Jan Brett on Drawing and What it Takes to be an Illustrator

“Instead of watching television, take just half an hour and create something. The feeling you get when you create something entirely new is very compelling.”

Author Jan BrettWith over 40 million books in print, Jan Brett is one of the most popular authors and illustrators in modern children’s literature. She’s also a treasure trove of advice for kids learning how to draw. In a variety of interviews, Brett shares timeless advice on how to get started in the competitive world of illustration. And in over twenty videos, she provides detailed instructions on how to draw the animals featured in her critically-acclaimed books.

According to an interview on TeachingBooks.net, Brett first knew that she wanted to be an illustrator when she was in kindergarten.

I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator since I was in kindergarten. I can remember the exact day. The art teacher usually came to our classroom once a week, but she was absent that day. Instead, our regular teacher gave us each a huge piece of paper and crayons, and we could do whatever we wanted. My family had been planning to go to the circus, but it was canceled at the last minute. I was very disappointed, so I decided I would draw the circus on my paper.

We had an hour to do this, which is a long time for a kindergartner, but I just was swept away by this project. I drew all the things I thought I would see at the circus. It was probably better than the real circus. I imagined the stuff I would eat, horses (I loved horses), ladies with feathers on their heads, and more.

When I finished, I just said, “Oh, this is what I want to be when I grow up.” When I was asked what do you want to be when you grow up, I would say, “I want to be an artist.” And they would say, “Why don’t you become a children’s book illustrator?” In those days it was the kind of job a woman would do. They would also suggest I become a teacher.

I love children because that’s a part of my life that was so happy, and I like to remember back to those days where everything is a discovery, and the world is so fresh. I loved being a child. If I do have a talent, it’s not so much being an artist, but it’s being able to remember back to that time.

Jan Brett's Drawings
Jan Brett loves drawing animals. (Illustration: Jan Brett)

Brett is an author and illustrator, which means that she has to come up with an idea for a story before she starts writing or drawing. Inspiration and creativity are different for everyone, of course. Brett finds that ideas for stories and characters can pop into her head virtually anywhere, at any time.

It’s very complicated because each book has its own path. When I go for a run, sometimes I’ll think of an idea. There’s something about all that oxygen when you’re running that makes you get good ideas. Sometimes before I go to sleep I’ll say, “I need the answer to this question.” Then I’ll sleep on it, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I’ve got the answer.

I have these ideas in my mind for a long time, and then they will come to me. Sometimes I’ll have an idea that will be in my mind for 10 years, like The Easter Egg. I didn’t have all the pieces together.

I ask children, ‘Have you ever seen a shooting star when you’re out at night? All of a sudden you see this giant meteor going by that is maybe green and blue, and it lights up the whole sky? Ideas are like that.’

Sometimes, I will pull an idea out of some other ideas that I’ve had, and it will just kind of evolve. Other times, boom! It will be like that shooting star. I’ll just get the whole idea at one time, and it will just be like an explosion in my head. Each one is really different.

Jan Brett drawing a moose
Jan Brett (Photograph: Pen Pals & Picture Books)

It may come as a surprise to younger readers, but drawing is an intricate, painstaking process for Brett. It typically takes her an entire year to create a single children’s book. She uses watercolors with very small brushes to illustrate all of her books. In an interview on the Scholastic website, she said that “it takes an hour for me to draw an inch,” and “I do spend a week on a double-page spread.”

The books take a year just to do the drawing. I will travel to a country to do the research and get ideas. Sometimes I don’t travel to do research, but mostly I do. It takes a long time, but do I ever get tired of it? Not really. The characters kind of grow and evolve.

I just love to draw. It’s very intense for me. The day will just go by like the snap of a finger. A lot of times I’ll draw or paint late into the night. When I am really concentrating, I kind of lose track of what I am doing.

I’ll go to bed, and the next morning I’ll look at my artwork and say, “Wow!” It kind of took on a life of its own and directed me rather than me making conscious decisions for the art. It’s almost like a force takes hold of me. I think it’s a human condition, this ability to story-tell either with words or with drawing. It’s just something that takes over and comes from your subconscious.

Artwork from the book Mossy
Artwork from Jan Brett’s children’s book Mossy

Brett frequently tours around the country to visit with children in schools and bookstores. She occasionally provides drawing lessons during her lectures, and according to the interview on TeachingBooks.net, she shares personal drawing advice with the children.

When I go to a school, I show them how to draw something. When I look at all their drawings at the end, each one will have so much individuality and pizzazz. I tell them how important it is that they have some way to use their creativity because it’s such a treasure that each person in the world has this little box of traits and talents and experiences that is totally different from anyone else’s.

I like to tell them about looking at their fingerprint, and how theirs is different from everybody else’s. It’s the same way when they draw a picture. I admire the way they’ll present the same image that I’m presenting, but they’ll put their own ideas into it.

For example, when they draw a lion, the mane might be totally fluffy, or a hedgehog will be pink or will have long eyelashes or will have big muscles in its legs. They just take things that they’re interested in or are part of a story that’s in their head, and put it into their drawings. I find that incredibly inspiring and hopeful about human beings.

