e: Hi Mary Jane! What is your creative process, can you walk us through it?
Mary Jane: My creative process starts with one of two things—a story or narrative prompt supplied by someone else, or a story idea rolling around in my own head. If it’s a story thread that I’ve come up with, my first step is to either let it tumble out onto the paper/screen or start sketching. The muse is somewhat impatient—so I try not to ignore her :) A great book that talks about this is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Ideas don’t wait around—they will jump to someone else if you don’t give them attention! Once I start to write and literally draw out the narrative, I try to commit to thinking first about characters and compositions. I ask myself: what is this moment all about? What will be the best point of view for this? What is the emotional content of the scene? What are the characters doing or feeling in this moment that I’m illustrating? My first step is a storyboard or thumbnail layout, then color studies, finished sketches, then color finishes—with approval from the editor at the sketch stages. When I finish all of the paintings, I hand deliver to the publisher for safety…and for a chance to have a celebratory lunch!
e: What is your medium?
Mary Jane: I play with different mixed media- typically watercolor and pastel/colored pencil or watercolor, acrylic glazing and acrylics. For either method, I start with a ground, blocking in shapes of color all with watercolor. If I’m working with acrylic glazing material using acrylic gloss medium and acrylic paints, I seal the image with fixative to keep the watercolor from moving and then start layering color with transparent, translucent and opaque color.
"Cat in the Red Hat" won a Merit Award and will be included in the International 3x3 Illustration Show—Picture Book category
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
Mary Jane: I think that “Heart Art” comes from reflecting your own deeply held beliefs about the world. When you share that which is most important to you- you share your heart. You have to care about the message you impart to children because it can resonate deeply with who they are and what they believe in as they grow. Words and pictures are powerful, magical super powers…we must use them with wisdom and tenderness!
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Mary Jane: When I was asked to illustrate the first My Litle Pony trade book—I had only a set of toys and a handful of manuscripts from the animated TV series to get a sense of what kind of world and adventure I should create for the pony characters. Hasbro had such faith in me, they went to contract for the books without a manuscript! I then had to wrack my brain to think of a good story. Weeks and weeks passed and I had nothing. I took a nap while on a family vacation—it was raining and we were camping—what else can you do?! This little cat nap let my brain put together 1) the sound of the rain on the tent, 2) the lapping of the lake against the rocks, 3) PONIES! My brain added it all up and I woke up with the idea of sending the ponies on an underwater adventure…hence, My Little Pony, Under the Sparkling Sea was born. Note to self: napping = creative brainstorming.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Mary Jane: I think the best part about being a creator is that I get to explore so many aspects of inventiveness, and that keeps my brain percolating on the front burner constantly. Creating new courses as a professor at RISD, for an online course in illustration for Lynda.com or CreativeLive, writing and illustrating books and working directly with young children in the classroom (I do workshops with elementary school kids on character creation)—all keep me thinking and making. The most challenging moments are when I second guess myself and have self-doubt. We all have it and it stands with hands on hips—right in the way of the creative flow. Walking with that fear, knowing it’s the most common pitfall for creative people helps to move it along the path and allow me to keep going.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
Mary Jane: For my latest title, My Little Pony, the Dragons on Dazzle Island, I was responding to the tragic circumstances of the refugee children around the world needing acceptance, no matter what part of the world they’re from. The story involves island ponies upset with a group of dragons who’ve decided to take residence in the fields of gems that the ponies need to harvest. The ponies don’t seem to realize or care that the dragons are using the gem energy to help warm their dragon eggs, to help hatch their babies. The ponies must get past their own needs to recognize they can help the dragons to hatch their babies, instead of fighting about the gems. Moving past tribal connections to help someone else in need is critical to our humanity, and an important metaphor expressed through a very popular entity: My Little Pony!
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Mary Jane: I’m working on several different stories right now, all with really different sensibilities. One has political undertones, the other is nostalgic and the third is potentially for a new market—China! I will have spent several weeks in China lecturing and providing workshops for universities as well as touring different cities. I think it’s amazing to be able to travel, teach and share my stories with littles around the world. Pinch me! I think I’m living my dream :))
Bio: Mary Jane Begin
As an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department at RISD…Mary Jane feels INCREDIBLY lucky; she gets to do all the things that she loves to do. But in truth: luck + hard work + passion were and are the main ingredients for where she’s at now. It’s one of the reasons that she became the Internship + Professional Development Advisor for her department; she sees it as a way to help students get a running start into the professional realm, to open a doorway and give guidance into an unknown world. As an illustrator, she’s been able to explore painting and color with clients like Hasbro. Her latest books, My Little Pony, Under the Sparkling Sea and My Little Pony, The Dragons on Dazzle Island were a collaboration between Hasbro and Little Brown and Company. She’s worked with Celestial Seasonings, Mead Johnson and Disney, and has received awards from the Society of Illustrators, multiple Awards of Excellence from Communications Arts, the Irma Simonton Black Award, and the Critici Erba Prize at the Bologna Book Fair. Her artwork has been exhibited throughout the country with one-woman shows at Books of Wonder Gallery in New York and Beverly Hills, at the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, the RISD Museum, Society of Illustrators (NY), The DeCordova Museum, and Storyopolis in LA.