Behind the Book: This Is My Room!
last updated 31 October 2019
Alexandria Neonakis was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, an Eastern maritime Province where she spent most of her time outdoors among forest landscapes and the beautiful coastal Atlantic. These days, she can be found on the opposite coast where she lives in Santa Monica, California. During the day, Alex works as a full-time Concept Artist at the game development company, Naughty Dog. Pulling inspiration from childhood memories, nature, animated films, and classic illustration, she combines characters with lighting, strong color direction, and staging to help sell a moment. These skills especially shine through in her recent picture book, This Is My Room! (No Tigers Allowed!), which published with Simon & Schuster in May 2019. In this ever-relatable tale, JoJo is ready for her first night all alone in her very own room, but a menagerie of animals have other ideas. We were thrilled to catch up with Alex and glean a glimpse into her creative process that brought this charming and fun picture book to life!
What was your path to becoming an artist? Were you interested in illustration from an early age?
I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember and have always loved storytelling and reading. One of the first books I remember falling in love with was PJ Lynch’s illustrated East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. The illustrations were so rich and detailed and really brought the story to life for me. I think it was around that time that I became more interested in illustrating stories. I originally went to school for science but worked on my art portfolio for fun on the side. Eventually, I realized science was just a tangent and what I was really meant to do was paint and draw, so I started taking workshops and a couple years of schooling here and there while constantly working on my portfolio.
Neonakis’ engaging use of color and composition make this a real page-turner….A winner, day or night.” — Kirkus Reviews
The illustrations in This Is My Room! are wildly imaginative and detailed. Can you describe your artistic process from early sketching and storyboarding to the later stages of creating final artwork?
For this one, Simon & Schuster’s art directors had already determined which text went on which page, so I started with some very quick, basic thumbnails, which went through various rounds of approval. It’s important to get those initial thumbnails right to avoid making changes at a later stage when it is harder to do so. Once we agreed on a direction, I modeled rough block outs of the scenes in a 3D software. I currently use Blender (it’s free!).
Initial rough block outs using the 3D software, Blender
From there, I use that as a sort of base to sketch on top of. I do a final sketch and then take that to final paint! Colors and lighting were all planned around the story beats. So in the scenes where JoJo is first seeing the animals, they appear large and imposing. Those pages are dark with blue lighting on the animals to make them feel a bit scarier. In the scenes where she turns the lights on and they hide, everything is more lit up and warm to make it feel a bit more comfortable and even a little silly.
Progression from sketch to final artwork
Where do you do your best work, and what does your workspace look like nowadays?
My best work is definitely done at home in my little studio space that I currently share with my fiancé John Sweeney, who also works at Naughty Dog. It’s really great to be sitting next to him working because if I’m struggling, he always seems to know what will fix the piece or how to pull me out of a funk. It’s so nice having a friend or partner around who you can bounce ideas off of and sort of reassure you when you’re not certain about something you’re working on. My workspace is fairly cluttered and needs an overhaul. It’s a desk with a Cintiq on it (the newer 22 which Wacom was kind enough to gift me!), and then I’ve got some traditional tools like markers, pens, and pencils scattered around so I can write notes or do little quick sketches to remind myself of what I was working on when I log off for the night.
Bringing a book to life is such a collaborative effort. Can you tell us more about working with the team at Simon & Schuster and how your editor, Alexa Pastor, and art director, Krista Vossen, contributed to the creative process?
Alexa and Krista were lovely. From the beginning I felt like we were all on the same page about how we wanted the visuals to flow and feel. There was a lot of good back and forth and idea generating in the beginning so that when it came to the finals, no major changes took place, just polish and tweaks to help make it better. As an illustrator, that’s such a good dynamic because instead of putting all the effort into completely redoing something from scratch, you’re putting effort into making what you have a lot better. They both really helped to bring the final artwork to a higher level of quality.
“Alex was fantastic to work with. I loved witnessing her process and seeing how her brain interpreted the text to create these dynamic, cinematic pieces of art. Her use of light, shading, and perspective is on point, and she’s very intuitive, too! Without reference, or even consciously knowing I had nieces, she illustrated the two characters to resemble them EXACTLY—not only their looks, but their personalities. My editor and I were thrilled with how the whole package turned out.” — Krista Vossen, Art Director at Simon & Schuster
The book takes us through JoJo’s lively imagination during her first night sleeping alone. Her animal visitors are first rendered as imposing, then benevolent when the light turns on. What was your inspiration when working through the range of emotions of each animal, and how did you develop light/dark color palettes that contributed to the mood of each spread?
I really identified with JoJo. As a kid, I was TERRIFIED of the dark and would often crawl into bed with my sisters or mom when I was feeling overwhelmed. My imagination would instantly turn anything in the room into a ghost or scary animal, so it wasn’t hard to channel those old memories into this book. A book like this would have likely helped me sleep as a kid, because when you turned the light on, inevitably the thing you were scared of was something completely harmless. I tried to take all of that and put it into the book, showing that the scary, intimidating shapes aren’t actually as bad as you think they are.
All of the lighting and color was worked around that. Dark blues when the lights are off, the animals are all partially hidden in shadows or elements of the room like the lion behind the curtain and the tiger in the closet, then warms with a lot more vibrant happy colors like pink, yellow, and green when the lights go on. These are colors I personally associate with dark and foreboding vs light and comfortable.
Light vs dark palettes utilized to create mood in THIS IS MY ROOM!
How did your agent, James Burns, play a role in developing this book, and what exciting projects lie ahead?
I honestly don’t know how I freelanced before having an agent. I have a full-time job that gets very busy at certain points in production. James is so understanding about that and really helps with maintaining a standard of living while doing multiple jobs at once. He is always available to help me figure out my schedule, and he handles all contracts and any tricky interactions. Sometimes at the end of a long day of painting, I don’t want to respond to emails and I definitely don’t want to figure out contracts or payment. The agents at Bright help so much by taking care of all that behind the scenes so I can just focus on what I’m good at, illustrating! For now, I’m taking a brief hiatus from children’s books while the project I’m on with my day job wraps up, but when it’s time to come back, I’m looking forward to doing more illustrative work involving nature and animals!
View Alexandria’s full portfolio here.
To work with Alexandria, contact her agent James Burns here.