Thursday, April 30, 2015

Personal work: Giselle


A few weeks ago I saw Giselle performed by the Australian Ballet.


In the story, a prince disguises himself as a peasant and visits a quaint country village. He meets Giselle, a shy and charming peasant girl, and the two quickly fall in love. But when the royal hunting party comes through town, they spot the prince and reveal his identity - and the fact that he is engaged to a princess. Giselle dies of heartbreak.


The second act takes place in the forest at night. Giselle has become one of the willis, ghosts of heartbroken girls who emerge at night to dance. If a man stumbles into a group of willis, they force him to dance until he dies of exhaustion. The prince comes to the forest to lay flowers at Giselle's grave. The willis catch him, but Giselle protects him from their wrath until dawn, when the willis return to their graves. Giselle embraces the prince before she disappears.


Giselle is considered perhaps the most ballet of all ballets. The first performance was in 1841, and the version I saw was very true to its roots. The sets, costumes and staging all seemed quite traditional. The first act was all warm colors, smiling villagers and fast-paced, happy music. The second act, though, in the moonlit forest, was really magical. When the prince brought flowers to Giselle's grave, she appeared behind the gravestone, wearing a bridal veil and lit from below, which gave her a very ghostly appearance. I immediately thought to myself "I need to draw that!"

I did this doodle in my sketchbook one evening and thought it turned out well. This sketch was done in pencil, but the final drawing was done digitally using a pencil brush in Photoshop.


Next I took some extremely sloppy photo references. Notice the tidy bed in the background here:


That tidy bed was sacrificed to make a cape for my emo prince:


Here's a process gif:

By the way, I just now found out that yesterday was International Dance Day! Drats! Should have posted this a day sooner!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Interview with Katie Kath


I'd like to introduce you to Katie Kath, a rising star of the children's book industry. I consider Katie to be sort of my illustration sister, because we both won the SCBWI Student Illustrator Scholarship in 2013, which launched both of our careers, and we got picked up by the same agency. Since then Katie has gone on to work with big names such as Dial Books, Penguin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and others. But besides her professional experience, Katie has some great insights into success and staying true to yourself.

illustration by Katie Kath

What was your experience at art school like? Were you a star student?

I definitely had some professors with high hopes for my future, but I was never "that student" who won every award, took no prisoners, and was destined for gold-paved greatness. There were many of those students at art school, and while I was good at what I did, I never carried that reputation.

Tell me about the SCBWI Student Illustrator Scholarship. What made you choose to apply, and what happened after you won?

The SIS was something I stumbled upon, thanks to a flyer landing on a professor's desk. Per his suggestion, I submitted some work from a project I was doing for a class. I figured that I had nothing left to lose, being so close to graduation and being in the awkward place I was in my career. After I won the scholarship, an agent noticed my work, I signed with them, and I've been busy with illustration work ever since! (If you want the long version of this story, you can read more about it in the SCBWI Success Story Archives.)

illustration by Katie Kath

You've amassed quite a resume in the two years since you won the scholarship. Is being a professional illustrator everything you thought it would be?

I think it has been more than everything I thought it would be. I had always gotten the impression that illustration was a great but hard-knock-life, so to speak, and in a way it is, but perhaps being prepared for the worst has allowed me to concentrate on the many, many wonderful aspects of it. Yes, there have been some surprises, but I they have been mostly good surprises, like how art directors and editors are so willing to work with you and are always on your side.

What would be your advice to artists who are struggling to discover their own styles?

Never be a trend-chaser. Never concern yourself with what others are doing or what's popular, because in a few years it might just be unpopular. Do what you like to do, do it well, and your "style," your artistic soul, will come out on the paper, whether you like it or not.

What would you say to illustrators who want to get their foot in the door of the publishing industry?

People will tell you all kinds of things. They'll tell you that you can't do this or that. That you don't understand this or that. That people won't like this or that. While there is something to be said in trying to keep students and/or aspiring artists from not getting their hopes too high too quickly, I really have to ask, is there such thing as having your hopes too high? I think that low hopes are the easiest and most detrimental man-made road block you can put in front of yourself. So here's my advice: draw what you like to draw, attend conventions and conferences, make friends in the field, build a reputation for being polite, reliable, friendly, and punctual, and submit to lots of competitions. You never know where it will take you.

illustration by Katie Kath

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See? I told you guys this was good stuff. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us, Katie!

Blog readers, do you have any other recommendations for artists that you'd like me to interview?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Helpful Links for Illustrators


Every few weeks I post a collection of links to articles about illustration, freelancing, and general creativity.

  • The End of the Line by Chris Tugeau- an artist rep explains how an agency works, what agents expect from their illustrators, and why sometimes they have to let artists go.
  • The Trick to Painting Light on a Bright Day by Karla Ortiz - a short and sweet tutorial on how to capture the look of bright sunshine.
  • Purposeful Progress by Dani Jones - Dani explains the concept behind doing something every day to move you forward - and how that brought her unexpected attention on social media.
  • How to Find Your Voice by John Hendrix - illustrator and art teacher gives a lengthy post on how to find your style, create your own content and construct a lasting career
  • Blogging 101 for Artists: Building an Audience by Kiri O. Leonard - one in a growing series of useful posts about blogging
  • Art for Exposure by Justin Gerard - an oldie but a goodie, Justin explains why someone who offers "exposure" usually can't deliver on their own promises.
  • Please Shut Up by Delilah Dawson - an author discusses how to most effectively use social media to promote yourself without being annoying.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Personal work: Hysteria


Buckle up, blog readers, this is a weird one.

