Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Things I learned while working on my first children's book

Smile-By-Fire: Part One

After working on my first book, my head was exploding with newfound knowledge and ultimately I figured out ways to improve myself and the way I work in the future. So, that said, here are are some life and career lessons learned on the fly...

Pump up the color.
I learned pretty quickly that, while my soft watercolors and classical style may have initially helped me get my foot in the door, the field of children's publishing craves color - - rich, deep, bright, saturated color! I had to absorb and assimilate this information, and figure out how to apply it to my work, while keeping my work MY work! So, learning new ways to utilize richer color in my watercolor work was very important not only for this project, but long-term, it was a lesson I had to learn. To do this under the gun, while keeping my own style and 'flavor', was hard - I won't sugar-coat it! I had no 'play' time (deadlines being deadlines) and I HAD to make it work. In the end, the trial-by-fire endeavor was successful. But, I did discover that I never, ever want to be in a position to have to experiment on the fly with my creative methodology and workflow ever again while in the middle of such a big and important project. It's just not practical, for one thing ... and, besides that, there are 2,000 other reasons to do your experimentation BEFORE embarking on any commissioned project, which I don't think I need to go into here.

Find your voice in a larger format.
I immediately learned that I was going to have to work 25 - 30% larger than usual. This was, to be honest (and to admit to my earlier naivete), mental whiplash at the time. I did not know that this was a standard way of working in children's trade until I was in the thick of it. My pen and watercolor work is so detailed and fine, and I thrive on those small details which lends itself to working small in general. I did think, for a split second or three, "How on EARTH am I going to make it work at 13 x 18???" In the end, I am living proof that, sometimes, working from a place of sheer will can get you through. And then, once you start working, you just learn as you go! ;) (It is AMAZING what sheer will can propel out of a person!! :) )

Equipment is everything.
At the time I got this project, my scanner was perfectly fine... if you are someone who scans 9 x 12 or smaller pieces and knows how to use Photoshop well. But it was not fine for this project, and it was not fine for my long-term professional plan. During the project, I needed to scan my work at every stage in order to show proofs. I ended up spending so much time and energy fighting with my small scanner. I won't bore you with the gory details, but suffice it to say that, once my portion of the work wrapped, I immediately began scanner shopping, but this time for a graphics professional-grade, large-bed scanner. Believe me, for the amount of money I ended up spending during the project on ordering large scale color scans from the local copiers, I could have paid for my scanner three times over. And this is not even taking into consideration the amount of wasted time, tight deadliness, the lack of control over the scanning. Now, I am confident I can handle anything, and it feels GREAT - you can't put a price on that.

Equipment is SO important to us illustrators. A workplace that allows you to be extremely flexible is something you simply cannot do without and expect to be employable these days. Inadequate equipment can visually make or break your work, AND it can make or break your ability to be flexible with your clients!! You can be the most committed, agreeable, TALENTED illustrator in the world, but if your lack of quality professional equipment to assist you in getting your work successfully completed is holding you back, then, simply put - you are rudderless. Bottom line is, having equipment that holds you back is like a runner being forced to wear cement blocks on their feet. Ouch!!

So, this past summer, I found myself upgrading some fundamental, important, and EXPENSIVE things in my studio. The decisions I made have paid dividends, creatively AND professionally! Not to mention that every day that I use my Wacom Cintiq or my large Epson scanner is a day in illustrator paradise!

Take control.
It's nice to have creative control over the final product. This is another excellent and important reason to have a fully capable analog-to-digital work station at your disposal. Nowadays, most (if not all) of our clients (as illustrators) accept, and likely prefer, to receive digital files over analog. It can help to cut out a lot of the work on their end (no scanning, no retouching, no mailing hard copies back). But what it gives the artist is something of immeasurable valuable - - artistic control. For example, I do a lot of watercolor work. I know from personal experience with this medium that, post-scan, my work generally needs the Contrast to be bumped up about 10 - 14%, and it also typically needs a small amount of sharpening. (The sheer act of scanning generally does a tiny bit of 'bleaching' to my watercolor work, and the added contrast helps to replace what is lost. Plus, CMYK always needs a little boost). This is yet another reason to have a great scanner at the ready. Also, in my experience, clients really appreciate the extra help with the files! You are helping them extra by making their job easier - no art to adjust, scan, retouch. It's all done for them. And, you are able to maintain your artistic integrity. So it's a win - win!! :)


roz said...

This is a great post, Kathy. I had a similar experience with a project I had to work on last summer. I had to learn the hard way on things but it too resulted in the investment in a good, large bed scanner to revolve problems in the future. I call her Helga and I love her dearly.

imwithsully said...

Ah yes! This is one of the reasons why I am glad I have the experience of working in an advertising agency. Free training on all things illustration, scanning, retouching, printing, and delivery. You can't put a price on that training when it comes to my going out to do my freelance work when I have time. Great post!

June said...

But... although it is wonderful to be able to adjust our art once it is digital, perhaps we should ask to be paid a little more to handle the scanning ready for print!
It is a very important part of the final book quality to get right, and requires skills that used to be a specialists job. I know many illustrators prefer to leave it to a professional just in case the printed item looks terrible and it is all down to their file quality!
Changing images to CMYK, Printer's colour profiles, and monitor callibration can be tricky to get right... But, technology is making it all easier for sure.

Kathy Weller said...

I wholehearedly agree. I don't think we should be in charge of the final, final product. That is most definitely the designer's and the printer's jobs. The bottom line for me is, that when I deliver the art, I want it to look the way I think it is supposed to look, and I'd rather do some tweaking before it gets in the publisher's hands to ensure that I've controlled that aspect as much as possible. Ultimately, when it's out of my hands, it's out of my hands and they'll do what they see fit to do with it - the chips will fall where they fall. But, if I can deliver it in the best shape possible, instead of having to send out the original hard copy via Fed Ex and then crossing my fingers and toes on a scanning house I've never used, I'm a happier camper, and I'm a lot less stressed out about it.

I do think that more is expected of us these days though. I am also coming from a graphic design perspective as well. I know it is not for everyone, but if the tools are in my arsenal, it is only natural for me to want to have that extra amount of control over my work. It's really the client's jurisdiction on how much or how little corrective work I do on a piece, but in general I find people are happy about it. There is also so much gray area with digital art work now - plenty of my own is actually a hybrid of the two. Plus, our industry - - every industry - has been SO revolutionized by the internet and prevalence of computers. It's just changed everything, across the board.

Kate said...

Hi Kathy. You're awesome! This was a great experience for you to share with us. Thanks.

Re:June's comment and your response - one thing I have learned is that even after an illustration is scanned and color corrected to the inth degree (I, like you, prefer to do this myself to tweak what needs to be tweaked), the final printing process - the application of the ink on the paper - also changes the artwork somewhat. I have been both disappointd by this and elated by this. The quality control is in someone else's hands - ooooooo that can be rough! I have learned not to take it too personally, though. The nice thing about living in this present technology age is that we can present our files on our websites the way it is intened to be viewed. Gotta love that Photoshop!

Rachelle Anne Miller said...

Great article Kathy! This was really interesting and informative - thanks for the tips :)

Melissa & Emmitt said...

Hi Kathy!
What a wonderfully insightful and generous post.
Happy Holidays!

Kathy Weller said...

Thanks all of you SO much for taking the time to read my post and to respond so thoughtfully!! I'm so thankful you did, and I appreciate it very much. :)