We love to showcase emerging authors and illustrators on Middle Grade Mafia, sharing their work with our audience. Today we have the amazingly talented Dora Mitchell. She was nice enough to share about her work, process, and her love for coffee.


Middle Grade Mafia: The cover art you created for EXTRAORDINARY SAM AND THE ADVENTURER’S GUILD is full of great details and clearly shows that the story is filled with magic and adventure. How much art direction were you given when you created this art?

Sam Front Cover

BookFish gave me total freedom to come up with the cover design. Kevin (Springer) sent me examples of MG book covers he liked, and he mentioned he’d like to see Sam not looking particularly extraordinary and holding the magical hatbox, but other than that I had free rein.

As soon as I started reading it, I just knew I had to design a cover with lots of energy and visual interest. It’s just the most adventurous, exciting story– I hope kids will get that from the cover, because kids that like adventure are going to LOVE this book.

MGM: What kind of timeline were you given for creating the art for Kevin’s book and is this typical of your experience in the industry?

DM: For this project, I had about a month. When you’re illustrating for indie presses, like BookFish, you have a shorter timeline since they tend to get their books out a lot faster than big publishers do. I haven’t worked with any large publishers (yet!), but my understanding is you have a longer timeline since they can take a year or more to get a book ready for print.

Doing a cover in a few weeks isn’t bad at all, but completing interior illustrations in a matter of weeks can be tough…I’m not the fastest illustrator. I enjoy the shorter timeframe in some ways, though — I don’t know how authors and illustrators working with big houses can stand to wait a year or more before they hold their book in their hands!

MGM: Please walk our readers through your process a bit. When you first get asked to create art for a book, what is the first thing you do?

DM: First, I ask the client for any specific ideas, things they’d like — or wouldn’t like! — to see. It’s even better if they can show me some examples of stuff similar to what they’re looking for. Then I start with sketches — this kind of gets into your next question too — because I never want to get into inking/painting before I make sure I really understand what they want. If I’m doing a picture book, I’ll sketch out a whole dummy to plan out the layout of the entire book and make sure the client is on board.

Some clients have VERY specific ideas, while others are happy to leave it in the hands of the artist to figure out what works visually. Kevin and the team at BookFish are in the second camp, which is awesome!

Once the sketches are approved, I start inking and painting. I don’t do perfectly finished inks before painting; I like to move back and forth between the colors and the line work. After I finish the inks and a fairly loose watercolor underpainting, I scan it and finish the details and clean-up in Photoshop.

MGM: Do you have to get preliminary sketches approved before moving on with the illustration?

I always work that way; it’s better for everyone involved if things get approved at the sketch stage! That doesn’t mean anything’s set in stone, but you can at least nail down the general concept and make sure you’re not wildly off-base with the basic idea and layout.

MGM: After you read EXTRAORDINARY SAM (guessing you read it), did it give you ideas right away for interior art and what to show in the cover design? Did the publisher give you direction on interior art?

I did read it, and it was hugely inspiring… as I read, I jotted down characters and scenes that were particularly vivid, and I had a long list by the end! The only question was what to leave off the cover. (As I read the first few chapters, I was determined to have Sam’s adorable little brother on there — eventually I had to admit to myself he just didn’t play a big enough role to justify it. But he was just so CUTE, darn it!)

There’s no interior art with this one (I’m doing another project with BookFish which does have interior illustrations, so keep an eye out for that!), so readers will get to use their imagination for all the exciting things within Sam‘s pages that I couldn’t squeeze onto the cover … like the pirates! Yeah, you heard me — there are pirates!!

MGM: Your website at http://www.doramitchell.com/shows a variety of people, animals, and creatures that are mostly black and white. Do you work traditionally with pen and ink or do you create your art using digital programs and a tablet? What medium do you use for the colorillustrations you create?


DM: I love, love, love using a dip pen and India ink. I got into using real ink pens as a kid, when I dug up an old fountain pen in a junk drawer and somehow my parents were crazy enough to trust me with it. There were a lot of ink spots around our house after that — they may not have realized how often I spilled and dripped and spattered 🙂

I like to mix digital and traditional, though … most of my illustration work is a combination. I do a base painting in watercolors/pen and ink/ink washes, because I like to have the texture and “happy accidents” you get from physical media… I use a lot of texture mediums and salt and spattering with toothbrushes and stuff. Working in ink forced me to learn to love unplanned blotches and drips!

Finally, I scan it and keep painting in Photoshop with a Graphire tablet. I find this workflow really helps with illustration jobs because I can make big changes quickly — I need the added speed of digital painting in order to get a detailed piece like Extraordinary Sam‘s cover done on time. But when I’m doing standalone pieces, I usually stick with traditional media because I like having a finished piece that exists in the real world. (And I like having ink on my fingers, so I could never go entirely digital!)

MGM: How would you describe your style?

DM: This is the toughest question! I guess I aim for whimsy with an undercurrent of darkness. My style, whatever it is, is certainly heavily influenced by Edward Gorey, Stephen Gammell, and Trina Schart Hyman — probably my three favorite illustrators. Oh, and Carl Barks, can’t forget him! His Donald Duck comics are probably the biggest reason I wanted to be a writer/illustrator ever since I was a little kid.

MGM: Where did you get your artistic training?

DM: I got a BA in Studio Art from Humboldt State University, and before that I took a lot of art classes at the community college in the town where I grew up. It’s a small school, but I was lucky enough to take classes there taught by an amazing artist, Dianne Lipscomb, who has been a tremendous inspiration to me.

MGM: Do you have an agent or art rep? If so, would you share with us the story of how you made that connection?

DM: I don’t have one, although I hope that changes sometime soon!

MGM:Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?

DM: I have a cute little room in my house set up as my studio, and it’s lovely and sunny and painted pretty colors, so of course I never work in there. I’m embarrassed to admit that I practically always sit on the couch with my drawing board set up on a TV tray so I can watch TV while I work! It’s horrible. But how else could I keep up with my shows?!

MGM: Fun Question: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?

DM: Coffee’s gotta be there, natch, but that’s not even a snack so much as life-giving elixir.

Apple slices are the best because they don’t get your fingers messy or crumby– except that my rabbits always smell them, or hear me crunching on them, or something, and no matter where they are in the house they come running and jump on my lap and threaten to spill ink all over if I don’t hand over all the apples immediately. It’s scary! I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but if any of your readers happen to be owned by house rabbits, they’ll nod knowingly.

To see more of Dora’s work,  visit her website and blog, plus you should follow her on Twitter.