FEATURED ILLUSTRATOR Bridget Strevens-Marzo: a roundabout road

Bridget Strevens-Marzo
Bridget Strevens-Marzo is this month's Featured Ilustrator. Visit her gallery on the Showcase. Bridget tracks her roundabout road through words and pictures.

The Banner
Thank you W&P team for choosing this spread from Mini Racer by Kristy Dempsey to launch the new blogzine! Family illness interrupted my work on it in 2008. Bloomsbury published it in 2011, just before I moved to East London after over 2 decades in France.

Kristy's text is a rollocking rhyme with no mention of who exactly Mini Racer is. So I was free to create characters and invent several visual sub-plots. And I wanted the slowest and most generous character to win.
first rough character sketches for Mini Racer ©Bridget Strevens-Marzo

After I’d finished, I realized some of the vehicles were like later models of Richard Scarry's cars - which I'd seen as a child. Here’s a storyboard done before I changed the first two spreads: 
Second rough storyboard for Mini Racer (ink line and photoshop) © Bridget Strevens-Marzo
I spent ages on the grey-blue road texture of the original US edition. Waterstones UK wanted the cover changed to a flat yellow before they would sell it in their shops. Which cover do you prefer?

US cover
UK cover

My path to publication

Without the Puffin Club, I might never have been an author-illustrator. Among my collection of timeless Puffin Posts from the early 70s, I recently found an encouraging note (below right in red ink) from Puffin editor Kaye Webb, accompanying a book token and pin cushion (of all things!) for a piece I wrote aged around 9, about happiness.  "It's quite difficult to know what you haven't got" she writes.  But recognition for what I loved doing was the best prize ever.

My Sixth Form English teacher suggested I try for Cambridge University rather than art school because at 18, I could write well enough. I chose King’s College because they had an art studio, and juggled between words and pictures, studying Chinese and Art History and illustrating for Granta & student newspapers.
As a student I painted this portrait of my artist father John Strevens. From an East End background, and against the odds, he ended up supporting a wife and four daughters with his painting. I learnt perseverance from him.  

John Strevens in his studio © Bridget Strevens 1979

After graduating I joined my Catalan mother’s family in Paris, attending the Ecole des Beaux Arts and copying at the Louvre. Later I translated the UK edition of a huge book about Matisse. Monet’s letters and other translations followed - a roundabout way into publishing, as were my illustrations to poetry (I know a few poets!) and the odd book cover like this 1985 fictional portrait of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner reproduced recently in the Times Literary Supplement.

Cover for Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner ©Bridget Strevens,1985

When my oil paintings were lost in a fire in my house in Senlis near Paris, a friend reminded me of my childhood dream of making children’s books.  As a child travelling abroad I had focused on small things- peculiar breakfasts, different sweets -  so I included this in the first story I wrote and illustrated, Toto in Paris.  
Three books later and before my second child was born, I landed a dream job for a while as a salaried author-illustrator, brainstorming and storyboarding CD Roms for children.  The multi-layered stories, comics, games and things to do and make that I loved in Rupert Annuals and the Puffin club attracted me to the exciting but slippery interactive world. Interactive content needs anchoring to reach its users; stand-out characters, a clearly-defined concept or a niche market help - and physical media too. It’s not an either-or situation and it's making everything more exciting. I see that

e-books are encouraging better-looking printed books.  

We all, kids included, need a variety of things to hold, that look and feel good.  
With my first computer in the late 1990s I created two novelty book projects with a very different approach, all about hands-on exploration.
My first web site in the late 1990s, led to a commission to illustrate Margaret Wild’s Kiss, Kiss!  A co-edition success in a more traditional style, it brought me other book commissions and success in the US with publishers like Harper Collins.   Alongside that, graphic games and stories for French children’s magazines pushed me into new experiments that led to doodle books  which also sold in many co-editions including the Tate UK.  At last a steady income from illustrating children's books, though less time to write my own!

children's magazine illustrations by Bridget Strevens-Marzo, Bayard Presse France

Enthusing (all too easily!) about other people’s books as well as enjoying working discussions, helped with work as SCBWI International Illustrator Co-ordinator and on the Board of Advisors.  And now I’ve been asked to be occasional contributing editor to the Association of Illustrator’s magazine Varoom.  I give talks and illustration workshops for kids and adults, for the SCBWI and art schools.  A long and windy road to publication in very different UK, US, French and Australian cultures, taught me a lot.
Living a new life in buzzing Spitalfields and cycling to a shared Clerkenwell studio, I’m working on my own stories and concepts again after years of illustrating others. Fingers crossed for exciting news about those soon!

