Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Studio Tour

This week’s Tuesday Tours features the Toronto studio space of Debbie Ridpath Ohi, the illustrator of some pretty cool kids books, and soon to be illustrator and author of some pretty cool kids books. Debbie has a busy future ahead of her working on multiple book projects, which include Sea-Monkey and Bob by Aaron Reynolds (Simon & Schuster Fall 2015), Ruby Rose on Her Toes by Rob Sanders (HarperCollins Children’s, Winter 2016), and Mitzi Tulane: Preschool Detective by Lauren McLaughlin (Random House, Spring 2016). And of course her debut book as an author/illustrator Where Are My Books? which launches from Simon & Schuster in the Summer of 2015. With a schedule full of deadlines, Debbie has learned to stay on top of things with the help of her cork board tower. Even so, I’m amazed at everything she seems to accomplish each day. She blogs regularly, offering up advice or interesting information to fellow kid lit writers and illustrators, she has an online comic, and she creates enchanting found object doodles almost daily. After doing all of that, I’m honored she could find the time to show us her basement studio.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your creative medium.
I’m a children’s book writer and illustrator based in Toronto. ​My illustrations appear in picture books I’m Bored (NYTimes Notable Book) and Naked! (2014), both written by Michael Ian Black, published by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, as well as ten Judy Blume chapter books and middle grade titles reissued by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. FinalCoverI’m excited about my debut picture book as both the author and illustrator, when Where Are My Books? launches from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in Summer 2015. I mainly work digitally but have recently started experimenting with non-digital art as well, including watercolor, found object art and shadow art. My other creative interests include writing and playing music. I play, with varying degrees of competence: piano, flute, Celtic harp, tin whistle, guitar, and assorted bangy percussion instruments. I used to teach piano and flute part-time, and I am a member of the Toronto-based filk/folk music group called Urban Tapestry.

How long have you had your space and how does it affect your creative process?
I’ve had my current office ever since my husband Jeff and I first moved into our house nine years ago. I could have chosen my office space on the second floor of our home, which is full of light and space, and has a nice view of our neighborhood. But, instead I opted for the basement because I like the privacy, and I never look out the windows anyway. My husband nicknamed the space The Office Cave, and the phrase suits me fine. When people visit our house, they often  compliment me on my exquisite sense of design. Most of the house is in painted in relaxing earth tones, with lots of empty space on the walls. Then our visitors come down to the basement and peek into my office. One person said, “Wow. I think there’s more stuff in your office than in the entire rest of the house!” The truth is, the tasteful interior design in the rest of the house is my husband’s doing, not mine. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy it and I appreciate the decor. But I LOVE my basement office. I love the mismatched furniture, the piles of books, the riot of colors, and being surrounded by books and craft supplies and musical instruments and photography equipment. I also enjoy knowing that if I put something down on the carpet, it’ll still be there next time I go into my office. Early on, Jeff and I agreed to some ground rules–I would contain my creative clutter to my office, and in exchange, my husband agreed NOT to move anything in my office unless I gave him permission.


Jeff rigged up a system on Debbie’s office ceiling with string and pushpins and clips, to make it easier for her to hang up her sketches.

In the beginning, I tested (tortured?) Jeff by leaving a clearly misplaced book or pen lying out in the middle of my office floor. I could tell it was a struggle for him not to put it away (he’s a very, very neat person–you can imagine what an adjustment it was for both of us when we first moved in together) but to his credit, he left my clutter where it was. Anyway, my Office Cave makes me feel safe and wonderfully isolated and in turn, that makes it much easier to focus on creative pursuits.

Before Jeff put in my hanging system, I used to taped things up.

Before Jeff put in Debbie’s hanging system, she used tape to hang things up.

Are there any kind of rituals you do before you start creating?
I’ve always been envious of those who have creative rituals, like brewing a cup of tea or sharpening their pencils. It sounds so calming. Sadly, I have no ritual. If I’m struck with a creative idea for a found object doodle or a story, I’ll usually drop everything to write it down or (in the case of a found object doodle) create it right away.
If you’re talking about how I start my work day, I suppose I do have a ritual, although it’s not one I’d especially recommend for anyone else. I usually start each work day still in my pajamas, going straight from getting up, to walking down two floors to my Office Cave. I’ll check social media and email, then I’ll figure out what exactly I’m going to work on that day. Partway through the morning I’ll realize I’m hungry, and go get some breakfast. I usually eat it in front of the computer while I continue working. After breakfast, I’ll finally go up and take a shower and get dressed. I’d like to think that someday I’ll settle into a ritual that sounds much more appealing when answering a question like this one. It will probably involve a cup of tea and perhaps sitting out on our back deck and enjoying the outdoors for a few minutes before starting my work day. Perhaps a jaunty walk!

