Thursday, August 18, 2016

Portrait of Laura

Last month I attended a TLC Workshop taught by Dan Dos Santos. I've been a fan of Dan Dos Santos' work for years and I carefully study his use of light and color. So when I heard that he was teaching a workshop in Washington, I jumped at the chance to attend.

TLC Workshops are small, private weekend workshops taught by renowned fantasy artists. We spent three days learning from Dan about light and color and how to light a portrait. We learned about up lighting, down lighting, Rembrandt, Paramount and butterfly lighting. Dan set up a model head on a table and had us practice painting various lighting scenarios.

Here are a few of my exercises:

After practicing the fundamentals of light and color for the first two days, on the last day Dan had us take photographs of our fellow classmates and paint portraits of them. I immediately grabbed classmate Laura Exley, because I thought it would be really cool to backlight her teal blue hair.

I decided that I wanted to draw her moth tattoo coming to life, and have the moths be backlit with translucent wings.

That was about as far as I got that day. I had to finish the rest at home.

Here's a process GIF, because I know you guys like those:

Let's get some sweet closeup shots of those moths:

You may have noticed that I changed Laura's tattoo from a tiger to a thistle. This was because I felt that the tiger would be too distracting from the moths, and also I was too lazy to draw a tiger.

I drew the tattoo on its own layer, then set the layer to "overlay." It faded the tattoo in a way that was surprisingly convincing.

Laura asked for my computer specs, so here they are: I work in Adobe Photoshop, using a Wacom Cintiq 21UX and a desktop PC. I listen to podcasts on iTunes, I drink Mighty Leaf tea and my favorite ice cream is chocolate chip cookie dough.

Thanks to Laura Exley for modeling, Dan Dos Santos for teaching, Daniel Chang for taking photos and Tara Larsen Chang for putting on the TLC Workshops.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Do You Need to Learn Digital Painting?

One of the most common questions I hear from aspiring illustrators is, "do I need to learn digital painting in order to get a job?" or, "should I do traditional or digital?"

The answer to this is pretty easy. It depends on what you want to do as a career. (If you don't know what you want to do, check out this List of Illustration Careers.) I can't comment on every single career possibility out there, but most illustration jobs fit into one of two major categories:

Do you want to do concept art, animation, or otherwise work on video games and movies?

Then yes, you need to learn digital art. It's the industry standard. Sorry, there's just no way around this. In addition to learning digital painting, you may need to learn 3D modeling and animation programs, depending on what job you're aiming for.

Do you want to illustrate for books, magazines, children's products, tabletop games and the fantasy market?

Then the answer is no, you don't necessarily need to do digital art. Both digital and traditional mediums are welcome in these fields. In fact, I'd say both publishing and editorial lean towards a traditional look. If you can achieve a traditional look using digital painting, or using a hybrid method, that's fine too. Art directors don't usually care what medium you use, as long as it looks good.

Many artists work in hybrid methods, for example sketching roughs digitally, then painting the final traditionally. (For a good example, see Julie Downing's hybrid picture book illustrations.) Other artists learn both methods so they can use digital for assignments with short deadlines, traditional for those with longer deadlines.

Even if you prefer to work traditionally,  I would still encourage you to learn your way around Photoshop. You're going to need to devise a method of working that is quick and allows for you to make changes. Clients will be asking for revisions, and your answer can't be, "sorry, I can't, it's traditional" or "well I guess I have to paint the whole thing all over again." If you can scan/photograph your physical painting, you can make those revisions in Photoshop as long as you know some tricks.


I hope that clears some things up!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

SCBWI LA conference 2016 thoughts

I just got back from the 2016 Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in LA. This was the view from my hotel. I figured I should write down my thoughts while the experience is still fresh in my mind.

The conference took place in the glamorous Millenium Biltmore Hotel, which looked and felt like a time capsule from the 1920's.

The hotel is said to be haunted. In fact, some scenes from the original Ghostbusters were filmed here.

There were about 950 attendees at the conference. As far as I could tell, the attendees were about 90% women. At the beginning and end of each day, we gathered in the big room to hear the keynote speakers and listen to panels.

Then throughout the day, there were multiple "breakout sessions" to choose from. These sessions took place is slightly smaller (but no less impressive) rooms.

The sessions I attended were "How to Create a Picture Book Series" by Matt Ringler, "How to Take Inspiration From Your Influences" by Jon Klassen and his agent Steven Malk, and "Foundations of Picture Book Illustration" by Laurent Linn.

