Showing posts with label advice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label advice. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Advice for Students

Every year I get e-mails from art students asking about what they should do to become an children’s illustrator. Here’s my general advice on what can be helpful. This is just my opinion so take this with a grain of salt. You should definitely do a lot of research on your own and find what works for you.

  • Draw, draw, draw

  • Read, read, read
    • Go to the library and bookstore and read lots of picture books. Read and analyze the books. How does the illustration push the story along? How does the illustrator add to the story beyond words? How is page turn used to move the story? How does the illustrator vary the composition throughout the book? Do you see the differences in character design and composition between stories intended for different age groups? How are books intended for 2 year olds different from those intended for 5 or 7 year olds? 
  • Have your own website
    • You NEED a website of your own. The first thing anyone is gong to ask when you say you are an illustrator is a link to your work. 

    •, Squarespace are great low-cost website providers and you can have a great portfolio site up without any coding knowledge. You’re an illustrator, not a web developer. Sure, you can learn how to put up a website for yourself but your time is better spent creating more illustrations.

    • If you can’t do a paid website, use the various free options that are out there (flickr, tumblr, behance, etc.). It doesn’t matter what you use, just have your work available for people to see online.

  • Join Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 
    • If you want to be a children’s book illustrator, there is a lot to learn about the craft and business of it. There isn’t a better place to learn. Join this organization and attend local and even national conferences. It’s worth it.

  • Go on Twitter
    • There is a huge community of picture book illustrators and writers on twitter. Follow them, make friends, learn from each other. A great place to connect with illustrators is by going to the #kidlitart hashtag.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Being an Illustrator with Kids or, OMG what did I get myself into??? Part 2

In my last post, I discussed how being an illustrator with kids is hectic. Heck, being anyone with kids is hectic. But we illustrators come with our own set of issues such as looming deadlines, no "real" weekend and being alone in our studios with just Facebook to keep us company.

In my previous post I promised some methods for how I try to keep it together and make the most out of my sometimes short working periods. So, here are a few tips and tricks I've employed:

1. Warm up drawings
We all learned in art school that warm-up sketching is important. I learned that too. But somewhere along the line, I totally forgot about how important it really is. Up until very recently, my mindset was, "I don't have much time, I just have to sit down and dig into this deadline." So I would just sit and start working on my assignment. Sometimes though, my lines just felt wonky and the drawing didn't turn out right. Then it would be time to pick up my son from school and I would leave, frustrated and waiting for the next chunk of work time so I could fix what I previously attempted to draw.

But recently, I decided that every single time I sat down to work, I would spend at least 15 minutes warming up. Doodling, sketching and hopefully, getting the "uglies" out up front.  It has actually really been helping. Fifteen minutes of getting my muscle memory going and my hand-eye coordination ready really has saved me time in the long run because I'm not wasting time futzing on bad drawings.  My post warm-up drawings are more relaxed and flow much easier. See?

Before warming up...

A warm up...

After warming up...

2. Neatly organize working files
90% of the time these days, I work digitally using many layers (oh how I miss my oil paint though). A habit which I've really found super helpful is to make sure I clearly label my Photoshop layers AS I CREATE THEM. Also, I make sure I create and label groups of files as I go. It saves a lot of time both as I'm working and when it's time to send the files off to the client.  Clicking through 20 unnamed layers to find that little thing I need to adjust the color of is a total waste of time. Now, with my specifically-named layers, I can go straight to the item I need without much fuss.

Also, when a client comes back and tells me they need a revision, having  labeled layers and groups of layers makes it quicker for me when I have to revisit a file days later to make corrections.

Another thing that correctly labeling your layers does for me is shorten the time it takes to get my files ready for delivery to the client.  In the past, I have spent hours the night before a project is due labeling and grouping layers so it was clear for the client. I finally figured out I could save so much more time if I do the labeling as I go.

3. Tune out
We all know that social media is the like the office water cooler for us illustrators. Because illustration is often a very solitary activity, things like Facebook and Twitter keeps us looped in with fellow illustrating friends. However, when it's time to get down to the nitty gritty, to really hit that deadline, social media can really provide too much of a distraction. It can become a means to procrastination and really get in the way of getting work done. DUH! We all know this, it's nothing new. 

