Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On Being an Illustrator with Kids or, OMG what did I get myself into??? Part 1

So as I type this, my three year old is lounging on the couch watching Madagascar 3.  I always told myself I was never going to be THAT mom.  But as an illustrator with deadlines, sometimes I gotta do what I gotta do.

A little background here: my kids are now ages three and six and my husband is a firefighter (with a sometimes unpredictable schedule). I don’t have a babysitter to help with the kids just because that’s a choice we have made as a family. Luckily, being an illustrator allows me to work from home and my parents live close by to help me when they can. And when my husband IS home, he is super good about taking the kids out and about to give me some time to work.

And when it comes to work, as the old saying goes: when it rains, it pours. I currently have two illustration jobs going and will be adding a third soon. Yay for work!

But also: oh crap! How am I going to get everything done?! When am I going to get everything done between chauffeuring the kids around and feeding them???

I spent the better part of last year really fishing around for answers on how to be a better multi-tasker. I thought that other people were doing this way better than me. I constantly asked myself and other illustrator moms, “How can I be the domestic goddess, illustrator and healthy (sane) mom I want to be?” Isn’t there a better way??? I got really down on myself because I felt taking on my career as an illustrator was an uphill battle. I didn't get enough sleep, I felt that I didn't spend enough time on my work and that basically, I felt like I was doing it all wrong.

But over the past couple of months, I had some realizations that really helped my outlook. In a nutshell, a big game-changer for me really has to do with BEING ADAPTABLE on both a small and large scale.  

Here are some of the major epiphanies and rules I’ve made for myself which help me cope when I need to GET IT ALL DONE.
  1. I will not compare myself to other moms in real life nor on Facebook
    I spent too much time comparing myself a lot to Facebook friends who seemed to be doing everything like a pro. I’m trying to eliminate self-talk that goes like this: “You mean she baked cookies from scratch, rearranged the house, mowed the lawn, spit-shined their husband’s shoes AND storyboarded a feature length film all in one day?!?!? I'm a slacker.” Comparing myself just creates negative self-talk and that’s not good for my self-esteem.
  2. I realize I will probably never be a domestic goddess. My family’s health and happiness is obviously number one on the priority list.  The state of my house is the thing that usually gives. I’m giving myself permission to say that it’s OK for these house to be in a state of disarray if need be.  Yep. I’m admitting here that there are usually toys, shoes and laundry everywhere (and probably dishes in the sink). My husband is really good about helping out with the cleaning when he’s home though!
  3. It is a MUST to enlist close family and/or friends.
    Heck, bribe them with money if need be! (But don't forget to pay them. Sorry, mom.) I am the worst when it comes to reaching out and asking for help with my kids, but I am getting better at it. Knowing that someone else has my kids for a few hours and that I have a finite amount of time to get work done, helps me to stay focused.

    Also, if someone offers to help me out with the kids, I need to TAKE THE HELP! (I’m working on this one still...)
  4. Gone are the days of marathon painting sessions.
    This was my latest epiphany and maybe one of the most important. As an artist, it’s so easy to sit and paint for hours on end; to get in The Zone. With small kids, there are less opportunities for this. Unless someone has my children for more than a few hours, I'm still trying to train myself to realize that my work sessions might be 15 minutes here, thirty minutes there, etc.  Having to illustrate in smaller bursts of time is not fun and not easy to do. This might make sketching during my son's soccer practice easier though! Can you say, "droooooool"???

  5. Just count on NO SLEEP the couple of days before a deadline.As a creative, all-nighters are just bound to happen. But I think most of us kinda love hours upon hours of drawing and painting, right? And think of all the Starbucks you get to drink the next day! ;)
  6. Hello, kids...mommy is working!!!
    There are those desperate moments when my husband gets unexpectedly called in to work (you mean you have to go save lives TODAY?!?), my parents are out of town and my mother-in-law is working. That's when the good 'ol Disney movie and popcorn trick come in handy. This doesn't happen too often, but hey, it buys me a good hour and 45 minutes! I used to feel horribly guilty about this. But, they are getting old enough for me to explain that I need to work for a bit.

    They are becoming slightly more understanding about this:

So, obviously, these are things that work for MY family (or rather I'm trying to make work for my family). The scales are constantly tipping in different directions and learning to be ADAPTABLE is really helping me. Since I’ve learned that fitting in work when I can is how it has to be for now, I’m actually getting better at being more productive when I have the time to work.

In part two of this article I'll discuss how my methods and tools for creating artwork have changed and adapted to now that I have small kids running around here! 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Photoshop Layer Mask Video

In the past year or so I realized that I use layer masks in Photoshop a lot. I thought I'd do a video tutorial on how and why I use it since for years I had no clue what it was and avoided using it.

I hope it's helpful!

How I use Photoshop Layer Masks from Tracy Bishop on Vimeo.

