Tuesday, December 18, 2018

2018 Client Christmas Card

Every year I send out Christmas cards to my agent and some of my long-time clients. This year I re-used an illustration that I did for Brio magazine.

In the original story, a bunch of kids are performing a nativity skit at a local children's hospital, which is why there's a wheelchair and all that medical equipment in the foreground of the scene. For my card I thought that stuff would be confusing, so I removed it.

I like to get my cards printed at Zazzle. The print quality and color accuracy is excellent, and the glossy cardstock is nice and thick. The prices are also reasonable considering that there's no minimum order. (I always place my order during Black Friday.) They do print a Zazzle logo on the back of the card, which doesn't bother me but I know that some artists might not want to confuse their branding.

Merry Christmas or whatever holidays you celebrate this season, blog readers. I am thankful for each and every one of you. I really appreciate the encouraging comments and emails that you send to me. It's been a struggle to keep this blog updated this year, not because of a lack of things to write about, but lack of time to write about them! I have some really cool projects to show you next year so I hope to see you again in 2019.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Motherhood and Career!

I’ve tried over and over again to write about what it was like to have a newborn. Two years ago, my husband and I brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital, and as that time slides further into the past it’s starting to acquire the glaze of nostalgia. When I look at photos it seems like a magical, simple time, when our little baby blob did nothing but eat, sleep and poop.

But at the time, it felt like the hardest thing I’d ever been through. The sleep deprivation, hormone changes, physical healing and massive life shift were a combo hit that left me reeling. My daughter and I were struggling to learn how to breastfeed, and as a result she was constantly eating but also constantly hungry, and therefore constantly attached to me.

My world had shrunk down to the area between my bed, the couch, and the diaper changing table. My day had shrunk down to struggling to meet me and my daughter’s basic needs of food, sleep and hygiene. I felt not so much like a person as a semi-mobile baby life support system. There was a day when I managed to get dressed, put my daughter in a carrier, walk to the cafe across the street, and order a chai latte. I considered this to be such a momentous achievement that I commemorated it with a blurry selfie.

Maybe some moms handle it all better than I did; I don’t know. But after those first six weeks, we figured out the breastfeeding thing, my husband and I learned some baby hacks, my daughter’s sleep started to improve and she started getting all chubby and smiley. I was starting to feel a little better. I even managed to get a little bit of personal drawing done.

That’s when news popped into my inbox: I had landed the job I had auditioned for months earlier: the “Real Stories From My Time” series with Scholastic! Woah!

The bad news was that they needed me to start right away. In fact, they needed two book covers in two weeks, a pace that would have been challenging even pre-baby.

I really didn’t know if I could do it. I had planned to take a few more weeks of maternity leave, but if I was going to take the job, I had to take it now. I spent a day going back and forth on it, doing a lot of soul searching. After a lot of encouragement from my husband and friends, I decided that if I turned the job down I would always look back and wonder if I could have made it work. So I accepted it. We went out for ice cream to celebrate, and took another blurry selfie.

I started working while my daughter napped and after she went to sleep at night. After rocking her to sleep and laying her in her little bassinet, I’d rush over to my computer, whipping out my stylus like a cowboy with his pistol. Her naps were usually about 45 minutes long, so while the baby slept I did nothing except draw, pausing only to make myself a cup of tea. Sometimes I wouldn’t even stop to use the toilet.

As I got back into drawing and listening to podcasts and audiobooks, I started to feel like myself again. Here was a small bubble of familiarity, of the Kelley I recognized. In motherhood I was an overwhelmed newbie; in illustration, I was skilled, experienced, connected. The publishing world had thrown me a lifeline, and I clung to it.

Surprisingly, despite the stress, sleep deprivation, and short deadlines, I produced some of my very best work. It was portfolio-worthy stuff, and I was receiving a lot of positive feedback from clients. I’m honestly not sure why this would be - perhaps it was because the work meant so much to me. (I should note that ultimately Scholastic gave me more than 2 weeks to finish the covers.) I went on that year to complete eleven book covers, five middle-grade books, and three editorial illustrations.

