Friday, April 24, 2015

How I Study Picture Books - By Maple Lam

I don't know a single colleague who does not read picture books voraciously. "Read. Read. Read." is the very basic key to all aspiring picture book author-illustrators. The other basic key is "Practice. Practice. Practice." Just like everything else in life, the rules are simple but hard to follow. Perseverance is the key; there is no short cut. :)

Today, I would like to share how I study picture books.

First, I pick a bunch of picture books and read them just to enjoy them. I don't want to see myself analyzing anything at this point, at least not intentionally. 

Then, I pick out the ones I loved. Yes, it is a subjective selection, based purely on my own picture book tastes. It's okay though. The important thing is that these books resonate with ME.

On a 8.5x11 paper, I copy the entire book as rough thumbnails. 

My study of David Ezra Stein's wonderful book 
published by Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013.

This process is helpful because I now have the benefit to step in that artist's shoes and absorb the composition skills. I don't copy the details, but the process forces me to truly see and absorb. 

I also write down the key words of each page. I like to then go back and circle what sentence structures or story structures are repeated. How many repetitions were there? How did they affect and enhance the story? 

My study of "Lucky Ducklings",
written by Eva Moore,
illustrated by Nancy Carpenter,
published by Orchard Books, 2013.

The copying process also helps me understand the story arc at-a-glance. Where did the author-illustrator put in clues to the ending's twist? How are page-turns executed? How was the problem-solution arc tackled? 

I find this exercise very helpful. The more I do it, the more I develop a good sense of what makes a great picture book. The best ones look some effortless! What a great art-form!

I encourage you to do the same too. Maybe there is only time for one study per week. That's okay. Like I mentioned earlier: perseverance is the key.

How do you study picture books? I would love to hear from you and learn from your methods! :)

~ Maple Lam

Illustrator of Two Girls Want a Puppy by Evie and Ryan Cordell (coming June 2015)
Author/Illustrator of My Little Sister and Me (coming Summer 2016)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mice! Color Process

I recently had an art director ask me if I had any mice in my portfolio. Nope! The only mice in my portfolio at the time were microscopic. Cue mouse sketches!
Copyright Jen Betton 2015
I drew up a bunch of sketches, both to figure out ideas and compositions, but also to get used to mousey anatomy. I decided to develop this one into a full-color piece. 

For the color studies I knew I wanted something warm and sunset-feeling (partially because I'd been doing a lot of cold paintings – tons of night and underwater scenes). I collected some color palette images I liked on Pinterest, and did a few color studies.

Copyright Jen Betton 2015
The general palette didn't change much, but I experimented with values – middle study is dark mice against a light background, bottom is dark background (to better show the rim lighting), and top is in between. It really helps me think about composition to remember it is just an arrangement of light and dark shapes – so each shape is either light on dark or dark on light. I decided to go with the center study.

Copyright Jen Betton 2015
Process is my friend – I really love approaching a finish with confidence because I know what colors and values I'm using, and I have a refined drawing for a foundation and good reference to look at while I paint. I know lots of other people who don't work this way, but for me, it makes everything smoother and faster. 

For more info about color, see my blog series here.

Jen Betton illustrates and writes for children. You can see more of Jen Betton's mousey sketches here

More of her work is at these locations online:
Twitter: @jenbetton

Monday, March 30, 2015

10 Things I've Learned Since Getting My First Picture Book Contract - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

So much has happened since 2010, when I was chosen for the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program and offered my picture book illustration contract.

Here are ten things that I've learned since that year:

1. Getting a book contract doesn't mean the end of self-doubt. At least twice during each book project, I go through major "omigosh, I totally suck" angst.

2. The author and illustrator tend to get most of the public limelight but wow, there are so many behind-the-scenes people who help to get a picture book out into the world. Find out more about them. Be grateful.

3. Social media can be fun and rewarding, but it can also be a time vampire with energy-sapping Drama. Keep track of how much time and how you spend your time in social media, and be aware of how much emotional energy you invest. Also see #6 on this list.

4. When you're working on a picture book story, read everything out loud. You want your story to be FUN to read out loud, both for the adult and the young reader. Take the time to polish your manuscript before sending it off. As my editor Justin Chanda said, don't assume that short = easy.