My process 
I adapt my approach to the purpose of the book. And it feels like beginning again every time, until I find the right tools for the job.   

That said, I use a pencil, a thin Pentel G-tec pen or more boldly a Pentel Brush Pen to sketch out ideas and work them up to scan in.  I also love painting directly in gouache, though I use simple splashy paintbrushes in Photoshop too.  My graphic pen allows me to be messy and experiment with layers, playing with paint and scraperboard, and testing out colour combinations.  But right now I’m working away in a shared studio when I can escape the computer. It can suck you in, and aggravate deadening perfectionism.  I fight to keep things fresh.  

My publishing tip

My first publishing deals were made over a detailed storyboard I had roughed out with a text I had written, later revised with the editor's help.  If you simply rely on a portfolio of single illustrations, at best you’ll have to wait until the publisher finds the right story for you.

Use SCBWI critique groups and workshops to help you develop your own story or concept across a standard format. 

Don’t worry if it’s rough or incomplete. On the contrary a perfect finished book dummy risks prompting publishers to ask ‘why not publish it yourself?’ If you can show characters in different situations in a readable sequence, you’ll stand out from portfolios with a gallery of single illustrations.  If a publisher loves the glimpse of a world in your story, they will help you finish the text - and you’ll earn more too!

Useful links

http://www.pencils4artists.co.uk (big choice of cheap pencils and brush pens) 
http://www.varoom-mag.com    the illustrator magazine

To see Bridget's Featured Illustrator Gallery click here!

Bridget's illustrator site http://www.bridgetstrevens.com
Bridget's blog  http://bridgimage.blogspot.com


  1. Thanks for sharing your journey, Bridget.I'm always curious to know why and how people end up illustrating or writing and what drives them to continue. I'm really hoping the painting of your father wasn't destroyed in the fire.

  2. Sad to say it was Maureen, but it was reproduced in a book about his work - another reason why I like books - multiple copies!

  3. Fabulous first Featured Illustrator segment Bridget. I know you worked hard on it and as always, you are so giving of yourself!

  4. How great to get that note from the Puffin editor as a child and continue that journey into books. The Mini Racer cover? It's the grey background for me, it makes the colours in the cars zing. But I guess the yellow cover stands out more from a distance in a shop. Thanks Bridget for sharing your story and wonderful illustrations.

  5. Thanks everyone! And yes Anna - I agree about that grey. Also it's more road-like too so it grounds the whacky vehicles.

  6. What a privilege to see into your life Bridget, thank you. And for the record, the blue grey background for me - the yellow makes my eyes sting ;)

  7. This is a lovely meaty piece - and I love your showcase! Interested that you adapt your approach everytime you start a new book - it's the same with writing, I guess! We have to learn how to write every book!

  8. Bridget, your work is fabulous. I loved reading about the development of Mini Racer and seeing the storyboards. My whole household loves 'when baby wolf was born' and dad wolf showing his son how to hunt. Thank you.

  9. Thanks folks! Glad you also like the grey Kathryn! And I hope to set a precedent for this monthly Featured Illustrator slot in sharing a bit of experience and a tip or two that might be helpful to others. (You have to scroll to the end for the tips!) But yes Candy every project feels like starting all over and that makes it interesting I guess!

  10. A very interesting feature - and so nice to see those old Puffin Club magazines (I have some of those too, I used to love the drawings in there). The letter from Kaye Webb is a true treasure. Great to see the thumbnails for Mini Racer (grey cover for me too, sad to lose the dotted white lines on the yellow). Looking forward to more in this illustrator series.

  11. I vote for the grey too! And lovely article, Bridget. Thanks for sharing. That's a lovely portrait of your dad. So glad it was conserved, despite that fire! Gail Noyer

  12. Thanks Jane (yes the artwork in the original Puffin Post is timeless - combining photos with drawings like that too!) and thanks Gail. Yay for the grey - and hum, do I dare mention to Bloomsbury that the Waterstones UK sales manager might have got it wrong? Bit late, I suspect!

  13. Fascinating & thought-provoking.

    BTW, my first thought on seeing the cars was "Richard Scarry"! A great influence to have; I think I loved his drawings as much as my children did. Eddd


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