Mary Jane Begin’s illustration career has been incredibly varied and prolific. A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, she is now a member of their Illustration faculty. She’s won multiple awards of excellence and held one-woman shows in places like New York, Beverly Hills, and the National Museum of Illustration in Newport. She’s created art for corporations and for children’s books.
Mary Jane’s art has an arresting larger-than-life quality, exemplified in her most recent picture book, Ping Meets Pang. Written and illustrated by Mary Jane, it will be released in July. When a red panda and a giant panda meet at the Panda Palace, they initially notice their differences, but soon discover the many similarities they share in this heartwarming and lushly illustrated book.
Welcome to Lupine Seeds, Mary Jane! Could you tell us about your inspiration for Ping Meets Pang?
I visited China a few years back and went to a panda sanctuary in Chengdu. I was delighted to see the sleepy giant pandas but was surprised to also see just over a large wall, red pandas racing up and down trees. When I saw the red pandas I thought “THAT is a panda? It looks like a raccoon!” Then I imagined a red panda being rather annoyed by my comment. That led to the idea of the two pandas meeting unexpectedly, each incredulous that the other claimed to be a panda. I started to sketch out the two pandas, and named them Ping and Pang, Mandarin for ping pong, going back and forth with their rebuttals. I imagined them initially in a much longer story, but realized it needed the text needed to be swifter like a game of ping pong. I started with some simple character sketches, then created the image of the cover that was actually the sample piece for the book.
You wrote and illustrated Ping Meets Pang, but you’ve also illustrated many books authored by others. How you approach an illustration project written by someone else versus one you’ve written yourself?
The beauty of writing a book myself is that I can ask the writer to change something, and she usually does it! Seriously, there’s something rather lovely about being able to bounce back and forth between the text and pictures, and make changes to strengthen the book, right up until the book goes to the printer. When you have creative control over the whole project, it’s easier to work on it as a whole, like the director of a film orchestrates all the players and makes the magic.
Your My Little Pony books and your Willow Buds books were part of a series. Does series work present any special challenges? Benefits?
When you develop a set of characters that need to adhere to a specific design and/or storyline, it’s more complicated, as you are building a larger world. For the Pony books, I had to pay very close attention, not only to the look established by Hasbro for the ponies, but also the world of the animation. They refer to it as “cannon” and the fans of pony would be upset if I broke with the established lore! That said, I did explore my own style for the ponies, as Hasbro supported me in both creating original stories and bringing a special spin to the dimensionality of them. As to the Willow Buds, that was my own invention based off of the classic tale The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, and I had much more control. I did follow the established characters personalities though and made sure that the prequels were set in the right time frame based on the original story.
Your illustrations have a luminous quality, offering a glimpse of a magical world. How do you achieve that sense of hyper-realism?
Although I vary my materials from watercolor and colored pencil or pastel to watercolor and acrylic, I have a very specific layering technique that creates luminosity. My method involves layering colors based on Renaissance techniques and is also very focused on light. I’ve been obsessed with how light creates the illusion of form in a painting ever since I was a child, and am endlessly fascinated with how it affects color, both in the real and imagined world of a painting.
You’ve also created art for Celestial Seasons, Hasbro, Disney, and Universal Studios, among others. Sounds exciting! Do you have any interesting stories to tell us?
I’ve done a fair amount of advertising illustration, a very different pursuit than working on books. With books, you work with a publisher, who gives you tremendous freedom typically. With advertising, the images are very prescribed based on the client’s desires. I remember painting a Celestial Seasonings package and having to count the exact amount of chamomile flowers that would be in the field, as well as make the shine of the Mama Bear’s nose on the right not the left side! My painting was quite small, about 4 inches by 9 inches, so it seemed like such a funny thing to focus on, but in the end, I was happy with the illustration, and it stayed on the box for many years.
What drew you to children’s literature? Which came first, your corporate work or your work as a picture book illustrator?
