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A Conversation with Illustrator Jessica Roux

WD contributor Katy Dycus sits down with writer and illustrator Jessica Roux to discuss her creative process, new books coming out this year, dragons, gardens, and Beatrix Potter.

WD contributor Katy Dycus sits down with writer and illustrator Jessica Roux to discuss her creative process, new books coming out this year, dragons, gardens, and Beatrix Potter.

Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers is one of my prized possessions. Independent of season, the book is like walking inside a garden fully in bloom. Author and illustrator Jessica Roux views the book as adding to our knowledge of flowers’ coded meanings, which is a look into the history of floriography itself.

In Victorian times, strict rules governed polite society so “the language of flowers” expressed emotions that would have been otherwise repressed. These flowers coded messages of desire, affection, distaste, or sorrow. In a single hue was a variety of symbolism, and flower meanings derived from a variety of sources: literature, mythology, religion, and medieval legend.

Floriography, like the rest of Roux’s books, are products of research. Her delightful creations are whimsical and fanciful while maintaining historical, literary and scientific integrity. Whether bringing subjects of the natural or fantastical world into focus, Roux honors them with research into the mythologies and folklore that inspired them, blurring the line between the real and imagined – as all great books should do.

Katy: Many of your books engage with the natural world – from flowers to birds to woodland creatures. Why do you pursue these subjects?

Jessica: Because there’s a never-ending supply of inspiration in them, and I feel like I’m always learning new things about the natural world. I just love the research process. I was originally a journalism major but didn’t love the news writing aspect of things. There wasn’t enough flourish. So, I ended up studying illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Katy: Research is an essential element of journalistic writing, or any kind of writing for that matter. Does illustration involve a similar research component?

Jessica: Absolutely. I know when I’m drawing flowers, especially, I want to make sure they are the right color and leaf shape, for example. And then I sometimes get the opportunity to do more conceptual kinds of illustrations and get to dig into whatever topic is being presented.

Whenever I do book covers and things like that, I always ask if I can read the manuscript because that adds another layer. I want to make sure I’m pulling accurate character descriptions and motivations and translating that into the work.

When I’m ready, I start by doing a graphite pencil drawing. That really lays down the texture of things, and the value of light to dark. Then I’ll scan it in and digitally paint underneath it in Photoshop.

Katy: When you’re illustrating a book someone else has written, what’s it like working with the author, that back and forth dynamic?

Jessica: Generally, there’s an art director who’s the go between. They’ll collect feedback from both sides and act as a translator – interpreting what the author wants, since authors aren’t always super visual.

For The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, the art director was Mallory Grigg. She’s one of the best art directors out there because she’s great at giving constructive feedback and then pushing you to make the best possible work. She also gives enough freedom so that you can really do your own thing.

Besides the art director, the book designer lays the text out on the page in a certain size and font and will suggest I place images to complement the text. As long as the text and images flow and interact in an interesting way, it works. The book designer is very hands on. With A Natural History of Dragons the designer said, “these are the captions. You can make the image, and I’ll figure out where they go.”

Katy: I’m learning a lot about all the different book people involved in this process.

Jessica: There are a lot of invisible roles, and they really make the books come together. I’m always really grateful for the designer. Whenever I get the first look, the PDF sent back to me, I’m so excited because you can actually see the image and the type go together.

My editor is also super valuable. If you Google “horse puzzle meme,” you’ll see that the puzzle pieces are essentially grouped into the shape of the puzzle but they don’t actually fit together. Whenever I show my editor my manuscript for the first time, I say, “it’s horse puzzle time,” because she takes the pieces and makes them fit together in a better way than I could.

Katy: Do you ever interact more directly with the authors you illustrate?

Jessica: For the folklore field guide series – A Natural History of Fairies, A Natural History of Mermaids, A Natural History of Magical Beasts – I’ve gotten to know the author Emily Hawkins really well. We’ll email back and forth directly. She sends me an outline of the book before asking for my input, which is so kind. It’s really nice to be involved. With Magical Beasts she asked, “what other beasts do you want to include?”

Katy: I’m so excited A Natural History of Dragons comes out this September, I’ve already preordered my copy! How did you start working with Emily Hawkins?

