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.

Day 5 Meeting with Anna Walker, my mentor!


As part of the Maurice Saxby Mentorship, we get to spend time with an established author and or illustrator to give us some guidance and advice with our work.

Yesterday I met with my mentor, the very talented, award-winning writer and illustrator Anna Walker.

Anna has the coolest basement studio. It was all painted white including the floors and from the moment I walked in, I couldn’t take it all in quick enough. It was a treasure trove full of beautiful artwork, books, furniture, fabric and items she’s collected.

Sitting on a vintage chair by the fire we talked about what had happened during the Maurice Saxby Mentorship so far. I told Anna how fabulous it had been and how I’d met Kevin Burgemeestre and Ann James and what wonderful illustrators they were. Free flowing, spontaneously free handed drawers and painters. I admitted I was envious of this skill and that I wasn’t like that…I didn’t want to say it but…I was neat.

The magic when two like souls meet. Anna too, is neat. Be proud of it, she tells me. That’s who we are. We all have different strengths.

Anna is a very considered illustrator, and you can really feel this in her artwork. They’re exquisite and whimsical, and just so perfectly beautiful to look at.


Anna then went on to explain to me and show me how she goes about writing a picture book story.

Anna always begins with a ‘mood board’. This sets the tone for the story and includes things Anna has collected that relate to the story such as photos, artwork and images, sketches, letters, fabrics and leaves. These mood boards were surprisingly large, at least an A1 or B1 in size. I thought they were a work of art in themselves. They were beautiful to look at and Anna told me how she used these to help her select her palette of colours. Rarely does she go beyond five colours e.g. for ‘Peggy’ (one of my favourite Anna Walker books), she used a palette of only five colours: green, brown, black, red & yellow. Anna likes to restrict her colour palate as this gives keeps the artwork a simplistic balance and cohesion. I’d never considered this before. Now, I understand why some of my artwork doesn’t quite flow or look like they fit together.

Anna didn’t deny there’s a lot to grapple with: style, medium, composition and layout.

After the mood board, Anna does some rough character sketches, building in complexity. There were a lot of chickens!

Anna then puts together a storyboard. This maps the text out within the 32-page requirement for a picture book (starting on page 4 & 5 leaving the front cover, end page and half title page free).

Anna likes this process for a number of reasons: it allows her to cut the text back allowing a picture to tell the story, it lets her to make sure the story fits the picture book format, and any structural faults can be easily seen which Anna resolves. To do this, Anna cuts and pastes text so that she can easily move it when she wants. Lots of photocopying and cutting and pasting. Just use blue-tac she tells me!

I was fascinated (and relieved) when Anna told me she might get half way through a storyboard before she truly knows her character and what they’re going to be like. Sometimes she then has to go back and make the character at the beginning more like the one in the middle.

After the storyboard, Anna sketches to the scale of the picture book. She always paints to the size of the picture book with a 2 cm bleed. When she’s happy with a drawing, she will paint it in with whatever she has, water colours or maybe even pencil to get the colours right. There’s a real subtlety to Anna’s work. It’s very considered and her efforts really show in the finished product. She keeps going until she gets this right. It might take several drafts. The amount of work Anna puts into this astounds me.

Then the pictures are photo shopped and Anna might will some filter effects and she might pop in some real buildings or a bike. We laughed comparing notes about the ‘select’ wand in Photoshop and how many hours you can spend with your graphics tablet ‘up close and personal’ with your artwork to get it just right. Amazing (ok and maybe a little obsessive) stuff.

From Photoshop Anna puts her work into InDesign (penguin used this for there picture book layouts), where she does her own graphic design work.

Moving onto my masterpieces…

Firstly, we looked at ‘My Perfect Baby Boy’. This is rhyming verse and is all about how your children start to show family traits from a very early age. Shall we say, my story has a few ‘issues’. The concept is good but the structure needs some serious work. And why does it have to be in verse asked Anna? I’m not sure because it was originally a story. I will definitely go back to my original manuscript and sus this out.

We then looked at my artwork. My baby is a bigheaded, big-eyed cartoon and in every scene I collage vintage wallpaper in the background. The style of the baby is a bit of a problem. Is this what I really want for my baby? I’m a fan of the outline, not a strong one, more of a sketchy kind of line, textured and pastel like. But how do you do that and not look like a cartoon? What do I want my baby to look like? His eyes are the key, because they’re the same as mine and that’s the whole point of the story.

One of my illustrations…it’s a little bright…so grab your sunnies


Anna suggested I do some more research on the style I’m looking for. How to develop a character, focusing on the fact that the eyes must be unique. Anna showed me several books by Lauren Childs (Charlie & Lola, Clarice Bean), Babette Cole, Polly Dunbar, and Mo Willem. Wow! I get what Anna means.

I’m going back to the drawing board with this one and doing a complete re-write and change of illo style.

Moving onto manuscript number two: ‘Hen & Duckling’

The story of ‘Hen & Duckling’ is based on the tragic but true story of ‘Lonely’. I grew up on a farm in Hamilton and ‘Lonely’ was the result of something my mother did as a joke. We had about 10 white leghorn chickens on the farm (little white dudes with red crests & legs) and some khaki campbell ducks (they are brown and green with white bands around their skinny little necks). They were always my responsibility; they were my girls, and I fed them every night: grain & shell grit, fresh water and scraps, including locking them up every night (don’t ask me what happened the night I forgot to shut them up – we had foxes – and put it this way, after we got a new chickens I never forgot to shut them in again).