I was drawn to children’s books specifically because of one book: Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg. I was in a drawing class at RISD as an undergrad and saw this book sitting on a desk. I was absolutely floored by the soft, gothic illustrations and the unusual story. I ended up taking several courses of Chris’s when he taught at RISD and fell in love with the idea of telling stories with pictures. When I graduated, I did both books and commercial work, mostly illustrations for elementary grade textbooks. As an illustrator, I’ve found that the staying power is all about having a few different sources of income, and a nice variety of projects to keep me creatively satisfied. Many artist’s need variety as their spice of life…maybe we get bored easily or maybe change and variation keep the juices flowing, but certainly, it’s a common refrain amongst creatives.
How has your style evolved?
My style varies between a more stylized way of working like the My Little Pony Books and Willow Buds series, to a more realistic approach like Little Mouse’s Painting or R is for Rhode Island Red. It is really dependent on what the project calls for, though it’s still certainly within a range that people recognize as my work. I can’t say that my style has evolved dramatically, but my openness to try different subject matter, and to work on fine art/noncommercial work has grown. I painted a series of landscapes and seascapes that pushed me out of my comfort zone with being object oriented and tested my ability to let things be soft and illusive in a painting. I did a charcoal series on breast cancer a few years back that was raw and emotionally expressive in a way that is very different than my children’s book work or my commercial work. Being an artist means taking chances and trying things you’ve never tried before.
You teach at the college level, offer professional workshops for adults, and visit elementary school classrooms. How do you manage to reach students across this broad age spectrum?
That’s an excellent question, one that I’ve never really thought about before! I think that storytelling is not unique to any age group, nor is the imagination. When I engage people, I try to tap into who they are and what they want to share. With adults, I try to dust off their imaginations and re awaken their passion for creative ideas for making art themselves. As a Professor at RISD, I teach a lot of students who want to illustrate books. In my role as Chair of Illustration for Hollins University MFA in Children’s Literature program, I work with students that are writing and illustrating books as they gain their master’s degree. With the kids, I play illustration games and create projects, as well as teach them about what I do as an illustrator. In the end, I think that people of all ages like to look at images and hear stories and I have plenty to show and tell :)
Teaching, commercial art, book illustration, how do you juggle them all and keep your balance?
I do like the variety- it keeps me hopping creatively…and I enjoy the juggling. My brain tends to have 10 tracks running at any given moment. I think it comes from raising kids and all that multitasking, though when my kids were young it was harder for sure. Now I have more time, and the biggest challenge is carving out swaths of time to draw and paint for myself. I sometimes find that life stuff pops up and I’m swimming against a tide to get to the art making. Covid was helpful for getting me to stay put and work with focus for Ping Meets Pang. I finished that book in 6 months which is quite fast for me!
What is your advice for beginning illustrators?
My advice to beginners is to carry a sketch book and draw EVERYTHING! Draw from life, draw from your head…just draw. The 10,000 hours rule definitely applies to illustrating. Be sure to learn about illustrators, both past and present as it helps to know context for the thing you want to do. Taking classes, finding the peers that support your interests, and giving yourself clearance to make art unapologetically, are all good places to start.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
A story began to form in my head shortly thereafter and it’s now written and being storyboarded. You never know when inspiration will show up, but when it does, you should always welcome it with open arms.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
The book is about otherness, differences and friendship. Ping and Pang are both Pandas, but they don't look a thing like one another and that's a problem. Each maintains they possess the true qualities of being a Panda; the correct color, the size and shape of their ears, the even fluffiness of their tails. It is only when they realize what they have in common do they slowly appreciate each other's differences. The analogy to today's political and racial climate points to acceptance of the other side's differences and finding common ground. Here is a KIDLIT TV link of my reading Ping Meets Pang that your readers might enjoy:
My granddaughter loved Ping and Pang! Thank you so much for being my guest today! To find out more about Mary Jane Begin and the wide range of her work, visit her website at