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!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Cool Illustration YouTubers

While drawing, I tend to either listen to podcasts, audiobooks, or YouTube videos. Personally I find it very motivating to listen to people talk about drawing while I draw. If you're struggling to stay focused and motivated, give some of these YouTubers a try. This is not by any means an exhaustive list, just a few of the channels I know about and enjoy. If you have any recommendations, please leave a comment!

Fran Menses - short, well-edited videos about common topics such as how to find your style, how to open an online shop, and how to be more productive.

Matthias Pilhede is new to drawing, but still has a lot of good (and very funny) insights into learning to draw.

Kiri Leonard's videos give you a look into a day in the life of a professional illustrator.

One Fantastic Week is a long-running YouTube series. Topics usually revolve around how to succeed in direct sales, conventions, Kickstarters, and social media.

Cynthia Sheppard paints pictures while clearly discussing her process and the mindset behind her choices. You can learn so much from a single video!

Bhairavi Kulkarni is just starting up her channel! She's my friend from art school so I just wanted to give her a shoutout here. Go give her videos some views and likes!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Ranger in Time #7: Interior Illustrations

On Wednesday I told you about designing the cover for Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach. Now I'm going to tell you about how I illustrated the 16 interior illustrations with help from a friend! Ranger in Time #7 features two main (human) characters: a Jewish-French boy named Leo and an American soldier named Walt. Walt is described as a tall, skinny African-American 16-year-old.

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably know my proclivity for posing for reference photos. I work on tight deadlines and rarely have the time to hire models, so I've become pretty good at posing in photos and then using my pose to draw an entirely different character. Here's a recent example that became somewhat popular on Twitter:

So when it came to the character of Walt, I started out by taking my own reference photos, as usual. But I quickly realized that transforming myself into a tall, black teenager was going to be very difficult and the result was probably not going to look great. It was time to find a model.

I contacted George Brooks, who is my friend and the creator of the webcomic Solving Xandra. I asked if he would be willing to pose for my illustrations and he agreed. Although he's not 16 years old, he has the perfect look for the character of Walt!

George and I live in different states so we had to do this remotely. First, I drew a sketch of the each of Walt's scenes. I sketched him in very roughly, just enough so that George would know how to pose. I included some notes for him on what his expression should look like and what camera angle I needed. Here's one of the sketches I sent.

Next, George took the photos as requested.

Next, using the photo reference, I did a more complete sketch and sent it in to the art director at Scholastic for feedback.

If the art director asked for any revisions I did them. Once the sketch was approved, I went to final.

And that's how a webcomic artist ended up on the beach at Normandy.

We did this for 8 different illustrations. I gotta say, George was ENORMOUSLY helpful and did a great job with his photo references, especially considering how little I gave him to work with. Even though this was a bit of a multi-step process, it made my job so much easier. I wish I could show you guys all the illustrations, but that would be giving away too much of the book!

Ok ok ok ok. Since I like you guys so much, I'll do one more!

On the back of every Ranger book, there's a color drawing of the main characters hugging Ranger. The publisher actually says to me every time, "just draw them looking cute."

So here was the sketch I sent to George.

Here's the photo George sent me:

I used that photo to finish up the sketch and then I sent to the publisher:
Once it was approved I finished the illustration.

I love how this turned out!

Maybe you're wondering why I didn't hire a model for the other character, Leo. Two reasons. One is that I don't know any kids of the right age, or any parents who have kids the right age, and it's kind of hard to get kids to model for you. Secondly, by this point I've drawn a lot of kids so it's not so difficult for me to draw. For Leo, I did my usual thing of combining drawing from imagination and an amalgamation of photos of kids of the right age and ethnicity, as well as photos of children from the appropriate time period.

If you'd like even more of a sneek peak at the book, Scholastic put together this little trailer:

Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach comes out on January 30, 2018!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ranger in Time: Battle on the Beach

It's hard to believe that we're on the 7th book in the Ranger in Time series!

