Illustrator Profile - Giselle Potter: "Just make art you love and someone else will love it too."

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 3, 2016

Giselle Potter is an editorial and book illustrator who has created artwork for over 25 books, including some that she both wrote and illustrated. She is a brilliant visual storyteller whose bright, childlike paintings (with occasional collage) mix hints of folk art with rich textures and nuanced meanings. Her most recent books include Tell Me What to Dream About and This is My Dollhouse.  Potter says about her favorite illustrators, “They all have a heartfelt, inspired, free, handmade quality to their work.” That’s also a perfect description of her own work. Potter got her start in editorial illustration with a series of assignments for The New Yorker. She continues to work for many publications, most notably The New York Times.

It’s not surprising that I became an artist because I grew up surrounded by a family of artists. I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s studio, where he let me add to his abstract paintings and music. When I was three, my parents started a puppet theater company called “The Mystic Paper Beasts” and my sister and I traveled and performed with them throughout the United States and Europe. My drawings and illustrated journals from my travel and experiences with the Beasts inspire me still, and led to my children’s books The Year I Didn’t Go To School and Chloe’s Birthday..and Me.

I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1994 and spent my last year in Rome with RISD’s European Honors Program. Chronicle Books then published Lucy’s Eyes and Margaret’s Dragon: Lives of the Virgin Saints, a book of saint paintings and stories I made while I was in Rome.

After moving to Brooklyn, I got my first freelance illustration job with The New Yorker. My New Yorker illustrations inspired a lucky chain of work with many magazines and children’s books. I have been working as an illustrator for 20 years now. I live with my husband and two daughters in Rosendale, NY.

I have a studio on our property that we built about 12 years ago.

It is my own little space that is separate from our house and daily life with no distractions (except sometimes my computer). I have pictures that I think might inspire me on the walls and I always appreciate the view from my window of a field and little mountain.

I usually sketch things out with pencil and then paint with either Dr. Martin watercolor or gouache and sometimes collage.

I was very lucky because right after I graduated from RISD, I did some illustrations for The New Yorker, and that started my career immediately.

I had moved to Brooklyn, thinking I would stay for a few months, work in a café and bring my portfolio around to see if I could get work as an illustrator. In those days The New Yorker had a drop off and pick up day. It was raining when I went to pick up my portfolio and I had dyed my dress blue and all the blue dye was running down my legs but I assumed I wouldn’t ever meet anyone in person, so I didn’t care. To my surprise, Owen Phillips, an art director at that time, came out and sat with me and ended up buying pictures right out of my portfolio box for the magazine. For some reason I had real paintings in my portfolio instead of copies… probably not a great idea but it worked to my advantage. He called me pretty regularly after that to do illustrations for the “Goings on About Town” section. It was a dreamy job to be sent to dance, theater, music performances and movies and to make pictures of them. Other art directors contacted me just from seeing my New Yorker illustrations and then children’s book editor Anne Schwartz offered me my first manuscript and I have been working with her ever since.

My biggest influence is my family. My paternal grandparents and my parents completely encouraged and inspired me to be an artist. I always admired my grandmother's taste in art and design and my grandfather's dedication and devotion to making art. Having young artist parents that decided to take my sister and I out of school to travel through Europe and perform in the streets with their puppet theater was a huge influence on my life, not only from the rich experiences of travel but also from the alienating feeling of being different than the other kids I met. When I was little, my dad made me feel like I could make anything. His studio was our garage and he saved everything in it to make his assemblage sculptures, masks and puppets. There were springs, doll parts, beads, rubber bands, poles, wheels, belts, bottles and jars... I could come to him with any kind of project and he would find the parts to make it. My mom worked closely with me to make a lot of art and journals where we glued my drawings, saved tickets and wrappers and wrote stories.

Mostly, I admire anyone in any field that creates their own work with their own hands and is inspired and prolific: A chef that creates new tastes and food combinations, a ceramicist, someone who sews.

Some people are just fabulous or lucky enough to have their names known but I admire all the unknown creative people. I admire all the creative people that keep reinventing themselves and are fearless about taking risks because I wish I was more like that.

I admire any artist that is driven by inspiration rather than a need for recognition.

Art museums (especially the Met) can be very inspiring but I am much more inspired by staring at real people.

I have a lot of books of Indian miniatures, plants and animals and folk art and collections of old photographs and postcards that I sometimes take out for inspiration but I get most of my ideas from looking at nothing, staring into space or taking a walk or a drive by myself. If I am enjoying my life, eating good food and having fun times, I feel more inspired to be creative.  

Sometimes I want to show someone other than my husband or my editor what I am working on and get another opinion. Sometimes I want someone else to tell me what I should do.

I was so excited to get the cover of The New York Times Book Review assignment. I always wanted to do that and it felt out of the blue because I hadn't done anything for The Times in years.

I would love to create one of those exciting store windows, or theater scenery or a mural or design wallpaper or fabric or more animation. I love that it is even possible for unexpected projects like that to come up in this field of work.

I love that children’s books are a long project—sometimes six months.

The hard part for me is making sketches and then waiting impatiently for sometimes months to hear back from my editor about what I need to revise. I love when I get to the stage of a book where all my sketches have been approved by an editor and I can just paint on my own for a few months. I really like the painting part.

I have much more difficulty writing than illustrating. The books I have written, I wrote first, then illustrated. When I wrote I didn’t even think that much about what it would look like—it is a totally separate part of my brain at work. I found illustrating my own stories particularly challenging. For the ones about my childhood, it was difficult to portray my real family and memories instead of having the freedom to just create characters and worlds.

The book I am most attached to is The Year I Didn’t Go to School, because it is about my childhood and family. I recently did two books, Tell Me What to Dream About and This is My Dollhouse, that were inspired by my daughters, so I am quite attached to those too.

My favorite book with another writer is Cecil the Pet Glacier by Matthea Harvey. I love her story because although it might seem surreal and comical, I could still really relate to the main character, a girl with unusual parents who just wants to be normal.

Lately Catherine Gilmore-Barnes has given me quite a few assignments for The New York Times science section, which has been a nice change with unfamiliar subject matter. For children's books I love working with Anne Schwartz and her team, Lee Wade and Rachael Cole. I have been working with Anne for so many years now that I feel we understand each other and I can trust her suggestions for revisions and I have always appreciated her enthusiastic energy.

I see so many illustrations I like but I don’t know or remember the  illustrators’ names. Some that come to mind right now are: Laura Carlin, Joohee Yoon, Maira Kalman, Esther Pearl Watson. They all have (in different ways) a heartfelt, inspired, free, handmade quality to their work that I am attracted to.

I haven’t entered into the whole world of Instagram and all that, which I think would keep me more up to date about what’s current and going on out there. In my own world, when my work starts to feel like an old routine, I try to mix it up with a new medium, new colors, more collage or something to feel more exciting and new.

I do American Illustration and Society of Illustrators and I am represented by Riley Illustration. My rep sends out promotional emails, but I think it would be best if I went out and met more art directors in person.

Don't try to fit into anything, or make something you think someone else will like. Just make art you love and someone else will love it too.

See more Giselle Potter illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Giselle Potter website
Riley Illustration (rep)