Sonja Danowski graduated with honors in design and since then has been working as an illustrator, picture book artist and author in Berlin. Her detailed pen, ink and watercolor illustrations in warm and muted hues are published and exhibited internationally and have won her numerous awards, such as 2013 and 2015 the Golden Island Award from the Korean Nami Concours and 2016 a Batchelder Award honor from the American Library Association. Fascinated by the richness of every day’s visual impressions, she draws inspiration and develops picture ideas from real life by gathering and depicting details in order to construct new compositions with fictive places and creatures in her images. In this way the sceneries seem real but have never taken place like that in reality.
-Tell me a bit about you and your background: where are you from/ where did you study? And when did you decide to be an illustrator?
I was born and grew up in Germany. Already in school I loved drawing and painting and I dreamed of becoming an artist. Later I studied design in Nuremberg, we had different courses and illustration was only a little part of it, so I invested every free minute to draw, creating pictures had such a good and calming impact on my mood. In the final year we were free to choose a theme, I made a large sized picture book with hundreds of drawings. After my graduation I moved to Berlin to work as a freelance illustrator.
-What is your favorite art material? Why?
I use watercolors and ink to define the light and picture mood. I have different kind of brushes but I have one favorite brush, I have been using it so often that its bristles are already shortened. It seems that only now it has the perfect shape to paint, like shoes that get more and more comfortable with wearing them. I like heavy paper in natural white color and I like pencils: graphite pencils to work out the composition before coloring, and sepia pencils and soft colored pencils in gentle hues for the picture’s final touches.
-How would you describe your artwork?
My artwork shows a detailed fictive reality, my goal is to make the invented sceneries and creatures look real.
-How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
Finding my style was a quite natural process, actually there was no need to search for it, but it just happened, using my favorite art material and trying to depict the scene, the finished artwork turned out to look like that. I have to add, my first drawings did not look like they look today. At the beginning I made large series of doors, windows, stairs, vegetable and everything that I could catch from my surroundings. The composition were simple, but only with help of these simpler pre-studies I felt more and more confident and after a while I was able to draw also more complex scenes and portraits, and in this way also the outcome of the creation process changed.
-What types of illustration projects do you enjoy working on?
My favorite projects are picture books. I like to see the story grow; I love traveling to fictive places and coming to know the story’s characters by depicting them. The process of bookmaking requires much patience, but it is really worth to keep it up with all its ups and downs. The thought that picture books can unfold their magic in children’s rooms all around the world is the best impetus to work.
-Each artist has an inspiration source. Tell us about yourself. How do you find ideas for a project or a book?
If I write the story myself the whole process is intuitional and surprising. I really like this way of working and it is also nice to have complete freedom to choose the theme, the final outcome is something that I could never have planned at the beginning. Sometimes I find the key for the story’s idea in a finished picture, or it is something that I had in mind for a very long while.
It can also be rewarding to collaborate with other authors and in this way to dedicate myself to difficult topics that I otherwise would never have discovered or ventured on. For example I have illustrated a book that takes place at the end of a war and three very touching Chinese stories; the authors’ texts gave me much inspiration and brought me closer to the themes.
- I see that nature has an important role in your artworks, what do you think about that?
Definitely! Nature is the purest form of life. Everything that we have on earth has its roots in nature, even though industrial products do not always justice the value and beauty of their origin. As an artist I am especially fascinated and inspired by things that have not been processed yet, that’s why I am attracted by nature.
-Your work is so beautifully dynamic, can you tell me more about your approach to color, light and combining different mediums?
I mostly start with a pencil drawings, I like working in pencil, because with the fine tip I can sketch all the picture elements in detail, and it is easy to make corrections, so that in the next steps I can totally concentrate on the colors. Watercolors come out without white color, instead the unpainted or lightly painted areas on the paper light up the picture. I preferably use a warm and muted color palette with highlights in certain hues like red or blue. I am always fascinated by how we percept colors, it is only possible to see them in relation to the colors around them; by changing the combination you can also change the effect of the color itself.
-I know that you have been selected at several illustration festivals, can you tell us about your experience and how has them helped you to develop your work?
Especially at the beginning presenting my work at festivals was very helpful for me. Already during my studies and shortly afterwards I sent my work to the Illustrators Exhibition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and to Ilustrarte in Portugal. I felt so surprised and encouraged when they were selected for the exhibitions out of so many entries. It was like someone gave me a green light to follow my way and to enter the field of picture book art.
-What do you think about the importance role of illustration festival? Do you agree with them or not?
I like the enthusiasm and the internationality that comes along with festivals. In particular I like those events that are free of commercial aspects but have an idealistic value, and follow the goal to support the artists and celebrate the importance of illustration, like Ilustrarte or the wonderful Nambook Festival in Korea.
-What was the project that you feel you learned the most from?
I think it is always the project I am currently working on, because every project is a new challenge and leads to something, sometimes in larger and sometimes in smaller steps.
-What do you like best about being an artist/ illustrator?
I love working in my bright and calm working space that is also my living room. Despite of spending most time at home at the drawing table, I have the chance to connect with other cultures and to travel. The internationality of the illustration and picture book market is very enriching.
- What is the most challenging about being an illustrator?
Maybe it is being patient and persistent. Every new project starts with a white piece of paper. To finish a picture it takes several days and to finish a whole picture book it takes several months. Creativity isn’t a steady measure; there are days full of energy and days full of doubts. It is so good that later, when I hold the finished book in my hands, I totally forget the time and effort that was needed to finish it, investing time in creating something is always a good thing.
-What is your best piece of advice for young artists who are getting started as creators of children`s books?
Follow your own way and rely on your own perception and ideas; don’t get irritated by the creations of other artists. One great aspect of art is that there is no wrong or right and no better or worse, but you can feature yourself towards others by uniqueness. Never lose your idealistic attitude and stay patient.