P.S. After looking at the video I realized that I should have said this approach of separating out a character from the background is for those people who paint using transparent brushes like I do.  If you painted with flat opaque colors, then you can just move your layer around with no extra special preparation.

In my case, I paint using very transparent brushes. If I didn't use the mask with the white background, then the background will just show through the entire character.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reworking Old Illustrations

Today, we have a combined post dedicated to the art of reworking older portfolio pieces! Laura and Renee have been hard at work trying to give a little love to some of their favorite personal illustrations and are here to share some of the thought process behind their decisions!



I'm constantly working on improving my skills and revamping my portfolio. It always has to be fresh and show improvement if I want to reach my goals. Mostly that involves creating lots of new art, but sometimes all I really need to do is to apply my current skills to illustrations I've already created.

Here's an illustration I first created in March of this year. I was happy with it at the time, but it always had a bit of a starkness to it.

I needed an illustration for the local Illustrators Day's First Look Panel later this month. I didn't have time to created something from scratch, so I decided to see if I could improve one of my existing pieces. I chose this one which I always liked, but felt was still missing something. I wanted to add more depth and drama to it, so I added snow and more trees to the background. I started with a blizzard, then ran it through some of my toughest critique friends, my SMA blog group of Tracy Bishop, Christina Forshay, and Renee Kurilla, and my friend Gina Perry. Their advice was to have fewer and larger snowflakes, to darken and redden the trees, change the border, and make the white border a softer color. (Almost all of the changes were done in Photoshop. The snow and border were ink paintings that I scanned in and manipulated in Photoshop.)

Here's what I have now. It has the drama I had hoped for and I think it's a much stronger piece. It'll be interesting to see what the panel has to say. Maybe I'll be able to improve it more.

It's so good to have people with a good eye and the ability to speak 'art' in your circle. It can be difficult, sometimes, to see one's own work clearly. It's can be hard to hear that your work's not perfect, but it gets easier with time. If you know that your critiquer wants to help you, it's easier to hear what they're saying. Trust me, it gets easier with time. I am a better artist because of their help.



This particular piece was an experiment from 2008 or so. My original goal was to paint this on canvas, so my first color study was very sloppy with globs of color and sketchy lines. The painting never came into fruition, and the color study sat in my "unfinished art" folder for years. It looked like this:

One day, I decided to revisit the piece and this is where I ended up:

Throughout the years, my style has changed quite a bit. I used to work in a vector style, as I was doing a lot of animation in Flash...but when I transitioned to Photoshop, I found that I love texture and transparency. 

That being said, for some reason, this particular image stuck with me as a piece I did not want to give up for my new portfolio. I recognized it's faults (one being no clear definition of story) and added a few tweaks. It's funny, similar to Laura's, my final piece ended up with snow as well!

I don't know how to explain why some ideas are just worth not letting go, but it's why people revisit old notebooks. A sketch you drew 10 years ago might not have even made clear sense to you then, but now it may spark your best idea ever. You don't need to give up on your older art because it's "out of date"! 

Friday, September 13, 2013

SMA Interview Series: Illustrator, Jannie Ho

Hi, my name is Jannie Ho (pronounced Jane-nee) and I’m an illustrator specializing in children’s books and products. I’m also known as Chicken Girl.

I went to Parsons School of Design with a BFA in illustration. After graduating, I worked as a graphic designer and an art director at many fun places such as Nickelodeon, Scholastic, and TIME Magazine for Kids before going full time as a freelance illustrator.

I've illustrated more than 2 dozen books and my work has appeared in magazines, toys, crafts and digital media. I'm currently based out of Boston, MA.


Q: Hi Jannie! Does your past as a graphic designer and art director influence the decisions you make in your illustrations? 

I think so, in many different ways. Illustrations can be part of an overall layout and I'm always thinking about that as I create. What can I do in my illustrations that would ultimately offer more for the art director to design around? Lately I've been thinking about how working at Scholastic book clubs had influenced my style and color decisions for quite a long time in my illustrations. I use to design the book club flyers and there was constant talk about making the book covers pop. Yellow as a background color was a very popular way to make things stand out, and for a long time, I had a hard time using other colors for a background. Also I was designing for a younger age group and the colors I ended up using all the time for my design ended up in my illustrations. And ultimately my illustrations geared more towards a younger age group too.

Q: Your characters are absolutely adorable. Where do you get inspiration for their clothes and colors?

Thank you! I use to often get feedback that the clothing style in my characters tend to be a little old fashion. But now that I have a child, I'm more aware as to how real kids dress, and what all the cute kids clothing stores are. Lately I've been into looking at Mini Boden ( for inspiration. Their color palettes are amazing too. I'm trying to keep a more edgier and sophisticated color palette but at the same time kid friendly and approachable. So keeping tabs on great colors I see on Pinterest, and using sites like

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook?

