An Interview with Loving vs. Virginia Illustrator Shadra Strickland
Shadra Strickland is an award-winning illustrator who works and teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also the incredible talent behind the illustrations for Loving vs. Virginia, a documentary novel about the landmark civil rights case that legalized marriage between races. I spoke with Shadra recently about her process and the illustration style, called “visual journalism.”
Q: Please tell us a little bit about your illustration education and experience. Was there one defining moment that steered you on the illustration path?
A: As a child, my mother enrolled me in art classes and bought me plenty of art supplies and instructional books. Early on, my plan was to start my own magazine and live in a giant penthouse in New York City. After high school, I studied graphic design and illustration at Syracuse University. I didn’t realize I wanted to illustrate picture books until I was teaching elementary school art in Atlanta. From there, I went back to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts.
Q: For Loving vs Virginia, you employ an illustration approach known as “visual journalism.” Can you explain this approach and why you chose to work in this style to tell the Loving story?
A: At SVA, I learned about Robert Weaver and took a location drawing class. Taking my sketchbook out into the world to draw and paint from observation was a huge breakthrough for my art. I first employed bits of the style in my first picture book, Bird. Years later, when I began teaching visual journalism at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I built a larger portfolio of the work and sent it to my agent. She posted the drawings I was making in Baltimore to her site and the good folks at Chronicle Books asked if I could use that style of drawing for Loving vs. Virginia.
Q: This book is a documentary novel. What kind of research did you need to do in preparation for the illustrations, and what was the biggest challenge of the illustration process for this book?
A: One key element of visual journalism is that it is done on site. The challenge for me was to retain the looseness and spontaneity of the drawings as if I were drawing right in front of each scene. I had to make up each scene by constructing collaged elements using photographs of the Lovings that I found online. Grey Villet’s photojournalism was a big help, along with Nancy Buirski’s documentary The Loving Story. I also found great news footage on Youtube. To fill in the gaps of some of the earlier moments of their lives, I referred to family photos from my mother’s childhood in Georgia.
Q: Do you have a favorite illustration from this book and, if so, why?
A: I have a few favorites for different reasons. The scene where Richard and Mildred were running together in the forest was fun to draw and is probably the most reflective of their romance, but I think that the scene where Mildred is describing gritty DC is my favorite—it reflects the visual journalism style the most.
Q: You are an illustrator but also a teacher. Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring illustrators or those artists new to the field?
A: My biggest piece of advice is to take a sketchbook out into the world and draw everything around you. It will transform your drawing and give a greater sense of understanding of how things work in the world. Outside of that, be curious about the world and how it works. Read everything!
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