Christina Wald is a professional childrenís book illustrator specializing in animal and science work. A prolific artist with over 20 years experience in the field, she has worked with numerous major publishers including Scholastic, Bloomsbury, Hachette, Penguin, and National Geographic, as well as on smaller-scale projects directly with authors.
Christinaís characters have a whimsical, anthropomorphized quality. She creates the majority of her work as traditional, hand-painted illustrations, though she works in a variety of media including digital and vector. All final artwork is sent to clients digitally, regardless of the media it is created in.
She holds a BS in Industrial Design from the University of Cincinnati, and is well-known for her work with licensed gaming products including Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Christina loves to combine her two passions: travel and illustration. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband - a toy engineer, and their two cats.
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An Interview With Christina
What path would you suggest to someone who wants to be a childrenís illustrator?
I started out studying graphic design at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. In my freshman year, I was inspired by the work I saw in the schoolís senior show, and I ended up switching majors to focus on industrial design. At that time I was already an avid sketcher, and loved working on comics.
My school didnít actually offer a degree in illustration, and I donít think thatís a bad thing. Iím not sure itís alway good for an illustrator to major in illustration, as those programs can be very narrow - they tend to focus a lot on technique, and not as much on being a well-rounded person, which is something I think is key to being a good illustrator. I think that the better route to becoming an artist is to take a broad liberal arts track. Equally, many of the projects that I do now center around animals and science - I do a lot of research for various projects, and that skill of being able to study is really useful. It can be as valuable as having good technique.
Thereís also a lot to be said for having an area of specialism that isnít so common. A lot of people coming out of school now create flat illustration which looks great and is very trendy, but itís difficult to differentiate yourself from the competition if youíre working in the same style as everyone else.
How did you get into childrenís illustration?
After I graduated I went on to do toy and industrial design work, and also did some illustration for fantasy and science fiction comics as well as books and collectable cards for licensed role-playing games including Middle Earth: The Wizards, which is a card game based on Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. Because of my background in industrial design, I was good at drawing tech, which set me apart from the competition.
Unfortunately after a few years that market began to really slow down. I took a job at an ad agency and began to refocus my portfolio. At that time I started to do a lot more traditional painting, which is what led me to childrenís book illustration. I created some animal paintings for a company based in Cincinnati that makes heat transfer flags, and they were spotted by someone from Scholastic who started giving me regular projects creating for their See Through Scenes series. They were collectables with landscape scenes that you could hold up to the light to see whatís underneath - animals burrowing, and plant roots, and that sort of thing. As that work got out there I started to be approached by other big publishers looking for a similar style of illustration. Thatís how Iíve ended up working with a lot of my clients - itís been quite organic really.
Tell us about your style and technique.
My paintings are somewhat realistic with a whimsical, anthropomorphic feel to them, and lots of character. Illustration should be ďbiggerĒ than a photograph can be - itís like opera. Thatís something I picked up early on; starting out in the fantasy market my work had to be ostentatious. Illustration should be bigger and brighter than reality. Otherwise, you would just use a photo, right?
In terms of technique, I usually start off by doing some quick gestural thumbnail sketches, and then Iíll blow those up and develop them from there. I try not to over-work them too much because I find that the more you copy and trace a sketch - especially if itís a cute little critter - the more it loses its essence. Gestural sketches can capture so much more character and energy than a piece youíve spent hours pouring over. Thatís partly why I love urban sketching - it lets me practice getting the essence down very quickly, as opposed to laboring over precise details from photos.
A lot of the time I create my work in layers. I like the way traditional paint looks, especially when Iím painting animals, but I also like to have the flexibility to change colors and move things around at a later stage. I just finished a book called Animal Atlas for Bloomsbury UK, and I created the illustrations for that in layers. The animals were painted separately from the backgrounds, which means they could be edited separately. If I want to experiment with a color, I can do that quickly and see the results immediately, rather than starting from scratch. It grants me much more flexibility to work in that way.
How do you usually begin a project?
An aspect of my work that I really enjoy is research. Last year I worked on a book about elk with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I went out to Montana and Yellowstone to observe the animals and work with elk scientists. For another book, Little Red Bat, I went to a bat sanctuary and took video of them. Iím beginning a book about bison shortly, and thereís a reserve in Kentucky that Iíve been spending time at. The author has sent me their references and research which is very helpful, but whenever I can, I like to see the animals myself in the wild, to get a really good idea of how they move and their characteristics, and so that I draw them with the right number of toes!
A lot of creatures donít like you to sit and watch them - some birds especially can get agitated - they think youíre a predator! I sometimes go to the zoo to sketch - the animals there tend to be more relaxed around people, so that can be a great way of getting down some gestural sketches.
Whatís a typical day like for you? How do you like to spend your downtime?
I draw every day, whether I have deadlines or not, and I try to budget some time for my own projects. Today for example, Iím waiting for feedback on a book Iím working on for Pearson Publishing, and I have a several other projects lined up that havenít yet kicked off, so that allows me some time to work on some personal projects.
As Iíve mentioned, I love urban sketching, and I try to get out as often as I can. Itís great practice and I find it very relaxing. In the summer I try to get out at least once a week and sketch, mostly architecture around the city. I have friends that I go sketching with - we hop on our bikes and go out for a few hours. I think itís important for a professional illustrator to continue producing work that isnít directed by a brief. This summer Iím going to an urban sketching event in Chicago. I love the detail in the frilly, turn of the century architecture.
My dream project would involve travelling and sketching. Last year we went to Florence, Italy and I did a lot of sketching there. Iím going to Romania later this year for a couple of weeks to sketch. As an artist, I think itís important to broaden your horizons - you just have more to give to your work that way.
Whose work inspires you?
I really enjoy the work of some of the famous fantasy artists like the Hildebrand Brothers, Frazetta, and Morris, although my current style doesnít really reflect those influences. When I was young I loved reading comics - that was what inspired me to draw. My mom was an avid garage saler and would come home with stacks of comics. I remember my cousin in upstate New York was reading one called Elf Quest which I got really into. Of course back then, without the internet they would come by mail and it took the artists months to do each issue.
Tell us about a favorite recent project.
I loved working on Henry the Impatient Heron - it had a great story, about a heron who canít stand still and so he canít catch anything - it shows him struggling and persevering. It has a really strong narrative and itís great message for kids. I also just finished illustrating a book called Macarooned on a Dessert Island which was a lot of fun to work on.
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