5. Find a good backup system for your files, and be disciplined about doing it regularly. Save multiple versions. That way you won't freak out when you accidentally flatten and then save a Photoshop file with a zillion layers and realize you don't have a backup. Not that, um, I've ever done this. Set up an automatic backup system (I use Time Machine), a manual backup at the end of intense workdays (I use SuperDuper) and I also make version copies of illustration files.

6. Think twice before throwing rocks. Before jumping on a popular bandwagon of condemning someone in the industry because of something he or she said, think of the times when you've said something that could upset people if you were quoted out of context. Yes, there are worthy reasons for getting upset and a call for action...but before you go down that road (including retweeting/sharing someone else's inflammatory opinion), do your research and think hard about your motivation.

7. For every person who loves your book, there will be another who hates it. It's so hard not to take bad reviews personally, but try not to dwell. If you get a bad review,  commiserate in private with someone you trust but do NOT -I repeat do NOT- publicly post a response. Here's why. If you get a good review, celebrate the moment but don't let it go to your head.

8. If you're an introvert who is terrified of public speaking, don't wait until just before your book comes out to start practising. The sooner you start, the less terrified you'll be when you start being invited to do public speaking. Don't give in to the mindset "I just want to focus on getting published first, I'll worry about my fear of public speaking later, when I have to" like I did. Practice with smaller and informal groups first. Practice with kids as well as grown-ups. Practice in front of the mirror. Just practice.

9. Guard your time. Learn how to say no, even if it means disappointing people. This was the toughest for me. There are so many good causes, fun projects, small favors. Instead of saying yes to them all and then regretting it, choose just a few and embrace them.

10. Always make time to play. This can be difficult, especially when you have multiple projects on the go and upcoming deadlines, have a day job or school during the day, or other obligations that take priority. But if you don't make time to play (experiment, have fun with your art, etc.), then you and your work are going to stagnate.

I still feel like such a newbie and am learning so much about the craft and business every day. Did anything above help you? Do you have anything to add that might help others? Feel free to post below.


Debbie Ridpath Ohi has illustrated books by Michael Ian Black and Judy Blume for Simon & Schuster, and her first solo picture book, WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, comes out from S&S in May 2015. She blogs about reading, writing and illustrating children's books at On Twitter: @inkyelbows.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Puppeteer to Award Winning Illustrator- Interview with Cindy Derby

by Dorothia Rohner

I fell in love with her whimsical yet sophisticated art work and was intrigued to learn that she was also a puppeteer. She agreed to answer a few questions about her unique path and her artistic journey.

Q.  Can you explain how you transitioned from puppetry to creating illustrations for children's books?

A. My transition began while studying for my masters degree in Scotland and getting involved in the puppetry scene. There was an incredible culture of rich and dynamic theater with jaw dropping design. It was truly magical being a part of it.

Edwards House of Stringat the REDCAT, Los Angeles
I was a theater actor for many years, then an actor turned puppeteer, a production designer for film and to an art teacher, and even a stand up comedian.

The experience I gained from writing, designing and performing in my own shows opened my mind to what is possible. I secretly always wanted to do a book tour alongside a puppet show!

One-woman show Mr. Kyotos Aquarium Shopat the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles

My heart has always been pulled towards creating visually captivating stories. I find that picture books are another stagefor the quirky characters in my head to come to life. 

Q. Where do you find your inspiration for your illustrations?

I am constantly on the look out for inspiration. Recently, I have been researching compositions I like in old photographs and traditional paintings. While I am out and about, I take photographs of interesting shapes I like or sketch it out in my journal.  

I like collecting odds and ends and set them up near my workspace as a reminder of what I loved as kid (and still do today). 

I have been a painter for a long time- and love to revisit my room from childhood and relax into that world (I am happy it was just as messy as I left it!).  Its important for me to stay open and curious- the way I always was when approaching a canvas. 
Childhood Room

Q. Can you describe your process, tools and media that you prefer?

I use mixed media. My favorites right now are watercolor, charcoal pencils, ink, crayon and Photoshop. I am always picking up new tricks along the way- so it is always evolving for me- which keeps it fresh and fun.

First, I paint on various paper surfaces:
Splitter, splatter, drip drop plop, scratch, rip rub and cut it all up into shapes!