Jan Brett with elephants
Jan Brett in Africa (Photograph: Jan Brett)

Brett provides additional drawing advice for children in the interviews, including another interview on BookPage:

  • “Give yourself time. Instead of watching television, take just half an hour and create something. The feeling you get when you create something entirely new is very compelling.”
  • “When I make a mistake in my pictures, I start a new picture or just erase. And some of the best things happen when I’m fixing a mistake.”
  • “It’s not as easy to write a story as you may think. The stories find me, I don’t find the stories.”
  • “I keep painting until I feel like I can hear the sounds, smell the smells, and feel how soft the fur of the animals is. Drawing is like tennis, or playing the piano, or playing basketball. The more you practice, the better you get. Anybody can learn how to draw.”
  • “Everybody has their own style. Figuring out what makes your style work is part of the process.”

For kids interested in improving their drawing skills, or just trying to draw some of the animals in Brett’s stories, Brett provides over twenty video drawing tutorials on her YouTube channel.

Children can watch Brett’s detailed videos to learn how to draw an elephant, a giraffe, a stork, a tiger, and much more. Complement with books by Jan Brett with drawing advice from other illustrators.

Exploring the Delicate Relationship Between Nature and Civilization in Jan Brett’s Mossy

A tender reminder that wild creatures are happiest in the absolute freedom of their native homes.

Cover of the book Mossy by Jan Brett

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Henry David Thoreau told the citizens of Concord during one of his lectures in 1851. “The most alive is the wildest.” And yet most civilizations inevitably find themselves at odds with nature, a fact that author and illustrator Jan Brett explores in Mossy (public library), a touching children’s book about a turtle named Mossy who is plucked from her native habitat and put on display in a museum. Mossy changes the lives of those who view her, but captivity temporarily changes Mossy’s life for the worse.

Like many of Brett’s other books, Mossy is full of beautiful, detailed illustrations of the natural wonders present in the Northeastern United States. But it’s the story that packs the real punch by touching on controversial animal welfare issues. Predicated on the radical notion that animals are thinking and feeling beings who have needs of their own, the story suggests that humans should refrain from keeping wild animals in captivity for observation. The thought-provoking subject matter is sure to raise questions.

It all starts with Mossy, an eastern box turtle who looks like most other turtles, except for one notable difference: she has a garden full of flowers growing on her shell.

On a misty, moisty morning, a young turtle stood at the edge of Lilypad Pond. Her name was Mossy. Mossy liked this damp, cool place. She spent so much time here that curlicues of moss began to grow on her carapace, until her shell was covered with them. As the spring days got warmer, tiny ferns unfurled and wildflowers began to blossom. Soon Mossy’s shell was home to an amazing garden.

Artwork from the book Mossy

Dr. Carolina and her niece Tory discover Mossy one morning while they’re out on a walk. Dr. Carolina decides that Mossy would be a perfect addition to her museum. In the museum, they “made a home for Mossy in a viewing pavilion with plants, a reflecting pool and everything they thought a turtle would need.” From then on, Mossy calls the viewing pavilion in the museum home.

Artwork from the book Mossy

Artwork from the book Mossy

Mossy is a popular attraction at the museum, but she’s not happy there. She misses Lilypad Pond and her turtle friend Scoot.

Mossy was lonely for Scoot. She had stopped looking at her garden in the reflecting pool because it made her remember those ruby-red eyes, shining like jewels, peering at her from Lilypad Pond. Thoughts of Scoot only made her sad.

Tory notices that Mossy seems despondent. Things come to a head when Tory asks her aunt whether Mossy is happy in the museum.

Tory frowned. She loved the museum. She had helped her aunt collect wonderful things on their walks. But Mossy was the first living creature that Dr. Carolina had taken to live in the museum. Is that why she looks so sad? Tory wondered.

‘Do you think Mossy is happy here?’ Tory asked her aunt.

‘Does she have any turtle friends?’ the children asked.

‘No, but here we all have the opportunity to see her.’ Dr. Carolina paused. The children had given her an idea.

Dr. Carolina decides to take Mossy back to Lilypad Pond, but not before inviting a pair of artists to create a beautiful painting of Mossy for the museum. The artwork of Mossy and her beautiful garden remain on display for all museum visitors. Back at Lilypad Pond, Mossy and Scoot reunite and (ahem) start a family together.

Artwork from the book Mossy

Artwork from the book Mossy

On the book jacket, Brett shares how she came up with the idea for Mossy.

One summer morning, my husband, Joe, and I were dangling our feet from our dock on Goose Lake. I was watching some waterweeds on the bottom, thinking they looked just like a giant turtle. Suddenly, they swam up towards us. It was a turtle, a huge snapping one, with an underwater ‘garden’ on its shell.

That experience gave me the inspiration for Mossy. I chose an eastern box turtle because I wanted my turtle to live on land and grow a gorgeous garden on her carapace. I named her friend Scoot because a turtle’s shell is made up of plates called ‘scutes,’ pronounced the same way.

Joe and I thought it would be wonderful to have our own turtle pond. So we built one with rocks for sunning, caves to hide in from predators like raccoons, and water deep enough for hibernating during winter.

It has taken time, but finally turtles have found their way to our pond and moved in, joining the first resident, a huge, noisy bullfrog.

For readers interested in coloring, Brett has generously created a coloring sheet (also in PDF format) of Lilypad Pond. Brett also has an incredible twenty minute video that provides detailed instructions on how to draw an eastern box turtle.

Mossy is an endearing children’s book about love, loyalty, and home. But it’s the story’s underlying implications about nature and our relationship with it that are truly enduring. As civilizations continue to encroach on nature, the story’s message — that wild creatures are happiest in the absolute freedom of their native homes — will become ever more relevant and challenging. Complement it with The Giant Jam Sandwich, a delightful story about an epic battle between humans and wasps.