Skip to main content


January 14, 2015

Studio Tour

On a Wednesday afternoon in late November, less than 20 minutes from my Brooklyn apartment, I dropped into a very special place where I found myself watching photographs of trains pop off the page in WAITING FOR THE CARS: Alfred A. Hart's Stereoscopic Views of the Central Pacific Railroad, 1863-1869, while LOCOMOTIVE author/illustrator and 2014 Caldecott winner Brian Floca explained the difference between stereoscopic and anaglyphic 3D images.

Behind me, Sergio Ruzzier sat at his desk working on sketches for THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK, and in front of me, Sophie Blackall talked to her editor about FINDING WINNIE, her new picture book featuring the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh. Madeline illustrator John (Johnny) Bemelmans Marciano had already left the studio, and BAD APPLE author/illustator Edward Hemingway wasn’t in the office that day.

Was I in a strange picture book wonderland? Well, I was in the shared studio of these five eminent picture book illustrators, so...yes!

The group first got together when Sergio invited Brian, Johnny, Sophie and the original fifth artist --- John Rocco --- over for brunch several years ago. "I don't think it actually ever happened!" Johnny said, "but in the email chain Sophie said she was being evicted from her studio, and I needed a space, and it snowballed from there." 

Get a sneak peek of my tour below, where I share photos of  the workspaces of Sophie, Johnny, Sergio and Brian, as well as some of the highlights of my tour.  It will definitely make those of you who are artistically inclined consider this as a career direction...and inspire the rest of you to take some art classes!


Sophie Blackall

The Ivy and Bean illustrator's space was bursting with personality, and when I walked in I felt like I'd entered the visual artist's version of the store Anthropologie --- it was full of vintage knick-knacks, muted colors and jars of jauntily-angled paint brushes. Sophie probably could have sourced the Little Mermaid's entire collection of human thingamabobs.



Sophie's walls are filled to the brim with images that she's had for years and has moved from studio to studio. They're not just pretty to look at, though, they also share practical facts as in she never remembers which side of a man's jacket has buttons and which side of a woman's blouse buttons, so images of clothing help when she works! Some of the other decorations, like the boat, were made by her own children.



Sophie and Ivy and Bean author Annie Barrows used to bring this Ivy and Bean museum with them to school visits. And those suitcases it's sitting on top of? They're full of collage materials and old drawings, but don't ask for more specifics than that; Sophie said, "I haven't looked at them in awhile...maybe there's something I need in there!" Let's hope she finds it.













Sophie is hard at work illustrating a new book by Lindsay Mattick called FINDING WINNIE, based on a bear cub who became the unofficial mascot of a regiment in England during World I. After the bear was donated to the London Zoo, she developed a special relationship with a boy named Christopher Robin, who just happened to be A.A Milne's son. 

On the above left, Sophie meets with her editor, Susan Rich, to talk about the progress of the book. On the right you can see some examples of the illustrations she's working on right now --- she spent six hours researching the exact color of the train station in the image!

"When working on nonfiction picture books, I have to pay much more attention to every little detail --- there's lots of fact-checking," she noted. Johnny Bemelmans Marciano added that even when illustrating fiction books, fact-checking comes up --- usually by a professional at the very end of the process. "When I did MADELINE IN PARIS, the fact-checker said there weren't enough columns on the Lincoln Memorial [5 vs.13], but the image was too small! Thirteen would have looked ridiculous, so I didn't change it."



Sophie told me that her 17-year-old daughter occasionally comes to the studio to help out (scanning, going to the post office, organizing, etc). One time she brought her fish and left it, and it's still sitting next to Sophie's desk. "It's our office fish, but it's o-fish-ally my daughter's," Sophie explained. (And yes, that pun was all Sophie). 














On the left you can see a collection of paintbrushes on Sophie's desk --- and the image from FINDING WINNIE that she's working on in the mirror! 

On the right is a collection of Ivy and Bean books from Sophie's library. All of the books she's written and/or illustrated are on the top of her bookshelf, and the left column is dedicated to foreign editions. The shelf is also teeming with research books, and on the far right is a collection of scrapbooks and old photo albums, "which [she] just like[s]."

John Bemelmans Maricano

John (Johnny) Bemelmans Marciano's desk has a very different look than Sophie's --- it's fairly calm and minimalist, with his computer being the most prominent feature.

Admittedly, this is probably because Johnny has been working on writing more than illustrating, recently. His latest work is WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE METRIC SYSTEM? How America Kept Its Feet --- an adult nonfiction book that it is about as different from his Madeline series as it could get.

He's currently working on another writing project, this time a children's book called WITCHES OF BENEVENTO, which is illustrated by Sophie Blackall (yup, the one who you just read all about!). "It's nice to have the ability to bounce ideas off of each other!" he said.








On the left is a copy of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE METRIC SYSTEM?, and on the right is one of Johnny's bookshelves. The top is filled with books about a historical town in France famous for witches, which he's using as background research when writing WITCHES OF BENEVENTO. The shelf right beneath it tells you everything you'd want to know about measurement.

