Maddie Frost Takes Us Into Her Magical World of “Scanned Textures”

Maddie Frost Lead
To look at one of Maddie Frost’s illustrations is to immediately wonder, “How did she make something so texturally complex look so gorgeously simple and accessible?” Her work is a triumph of composition, of thoughtfulness, of ingenuity. It was a delight to speak with her about her process in creating what we’ve termed, “scanned textures.” (Because, after all, every texture you see in her illustrations has been scanned–and often created–by hand in her New Hampshire studio.) From socks to sweaters to watercolor to, yes, even oatmeal, Maddie has seemingly scanned it all. And aren’t we thankful for that.

Have you always incorporated scanned textures into your work? Was there a defining moment when you committed to primarily using scanned textures?

I did not! When I first started as a freelance artist I worked in watercolor as well as digitally coloring my drawings. It was all I had done before, so naturally I wanted to stay with a comfortable working technique. When I look back at my old work it feels like reading an old journal from high school or seeing a picture of myself with a frumpy outfit on. I know a lot of creative makers can relate to that. I hadn’t done much digging into the world of picture books, and never thought about the importance of the medium artists choose to use for illustrating them.

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About two years ago, I began to spend a lot of time in the kids’ section at the bookstore (on the floor and in people’s way). I really immersed myself in the work of other illustrators and started to question why they chose their medium to tell their story or somebody else’s story. I questioned their color, composition, texture, and space, and started to notice how it all affected me as a reader.

“That moment” for the start of my style adventure came from looking at a picture book by Carin Berger called The Little Yellow Leaf. This book changed everything for me. The mismatching textures and patterns sucked me right in. I got lost in what seemed to be a semi-tangible world and my eyes were in heaven. A spark really went off, it felt like I was a child and my friend had a cool toy that I wanted to play with.

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Soon after I looked at every inch of that book, I started to experiment. I didn’t have an end result in mind because I had no idea what I was doing, and it was so freeing. I went all around the apartment and began to take things out of drawers like socks, scarves, mittens, my favorite sundresses with pretty patterns, different types of collage paper, paper I painted on. My fiancé just watched me buzz around like a mad scientist. I scanned them in, one by one, then opened Photoshop and thought, “OK… Now what should I make?”

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I started simple with some animal characters and some trees. I digitally cut out shapes of the scanned files and began to assemble things together. It was exciting. It was so new and unexplored to me that I immediately became addicted to the process. Every weekend I would experiment a little more, and every illustration had more depth than the last (and more layers). I was able to achieve a level of satisfaction with my work that I had never reached before. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but it really was the start of finding my creative voice as an artist.

Are you at the point now where you can spot a texture and think, “That would be lovely to scan?” What makes a particular item prime for scanning?

Since I started working this way, my eyes always notice textures and patterns in the world around me. I have always been an observant person, all artists are, but now I find myself waiting in line for a coffee staring at a man’s sweater in front of me. I probably look creepy in doing this, more so since I haven’t had coffee yet. I try to look for interesting patterns on fabric or paper when I’m at the craft store (or in my closet) that will help me tell a story or dress a particular character. I try to find noticeable weaving patterns in fabric, and usually I find them in socks and sweaters. I need the fabric to be as flat as a pancake so there are no ripples, which can make a blurry scan.

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There are also times I come across a piece of fabric or paper that just looks exciting to use and I’m not sure what I will do with it yet. I also like to make my own textures with paint, which I have gotten more into recently. There is a whole other quality that comes out of handmade texture, and I am really drawn to it.

What is the weirdest thing you’ve scanned for texture?

I wish I could say something cool like fish scales or the hair of a wild boar. But I don’t think I’ve gone that crazy yet. I try to keep a sense of simplicity when I find things to scan because I don’t want it to be too distracting in a composition. I try to look for things that can resemble items we see in every day life. But sometimes if I need a rock for an image, I can’t exactly put a rock in my scanner. So that is where I have to get creative.