For this cover, the team at Scholastic asked me to draw Ranger on the beach at Normandy. (Yes, really!) They wanted to see the Allied fleet landing on the beach and some planes in the sky overhead. But it also had to look fun and exciting.

(Since I've been doing so much historical illustration lately, this is something that's come up multiple times: how to depict war or other disasters in a way that's historically accurate but also child-appropriate, even fun and eye-catching? It's an interesting conundrum.)

This cover also had to have a color scheme different from the other covers in the series so far. With each book, this gets more and more challenging!

I started sketching out some possibilities, trying to find ways to fit in a fleet of ships and planes without distracting too much from Ranger himself, and not competing with the title text.

Here are the three sketches I sent to Scholastic. I needed to depict drama and an epic scale without relying on guns, gore, or explosions. So instead I relied on some big storm clouds and dramatic rays of light in order to make the scene look exciting. Having Ranger in an action pose, splashing through the water, also helps bring some movement into the scene.

The art director, Maeve Norton, told me that the team liked the background of #1 with Ranger's pose from #2. They also asked me to add in some of the obstructions that the Germans had scattered along the beach. Here is the revised sketch.

Next it was time to add some color. This was another tricky balance of historical accuracy versus artistic license. The Allies landed on the beach on D-Day at 6:30 AM during a rainstorm. So naturally, the environment would be grey and dark, but that doesn't work for a children's book cover. We need something that's going to pop off store bookshelves! So the art director and I decided to split the difference by depicting storm clouds and a bright sunrise.

This was my first attempt at the color rough. I was afraid to go too bright with the dawn colors because I thought it would detract from Ranger's orange color. (See my last attempt at an orange sky behind Ranger.) But the art director told me these colors were too soft and pastel. She told me to push the saturation more.

She was right, this was much more exciting and bold. I got the go-ahead for the final.

I love how it looks with the title text!

The author, Kate Messner, posted this photo of her advance copies.

Ranger in Time #7: Battle on the Beach comes out on January 30, and includes 15 interior illustrations by yours truly! In my next blog post I'll be talking a little bit about the process of drawing the interior illustrations - with a special guest star!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Escape Cheapskate Clients & Break into Professional Illustration

I received this message earlier this year:
I wish I could make money with my art, I am gifted/talented the same as you. I only get people in my life that are looking not to compensate me for my skills...people are cheap or diminish the talent as if it there is a fine artist available anywhere. What do you say to those that discredit our gift/talent and expect our work to be cheap...Or how do you find clients that respect our gift/talent?
I regret to say that I never responded. But it's a legitimate and sincere question I see many artists struggling with: how can I make a decent living when everyone wants work for cheap?

When it comes to art careers, there are two parallel universes that exist.

The Amateur Universe

A screenshot I took recently of a conversation on Facebook.

The Amateur Universe is a bleak place for those who aspire to make a living doing art. This is a universe of dealing with clients who have never worked with artists before, have no understanding of the level of skill required, and have little to no money budgeted for artwork. This is the land of:

  • Sites like Fiverr and Upwork
  • authors who want an entire picture book illustrated for $100
  • People With An Amazing Idea who just need someone to help them out
  • "I just want a few quick sketches, shouldn't take you long, so I think $20 is fair"
  • Forums where teenagers want drawings of their OCs
  • "You'll be paid once the book is picked up by a publisher." (Not how it works)
  • promises of exposure and future riches from this guaranteed bestseller

Unfortunately, this is the first universe that beginning artists usually encounter. They look around and ask themselves, "Is this what it means to be an artist? Is this really how much society values my skills? How can I possibly make a living doing this?"

The Professional Universe

A scan from the 2014 edition of the Graphic Arts Guild Pricing Handbook

This is the world of publishers, design agencies, video game companies, animation studios, ad agencies, art collectors, and even the occasional well-off author or other individual. These are clients who understand the value of a good artist and respect them enough to pay them well. In this world, it's normal to be paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single illustration, even tens of thousands for some projects.

