Pink Flamingos and Rubber Chickens: Tour Illustrator Molly Idle’s Studio

Molly Idle began her career as an Animator at DreamWorks, and her cinematic style is evident on every exuberant page of the acclaimed (★”Seamless and dynamic visual storytelling” – Publishers Weekly; “Irresistible.” – San Francisco Chronicle) Flora and the Flamingo! Here she shares her inspiration, typical workday, and a peek inside her studio.

Where did you get the idea for Flora and the Flamingo?

The idea was the culmination of a series of “a-ha” moments. A few years ago my youngest son was calling fire extinguishers “fire stinking shirts.” It made me laugh, and it also made me think back to words that I mixed up when I was little (there were lots of them!) and one that leapt to mind was that (for years) I thought flamenco dancing was pronounced “flamingo dancing.”

Remembering how puzzled I used to be that there were no actual flamingos involved in “flamingo dancing,” I drew a dancing flamingo, but he needed a partner… Enter Flora, whose design is based on my sweet, sweet, nieces—Sarah and Katie.

It was around this same time that my oldest son was starting kindergarten and figuring out the process of making friends. Watching his efforts, I started thinking how much the back and forth nature of developing a friendship is like the choreography of a dance.

© Kathryn Smith Photography

That’s when I set to work!

What’s your routine when you’re working on a book?

My routine varies depending on what stage of the bookmaking process I’m in. When I’m working on developing the idea for a book, my workday doesn’t look much like work. It looks a lot more like me sipping coffee and staring into space with my pencil poised (but unmoving) over my sketchbook while I mutter to myself.

When I’m working on sketches for a book, I like to start first thing in the morning. I wake up before the rest of the house, and rough out ideas for the spreads I want to work on that day. Then, after I drop my boys off at school, I head into the studio and start to flesh out my early morning roughs till lunchtime.

In the afternoons I take care of business stuff like emails, etc. In the evening I’ll polish up the sketches I worked on in the morning. I like to break up the process so that I can revisit each sketch with fresh eyes.

Once I start in to work on the final art for a book, my days become all topsy-turvy and start to melt together. I’ll work all day, seven days a week. Even when I’m not physically working on a piece, my mind is still working on it… I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking things like, “Lavender! That’s the color I need to layer over the tree branches!”

Show us your space!

Here’s my space…

I’ve tried to balance functionality with organization and inspiration. So you’ll find everything from shelving and layout space to Kermit the Frog and a rubber chicken here.

I converted my old animation desk into an enormous light table so I can transfer larger sketches by hand. And I have art clips attached to boards around my desk and over the windows so that I can hang up multiple pieces at a time as I check for continuity from piece to piece.

I keep a large stash of extra pencils handy.

Do you have favorite art supplies?

Oh my, yes! I couldn’t do without my handy dandy mechanical pencil for sketching and line work. And for color I love my Prismacolor pencils (see the photo of my desk!). I’ve experimented with a plethora of pencils but, for me, these offer the best range of colors, blendability (is that a word?) and control.

Did you do any research for Flora and the Flamingo?

As a matter of fact I did. I spent quite a bit of time collecting reference photos of flamingos in action, as I wanted the choreography of the Flamingo in the beginning of the book to be based on the habits of real flamingos. Then, I watched a lot of ballet performances to gather ideas for the balletic poses that happen when Flora and the Flamingo begin to dance together, still keeping in mind that they I wanted them to be poses that would be physically possible for a real flamingo (and a real little girl too)! Pliés are tricky for flamingos.

What influences your art?

I suppose my artistic influences fall into two categories: Art and Life.

Art: If I could describe my art in terms of my artistic influences I would say it’s… Degas meets Disney’s Nine Old Men in a Technicolor musical.

Life: My boys. The way they tackle life is absolutely fearless, hearts and minds open and full of wonder. That inspires me to tackle my work in the same way.

What was it like when you first held a finished copy of Flora and the Flamingo?

I smile just thinking about it. Holding the culmination of so many hours of drawing and dreaming, the months of collaboration with the incredible creative team at Chronicle… It felt good. Really good! The kind of feeling that fills you up, and you float a little way above the ground kind of good.

What were your favorite books as a child?

I’m glad you said “books” and not “book” because I couldn’t choose just one!

I loved Seuss (still do)! My dad used to read me the Sleep Book every night. To this day I have the whole thing memorized… and so does he!

I have also lost count of the times I’ve reread Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, after my Mom read it to me when I was six.

And I have great memories of taking turns reading Daniel Pinkwater’s books aloud on camping trips. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death was our family favorite.

As I look back on all of my favorites as a child, they are inextricably linked to the memories of who I was with when reading them, or having them read to me. I think that speaks volumes about the power of reading aloud to children.