So that was two years ago. My daughter is now a toddler, a tiny blonde tornado of energy. I still work while she naps and after she goes to bed at night, but I also have a babysitter and occasional daycare. There’s no more falling asleep on the floor, or avoiding using the toilet because it would use up precious work time!

People ask me how I manage to “find a balance.” The answer is, I don’t so much “find a balance” as I do “manage to get through the day.” Taking care of my daughter absorbs most of my day; otherwise, I spend almost every spare minute working. If I get my work done early, I spend the evening cleaning the house, watching Star Trek with my husband, or maybe writing a blog post. (Now you know why I don’t update this blog as much as I used to!)

My Dad often asks me how I can possibly work at the end of a long day of toddler-wrangling. It’s true that, as much as I adore my baby tornado, spending an entire day with her is really draining. I sometimes wish I could just spend the evenings relaxing and the afternoons pursuing a hobby or playing video games. But most of the time, I feel grateful that I’m able to do what I do.

I love illustration. I love it. At the end of a long day, drawing centers me, calms me, makes me feel like a fully-dimensional person again. Being able to illustrate books is a gift, and I cherish it. And I will do everything that I can - working nights, working weekends, working through a bout of the stomach flu (true story) - to keep it in my life.

As long as I can continue to do this, I’m grateful.

Just to round things out, here's another blurry selfie.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Pearl Harbor

I created this book cover for Scholastic and American Girl's "Real Stories From My Time" series. First time drawing an explosion!

My parents made fun of me for surrounding a war scene in beautiful flowers. But that's the challenge of creating historical illustrations for children (and in this case, specifically girls) - it has to look accurate but also colorful and appealing. This challenge is actually one reason why I enjoy doing historical books.

Since this series is aimed at girls, the team asked me to draw a Hawaiian girl in the foreground, watching the Pearl Harbor attack unfold in the distance. Here's the sketch I sent.

Here's some photo references I took in order to get the pose right:

And here's the color rough:

At this point the team asked me to re-work some things, to add in an additional girl in the scene and make the explosion bigger. Then the girl was changed to a boy; I don't remember why!

From there I had the green light to go to final. Here's the finished illustration!

It's always a thrill to hold the printed book!

Next I'll be sharing one of the interior illustrations I did for this book. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Does Online Popularity Matter?

When you're just starting at art, you don't have many measures of what "good" art is, or what it means to be a "successful" artist. The most accessible standard, the first one aspiring artists turn to, is online popularity. They think that the artists with lots of followers must be the successful ones who are making a lot of money. "Artist A has 100 followers, but Artist B has 30k followers, therefore Artist B is A Good Artist and I should try to be like them."

I have a friend who works as a concept artist on video games. One time an aspiring artist asked my friend for portfolio feedback. This guy opened his email with,

"I have 4,400 watchers on Deviantart."

"The fact that he started out by bragging how many watchers he has on Deviantart tells me all I need to know about where his mind is at," my friend said. "I gave him some fresh perspective."

Guys, grab a coffee and sit down. As someone who's been "making it" as an artist for a few years now, I know some stuff that's difficult to see when you're a beginner looking in from the outside.

Let me give you some fresh perspective.

What kind of artist do you want to be? 

That's right, in order to get a bigger perspective, you have to back up. Back to the basics. What kind of artist do you want to be? Well, there are three basic types of career paths: employment, freelance and direct sales. (IMore detail in my Types of Illustration Careers post.) Quick recap:
  • Employment means being employed at a studio or company, for example, being an animator at Disney.
  • Freelance means working from home for various clients. Book illustrators like myself fall into this category.
  • Direct sales means creating and selling products directly to the public, for example: prints,  enamel pins, self-published books, web comics, etc.
Depending on what you want to do, online popularity may or may not matter to you. Let's go over these three career paths one by one.

Employment: online popularity doesn't really matter.

Employers care about your resume and your portfolio, not about how many followers you have. There are many, many artists who are working at studios, making livings, developing big projects, who have little to no online following.

Additionally, the art that tends to do well on social media isn't necessarily the stuff that studios want to see in your portfolio. Your drawing of Sherlock and Watson cuddling in front of the fireplace might go viral on Tumblr, but probably won't impress any future employers. So if employment is your goal, chasing online popularity is probably not the best use of your time. You don't have to convince the entire internet to like you; you just have to convince one company to hire you.