I don't want to give the impression that illustration is a gold mine. It's extremely competitive and honestly often not particularly lucrative. I'm also not saying that everything at the professional level is perfect and artists are always treated well buuuuuut that's another blog post for another day.

There's nothing wrong with starting small, but there's more out there than random people asking you to draw stuff for pennies. There are better things out there.


So how does one break into the professional world? Two steps, both of which are easier said than done. Well, it's sort of three steps.

1. You have to put your art in the right places

The door to the professional universe doesn't lie in posting "please hire me" on forums, Facebook, Craigslist and the community bulletin board at your local cafe. It doesn't lie in telling your neighbors and friends that you're an artist. No matter how much hustle you have, this is only going to bring you exactly the kind of amateur clients you're trying to avoid.

In order to identify the professional clients, you're going to have to do some detective work into the market you want to enter. Learn about who the big names are, what kind of art they're looking for, and how to reach them. Here are some questions to get you started on your quest for professional clients:
  • Who are the famous, well-known artists in this market?
  • Can you follow those people on social media? What events do they attend, what competitions are they entering, what new projects are they launching?
  • Who are the major, minor and mid-level publishers/companies/agencies/magazines?
  • Do they have submission guidelines on their websites?
  • What books/comics/video games/products have they released lately?
  • Are there any conventions where you can meet both professional and aspiring artists?
  • Are there agents who represent artists in this industry?

2. You have to be good enough

In step one, you identified the gatekeepers of the professional world. But if you have nothing good to show them, they're not going to respond to you. They're not going to open that door.

You need to honestly evaluate whether your artwork is at or near a professional level. There are a few ways you can evaluate your own artwork level:
  • Immerse yourself in published art from the market you're interested in. Get out of the house and visit bookstores, comic book shops, galleries or wherever it is that you'll find the kinds of products you're interested in creating. You want to consume lots and lots of professional-level artwork so that you can raise your taste level and start to distinguish professional art from amateur.
  • Attend a convention and get a portfolio review from a professional who works in the industry you're interested in.
  • Write an email to an artist who works in the industry you're interested in. If you're polite, most artists are pretty nice and generous with their advice.
  • Submit your artwork to professional contests such as Spectrum, SILA, Applied Arts or Communication Arts. Look at past winners of those contests and compare their artwork to yours.
  • Submit your artwork to art reps (agents) and see if they respond.

If you come to the conclusion that your art isn't good enough right now, you don't have to give up. But you do have to decide whether you can put in the time and effort that it takes to get your art to that level.

3. Keep doing steps 1 and 2.

Make good art. Show it around. Then, keep making good art. Keep showing it around.

When you meet with rejection, and you will, don't let it get you down. Keep making good art and keep showing it around. Eventually you will get your foot in the door of the professional-level universe.

One last note

Let's say that you're following the steps above; you believe that your work is at or near a professional level, and you're pursuing professional-level clients. And yet over and over again, emails pop into your inbox asking you to work for chump change. What are you doing wrong?

Answer: Nothing. You're doing nothing wrong. It happens to all of us.

Quick story: I had a table at an artist alley at a convention. A guy stopped by my table and we chatted some. A few weeks later, he emailed me asking to illustrate his 50-issue comic book series for free. I gently explained to him that art was how I made my living and that what he was asking for would take me years to do. So unless he was willing to pay me an entire year's salary, I couldn't afford to take the job.

You will always hear from the amateur universe, people who recognize good art but underestimate how much good art costs. Don't worry about it. Don't take it personally or as a judgement on the value of your work. Don't bend over backwards trying to convince a broke person to pay you more. I wouldn't even spend the emotional energy in getting offended by it.

If you plan on freelancing, turning down cheap work is going to be a regular part of your job. Think of it as "cheapskate whack-a-mole" if that helps. Develop a template polite response. Maybe take a moment to educate the person a bit. Write "I don't work for free" on the contact page on your website.

Then get back to making good work and showing it around.

You got this.
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