An Interview with Doris Ettlinger: Illustrating Books

Feb 6, 2013 by

Michael Shaughnessy –

1)      Doris, when did you first start drawing or doing artwork ?

I drew as much as any child, but by 5th grade my drawings were attracting my classmates’ attention. Craving more attention, I consciously worked at improving my drawing skills. My mother was a dormant artist, waiting for her children to grow up so she could have to time to paint again. (She eventually became a popular watercolorist where we lived on Staten Island.) My mother encouraged me by buying supplies, drawing books, and driving me to art lessons. In high school, I participated in a scholarship figure painting class at the Brooklyn Museum. Eventually I went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design.

  1. Could you tell us about some of your most recent books that you have illustrated?

The last two books I’ve illustrated have been about children moving far away, separating themselves from the familiar to start a new life.

A Book for Black-eyed Susan by Judy Young takes place on the Oregon Trail. I still have a tough time reading the story out loud without choking up. The writing focuses on the emotional story of 10 year old Cora. I amplified Judy’s words with the characters’ expressions and body language. I also provided the historical detail and setting. My treatment of the vast landscape and sky in watercolor reflect the emotions in some of the spreads.

My latest book is Welcome to America, Champ! by Catherine Stiers. Part of Sleeping Bear Press’ Tales of the World series, this story takes place in an English village during WW2. Young Thomas’ widowed mother marries an American GI. A year after the war ends, Thomas, his mother, and baby brother travel on the Queen Mary with thousands of other war brides and babies. For this book I changed my color palette to reflect the popular colors of the era. Again I provided settings and historical detail. I kept my father’s army uniform hanging in my studio for reference and inspiration.

3)      How difficult is it to conceptualize what an author needs or wants to communicate?

The hardest part is the blank page at the beginning of a project. If I’m lucky images will come to mind as I read the manuscript. I start with very small quick sketches. I keep the emotional tone in mind as I compose the pictures.

In the opening scene of …Black-eyed Susan the word I focused on in the author’s text was “glowing”.

4)      How intensely do you work with authors to capture the emotional tone of a character or book?

Editors prefer that the author not communicate with the illustrator until the book is finished. The words are the author’s part of a picture book. I take my direction from the words and honor them, but I am commissioned to illustrate because of my visual expertise. The editor and art director believe my style will be a good fit for the story. If an author were to share her notion of what a scene should look like, it would unduly influence me and cramp my style. Authors are sometimes asked to suggest an illustrator and they are usually shown the first round of sketches. If they have concerns, they can let the editor know. My authors have always been happy with my work.

5)      Is there any one genre that you prefer to work in? For example, children’s books? Or books for adolescents?

I love picture books, but it would be fun to illustrate work for older kids. I want to develop black and white work in my portfolio that would be suitable for interior art in middle grade books.

  1. Have you won any awards for your work?

The Orange Shoes by Trinka Hakes Noble won numerous state reading awards, as well as the International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award 2008, Best Books of the Year 2008 – The Children’s Book Council, Bank St. College, BookSense Children’s Picks List 2007-2008, and the National Parenting Publications (NAPPA) Honors Award 2007.

A Book for Black-eyed Susan has also received recognition, including the Kansas National Educational Association Reading Circle List 2011, National Parenting Publications Awards Gold Winner 2011, Society of School Librarians International Honor Award 2011, and Chicago Parents Magazine Best Book List.

An earlier book, Pigeon Hero by Shirley Raye Redmond   won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award Gold List in 2004.

7)      What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a story I’ve written myself. It’s going through many changes. I hope to submit it for publication this year. I’m also experimenting with new styles for my portfolio. My usual medium is watercolor with colored pencil. I’m creating pieces with watercolor over a scanned and printed pencil drawing. I want to preserve the spontaneity of the original drawing in the final art. I’ve attached an illustration done this way called, “Little Nell and Grandfather Fleeing the Moneylender in London”, done for a Dickens’ 200th anniversary show.

  1. Do you have a web site where people can check out your work?


Also, I have a public facebook page where I post news of what’s happening in my studio.

9)      What have I neglected to ask?

As an artist it is always good to have several different ways to make a living. Besides illustrating children’s books I also teach watercolor here in my home – an 19th century gristmill on the banks of the Musconetcong River in Warren County, New Jersey. My demos and students’ work can be seen on our public facebook page .

I have also recently opened an Etsy store where my original watercolors and prints of my illustrations can be purchased. or go to my website and click on “store”.

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