Anyway, I digress. I fabricated ‘Hen & Duckling’ based on ‘Lonely’s ’ story (as it didn’t have a happy ending).

So, this is what happened. My mother put a duck egg under a relentlessly clucky hen. And yes, that egg somehow hatched. We had messed with nature, and this is how this tragic tale unfolded. The duckling thought he was a chicken, the hen treated him as her own and neither the chickens or the ducks wanted to have anything to do with either of them. I even caught the chickens and ducks trying to peck the poor little guy to death one day. So, as any decent mother would do, Hen moved herself and ‘Lonely’ (as we had now so appropriately christened him) to the garage.

Personally, I was a little bit annoyed as I then had to feed them in the garage as well as the rest of the girls back in the chook run. But I admit I was happy Hen and ‘Lonely’ were safe from the maddening crowd.

Hen and ‘Lonely’ lived a life of blissful happiness together far far away from the chook run. Until one day, when I was riding my horse Honey down the paddock, I saw ‘Lonely’ waddling along, all alone, heading quite purposely in a northerly direction. “Where on earth is he heading?” I wondered. I asked Mum when I got home. “Oh, yes, he now spends his days over at the neighbours farm with their flock of ducks. He comes back every night to stay with Hen.” OMG!

After awhile, ‘Lonely’ stopped making the trip back home at nighttime.

And after a long while, Hen eventually moved from the garage back into the chook run. Sigh.

So, that’s how ‘Hen & Duckling’ evolved.

Anna and I worked our way through a storyboard for this picture book and reduced the word count from 524 down to 457. There’s more work to be done but it’s much tighter and punchier.

The ending still needs work. It was a bit corny, but all in all I know exactly where I’m going with this manuscript.

I hope to evolve it into something a bit more minimalist, with some more white space. I love water colours and everyone always assumes Anna works in water colours but she actually uses acrylics. Acrylic inks as well as collage. I’m going to give these a go too.

I had a wonderful morning with Anna and I’m so grateful for her wonderful advice and time she gave me.



By Anna Walker

Scholastic Australia

This is the story of a brave chicken on a big adventure.

Peggy lives in a small house in a quiet street.

One blustery day a big gust of wind sweeps down and scoops up leaves, twigs and . . . Peggy!

The wind blows Peggy into the city, where she discovers strange new things, but how will she find her way back home?

Anna Walker Illustrator video

Peggy book trailer

Day 2 Maurice Saxby Mentorship


Visit to Books Illustrated

Ann Haddon and Ann James made us feel very welcome in their beautiful home, gallery and bookstore. Books Illustrated is the iconic heartbeat of children’s literature in Australia, specialising in sales of original artwork, limited edition prints and signed books. We had the most wonderful two hours with the two Ann’s. They have a wealth of experience and expertise and were only too happy to share it with us.

We discussed the publishing market and what opportunities there are out there. They wanted to know what we all wrote and who illustrated their own work and from this information they brought out a fascinating collection of published books to fuel our imaginations.

We talked about publishers that take risks, like Allen Unwin’s ‘The Memory Book’ by Neil Curtis. I didn’t know about this book and borrowed it from the library later in the day and it’s just wonderful.


So is Scholastic’s Hugo Cabret. A novel in equally depicted with pictures and text.


We also looked Alison Lester’s ‘Sophie Scott goes South’ and ‘One Small Island’ published by Penguin, enjoying hearing about the care and collaborative process that was taken to produce these books.



We talked about Nadine’s work, a hybrid Graphic Novel and looked several graphic novels including Nathan Jurevicius’s ‘Scarygirl’. I’d never seen anything like this before, it was amazing! And the amount of work that must have gone into it. Wow!


We discussed what publishers want: Young Adult fiction, Young Adult Romance – Penguin have just started a series, historical based fiction is still popular as are  environmental books.

We then looked at three books that Ann James has recently illustrated, one of these she wrote & illustrated. It’s called Bird and Bear. This is a delightful picture book about a discovery (his reflection!) published by The Five Mile Press.


Then we looked at ‘I’m a Dirty Dinosaur’ written by Janeen Brian and illustrated by Ann James. This picture book has been printed in a fascinating format. It has thick gl pages (but it’s not a board book) and it has beautiful (and very safe) rounded edges. This is such a cheeky, catchy little story, it’s loads of fun. The illustrations are delightfully simple and gorgeous using mud, yes, MUD from a dam. Ann just couldn’t get the effect she wanted too with watercolours. It’s just so cool.


I’m a dirty dinosaur,

With a dirty snout.

I never wipe it clean,

I just sniff and snuff about.

Sniff, sniff, snuff, snuff,

Sniff and snuff about.


Ann very kindly signing a book for me.

Visiting Books Illustrated was a wonderful way to spend a wintery afternoon, we all had such a ball. Thank you so much to both Ann and Ann for sharing their passion for Australian picture books. I have since made a follow up appointment with Ann to sort out my art portfolio (be brave!)

The Books Illustrated showroom is opened by appointment