Anna Raff is an illustrator and lecturer working in New York City. She has a unique style of art described as ‘illustrative watercolor’ as seen in several children’s books including World Rat Day by Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, Sylvia’s Spinach by Katherine Pryor, and Things That Float and Things The Don’t by David A. Adler.
She has always wanted to be an illustrator, although you could say she began her career as a graphic designer and art director working for 10 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After completing further study, she received her Masters of Fine Arts from the School of the Visual Arts.
Her illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Kiwi Magazine, among others; on TV on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and MTV’s “Woodie Awards.” In 2010, she created Ornithoblogical, a blog of bird-related imagery.
Anna is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts Illustration Summer Residency Program. She has an Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Arts from Connecticut College, and lives in New York City, where there are reportedly four rats per human resident.
Anna Raff was kind enough to grant Featured E Magazine this interview.
Where did you study before embarking on a professional art career?
I have a liberal arts degree from Connecticut College, where I was an art major. After working as a graphic designer and art director for 20 years, I got an Masters in Fine Arts in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts.
How would your describe the transition from art student to professional artist?
Extensively drawn out? Or maybe just part of a mid-life crisis? When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t really see a way to pursue illustration as a profession and support myself, so I put it off and went the more stable route until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was doing work I didn’t really care about much, and hadn’t been drawing at all. I was almost 40, and had a great job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but knew I would be wondering for the rest of my life if I could pull it off—you know, being an illustrator. When I graduated from the School of the Visual Arts, not only had I had two years to completely hone my craft, but I also gained a community of like-minded artists who were trying to make all this work for themselves. That and a few art directors who really took a chance on me made all the difference.
“An art director called me a “watercolorist”.
This was quite amusing to me
since most of my work is digital,
even though it all starts out on paper”
What is the principal message of your art work and do you have a favorite art medium?
As an illustrator, my work is meant to communicate the text with which it is paired. I don’t really have any overall message, more of an individual point of view or sensibility, and that’s what I’m hired for. Generally, my work is light-hearted, hopefully humorous, and occasionally surreal, so you could say that that is some kind of message.
I work in ink washes that I assemble and color digitally, with a few bells and whistles added along the way. Because I love gouache (even the smell of it), I thought that was how I should work, but after extensive trial and error in grad school, and direction from a few key instructors, I relented to washes and don’t regret it at all. Recently, an art director called me a “watercolorist”. This was quite amusing to me since most of my work is digital, even though it all starts out on paper.
It seems your primary work is illustration for a number of books, including children’s books. What has been some of the most memorable and favorite projects?
I’ve learned something with each one, so there’s bits of each that I really like. Illustrating a book is a marathon, and I’ve always thought of myself of more of a sprinter so I really enjoy the little moments where problems got solved within the process. That being said, “World Rat Day” was a real pleasure, and I credit my publisher with extending the trust and freedom to do what I wanted. The wackier, the better it seemed, and that suited me fine.
World Rat Day book trailer by Anna Raff, her first book with Candlewick Press:
Also, I’ve been illustrating some non-fiction science picture books by David A. Adler which have provided interesting opportunities that I wouldn’t have considered at the outset. The concepts of these books, “Things That Float and Things That Don’t” and “Simple Machines”—the latter due out next spring—can be pretty dry, but the fun for me has been creating a non-verbal narrative that relates to the book’s overall content, but also becomes a back story tying it all together. These books require a ton of visual problem-solving, but also a way for me to entertain myself and hopefully the readers too.
What was it like working with Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis on the book World Rat Day?
One of the great misconceptions of children’s publishing is that the author and illustrator are collaborating directly. It’s more common for the publisher to make the marriage of author and illustrator, and act as the liaison between them during the creative process, keeping us out of each other’s hair. I like to think of it as the “secret sauce” of publishing. Often, an author and illustrator don’t ever meet, and that has been the case with Pat and me. Although we have since connected on through various social media and email. With text as rich as his and all the opportunities he provided me, I felt like there was a real connection. It’s a great feeling when you’re working on a book and you can say to yourself, “Oh yeah, now I get why they asked ME to do this.” It’s very gratifying.