Paint and cut out paper shapes.

Then, I do a high resolution scan of the cut outs on my Epson Perfection scanner and collage them all together into Photoshop. I use a Wacom tablet while I do this.

When I am happy with the way it is looking, I work on the background. This is usually painted on a large piece of paper with very big brush strokes. Then merge it all together- with lots of edits and re-scanning.


Q. Congratulations on winning the 2014 SCBWI LA Portfolio Showcase. How has that experience helped you with your career in children's book publishing?

Thank you, Dorothia!  I feel incredibly honored and am super thankful for the support that the SCBWI has given me. 
Sarah Baker, Director of Illustration programs at SCBWI, organized a trip for me to New York and set up meetings with art directors at different publishing houses. It was a busy week- as it was following the SCBWI Winter Conference.  

During my meetings with the art directors, I shared my illustration portfolio, my current project ideas and a book dummy. I received wonderful feedback that is propelling me to the next steps in my storytelling. It was fascinating to find out which pieces in my portfolio the art directors were most drawn to and why.
In the next months, I plan to add new portfolio pieces that are more character driven.  I was told by Patti Ann Harris, art director at Scholastic:
 Don't be afraid to let your characters be the star of the show!

Currently, I am back in my studio in the Bay Area with my big fluffy dog working away in front of an audience of puppets.  

~Dorothia Rohner enjoys illustrating and writing stories for children that combine nature and the magic of imagination.
Twitter: @dorothiar
Instagram: @dorothiar

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Experiments: Building up with light and color

Many artists start creating their pieces building up from light to dark. It can be a great way to gain depth and go step by step into the details, but in this post I want to talk about the opposite practice: building up with light and color. 
In some ways this method can be similar to a few printmaking techniques, where the artist creates the white areas from within a black canvas.

Playing with acrylics and positive/negative
One of my favorite children’s book artists is the Italian Simona Mulazzani, illustrator of picture books such as “I wish I had...” and “The Big Book of Slumber”.

She starts with a black background; slowly blocking shapes from black to light. Thanks to this black contrast her compositions are also full of vivid rich colors which enhance the beautiful fantasy in her images.
Page from Mulazzani's article "The Creation of an Illustrated Book" in "Le Immagini della Fantasia" Catalogue 2008, Sarmede, Italy

There are many other fun ways of creating pieces with lighter tones, such as using darker tones on top of an already dry surface with bright and colorful tones and drawing its surface with a dry (and often pointy) object while it's still wet. 
If you're using a surface harder than paper (such as wood) you can always use a knife for that.

Details from some paintings for the show "Animaginary Landscapes" at Tr!ckster Gallery, Berkeley, 2015

Playing with scratchboards and positive/negative
One of my favorite techniques for playing with the brighter tones is to create your own scratchboard. This process emulates printmaking without having to use a press.
Some amazing illustrators that use scratchboards are Remi Saillard (who taught me the beauty and fun of scratchboards), Beth KrommesThomas Ott,  and even Shaun Tan in “Tales from Outer Suburbia”

Illustration from "O Corbeau" by Marcus Malte, illustrated by Remi Saillard, Syros 2010 

Illustration by Remi Saillard

Illustration from "Cinema Panopticum" by Thomas Ott, Edition Moderne, 2005

"The House in the Night" by Susan Marie Swanson illustrated by Beth Krommes (2009 Randolph Caldecott Medal), Houghton Mifflin, 2008

Illustration from "Tales from Outer Suburbia" by Shaun Tan, Arthur A.Levine Books, 2009

Scratchboards can be bought, although I would recommend making them by hand. That way you can play and experiment with different colors and ideas.

Not too long ago I experimented with the following process:
1. I projected the final sketches in illustration boards
2. Then I painted with very liquid acrylic paints, creating liquid textures using colors of choice
3. I filled all the surface with oil pastels or crayons of the according color
4. After that I covered the greasy surface with Indian ink or airbrush ink
5. and once it was wet, I scratched it off with a good knife (Olfa is the best, it feels like butter).