I was really impressed with the conference. SCBWI doesn't mess around. Events started on time. Everything ran smoothly. The speakers were all top-notch, bestselling authors, Caldecott-winning illustrators, editors and art directors from major publishing houses, owners of agencies. At one point I looked to the side and realized that Dan Santat was standing next to me. Some talks were more informative, others more inspirational, but they were all very good.

SCBWI kept us busy from 8:45 in the morning to 9:30 at night. They even fed us a 3-course dinner in the ballroom...

...and threw a fancy party for us the next night.

As an introvert, I loathe big parties. I mostly just showed up, stuffed my face with fancy hors d'ouevers, then went home and watched Ghostbusters.

On Saturday the illustrators turned in their portfolios to the showcase. The staff arranged them on long tables in two rooms. First a jury was allowed to look at the portfolios and choose some winners. Then the attendees were let in and it was crazy.

I looked at as many portfolios as I could, but eventually I just had to get out of there. I wish the attendees had more time to browse the show, so it wouldn't be so crowded.

My lovingly assembled portfolio did not win any awards. However, I saw many beautiful portfolios there that also didn't win, including some artists whose names I recognized as already working in the industry. So I didn't feel too bad about it.

A theme running throughout the talks was that there is no overnight success. Sometimes career paths take a long time to develop. Jon Klassen worked as an animator for 10 years, and claimed he wasn't very good at it. Drew Daywalt, author of the bestselling "The Day the Crayons Quit" scraped by as a writer in Hollywood for over 10 years. Marie Lu received over 600 rejection letters before becoming a bestselling author. Neal Shusterman had the same story: it took hundreds of rejection letters before he got published.

"Rejection comes for us all. Don't fear it," Marie Lu said.

Here is my illustrator promo haul! I met some very lovely people, a few of whom claimed to be blog readers, which was really cool. Then I flew home and slept for 10 hours.

If you're wondering whether to attend an SCBWI conference, here's my opinion. This conference is for those who are really serious about writing and illustrating children's books, including middle-grade and YA. It's not for people who want to write adult novels or comic books, or people who are just kind of curious or casual. It's not a conference for the faint of heart. You don't have to be published professional, but you have to want to be a published professional. You have to come hungry for information, inspiration and the chance to meet people.

If you're an illustration student or a recently grad, I'd highly recommend attending an SCBWI conference. Yes, it is expensive. It's really valuable to get information straight from the industry professionals themselves, not from the internet or your friends or teachers. If you're a student, remember that you can apply for the Student Scholarship. If you're interested in learning more about the conference, SCBWI live-blogged it here in quite a lot of detail.

I hope that I can attend one at least every few years.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Portfolio Book Makeover

This week I am preparing to travel to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in LA. I am participating in the portfolio showcase, which is where all the illustrators display their portfolios in a room, and all the attendees can look at them. A jury also awards prizes to the best portfolios.

Last time I attended the SCBWI conference was three years ago. I was a new grad at the time - and I mean new. I gave my final presentation at my last art class, then rushed to the airport to catch my flight to LA. The conference started the next morning.

This year, I was thinking of just using my old portfolio book, which is one of those generic plastic ones you can find at any art store. I knew this was kind of a cheap move, but, I mean, the book is going to be open, right? Who cares if it's a little beaten up, a little blah? All that matters is the art, right? Maybe I can pass it off as some sort of commentary on the depersonalization of our consumer culture?

Then I listened to a One Fantastic Week episode about context and branding, and was shamed. I remembered a time an artist friend asked to see my portfolio book. When I handed it to him, he said, "oh," flipped through it like a flipbook, then gave it right back to me. "Geez, thanks a lot," I laughed. "Well, I just wanted to see if you did anything special with it." He said.

Awkward pause.

"It's a commentary on the depersonalization of our consumer culture," I said.

Clearly the generic portfolio was passable as a beginner, but now I'm a professional. If there was ever a time to present a beautifully designed book, it's at a conference full of book nerds. It's time to level up.

Problems with the old portfolio

An underwhelming cover. 

Clear plastic sleeves. They give a wrinkled, unsightly glare, especially under overhead fluorescent lights. (And there are always overheard fluorescent lights.)

Random white borders around each image. Because much of my art has slightly different proportions, when I centered them on each page, the white margins were a little different each time. This bothered me.

The orientation of landscape images. I had my double-page spreads printed on single pages, which meant you had to turn the portfolio sideways to see them correctly. Doesn't sound like a big deal, but from what I've heard, art directors don't like this. They just don't.

