We’ve all been there. You work really hard on something. It could be a piece of writing, or art or whatever it is that you make. It’s finally finished and you are pretty satisfied with it and glad to be done. You show it to some friends and family members and they are like, “Wow! That’s amazing! I could never make that.” You're feeling on top of the world. But then you show it to that one person in your life who always tells you the truth. We'll call them, "The Critic."Read More
About a year ago my sister-in-law sent me a story her husband’s brother had written based on bedtime tales their father used to tell. She wanted to make it into a book at some point, and said if I read it and was inspired to draw a few things she would love to include my art. Well, it turns out I was inspired, because how could you not want to draw tigers and wolves? Months later, she told me she was going to have the book printed for Christmas. I had been taking watercolor classes and thought that completing a project with short a deadline would be a great excuse for me to quickly create a body of work and gain experience in a new medium.
We talked about having one illustration per chapter, plus a cover, but with only a month to draw and paint 13 illustrations she told me to just do as many as I wanted during that time period. I finished 11 and it ended up being an ideal opportunity for me to deep practice my new watercolor skills (not to mention inking with a dip pen for the first time in my life). The first few illustrations I did using a monochromatic color scheme so I could focus on watercolor technique, without adding the confusion of color mixing. Then once I felt comfortable with technique, I painted the final illustrations in full color, resulting in a mix of color and monochromatic images throughout the book. Had this not been a personal project I wouldn't have had the freedom to experiment, but such is the benefit of having your sister-in-law as your art director :) :)
I have always been really happy with products printed with Blurb, and this book was no exception. If you want to flip through it or order a copy you can find it here (note: the creators of this book do not profit from these sales).
This project was a great reminder of the power of personal projects. Prior to this, I had never painted a full page watercolor illustration and without a deadline looming, I probably would have waited until I thought I could do it perfectly. If there is something you want to improve at, there is no better way to learn than to dive in and create a volume of work over a short period of time. Set a goal that makes you a little bit uncomfortable and then go for it. Having a deadline or someone to hold you accountable for finishing your goal is really helpful because it’s tempting to keep telling yourself that you’re not ready. Well, guess what? No one ever felt like they were ready. But you are ready now, so go forth and make stuff. :)
Most of us are familiar with doing personal work. We give ourselves assignments to fill our portfolios and show prospective clients the kind of work we like to do and what they can expect from us.
This approach works, but lately I've noticed the cycle of going from one individual piece to the next has left me feeling empty because the things I'm doing don't lead to anything bigger. Every time I finish a piece for my portfolio, the story ends and I find myself in limbo until I come up with the next assignment.
I dread this because it removes me from making art. Sometimes I'll spend weeks researching a topic, unable to settle on a concept. And although this is an essential part of the process, it feels like progress has stalled which puts me in a bad place mentally.
The idea of a personal project is really appealing for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it's easier to maintain momentum when your brain can stay immersed in a theme or story as you make a collection of pieces. But once you have your theme or story, what should your personal project actually look like? Here are some different formats you might consider for your personal projects:
Online Graphic Novels
For a long time I've been in love with the idea of serialized web comics. These are produced at intervals over long periods of time to eventually make up a long-form comic called a graphic novel. Raina Telgemeier's popular Scholastic graphic novel Smile began as a serialized web comic about her childhood. Many artists I admire have published, or are in the process of making, inspiring online graphic novels or web comics including:
- Starspun by Laura Diehl
- Wormworld Saga by Daniel Lieske
- The Unlikely Adventure of Pip Swiftfoot by Kimberli Johnson
- Montague Mouse by Kiri Leonard Ostergaard
- My Sister the Freak and Little Women by Dani Jones
- Copper by Kazu Kibushi (Author of the Amulet series)
Annual Sketchbook Collections
A graphic novel is an impressive goal, but also a daunting one. A graphic novel could take years to complete. For someone who needs a more attainable goal, Cory Godbey has a particularly interesting approach to personal work. He creates a focused collection of approximately nine pieces all related to one story or theme. He calls them "annual sketchbooks" because when he is done, he assembles them into a printed booklet. In this article on Muddy Colors he talks about why he has chosen this approach to personal work http://muddycolors.blogspot.com/2013/11/personal-work-making-it-count.html
Have you noticed posts on social media using the hashtag #100dayproject? This post from The Great Discontent explains how to get in on the action, but all you have to do is make work and post it using the hashtag. One hundred days is a LONG time, but it recently occurred to me that it doesn't have to be 100 consecutive days. You can find some really great inspiration by browsing the hashtag. Try choosing a theme that is specific rather than "I'm going to make 100 illustrations" because often, self imposed limitations actually fuel creativity. The lovely Blythe Russo has been working on a Kids and Their Pet Pals #100DayProject lately that is amazing. My fellow PuddleJump Collective illustrator Gladys Jose also completed a really fantastic kidlit #100dayproject a while back and you can see the entire thing here.
