Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Art Tips for aspiring children's illustrators

What an amazing day. I was first invited to Mass Art Portfolio Review day last year. This year, watercolorist extraordinaire and illustrator professor Irena Roman invited me back for another go, and I was so happy to oblige again! (Any time, Irena! Any time!) This is one day when I can talk with these bright, talented young artists in a comfortable setting made for this type of exchange of information, and find out what direction they are most drawn to for their future careers. I get to look at their work and, from my own perspective and from listening to their own goals and interests, I can provide them with useful feedback and advise them. It's such a great feeling to be able to chat with these artists. It is an honor to be in this role.

This is how it works: the illustration graduating class file into a room where reviewers seated behind long tables line the edges of the room. I think there's about 15-18 reviewers, total. The illustrators choose a reviewer to talk with for 15-20 minutes. They supply us with a form to fill out, then move onto another reviewer of their choosing. We all wear name tags, and our "posts" are clearly marked with our names and professions, so they know where we're coming from professionally.
The process is informal but professional, not uptight. It's a chance for the kids to talk to creative professionals from all walks. They might be interested in working the fine art print market, or children's publishing, or editorial, or any number of markets. We are here to give them feedback based on what we bring to the table professionally and experience-wise, and where they are coming from with their careers thus far, and where they want to go in the future, and how to make that happen.

It was such a whirlwind day that I did not remember my camera. My friend and my art licensing guru Carol Eldridge did bring hers, however and she managed to get a nice student illustrator to take a picture of us (which I will link here once she posts it.) Also got to see another friend artist whom I also have great respect/admiration for, Barbara Johansen Newman. Plus, my totally awesome sister, Gallery 9 owner Julie Vecchio. was there. Boy was THAT a blast to share the experience with my sister. Very neat. Also met some great folks too such as Lisa French, Mass Art professor, among others. Great day.

There were several students who showed an interest in children's publishing. Here are some points I feel are important to putting together a good children's portfolio. I may not have had the need to hit every one of these points with some one today, but here goes..

About the art process itself...
• Be a ruthless critic about eyes. This may sound really trivial at first and a little bit nitpicky, but it's not. Eyeballs are very important. They have to be relatable, convey emotion and personality, but also work with the character and the facial expression, and the rest of your art. If your eyeballs are too stylized, cold, cartoony or whatever whatever, be brave and face that they need work. Believe me, you are not alone. Most children's illustrators need to seriously look at their eyeballs at some point in their career. I know it sounds crazy to be harping on eyeballs. But eyeballs are pivotal! Go and experiment with your eyes, which consequently, will also eventually encompass the face, and then likely the entire body, and in the end maybe your entire style will undergo a little bit of an upheaval. Oh well what can you do. Go with it. Experiment until you can really feel great about your eyeballs. Don't worry if it takes years, as you go. Take years. You can still work while you take years. Just don't stagnate. In a nutshell, don't be afraid to "mess" with your style in this way. It is how you can get your characters to shine with personality and emotion and ultimately it's how you continue to grow. Remember they say the eyes are the window to the soul? They are also windows into your characters' souls.
 Above: eyeballs (and art) Circa 2007 (trade style )

Below: Circa 2010 (edu style)

• Find a way to embrace full, rich and saturated color. The children's industry craves color. This is a simple fact. You are more likely to work period if you can develop a style incorporating juicy color. I am not suggesting you sell your soul here. Promise. You can evolve a style that works for both YOU AND for the INDUSTRY in which you want to work. If you work in a softer medium (like watercolor) and would like to evolve while maintaining the integrity of your medium, this will require some experimentation. You may have some growing pains, but you can do it. (I did!)

• Anatomy of any living creature you draw is incredibly important. The line/painting style in which you use for your illustration just doesn't matter if the "bones" aren't there. The important thing is that you have an understanding of the anatomy and good gestural drawing skills, and that the anatomical drawing is correct and natural-feeling in whatever stylistic form you choose to draw it in. So if that means Saturday figure drawing classes, go for it.

About the portfolio in general...
• Create a series of narrative pieces to take the viewer through a story. Any potential client who is looking at your portfolio is going to expect to see character/story progression in this very way. (Unfortunately I sound like a broken record on this one because they probably heard it one zillion times, but that's because it is REALLY, really important.)

• Have characters interacting in a scene together. Show emotion and expression in faces. Show action. Show life. Ideas: show them at the zoo, a parade, a water park, a carnival.Challenge yourself. Backgrounds are NOT incidental. They are an important part of your visual story telling. (Please don't tell me you are a minimalist. You can work on your minimalist style all you want later, once you have your feet under you.)

• The "unglamorous" truth is that a lot of the steady work in children's for illustrators comes from the educational market. (And aside from that, edu is simply a great and wonderful place for us to further develop our style, our skills, and so much more that it deserves several dedicated blog posts like this one.) To this end you might want to eventually split your portfolio into your trade style and your edu style. It's not a hard fast rule. But if you find yourself doing a lot of edu work, which you will if you immerse yourself into children's and also want more immediate payment, it will behoove you to develop a style or a couple of styles that specifically accommodate the demands/needs of the childrens' edu market. Additionally, one thing that is great for your skill set is to develop a vector-art "black line" style that you are really happy with. This will help to make you more marketable without any additional energy, simply by virtue of the work being scalable by default.


Tamara Henderson said...

Great advice Kathy!!! I appreciate you posting these tips...Thank you!

Diandra Mae said...

What a fantastic post, Kathy! I will be emailing a link to all of the newbie illustrators that have recently joined my SCBWI chapter. So much great info, and things I have said many times, but you know having it in print makes a difference. Thanks for sharing!

Anne Moore said...

great to meet you yesterday ever so briefly, Kathy ~ this is very rich with excellent advice, thanks... hope to cross paths again soon. ~ Anne

Edrian Thomidis said...

Great post! Very insightful, unpretencious and honest! Thanks for sharing!

Irena Roman said...

Thanks Kathy!!! This is great. It was wonderful having you review and yes, same time next year!!! -Irena

Kathy Weller said...

Irena-Definitely!! :)

Edrian-thanks so much-I'm glad it was helpful!

Anne-It was a pleasure to meet you! I hope to meet you again some time! (I will be sure to do a Surtex wrap-up blog post as well in a few weeks so please check back for that!)

Diandra-Wow, thanks, I appreciate you sharing the link! :)

Tamara-You are so welcome :) Happy if my post is helpful to you!

roz said...

This is a fabulous article, Kathy, thanks for sharing your day and insights. I know- eyes! That really is key. I only use dots but I will spend a lot of time time making sure I have them in the right position. They do make such a difference to a piece and I love that you brought this up.

Loni Edwards said...

Great article, Kathy! Thanks for sharing!

Tawny Norden said...

Hi Kathy!
It was wonderful meeting you at the reviews last week and you gave me a lot of helpful advice. Thank you so much for this, also.. so many additional helpful hints to keep in mind! =)