Illustrations and process for the pieces in "Case" written by Chiara Di Palma, Il Gioco Di Leggere Edizioni, 2012

You can also check out Beth Krommes' process for scratchboard here

Lately I’ve been experimenting with watercolors and inks in the scratchboards. It’s lots of fun! My process is very similar to what I previously described, but it feels more spontaneous:
1. First use a cold press board/cold press stretched paper, draw the general lines of the piece
2. Then go crazy creating washes with watercolor and inks (Dr. Ph. Martin’s, Winsor and Newton, Ecoline)
3. Cover all the part you want to scratch with a white crayon (I like using the Caran d'Ache crayon, but any greasy crayon will do)
4. Paint the dark shapes with Indian ink or airbrush ink, playing with positive and negative.
5. Scratch the parts where you want to have some details, patterns, etc.
When you’re not planning exactly which color will be, some unexpected and fun surprises come in the way!

Illustration for Mandalah Mexico

To me is more natural to create dark shapes and build up with light, since I love to have bright and vivid colors in my illustrations. What do you enjoy the most? Dark on light or light on dark? How do you have fun with light and color?

I hope this little post gives you some ideas on how to create, play and overall, to have fun!

Thanks for stopping by!

Ana Aranda writes/illustrates for children and creates murals.
You can find her work at 
these different locations:
Twitter: @anaranda2
Instagram: @Anarandaillustration

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Style Exploration Post LA Conference

Over the last few months since receiving the mentorship award at the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA, I have been going down a check list of suggestions given during the critiques we received from the six Mentors. The one page Laurent Linn had tapped on was an image from a dummy book I had been working on. He said, "do more like this", so this has been the standard I have been working from. 

Several of the mentors had also mentioned the lack of strong contrast so I grabbed 6 to 8B pencils and literally wallowed in dark scribbly graphite until I got over my hesitation of laying down a dark mark. Two problem areas were also mentioned by Cecelia Yung; a couple of characters had mass market eyes vs trade, and too much variance in my style. In response I have been exploring faces, posting the process to Instagram primarily, as well as Twitter. 

I liked the contrast in these but the faces were not particularly interesting so I kept exploring eyes and noses as I went along.
I had sketched these faces out over a two year period and had filled several binders so all I had to do was erase out the face and work a new one in, then add the Dr. Martin inks, color pencil, and finally graphite to get the contrast up higher. 
With these last few I was getting a feeling for eyes and facial structure that are appealing to me. 

While I was working on these faces, I was also pushing around creature ideas for Henry Herz's first annual KidLit Creature Week. My goal was to have fun while pushing contrast and scribbling with loose and heavier marks, and in the process I have discovered anything with rectilinear lines is a struggle to keep loose. As soon as I begin to work on interior spaces my brain says "must draw perfect lines" and I fall back to my graphic design days and everything non-organic becomes tidy 90 degree angles with straight lines. Drawing a loose wavy line for a street under the checkered crow below was a conscious effort. Look at those black scribbles! That felt positively alien to my own paradigm. The Checkered Crow and the little girl who encounters her is another dummy book I am currently working on.

With each of these Mentor suggestions in mind I worked at making backgrounds for my KidLit creature, forcing myself to soften straight lines and be a bit more casual with perspective. The first one, which was what I submitted to Henry Herz, was more successful in that aspect. The others are still quite rectilinear, however I am keenly aware of my penchant. I was trained to draw parallel lines across a page keeping them consistently straight row after row down the page because that was the focus of my graphic design career, and when I developed my muscle memory. 

For an excellent conversation between some of the illustration greats take a look at these comments on Illustration Art. This is a long read but well worth the time. Also take a look at Removing the Appearance of Labor. When the great illustrators of our time admit to struggling with attaining that "effortless" style, the temptation for me is to walk away in defeat. Throw in the towel. . .listen to those nagging inner critics whispering "Who are you kidding? You can't do this" and give up. Yet I know that recognizing the problem is a very important first step. The following is a clip that caught my attention. . . 

"As long as we share a bias in favor of that easy, "effortless" style, let me turn the question around on you: if we agree that it is agonizingly difficult to simplify an image and shed muscle memory to achieve that look, how do you distinguish excellence from the random, unskilled doodles of children, the ungainly drawings of untalented hacks, or even stray graffiti? I would be grateful to hear from you or anyone who has made more progress on this than I have." -David Apatoff  (Described by "The New York Times" as an “illustration scholar”)

I am still running around inside my own style box, constraining myself to using the same materials and striving for a minimal variation in style. Eventually I will throw a dart and build a new portfolio with two styles and I know that any one of the styles above will "feel like me" and most importantly I enjoyed making them all!

