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Visual Voice with Vanessa Brantley-Newton

As artists, every living experience informs our work. Let's let that sink in.

For example, if you spent years cleaning Victorian houses, you might know the difference between Gothic and Queen Anne windows, maybe even which ones should show up on the house you need to get from your imagination onto paper. Or say you were an avid birder. You could probably draw a cardinal and a bluebird side by side with all the anatomical differences correctly detailed.

All of those seemingly insignificant bits of experience create something special when added up and tossed in the blender that is an artist's brain. I call it Visual Voice. Essentially, whatever makes you WEIRD makes you AWESOME, especially when you pull that awesome weirdness into your artwork. It's what sets you apart and makes you unique.

The greatest compliment I can think of for an artist is when someone says they can recognize your art without seeing your name attached to it. It means that your style, or Visual Voice, has become your signature.

There are a number of artist I admire who exude Visual Voice, and today I want to share a few questions I got to ask rockstar illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Even if you don't know her name, you know her work. Vanessa has a signature style that comes from studying multiple disciplines from graphic design to fashion, and her work graces such books as Just Like Me, Grandma's Purse, and Mary Had a Little Glam. (As well as loads of others). She is a NYT Bestseller and has won gobs of awards for books she's written and/or illustrated.

F: Hi Vanessa! Thanks for joining me. Let's start with an easy one. Did you have a childhood nickname?

V: Nessa, Nettie, V

F: When I look at your work, I see elements of typography, graphic design, fashion, and illustration. Which was your first love?

V: Fashion!!! So sorry for screaming!

F: You studied at the School of Visual Arts and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Who’s the most interesting person you met during those years?

V: Sergio Rizzer. He taught a class called Children's Book Illustration from the Edge. It was one of the best classes in children's book illustration I have ever taken. Sergio pushed the envelope on how Americans address death in children's books and how The Europeans address death. He really stretched us and challenged us to learn to tell stories even when it's hard things to talk about but share them in a delightful and entertaining way for children.

F: Your color pallets really pop! Where do you find inspiration for fresh combinations?

V: I can't say it enough pinterest pinterest pinterest! It is the best place to find color palettes. I also collect vintage children's books and I love looking at the 3 color process as well as the full color process as well.

F: Go-to snack to keep the creative juices flowing?

V: Hummus preferably red pepper hummus. Also fig apricot and lemon crackers from Whole Foods–they have seeds and nuts in them. Also red grapes.

F: What’s a subject you’ve never illustrated a book about but would love to?

V: A love story

F: Did anyone ever tell you you’d never make it? What would you say to them now?

V: Oh my goodness what a wonderful question. I had a bunch of people tell me that I wasn't going to make it. My father said to me that he was not going to pay for college if I was going to go to school for art. Since I am African American he believed in his heart that if a child can not see somebody that is doing what they long to do that is their color then they will not be able to achieve that particular thing. I also had teachers and counselors tell me the very same thing. I find that the best revenge though is never telling people oh look at me. Or see what I've become, but rather to live well. That seems to shut people up or at least move on to something else.

F: To finish, what's the best message you ever got from a reader?

V: I had a woman email me about Grandma's Purse. She said "Up until now I have not been able to read any children's books that have grandma's or any grandma stories. Just a year ago we lost my husband's mother and the year before that I lost my mom. It was hard for us and all my daughter wanted was stories about grandmothers. I walked into a store and I saw the cover of Grandma's Purse and I was compelled to pick up the book and read it. I started crying and my daughter asked me why I was crying and I told her that Vanessa Brantley-Newton just gave me back my Grandma." That was just one of the stories I could share with you. There are hundreds more. It is why I do what I do.

Learn more about Vanessa Brantley-Newton (I won't call her Nettie unless she gives me permission) at or follow her on Instagram.

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