Well, whatever your routine is, it seems to be working 🙂
UrbanTapestryAwardsFluteMusicIs there anything you like to listen to while you’re working? What are you listening to now?
I find it depends heavily on what stage of what project I’m working on. If I’m writing, I usually prefer silence or unobtrusive ambient noise (I use Coffitivity sometimes. Ditto for when I’m at the very early stages of illustrating a book project, when I’m figuring out the basic layout of scenes and doing thumbnail sketches. At all other stages, especially when I’m doing anything repetitive and detail-oriented (like flat coloring before adding textures and shading), I listen to music or audiobooks, or even have a DVD of a movie or tv series I’ve already seen playing in one corner on my second monitor. I know the latter (movies/tv shows) sounds odd, but I found it worked for me when I have really long (e.g. 12+ hours) work days. The trick, I found, was to find movies or shows I had already watched at least a couple times before or had a lot of dialog rather than action, so I just needed to listen and not watch. AND it needed to be as different in tone from the project I was working on as possible, so it wouldn’t influence the project. Since the beginning of the year, I have worked my way through all the seasons of Supernatural, West Wing, and partway through Babylon Five. More recently, however, I’ve been listening to a lot of music instead. Music’s also great because I like to take officecrazydancebreaks. I’m a terrible dancer, but I find it extremely liberating and fun to regularly turn up a good tune in my office and then go into officecrazydancebreak-mode, where no one can see. Or I’ll sing along at the top of my lungs, mostly offkey. Some recent favorite workmusic: ELO’s Time album, Ookla The Mok’s Evil I album, Ed Sheerhan’s X (Deluxe Edition). Recently, I asked my FaceBook friends for suggestions for my new officecrazydancebreak playlist, and here’s a sampling
What a great idea, and what a rockin’ playlist. I love getting new music suggestions!
EthanImBoredLetterIs there any special item/trinket in your space that inspires you? 
My most inspiring office item is a handwritten letter that I received from a young reader. It reads: “Dear Debbie, I love your book because it reminds me about myself sometimes and when its about me it makes me want to read more. From Ethan.”
Something in my office that gives me joy, even though I don’t see as much of it anymore is a tree I painted in the corner of my office when we first moved in. Once I started getting multiple book projects, however, I decided that as much as I loved looking at the tree, I needed storage space even more. 
I still know the tree’s behind all that stuff, and that makes me happy. 🙂
What would you say is the most useful tool in your studio?
Apart from my computer, I’d say the project deadline cork-board that my husband made for me. I have multiple book projects with multiple publishers, and I had trouble finding an easy-to-use software solution. Jeff made me a cork-board to fit on the one remaining blank wall space in my office, and I turned it into a project deadline reminder system. It’s situated so that I can easily refer to it while I’m at my computer.
If you had a couple hundred dollars to improve your space, what would you do?
I’d figure out a way to get more efficient ceiling lights. The current ceiling lights came with the house and provide poor light and are poorly positioned. I’ve compensated by getting floor lamps and more desk lamps, but I would love to replace some of those with better overall lighting. Hmm…though I suspect that would cost much more than a couple hundred dollars.
Besides your studio, what do you feel is the most creative room in your home?
My husband’s office, on the second floor. He’s a computer geek, not an artist or musician. Having been a programmer/analyst in my first career, however, I know how creative computer geekery can be. He’s also an excellent writer, and I’m trying to convince him to post on his blog more regularly.
What advice do you have for people who want to make a personal space where they can be creative?
Find out what works for YOU. Don’t try to create a personal space that you think other people would find creative. Also, be flexible. You and your habits may very well change over time, and you’ll want to adjust your creative space accordingly. Remember that a creative space isn’t just physical. You may be a working mom with children and limited funds or living space, frustrated that you aren’t able to have your own office. DebPaintingOfficeDoor
Do whatever you can to carve out some regular time to be creative, and then create your own personal space. It could be a corner of a dining room table, a coffee shop, the library. Bring sound-reduction headphones, or listen to your favorite work music as you create. And finally, don’t despair if your workspace isn’t as beautiful or sunlit or organized like others you see online. Just take a look at the photos of my cluttered basement workspace and remind yourself that people find their creative joy in different ways. I love my Office Cave so much.
I love that! Great advice.
So run us through what’s coming up and how we can find out more.
Naked_coverI had some fun illustration projects that recently launched: Naked! is a fun new picture book written by Michael Ian Black and published by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.
My illustrations appear in three Judy Blume classics, reissued by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster: The Pain and the Great One, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo, and Freckle Juice. I also provided the cover illustrations for the above three books and seven Judy Blume classics reissued by the same publisher as middle grade, including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
People can find out more about me and my projects at and on Twitter at @inkyelbows.
2014-05-24-JudyBlumeCoversHorizThank you, Debbie for sharing your Office Cave with us! Looking forward to seeing your new books, and of course re-reading I’m Bored–one of our family’s favorites!

Stop back next week
when Canadian author/illustrator Barbara Reid shares her lovely Toronto studio where she creates her vibrant plasticine artwork.

2 thoughts on “Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Studio Tour

  1. I love your office cave Debbie! Great post, and the morning/creative process routine sounds all too familiar. My family doesn’t blink an eye anymore at the times I just stop in my tracks, pull out my sketchbook or notebook, and get something down. Yesterday my inspiration was dog slobber on my couch pillow! I’m working on carving out a space in my home, which my neat husband would appreciate! I have to compete with three kids and a very large dog, but I’m slowly getting that space. Thank you for sharing this Debbie Ohi.

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