Val Lawton is an illustrator who has worked on more than 30 books. Ever since she was a kid, she dreamed about becoming an artist — and credits Calgary Public Library with helping her get there.
“I owe Calgary Public Library a great deal, as it was there that I did all my research, where I discovered who my favourite illustrators are, where I determined what my favourite illustration style is, and where I researched the business side of the children’s book publishing industry,” she says.
That journey started in 2000, when Val was a stay-at-home mom of a toddler son and infant daughter. A friend of Val’s was secretly writing a book, which she sold to a New York City publisher. Val remembers feeling encouraged when her talented friend told her, “If I could draw like you, I’d be illustrating books.”
It was the push she needed. Val decided to start pulling together an art portfolio and market herself as a children’s book illustrator. To do that, she spent hours and hours at the Giuffre Family Library (then known as the Alexander Calhoun Library), poring over the children’s book collection.
Val took out books illustrated by Quentin Blake, Simon James, and Charlotte Voake, and used them for inspiration as she practiced her own art over and over again. (Quentin Blake, best known for illustrating books written by Roald Dahl, remains Val’s favourite illustrator.)
During her kids’ naptime or after their bedtime, Val would draw. “You just have to slog away at it,” she says. “With those practice pieces, I would find some pieces that I thought were particularly good, and I’d put them in my portfolio. Then I learned how to start approaching publishers.”
For that, she used the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market book in the Library’s collection, a directory with hundreds of listings for publishers. “Slowly but surely, I got the odd job here, then something would snowball into something else,” she says.
Val’s illustrations start with pencil outlines in scratchy, black India ink. She lets that sit overnight, then paints with watercolours. Val describes her style as whimsical but not saccharine. “I like not too much detail. Sometimes I’ll do faces that only have eyes. You have to sort of fill in the blank. It’s a relaxed kind of style, not too fussy.”
That’s the style Val has long found herself drawn to in other books. “I like illustrations that aren’t too clean, aren’t too polished, leave a little bit up to the imagination,” she says. “I just found my kids seemed to gravitate to that style of illustration as well, so that’s always what’s appealed to me.”
Val went on to work full-time as an illustrator, specializing in children’s books. Seeing her illustrations in published books feels “out of this world,” she says. “It’s very exciting.” Her work as an illustrator opened other doors, too, like working as an artist-educator in classrooms through the Royal Conservatory’s Learning Through the Arts program.
As the publishing industry changes, Val increasingly works on self-published projects. She enjoys the connections it brings. “I get to work with the author, the person who has actually created the story, whereas in the traditional world of publishing I never meet the author,” she says.
One of those self-publishing projects happened a few years ago, with the Calgary Food Bank. Val illustrated the book Emma and the Food Bank, of which proceeds support Calgary Food Bank services and programs. That led Val to her newest gig, a part-time role with the organization as Food Industry Coordinator. Val continues to illustrate part-time, and continues to be an avid and appreciative Library user.
“I just think the public Library is the greatest resource on the planet,” she says. “It’s astounding what it does.”