"When I write nonfiction, I do lots of writing here --- I need all of my research materials to be in one place! When I write fiction, it's a bit more 50/50 [between the studio and home]."












Even though Johnny is concentrating on writing at the moment, he clearly is still an illustrator at heart. On the top left is a collection of some of the art supplies on his desk, and on the top right is the cabinet where he stores his illustrations.                         






Like Sophie's kids, Johnny's daughter contributed to some of his wall art.







On one of his other walls is this whiteboard, which actually belonged to John Rocco, Johnny's studiomate before Edward Hemingway.

"He came back from BEA and updated it," he said, while Brian Floca shouted across the room, "is there anything that's still not done?"

"We should ask him if finished BEEP BEEP," Johnny answered (which, according to the list, was due in September 2014.)


Sergio Ruzzier


Like Sophie, Sergio Ruzzier's studio space is dotted with wondrous objects, which he generally finds at old markets or on eBay. Below are some photos on his wall of "mystery spots" that he likes because "they're kind of uncanny," and another recent eBay purchase --- a stuffed animal slug that came with a book by one of his favorite illustrators.











Sergio's wall is also adorned with an original print by Arnold Lobel, the author/illustrator of the Frog and Toad series. They never met, though, because Arnold had already passed away by the time Sergio moved from Italy to the United States. But, as Brian Floca assured, "he would have waited if he knew you were coming!"

And you might wonder, Why doesn't Sergio have any of his children's art on the walls, like Sophie and Johnny do? "Because it's too good!" he jokes. Johnny Bemelmans Maricano said that he once walked by Sergio's desk and, seeing something new on the wall, said, "'I love the new direction you’re taking,"  but it was made by Sergio's daughter! Whoops.










Sergio gave me an inside look at some of his recently publshed and upcoming projects. Above, you can see some of the art for A LETTER FOR LEO, his November 2014 picture book about a mailman who cares for a bird named Cheep during the winter. On the above left is Sergio's initial sketch of the cover, contrasted with the final version. When sketching, Sergio first draws with pencil on paper. Then, he traces it onto watercolor paper, draws over it with ink, and, finally paints with watercolors. On the above right are all of the illustrations that eventually made it into the book.


Here are some test prints for Sergio's upcoming book, TWO MICE, which comes out in September 2015.

When looking at test prints, Sergio has to decide which type of paper he likes best --- matte or glossy, coated (smoother) or uncoated (more porous)? The texture qualities can effect the colors of the illustrations --- notice how the sky in the illustration on the left looks much bluer than it does in the illustration on the right. Sergio then discusses his choices with his editor and the art director, and they come to a final decision.






THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK is at a much earlier stage in the process. Sergio has already made a mock-up of the book, but now he's working on refining some of the sketches.










As Sergio works on his sketches for THIS IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK, he's surrounded by some of his most important tools --- his watercolors, his ink well (top left) and his very technical pencil sharpener (top right). And no, the Kinder Egg is not an art supply --- and it has very likely been gobbled up by now. 





Brian Floca

Brian's studio space reminded me of the perfect marriage between Sophie's and Johnny's --- the back resembled a museum, riddled with books and photos and models from his research adventures.















The other half is a bit more like a technology store --- on his desk to the left, you can see a desktop, laptop and scanner. "When something's wrong with my computer, Brian comes over and presses a combo of buttons and saves things," said Sophie. "Basically, I'm tech support!" Brian agreed.











When he's not fixing his studio-mates' computers, though, he's working on his illustration projects, of course. Right now he's illustrating a book called OLD WOLF, written by Avi (and using these toy wolves as models!) 

Usually picture book authors and illustrators don't have a lot of interaction, but Brian and Avi are an exception because they've known each other for years. He even shows Avi his illustrations before showing them to their publisher!

He also took me behind the scenes on some of his older and most famous books --- Caldecott Award Medalist LOCOMOTIVE and MOONSHOT: The Flight of Apollo 11.










Brian did plenty of research for LOCOMOTIVE --- he even has an entire section of his bookshelf dedicated to train books (top right). One book that  he found particulalry useful was WESTWARD TO PROMONTORY, a stunning volume of A.J. Russell's photos of the Union Pacific Railroad as it's being built. "We're together again!" he exclaimed when showing me some of his favorite images, including the one on the top left (see how it translates into one of Brian's train drawings!)


For MOON SHOT, Brian did lots of research, including visiting a real rocket in Houston and using a model to help draw specific parts of the ship. You can see the rocket from his trip to Texas on the left --- he showed me a photo on his computer. On the right, you can see the model next to his book illustration. Below, Brian puts the model back together.




















And of course, no studio could be complete without a kitchen, whose most popular feature is the coffee maker ("but don't drink and draw!" Sergio wisely advised). He added that Johnny's dream was to add a hot plate to the mix, whether or not he'd actually use it. 



So...was I right? Is it time to take some art classes and form a new career goal? If you'd get to work in a studio like this one, I'm pretty sure the answer is yes!