Jessica: Emily is a pretty well-known kid lit author, especially in the UK. She pitched the concept for the series to the publisher Quarto Kids, and they came to me and asked if I was interested in illustrating, and of course I was.
I don’t draw people that often, so I was anxious about drawing the fairies, but Emily had done so much research already and I’d seen some of her outlines. She even pulled reference material that she thought would be helpful, so seeing it that way made me feel confident enough to start.

Katy: So, Emily does a lot of the legwork up front?

Jessica: Thankfully, yes. She sends me a word doc where she’s outlined what she’s writing about and will include some text links to different writings and pictures she’s found inspirational or useful, which is super helpful because a lot of times, especially with that book series, I’m on a fairly tight deadline. I have around 8 months to do the entire book. It’s intense!

Not having to do as much research with those is helpful because it’s just really about getting into the drawings. We tend to work in batches, as well. We’ll do the first 8 spreads and keep going in groups of either 4 to 10 spreads throughout the book until we get to the final one. It’s a lot of work, and the books are around 64 pages, which is double the length of a traditional picture book.

Katy: A Natural History of Dragons does look hefty. It’s meant to be an academic compendium for students of the 1800s, sort of like a textbook, right?

Jessica: Yes, and it’s really cool because diary entries from one of the students are interspersed throughout the book as well. Little photos and sketches the student did. He’s learning to ride dragons and has a pet dragon that he raises from a little hatchling. He has such a cute and friendly relationship with it.

I love how Emily weaves these stories within the story in all her books. It makes things a lot more interesting to have that narrative component and not just dry information.

Katy: Yes, that narrative element really makes it pop. Do you have other books coming out this year?

Jessica: Ornithography: An Illustrated Guide to Bird Lore and Symbolism. I just got the advanced copy yesterday! I included 100 birds in this book, which was a challenge.

Katy: How did you limit yourself to just those birds?

Jessica: I read somewhere that there are 10,000 bird species out there, which is wild! Essentially, I picked birds that I thought were interesting and that had mythology or folklore associated with them. I also wanted to include birds from all around the world for variety.

Katy: What was your favorite bird to discover?

Jessica: My husband asked me that last night. It’s really tough to pick, but I think my favorite is the quetzal. They’re from Central and South America. They were revered by the Aztec and Maya. I’d never seen one before I started working on this. They are so iridescent; I’d love to see one in real life.

Quetzal

Katy: Your work really reminds me of Beatrix Potter because she also had this (healthy) obsession with the natural world. Mycologists even study her fungi drawings today. You and Potter both treat all your subjects – even the magical creatures – as those you would encounter in the natural world, giving them a sort of credence.

Jessica: Thank you! I’m honored to be compared to Beatrix Potter. When I was little, I had a Peter Rabbit pillow, which my grandmother made for me. I carried it around with me everywhere, it was so threadbare.

I recently saw an exhibition of Potter’s work at the Frist Museum here in Nashville and was amazed that she worked so small. It was inspiring to see her environmental activism as well. She essentially became a farmer and donated a lot of her land to the National Trust to make sure it would be preserved. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve gotten into gardening, and I feel a real kinship with her.

Katy: Tell me about your garden, or any gardens that have inspired you.

Jessica: I try to spend at least an hour out in my garden every day, and I have chickens now. They should start laying soon. And I have an illustrator friend who lives in Syracuse, Ginnie Hsu. She and her fiancé just bought a new flower farm and are renovating everything and laying out all the plants. I love getting to visit and help out there because it’s a bit of a vacation, but I also get to work, which I really enjoy. It’s much colder there, so she has more luck growing things like big beautiful dahlias, which I can’t get to grow here.

Ginnie took me to see the gardens up at Cornell University, and I was in awe of that because it’s a different environment. I love experiencing different gardens and then taking that inspiration back, not only to my garden, but also to the work that I do.

Learn more about Jessica at her website: https://www.jessica-roux.com/

Out this September: A Natural History of Dragons (Quarto Kids) and Ornithography: An Illustrated Guide to Bird Lore & Symbolism (Andrews McMeel). Preorder wherever you like to get your books!

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Katy Dycus Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Katy now lives in Madrid, Spain. When she isn't teaching, hiking, or laughing with friends, she's probably writing for the anthropology journal Mammoth Trumpet. Or looking for the perfect avocado.

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