Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Boston Tea Party

So I don't have the time to write one of my usual in-depth blog posts right now, but I wanted to show you guys this cover I did for Scholastic. This is for their joint non-fiction series with American Girl called Real Stories from My Time.

Here it is with the title treatment!

Yep, that's all you're getting. Sorry blog readers. Life is kind of crazy for me right now but I hope to bring you some more quality posts as soon as I can.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


Over Christmas break I was absolutely determined to do some personal work.

That...didn't work out.

I started a drawing, but it had been such a long time since I had drawn anything just for fun that it was just overwhelming and I never finished it. I worried that I had my originality had atrophied. How could I call myself a creative if I could only draw what other people told me to draw???


Fast forward a few months, and all my clients have been dragging their feet on their projects for several weeks now. Seriously, what's going on over there in New York?? After having way more time off than I'm used to, I thought maybe I should give a personal drawing another shot. This time, I'd try redrawing one of my oldest digital paintings. I flipped through my old stuff, looking for something that had a good concept but needed better execution. I found it in this drawing from 2011.

This is my interpretation of the Japanese ghost story Hoichi the Earless. In this story, night after night a blind bard named Hoichi is asked to perform the song the Tale of the Heike, which is about the massacre of the Heike clan. Because he's blind, Hoichi thinks he's playing for a royal audience in a palace. He doesn't know that he's actually playing in a graveyard for THE GHOSTS OF THE HEIKE CLAN!!!!!!! (If you're interested in the story, you can either read the book Kwaidan or watch the 1965 film, which is super obscure and only cool people know about it.)

So anyway, about this old drawing. If you want to say that you like it better than the new one, just get that out of your system now, ok?

"Actuallyyyyyyyyyy I liked the old one better."

You good now?


First I'll go over what I like about this drawing.

Now let's go over what doesn't work so well:

Basically I liked the overall concept and some aspects of the color scheme, but the composition is lacking. The directional lines are too horizontal. There are some curves kind of framing the scene but nothing really "points" at the main character. It reminds me of a diorama, with flat layers lying on top of each other.

My goals for the new drawing were:
  1. A more dramatic composition
  2. More historically accurate clothing
  3. Establish depth in the environment
  4. Finish it up with polished rendering.
After some thumbnail sketching, I came up with a composition that was similar to the original drawing, in that Hoichi is sitting in the bottom center, facing straight forward. But this time I arranged the ghosts in a towering pyramid rather than crowded around in a vaguely horizontal line.

This broke up the "diorama" look and give the scene some much-needed oomph.

After doing some research into Heian-era clothing, I started sketching the scene on top of the thumbnail. First I sketched really roughly, and went over it again and again, tightening things up each time.

Once I had everything basically figured out, I blocked in some rough color, keeping everything on separate layers so I could adjust them as needed.

From there I started flattening the layers and painting. I put much more time into the rendering than I'm sure I would have done back in 2011. I've noticed that over time my paintings have become more detailed and polished, and this is mostly because I've become more patient in my old age.

I made a process GIF so you can see how the painting changed and developed as I went along. That's a freedom I don't have with client work. When illustrating a commission, I have to stick closely to the sketch that the client previously approved. They don't want to see any surprises when I turn in the final, so I have to have everything figured out ahead of time. Being in complete control of the drawing and having the freedom to change directions was refreshing.

When I compare the two paintings, I see that the new one has a sense of style that the old one doesn't have. The new one looks like me.

It's a good feeling.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Cover: The Third Kind of Magic

Last year I was contacted by author Elizabeth Forest with an offer I couldn't resist: a cover for a middle-grade novel about a girl who can do magic. She has to learn to control her magic and become a wise woman, or else be hunted down as a witch.

The book is called The Third Kind of Magic and I was SO excited to do the cover!

Susan wanted to see the main character, Suli, interacting with her crow mentor, Coalfeather, with the antagonist lurking menacingly in the background. Suli was to be casting magic with her hands, so I took some reference photos in order to try out various poses.

Although I was excited about doing this cover, I was also particularly exhausted the morning I took these photos. When I loaded the pictures on to my computer and flipped through them, I burst out laughing when I saw this:

I look like a Sleep Deprivation Mage or something.

Here are the roughs I sent to the author:

She liked certain elements of the second and third roughs, but mostly the second one. She asked me to move Coalfeather to the other side of Suli, and for the witch in the background to be closer in, looking on the scene. Here is the revised rough that I sent.

After talking with the author some more - including a Skype chat! - we combined the crow and the witch from this rough with the Suli from one of the previous roughs.

With approval, I moved ahead to a color rough. The author wanted a mysterious, misty forest, so I incorporated some nice blue-greens and lavenders in order to give the scene some color.

After a few more tweaks, I was clear to go to final.

Here's the cover with the title text:

The Third Kind of Magic by Elizabeth Forest is available now on Amazon and through IndieBound. I've been reading it over the weekend, and I'm not finished yet but I'm really enjoying it!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

I Take Lazy Photo References

Last year I worked on two books for the Real Stories from My Time series from Scholastic and American Girl. The first two are about the Underground Railroad and the Titanic, and each features eight black-and-white interior illustrations by me.

I ended up taking a lot of photo references of myself and my husband for this project. Looking back, I kind of get a kick out of them and thought you might too. I'm both impressed at my capacity for transforming my very, very basic poses into historical scenes, and also embarrassed at my incredibly lazy lighting and costuming.