I keep my target style(s) pinned on the board in front of my drawing board and glance up from time to time to keep my brain focused. And while I love going through the stacks of children's books in my own library or the ones I drag home from the library in large canvas bags, I have to limit my viewing to the evening, after I have done my own work for the day. And I only check out books that have illustration styles similar to my own or I might subconsciously follow the yummy bread crumbs, wandering off the path of my own style. The stacks of binders are broken into different categories such as children, or backgrounds The Red binders were started in 2015 and I have several projects that I am enjoying working on at present.

by Kathryn Ault Noble 
Follow me on Instagram and Twitter as I post my daily process 

Friday, February 27, 2015

New Year, New Things -- Eliza Wheeler

It's hard to imagine two months have already passed in this new year of 2015! And a happy Chinese New Year to those who just celebrated it. With a new year comes new things. Here's an update on what a few of these things are for me:

Picture Book Builders Blog 
I'm excited to join a handful of children's book writers and illustrators on new blog that's solely dedicated to discussions around picture-books. For each post, the blogger chooses a picture-book or a quality of picture-books to discuss. We cover a range of picture books, from new to old, well-known to little-known. So far I've written about: 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' (Andersen/Rylant/Corace), 'The Little House' (Burton), 'The Spider and The Fly' (Howitt/Diterlizzi), 'The Arrival' (Tan), and Dan Santat's newly Caldecott Medal-donned book 'The Adventures of Beekle: an Unimaginary Friend'.
Check it out at

On April 21, 2015 a new picture-book I illustrated comes out called WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), written by Pat Zietlow-Miller, author of SOPHIE'S SQUASH (which received SCBWI's Golden Kite award last year!). We were thrilled to get a star and absolutely sweet review from Kirkus:

"A rabbit's cross-country bike excursion introduces the open road . . . through an animal kingdom of forests, treehouses, country cottages, bustling seaside villages, glimmering cities and mountain overlooks. The sunshine-hued, delicate artwork embraces both the panoramic vastness of the countryside and the definitive details nestled in its valleys, meadows, towns and treetops. Each double-page spread invites readers to stop and look closely at the lichen hugging the tree, the bending roses, the bouncing musicians, the twinkling carnival, the romantic dinner parties, the ships' many sails, the cactus' sharp needles, the wisps of clouds on a mountain ridge . . . Children, thanks to captivating artwork and rhyme, will want nothing more than to ride his handlebars, bouncing and merry."

Here's an interior spread from the book: 

Another book coming out in May 2015 sporting my illustrations is an early middle-grade called CODY AND THE FOUNTAIN OF HAPPINESS (Candlewick), written by Tricia Springstubb, which is the first in a series.  
For whimsical Cody, many things are beautiful, especially ants who say hello by rubbing feelers. But nothing is as beautiful as the first day of summer vacation, and Cody doesn’t want to waste one minute of it. Meanwhile, teenage brother Wyatt is moping over a girl, Mom is stressed about her new job as Head of Shoes, Dad is off hauling chairs in his long-distance truck, and even camp has been closed for the summer. What to do? Just when all seems lost, Cody bumps into a neighborhood boy named Spencer who is looking for a runaway cat. With a new friend and a soon-to-be-found cat, Cody is on her way to the fountain of happiness.

Tricia Springstubb's writing is playful, musical, and endearing. Through the process of illustrating this book I found myself grown attached to lovable Cody and her friends and family. There are over 30 black and white interior illustrations in the book. Here's one of them:

After over a year in the making, I'm eager for these new projects to go out into the world and be shared with everyone!

~ Eliza Wheeler

Author/Illustrator of NYT Bestseller Miss Maple's Seeds
Illustrator of Wherever You Go by Pat Zietlow-Miller (coming May 2015)
Illustrator of The Grudge Keeper by Mara Rockliff
Illustrator of Newbery Honor book Doll Bones, by Holly Blackvisit, Wheelerstudio on Twitter and Instagram, Eliza Wheeler on Facebook