In the Studio with Illustrator Carol Schwartz
When accomplished children’s book illustrator Carol Schwartz moved from Wisconsin to Salisbury, Mass., last July, she set up only two things: her bed in one room and her studio in another.
She worked almost nonstop, 10 to 14 hours a day, to meet the illustrations deadline for one of her latest book projects. Terry Pierce’s “My Busy Green Garden” (A Tilbury House Nature Book) released in January 2018. ( Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb ’17 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine ).
Obsessed? Perhaps, but more likely she just loves her work, which includes illustrations for almost 60 books, as well as magazines, advertisements and the educational market, which she calls her “bread and butter.”
The secret to Schwartz’s success? The petite, energetic illustrator is adamant: Research is what makes the difference, she says as she waves her hands enthusiastically. “The more I know, the richer my illustrations will be.”
Schwartz stops talking for a moment and steps into her studio closet to locate a box. “If I find a dead bug or insect, I pick it up and drop it in here,” she says. The box contains a treasure of carefully placed butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and other insects that inspired the intricate and colorful drawings in “My Busy Green Garden.”
Occasionally, she says, her research takes a decidedly delicious turn. When she received an assignment several years ago to illustrate a magazine article about sending live lobsters through the mail, she bought a live lobster to observe for the “flying lobster” she illustrated, and then was able to take a yummy tax deduction.
By contrast, when researching the ways of the octopus for “Octopus Under the Sea,” a book by Peter and Connie Roop, she discovered that the cephalopod leaves a trail behind in the water that looks like a shadow of itself and can therefore fool sea predators. She added this shadow to her illustration in the book — which, she says, fascinates children when she goes into schools to share what she does.
This love of sea creatures and the ocean may explain why Schwartz chooses to live where she can walk to the beach. The view from her living room window shows an extensive wheat-colored marsh of sea oats leading south to the Merrimack River, which then joins the Atlantic Ocean to the east on Salisbury Beach.
A sailboat on the river looks tiny and far away. But the boxes of seashells in her living room, along with the framed illustrations on her walls of sea creatures she has illustrated for books and art shows, provide up close evidence of her love of the sea.
“An Octopus’s Garden, 2016,” the original rendition of one of these framed wall illustrations, was on display at the Society of Illustrators’ “Drawn to the Music” exhibit in New York late last year. Schwartz says society artists were asked to illustrate a line from the lyrics of a song in any genre of music, and she chose the Beatles’ song by Ringo Starr.
The original of “Maine Rockweed 2015” currently resides in a juried exhibit at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of National History in Jamestown, N.Y., and will remain there until April 9. The purpose of the “Focus on Nature XIV” exhibit is to promote scientifically accurate illustrations, such as those in research journals. For this exhibit, Schwartz completed her painting at the Golden Apple Art Residency in Harrington, Maine, in the summer of 2015.
Although she’s not a scientist herself, almost nothing escapes Schwartz’s observation. For example, while visiting her parents in Kansas City this past October, she received a request from her agent to illustrate a prairie schooner like the ones on the Oregon Trail for an educational publication about moving west.
Knowing that the Oregon Trail started in Kansas City, the illustrator decided to visit a local museum to photograph the prairie schooner from different angles. While there, she learned that a bucket of milk hanging from the schooner was placed there so it could be churned into butter as the schooner swayed along.
These details, Schwartz says, are what keep her going. They make the process of creating a painting in an opaque medium similar to watercolor called “gouache,” and finishing it in Photoshop, a source of never-ending wonderment.
“I rarely turn down a job,” she says. From illustrations for The Washington Post to puzzles, and the tops of cookie tins for Royal Dansk Danish Butter Cookies, she’s done it all. A sideline she’s pursuing now involves removing the contents of old watches and replacing them with painted scenes, which she hangs from chains as necklaces.
Those acorns on her desk? Will she study these for her next project? For now, she smiles and remains mum. It is, after all, a subject requiring further research.
More of Schwartz’s work can be found at CSIllustration.com