But not embarrassed enough to refrain from posting them online, apparently. So here's some of my photos on the left and the finished illustrations that I based them off of on the right.

This is Harriet Tubman, leading some escapees down a river. Looking back, I see that I bothered to use a clip to tighten my shirt and define my waist. However, I did not bother to dress up in a skirt, a scarf, or a handkerchief on my head. Lazy. Very lazy.

Here I am posing for Henry "Box" Brown, who shipped himself in a crate to a free state. My IKEA dining table was just about the right size to sub in for a crate.

Here I am posing as the panicking lookout on the Titanic. I love how the expression turned out here!

Another scene from the Titanic book. This was a fairly complicated crowd scene, with a lot of unusual poses. I enlisted my husband to help pose for the male figures.

And now, my personal favorite:

Here I am posing as Lucy Bagby, a slave who escaped to freedom and then was arrested by her former owner under the Fugitive Slave Act. It's a really sad scene, but this photo ref is so funny to me. Look at my outfit: a hoodie, pajama pants with a llama print, and an apron with a teddy bear print.

That's a classic freelancer uniform, right there.

Also, look at my husband's expression!!!

Ice cold! But also...kind of cute??? I don't know, I'm having very confusing feelings right now.

So in conclusion, children's book illustration is a very glamorous career.

If you're an illustrator, let me just say that it's worth putting a little more effort into your photo references than I did here. Do as much as you can with whatever lighting and costuming you have available. The time you spend on getting better photo references will almost always save you time in the drawing phase.

That said, if all you have time for is to throw a teddy bear apron over your hoodie and pajama pants, do what you gotta do. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

What chance do I have?

When you're just starting out drawing, and you're browsing ArtStation or Tumblr or Deviantart or wherever, you'll probably be overwhelmed by the amount of talented artists out there in the world, and the incredible volumes of artwork they seem to churn out on a daily basis. At some point, every aspiring artist thinks to themselves, "what chance do I have?"

I have some good news for you: you have a chance.

I will never forget the conversation I had once at a Comic Con. A guy came up to my artist alley table, peered at my prints and postcards, and said, "I wish I could draw."

"Anyone can learn to draw with practice!" I said cheerfully.

"Yeah, the thing is," he sighed, "I don't like practicing."

I just blinked at him while hearing cricket noises in my head.

Ask anyone in the world if they wish they could draw, and like the guy at my artist alley table, 99% of them will say "yes." Ask your mom, your friend, your boss, your barista, your baby. Everyone wants to be able to draw.

Of those people, few will start drawing every day.

Few will start watching and reading online tutorials, listening to illustration podcasts, reading illustration blogs.

Few will sign up for art classes.

Of those people, few will attend every single one of those classes, visit the optional extracurricular workshops, and put lots of effort into their homework.

Few will ask a pro for a one-on-one mentorship.

Few will attend a convention and get a portfolio review.

Of those people, few will go home, implement the advice they received, and create an entirely new portfolio.

Few will put together a sleek, professional website to showcase that new portfolio.

Few will start directly contacting agents, publishers, studios, employers.

Of those people, few will continue to persist and practice in the face of rejection.

I think this is what people mean when they say "50% of success is showing up."

There are some things you don't have control over, such as the amount of natural talent you were born with. Or perhaps you're burdened by physical or mental health struggles, or perhaps you're in difficult financial circumstances.

But there are some things that you do have control over, and frankly few people actually take advantage of that. Everyone wants to do the thing, but few people actually do the thing.

There's no way to guarantee success. But if you can just show up, just do the thing, you will be putting yourself in a very, very, very small candidate pool indeed.

That's why you have a chance.

Now get cracking!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Book Cover: Amish and Old Lace

Oh boy, I was so excited when I got the brief for this one.

This is a good example of how non-art hobbies and interests can enhance your artwork. Ever since I was a little girl I've loved evening dresses and wedding gowns. I used to draw them allllllll the time. I've also always loved interior design. I've spent way too many hours reading interior decoration blogs and making Pinterest boards of pretty houses. So when I got an assignment to draw a scene of a cute, trendy bridal shop in a vintage building, I was allllll over it.

This was going to be a cozy mystery book cover for Annie's Publishing. As usual, they had a list of specific elements they wanted to see in the scene:
  • A sleeveless wedding gown on a mannequin, with a lace train, a modest v-neck, and a lace bodice
  • An Amish buggy passing by outside (this is part of "the Amish Mystery" book series)
  • A pair of scissors stabbed into the train of the gown
  • An English bulldog peering at the scissors
I spent time on Pinterest looking at wedding boutiques. I found a lot of modern ones that were all white-on-white.

It's pretty, but I needed the wedding dress to really "pop" out of the book cover, so white-on-white wasn't going to work. After more searching I found some images of salons with some warmer accents of wood beams and brick walls.

This was some great inspiration. I made three sketches to send to the client.

The art director liked the third rough the best. She requested that I add a pair of shoes and a shoebox to the scene. Here is the color rough. I added a lot of warm lighting and rich colors to make the scene feel inviting and cozy. A bouquet of flowers in the corner reinforced the bridal theme.

The art director asked me to change the shoebox and hat box to a pink color. You really can't get too girly with these cozy mystery covers!

I really like how the textures turned out in this one. There's the shiny wooden floors, the velvet sofa, the lace dress, the rustic wooden beams.

The book arrived in the mail! Here it is with the full cover!

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