Author Interview: Melissa Sweet

Melissa Sweet has illustrated The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, Tupelo Rides the Rails, and Carmine: A Little More Red (all Houghton Mifflin), which was given the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award. Melissa lives in Rockport, Maine.

Books by Melissa Sweet
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Did you like art as a child? If so, what form did it take?
Melissa Sweet: Yes, I loved art as kid. I played with Colorforms, paper dolls, drew, and made things all the time. There were always a lot projects going on at our house. If there was a kit, (paint-by-number, etc), I had it.
What made you decide to become an illustrator?
Melissa Sweet: I thought I might become a potter, but instead I gravitated to drawing and painting. My work was a natural fit for illustration.
Which artists have inspired your work?
Melissa Sweet: There are so many, it's hard to give a small list: David Hockney, Marimekko, Hannah Hoch, and Paul Klee are just a few.
Do you have a favorite medium or style?
Melissa Sweet: Water media, like watercolors and gouache are my favorites, but I tend to use collage to say what I need to say.
What qualities do you look for when taking on a new project?
Melissa Sweet: It's sort of a gut instinct when I get a manuscript that grabs me. I pretty much know right away if the subject and the writing come together to make something I cannot pass up. The projects I have been involved with thus far are so divergent — I'm really lucky. I like it when a project really makes me stretch as an artist.
Do you often do research before you begin illustrating?
Melissa Sweet: Yes, that's the best part. That's when I discover all sorts of things I can add to my palette, so to speak. There is always way more information than I can use, but often it's during the research that I discover something that informs how I will render the art. With A River of Words, I became very interested in William Carlos William's love of modern art and that inspired how I illustrated his poems.
Do you do many drafts?
Melissa Sweet: No, I do a dummy, maybe two, but so much happens for me when I do the actual painting or the collages, I trust that process. I have very benevolent art directors and editors who let me work this way. They don't have a good idea of what I'm going to do until the end, because I don't even know!
Can you describe the process of making a collage?
Melissa Sweet: I set out to find the right background with paper, or I paint it.
Then I get out everything I think I might use. I have bins of buttons, bones, cloth, ribbons, trinkets — a huge array of things I've collected.
Using anything that feels right, I start placing the objects on the background and pushing things around. I will fabricate something if I need to. Nothing is safe in my house, though. I've dismantled art to make more, taken apart clocks for their insides, and used parts from old toys. It's best that my family not know too much.
What is your favorite image from A River of Words?
Melissa Sweet: The last spread of him writing in his attic. I could sort of hear the night sounds as I was making that piece.
What characteristics do you think illustrators need most?
Melissa Sweet: To be able to draw and to love to draw.
Can you tell us one thing that people may not know about you?
Melissa Sweet: I would love to work for Aardman Animations, the company who makes the Wallace and Grommit claymation movies.