Carson Ellis: Living Her Dream, Through a Serious of Fortunate Events by Erika O’Connell

Carson Ellis Interview

Carson Ellis self portrait

© Carson Ellis

I was digging through the Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market archives, looking for something special to share with you today, and, low and behold, I found an interview with one of my favorite illustrators! I came to know Carson Ellis through my favorite band The Decemberists. Ellis is married to lead singer Colin Meloy and designs the band’s album art, posters, t-shirts, stage sets, etc. Ellis has also illustrated a variety of children’s books, including The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket and Wildwood by Colin Meloy. Her art in Dilweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide won the 2010 Silver Medal from The Society of Illustrators. So, without further ado, here’s our 2008 interview with Ellis. Enjoy!

Find more inspiring interviews in the 2014 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.

Keep creating and good luck!


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Carson Ellis: Living her Dream, Through a Series of Fortunate Events by Erika O’Connell

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Carson Ellis illustrated Trenton Lee Stewart’s first novel for children, published by Little, Grown Books for Young Readers. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” was also Ellis’s first children’s book, but others were soon to follow. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Ellis remembers drawing constantly as a child. “I loved horses and spent hours laboriously copying and labeling drawings from my horse books, sketching my model horse collection, and drawing comics about ponies.” Although her obsession with horses has faded over time, Ellis is still “moved to draw” the same types of things that appealed to her as a child—plants, animals, houses, people, the woods. “I’m inspired by an infinite number of things,” she says. Early photography, folk art, botanical drawings, Russian literature, old printing motifs and typography are just a few of her stimuli.

Ellis was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and grew up in suburban New York. She went to college at the University of Montana in Missoula and spent a semester at an art school in the South of France. After graduating with a BFA in painting, she lived in Minneapolis, Vermont and San Francisco before settling in Portland, Oregon. She is currently represented by Motel Gallery ( in Portland, but Ellis is best known for her work with the rock band The Decemberists—a detour of sorts that actually paved the way to realizing her original ambition as an artist: to be a children’s book illustrator.

“I did get sidetracked in college from my dream to be a children’s book illustrator,” says Ellis, “but only because the school I went to didn’t have an illustration program; I chose to study painting instead.” It was at the University of Montana that she met current boyfriend Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decemberists. “After college I was making a go of it as an oil painter for three or four years before I started making album art for The Decemberists, which eventually led to illustration work. So, if anything, the band artwork sidetracked me from my short-lived dream to be a painter.”

Either way, Ellis doesn’t regret her work with the band. “Most art editors and book people found me through the stuff I’d done for The Decemberists,” she says. “I don’t think I was ready to work as a book illustrator five years ago, and I’ve learned a lot doing all that stuff—album art, T-shirt designs, Web site illustration, stage backdrops and photo shoot sets—it’s been way more work than I did in my five years of college. Also, I really love working for the band. I still find it totally inspiring and fun.”

Otter Joins the Seminary by Carson Ellis

Ellis created this fine art piece, titled “Otter Joins the Seminary,” for a show of ink and watercolor drawings she had a few years ago.

Ellis and Meloy recently celebrated the birth of son Henry, who will surely be a source of inspiration for mom as she navigates her way through the world of children’s book publishing. In addition to illustrating Trenton Lee Stewart’s recent release from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, The Mysterious Benedict Society, Ellis has projects underway with HarperCollins, Hyperion and Harcourt. “Right now I’m illustrating The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket; it’s a picture book that comes with a CD of an original score with narration, like Peter and the Wolf. After that I’m working on a book with Colin about our cat.” Ellis worked with HarperCollins editor Susan Rich on both these titles.

Other upcoming projects include Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson for Hyperion; Dillweed by Florence Parry Heide for Harcourt; and a storybook of Greek myths adapted by Cynthia Rylant, also for Harcourt.

Here, Ellis talks about her work and offers advice for aspiring illustrators.

How did you land the job with Little, Brown to illustrate Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society?

Holocaust Fiction by Carson Ellis

This graphite drawing by Ellis was used in a glossary of horror terminology called “The Darkening Garden” by John Clute, published by Payseur and Schmidt. “A different artist illustrated each entry,” says Ellis. “Mine was ‘Holocaust Fiction.'”

My agent set up a meeting for me when I was in New York a couple of years ago, just to introduce myself and show them my portfolio. I guess they liked it because they hired me not long after.