Freelance: online popularity is helpful, not essential.

Whenever I get a chance to meet an art director in person, I ask them how they find artists. So far, they've all mentioned social media as one of their top three sources. My drawing Dragonflower was used on the cover of Cricket magazine because the art director was Googling around for "dragon art!"

However, social media is not the only way to get noticed. You can contact potential clients directly by using submission forms on their websites, sending them postcards, emailing them, or meeting them in person.

Some successful freelance artists have little to no online presence. They may have agents who do their promoting for them, or they may have been working in the industry long enough that they have established relationships and a reputation. So social media can be good, but it's also not the only way to find clients.

Direct sales: online popularity is important.

If you're selling your own products, such as prints, enamel pins, self-published books, Kickstarters, webcomics, etc., then you need hundreds or thousands of customers. This is what's called a "fanbase," and usually, the bigger your fanbase, the better. Building a presence on social media should be considered a serious aspect of your business.

When you hear people say, "Develop a brand! Start a mailing list! Post online frequently! Start a blog or YouTube channel! Post tutorials! Start a Patreon! Run a Kickstarter! Open an Etsy shop! Study the algorithms! Improve your SEO! Table at conventions!" - all that advice mostly applies to artists who are aiming to build a fanbase for a direct sales career.

While social media is important, don't become obsessed with your numbers. You can get sucked down into a spiral of people-pleasing, sticking to drawings that you believe will get "likes" instead of what you really enjoy drawing. Like everyone else who's trying to make a living as an artist, you'll have to find a balance between what you love to make and what people like to buy.

In summary: think about how social media does or doesn't fit into your career goals. Either way, remember: online popularity isn't a measure of your value or skill as an artist. The illustration world is much, much bigger than numbers on social media profiles. There are many different paths to making a living as an artist, and becoming popular online is one possible path. It just happens to be the most visible one.

Here are some more resources if you'd like additional guidance on this topic:

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Rise of the Dragon Moon

You guys.


This book cover. This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do when I got into illustration. As the young kids say, I can't even.

When Ellen Duda over at MacMillan offered me the chance to illustrate the cover for a book about a princess who is also a dragon hunter, I couldn't type YES fast enough!

Ellen sent over a few ideas, involving the main character, her sidekicks, dragons, and the Northern Lights. The main character, Princess Toli, is an archer who wears a dragon scale cloak and carries a baby dragon on her shoulder. She also included a link to the author's Pinterest inspiration board, which was a first for me.

Also, the illustration needed to be "wraparound," which means that it covers the front, back and spine of the book.

It sounded like the team was open to ideas, so I created five roughs with variations on all the elements listed.

The team chose the second rough, and asked me to make a few changes. The biggest was that the dragon's anatomy needed to be beefed up.

Although I've drawn a lot of dragons, I've always tended to prefer the snake-like Asian-style dragons, the ones that look like ribbons curling through the air. This was my first time trying to draw a more European-style dragon. I created a "Dragons" Pinterest board and started pinning photos of storks, lizards and bats to it, as well as other people's dragon paintings for inspiration.

I also look some photo references for Princess Toli, using an umbrella in place of a bow:

Here is the color rough I sent over:

After reviewing my color rough, the team asked for brighter, more colorful Northern Lights. They also asked me to beef up the dragon a bit more. "Make him hella swole," they definitely said.

From there we were good to go.

I love, love, love the text design that Ellen Duda created. It just really pops straight off of the computer screen and into your eyeballs.

Ellen told me, "the author LOVES the cover. Her exact words were 'I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS!'" Which really meant a lot to me. At the time that I was finishing this up, the fantasy art community was in an uproar over author Terry Goodkind. He had publicly trashed the cover for his latest novel, calling it "laughably bad," and inviting all his fans on Facebook to insult it as well.

While all of us fantasy artists were discussing the incredible unprofessionalism of this behavior, I think a few of us were also secretly wondering if, at some point, our art had disappointed authors as well. I know how incredibly important books are to their authors, and I would feel really bad if they ever felt they had received a bad cover from me.