You give a number of lectures and master classes that include teaching. How was the experience of the SVA Summer Residency?
The Illustration Residency in which I teach attracts a high-caliber number of artists, illustrators, designers. It’s such an intense program, thankfully the students have been more than ready to put everything they’ve got into it. It’s challenging, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time. I’m still pretty new to teaching, but one thing I got out of my education at SVA and that I try to convey to my students that since making art is such a solitary experience, you might think you’re the only one going through or struggling with this or that. There a real sense of community that develops.
You had some talented art students attend your SVA Summer Residency. Are there any experiences that stands out?
I ran into one of them a few weeks ago, and this student said she said she had a real breakthrough with her work in my class. I have to say, that felt great.
Who has influenced you the most as an artist?
I think I’m still influenced by a lot of my favorite books, comics, cartoons, TV shows, characters from childhood. So everything from Tomi Ungerer and Charles Schulz to Bugs Bunny and The Muppets. Also, I often have the voices of my own teachers in my head: Marshall Arisman, Guy Billout, Pat Cummings, Mirko Ilic, Viktor Koen, my piano teacher Mrs. Manning from my hometown…
“I try to convey to my students
that since making art is such a solitary experience,
you might think you’re the only one going through
or struggling with this or that.”
How has social media impacted you as an artist?
It’s been extremely helpful. It’s so much easier to promote yourself and reach an audience than when I was right out of college. A few years ago, an art director told me she felt like she knew my work and sensibility so much better through what she’d seen on social media. When I had just finished at SVA, and no one wanted to hire me, I knew I needed to do something that would keep me drawing, so I created Ornithoblogical, a place where I post weird bird illustrations everyday for a year. Since it was completely self-generated, I didn’t have to answer to anyone but myself, and it gave me another platform from which to promote my work. I still post things, but not daily since the blog did its job and got me real work.
Can you describe how you typically secure work to illustrate a project such as a book for example?
I send out postcards or a more elaborate mailing a couple of times a year to a select group of art directors and editors. I also post regularly to my blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. with news about what I’m up to. And every once in a while, an email arrives about a new project.
Can you describe the work you did for the Series for a child development lab at the University of Maryland.
I was contacted by one of the directors of the lab to work on a logo project and to create some illustrations for their website and other areas. Their main area of study is to learn how kids interact socially at a very young age, and to see how it could be improved. So I chose to illustrate kids in a bunch of different social situations. We chose a detail from one of the illustrations that I then developed into the logo.
You have created a number of book covers. How does the conceptual design of doing a book cover differ from other projects?
It’s creating a mood or atmosphere in one piece that is meant to convey something from the entire volume. You’re telling the story without telling the story, if that makes any sense.
Anna, your Vimeo videos are fantastic! How did you get into Vimeo animation and how has this helped you with your art presentations?
Sometimes I just have an idea I want to convey, but primarily I use it as a form of promotion. I’ve always had an interest in animation and dabbled here and there—nothing too serious. When my first books were published, I wanted to make trailers for them so that they might be picked up by bloggers and others, and generally attract a little more attention. So I taught myself a little bit of Adobe AfterEffects, and there you have it.
Things That Float and Things That Don’t book trailer by Anna Raff:
What is the best piece of advice you can give to an upcoming art student?
Keep drawing and don’t get hung up on the idea of having a style—just draw the way you draw.
Anna is presently working on a number of projects including The Wrong Side of the Bed, a picture book for G.P. Putnam’s Sons written by Lisa M. Bakos; Simple Machines, a non-fiction picture book by David A. Adler; and Little Card, a picture book for Candlewick Press by Charise Mericle Harper.
Simple Machines , published by Holiday House, will be available in the Spring of 2015. Thank you again, Anna, for this wonderful interview.
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Anna Raff is an illustrator living in New York City. She has illustrated several books for children and has been featured in such periodicals as The New York Times, Kiwi Magazine and The Washington Post.