Make a Finished Book
It's common for author/illustrators make book "dummies" or small, rough versions of a picture book to show publishers how a finished book might look. Dummies typically have rough sketches and one or two spreads with finished art.
But what if you just made the entire book? That's what Shawna J.C. Tenney did for her spectacular picture book Brunhilda's Backwards Day that was picked up by Sky Pony Press. Her intent was to show it to publishers, but she planned to publish it as an ebook regardless of how it was received. She just acted like she already had the job she wanted to be hired for and did her best work.
What personal projects have you seen others do that you found particularly inspiring? Please share them in the comments!
SCBWI AUSTIN RECAP
Back in May, on the weekend of my 33rd birthday, I attended the SCBWI Austin Working Conference. Twelve weeks prior to the conference, I got the crazy idea to leave the baby with daddy for the weekend and go. It was my first real time away from Tobias since he was born, so that alone was a little nerve wracking, especially because we are still breastfeeding and he's not super interested in taking bottles. Also, this would be my first SCBWI conference and although I didn't have a children's illustration portfolio, I felt that I needed to sign up for the portfolio showcase to get the full experience. No pressure!
Maybe if I were not chasing a crawling baby around all day long, 12 weeks would have been enough time to put together 8 to 10 pieces, enough for a respectable portfolio. But realistically I did not expect to achieve that level of productivity, and that was ok. I decided that if I only went with a handful of pieces in my portfolio, I could at least get my feet wet and would have a head start for next year.
Well it turns out, my method of rendering is very time intensive and working digitally was still new to me. I was able to finish 5 pieces in time for the showcase. I printed them up at Skyline Printing and then screwed them into a new Pina Zangaro binder. I felt good about what I had accomplished, but never considered that I might win something at the showcase. In fact, when they announced the winner of the mentorship and my name was called, I had to locate my shoes under the table before I could get out of my seat. That's how much I was not expecting to be chosen.
The conference itself was a great experience, but the mentorship was possibly the most valuable thing I could have walked away with. I'll have a year of one-on-one coaching and career guidance from the lovely Marsha Riti. Marsha has illustrated an impressive number of books including the Critter Club series and The Picky Little Witch. She is a member of an all female illustrator collective here in Austin called the Girllustrators, and is the wonderful mama to Maple, who is about 17 months old. Not only will she have great insights on developing a career as an illustrator, but she knows what it's like to do this type of work while taking care of a tiny human. In the brief time that I've known her it is apparent that she's an amazingly sweet and kind person. She is someone you can talk to for 15 minutes and feel like you've been friends with her for years. I'm very excited and honored that she chose to work with me and I intend to take full advantage of the opportunity. I hope that I can make her proud. Here's an article about the mentorship.
I've had a lot going on since the conference, but this month I am finally free to work on my first assignment from Marsha: make art every day.
