An Interview with Sarah Watts, Illustrator of Book Scavenger

Welcome to day three of our week-long launch party for Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s debut novel, Book Scavenger. Have you ordered your copy of the book yet? No? Well, go ahead, I’ll wait while you place your order through one of the sources listed at the bottom of this post, or while you drive to your local independent book seller.  ~~~~~~~~~All done? Great! You’re just in time. Now check out that awesome book cover, and thumb through the book’s pages. The art is fantastic, don’t you think? Today, illustrator Sarah Watts is visiting Emu’s Debuts to answer questions about working on Book Scavenger, and about her process in general.

Welcome, welcome Sarah!

What were your initial thoughts after reading Book Scavenger?

I reallyContentImage-3868-242201-Sarah_website_portrait_WEB loved reading Book Scavenger because it reminded me of the intrigue and mystery of moving to a new place when I was a kid. We moved a lot, and with each new place came a new set of challenges, and new stories to uncover. It was so easy to get into this story and imagine having these adventures like the characters. I just loved it. I was wishing the whole time that I had a game like this to play as a kid. But, I can certainly share this book with my future kids one day. Another cool thing is that shortly after illustrating this story I went to San Francisco for the very first time. It was so neat to see some of the places referenced in the story. It felt like a prequel to my trip, and the trip was almost like the story in that I was putting little pieces together that I remembered in the read.

Your art is perfect for Book Scavenger. In general, how do you decide if a project is right for you?

As far as finding the right story to illustrate, it tends to be very intuitive for [my agent] Abi Samoun and me. I have been working with Abi since before she started an agency, when she was an editor at a publishing house! She gave me my first book gig. I think because of this loScreen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.51.40 PMng relationship we both know when a book comes along that is just the right fit. I tend to get a lot of jobs that involve creepy houses, animals, and a touch of mystery. These are all things that I am very familiar with. I think drawing directly from your experiences make the richest images as they are true to your voice. When Abi and I run across a job that just doesn’t seem like the right fit for my work, we tend to realize that together.

Sarah, you have an eclectic, and impressive repertoire of art styles and mediums. What is your illustration and art background?

Thank you! As far as where my creative voice comes from, there is so much to say! Nature inspires most of my imagery. I spent a lot of time in the woods and in gardens as a kid. It was a therapeutic element for my family. We also had animals, a lot of them, and I adore drawing them in my work. We had chickens, 3 iguanas, several doggies, fish, snakes, ha, you name it. My fascination with spooky stuff also comes directly from childhood. My dad was born on Halloween so it was a favorite holiday in our house. He used to take me and my brothers and my mom to cemeteries for fun and he would tell us fictional stories about the people buried there. We also lived in a few haunted houses. Flash to today and I am still into all that stuff, in a more novelty sort of way. Story telling was a big thing in my family, and I think that definitely influenced me in becoming a book illustrator. The fashion aspect in my work is inspired by narratives. I think fashion is such a perfect vehicle to express a character in a story.

As far as the mediums that I use, I tend to keep it very simple, and use Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to give it all the variety. I primarily work in pen and ink. It is the only medium that consistently makes me excited. There is something so definitive about black ink, and I like how decisive I become while using it. That’s a trait that I struggle with in other areas, haha! Ink is like a friend to me, and together we make all kinds of stories. After the ink stage, I scan my drawings in and work hard in Photoshop or Illustrator to convey that perfect mood or story with colors and textures.

What is my art background? As a kid my brothers and I would sit up to the table and draw in coloring books and mold clay. When I got to high school, I did a few summer classes that freed up my schedule allowing me to attend a two year program during half of my school day where I got a certificate in Communication Arts. There I learned about the world of illustration. (Fun fact: I also met my husband in High School, and we stayed together through long distance and lots of adventures. He’s my best friend.) So anyway, in that program, I learned about all sorts of colleges and fell in love with Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. There I met lifelong friends, and graduated with a BFA in Illustration. After college, I designed art for children’s apparel at Carters for two years, then designed stationery and gifts and International greetings for a year. I was always crazy about being my own boss, and spent my nights during those three years taking on book gigs and building a pattern library to license. Once I had the courage and the portfolio, I quit my day job. I have been an independent illustrator/designer for four years now. In those three years a lot has happened! Abigail Samoun from Red Fox Literary took me on as one of her first illustrators, and I also met 4 lovely girls with whom I started a fabric company for sewing and quilting.

How is illustrating books different from your other artistic endeavors? Any unique challenges?

Yes, it is so much different. So aside from books, I do surface and textile design. Designing for books is different in that it is much more narrative and a little more pressure to get just the right image. A book cover has to have that “wa-bam!” factor. It has to be very eye catching, it needs to draw in a lot of intrigue, and also needs to very simply capture the essence of the story. There is more hanging on the final image for books, which for me is exhilarating. When I design for products and fabric, art can be a little more ephemeral. Designing fabric for quilting and sewing is very gratifying because it allows you to tell a story throughout a whole collection. It is also different because the textile and product world works in seasons, much like fashion. Most of the time I design something it doesn’t go on shelves for a year out, but also has sort of a seasonal shelf life. Some things in that realm will get printed over and over, but will have new art added to it to refresh it for a promotion. It just depends on the company and product. I love doing both equally as they both satisfy different parts of my brain. Something that I love about the similarities in fabric especially and books is that quilting is so much like story telling, so it is so neat to see how people take my fabrics and make stories from them in quilt form.

Book covers are so important for the visual appeal of a book. Your cover art for Book Scavenger is fun, mysterious, and eye catching. How did you determine what should be reflected on the cover?