So I was very, very touched and gratified to hear that the author, Gabrielle Byrne, was happy with her cover. So happy, in fact, that she ordered two prints from me - one for each of her daughters' rooms!

Rise of the Dragon Moon comes out August 2019. I can't wait to read it!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Start Drawing: 2 Do's and 2 Don'ts

A lot of people want to learn how to draw. If you Google "learn to draw" you'll find advertisements for schools, online classes, videos, DVDs, books, expensive tablets and materials, all promising to help you learn to draw.

The good news is that you don't need most of those things in order to get started. What you need is time, and a little direction. Here's my bare-bones, super-cheap, anyone-can-do-it guide to getting started with drawing.

  • Just start drawing. As long as you have a pencil and paper, you can start. Here's what to draw:
    • Draw from life. This is the best way to learn to draw. Drawing from life teaches your mind to translate 3D objects in your vision to 2D shapes on paper. Learning to think in 3D will give your drawings a visible confidence and consistency. Draw people at the cafe, on the subway, in church. Draw your pets while they're sleeping, draw your own feet, visit a zoo and draw the animals, set up a still life on a table and draw that. It doesn't really matter what you draw; as long as you're drawing from life, then you're exercising that 3D-to-2D muscle in your mind.
    • Draw from photos. Drawing from photos doesn't help you practice thinking in 3D, because you're translating a shape from one 2D surface (the photo) to another (your sketchbook). However, photos can introduce you to shapes that would be difficult to find in real life - cool stuff like castles, tigers, planets. Sketch any photo that interests you - and it is totally ok to trace things just for practice.
    • Draw from your imagination. This is where you develop your personal voice. When you draw from imagination, you're not just copying what you see, but remembering things you've seen before and interpreting them in your own way. Keep this fun and light; don't try any complex crowd scenes or else you'll get frustrated. The more you draw from life and from photos, the more material your imagination will have to work with, and the easier it will get. All three practices feed into each other.
  • Sign up for inexpensive, local art classes. Start with the basics, such as figure drawing, landscape painting, chiaroscuro (which means "light and shadow"), color theory, etc. You may decide to enroll in a more specialized art school later, but you don't need that private school price tag in order to start learning the fundamentals. The classes at your local community college or community center will do just fine - just as long as they have those horribly uncomfortable bench-easel things. Those are essential!
  • Don't get distracted by the business side of art. If you read online (including blogs like mine) you'll start reading about the importance of developing a style, of putting together a portfolio, of building a fanbase. Don't worry about it. Those are directions that will make sense to you once you're further down the path. Getting distracted by those things at this early point will just stress you out. Focus on drawing for now.
  • Don't post your drawings on social media.  If you're a beginner artist, posting your art on social media will just distract and confuse you. You'll start worrying about why your drawings aren't getting "likes" and comparing your stats to others. Why is everyone ignoring me? Does my art just suck? Why does that other person's drawing have one thousand reblogs and mine only has four??? Why did that one quick sketch get 40 likes but that epic painting I spent weeks on only got 15 likes? For now, consider your artistic voice to be a tender little plant, and protect it from the harsh winds of social media. Seriously, you'll be happier.

Finally, remember that learning to draw takes years. Settle in and don't stress about it.

A lot of people want to learn to draw, but few people actually pursue it. By getting out pencil and paper and drawing, and by taking classes, you're already doing something a lot of people are afraid to do. Whether you choose to pursue it as a career or a hobby, I'm proud of you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Successful Artists and Their Critics and Doubters, Part II

Back in 2015 I did a very presumptuous thing: I emailed professional illustrators and asked them to tell me sad stories. Specifically, stories about times when people had said mean things about their art, or told them that they would never succeed.

My point wasn't just to dredge up painful memories from my friends and acquaintances. I wanted to show that everyone - even those who seem successful, talented and accomplished - sometimes face discouragement. And that sometimes that discouragement can come from sources who seem very authoritative and knowledgeable.