But, did you know there are apps that exist which will keep you off the internet for a predetermined amount of time? I mean they REALLY keep you off the internet? Like in a kind of scary (but good way)? I've used one of these apps before, called Self Control and it's pretty amazing. Obviously, it's not going to keep you off your iPad or phone, but it does it' job for keeping you from trolling around on your computer when you're supposed to be WORKING. There's another one you can try called Freedom that is pretty popular too.

Another way I tune out and keep the distractions away from my workspace is to either shut down my email application or change the settings so new email only comes in every hour or so. Also--turn off the distracting "you've got mail" sound in your email preferences so you're not tempted to check to see if that three-book deal came through.

So, these are a few things I've employed which really help me to streamline work and get it done in those small chunks of time I have. I know it sounds like doing simple things such as layering your files aren't important, but time spent doing these things as you go really shave off wasted time down the road. 

I'd love to hear what your time-saving tips and tricks are! What do you do to make the most of your precious work time?

Friday, August 2, 2013

SMA Interview Series: Illustrator, Hazel Mitchell

Originally I am from Yorkshire, England. I moved across the pond in 2000 to marry my hubby, who is American and now we live in Central Maine. I was the kid at school who always drew in every lesson and was the class artist. When I left school I wanted to work with horses, but my art teacher took me in hand and marched me to art school. Alas, I didn't settle in college and left after my second year. Back then children's illustration courses were unknown (I am talking about 1980's not the Dickens period here!). So I joined the Navy and had a great time learning how to get up every morning, march and how to be a graphic designer. I worked in graphics and print until I moved to America, finally got my act together and began illustrating - first mostly commercial work, then I joined the SCBWI in 2009 and started to work in children's books. I've illustrated about 14 books, including 'How to Talk to an Autistic Kid' which one a gold medal from Foreword Reviews, '1,2,3 by the Sea' and 'Hidden New Jersey'. Clients include Charlesbridge, Highlights, Kane Miller, ABDO, Free Spirit. My next book is 'One Word Pearl' from Charlesbridge/Mackinac August 1. I think I'm pretty darn lucky!


Q. How did you get started in illustration? 

I've always done some sort of illustration, even when I was in graphic design. Back then it was mostly commercial. I dreamed of illustrating for children, but I had no idea how to go about it. It took me a long time to find my way. I started to do more work for children in about 2004, but not in trade books. I used to be totally intimidated going into a book store's children's department and would turn and leave, sweating and gibbering that I could never be good enough. But gradually I started to build a portfolio. In 2009 I went to a writing workshop held by a local writer in Maine and Lisa Wheeler was the speaker for the day. Suddenly I realized that I could do this if I worked hard enough. Working hard has always been my ethos. In January 2010 I went to my first NYSCBWI Winter Conference, got giddy, learned a lot and immersed myself in learning the business. I went to every conference I could afford (and some I couldn't), started to build my portfolio online and off, and mail out to publishers. I got my first book in Oct. 2010 from a postcard mailer.

Away She Flew...

Q. You have a great online presence. Do you have any methods or tips you'd like to share with other illustrators on maintaining that presence? 

It's been very important to me. But we all have different paths in this business, which is what makes it interesting. I am a great believer in the adage 'If they don't know you are there, they can't find you'. The internet was really starting to go nuts with Facebook and Twitter back then. People talked constantly about your 'platform'. So I thought I might as well have a go.

Tip 1 ... make sure you have a good website. Mine has got better over the years, and that's your main online presence.

Tip 2 ... if you hate social networking, don't do it. It's not mandatory! But if you are a social person (which I am) it can actually be enjoyable. Back in 2010 I started my blog and joined Facebook. (Believe it or not, I really was ambivalent about FB!!). I blogged regularly about what I was doing and began to build an FB presence. Posting my drawings and doings was fun. Connecting with other illustrators was fun and also a great help. We work in an isolated environment, and I also live in a rural area. I learned so much from writers and illustrators on many levels from finding them on FB.  I also connected with industry professionals and have to say several of my books have come from those connections.

Tip 3 ... talk to people who are kind enough to talk to you! It's rude not to.

Tip 4 ... decide how much is enough for you. When it becomes a chore ... slow down. I used to do a lot more online than I do now. I hope that is because I am busier now! I use cross posting apps. FB is still my biggest platform, but I am on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr. Often I don't post in those places more than once a week, if that. But I am still there and those posts come up in search engines. The more you are 'there' the more people can find out about you and your work.

