Ask the Artist: Josie Toney, Georgia ABC’s

Josie Toney, illustrator of Georgia ABC’s, spoke with us about her art, her inspiration, and staying true to her art style. Toney was a born artist and began painting consistently in 2002. In 2016, Toney and her family relocated to north Georgia where she became an active member of the Chestatee Artists, the Bowen Center for the Arts, and the Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center. Her work can be found in local galleries and boutiques, including Elevate Sautee, Inside Out Sautee, JumpinGoats Coffee, and Yonah Mountain Village, as well as the gift shop in the Bowen gallery.

Toney resides in Cleveland, Georgia with her supportive husband, adorable son, two dogs, a cat, and several chickens. She has a passion for education and works full-time at the University of North Georgia (UNG) in Dahlonega. In her spare time, Toney enjoys yoga, the outdoors, drawing, painting, and spending time with her family.

[Collette Whittemore] Is this your first time illustrating a children’s book?

[Josie Toney] It is. It is my first time. I’ve had many friends and family members say that I’d be good at illustrating a children’s book. Since I’ve moved to north Georgia, people have been so receptive of my art. My art is in the Sautee Nacoochee Cultural Center, which is a really beautiful gallery and I feel honored to be in it. I’ve become more established, so I’ve become more confident in my art. I feel like it was the right time and the right everything for this project.

An illustrated brown thrasher swings a golf club. He wears a blue hat and golfing shoes.
“Nash, the brown thrasher”
Art by Josie Toney

[CW] Was it tough to transition from your every day job to illustrating a children’s book?

[JT] No, not really because I’ve always drawn and painted as creative outlets. I have my masters in Design and Manufacture with a specialization in footwear design, and I worked in that field for five years. I used to doubt my creative talents because I was surrounded by really extraordinary talent there.

The UNG Press gave me full creative reign for Georgia ABC’s. It takes a lot for me to be happy with my work. I have to be in love with the piece, and if I’m not then I’m not done with it. When I’m given creative reign, that’s when I can create things that I’m happy with. The UNG Press just loved everything I’ve done, which is amazing! The fact that they gave me creative reign was wonderful.

[CW] What drove you to illustrate for Jespersen? What drove you to say “Yes, I want to take this project?”

[JT] Well, actually Dr. BJ Robinson, the UNG Press Director, is a fan of my art. My art is very whimsical and it can be child-like. I was interested in doing art for a different book for the Press, but the timeline was super tight. Dr. Robinson didn’t want me to be pressured because I work full-time and have a child. There’s a lot going on.

Dr. Robinson said there would be another opportunity for me and not long thereafter, she said the Press was working on another children’s book. She asked for an art sample of Georgian plants and animals to show the author. They didn’t tell me who it was. I did a Georgia live oak and a gopher turtle and sent them to BJ. She wrote me back fifteen minutes later and said the author’s response was “This is visually stunning.” I was really excited about that response!

[CW] Do you have a certain process for creating the backgrounds?

[JT] No, I actually create the whole thing. I was given full creative reign, and I started to get very detailed in my illustrations, and that’s when I asked for a meeting where we could storyboard it out. We met one afternoon and we storyboarded the whole book. It was a creative collaboration with everybody from the Press. It was a great experience!

[CW] While you’re working and creating did you give yourself any internal rules. For example, did you choose any certain color schemes for certain scenes or areas of Georgia?

[JT] No. I looked up reference images and places online, and I searched for particular places I’ve never visited, and I remembered my experiences with the places I have been to. I do tend to get detailed, but I knew with this book that I didn’t need to be perfect on every little line and every little thing. That’s what used to be challenging for me in shoe design—perfect line drawings, until I learned you don’t need to be a good artist to be a designer. I also try to incorporate the other Georgia animals like the whitetail deer and the swallowtail butterfly. So no, I didn’t have any hard and fast rules, but I used the same art supplies throughout the illustration, and the color pallets are in the same family.

An illustration made with watercolors. A bird, a turtle, and a frog ride in a boat and play at Lake Lanier, Georgia.
“Lake Lanier”
Art by Josie Toney

[CW] What kind of media did you use?

[JT] I used a lot of mixed media. Marker, color pencils—I have some color pencils that are watercolor pencils. When you draw with them, you can apply water and it turns it into watercolors. I use pastels for shading and spreading color. I use pen for detailed outlining and paint pens for the gold. I use white-out to make things pop.

[CW] I’ve never heard of using white-out. That’s interesting.

[JT] I picked that up from my shoe design days. We would color up a shoe and the white-out would make the laces and eyelets pop. You can highlight some stuff, give it some definition. It’s one of the things I get really creative with. In my paintings, I use anything and everything. It’s not bland. A lot of times, I’ll even put 3D objects—like photographs or actual Spanish moss—in a painting to give it depth and texture. I’ve always been somebody to scrounge around and see what I can grab to use in a painting. That’s how I know I’m in the creative zone, rounding the home stretch.

[CW] What is your favorite illustration in Georgia ABC’s?

