Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Thoughts on Improving at Drawing

Last year I started a Tumblr called Anyone Can Improve at Drawing. (ACID for short, so I can amuse myself with jokes about getting artists on acid.) I invited artists to compare their old and new drawings. I created this for three reasons:
  1. To show that skill at drawing is the result of years of practice, not magic
  2. To encourage beginning artists that everyone sucks in the beginning
  3. To encourage artists to lighten up and feel pride and inspiration (or at least amusement) in their old drawings, rather than shame.
At first I was afraid that no one would contribute. Some artists feel so embarrassed by their old work that they hate looking at it, and would rather die than post it online for everyone to see. I know a guy who literally burned his old drawings on a bonfire. So I first tested the waters in an artist Facebook group, asking if anyone would be willing to participate. Thankfully, a lot of people were game, and ACID was soon up and churning out posts.

Then social media superstar Jez Tuya created a hashtag called #anyonecanimproveatdrawing , which started trending on Twitter. Thousands of people started posting their old and new drawings on Twitter, and I invited my favorite ones to submit to the ACID Tumblr. Then Lauren Panepinto wrote about it in a Muddy Colors post, further increasing the blog's exposure. Thanks to everyone's submissions, ACID is going to be providing inspiration and encouragement for quite some time!

Seeing the submissions for this blog has been an interesting experience for me. Here are some of my observations:

1. Many old drawings are fanart, especially anime fanart, while new drawings are more often original concepts. I think it's natural in our childhood and teens to draw the things we love, and it's great that anime inspires so many young artists. But eventually many artists seem to move on from these things as they come into their own styles.

2. Many old drawings are characters floating in blank spaces, while the new drawings tend to be fully realized scenes with environments and narratives.

3. Realism isn't always the goal. While most people's work became more realistic as they improved, some people's work became less realistic and more stylized, but in an intentional, consistent way.

4. We really do all start somewhere. Some successful, professional artists whom I admire submitted to the blog, and I was surprised at just how bad their old drawings were. I thought that their old drawings would be better than other people's old drawings...but no. My favorite example of this is Noah Bradley's submission. No one would look at that old drawing and think "wow, that kid has serious talent!" (No offense, Noah.) He wrote a post about how he made an intentional, sustained effort to improve at drawing. Now he's a top-tier fantasy artist.

5. People improve at different rates. On the flip side, something that surprised and unsettled me about the submissions was just how little some people improved. Sometimes drawings they claimed were five or ten years apart were barely distinguishable. I can only assume these people weren't practicing very much. As a professional, this is a sobering thought. God willing, we're all going to live another ten years. We can spend that time improving a lot or improving a little. As Gandalf said, "all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."


I hope you enjoy looking through ACID, and if you're an artist, whether a hobbyist or professional, consider submitting! Everyone is welcome.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Helpful Links for Artists

Every few weeks I post a bunch of links related to drawing, freelancing, self-employment and personal motivation. I collect these from all over the web and hope that you find them as helpful and inspirational as I did.
Have you recently found any articles or blog posts that you found helpful, inspiring, or motivating? Please post them in the comments!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

3 Essentials for a Children's Book Portfolio

A few weeks ago I posted on Twitter offering free portfolio reviews to anyone looking to get into the children's book industry. A few people took me up on the offer, and reviewing their portfolios gave me some ideas for this blog post. By attending conferences, reading blogs, following art directors on Twitter, and getting portfolio reviews from them in person, here's what I believe are the three most important things that publishers want to see in illustrator portfolios.
  1. Children. You'd also be surprised at how many artists tend to draw awkward, gangly, unattractive children. Guys, this is a dealbreaker for this industry. Your portfolio must show that you can draw cute, fun, expressive children of various ethnicities and ages looking consistent across multiple scenes. They don't have to be realistic, like the sample on the left. But they do have to look like cute kids.
2. Animals. So important! Children and animals should be the meat and potatoes of your portfolio. You must have drawings of attractive, expressive, cute animals doing things and looking consistent across multiple scenes. But being able to draw animals realistically is not what's important....
  3. Narrative. ...you have to show that you can tell a story. Don't just draw characters standing around on blank backgrounds, or portraits of beautiful women surrounded by flowers. Draw the character existing in a world, interacting with other characters, and doing things. I'm not saying you have to have a fully developed novel behind each illustration: just enough to peak a viewer's interest. Don't just draw a fox; draw a fox wearing crutches and knocking on the door of a rabbit's home. Read "A Cure for Head and Shoulders Syndrome" by Joe Sutphin.

