soaking in a bathtub, paying attention to atmospheric light.

Jules: What turns you off?

Jen: Adam Levine.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Jen: Any variation of “fuck.” “Fucker,” “fuck face,” “fuckity fuck fuck,” pronouncing “fuck” like faaaaaahhhhhhck.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Jen: The click/clack sound of rocks getting pulled back by the tide.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Jen: Providence’s new, clanky garbage trucks.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Jen: Something in marine biology. Years ago, I looked into going back to school for it. That or bartending. Something with liquids. I guess that’s what that all comes down to.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Jen: Astronaut. Horizonless spaces make me nauseous.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Jen: “High fives, Corace!”


All images are used by permission of Jen Corace.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, copyright © 2009 Matt Phelan.

12 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jen Corace”

  1. Wonderful interview! Always nice when personal faves, likes, dislikes match up with someone whose work I really admire. Jen has an amazing sensibility for line and spacial relationships, the weight of darks in composition – brilliant! Thanks forinviting her ’round, and I’d like to pre-order the games, please!

  2. That Edwardian card game sounds like a hoot. I LOVE this illustrator’s style – love that she has so many moods and styles. I could frame those watercolored illustrations from TELEPHONE – and I love the leaves and bees… *happy sigh* A good start to the day, this art.

  3. Lovely interview with such a fun, talented lady.

  4. What a great interview! Loved seeing the process and the beautiful illustrations. So inspiring!

  5. Gorgeous art.
    –And YES can you come pick us up in a vintage car and get coffee and breakfast sundaes –that looks delicious and it would be loads of fun!

  6. So much beauty and variety in this work!
    And I can’t wait for the card game.

  7. Thank you Jules and Jen – such a rich interview – and wonderful, wonderful art!

  8. Love, LOVE all the art. And the interview. And the ART. Magnificent. Jules, your blog is a national treasure.

  9. Adam Levine – bwahahaha! My love of this talented illustrator just moved to the unhealthy level.

  10. I LOVE Jen Corace, I have several of her pieces. I do hope they corrected “Chauffer” before those games were produced!

  11. Swoon-worthy, gorgeous work! Also, those breakfast sundaes look mighty tasty. Such a terrific interview.

  12. […] Roberts, Quentin Blake, Maira Kalman, Arthur Geisert, Marla Frazee, Maurice Sendak, Istvan Banyai, Jen Corace, Jon Agee, Jordan Crane, Lane Smith, Sophie Blackall, Tomi Ungerer, Christian Robinson, Erin Stead, […]

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