You started your career as an artist at DreamWorks, working on movies like Spirit. How is working on animation different from picture books?

They are really surprisingly similar. Both animation and picture books are methods of visual storytelling, both are collaborative artistic efforts, and both mediums are designed to be reproduced and shared with many, many people. The biggest difference between animation and picture books for me as an artist lies in the actual production.

In traditional animation, every second of film is made up of 24 frames, (24 individual drawings), per character. So, say a scene is 10 seconds long—that means I would need to create 240 drawings! That’s why there are hundreds of artists involved in the creation of an animated film. The work is divided amongst so many artists because the sheer number of images that need to be produced is enormous.

In a picture book on the other hand, the limited number of images telling the story is such that I can create each and every one myself. That allows for more personal artistic expression. But while I don’t have to make nearly as many drawings as I would in a film, I also don’t get to use as many drawings to communicate a feeling, action, or scene.

Each single drawing that I create in a picture book needs to convey all that is happening at that point in the story, the characters’ feelings, their relationship, the setting, as well as leading the reader to turn to the next page… it’s a wonderful challenge!

What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators?

Draw! Draw! Draw!

Learning to draw well means, quite simply, spending a lot of time drawing.

A lot!

Whatever you think is a lot of time… add a bit more to it. Then add some more… and more…

You have to keep challenging yourself to become better and better. And just when you think you’re the best you can possibly be…

Keep drawing!

Watch the Flora and the Flamingo trailer.

Watch a video demo of Flora and the Flamingo’s interactive flaps and foldouts.

Subscribe to our monthly Chronicle Kids Newsletter.

Lara Starr

Lara Starr is Chronicle’s Senior Publicist for Children’s books, and the author of Wookiee Pies, Clone Scones and other Galactic Goodies, Ice Sabers, The Very Hungry Caterpillar™ Cookbook and Cookie Cutters Kit, and Chef Olivia™. Tell her you like her sweater and she’ll tell you exactly what she paid for it.
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  • Jeff Rivera March 7, 2013 at 11:35 am

    I love this idea for a book. I still mishear things, especially when I people-watch, and it sometimes becomes the basis of a story idea. I will be sure to stop by to see more wonderful posts!


  • meganpotter98 March 8, 2013 at 12:11 am

    Learning to draw forces you to face your fears head on and takes you out of your comfort zone.


  • Tom Lichtenheld March 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Thanks for the great tour and background story. I have the oddest question ever, from a fellow Prismacolor illustrator: Do you have any idea where to find Deco Blue (no.1015) pencils? They're discontinued and, try as I might, there is no replacement.


    • @MollyIdle March 8, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      Hi Tom!
      Confession: I am a big fan.
      Another confession: I am a colored pencil junkie.
      And because I am a pencil junkie- I keep a huge stash of pencils. So, when I heard that Prismacolor was discontinuing the Deco colors I…
      1. Threw a small fit (because those were some of my favorites)!
      2. Ordered a few dozen of each color.
      I shall route some Deco Blues your way via the lovely Ms. Lara Starr 🙂


      • Tom Lichtenheld March 8, 2013 at 6:11 pm

        Oh my, you're too generous! I know what a sacrifice this must be so please just one!
        Ever indebted, Tom L.


  • Amanda March 9, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    I just got my hands on Flora and the Flamingo and could not love it more! Thank you for letting us take a peak into the process behind creating this beautiful book.


  • Nik June 20, 2013 at 1:18 am

    Beautifully exuberant…I love your drawing style!
    A series would be fun! Ostrich doing the tango? Peacocks square dancing? 😉


  • writersideup June 30, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    I have to say, I've never come across a wordless picture book that truly blew me away. Well, as soon as I picked this up off the B&N shelf and opened that first page, I fell in love with the artwork itself—absolutely gorgeous. BUT—the story! Your illustrations and the way you told this story are as close to perfection as a human being can get with a piece of work like this. THANK you, Molly 🙂 Btw, I write and illustrate, so I appreciate it on that level in a BIG way 🙂


  • writersideup June 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    You know, I just wanted to add that there is a definite quality (to me, anyway) in picture books done by animators. It is a very obvious difference I see almost immediately. There's a generally more animated quality to the pictures, but especially the character poses and expressions. I'll never forget when I opened Tony Fucile's first picture book: LET'S DO NOTHING. I knew he was an animator before turning to the author bio to find out! You have that same, wonderful quality that shines through your illustrations, Molly 😀


  • Jessie Plyler April 24, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    I have a grand daughter who is expecting her first baby soon and she loves anything peacock. Wood like to order the books for her.Even her wedding was around peacock.


  • RyaN March 9, 2017 at 4:41 am

    Any chance you can repair all the broken picture links in this article? Would love to send it to someone. Thanks


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