Things NOT to include:

  1. Nudity, blood, sexuality. Your portfolio must be absolutely G-rated. Even artistic nudity is a no-go.
  2. Figure studies, landscapes, still lifes, logo designs, t-shirt designs, mobile app designs, etc. People commonly include these things in order to "prove they can draw" - but this is a rookie mistake. Everything in your children's book portfolio must relate to children's books.
  3. Fan art of pop culture. This is kind of a tricky one, but let me explain. Unless you're interested in doing licensing illustration, don't include fanart of movies, tv shows and video games. Publishers aren't interested in your "Disney princesses as sailor scouts" fanart. You can include fanart of books, if you're working from the original material and not from tv/movie adaptations. Choose classic books, like Little House on the Prairie or Call of the Wild rather than something that's been done to death, like Harry Potter. For example, I have some Island of the Blue Dolphins fanart in my portfolio. Think of it less as "fanart" and more as pretending you've been hired to illustrate a new edition of this book.
While there are many more things to take into consideration when building your portfolio, I'd say that these three things are the most essential. I think it would be very difficult to get a commission in the children's publishing industry without them.

I hope this gives you some guidance towards building up your children's book portfolio! Please post any questions in the comments!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book cover: The Shadow Guard

Hey guys! I'm excited to show you this book cover I did. This is the cover for The Shadow Guard, the sequel to The Second Guard, written by J.D. Vaughn, published by Disney-Hyperion and art directed by Joann Hill.

I'm a fan of this series because it's a girl-centric YA fantasy set in a unique, mezo-American-inspired world. Admit it, that sounds pretty cool. I like YA novels about girls who do things other than fall in love with hunky boys. A little romance is cool but I can only take so much gushing about some 17-year-old's smoldering eyes and glistening copper skin. If you read YA, you know what I'm talking about.

Yeah, anyway, clearly I have a long rant about YA romance in me. But let's get back to business. Here is the cover for the first book in the Second Guard series, which I did over a year ago:

The art director, Joann Hill, told me that the second book in the series is centered around palace intrigue and plots. The team wanted to have the main character, Brindl, (different girl from the first cover) sneaking around the royal palace, in front of a curtain, holding a knife. They wanted the same teal-purple color scheme as the first cover, and dark, dramatic lighting. They also sent over a very detailed description of the "light-filled" throne room.

Here are some of my thumbnails. I played with different poses one could use for sneaking around a curtain, and a few different costume choices for the main character. I also used a dramatic spotlight that would create big, looming shadows.

Since a defining element of the first cover was the elaborate carved designs in the wall, I tried to echo that design element here by including carved designs on the pillars and embroidered designs on the curtains. I originally developed these designs for the first cover, using the mythology of the book.

The team asked to see revised versions of the last two roughs, with Brindl's hand in slightly different positions.

The team decided to go with the second rough. They asked me to decrease the amount of light on the character, so she was just barely highlighted, and make a few adjustments to her hair and costume. Here's the color rough that I sent them.

I was approved to go to final!

A few tiny tweaks of the lighting and the character's expression, and we were done!

Here are the two books side-by-side!! Ahh it's so satisfying seeing them right next to each other.

The Shadow Guard comes out on September 13! You can preorder it at Amazon. I highly recommend it to any readers of YA fantasy who are looking for something fresh and different.

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.
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