I don't really keep a sketchbook anymore. Only because the way my life is structured these days I have very little free time to do so. I do however, keep sketch files- little bits of file in Illustrator I play with. Sometimes when I'm working on a project and an idea sparks, I will start an illo on the side and eventually it gets cut and pasted to its own separate file.

Q: How important is it to market yourself? 

It is definitely very important part of being an illustrator. I'm always wondering if I can be doing more. My agent certainly helps me market and show my work to potential clients through illustration directory websites, catalogs, conferences, etc. But one thing I always like to mention is that I've never stopped marketing myself once I had an agent. Why not help myself? Why not double the efforts and hopefully cast a bigger net? It is my own career after all and I should take charge.

Some of Jannie's colorful, fun promotional materials!

Q:  How do you decide what work to show online? 

In my portfolio/website, I tend to show pieces that I enjoyed doing, hopefully attracting more of that type of work. And usually it ends up being a lot of personal or self promotional pieces. In my blog, I tend to like to keep an update of all my professional projects and what I've been busy with. I've been terrible with keeping up with my blog however. Facebook and Twitter really replaced my blog.

Q: What are your favorite tools?

I'm perfectly happy with a Wacom tablet and Adobe Illustrator! I always love hearing about new ways/tools to work, especially digitally. Keeping up with what is out there. But ultimately I do keep things very simple.

Q: Are there any exercises or experiments you do to keep your creative juices flowing? 

One great trick I've learned recently is a style analysis. Take a piece of art that you love, and write down all the elements that make up that piece of work. The way the lines are, the colors, etc. By doing this you can find out what you really love about the piece, and apply it to your work in your own way. Sometimes we see a piece that is amazing but can't really point out why we are attracted to it. This is a great way to get creative juices flowing. To get out of a rut, it seems to be a fine balance of knowing when to stick with it and when to walk away. Sometimes you just have to sit with the art till that eureka moment comes. Or sometimes I feel like I'm unbalanced in other areas in my life and I need to tend to that first before coming back to something creative. One thing I know is that everyone experiences it and its part of an artist's journey.

Q: Would you mind giving us a peek at your workspace? 

My workspace could use some more inspiration! I'm in a somewhat temporary situation so my space is currently not what I envision for myself in the long run. But I do have a lot of little toys and trinkets around that make me smile.

Q: What's the most fun thing about being an illustrator? 

I still can't believe I get to draw for a living! Getting to create my own worlds, having books out there to share my vision with others. That is pretty rewarding.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you're excited about and would like to share?

I have a wonderful Pop-up gift book coming out in the Fall published by Campbell Books in the UK. It is called Pop-up and Play Farm and I worked with the amazing paper engineer, Maggie Bateson. I'm also happy to share that the board book series I illustrated called Tiny Tabs are coming in the US! They are currently published by Nosy Crow in the UK and will be in the US February 2014 through Candlewick.

Thank you Renee and the rest of the Simply Messing About ladies! You are all very talented and I'm honored to have met ALL of you in person and be on your blog. :-)

Visit Jannie's website!
Follow her on Twitter and check out her Facebook Page!


Thank you so much, Jannie! Your work is so bright and lovely and, I can say this having met you in's just like you! D'aw. Congratulations on all of your new books, they're beautiful and fun and all the kiddos are going to love them!

It's been so great having some visitors on our blog the past few weeks. I, for one, have never been more enthralled by all the different answers we've gotten to similar questions- it just further goes to show that it's ok to make your own routine, do what works for you... 

But love what you do.

Some words of wisdom that have been consistent throughout our interviews: Never give up.

So...don't. :)

And that concludes the self help portion of this blog post. 
Thanks for following along with our SMA Interview Series, everyone! 


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The books that influenced me…

When I was a kid, I belonged to a book club. Every month, I'd get a new book delivered right to my house. It was awesome! I loved books so much that I really looked forward to that delivery.

Below are a few from that club.

Illustrated by Denman Hampson. Published in 1964.

Illustrated by Blake Hampton, published in 1967.
This tree has shown up in my work before.

By Wende & Harry Devlin, published 1966.
 I have always loved scribbly pen and ink drawings!

Published 1966.
This is one of my all time favorite books! Miss Twiggly is so wonderfully quirky 
and as a tree lover myself, how could I not love her!

I got my first Little House book from my aunt for Christmas when I was seven.
It has been the biggest influence in my career. I love Garth Williams and his Little House illustrations. Even as a kid I'd get lost in the pictures in these books. I just love the soft pencil shading.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

SMA Interview Series: Author / Illustrator Eric Barclay

Eric Barclay is an illustrator and designer, and the author and illustrator of I CAN SEE JUST FINE (Abrams Appleseed) and HIDING PHIL (Scholastic Press). 