I ended up with so many ideas for this cover that I actually had a hard time narrowing down some good ones to send to April at Henry Holt. There was just so much to draw from the story. I loved the main characters and the adventure and hunt that they go on. I did a few sketches of them running through the streets, but also couldn’t help but think of them digging through so many books finding clues. I thought that a scene where the books were almost like birds, swarming and consuming their heads, was conceptually a neat way to show how they were so into the game. Also, whenever I see people in a window passing by I am so curious as to what they are doing and what their house is like. What kind of person does their home reflect? So I thought having two kids’ silhouettes in the window would really peak the readers interest in the same way. When choosing color, I tend to identify with the mood of the book and let that take it’s course. Mysteries call for more mysterious palettes, etc.. Color tends to be very intuitive at this stage, and I try to send a few options so the editors and art directors  can weigh in.

What is your general process when illustrating a book, from sketch to finished product?

Fun question! I always start with research. For this book in particular, I needed to do a lot of that because I had never been to San Francisco before I was hired for this project. I like to understand the environment that the story takes place in because it helps set the visual story in my head. From there, I’ll move to sketches. I like to ask art directors and editors if they have anything they would like to see happen in the sketches. I think it’s fun to sketch their ideas along with mine. A lot of times they might already have ideas in mind, and we work together to make a stronger image. Once sketches are approved, there are usually a couple of revisions. Once that tighter sketch is worked out, I move to final! This is where I transfer the sketch to paper and start inking. I love zoning out at this stage. It is actually the only stage where that can happen. Once the inking is done, I scan the artwork into my computer. At this stage, a lot of work goes in Photoshop coloring and exploring options and finessing the image.

Is there anything you wish people knew about life as an artist/illustrator?

So many things!! Honestly, I think there is a misconception about being able to create all day, when in fact much of your day is spent doing emails and business related things. It is one thing to have a creative vision, but another to know how to market it to the right crowd. I think with art you have to find your niche, and do everything possible to stand out in that market. I also find it very important to create from your own life and spirit. It really allows people to see who you are in your work and that makes for the richest kind of imagery. Another thing that I was taught in school was to be a student of life. Getting better at art is a lifelong adventure. It involves constantly making, constantly learning. An artist should always take in their surroundings and let the outside world effect their work along with what is in their thoughts.

What kind of reader do you think Book Scavenger will most appeal to?)

I think Book Scavenger is the perfect book for someone who loves to go on adventures or solve problems. I especially think that people need to know about the new website for it where you can actually play the game yourself. I think that is SO awesome. When I was reading the book and following Emily and James around, I thought how awesome and inventive this game is, and how it needed to be real! I think it would be so fun for people who enjoy geocaching, scavenger hunts, Little Free Libraries, mysteries or any kind of clue based problems to solve. I can only hope that the book gets out there more and more, and that the real game gets really popular. How fun would that be?

For more information about Sarah Watts, you can visit her website here.

For more information about author Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, you can visit her website here.  And to visit the uber-cool website and hide-and-find-the book game for Book Scavenger, click here.

Readers, don’t forget to leave a comment on any post this week for a chance to win a signed copy of Book Scavenger. And, as a reminder, you can snag a copy of the book through your local book store, or through:





Barnes & Noble




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20 responses to “An Interview with Sarah Watts, Illustrator of Book Scavenger

  1. mariagianferrari

    Fantastic interview, Donna! And Sarah, I loved reading about your approach to art–you so multi-talented!I can’t wait to share this interview & your art with my daughter, an aspiring artist so she can see all of the different ways you’re making a career as an artist. And I love your cover art for Book Scavenger. It has a perfect mix of whimsy, mystery and intrigue as well as the flavor of San Francisco. It’s easy to see why you were inspired by Jenn’s book–it’s wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading this interview! I love hearing about your process, Sarah, and the ideas behind the fantastic book cover. Can’t wait to read the book and pore over the artwork!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for this interview! I’m excited to see your artwork in this delightful book.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. tamaraellissmith

    This is a wonderful interview! You have given us such a glimpse inside your mind and process, Sarah! I love that. And what a beautiful book…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wonderful interview, I love hearing about how the cover was designed and the process that Sarah takes with her work. The illustrations in Book Scavenger are fantastic. I agree with Sarah, I hope people get involved in playing the game it is such a unique idea. Please don’t enter me in the giveaway, I already have a copy of the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love this cover. So fun to hear how it came to be.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So many book covers are just okay, but this one sings! It demands to be picked up! Can’t wait to get it in my hands! Thanks for a fascinating look behind the scenes. Jenn was lucky to work with such a talented artist!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Wonderful interview, Sarah and Donna! I love getting a glimpse inside the illustrator’s mind. It was interesting to hear your thoughts on the cover and how you mentioned that when we see silhouettes in a window we wonder about the inhabitants. That is so true and you nailed that on the cover!! I want to know more. Plus I love all the flying books on the cover.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Incredibly informative interview. Sarah is clearly the perfect illustrator for Jenn’s book!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sarah,
    Your art draws me in. I love that the website paired with the book allows visitors to play the game. That is awesome. Well done, Jennifer and Sarah.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so fascinating!! What a great interview, Donna and Sarah. I was so thrilled to have Sarah illustrating my book–I think she’s incredibly talented, and her style was exactly the look/feel I was hoping for. So interesting to learn more about how she works!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. mariagianferrari

    I agree–the two of you are such a perfect match, Jenn & Sarah 🙂


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