[JT] That’s going to be a hard one. I really like Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. I think I have many favorites because I’m a sixth generation Atlantan. I grew up in Atlanta and I’ve been to so many of these places.

[CW] Being a sixth generation Atlantan has really helped you with the book and the illustrations.

[JT] Yes, it has helped. I have visited a lot of these places. Cumberland Island is personally significant to me. They have wild horses and ruins. It’s where my husband and I had our first kiss. It’s beautiful there—untouched.

[CW] I was curious about that illustration with the horses. I had no idea horses lived there.

[JT] You should go visit there if you never have. It’s really beautiful. I’ve seen the horses out and about and on the beach. The Carnegie’s lived there, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., got married at the small chapel there. This was a place where people with a lot of money would go to relax. They had a lot of gorgeous buildings, but they kind of all went to ruin, similar to the Carnegie’s Dungeness Mansion. You can feel that history when you’re there in person.

[CW] Even though you’re a sixth generation Atlantan, was there something about Georgia that you didn’t know before illustrating the book?

An illustration of Ellijay, Georgia. An apple orchard is in the foreground, the trees full of fruit. Mountains fill the background.
Art by Josie Toney

[JT] Well, I’ve never seen the big peanut in person. (laughs) And I used to always hear “Right next to the big chicken” on the radio but I had no idea what the big chicken really looked like—I’m terrible at paying attention to my surroundings when in the car. I already knew some things, like the water tower in Folkston because we’ve camped there. And I know Ellijay because we’ve visited to pick apples.

[CW] That’s my favorite picture. I love seeing the mountains in the background.

[JT] I love putting the mountains in the background because I love living [in north Georgia] where I get to always see a blue mountain range on the horizon. We would come camping and we asked ourselves “Wouldn’t it be great if we lived up here?” And now we do!

[CW] Were certain illustrations more challenging than the others?

[JT] The more challenging illustrations are those that involve buildings and angles. Although my father was an architect, I don’t have an architectural background. I’m a perfectionist. I was trying to do Atlanta and at first I got sidetracked trying to perfectly draw the lines, the windows, the buildings. It was so angular and hard. I had to take a step back and embrace my sketchy style.

Drawing the birds in the beginning was challenging too. I started with the birds being more detailed; it wasn’t until the end that I developed their character more. I tried to make the characters animated and personify them a bit. Sometimes the birds are wearing shoes, driving a boat, flying a helicopter. Obviously, birds wouldn’t need a helicopter. It’s amusing and I know the author gets a kick out of it.

[CW] Where do you get inspiration for the illustrations? You did say that you looked up some images online. And you do yoga too, so I’m sure just being outside helps.

An illustrated parody of the painting "American Gothic." Two birds are dressed in old fashioned farm clothing. They hold a pitchfork and stand in front of a barn.
Art by Josie Toney

[JT] Yeah, we live in a really beautiful area up here with the mountains. One of my favorite things to illustrate is trees. I would look at my reference images and then add my creative touches —the tortoise carrying the caddy, the birds driving the golf cart.

I’ve never been to the Ringgold chapel, but I imagined what it’d be like with all the animals there for a wedding ceremony. I have so much respect for American Gothic and I don’t know that I did it justice. The Atlanta Zoo is huge for me. I remember visiting Willie B. I had a Willie B. t-shirt for a long time when I was a kid. We now take my son to the zoo.

[CW] What tips would you give to illustrators working on a children’s book for the first time?

[JT] I would say “stay true to yourself and your art style.” I’m sure there are many cases where authors can be particular about what it is that they want. It’s really hard for an artist to change your style—at least, it’s hard for me—and I don’t think you should have to. Do your art and see what they like. That’s what I did.

When Dr. Robinson originally approached me about the book, she said the author was interested in the style of His Royal Dogness, illustrated by EG Keller. I’m glad—his style is really great and cool—but that’s not necessarily the style I do. I don’t know how other illustrators change their style. My style is my style. One time, I was commissioned to create an abstract piece. (whispers) I’ve never done abstract. It was a piece that I never loved; I struggled with it so much. It was intense. It had 3D pieces coming out of it. At one point, it even ripped through the canvas.

One of my closest friends and mentors is an excellent artist and shoe designer. She always taught me to embrace my style and she was right. When I’ve tried to force it or make it something that’s not me, it just doesn’t work.

[CW] Would you consider illustrating for a children’s book again?

[JT] Oh yeah, absolutely. I thoroughly enjoyed every part of this project.  I’m always seeking a creative element in my life.

[CW] Your art is your passion.

[JT] My art is my passion. I think everything happens for a reason. I moved up here because we wanted to be closer to family, we wanted to be at the foothills of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains and to raise our son here. I think it was all meant to be. I feel that everything is happening for that reason.

A drawing of Milo, a black fluffy dog. You can see Milo's nose and head as he peeks over at you,
Art by Josie Toney

Book Page  |  Meet Milo  |  Ask the Author

Interested in more great content? Meet Milo on his adventures around Georgia. Buy your copy of Georgia ABC’s now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million!, Bear Book Market, or your favorite indie bookstore.

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