The resulting blog post, called "Successful Artists and Their Trolls, Critics and Doubters," is one of my most popular posts, with over 11,000 views to date. So I decided to do an encore, and went hunting among friends and acquaintances for more anecdotes. So if you're an artist who's ever been rejected, doubted, or ignored...read on, and find that you are in very good company.

"I was a few months out of school, and I was trying to get my freelance illustration career going. The only job I could score was at Subway. I was so ashamed. When I finally got an interview with a design firm I was SO excited. I got a portfolio together and took the train to the interview. I waited around in the lobby for what seemed like forever and the interview only lasted like 5 minutes. Here’s basically what he said about my portfolio 'This stuff is cool, but you’re never going to make money on this. You need to try something safer.' I was broken. I called my wife on the way home and told her how crushed I was. And as usual, she pulled me out of the abyss. She told me he had no idea what he was talking about and told me all of the ways that I was kicking butt. My wife has been my consistent pep talker and I would be nowhere without her!"

Andy J. Pizza is the creator of the podcast and book 'Creative Pep Talk'. Clients include Nickelodeon, Google, Converse, Sony, Smart Car, Oreo, The Boston Globe & Nutella.

"I had two professors in college. One told me right before I graduated that I had nice work, but had no idea what I was doing and wasn’t fit for the field. The other told me that my work was 'souless.' (Ouch! That one hurt.)"

Katie Kath is an award-winning illustrator who lectures at colleges and universities. Awards include a 2016 Jr. Library Guild Award, 2014 3x3 Magazine Distinguished Merit Award, 2014 Runner-up for the SCBWI NY Conference Portfolio Showcase, and she won the SCBWI Student Illustrator Scholarship in 2013. Clients include Abrams, Blue Apple Books, Dial Books, Grosset & Dunlap, Penguin-Random House, and more.

"I was rejected from the illustration program the first time I applied at university. At first it was very hard, but ultimately, it was a humbling and beneficial experience. I redid my portfolio, feeling more determined than ever to pursue my goal of becoming an artist. I made it in the second time! It took a lot of hard work and a reassessment of my priorities. I am very grateful for that experience. I don't think I would be the same person now if I hadn't gone through that."

Miranda is a freelance fantasy artist and winner of the 2018 Spectrum Rising Star award. Clients include Abrams Kids, Tor.com, Subterranean Press, Dragonsteel Entertainment and more.

"I had a teacher who only liked styles that would fit with very traditional American comic books and game design. I had a class with him...and once he found out I was not going to work in his ideal style, he didn't bother critiquing my work. He acted as though it was a waste of his time and also did this to anyone else who fell into that category. Fast forward to about a year later, I was accepted in the Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship. It was also parents weekend. I had class so my parents said they were going to walk around campus. I got a text from them saying they ran into that teacher, who was now giving them a personalized tour of the campus after they said they were my parents. Confused by this, I finally met them in the illustration department. My parents called my name and the teacher turned with a big grin to see me... and his face fell. Then I realized it. He not only thought I wasn't worth critiquing...but also thought my name was not worth remembering! He had no clue who I was and only knew my name from the Society of Illustrators announcement."
Kelly Leigh Miller is an award-winning illustrator whose clients include Dial, Penguin Random House, Cricket Magazine, Working Mother Magazine and more. She is also the author of two upcoming books from Dial in 2019 and 2020.

"The head of the illustration department at my art school once pulled me into his office toward the end of my time there. He was concerned that since my portfolio was mostly sci-fi/fantasy stuff that I needed to do a bunch of editorial paintings and whatnot because there was no way that I could succeed just painting what I was. He said 'Chris, it's like you've really sharpened the hell out of this one axe but I think you're going to need a lot of other tools.' He was very wrong, considering how specialized you need to be these days. I don't blame him as he was coming from an old idea of how the illustration industry works but it really could have sent me in a bad direction if I'd listened."

Chris Rahn is a professional illustrator whose clients include Wizards of the Coast,Valve, Blizzard, Marvel, Discovery Channel Magazine and the Village Voice. He has also displayed his work at the New York Society of Illustrators.


Thanks to everyone who responded to my emails and dredged up painful memories for the sake of my blog.

Did you find this helpful or encouraging? Do you have a story about how someone dismissed your artwork? Leave a comment!
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