I like to play in the kitchen and mix spices with watercolor paint. It is SO MUCH FUN. Salt works brilliantly with watercolor because when it dries it leaves a crystal mark on the paper, perfect for making rocks! I have also mixed garlic powder, black pepper, dried basil, and red pepper flakes with paint and it makes really neat texture once it’s brought into the computer. I have scanned uncooked oatmeal before and used it for a turtle’s shell. Hey, it worked!

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What role do you think your scanned textures play in telling a story? Do you gravitate toward specific textures to tell a particular story or convey a certain mood?

For me, texture means tangible. The more something feels real, the more it seems real. For story telling, it sets the mood and tone of course, but it also gives the reader an opportunity to make their own connections. It’s a way of getting lost in that imaginary world, whether you’re trying to identify what material I used to make a pillow or are just feeling comfort out of that pillow looking soft and cozy.

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I think that sometimes I know exactly what I need to use to set a mood, and sometimes I have no idea. I will do a series of swapping in and out to see how it feels. It’s sort of like how a fashion stylist puts together an outfit. If I’m making a woodland scene that is suppose to feel quiet and a little lonely, I don’t want busy patterns and textures. I will look for something soft and go for limited color. Or if it’s a woodland scene that is whimsical and funny, I will amp up the textures and colors.

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But sometimes I make images without any mood in mind. I just create something and then the mood comes after I’ve made it and there are multiple interpretations of a possible story intertwined.  My ideas come like little mini shimmers of light that are influenced by memory or a part of my brain that I will never fully understand, and I just have to make them in order to make space for new ideas to come through.

Can you talk a little bit about your process, from scan to final piece?

I will do my best without blabbering on and sounding like a crazy person here. Basically I have a giant archive of textures. They are divided up into folders labeled, “Fabric,” “Painted,” “Paper,” and “Surface” (meaning pieces good for making hard surfaces). In each folder, there are wide collections of things that fall under their respective categories. I have gotten really good at knowing where things are, like a speedy librarian.

When I’m making a picture of, let’s say, a house on a hill and it’s a sunny day and a silly story, I know that I want to start with the landscape first, so I need grass and sky. I want a bit of bold color with a little grit to it. I’ll go into my “Painted” library and find some scanned acrylic. I’ll open up Photoshop and copy and paste that scanned texture in. Then I will use the lasso tool, a dear friend of mine, to cut out the shape of the grass. I’m using this tool like I would if I were a cut-paper artist and doing this by hand, cutting and gluing paper shapes down to make one picture.

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Every shape, every piece, is cut out separate and sits on its own layer. Usually I make characters separately with the same method and then bring them into the scene. Everything can be moved around like a digital paper dollhouse, which is convenient. From there I continue on, I find something for the sky, maybe a bit of blue graph paper to add an unexpected pop. Or maybe it has purpose and is used for a story about math. Then the house would be maybe something from the “Surface” folder, like a counter top sample from the hardware store. If there is an animal character in it I usually explore what is in my “Fabric” folder for maybe a piece of felt that I can cut (lasso tool) shapes out of.

I try to consider all folders for everything. Sometimes the best looking parts of an illustration of mine don’t come from the folder you’d expect. I go from there and work my way from important parts of the composition to the tiny details, like flowers, clouds, and leaves. And those can really can be from anything! Sometimes I will use real scanned leaves for making fake leaves, and sometimes I will make leaves out of scanned watercolor and garlic powder. The final part of my process is what I call “adding the magic in.” It’s when I tweak colors, adjust tones, and add shadows and light. It sort of brings all these random parts together.

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The great thing about working this way is that I’m always surprising myself. It creates loads of challenges and obstacles, and those are the things I thrive on. I am constantly evolving and learning, and I hope that continues for the rest of my artistic career…and for the rest of my life, really. I never want to feel bored with the way I choose to work, which is why I am so open to being influenced by other artists. It’s so important to enjoy the process and to be curious, to make time to experiment and create things for only yourself.