Hello, my name is Vanessa Roeder, but people call me Nessa Dee. I’m an illustrator, a painter, and a crafty mess-maker. A former muralist, I now spend my time making art for magazines, children’s books, and homes around the world. My work is created with layers of paper, acrylic paint, colored pencils, thread, and trinkets.
In addition to making art, I love teaching art to imaginative children, writing stories, acting in plays, and hanging out with the awesome ladies from my critique group, The Girllustrators. I live in Austin, TX with my husband, three kids, and a scruffy dog who continually feed me ideas for my next story.
My work has been seen in Highlights Magazine, and on Apartment Therapy, and my illustration portfolio received the grand prize at the 2016 Austin SCBWI Conference.
Thanks for joining me, Nessa Dee! First of all, I love your style. Your illustrations make me feel transported to my own childhood — soaking in all the details of a magical adventure and eager to learn more about the story. How did you develop your style? Are there any picture books from your childhood that influence your work? Any contemporary artists that you find inspiring?
Thanks so much, Margaret! My style evolved as I was making artwork for childrens’ rooms. I had amassed quite a collection of patterned paper from my failed attempt at scrapbooking. I didn’t want to waste the paper, so I started incorporating it into my paintings. As I moved into children’s book illustration, I carried the collage style into my pieces. There was a lot of trial and error in figuring out how to mesh the heavily collaged backgrounds with the finer details needed in the characters to convey a narrative, but then a friend suggested I start painting my backgrounds and characters separately. That did the trick. Now I cut out my foreground elements and shift them around the page. I feel like a kid again, playing with paper dolls. It’s quite fun. For Lucy and the String, I planned to use my collage style, but found it actually took away from the narrative. So I stepped out of my comfort zone and simplified my style to fit the story. I love the limited palette and simplified lines so much that I’ve been trying to incorporate this technique into newer projects. That’s part of being an artist, though. As you grow and change, your style evolves along with you.
I have very fond memories of my mom reading Beatrix Potter’s stories to my brother and I when we were kids. I spent so many hours pouring over the details of her illustrations. I wanted to live in the doll house that Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca moved into in The Tale of Two Bad Mice. As a teenager, I discovered Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales which to this day is one of my all time favorite books. I was blown away by the absurdity of the stories and illustrations. While my work doesn’t mirror these books in the traditional sense, I draw inspiration from Beatrix Potter’s captivating worlds and Scieszka and Smith’s zany humor.
I have a huge collection of picture books and artists that I turn to for inspiration. I love Melissa Sweet’s whimsical collages, Juana Martinez-Neal’s and Ofra Amit’s rich, textural illustrations, Christian Robinson’s fun, naive style, Zachariah O’Hora’s bold brush strokes and fresh color palettes, and the patterns and slightly skewed perspective in Rebecca Green’s illustrations. I could write a whole novel that lists the artists who inspire me, there are oh so many.
How does your previous work as a muralist influence your picture book art?
Most of my commissions as a muralist were to paint children’s rooms. I was able to explore many different styles of art based on the client’s needs, which helped me determine my own preferences. As a muralist, I wanted to create something magical that uniquely connected a child to their space. As an illustrator, I want to capture that same sense of magic, whimsy, and familiarity that I strived for in making murals.
I’ve read in a previous interview that your grandfather taught you how to work with several different media. Can you say a little about this experience for my readers? What are your current favorite media?
My grandfather was not a trained artist, but he loved to learn new art techniques and would often set up projects that we tried together for us to try together when I would visit. We worked in watercolors, pastel chalks, charcoal, pencil, and acrylics, many times following a step-by-step guide he found at the library, or trying to copy a picture he tore out of a magazine. When I went off to college, he gave me a huge collection of newspaper clippings, church bulletins, and magazine pages he had saved as art references which now sits in my studio shelves. He continues to add to this collection to this day.
My favorite media are cut and torn paper, acrylic paint, and Prismacolor pencils. I love the texture and depth that layers of paper and paint add to my illustrations. There’s something cathartic about the whole process of tearing and gluing paper, slapping on layers of paint, and seeing what surprises develop.
You’ve spoken in past about finding the workshops and classes at The Writing Barn very helpful. What did you find most unexpectedly useful about these experiences? Do you have any advice for aspiring picture book creators about how to get the most from the experience?
The classes I’ve taken at The Writing Barn have been instrumental to my journey as a picture book author. I was very intimidated to share my writing with others, but I found a very warm and welcoming group of people. It’s this sense of community that, to me, is one of the biggest benefits of taking a class. It didn’t matter at what stage we were in our writing career; everyone was there to learn, and we all had something to offer. These classes gave me more confidence as a writer and helped me overcome the daunting dread I felt when trying to revise a piece.
For those aspiring picture book creators, my advice is to go into the class with an open mind, ready to learn. Don’t be afraid to try something wildly different with your writing and revising. Make connections with classmates and keep in touch beyond the class. This journey can be long and difficult, but having a good support system in fellow writers and illustrators can make all the difference.
Two weeks after signing with Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, you sold two books to Dial Books for Young Readers! When you signed with an agent, how long had you been working on your manuscripts? Do you have any advice about finding an agent?
I started writing picture books in 2011 and wrote my first version of Lucy and the String in 2014 as a part of an illustration assignment for a children’s book writers and illustrators conference. It started out as just a series of 20 little wordless scenes, which I taped together accordion-fold style. Over time I turned it into a wordless picture book and started sending it out to agents. Rebecca actually contacted me after seeing Lucy and Hank on my blog and asked if I could send her the book. We worked for about five or six months revising the book before she offered representation. It was a great experience in the sense that I got to know how we would work together as an agent/client team before I signed with Writers House.
I’d advise those who are trying to find an agent to be patient. Take time to research the agents and agencies you plan to query to make sure they will be a good fit for your work. Don’t rush to submit your work as soon as you finish the last illustration for your dummy book (something I’m guilty of doing). Instead, make sure you’re putting your best foot forward. Something that helped me immensely in my search for an agent was to change my perspective on the process. It’s easy to get bogged down by multiple rejections, but look at each submission as a stepping stone getting you that much closer to your goals and see what you can glean from the experience that you can put in the next submission.
What have you found to be most helpful about participating in a critique group? Are the other members of your group at the same stage in their career? How did you find your critique group?
I am a part of the most amazing all female critique group called the Girllustrators. I was invited to be a part of the group in 2015 after getting to know many of the members through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meetings. We’re all at varying stages in our writing/illustrating careers. Some of our members have published numerous books, some are searching for agents, while others are taking time to build their portfolios. We meet once a month and do a collective promotional mailer together once a year, which is actually how my agent found me. While we do critique each others’ work, our main purpose is to be a solid support system for each other. We cheer each other on with each success, and hug each other through each struggle. The support and encouragement that these ladies give me not just as authors and illustrators, but as caretakers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends is invaluable.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes! Hold dear to the reason you fell in love with writing and illustrating in the first place. This industry takes perseverance and bravery, so have a constant reminder of why you’ve chosen this path to help you slog through any difficult and disheartening times. Also, surround yourself with a great support system of creatives who will inspire and encourage you at every step of your journey.