Q. Do you keep a sketchbook? 

I go through phases. I've never been the most ardent sketchbook keeper. If I am working on a book I don't tend to sketch as much. I do keep one by the computer and in my bag. But I don't get it out as much as I should (note to self!). I tend to write in my sketchbooks too. When you go back and look through them even a small doodle can give you a great idea.  Or a note in a margin.

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

I hate website design! I keep thinking I should just change over to a blog and have the whole thing in one. But somehow it is never top of my list. An online portfolio is totally necessary. I like that my book pages on my website now are part of the whole thing as well as my gallery. I have more than one blog, as well as a Flickr stream and Pinterest. Sometimes I am really active posting! That's usually in between projects! My tumbler blog is mainly sketches as is the Flickr stream. My 'main' blog is usually news and events. I love posting on FB and sharing my work with people - and seeing other people's work! It's inspirational. I also have a project about my childhood where I post pictures I have drawn. I don't even care if anyone looks at them ... it's like keeping a diary. But one that I am happy to share with others. It might inspire them too. Often it can get me thinking again when I have lost energy. I don't worry about posting my stuff online. It's brought me a lot of great things and very few bad ones. I guess I am an eternal optimist.

Q. What are your favorite tools?

Well, I jump around. I am finding it depends on the project also. I love to work in pencil and also dipping pen. But I love watercolour and collage too. I love photoshop which I have used since the 80's. I do a lot of digital colouring. But I also use more textural stuff and hand painted stuff these days that I scan in and manipulate. I use an Intuos Wacom pad and couldn't live without it. I love my scanner too!!

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

Sometimes, you know, ruts are required. When you are in the biggest rut, kicking yourself out of it can give you the best ideas. I think we need the lows and highs. It's part of the creative process. I used to try to force it when I was in a funk. Now I try to give myself breathing space. Music helps. Cleaning the house helps. Letting my brain do something mindless. Doodling ... doing something that is not required. I love Lynda Barry's books 'What it is' and 'Picture This'. Just the act of putting a pencil on paper can kickstart you. The trouble with my mind is, it seems to have too many ideas and then I overload and do nothing. At times I have started the morning with a daily sketch which I still enjoy, but I don't do as much now (note to self!). So many illustrators have said to me that experimentation is the way back from a dry period or burned out phase. And I think they are right. Oh, and always TEA. And a nice kilted man ;-), although they are hard to find.

Hazel found one!

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

Sure, I work on the second floor (or first if you are English) in an L shaped room. It has nice windows and a wood stove and some comfy chairs. There is always a dog around.

Throughout the months I stick things on my wall ... postcards from people, photos, thank you cards, conference badges, drawings, notes. They kind of sink in for a while. And then, usually when I am about to start a project, it all comes down and I start clean for the next period. I also have a worry stone that I picked up from my first conference in LASCBWI and I turn it when I am working. It's like all my wishes are poured into it. I also have a small purple, chinese cat stuck to the top of my screen which is for artistic luck. I have good intentions to leave the studio and go and work somewhere like the library or a museum or coffee shops. But it seems I like to be in my studio.

I think Hazel's personal art director likes her being in the studio, too!

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

I CAN be patient.

Image from 'One Word Pearl'.

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

Getting to create all day. Meeting kids who like your work. Inspiring other people. Seeing your work in a bookstore or library. Not driving to work. Looking like a slob all day if you feel like it and getting paid for it.

Hazel with fans at Treasure Trove Books!

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

Yes please! My new book 'One Word Pearl' by Nicole Groeneweg is out on August 1 from Charlesbridge/Mackinac. I got to use a lot of new techniques in this book and I am excited about that.

I will also be part of the faculty at NESCBWI Illustrator's Symposium in November 2013 in Manchester in NH and I am jazzed about that too!


Other Sites: 


Tweet me: @thewackybrit

Thank you so much for spending some time with us, Hazel! Happy book birthday to 'One Word Pearl', officially out in the wild!


If you haven't met Hazel in person yet, do look for her at conferences and book festivals - she is an absolute delight to be around and gets entire crowds laughing. There's no better quality than that!

It's been really fun having a few fellow bloggers join us on Simply Messing About. Both Debbie Ridpath Ohi and Hazel Mitchell are part of another fantastic group blog called Pixel Shavings. I highly recommend poking around their site! 


In other news, the Simply Messing About team has been so busy with work and conference prep. Three of us are currently attending the LA SCBWI conference this weekend! Look for Christina, Laura, and Tracy and say hello! 

