Art and Astrid
‘It’s like making a little movie,’ says Greenfield author
Children's book author and illustrator Astrid Sheckels looks up from her art table in her Mead Street studio. Tacked to the wall behind her are drawings from "Holger the Dane," a story sparked by her childhood experiences visiting her grandparents in Denmark. Recorder/Trish Crapo Recorder file photo/Trish Crapo
Astrid Sheckles at Eric Carle Friday
Astrid Sheckles is children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Greenfield. She has illustrated several charming books and recently released “Nic and Nellie,” the first children’s book that she has booth written and illustrated. She will be at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst Friday for a discussion that promises to give people insight into how such books go from an idea to reality. All events at this museum are kid-friendly. See “Literary.”
To create this detailed watercolor illustration, Greenfield children's book author and illustrator Astrid Sheckles began by posing children and dog in a rowboat in her backyard in Greenfield. Photos she took were then composited with photos she'd taken in Maine to create a layout Sheckels could use for reference when she began to paint.
A watercolor illustration of one of Astrid Sheckels' new characters, Penelope Rabbit, lies among the tubes of paint and other supplies that Sheckels used to create her. "Watercolor is not very forgiving," Sheckels said, "But I grew up with it. I've learned to make it work." Recorder/Trish Crapo
Greenfield children's book author and illustrator Astrid Sheckels poses with Vivienne Potee of Northfield, who modeled for the character of Nic, and dog Nellie, who modeled herself during photo sessions Sheckels organized for her new book, "Nic and Nellie," out now from Islandport Press.
Vivienne Potee of Northfield and Nellie, a dog that belongs to children's book author and illustrator Astrid Sheckels and her sister, posed at Poet's Seat for this illustration that graces the cover of Sheckel's new children's book, "Nic and Nellie."
A couple of summers ago, if you happened to be hiking along the ridge near the Poet’s Seat Tower, you might have seen a little girl about 8 years old standing near the edge of the cliff, pointing excitedly toward Greenfield. By her side, a big, black, long-haired retriever with a bit of white on its chest was panting slightly, staring off in the same direction. You wouldn’t have been able to resist turning to look, too, wondering what had caught their attention.
Today, if you walk into World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, you’ll see the same girl and dog perched on a big rock overlooking the ocean while seagulls fly overhead. Girl and dog grace the cover of Greenfield author and illustrator Astrid Sheckels’ new children’s book, “Nic and Nellie.”
Though the transformation may seem magical, it’s the result of the hours of careful planning, patient photography, computer compositing and, finally, imaginative and skilled drawing and painting that Sheckels puts into all of her books. Sheckels, who grew up in Hatfield and now lives and works in Greenfield, has been illustrating children’s books since 2009, when she painted the illustrations for “The Scallop Christmas,” written by Jane Freeberg and published by Islandport Press of Yarmouth, Maine. Sheckels said she got that first assignment when the press contacted her about a year after she gave one of its representatives two sample illustrations during a children’s book conference.
“They called me up and said, ‘We’re all in agreement, we want you to do this book,’” Sheckels recalled. It was an exciting moment that kicked off the then 27-year-old Sheckels’ children’s book career.
Sheckels graduated from Greenfield Community College in 2004. Though the college’s art department does not offer a program in book illustration, Sheckels studied painting and design.
“I basically took almost every art class they had,” she said.
After graduating, Sheckels spent a few years teaching art classes, which she still holds twice a week at her Mead Street studio, mentoring individual students and developing stories and illustrations to pitch to publishers. Those first few years out of school, she focused on “trying to develop a style,” Sheckels said.
Sneaking in little details
Her first book with Islandport was followed by an offer to illustrate a second, “The Fish House Door,” written by Robert F. Baldwin. Opportunities to work on an historical storybook from Twin Lights Publishers and two Random House volumes in the “Horse Diaries” series followed soon after, with all three of those books appearing in 2012.
The book for Twin Lights, “Hope Somewhere in America: The Story of a Child, a Painting, and a President,” was a challenge, Scheckels said. Written by Sydelle Pearl, the book tells the story of a real girl named Hope Sequoyah who meets Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, after her portrait is painted by artist Robert Brackman as part of Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project. Sheckels did extensive research to make sure that clothing, hair styles, the interiors of homes and street scenes were historically accurate for the year 1934. She researched other paintings that would have been hanging with Brackman’s in the Department of Labors Building in Washington, D.C., details she said mattered to her even though she knew that others might not notice.
She did, however, insert Greenfield’s Arts Block building into one Washington, D.C., street scene, “Just for fun,” Sheckels said with a grin.
Sheckels often begins work on her illustrations by taking photographs. No mere snapshots, these photos require organizing models, props and locations to create the scenes she’s envisioned and sketched. The process can get complicated, especially in a book like “Nic and Nellie,” which features nine characters and spans several days, meaning that the main characters must change clothes several times. Sheckels also did extensive photo sessions just with the dog, she said, in order to have a variety of gestures and poses from which to choose.
“It’s like making a little movie,” Sheckels said.
She later brings the photographs into imaging software on the computer, where she’ll layer characters with scenery to create rough composites she can reference as she paints her final watercolor illustrations. For some of the harbor scenes in “Nic and Nellie,” Scheckels set up a rowboat in her backyard, loaded it with her child models and snapped some photos while the boat actually rocked a bit on the lawn.
“I really wanted to get the kids in a rowboat and not just have them pretend they were in one because I thought, ‘I’m just not going to get the positions right otherwise and it’s going to look awkward.’”
Photos she’d taken up in Maine provided reference for the other boats that appear in the final illustration.
“They’re not pretty,” Sheckels said of her composites, but they help to bring the scenes she’s imagined to life and give her a layout from which to start painting.
“Nic and Nellie” is Scheckels’ sixth book in print and marks her debut as an author as well as an illustrator. In a simple storyline, Scheckels follows the emotionally complex journey of her young protagonist, Nic, as she spends her first summer alone with her grandparents on an island in Maine. Because Nic has been to visit plenty of times with her parents and sisters, she doesn’t expect to feel homesick. But even as she hugs her mother goodbye, Nic begins to feel nervous.
“Maybe she wasn’t so big and brave after all?” she wonders to herself.
Sheckels’ detailed watercolor illustrations capture Nic’s vulnerability and changing moods. They also depict the story’s various locales: the kitchen and bedroom of the old house; the front porch where Nic watches the sunrise with her grandfather while he sips his morning coffee; mudflats and harbors; the woods where Nic and her grandmother pick blueberries. Sheckels likes to hide details in her illustrations, such as a bottle of window cleaner in the kitchen or a deer just barely stepping out of the shadows in the woods.
“When I was a child, I loved picture books where you would look at it and you’d just discover more and more as you looked,” Sheckels said. “I guess one thing I’ve learned as I’ve illustrated more books is that all those little details pay off. It’s the kids who notice those things first. Adults just flipping through might not notice (a small detail) but a child goes right to it.”
Sheckels said that she drew from her childhood experience of visiting her maternal grandparents at their summer home on an island in Denmark for the emotional arc of the story and then created a character based physically on Vivienne Potee of Northfield, who was willing to pose as a model. Potee and some of the other children who posed for her during the summer of 2011 have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the book, Sheckels said, and may show up at her book launch and signing to be held at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield on Friday, July 19, from 4 to 6 p.m. (For more information, please call the store at 413-772-2186.)
In addition to signing books, Sheckels has prepared some displays that give a sense of the process she works through to create a final illustration. And there will be a big, life-sized cut-out of the dog, Nellie, that Sheckels painted on cardboard, just for fun.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.