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Artist Spotlight: Jess Mason

Artist Spotlight: Jess Mason

Jess Mason is a children’s book illustrator residing in Worcestershire, England. With inspirations including folk art, medieval manuscripts, nature, and film, Jess specializes in conjuring nuanced, atmospheric worlds that are equal parts mysterious and cozy. In addition to illustrating Hazel and the Spooky Season from Hazy Dell Press, Jess has illustrated Just a Girl from HarperCollins and Who Owns the Woods from Little Tiger Books. Alongside her children’s book illustration projects, Jess keeps in touch with her fans on her fun and educational Patreon page.

Jess recently found time in her busy schedule to talk with Hazy Dell Press about many things, including the illustrators who inspire her the most, her affinity for all things autumn, and the transformational “Wizard of Oz” moment in Hazel and the Spooky Season.

What is your favorite part of the illustration process?
For me, it is always the very beginning and the very end of a project. In the beginning, I love doing the initial research, and if I am able to visit places that can inspire and inform my choices later on, I will absolutely do it. For Hazel and the Spooky Season, for instance, I spent a day at Highgate Cemetery in London and had so much fun looking at all the weird and wonderful headstones and epitaphs, many of which made their way into the book.

If physical visits are not feasible, then I’ll immerse myself in books, films, and also spend a lot of time travelling on Google Earth! I find this part of the process so exciting as it helps to lay the foundations and tone for the visual narrative of the whole book.

Then, at the very end, when I begin the final artwork and get to use color, that is when I have those wonderful “how is this my job?” moments. There’s a reason kids (and adults!) enjoy coloring books, and I believe it’s the same for us illustrators! Color in illustration, for me, is much like the musical score in a movie. While the sketches lay the groundwork, it’s the addition of color that brings forth that magical sense of mood and atmosphere.

Did you always know you wanted to be a professional illustrator? Do you remember when you decided to make it your career?
I don't believe that there was a single pivotal moment, but rather a culmination of conversations and experiences that led me to where I am today. Making art has been a lifelong passion but I never imagined it could become my profession until I began studying illustration at the University of Worcester. It is thanks to the incredible support and encouragement I received from my lecturers and friends that I was able to overcome my self-doubt and embrace illustration as not just a hobby, but a viable and fulfilling career.

It was also during this time that I was exposed to the work of children’s book illustrators such as Jon Klassen, Carson Ellis and Júlia Sardà. All of them helped to redefine my perception of children's book illustrations, showing me that they can be meaningful, funny and beautiful all at once. They were not only an inspiration but a driving force behind my determination to become a children's book illustrator myself.

Of all the fun spreads in Hazel and the Spooky Season, which was your favorite to develop and illustrate?
It has to be the double-page spread where Ronnie is finally introduced. It’s such a pivotal moment in the story that I knew it needed to be full of drama and excitement, so I went all out with color and detail. This is our “Wizard of Oz” moment where the color palette transforms from subtle, muted tones to a vibrant array of blues and purples with bright pops of neon throughout. I had never used neon in my work before, and I was definitely pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. However, I think that neon really helps to amplify the energy and atmosphere of the scene.

I also really enjoyed drawing and designing all of the headstones in this scene, heavily inspired by my visit to Highgate Cemetery, of course!

How does your sense of empathy inform your approach to illustration?
I worked as a care assistant whilst I was at college and university. This experience instilled in me a deep sense of empathy that I have tried to carry through to my illustration work. As an illustrator, I think it is really important to understand the characters I am depicting. By empathizing with their emotions, struggles, and joys, I feel that I am able to create more authentic and relatable illustrations that resonate with young readers.

In Hazel and the Spooky Season and in so much of your non-book artwork, you display a special talent for evoking beautiful, cozy, and (sometimes) spooky autumnal scenes. What is it about the autumn season that you find so alluring and inspiring?
Thank you so much! Besides my admiration for the sheer beauty of autumn—the changing and falling leaves, the golden light, and the cooler weather—I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I am a huge creature of comfort. Cozy jumpers, hot drinks, crackling fires, and a good book (preferably one set in the spooky season!) are all things I enjoy most at this time of year. It’s that feeling of comfort and coziness that I am always striving to evoke in my work, and it was such a joy to be able to do this for Hazel.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young, aspiring illustrator, what would it be?
If you are an aspiring children's book illustrator, then the best advice I can give, and that I have received myself, is to draw as often as you can, focusing on things you are genuinely interested in and passionate about. Read lots of fiction and create your own interpretations of your favorite stories. Spend time in bookshops and libraries, and seek out other artists who inspire you. I believe the key is to enjoy the process, persistently continue honing your skills, and then share your work with the world!