Why This Illustrator Makes Her Own Tools

Why This Illustrator Makes Her Own Tools

An interview with picture book author and illustrator Cindy Derby
Shauna Carey
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I have been stalking illustrator Cindy Derby’s work on Instagram for longer than I care to admit. She creates worlds for children’s books, but her unique characters and experimental style capture the imagination of adults just as easily. For this installment of our Creative Crush series, I set out to learn more about Derby and her process.

In one sentence, who are you?

Cindy [sin-dee]: a quirky, creatively neurotic, unapologetic creature who has paintbrushes for fingers and toes—with a laugh that rumbles the ground.

What do you do? How did you get into it?

I am a picture book author and illustrator. Ever since I was a little, I had narratives running through my head for just about anything. My path as a teenager led me to theater and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where I got involved in puppetry—building puppets and touring my own one-woman shows. In the back of my mind was a dream I couldn’t let go of: I wanted to write and illustrate children’s picture books.

After I moved back to California, I began painting with acrylic on gigantic canvases, but eventually transitioned to working a bit smaller. That’s when I discovered the unpredictable beauty of using watercolor and ink. From there, I spent years diligently working on my illustration skills and developing characters, and I have been working on my craft of storytelling ever since.

As an adult, picture books are a way to collaborate with my little self. And together, we create weird books for weird kids. My debut book as an author and illustrator is How to Walk an Ant (Roaring Brook Press, 2019).

Boy and Boat

What are your three most beloved possessions?

1) A tiny armadillo sculpture with a broken tail

2) A collection of letters from my grandmother

3) An embarrassing diary from my middle school years—with creepy drawings of all my crushes

What are your favorite tools of the trade?

I make my own paint brushes. I pluck the hairs out of old, scraggly brushes and bind them together to create new brushes. I also use sticks, wires, and clay shapers when I paint. They make imperfect, expressive lines. And I like that.

Forest Red

What does a typical work session look like?

Before I begin any work, I obsessively wipe down all surfaces, organize my materials, and even make my bed. This helps my mind become a blank canvas. This also helps me rediscover things in my studio I may have forgotten about—like that piece of Styrofoam pool noodle I cut out into shapes to make stamps, or that tiny drawing of a bug with a coy expression.

When I finally sit down at my art table, I start by making some spots on paper. The result is not supposed to be good, nor do I want it to look like anything. This is just a way to warm up my hand. It also helps to whisper: “Good morning, hand...Good morning, brush...Good morning, inkblot!”

After a healthy session of experimenting, I transition into working on one of my current picture book projects, which involves a happy balance of planning and spontaneity.

Girl on Red Boat

How do you get over creative block?

I intentionally make very ugly art for a few days. That means putting wrong colors together until they are muddied, ripping up paper to make monsters, and pouring a whole bottle of black ink on top of a pretty landscape. Afterwards, I eat too much chocolate and melt into the floor. If I can make myself laugh—really, truly have a good ol’ laugh at myself—that block will get smaller.

How do you see the world in 2078?

If a drone can deliver a rainbow sprinkled donut to me while I’m lying on my death bed...I’m happy.

What’s your number one bucket list item?

I would like to retrace the steps that my late grandmother Marian Mountain took on her journey while creating her book The Zen Environment: The Impact of Zen Meditation. She had a fascinating life. She was a student of Shunryū Suzuki for many years, and helped record and transcribe all his lectures.

She traveled around in a RV with her typewriter most of her life. And she used to be a puppeteer! Before she died, she was working on a follow-up book titled Snail Zen. I’d like to help complete that book.

I Carry You to Sleepy

Who are you creative crushin’ on lately?

Leonard Baskin. I recently discovered his work while doing research at The Letterform Archive in San Francisco. His lines are haunting, expressive, and honest.

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Shauna Carey
Shauna Carey is a writer and Managing Director at IDEO.org who’s passionate about the power of great stories to inspire social change. A proud California native, Shauna’s currently based in New York, where she’s most often found fighting off jet lag with a strong cup of coffee in hand.
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