Interview with the amazing, Julie Vivas, Illustrator

Hi Julie, thanks for coming onto my blog today. I’m a big fan and had the pleasure of meeting you recently at Books Illustrated where we were celebrating 30 years of ‘Possum Magic’. Awesome! And you were kind enough to grant me an interview about your amazing career in Picture Book Illustrating.


You spent four years in Spain with your family. Creatively speaking, what was the most significant thing you learnt from your time there?

Recalling that time, which was 40 years ago, I was responding to the difference in the people in how they lived in Madrid and Jerez to the existence I had in Australia. I could have been attempting to catch or hold onto to that life in cafes bars and markets.

Perhaps it’s the visual, and emotional stimulation that’s needed me to make images.

How do you prepare yourself before you start a picture book?

I daydream about the work I will do illustrating a new picture book.

The reality is doing a lot of drawing, and searching for images.

I cannot control the state of my mind i.e. prepare my head for drawing and painting. Except for isolating myself from people to work.

Each manuscript is a different animal and has it’s own problems that I have not experienced before.

I don’t control the excitement from an idea that goes through my head. It happens as I work and work more to realise it on paper, or frustratingly it does not happen for an extended time.

Do you have favourite picture books that you’ve worked on?

‘The Nativity’ and ‘Possum Magic’.



When and where do you illustrate most often?

I illustrate in the house where I am living, in different rooms where the light is good, the kitchen or dinning table or my workroom.

I’m on the move when I do sketches and thumbnails. I could be anywhere, waiting for a dental appointment, on the bus or in the park.

Dummy bookwork and painting I tend to do in good light and privacy.

What’s your favourite medium and why?

I like graphite pencil and watercolour.

Watercolour is transparent. The paint moves unexpectedly on wet paper letting the paint spread in the wet on its own or feed/bleed with more pigment into it while it’s alive (as in wet, and reactive).

Graphite pencil lines can be delicate and they also have an energy and expression in the changing weight of the line.

I have more control over a pencil with small detail than working with a brush.

How long would it take you to do one illustration?

Illustrations in the early stage of the process of making a picture book require rough sketches for each page. These are developed further, some needing more work than others depending on the size or number of figures in the image. It can be from 5 to 10 drawings for each image before they work.

So, from roughs to a finished work really does vary.

I need to see the pages in sequence and be able to see whether images work with the pacing of the story. That’s why I make a dummy book for this.

The publisher and author also have a look at this dummy and depending on their feed back there could be changes.

After the dummy is approved by all involved I start to draw the first image on watercolour paper over a day. Then it takes 3 to 4 days to paint it.

This would be a medium size illustration with two figures and background.

A simpler one figure on white background, I would do over two days and go back to it on a third day to adjust small detail.

If watercolour doesn’t work at this stage, I do the image again.

What do you enjoy about the most about the process?

I enjoy the early work on a picture book, thinking and getting excited about the author’s text.

Trying out those ideas in rough drawings and page compositions.

Developing the characters in the story takes time, but the early drawings are usually spontaneous. At this stage I have a real sense of freedom and I’m inventing people and their world.

What advice would you give other author/illustrators?

This is not advice so much as – how I see a working life in Illustrating Picture Books.

If you enjoy the process of making images it’s likely your artwork will keep evolving and become more interesting and exciting for you.

Illustrating a picture a book takes time, a lot of time that you are not paid for. Some very good illustrators have other work to pay their bills.

I was extremely lucky to have illustrated a popular book.

And have had enough income to live on picture book royalty payments and been able to work full time for 30 years Illustrating.

What influences your work?

It was not a particular painter that influenced me. We had prints of Marc Chagall and Raoul Duffy on the wall when I was growing up.

There were National Geographic Magazines with photos of fish insects and birds taken in the 1950’s that amazed me.

The natural world, water sky forests changing weather, people and animals are what influence my image making.

Yeah, wow, I love Chagall. Thank you so much for coming onto my blog Julie, that was a fascinating insight into your work. Good luck with your next project.

Julie’s latest book, written by Margaret Wild is called ‘Davy & the Duckling’. Published by Penguin Australia and it’s available in any good bookstore.


Published 24/07/2013

Format HB

RRP $24.99

ISBN 9780670075614

Publisher  Penguin

Imprint  Viking

Penguin has wonderful teaching notes to accompany this story.

Check them out at… Penguin Australia

You can also buy some of Julie’s beautiful work as individual pieces at Books Illustrated . They make unique and gorgeous presents.

About Julie Vivas: the superb watercolour illustrations of Julie Vivas are much loved by children and adults alike in Australia and overseas. Perhaps best known for ‘Possum Magic’, written by Mem Fox, Julie has illustrated stories by many well-known Australian authors, including The Tram to Bondi Beach by Libby Hathorn and Stories From Our Street by Richard Tulloch. Her work has received numerous awards, prizes and commendations, and in 1992 Julie was awarded the Dromkeen Medal for her significant contribution to the appreciation and development of children’s literature.


  • Ian McMullin

    Fascinating interview of an iconic Australian illustrator. Toby & I absolutely love 'Wildred Gordon McDonald Partridge' written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Julie Vivas. It's a beauty!
    August 13, 2013 at 08:01 am Reply
    • A little Birdy told me...

      Yes 'Wildred Gordon McDonald Patridge' is one of my favourites too - it was the warm egg that got me. It always makes me quite teary.
      August 13, 2013 at 08:54 pm Reply
  • Lynette bade

    Great interview. Loved Possum Magic, love all Julie Vivas work
    August 13, 2013 at 08:05 am Reply
    • A little Birdy told me...

      Hello Lynette. I agree, Julie's work is very unique and Possum Magic is iconic. I actually think the illustrations tell more of the story than the text.
      August 13, 2013 at 08:52 pm Reply
  • Leanne Regan

    Lovely to learn how Julie creates beautiful work. Her illustrations are always so rich in emotion and sensitivity. Thanks for the interview Neridah. You asked the questions I wanted to hear the answers to!
    August 13, 2013 at 08:36 pm Reply
    • A little Birdy told me...

      Hi Leanne, I agree, Julie illustrations are rich in emotion and sensitivity. She's pretty amazing at what she does:-)
      August 13, 2013 at 08:49 pm Reply
  • Kate

    'The Tram To Bondi' is a family favorite of ours - what a thrill to read this delightful interview with the illustrator! Neridah, have you thought about conducting your interviews on camera and posting them on your blog as videos?! You did such a great job with the Collingwood video - just an unsolicited idea! Loving your blog!
    September 17, 2013 at 09:53 am Reply
    • A little Birdy told me...

      Hi Kate, lovely to hear from you. That's a great idea! I'll sus it out for sure :-) Hope you're well.
      September 17, 2013 at 09:45 am Reply

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Neridah McMullin

Photo By: Prue Sheed



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