Do you think it’s necessary for a freelance artist to have an agent?

It’s probably not necessary to have an agent, though mine has done wonders for my career. I felt like I was doing splendidly without one, and when Steven Malk (of Writers House) contacted me to ask if I’d like to work with him, I was actually leery of the idea and initially turned him down. I was working on a book at the time, tentatively for an editor at HarperCollins, but without any contract or advance, or any kind of guarantee that it would be published. I didn’t really care because I was just so excited for the opportunity. I told Steven about it and he said, “Would you like a contract in advance for that book?” I said, “Yes . . . can you do that?” And that’s how we started working together. He’s a wonderful guy—really nice to talk to, and savvy and supportive and ecstatic about book illustration. He’s helped make my professional life a lot simpler, so it was a good decision.

Also, I was doing mostly editorial and band artwork before we started working together, and I felt pretty comfortable negotiating for myself. I didn’t bother with contracts most of the time and typically felt like I was being paid fairly. Book illustration jobs are so much more complicated: advance amounts run the gamut; contracts are 50 pages long; you work with your editor for months and months. I think it could be overwhelming without someone on your side to advise you and keep the whole process running smoothly, especially if you’re just starting out and don’t always know what you’re doing.

What have you done to promote your artwork?

I’ve made a couple of promotional postcards on Steven’s urging; he mails them to publishers. I also have a MySpace account (, though I wasn’t necessarily thinking of promotion when I started it. Really, The Decemberists have turned out to be a better promotional tool than anything else imaginable.

How much of an impact has your Web site had on your success?

It’s hard to say, but I am glad I have one ( I feel like everyone should have one if they have work they’re proud of and want people to be able to get in touch with them about it. And if not a Web site, then a blog ( or a MySpace page or something. Having some kind of Internet presence will always make it easier for artists to find work.

How did you get your work into the Motel Gallery?

Motel’s owner and director, Jenn Armbrust, contacted me to ask if I’d like to work with her. Portland’s pretty small town, so it wasn’t hard for us to find each other. Motel is a special place. It’s a little, but really charming, and I think Jenn’s got great taste. I’m always very proud to be involved with it.

Tell me about your fascination with Russia?

Irkutsky Dom by Carson Ellis

This is another piece from Ellis’s ink and watercolor drawing show. “Irkutsky Dom” (which means Irkutskian House in Russian) is a sketch Ellis did in Irkutsk, Siberia.

I like Russia because it’s at once exotic and familiar. Their cultural history is similar to ours and easy to relate to. Russian literature, painting, music, dance and theatre have followed a lot of the same trends as American arts and, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were almost always more amazing, I think. But the context that they were made in was so different—Tsardom, Socialism, Orthodoxy, post-Soviet chaos, Siberian towns sprung from penal colonies, Gulags, Bolshevik uprisings, Napoleonic wars, Gypsy and Coassack encampments. It’s been a wild and turbulent place through much of its existence but has also managed to be very civilized and culturally brilliant somehow. I find that contrast really interesting.

What kinds of emotions do you try to evoke with your illustrations?

Dreaminess, eeriness, coziness, melancholy, nostalgia, recklessness.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring freelance artists/illustrators?

My advice to aspiring artists is to take your time. It takes forever to develop an illustrative style that’s confident and sincere, and that learning stage doesn’t necessarily end when you graduate from college. I recently found some of my sketchbooks from around the time I graduated, and I remembered that I’d copied a bunch of drawings from them to send to the San Francisco Bay Guardian in hopes of getting some editorial work. I remember that it was a big deal making the color copies and buying a decent-looking book to put them in because I was broke. I even remember biking to the Guardian and dropping it all off in person, hoping it might make a good impression. No one ever hired me or even responded to my letter, and I was totally confused by it at the time because I thought I was a shoo-in. It’s kind of heartbreaking to think about it.

But now I look at those drawings and I know exactly why no one called me: they weren’t awful, but they were sort of awkward and unsubtle, and I hadn’t found a medium I was comfortable working in yet. In short, I wasn’t ready to work as an artist. I was 22 and had four or five more years of experimenting, absorbing stuff, and constant drawing and painting before I was ready. So my advice is to be patient with yourself and take all the time you need to become a brilliant artist. Work hard and be persistent; if things aren’t working out, don’t see it as a sign of abject failure so much as a sign that you just need to work more.


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