I found an Etsy shop called Sleek Portfolios that sells custom portfolios with cool laser cutouts for a reasonable price. I got my logo cut out on a glossy black acrylic cover.

Next I worked on re-printing my artwork. I used my home printer for this, which despite being a cheap HP all-in-one printer, does a surprisingly good job. I selected the pieces I thought best for the SCBWI conference and laid them all out on the floor so I could see them as a collection.

The Result

New custom-made cover! Ooooh, so shiny!

No more clear plastic sleeves! I printed my artwork onto semi-gloss paper and placed the pages directly into the book. This reduces the glare and lets the colors be seen more clearly.

Full bleed images! (Well, almost!) This allows me to show the art at a larger size. While the white margins are still a little varied, they're at least relegated to one side of the paper now, so it's less noticeable.

Landscape-oriented images are now glorious double-page spreads! I am so excited about this. No more rotating the book or tilting your head, no more awkward white margins.

The only drawbacks with this new portfolio are 1.) the shiny cover is very, very fingerprint-prone 2.) I used double-sided tape to tape my pages together, and I imagine quite a few people are going to try and separate them, thinking they're stuck. Oh well. We'll see how it all holds up at the portfolio showcase this weekend! Wish me luck!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


I was honored to be one of the artists chosen to participate in Light Grey Art Lab's show, "Never Odd or Even."

Light Grey Art Lab always chooses challenging topics for their shows. This one is about "exploring the intricacies of duality" and "paradoxical questions" and "yin and yang." After reading the rather enigmatic artist brief, I have to admit that I momentarily regretted applying for the show. I ran the theme by a couple of artist friends, hoping for some fun brainstorming together, but they just got paralyzed looks on their faces. I was on my own.

As I thought about this theme, I remembered a temple I visited in Japan called Kiyomizu Temple. It's a gorgeous Buddhist temple with a fantastic view of the Kyoto skyline. But the thing that always stuck out to me was that there was a Shinto shrine right behind the temple. The two shared the hill, back to back, and people visited and brought offerings to both.

Buddhism is a monotheistic religion, and Shinto is an animistic religion native to Japan. They are quite different, and yet they have always co-existed peacefully in Japan. Japanese people participate in rituals from both religions; generally, weddings and christenings are celebrated in the Shinto style, while funerals are celebrated in the Buddhist style. Japanese people don't see this as contradictory or problematic, but more of a matter of cultural tradition than personal faith.

You want intricacies of duality, Light Grey Art Lab? I've got your intricacies of duality, right here baby.
Originally I had some sketches depicting the Kiyomizu Temple itself, and then that evolved to having a Buddhist priest and a Shinto miko (a priestess or shrine maiden) being a part of the scene, and then finally I ditched the temple altogether and focused just on the priest and miko themselves. After all, simplicity is a Japanese virtue.

The miko is holding a tamagushi, a branch of a sacred sakaki tree decorated with special strips of paper. It is a type of offering used during prayers.

I ran the sketch by a Japanese friend to make sure that I wasn't drawing anything in a culturally insensitive way. She said that the miko was showing a little too much wrist by traditional standards. "My grandmother would tell her to cover that up," she said.

From there I worked on establishing a serene, gentle color scheme.

I'm really happy with how this came out. It's channeling a bit of Miranda Meeks and Sam Weber. I think it would look cool printed on metallic paper, don't you think?

In America's current climate, it feels like every aspect of religion and culture is a minefield of controversy. We can't stop tearing each other apart over every little thing. While Japan is hardly a utopia of open-mindedness and acceptance, I found it therapeutic to draw while focusing on the fact that there is a small place in the world where two different things exist together peacefully.

You can see all the other artwork from the show, and purchase prints, at Light Grey Art Lab's website. Check it out, there's some phenomenally cool artwork on interesting topics.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

If Jasson and I were Portland Hipsters

Last week my husband Jasson and I attended some events where there were many young, fashionable Portland hipsters. We felt so square, so basic. Too norm to even be normcore. My only claim to hipsterdom is a new pair of thick-rimmed glasses which were handcrafted in Portland, thankyouverymuch. (Portland loves the word "handcrafted.") Jasson's only claim to hipsterdom is being a bit of a coffee snob.

I thought it would be fun to give Jasson and I illustrated makeovers as Portland hipsters.

Can't say I'm a fan of Hipster Kelley, although I think Hipster Jasson looks totally on fleek. But hey, have you guys been to Obscure Coffee Shop? They have the best vegan almondmilk lattes.
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