Friday, May 18, 2018

"An Artist is an Explorer"

I have this simple post-it-note, scrawled in my husband's hand, pinned to my studio door. It's the first thing I see when I level my eyes and cross the threshold from me - to artist me.
For most of my life, I've identified solely as "artist me." Yes, I was a daughter and a sister, I was a friend. I was a Mexican Hawaii-girl, a swimmer, and a dog-person; but mainly I was an artist. I made this distinction at about five-years-old and held onto it for dear life. I held onto it all through high school and college and well into my non-stop career as a corporate career-girl. When I left New York City four years ago, I was working sixty-to-eighty hours a week as a deadline-oriented video game designer. In my head, I was still an artist, but in my heart, I wasn't so sure.

My husband works as a chef. He walks the line between talent and hard work with grace and style. In the middle of my identity crisis, I came home one night to find him boiling a cucumber. I'm no kitchen wizard, but even I know - one simply does not boil cucumbers. I pointed out this obvious truth. "Really, Amber? Do you know what happens to a cucumber when it boils?" I admitted that I did not, to which Matt responded, "Yeah, me neither - but I'm about to." 

When I arrived at the studio the next morning, I was armed with the aforementioned post-it and a gauntlet. My art has grown in quality and joy exponentially ever since. 

Here's what we discussed that evening and the things I have learned as a result. I hope they bring you clarity and excitement the way they have me. 

1. Put on your lab coat, kid. 
I literally put on a white trench at least a few hours a week. When I am wearing it, I suspend disbelief. I am not an artist, I am a scientist. The issue with coming to children's books from a traditional art background is that you arrive keenly aware that there are right ways and wrong ways to make art - but what if there weren't?

In a lab, there is only cleanliness, hypothesis, trial, error, focus and the raw thrill of discovery. Create an environment where these six elements can thrive. Now dive!

2. Learn by doing.

Scientists know that the best way to learn everything is through experiments. Classes, books, and even conferences are fantastic - but only as long as they serve the work. A professional doesn’t worry about knowing every technique under the Sun. If all process and cure had already been found, science would die. The excitement of uncovering unknown is born through action. Theories are where you start. The rule in my lab is that if I have an idea on a Monday, I had better be testing on Tuesday. 

3. Delve into new/old materials.

In 2016 my brother & sister-in-law gifted me a hundred dollar box of Prismacolors. It was all I could do to suppress a cringe. A decade ago, fresh out of college, I spent a year and a half, or 32 episodes, designing the Pre-K T.V. extravaganza - PINKY DINKY DOO. My numero uno design tool? Prismas.  Just holding that deluxe box gave me flashbacks. I had hated those colored pencils with my whole heart. I decided to exchange the Prismas for what I knew belonged in my studio, Winsor Newton watercolor paints. As luck would have it, while distractedly sorting through a pile of mail, I accidentally unwrapped the factory plastic on the box. It took me six months to finally use them. The rest is history. I now use colored pencils - of all kinds, every single day. They're an essential part of my toolkit, and I NEVER would have picked them up on my own.

After the Prisma Incident, I made a commitment to buy one tiny untested-by-me-recently thing every time I went to an art store. This habit costs less than ten dollars a month. Some purchases are total duds, but others are kidlit magic. Before I became a scientist, I created with Windsor Newton watercolors, Arches 300lb cold press, and Adobe Photoshop. I now use water-soluble graphite, Copic markers, General's Chalk pencils, Gamsol, Uni-ball Signo gel pens, Brusho element pigment, vinegar, acrylic paint and calligraphy Ink of all brands on the regular. As a scientist, I know that the viscosity and staining power of each brand of calligraphy ink varies drastically. I use different brands of colored pencils at various stages of my work. I use Photoshop in a quick and precise way - and I do not lean on it. I've learned that for me, traditional methods are more fun - something I'd never have known if it weren't for my lab.