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Beginner's Guide to Twitter for Illustrators

I joined Twitter about four years ago when it was still rather new. I’ll admit that back then I had no idea how to use it! But now, four years later, I find it to be one of the most helpful  ways to socialize, learn and network with others in the children’s publishing world. Along the way, I've met some really great friends. I met my fellow bloggers here on Simply Messing About on Twitter! Here are some very basic steps to navigating your way through Twitter to get the most from it.

1.  Set up your account so it is most beneficial for you:
Make sure your twitter account name is the same as your working name. When I first signed up, I used a fake username because I wasn’t sure how I’d be using Twitter and to be honest, I was a little scared of the new platform. Problem is, nobody knew it was me! Now, however, I use my real name--it helps with visibility when it comes to networking and creating a consistent online presence.

If you are an illustrator, why not use an illustrated self-portrait as your avatar (profile picture)? Or crop a fun picture of one of your illustrations to use as your profile photo. Hands down, you will get more followers if you have a fun, illustration that represents you as well as your work!
Along those same lines, try to use your artwork as your Twitter banner and background! You can get really creative here and used them both in a fun way to show off your illustration and design skills.

2.  Connect with those in your Industry:
Twitter feels less personally intrusive than Facebook. With Facebook, people have to “accept” you as a friend before you can interact with them. With Twitter, you can follow people, read others’ Twitter statuses and write back to them freely (unless their profile is locked, which is pretty rare these days). That doesn’t however, mean that they will respond back to you! P.S. Don’t get your feelings hurt if you don’t always get a response! ;)

Following people is easy! Just search for a friends name and click “Follow”. When you find a friend, check out who they follow to find a whole gaggle of friends!

3.  Find topics you are interested in (i.e. HASHTAGS!)
It seems like so many people make fun of the very useful hashtag. Why??? They are invaluable and can be used in many different ways. The most useful way to use a hashtag is basically as a keyword to find people talking about one topic. Type the keyword with a hashtag (#) in front of it into the Twitter search bar and you will find everyone who used that keyword in a Twitter update. Try typing the broad term #illustration into the Twitter search bar and see what comes up!

Hashtags can also be used during a chat hour that groups of people hold to discuss particular topics. For example, every Thursday night, (mostly) illustrators from the children’s publishing world get together at 9pm (EST) to discuss a topic much like a meeting, using the hashtag #kidlitart. Type that into the Twitter search bar and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a children’s illustrator “meeting” hosted by our very own @ReneeKurilla as well as the wonderful @SmilingOtis and @DiandraMae! #fun!
Here are some popular hashtags for those of us in the children’s publishing world:


You can also use twitter hashtags to be silly and punctuate your tweet: “I am so happy! I just signed a contract with a major publisher! #millionaire" ;)

4. What Twitter is NOT good for:

Twitter is a great tool for promoting yourself, but over-promoting your latest book or project is a turn-off for your follwers. You’ll soon become the  “Telemarketer of Twitter” and that will quickly earn you a lot of unfollows. 

Twitter is NOT a place to badmouth former clients, previous clients, publishers, bosses, colleagues or anyone else, really! Twitter makes the world a lot smaller...word gets around!


Now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons I love twitter, here is a starter list of some of the people on Twitter who make it so great! These are all people to follow who are well-versed in the children’s publishing world and who consistently tweet lots of great info:

(There really are WAY too many to name, so here are a few of the original gang I started to follow.)


Art Directors:


All of this is really just the absolute tip of the Twitter iceberg. Go join Twitter and have fun! I’ve met tons of really great friends through Twitter and have gained valuable knowledge...go forth and tweet! It’s the best water cooler around for us creative types!

Until next time!


Thursday, June 6, 2013

20 Seconds of Insane Courage

Movies can transform you. They can change the way you see yourself and the world. One of my favorite movies is We Bought a Zoo. I love this movie! There’s a scene where the son is afraid to tell a girl he likes her and the father tells him, “All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage and I promise you something great will come of it”. So simple, so profound!

I’ve used this mantra at conferences and bookstore signings. It’s so difficult to approach art directors, editors, and successful illustrators at these events. You desperately want to talk to them, to connect in some small way, but the hurdle of shyness looms large. I literally have to recite this phrase to myself before I take the leap. It works! Anyone can muster 20 seconds of courage. Remember that those people you’re afraid to talk to are just people. Most of them are incredibly friendly and generous. They share your passion for children's books. I urge you to just go for it. You can’t make connections if you never try. Be brave! And for goodness sakes, please rent this movie!