I was invited to be a part of a group show with Light Grey Art Lab. The theme of the show is GUTS. (Open now until May 15th in Minneapolis!)
Part exploration, part education, part evisceration -- we want to know what's really underneath the surface. So dust off your field guides, scalpels, and stay-at-home taxidermist's manuals, and join us for an exhibition that peels back the skin of all of the subjects you've ever wanted to know more about.
For a while I've been a big fan of the podcast Sawbones, which examines medical history in a funny and entertaining way. After listening to their episode about hysteria, I thought it would make a perfect subject for the GUTS show.

Hysteria was a medical condition that was believed to be caused by the woman's uterus moving around inside her body. The belief goes back as least as far as ancient Egypt. Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus claimed that the uterus was a sentient being, "an animal within an animal."


Symptoms of hysteria included anything and everything - one Victorian doctor listed 75 pages of symptoms. These included legitimate physical conditions, but also included just any behavior considered inappropriate for a lady - such as "emotional outbursts," "erotic fantasies" or "a tendency to cause trouble."

The concept died out around the end of the 19th century, but the idea of women's guts making them crazy persists today.

If you're interested in the bizarre history of hysteria (I didn't even go how it was "treated", because I keep this blog PG-rated) I would highly recommend listening to Sawbones' hysteria episode.

I almost didn't go through with this illustration because I was afraid it was just too weird.


I was working through some really challenging commissions at the time, and I was yearning for something simple and self-indulgent - the artistic equivalent of eating waffles for dinner. A pretty girl on a flat background sounded nice. No perspective here, no thank you.

An important aspect of hysteria is the myriad of symptoms attributed to it. At first I was going to have the symptoms written like a diagram, pointing to various areas of the woman's body. But then I developed the idea of having the symptoms written on a ribbon that was constraining the woman. I thought this was a more visual approach, and I liked that it reminded me of tattoo designs.


I went through a few different ideas for the "animal within an animal," trying to keep it from looking funny, cute, or like any specific animal in particular. I didn't want people saying, "why does she have a fish in her stomach?" I didn't want it to look silly, but isn't the idea of a sentient uterus creature inherently silly? Argh! So much for giving myself an easy assignment!

In the end I went with a combination of a bird and a fish. What do you guys think? Is it the best sentient uterus you've ever seen in your life, or have you seen better ones?


All the pieces from the GUTS show are now listed in Light Grey Art Lab's store, where you can buy prints. Here are some of my favorites:




If you're in the Minneapolis area, check out the GUTS show at Light Grey Art Lab! The show will be open until May 15th. If you go, please tell me how it is and send me some photos!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book cover: Wellspring of Magic


This is a book cover I did for Annie's Publishing. After I did some crochet-themed mystery covers for them, the art director asked if I would be interested in creating covers for a new series aimed at 7-10 year-old girls.

The series is called Creative Girls Enchanted Adventures, and it involves pre-teen girls who do crafts and discover a portal to a magical kingdom where their crafts have magical powers.

There were two things I really, really enjoyed about this project:

1. The art director and I came up with the concept for the cover together. We did some brainstorming on the phone, where she told me the basics of the story and I blurted out some ideas. She suggested the idea of a magical paintbrush, which is an elegant way of tying the crafts and magic themes together.

2. The art director made it clear that she wanted an all-out girliness bomb on this cover. Nothing was off-limits: fairies, crowns, magical sparkles, cute outfits, all the things. My inner Disney princess was squealing. The only other requirement was that I feature craft-related items.

Since the concept was so flexible, I drew several quick roughs that included magic portals, cute girls, fairies, crowns, and sparkles.


The AD liked the simplicity and sassy attitude of #5. At this point the editorial team decided that they wanted to add a dragon, who is the story's antagonist, into the illustration.


They liked the idea of the dragon being tangled up in knitting yarn, because it brought another crafty element into the scene. The cover was taking shape.


We also played around with the idea of a decorative border, but ultimately decided there was already a lot going on. (whew!)


After seeing these color roughs, the AD asked me to make the dragon green, and to give the girl a younger outfit. She looked too much like a teenager. I went to a nearby Justice clothing store and asked for one of their catalogs, which look like this:


This helped give me some guidelines for what 10-year-old girls are wearing these days.


The color rough was approved, and I painted this whole thing in a weekend because I was having a lot of fun.


Another reason I couldn't put it down was because I had downloaded the Gone Girl audiobook, of all things, and that book is very, very difficult to walk away from. So I kept painting even after midnight, even after I was tired of painting, because I had to keep listening to the book. That's why this painting is very tightly polished - because of Gone Girl.




Wellspring of Magic is now available on the Annie's Fiction website!