This is an assignment that I give myself from time to time, but I tend to approach daily art making the way many people approach dieting, so this post is as much for myself as it is for anyone else who happens to be reading. So, dieting usually goes like this: you do it for a while and then you quit. Or let's say you normally don't partake in office treats, but one day you cave and eat some donuts that someone brought (that's donuts plural, that was not a typo). Then, after lunch you find out that there is birthday cake and you think, "well, I had those donuts so I might as well have some cake too. I'll take that big piece over there." Then, before you know it, 4pm hits and and you've become a sugar fiend. You find yourself going back to stick your fingers in the icing when no one is looking. On the drive home you remember you have chicken and vegetables to cook tonight, but you think maybe you'll have some cheesy noodles for dinner instead. And from there, maybe for weeks, you continue saying yes to any junk food or delicious carbs that come your way.
Everyone knows donuts are a gateway drug and everyone knows this dieting approach doesn't work. If you make a mistake and have a day of gluttony, the next day, you get back on track. If you want to be healthy, you have to make a healthy diet a priority for life. If you want to be a good artist, you have to keep making art. Everyday. Forever. If you don't get around to it one day, don't tell yourself that you'd might as well skip it today. You have to get up and try again. Even if you make a horrible, ugly drawing that you hate and you don't want to show it to anyone, just do it (and then burn it ... or post it on social media). Never stop doing it. Effort begets effort. They say that objects at rest tend to stay at rest and it's totally true. The more days that pass where I don't make any art, the more I avoid making art. But as Molly Idle said during her lecture at the conference, nothing will ever happen if you don't do anything. And Marsha reminded me during our talk last week that no one was ever recognized for doing good art because they made one good painting. You have to make lots of paintings. So make lots of paintings! (that was horribly paraphrased, but you get the idea).
And let's be real. Good habits are much easier to talk about than they are to implement. Sometimes life will happen. If you have a day that is busy and you just don't have time, forgive yourself and then get up the next day and draw something. The more times you repeat an action, the more likely it is to become a habit.
I started posting daily art a week ago on Instagram. You should do it too! You can follow me @kristinwauson.
For the last decade or so I have maintained a portfolio site of some kind, but rarely updated it with new work or blog posts. I started with Wordpress, but was never very happy with the design or functionality of the free templates that are available. I changed my template so often that nothing ever felt permanent. Eventually I decided I didn't need their stinking templates; I could just design my own website. I joined Treehouse and spent lots of hours learning to code. I built a simple responsive portfolio site. It was pretty satisfying to make my own website from scratch, but it was not simple to update, so it sat stagnant for about a year. I have an analytical mind and am good at memorizing strings of code, but at the end of the day, I like for things to be explained to me in pictures. With a full time 9 to 5 job where I was spending all of my time in front of a computer, it was hard to come home and motivate myself to screw around with a with a website that didn't have a CMS (content management system).
The idea of designing a website using a platform that non-developer types can use triggered flashbacks to 1996 when everybody who was anybody had a personal web page on Geocities — complete with a custom background pattern, animated clip art, and neon scrolling center-aligned comic sans text. And Squarespace is trying to appeal to the masses. They have TV commercials. I wasn't going to win any prizes for a website that was built using a template available to everyone. Even if their templates are nice, clean and professional, taking the easy-bake-oven approach to building websites was definitely not something I needed to be doing. It was cheating ... right?
Well a couple of weeks ago something crazy happened. After wasting an entire day revisiting what seemed like every free Wordpress theme the World Wide Web had to offer, I went to Squarespace, just to see what it was like. Before I knew it, I had signed up for a free 14-day trial and was building a beautiful website. I wasn't going to keep it, but it was fun, easy and I had more control over the design than I thought possible. I compared the pricing to the fees for my hosting account through GoDaddy and realized they were about the same. I even did some research to see if any professional web developers would ever use Squarespace to set up a quick client website (with proper disclosure of course) and found very positive reviews especially regarding the platform's SEO capabilities. I realized that Squarespace could give me a professional looking website without a lot of time wasted trying to make things look the way I wanted, and I could spend the rest of my time doing what I really wanted — making art. There's nothing wrong with that.
So here I am with a brand new website and a blog that I hope will be easy to update with my latest work, process and anything else I find interesting enough to share in the design and illustration world. I hope you will follow along. Thanks for reading and visiting!