Meet the Illustrator: Hilary Jean Tapper

Keep drawing. Draw for the love of drawing. No matter what happens, do it for the love.

Hilary Jean Tapper

Hilary Jean Tapper is a picture book illustrator, Courage Doll creator, filmmaker, Creative Arts Therapist and researcher, based in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is perpetually in pursuance of, and enchanted by, the magic of the arts. She’s also obsessed with existential philosophy, vegan food, small things and rainbows. Hilary’s work seeks to inspire the courage to create, and to remember our connection within, with those around us, and the greater world we are a part of.

Illustrator Insight

What does art mean to you? Phew, what a question! Art has been, and continues to be, a central part of my life. My grandfather was a New Zealand artist, and from as early as I can remember, I identified with him – I wanted to be an artist too! I love so many different forms of the arts: drama, film, dance, painting, drawing, music, and have been involved in these since I was a few years old. I struggled with depression in my teenage years, and it was the arts, particularly filmmaking, which got me through. When I was 26 I enrolled in a Masters programme in Creative Arts Therapy, and since then, my understanding of and love for the arts and creativity has only expanded and increased, especially in regard to its therapeutic capacities.

What’s the best aspect of your artistic life? The best aspect of my artistic life is that there’s never an ‘end’, every new creation offers something new – new possibilities, new ideas, new styles. There’s no summit to the mountain of art, only the next image, the next dance, the next creation. There’s no limit to our imaginations and possibilities.

—the worst? The worst aspect of my artistic life is the flip side of the best aspect of my artistic life – never feeling satisfied!

How do you approach an illustration project? Walk us through your creative process. The beginning of a picture book is my favourite step in the creative process. I love receiving the manuscript, reading it through for the first time, and diving into ideas and characters, imagining what I could do with it. I’ll then take my pencil and copy paper, and freely sketch out some of these ideas. I love watching the characters evolve from the pencil lines! Once these characters are approved by the publisher and author, then I move to storyboarding, then black and white roughs, then colour roughs. Each of these rounds involves feedback from the publisher. Once everything has been fine-tuned we move to the final art.

How much time do you spend on creating each illustration? I have no idea! There’s no time in creative time! One image might blossom in an hour. Another might be ten!

Do you have a preferred medium? My favourite medium to work in is watercolour paint, with pencil and permanent ink outlines. I am currently experimenting with bringing a little more loose colour pencil and gouache paint into the mix.

Is there any area of art that you still find challenging? Oh, the whole thing! I am always challenged by my inability to give form to what I can imagine, but I also know that this is the very task, and wonder if it may always feel like this. This is the role of the imagination – to envision what is always yet to come. I am also constantly challenged by creating the final art, I find it quite paralysing to create what feels like it needs to be “perfect”. It is terribly uninspiring, and I freeze up and can’t paint at all. I have to try to by-pass this by listening to fun music, dancing, and getting paint on the page without thinking too much about it!

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as an illustrator? I am still starting out as an illustrator, but with every book I learn something new, even just within the three books I’ve finished, I can see how much I have grown and changed. It was a huge learning curve doing my first book – so many new lessons – how to draw the same character across 32 images from different angles, how to create enough paint to be the same hue across 32 images, how to sit and illustrate for 40+ hours in a week! (My hand was so stiff and couldn’t move after my first book!) These were things I had no idea about, and probably wouldn’t have unless I illustrated a book. Now I feel a tiny bit looser and more informed in how to pace myself and prepare myself for each book, so this helps. If I were starting out for the first time now, I would just tell myself “Trust the process”.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an illustrator? I actually went to a children’s literature conference called the Wild Imaginings Hui in Dunedin before I received my first picture book contract. At the conference I was able to hear from and speak to some of New Zealand’s best and experienced children’s book illustrators, and their advice gave me so much perspective as well as inspiration. Meeting illustrators and hearing about their experiences prior to this journey starting was a real blessing.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? I’ve been blessed with so much good advice! But probably the best advice I’ve ever been given, which got me through the panic I experienced painting my first picture book, comes from Deborah Green, saying “Stay close in with the art”. To me this meant keeping close in to my body, my senses, my feelings, and to the art materials. It’s so easy for me to loose touch with both and get swept up in my head and thoughts, fears and inner critic. But staying close in with my body and the art materials, allows me to stay with the process of artmaking, to keep breathing through the difficult space, to be open to the unexpected, to let the art lead and just enjoy the mystery of the creative process.

Other good illustration advice came from New Zealand illustrator Jenny Cooper who I had the great fortune of hearing speak live at my local library. She gave so many tips that day, I wrote down almost everything she said. But one of the best parts was hearing her say that our final art will never be as good as the roughs. There’s an aliveness and beauty when it doesn’t “have to be” perfect, and I lose it when I do the final art, I get all rigid and tight. I felt permission in this moment to just accept and trust the creative process, and accept there won’t be perfection at any stage.

What’s your top tip for aspiring illustrators? I keep coming across so many drawings, sketches and paintings I’ve done over the last ten years. Looking back on them, I can see how much I have grown through experimentation. All that I can say, other than the extraordinary blessings I’ve had in my life and the endless support of my husband and my family, is keep drawing. Keep drawing. Draw for the love of drawing. No matter what happens, do it for the love.

What is your creative dream? My creative dream is to see more and more opportunities for people to engage with the arts and creativity. I felt so fortunate to have the arts in my life when I was really struggling with depression as a teenager. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I hadn’t had that. I hope to help bring the arts, creative arts therapy, and the multitude of ways we can be creative in our lives, more and more into schools, communities, and young people’s lives.

Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why? Haha, how is getting stuck in a stalled lift light relief? Well, I would probably be quite anxious if this happened, and so I would definitely want my husband with me because he is a super relaxed person, plus he’s a beautiful singer. So maybe he would sing some songs to help pass the time!

Book Byte

Freddy is certainly not a Teddy, but that won’t stop him from being the star of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic in this inspiring story about inclusion, friendship and staying true to yourself.

Freddy is Jonah’s favourite stuffed toy, but no one knows quite what Freddy is – a funky duck, a peculiar platypus, a punk rock penguin? When Jonah’s teacher announces that they’re going to have a Teddy Bears’ Picnic, it seems that if Jonah wants to take Freddy, Freddy will have to go in disguise!

Jonah and Freddy try all of their best Teddy Bear disguises, but nothing can quite cover up the fact that Freddy is a little different. What should Jonah do? He loves Freddy, but should he still take Freddy to the picnic if he doesn’t look like all the other teddies?

Find out what happens when Jonah stands up for himself and for his beloved Freddy in a heart-warming story that will resonate with any child who has ever felt like they’re a little different. A celebration of inclusivity and being kind to others, Freddy the Not-Teddy will inspire young readers to express themselves just as they are!

Buy the book here.

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