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Self-Published Authors: 10 Tips on How to Email an Illustrator

When you're a self-published author, you have to wear a lot of hats - editor, designer, marketer - sometimes all the hats! That includes being your own art director and communicating with illustrators. As an illustrator, sometimes emails from self-published authors can be, at best clueless, at worst downright insulting. If you want to work with a professional illustrator, sending a solid inquiry email is essential. Here's how to increase your chances of making a good first impression.

  1. Don't begin by talking about how tight your budget is. Imagine if someone burst into your office and the first words out of their mouth were, "I can't pay you very much!" Would your response be "tell me more!"? Illustrators receive a lot of requests for cheap or even free artwork. We don't expect everyone to be made of money, especially self-publishers, but nothing will elicit an eyeroll more than bringing up a lack of funds right off the bat.
  2. Don't try to downplay the amount of artwork. Illustrators understand the phrase "just a few quick sketches" to be code language for "I can't pay you very much and I want you to feel ok about that."
  3. Don't gush about how your project is exciting, special, a guaranteed bestseller, an instant classic, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don't have to "pitch" the illustrator your concept like you would with an editor. The artist's first concerns are the type of artwork involved, the deadline and the budget. You don't have to convince them that your project is the next big thing, and you only risk coming off as pretentious and possibly delusional.
  4. Don't ask the illustrator to imitate another artist's style. What the illustrator hears is "I want to hire this other illustrator but I couldn't afford them, so I'm using you as a cheap knockoff." What you see in the illustrator's portfolio is what you're going to get - so if that's not what you want, don't hire them.
  5. Don't mention "exposure." People bring this up so often, illustrators like to joke that "you can die of exposure." To us it's another coded message meaning "I'm trying to make up for the fact that I can't pay you very much." An illustrator can judge from the type of project you're proposing how much exposure they're likely to receive. You don't need to bring it up.
  1. Start the email with a compliment, a mention of how you found the artist, and which of their images made you think they would be a good fit for your project. A little flattery never hurts, and being specific distinguishes your email from a generic spam message sent to hundreds of other artists. Also, use their name.
  2. Describe your project succinctly and simply. For example, "I'm writing a collection of poems about California wildlife," or "I'm working on a middle-grade novel about a boy who goes on a mission trip to Mexico." You're a writer, you can do this. I believe in you.
  3. Describe exactly the amount and type of artwork you will need: the number and size of the pieces, color or black-and-white, what it will be used for. For example, "I need 12 black-and-white spot illustrations of California plants and animals, for use as chapter headers," or "I need a color cover featuring the main character standing outside a small church in Mexico." If you don't know how to describe what you need, try asking other authors for some basic illustration terminology.
  4. Mention the deadline. Asking the artist if they are "available" means nothing without some sort of time frame. If you're flexible on the deadline, ask the artist how much time they think they would need. The more time you can give them, the better. Remember that many illustrators work on multiple projects; if you need your art in a hurry then they may have to turn down other paying work in order to get it done on time. But if you have a long deadline, they can work on your project around other paying work.
  5. If you have a pre-determined budget, say it without apologies or excuses. If not, ask the illustrator how much they would charge for this project, or if they need more information in order to make that determination.

Here's an example of a fictional, well-written inquiry to an illustrator:
Hello Kelley,
I found your portfolio on Deviantart and really enjoy your use of color and sense of humor, especially the piece "Dragonflower." I am looking for an illustrator to create a cover and fifteen b&w interior spot illustrations for my self-published middle-grade novel about a lobster who becomes a famous K-POP star. I would need this cover by mid-August. As far as budget goes, I'm not sure what the going rate is for something like this, so I am open to suggestions for a fair price for a project of this size. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for your time!
It's short, polite, and hits all the major points: type of artwork, budget, deadline. There's no excessive flattery or groveling, or promises of "exposure" and future riches from this "guaranteed bestseller." (By the way, feel free to steal my lobster idea, and please send me a copy of the book once you've written it.)

Many illustrators are happy to hear from self-published authors who can communicate clearly and respectfully. Now that you have this information, go and approach illustrators with confidence!

Additionally, I would really appreciate it if you would share this blog post - not just because I'm desperately hungry for attention, (I am) but because I truly want this message to get out there to the self-publishing community.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

He Is Risen


"The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying."

Of all the illustrations that I've done for Lifeway's Explore the Bible series, (I've done over 60) this one is my favorite. I like it because I think I successfully pulled off an early morning feel.

If you're not familiar with this scene, you heathen, this is when two of Jesus' followers come to his tomb to...wait, what were they doing? Embalming his body or something? Does that make sense? Shoot, this is embarrassing. All those years of Sunday School. I'm sorry I called you a heathen.

Anyway, the two women came to Jesus' tomb to find it open and empty, and two angels standing nearby. Yes, those are angels - Lifeway specifically requested that they not have wings and halos. Still, I felt like there had to be some signifier that the men were angels, so I put them in all-white outfits.

For the figures, my husband helped me take some photo references.




Here is the sketch that I sent to Lifeway:


And here is the final:


Happy Easter, everybody!
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