Transcript from an interview with Denise Fleming

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Denise Fleming. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Denise Fleming

Meet Denise Fleming

My name is Denise Fleming. I write and illustrate picture books for the younger child. My books are focused on great language. In my books you usually find rhyme or refrain, repetition, alliteration and verbs. Those are the things that are most important to me.

I use a lot of verbs, a lot of action words because I hope when people read my books, they will act out the books because I really think picture books are like small plays. The books are illustrated in a process called pulp painting which is a hand-made paper process and it's wet cotton fiber that's floating in water and I pour it on a screen and I build up later on top of layer of wet fiber.

I cut stencils for particular shapes or I draw with the fiber in squeeze bottles. And when I have the effect I want, then I flip the paper off, press it and dry it. So I actually make the picture and the paper at the same time.

If you look at the pictures really closely, if you take a magnifying glass, you sometimes can see the little tiny fibers or little threads.

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Paint, chisels, and power tools

My dad had half of the basement and he would like take tables that were my grandmother's and he would build a reproduction of it. And he would carve duck decoys. And so there was always a lot of paint and tools and stuff around and a lot of chisels.

And he let me work with any of the tools. He never kept me from working with anything. So I had a lot of confidence early on and, as an adult, I love power tools. I mean, my husband and I built our studio. So a lot of that just filtered through to my adulthood because I had no fear of power tools which I found a lot of people do.

They're afraid they're going to cut off their hand the first time through, which you could. But I would spend hours down there with him when he was working, finishing tables and I would be in the corner. And he set up a big, I had a big enamel kitchen table that was my workspace and only my stuff went on there.

And he had a scrap box for me. So I would spend a lot of time down there. I just really enjoyed doing that. And I enjoyed just being with my dad because my dad wasn't a talker, he was a real quiet guy, and so it wasn't like you'd have a conversation with him so much.

It was just like being with him, doing something with him.

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A box of pastels

The best thing my dad did was we went to this art store and there was this really big box of pastels.

And it was on the sale table but it was still very pricey. It was a wooden box and it has all these beautiful Degas pastels in it. And so we took it up to the counter and the fellow who was at the register said, well, you know, that's really for professionals.

And my dad said, "My daughter is an artist." And so he bought me this — and I still use it. It's all beat up and there's little chunks of pastels and I don't have all the colors, but I still use it. So that was like this just wonderful thing. He made me feel like, well, I really was an artist.

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A freelance life

My focus at art school, when I first went to art school, I was in advertising design. But a lot of my instructors suggested that I go into illustration because I really loved more the painterly kind of thing.

So I did that, and when I graduated, I got a job in Grand Rapids, Michigan at a place called Designer's Workshop. And that was a great job because I learned how to build furniture. We did all these funky restaurant interiors.

And I learned how to make lamps and do electrical, how to wire lamps and carve and everything. And my husband was my boyfriend then and so, because he'd pick me up from work every day and chat with the guys there — they were all from the Netherlands and they all were skilled craftsmen, it was a small company — they hired him, too.

So then he learned how to do carving and he did a lot of carving and now he does sculpture. But that all started from working at Designer's Workshop. And then we just were freelance artists for years and years, doing all sorts of different things, anything where we didn't have to have a nine to five job.

So I've always been in some form of arts here and there. I taught for a very brief period for the City of Toledo, taught arts and crafts. And for a brief time, I traveled to New York and I worked for a craft company, was a designer, but I also demonstrated craft products at toy fairs and things like that. So I would just pick up different things, but all art-related.

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Ego on a plate

So I took this papermaking class which was actually more sheet paper. It wasn't images, anything that I do now, but I was so taken by the process and I started experimenting and I combined that with manuscripts because I wanted manuscripts that had like great rhyme and focused on nature and great language, because I loved words from those vocabulary word things that I used to do with my mom.

And so I put them together and I went back to New York with a new portfolio and my first appointment was at Henry Holt & Company and I met Laura Godwin and she offered me a two-book contract. So really I did have success. I did that kind of apprenticeship with the other, the mass market characters and then I went back with my own stuff and it just clicked immediately.

And it's been great ever since. My first book was In the Tall, Tall Grass and it was really well-received so I actually, within the first couple of years, could make a living off my books which is pretty amazing. People were just great about them.

