Today’s picture book was done completely in acrylic paintings.
Becky Gehrisch grew up drawing dogs and farm scenes after visiting her grandparents’ homes in the country. It’s no wonder that she went on to create ESCAPE TO PLAY after earning an art degree from The Ohio State University. Becky moved to a rural town in Ohio where she is constantly inspired by the beautiful countryside and wildlife just outside her window. You can find out more about her at her website.
ESCAPE TO PLAY is Becky’s debut author-illustrator picture book. In this story, 3 mischievous dogs break out of the house and run amuck while the farmer is out at work in the fields. They destroy the kitchen, play with the laundry hanging on the line, and swim in the nearby lake among many other adventures. It is left up to the reader’s imagination to determine what happens after the day is done and the farmer returns. It’s a simple story, yet Becky has also added another layer to it by hiding well known paintings in each scene and back matter to help young readers find and identify each piece of art.
Me: Can you share about your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to where you are now as an illustrator?
Becky: Sure! I have always loved art and even in elementary school, other students offered me nickels to draw them their favorite horse or character! My older sister and I would draw and paint pictures on my dad’s dot-matrix printer paper for our own art gallery. We would sell those pictures on the sidewalk. I would keep busy drawing and doodling on road trips, too.
Creating books and stories has always been something I played with. I would voluntarily create books and stories. One was about a horse ranch in Montana and another was about pond creatures. When I would visit my dad’s work on bring-your-child-to-work day, I would draw Disney characters and make copies of them on the copier. I would go home with different sizes of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Seeing my drawings reproduced was very satisfying.
In middle school, I participated in the national Written and Illustrated By program, where I created a picture book. I won Honorable Mention and something about the process of binding the book and seeing it copied, again, was fascinating. I even wrote in the about-the-author section that I was considering creating picture books for a career.
That experience stuck with me and later influenced me to pursue writing and illustrating as an adult. I went to The Ohio State University but was unsure of what to major in. I took a drawing class and fell in love with art again after focusing on music during high school. I earned my Bachelors of Art in Painting and Drawing with Distinction in Art.
Me: What did your illustration process for this book look like? Are you a traditional or a digital artist? Or do you use a blend of both?
Becky: For Escape to Play, everything minus the steam on the front cover was done traditionally with acrylic paints. It was a long process! Every full illustration took around 40 hours to render. I wanted it to have a classic feel to it so I added on another 20 hours for each border that surrounds the text.
The original illustrations were larger than the book format, too. I wanted the details to be crisp. The size of the canvases were either 20”x20” or 18”x24”, depending on the page.
Most of the imagery was from my imagination. I worked out and created each scene from scratch. I used a few reference photos from the countryside where I live and my dogs at the time, but I had to composite each scene in my head.
Me: Which came first: the idea for this story or the illustrations?
Becky: The illustrations came first which is not always typical of a picture book. When I moved out to the country in 2006, I was burnt out from college and wanted to create something for me that was fun. The first painting was the front cover of the dogs in the bath. Over the years I went back and adjusted the dogs and the room to match my skills and style during the final steps in publication.
That painting and the subsequent paintings that followed it, spawned questions in those who viewed them. They wanted to know more about the dogs’ antics. This sparked the idea to create a tale for these pups!
Me: I have to say I don’t think I have ever seen a picture book done in acrylic spreads quite this extensively. What gave you the idea to approach the art in the story this way?
Becky: Most of my illustrations include this level of detail. I absolutely love it!
At OSU, I loved art history. I enjoyed all of the detail artists would include in their work from Michelangelo to Georges Seurat. Even picture books as a child influenced me to create these detailed illustrations. Books like Where’s Waldo and The Polar Express, it seems, are ingrained into my subconscious. I wanted kids to be able to be drawn into the illustrations, where they can search and find new imagery with each read. What’s better than discovering something new in a picture book?
Me: Which was harder: writing or illustrating “Escape to Play”?
Becky: That’s a tough question! Both were very challenging. Any writer can tell you that rhyming is an art in itself. Figuring out the meter and rhyme was like piecing a puzzle together. The main goal was for it to flow and feel natural to the reader.
Because of this, it was often a daunting task. I even cut the manuscript in half at the end, which was a great choice. Parents can read Escape to Play every night if kids ask and since it is short enough, they are happy to do so!
Adding factual information in the back of the book was a challenge. I wanted to present art definitions that were accessible to children without dumbing it down. I would play around with the wording to see how I would understand art terms as a child. Having the right editors involved was imperative!
The illustrations took hundreds of hours. Because I was creating each from scratch, I had to figure out the perspective manually. You can see in the image below how I would even use yarn to plot out the perspective. So, both writing and illustrating were equally hard but rewarding!
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Becky: I would say to stay true to yourself, your style, and your vision. No one can see what you see in your mind but you.
Additionally, there are many writing and illustrating groups out there to join. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators was a great resource for me in both my writing and illustrating journey.
Me: Any other projects we can look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Becky: I am excited to begin work on the publication of another author-illustrator story! It will be a new experience, working with someone to see their vision come to life. Being there to polish their work will be fulfilling. I will begin in 2023.
In tandem, I will be working on my next picture book! The style and feel will be completely different from Escape to Play. I want to explore different art styles, materials, and stories.
That sounds wonderful. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Becky.
Dear readers, ESCAPE TO PLAY is already out in stores. If you know a dog lover in your life who might enjoy the antics, you can find it wherever books are sold or at the shop on Becky’s website.