Classic cartoons, modern art, mid-century design and everyday mishaps heavily influence his style. 

He has illustrated for American Greetings, Disneyland Paris, Hallmark, Papyrus, Peaceable Kingdom, Klutz, Toys R Us, and many others. 

Eric lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife, two beautiful young daughters, a dog and two cats. 


Q: Hi Eric! How did you get started in illustration? 

Like most illustrators, I got started with a box of crayons. My parents encouraged my artistic abilities and paid for me to have oil painting instruction from the time I was 11 until the time I finished high school.

My first job out of college was with an advertising firm as an art director and copywriter. Many of my assignments required illustration and I found that I enjoyed those projects the most. After working in ad agencies and design firms for several years, I went freelance in 2002. Becoming an illustrator has been a very gradual process: illustration assignments slowly started becoming more and more common as clients would see my work. I started my illustration blog in 2008 and a lot of work came my way as a result of that.

Q: You make some really cool illustrations on found objects! How did you get started doing this? Do you have a special process?

I have always been interested in making my own sculptures and toys - my first sculptures were made out of wood. One day I noticed that the lid of a Coffee Mate container looked kind of like an English cap, and my initial thought was to use the cap on one my wood sculptures. And then it just hit me that the entire object had a great character shape, and that I could turn the entire container into whatever I wanted it to be. Once I realized that, I began to see the potential in all kinds of household objects.

Different objects require a different approach. Glass is easy to work with and can usually be primed and painted right away. Plastic requires a lot more work to get things smooth. Each piece requires a different solution so the process changes from object to object.

This gives a whole new meaning to recycling, doesn't it?!

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? If so, how is it helpful for you? If not, is there a reason? 

I do keep a sketchbook, but it is nothing pretty. I use it to not only sketch ideas, but to work out ideas and layouts as well. If I draw something on a napkin at a cafe I'll often tape that into my sketchbook as well. Seriously, it's a mess, but it is very helpful. I keep my old sketchbooks in a drawer and I'll often go back and look at them to get new ideas.

Q: How do you decide what work to show online? Portfolio VS. blog...

I view my website, blog, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook pages as part of my portfolio. Social media (especially Pinterest) makes it so easy for anyone to re-post an image, so I'm very careful about what I post online. Once something goes viral you can't take it back, so most of my posted work is pretty polished.  If I do post a sketch, I make sure it's tied to the final image so that it can't be taken out of context.

Q: What are your favorite tools?

I love retractable pencils, Prismacolors, and flat acrylic paint. Most of my personal work is done in pencil and acrylic, but my professional work is usually produced digitally. For digital work, I usually work with a scanned pencil drawing and then 'paint over' it in Photoshop or Illustrator.

Q: Are there any exercises or experiments you do to keep your creative juices flowing? How do you get out of a rut?

When I'm in a rut I like to just get out of the studio for bit. Long runs, and visits to bookstores, museums, and thrift shops often help get me unstuck. I tend to do my best work when there's a healthy balance between work, play, and time with family and friends. 

Q: Would you mind giving us a peek at your workspace? Is there anything special you keep around you while you're working for inspiration?

My workspace is a small, stand-alone studio in my back yard... just a 50 foot walk from my house. My brother, dad and I built it together. I have a bulletin board next to my desk where I post my kids drawings and anything else that inspires me. 

Q: What is an unexpected thing you've learned in your career?

I've really learned to appreciate brainstorm meetings. Art directors, editors, publishers, and project managers contribute so many great ideas that can be incorporated into the final artwork.

Q: What's the most fun thing about being an illustrator? 

I love the variety of projects that I get to work on: greeting cards, books, toys, puzzles... it's all so much fun.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you're excited about and would like to share?

I'm really excited about the recent releases of my first two books, I CAN SEE JUST FINE from Abrams Appleseed and HIDING PHIL from Scholastic Press. I CAN SEE JUST FINE is a funny book about young girl who needs glasses but is clearly in denial. HIDING PHIL is the story of three siblings who find an elephant named Phil at bus stop and take him home... and then try to hide him from their parents.

An adorable interior spread from HIDING PHIL.

A really fun interior page from I CAN SEE JUST FINE.

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me, Renee. I'm a big fan of your art, and I also love Christina's, Laura's, and Tracy's work as well. 

Visit Eric's website and blog: 
Follow Eric on Twitter: @ericbarclay
Like his Facebook page!


Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Eric! Your art is so colorful and alive, we are all huge fans of your work as well! (Clearly, I CAN SEE JUST FINE was written about my life in third grade... )

Most importantly, Eric, your sense of humor is totally "spot on"! 

"Missing, by Eric Barclay"

I'm sorry, I couldn't resist!

I hope this post inspires lots of people to think outside of the box and to not be afraid of bright colors. :)