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.

Possum Magic is 30!

On Saturday night, Books Illustrated hosted a celebration for the iconic picture book ‘Possum Magic’ written by Mem Fox and illustrated by the amazing Julie Vivas 30 years ago.


It was a full house attended by many and with the wine flowing, open fires burning and the original artwork from Possum Magic hung around the place, it was a joyous occasion.


I met some old friends, my Maurice Saxby Mentor, Anna Walker and Erica Wagner from Allen & Unwin and I made many new friends including, Julie Vivas, Sue De Gennaro, Jane Tanner, Craig Smith, Francesca Rendle-Short and Sally Rippin. I also met the lovely Geri Barr from the Australian’s Children’s Literature Alliance and the gorgeous Justine who works for Ann and Ann at Books Illustrated.

Everybody was so friendly and happy to talk shop, it was great fun for me to gain an insight into how illustrators go about their work. I have to admit I was particularly relieved to hear about other’s people struggles with colour palette and character development.


We all enjoyed hearing more about Julie Viva’s journey in illustrating ‘Possum Magic’.

‘Possum Magic’ was originally called ‘Hush the invisible Mouse’ and after being rejected by nine publishing houses (yes, nine I hear you say) Omnibus in Adelaide took a chance on it. They had just published Kerry Argent’s ‘One Wooly Wombat’ and were looking for other stories with an Australian theme. So, the mice became possums. Mem Fox reworked the story and Julie created new illustrations and the rest is history.


At first, Julie began drawing real possums. She used to go to the night house at Taronga Zoo. She drew brush tail possums in every position until she got a feel for their body proportions and how they moved. She also looked at the injured baby ones at the Zoo hospital, too. After this, Julie then felt a bit braver about inventing her own possums. Julie explained that doing Hush as invisible was tricky but something as basic as using a broken line seemed to work.

Image Image

Julie simplified her possums, making their bodies big spheres and their heads small spheres with triangular faces. Tails and arm and legs were used for expression.

When Julie hung Grandma up by the tail she could see how this worked. In this form, not looking like real animals, Julie was able to ease them through their bike riding and their umbrella boating without it jarring too much.

“The human emotions that the possums go through are possibly easier to cope with in their visually unreal form. Early in the process, I realised real possums’ eyes are so big they take over. I felt that they took attention away from everything else in the picture, so I did adjust their eyes and this was another step away from reality.”

When it came to the colour palette Julie said she was afraid of large areas of strong colour, but colour roughs helped her decide, as the characters came into another life when the colours were applied. Using blues and purples in the fur seem to give relief from the expected brown and grey. The shape is so important, and Julie didn’t want anything to distract from that. Everything changes in a drawing when solid colour is used. The use of darker grey for the koala helps convey the weight of this character. Julie said it’s often difficult to get the balance that she had in the drawing when she start to paint.

Fascinating stuff. Stay tuned, as Julie Vivas will be the featured illustrator on my blog next month.

Julie also had on display some of her gorgeous illustrations from her latest picture book Davey & the Duckling soon to be released through Penguin Books and another of her well loved picture books Let the celebrations Begin has just been released in the Walker Australian Classic series. There was a lot to celebrate!



We also got to see some of the amazing books and artwork collected by Ann and Ann at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year. Some of them very dark in colour palette and fascinating in there concepts.




Thank you so much to Ann and Ann and Justine – it was truly a beautiful and inspiring evening.

You can read more about it on the Books Illustrated Blog



Reference: an extract from an interview with Julie Vivas, Scan Vol 23, no.2