And certain states like Texas were just so behind me, Texas and California. It was wonderful. Scary, though, going around with your portfolio is scary. It's like, you know, ego on a plate. It's like, please like me, please like me.

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In-house book design

My husband, David, works with me. He's an artist, too, and he actually has all the technical skills. I design my books because I have a certain look in mind when I come up with the idea and I want that to go all the way through.

So we pick the type face. Often, he'll adapt the type face for me because it is important that, when I have young readers, some type faces, a "d," the ascender, the stick on the "d" might not be tall enough and it might be a little confusing to a beginning reader. It might look more like an "a."

So sometimes, we'll modify type faces. If I want the type to kind of go in a curve across the page, I just indicate that and then I'll draw a line and he'll make the type so that it does that. Or if it goes from bigger to smaller, or in my one book where it's the flashing beetles, the type actually looks like it's flashing.

So he works with me on all the placement and gets all the mechanicals ready. He scans my art in and does all the placement so that when it gets to New York, they know where all the type should go and where all the crop, the cutoff edges are on the art.

But he also works with me and it's funny because sometimes when I can't get an idea to work, he'll give me suggestions. And the joke is that his suggestions are always really pretty bad but it usually gives me an idea for where I want to go.

So then it comes time for the bad suggestion conversation. But that's very helpful. And my daughter, she used to be more involved in my books. She teaches at a junior college and she's kind of my editor/proofreader ahead of time.

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Making paper

The papermaking technique is very physical and that's one of the things I like about it. The technique that I used to illustrate in, I call it the ricky, ticky technique. It was really tight little colored pencil lines and watercolor. To begin with, it made me very cranky when I worked that way because I was all hunched up all day long.

And with the papermaking, it's very physical and I love the water, the sound of water dripping through all the time. It's very physical. And my old style, it was not really me. It was kind of sweet and quiet and I'm not sweet and quiet at all.

And the papermaking is very graphic and very bright and it's a louder style and really out there. And also, in the design in my books, when I was a kid, I really wanted to get up close and put my nose against the glass and touch things, so I do a lot of close-ups in my books, too, and the papermaking lends itself to that.

It's also a challenge to figure out how to do things in the paper. And as I've worked with the paper, I've gotten more skilled so there's more that I can do with it, because it was a little intimidating in the beginning to try and get tiny detail areas.

But I go to the home improvement centers and look at all the new materials out because I found that under-layment for laminate floors and I now can use that to cut stencils. So I'm always looking for new products to work with the paper.

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The process

The way I get the color and the texture, the fiber comes to me in big five gallon buckets that weigh 42 pounds. And it's wet. It's recycled cotton rag fiber from the garment industry. The company I buy it from is run by papermakers.

And they take that fiber and they put it in like a huge blender, it's called a Hollander Beater, with water, and they beat it and beat it and beat it and beat it. And I use very fine for my illustration which means I think they beat it like fourteen hours.

So then they send it to me and I then use, divide all the pulp up in containers and I color it with a pigment and add more water so that the fibers are really floating. So then I have all these colors, these big buckets out, and then I have a frame with window screen on it very tightly stretched and another frame that goes on top to keep the fiber on the screen.

And I just pour the fiber on this screen and the water drains through and the cotton stays on top. And to get specific shapes, I cut stencils. But like if you look at my books and you see one of the rocks where it kind of looks like granite, where the colors are separate, I'll just put a little bit of each color in a cup and I just kind of swirl it a teeny bit so that they don't really mix.

And then you get that granite effect, because actually individual fabrics all keep their own color. It's like your eye makes them blend. It's like four color printing. If you look at it closely, it's all those little dots. It's really the same way because the fibers don't change color.

Like you don't put yellow and blue fibers together and end up with a green fiber. What you end up with is little, tiny yellow threat next to a little, tiny blue thread and your eye blends it. So that's the way I make my pictures and it's very involved.

It's not a hard process but there's a lot of process and it takes a long time because, after I flip the picture off, I sponge it to get a lot of the moisture out and to compress the fibers together. Then I put it in a vacuum table and I suck more moisture out of it.

And then I put those in a drying press between blotter sheets which I change a twice a day and homosoak boards I change twice a day for four days. You know, it's got bands around it to keep the paper flat. So there's a lot of process.

I can't do things very quickly, let's say. Like if I was doing a water color, somebody could call me in the morning and I could do a watercolor and send it out that night. I can't do that at all.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl