Monday, February 1, 2016

Social Media as a Testing Ground

In an interview I did for the SubIt Club I wrote recently,  I mentioned using social media as a gauge for what my mostly illustrator friends responded to, and thought it would be good to follow up on that thought here.

Being a daughter of a science teacher I often find myself researching and testing out ideas without realizing I am doing it, like testing to see if an image posted on Tuesday at 9 gets more response than one posted on Wednesday at the same time. But to obtain results that are a bit more accurate I realize I would have to post very similar images or the variations in personal tastes would become too much of a factor. And considering the silly and odd critters I posted so much of last year, each one being very different and not even real animals, there would be no way to tell if it had anything to do with the time of day, the preferences against anthropomorphized animals or lack of interest in the particular styles and color. 

Pencil Sketch on Bristol Paper
So this month I started posting mostly human faces. People respond well to sketches of people/children generally thought to be attractive. So I watched a bunch of popular animations from Frozen to Tangled (and yes, all of the Tinkerbelle movies on Netflix), from the Box Trolls to How to Train Your Dragon. My thought was not to copy the current animation styles but to get a flavor of the styles children growing up over the last decade believe to be attractive. My own characters are a bit wonkier but for this exploration I wanted to get closer to a style I consider more appealing to a general audience.

With that information in mind I did quick sketches of small faces and posted them on Instagram every day and then I watched to see what people responded to. It’s a great place for posting WIPS (works in progress) without people turning up their noses at the casual, unpolished images. 

Screen Shot of Pencil Sketches
In a short amount of time I started being followed by artists from Iran and Middle Eastern countries as well as India and Indonesia. I was pretty excited to be creating faces that appealed to a world audience! 

Then I began to add bits of color in a different manner than my previous portfolios. I wasn’t satisfied with the color application in my 2014 portfolio although it did win a Mentorship Award, so in response my 2015 LA portfolio was black and white with only spot or limited color. 

Lauren Rille, Art Director at Simon Schuster, conducted my paid critique this year which went very well. I showed her pages from my 2014 portfolio and mentioned the various suggestions given to me by the Mentors that year. She liked my changes based on their comments but also said to stop listening to everyone now, that I was “there” and should just go home and have fun. What a great thing to hear!

Of course the result was a new voice in my head while I work. Snort. Lauren tapped lightly on one portfolio image with loosely scribbled vegetation and said, “do more like this,” (which I translated to working looser) and as a final comment said, “put the color back in” so this is me putting color back in but in a different manner.

Screen Shot of Digital Color over Pencil Sketches
I keep an eye on shifts in preferences from both the design community and consumer market, and I know flatter color is more predominant particularly in kidlit art. So as I put color back in I am working more in the manner of “flatting” although it always leaves me feeling flat, sorry. 
She told me she was an Egyptian Princess after I started

Process similar to Flatting
To combat the flatness I have worked at creating texture and even a hint of light source in the actual pencil sketches. This helps to keep me from going all painterly in Photoshop. 

Here is one that I did not sketch the clothing pattern in first and as a result created low contrast again. There may be contrast of color and value, but not line weight and texture.

Digital Color
Some days I am more successful than others at catching myself before I disappear into a comfortable zone of lovely golden highlights and cool shadows. I caught myself this week as I painted this face and clothing. I know many people will prefer the more realistic painting on the face, but I am looking for a more contemporary approach to color.

Painterly Approach versus a more Graphic Approach
So I still hear Laurent Linn saying push the contrast, and Cecilia Yung saying remove the outlines and be consistent, and E. B. Lewis saying use more traditional materials, and Paul O. Zelinksy saying make sure you have an obvious focal point. Hard to find the focal point in a plate of mush! Along with those comments are the voices of other art directors from years of paid critiques at the Seattle conferences. Some of them are still connected with me through social media and comment from time to time. Lucy Ruth Cummins encourages me to keep it “loose” and Sophie Blackall stopped by a week or so ago to say my new color explorations were looking “great”. Those comments help me climb my daily mountains!
Quick Sketch on 8 1/2 x 11 Bristol Stock with Mechanical Pencil
I would like to also mention my continued interest in forcing myself to use super loose strokes. Over the years when I was younger I found people in general responded to my “realistic” pencil drawings with lovely compliments. However in spite of the knowledge which tends to point to the population at large preferring “hours of detailed shading” instead of scribbles, I have made the leap and find I can work so much faster. The crop below shows contrast of color, value, line weight, and texture and not only am I pleased with it, this one received many more likes on Instagram than even my "finished" portfolio pieces.

Contrast of Color, Value, Line Weight and Texture
I used to micromanage each pixel, zooming in at 300 percent to make sure everything was “perfect”. But I knew what I was doing was counterproductive. I have so much admiration for illustrators like Julie Rowan-Zoch and Rahele Jomepour Bell who have mastered the loose stroke and also hold concept in high regards.

This crop shows the sketching of the clothing pattern on the pencil sketch before I started painting it digitally. It makes a huge difference. 

Patterns Sketched in Pencil with Digital Color
At the first SCBWI conference I attended I remembered the question being asked “Concept or Craft?” and although I knew the answer was concept, my focus was on craft, or styles appropriate to kidlit. In my advertising design classes two decades ago I quoted Tracy Wong of Wong Doody in Seattle as saying Concept is King. I told the students to buy the t-shirt and make it their mantra. Yet with my own illustrations over the last six years since trying my hand at kidlit illustration I have struggled with too much focus on craft and style versus concept. It has been my misguided belief that when I have nailed down the craft and style, then and then only can concept become the focus. 

But at this point I believe I have the craft rolling along in the right direction and it's time for my attention to shift to concept. 

Clothing pattern sketched with pencil on the original sketch.
Clothing pattern sketched with pencil and digitally painted. 
I started painting this one today to show the application of digital paint done in a loose manner over a loosely sketched pencil drawing. 

I am finally having FUN!
So February is for me is all about concept and character, not craft. I will be participating in #kidlitart28 which means an image a day posted on Twitter. If you don’t see me posting characters who are DOING SOMETHING you have my permission to wag a finger at me!

If you are a member of SCBWI you can stop by the Illinois chapter and read my Illustrator Tips column on studying composition and pacing in film and theater in the current Issue of the Prairie Wind Newsletter. I am pleased to be serving as one of the new Co-Network Representatives for the SCBWI Near Normal Writers and Illustrators group in Bloomington/Normal, Illinois. 
Sneak Peek.
In three months I can repost it to my Blog for those not signed up for SCBWI membership
(which you should of course!)

Monday, January 25, 2016

Richard Scarry’s Division of Labor: Animal totemism and our responsibilities as writers for children

Recently I came across a few retweets and blog posts about a flickr set showing how in 1991, Richard Scarry updated his 1963 bestseller The Best Word Book Ever in the Busytown series to “show a more progressive attitude toward gender roles and race.”

I was excited to retweet/extoll the progressive-mindedness of one of my favorite picture book creators, when I came across a journal article that sociologist John Levi Martin wrote in Poetics from 2000 about Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? (1968). Martin argues that despite bucking gender stereotypes, Scarry reinforced stereotypes about class and what types of animals—the stand-ins, or “totems” of people—tend to perform specific types of jobs. As a result, I became interested in what sorts of unintended or implicit biases we as writers and illustrators for children may bring to the bigger table when we’re toiling away at our drafting tables, and what implications this has for kidlit people now.

A unit of the Busytown FD
Martin notes that pigs were disproportionately employed in certain low-education/low-income jobs, those “involving stone, sanitation, and then the somewhat irresponsible (as it turns out in the text) fire-fighters and house-painters.” Cats and rabbits possess by far the more “feminized” jobs (seamstress, nurse, flight attendant).
In addition to being on the lower-end of the class system, the pigs are often involved in clownish problems, the hallmark “outrageous accident” Scarry illustrates. The data backs it up. Out of 272 characters, “fully 16% of the pigs are involved in a mishap and 75% of the time are the cause of that mishap.” Less than 2% of the other animals cause mishaps. In one poignant example, Daddy Pig “stuffs himself with food, getting so heavy he breaks his children's beds - they move into Mommy Pig's bed, while he lies snoring obliviously.”
Martin’s data analysis reveals some interesting patterns when it comes to what animals are in charge of in Busytown and have high-education/high-income positions: “foxes in particular, and predators in general, are most likely to be in positions of command.” The mayor is a fox, the doctor is a lion, etc.
Martin cites anthropologist James Fernandez: “Children come to quickly perceive a difference between a cow and a cat, chicken, dog, donkey, etc. …  In their earliest search for identity, these children turn towards the imitation … of some animals rather than others, choosing animals that occupy the more desirable portions in the quality space of their culture." What does it mean when someone is referred to as a pig or lion? Children are highly aware of the differences and meanings of these animal totems and categories, and, according to Fernandez, they tend to learn them at the same time as they enter verbal thought. “In supplying this content, through literature and informal interpretations of animal behavior, adults shape the possible applications of the categorical structure of animals to the social world.” Many children could receive this way of categorizing through picture books like What Do People Do All Day? before they have a chance to experience or understand class on a first-hand basis.
Martin also notes that the title of the book is not What Do Animals Do All Day?, which reinforces that while seeing mice, dogs, cats, etc. on the page, you’re learning about people. By extension, how is the act of labeling and associating different animals/people to certain jobs reflected in the workplace and larger world?
Richard Scarry’s picture books—and picture books in general—are cultural artifacts that reflect a time and attitude, just like today’s stories will be remembered as cultural artifacts that will reflect, for instance, the Internet and technology, global changes, social movements like the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Richard Scarry was sensitive to the impact of his work on children, and his “updating” his books thirty years later (after receiving much public protest) certainly reflects his sensitivity and awareness of his reach to children globally (according to Amazon, he illustrated over 150 books that sold over 100 million copies and are translated into over 20 languages).
I don’t think that it’s wrong that Richard Scarry’s Busytown oeuvre expresses that society has class divisions. The problem occurs with implications when the author’s biases and values seep in. For example, what are the implications when the lower classes are depicted as the ones who are the source of most of the problems in a town? Or what is implied, for example, when slaves are shown smiling throughout a picture book?
Where does this leave kidlit writers and illustrators?
I emailed with John Levi-Martin, the author of the journal article about What Do People Do All Day?, about how he sees his thesis fifteen years after-the-fact, and in light of recent controversy. He wrote: “It is unfortunate that writing about the social implications of relatively innocent choices such as species-job matches probably only increases the tendency of current writers to censor their impulses and to write formulaic work that hugs the middle road… While there is room for deliberate care and thought… it can't come from rule following and creation-via-committee!”
I agree that a book that’s written by rule-following and perpetual hand wringing could create some of the least-creative, least joyful work out there for children. As someone who works with animals-as-people (though not as encyclopedic as Richard Scarry), I realize this is perhaps something to be conscious of when selecting animals to fill certain character types, as this could impact a child’s structural understanding of how people fit into the world. Animal characters should be assigned with care and thought, if not a creative, joyful touch. Is it the kidlit creator’s job to write books that reflect society or suggest its reform? I think there is room for both. But it’s important to acknowledge that books we put out have an impact. They can either open up new ways of thinking or confirm potentially problematic biases.


K-Fai Steele draws and writes in San Francisco, and has a background in libraries and museums. She's interested in anthropomorphized animals and creative technology. 

See K-Fai's drawings, stories, and more at

Monday, January 18, 2016

Try a Challenge!

This last October, I participated in an online challenge for the first time. This post tells my unexpected journey, which I hope will inspire you to try your own challenge!

The challenge I participated in is called Inktober. It was started in 2009 as a challenge "to improve inking skills and develop positive drawing habits" by Jake Parker, a comics short-story creator, concept artist, illustrator, and animator. Two of his recent children's book are "The Little Snowplow" by Lora Koeler, (Candlewick, October 13, 2015) and "The Tooth Fairy Wars" by Kate Coombs, (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, July 15, 2014).

When I heard about Inktober on Facebook, I was immediately inspired by the idea of producing an inking a day. I assumed that the success of accomplishing this feat was what it was all about. I jumped in. On the first day I took out my sketchbook and found a few sketches to ink. It was really fun and quick.

The first unexpected part of the journey began when it was time to post my drawings. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can be great resources, but I find social media in general a bit overwhelming. It was nerve-wracking to release my art into the uncertainty of the online world. But then I saw the "likes" appearing, along with encouraging comments, and I have to admit, it was exhilarating!

As I continued, I wanted to tell more of a story with my drawings. I started adding on to the sketches I found in my sketchbook.

Soon I wanted to create new drawings. This is when the second unexpected part of the journey revealed itself. Creating new drawings every day took longer than what I had been doing, and I realized I needed to devote a designated time every day to Inktober. I chose the evening, after dinner. I drew pictures based on things that had happened that day and things I had seen, but mostly how I felt. The drawings became more personal and more meaningful to me. I started signing them. 

As the month went on, it became very challenging to keep it going. But by this time I had a following, and I didn't want to let them down. Plus I was starting to look forward to who would come out of my pencil and come to life in ink that day! What would my drawings teach me today? What would the ink tell me? This wasn't just fun anymore—it was also self-discovery. And it was the most unexpected part of the journey! I started bringing a sketchbook with me everywhere I went. I drew in doctors waiting rooms, at the airport, and even in line at the post office.


Halfway through Inktober, my winter session at The Silverlake Conservatory of Music began. At the first choir rehearsal I was greeted with "Hi Inktober! I love your drawings!" by several people. Getting "liked" online was amazing enough, but it was an entirely different thing to be "liked" in person! After the choir rehearsal the Director approached me and asked if I would illustrate for their upcoming events. I was hired!

Soon the last day of Inktober arrived.

I suppose participating in Inktober "improved my inking skills and developed positive drawing habits"…  but what I will never forget were the unexpected parts of the journey, and the support and recognition from friends and relations on FB, Instagram, twitter, and especially, in real life!

Some techniques I learned and/or relied on:
1. Designate a specific time to draw every day
2. Get a sketchbook that you can carry with you at all times
3. Be observant—especially of your own and other peoples emotions and interactions
4. The deadlines & group support of a challenge are great daily motivation
5. When you have a moment, instead of taking out your phone, take out your sketchbook!

I highly recommend doing a challenge. What you learn will probably not end up being what you think you will learn!

Molly Ruttan writes & illustrates for children. You can find her work at & FB: Molly Ruttan Illustration
Follow her on twitter: molly_ruttan; instagram: mollyillo; FB: Molly Ruttan

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Why do we do what we do?"

It's new year! Yay! We are celebrating new year of 2016 and some of you start thinking about to-do list for new year and planning a new goal.

Yes, I agree. It's the perfect time of the year to reflect our thoughts and make some plans for the future.

As illustrators, we usually like to draw and focus on creative ideas!
However, let's give ourselves a moment to stop and ask some critical questions.

"Why do we do what we do?"

"What stories or ideas would you like to share with the world?"

"What drives you to pursue making picture/children's book and illustrations?"

Sometimes, if you are not driven enough or still looking for encouraging that gives you positive energy, Try giving yourself 1 - 10

"How badly do you want to reach your goal?"

"Why is it so important for you to do this?"

"What drives you to pursue making picture/children's book illustration?"

I hope these questions might be good start to think about and to some of you, these questions give you further motivation to make something fun and meaningful work for you and for readers!

Nicholas Hong
Designer | Illustrator
Website Facebook Blog Instagram

Monday, January 4, 2016

The eyebrows are the window to the soul. Quick tips for giving your characters emotion and expression.

I have warm fuzzy memories of when my babies first started looking into my eyes. We are hard-wired to connect to one another, to understand one another, by reading facial expressions. If we want children to connect to the illustrations in our stories, it's imperative that we create characters that clearly convey specific emotions. So here's a list of some tips to help give your characters that emotion and expression.

Keep an eye on the eyes.
The first place your eyes usually go to when looking at an illustration is... well, the eyes. So we really have to get them right. Avoid creating a character with dead eyes, or where your character's eyes stare straight into space. (Unless your character is a zombie, of course. Then I'd say a dead eye is apropos.) It's also important to make sure that both your character's eyeballs are pointing in the right direction. Unintentionally crossed eyes can be confusing.

Eyes both pointing in the same direction,
because Carson Ellis is a rock star.
-The Mysterious Benedict Society

The eyebrows have it. 
The emotion your character, expressed from their eyes, is continued and emphasized through the eyebrows. The closed eyes of the girl below, with her wide reaching smile shows us her happiness, but the raised eyebrows show a touch of surprise or delight. But do watch out for floating eyebrows, which can be distracting. It helps to draw a superhero-like mask on your character to see if the eyebrows appear connected to the eyes.

                        by Meridth Gimbel (that's me :)

Mind the mouth.
The mouth can be another way to emphasize or clarify the emotions your character is communicating. Below we see Merida's eyes and eyebrows are showing shock, and her mouth is small and reserved, showing fear. Her mouth is complimenting the emotions that we see with the rest of her features.

Brave Concept Art- Daniel Muñoz

But lets look at another example. Below we see the eyebrows of the little girl. When looking at just the eyes and the eyebrows, we might think she looks concerned, maybe scared? But when we also look at her smile, we see that she is trying to look sincere, sweet, and innocent. The eyebrows and the smile need each other to make this visual story work.

Dave McKean -
The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish

Pick the right nose.
The nose can occasionally stretch in extreme emotions and can be helpful in emphasizing an expression. Look at how King Fergus' nostril is flaring up. We can tell, with his eyebrows, that he is afraid. The flat line of the eye shows seriousness and the flared nose shows grit and determination.

Brave Concept Art- Daniel Muñoz

Yes, even a bushy eyebrow can show emotion.

The face is fleshy.
Its good to remember that the face can be flexible. Our faces are full of muscles, bones, and fat. Look at how high Norman's forehead is pushed from his eyebrows in his shocked expression (#2). His open mouth also lowers the jawline. In his bottom concerned/disappointed face (#3) there is a frown that moves the jaw up from the resting face (#1).

1.ParaNorman Concept Art-
Pete Oswald
(Resting face.)
2. (Shocked face.)

3. (Concerned/disappointed face)

Asymmetry is interesting. 
No face is perfectly symmetrical. I find it more interesting when a smile spreads halfway up one face, or you see one eyebrow rise higher. Asymmetry can add to a character's individuality. Just remember to keep it consistent. Typically a character will always favor the same side of the face.

Annette Marnat - Kat Incorrigible

Keep it simple.
Pat Cummings once said that when we create picture book illustrations we need to create them for three different audiences; kids that are sitting in the laps of their parents, kids reading on their own, and kids that are being read to in a classroom. When I say keep the emotion simple, this is for that kid in the classroom. Kids need to be able to read an expression from at least a few feet away from the illustration. Below we have a disgruntled mom. We can see her eyebrows raised in frustration and disappointment, and her angry, pursed lips. In the full illustration below, even though the expression is small compared to the rest of the image, we can still see the facial gesture because of the simplicity.

Mark Teague - How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight

Take mental notes. Observe from life.
So when my kids have a meltdown, I try to remember what their face is doing (without staring too much, because that does not help during a meltdown). Also, I always have a mirror or camera handy to see what my face would do when feeling mad, sad, glad, etc.

             This is what I look like having a meltdown ;)

Practice, practice, practice.
I'm hopeful that I'll be perfect in my next life, but for now I am content in working my little tail off so that I can continue to learn how to fully emote what my characters need to express. Emotion is key to storytelling, so this is something that I will always focus on.

Suggested tools:      

-Your face! (How very convenient.)
-Pinterest - This is a great place to find reference for facial expressions and all sorts of other fun scrap. 

So many gems on pinterest. But beware, it's a rabbit hole.
 -The Grimace Project - If you are not sure how you would like to draw a specific emotion, have fun playing around with the 'Grimace Project.' You can adjust the scales to make the face show different expressions. 

It's pretty fun. And helpful. 


What are some of your top tips for creating great facial expressions? I know you all are savvy illustrators, so please post if you'd like to share.

Thanks friends for dropping by and happy illustrating!


Meridth Gimbel is a freelance writer and illustrator who loves anything art related, story infused, and chocolate covered. When not working on her illustrations or writing stories, she is busy building a time machine so she can hang out with her pirate buddies and find buried treasure.

Follow her work at:
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