4. Be clear about your intentions.

Scientists often pivot at some point in their research, the thing they hoped would cure x instead prevents y. They hold both nature and control in their hand. So do you. Through your experiments, you will most likely stumble on fantastic byproducts of your research. Without a focal point, you'll wander too far from x or y. 

This year I'm using my lab to: 

1. Speed up my process.
2. Incorporate more of my sketches into my final art in a way that feels finished but open. 

If you wander aimlessly through your proverbial petri dish, you're gonna lose dat funding.

5. Take control of one constant. 

The marks below are all made with the same tool - a Vermillion General's Pastel Pencil, on six kinds of paper. 

Assumption is the death of science. If something is not working in the environment you've created, change things up before you throw in the towel. Follow your intuition. Hunt surprise.  

6. Punch in and Punch Out.

Discovery takes time. Ideas need space to grow into maturity. So do you. At the height of my creative frustration, I had transferred the sixty plus hours I worked in the corporate art world directly into my studio. I expected the same furious pace to result in a similar amount of measurable forward motion. When I was disappointed with my results, I worked harder and longer. Overworking yourself in a tornado of misguided "productivity" blinds you to the delicate unfolding of the unexpected. It blocks your intuition. Shockingly enough, I now know that I make more and better art, enjoying it tenfold, when I clock 25 hours in the studio and six in the lab a week. I keep professional lab hours, living my life as a wife, daughter, friend, sister, swimmer, reader, hiker, dog-person with glee. Taking time away counts toward my productivity and power as a maker, not against it. Afterall, I get my best theories out in the field. I have every confidence you will too.

Instagram @shesureissketchy
Twitter @shesureis

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Power of Routine: Part 2

Happy spring! In November, I posted the first part of this article which discussed the power of having long-term goals, breaking them down, and setting a routine for yourself so that you can be the most productive version of you in the studio. You can find it here if you want to refresh your memory.

Since November, I have asked other artists how they tackle these same challenges.
Here are some thoughts from kid lit illustrators, Suzanne Kaufman and Pamela Goodman.

Suzanne Kaufman

Suzanne recently completed the beautiful illustrations for 100 Bugs! A Counting Book. It is the first nonfiction book
she has illustrated! Awesome! You can find more of her bright, expressive work on Instagram and Twitter.

Q: How do you break down your days? Do you have a specific set of tasks for
each day before you dive into work?
I try to work out before family gets up. I also sneak in a mom breakfast most weeks
before they get up for school.
Mondays, I still teach a full day as I love the inspiration my students give me.
Tuesday through Friday I break my day into hour and half chunks based on the
video by John Cleese.
I follow a lot of what John Cleese says about creativity and time management.
Check out this video:
Another great video about time management is by Jake Parker.
End of day on Fridays, I write a schedule for the next week.
I check email for only 15 minutes.  Later in the day. I do get pop up notifications, so I can
respond quickly to my editors/art directors but other than that I ignore email til
the end of the day when I feel unfocused.
Q: When do you feel most productive?
Right before my kids come home from school.  I wish I was kidding. Also, probably
before sunrise or early morning after my kids are off at school is another good time.
Q: How many hours, on average do you spend creating? Marketing?
This is recommendation is not to think hours but quality of work. I used to
think I wasn’t working enough hours or working hard enough
and my work suffered.  I never have a normal week, so I am more kind
to myself and I look at the quality of the work versus quantity. Just have the
faith that it will all get done and most times, it does.  This has helped me a ton.
Right now, in my career I am terrible at budgeting time for marketing.
I have decided to focus on my books and hope that doing great
work will get me more work versus sending out postcards or posting more on social media.
Q: What is your favorite kind of task to do?
I love to play.  This can’t be done under a tight deadline.  I would recommend giving
yourself daily sketch ideas that can be used to experiment with material, composition for future books.  This play time I have used later in production. Examples is the endpaper
for 100 bugs and the Christmas Tree in Naughty Claudine.  Both were
things I had never done before and used my playtime “Daily Sketch” to just go for it.
If you are not published I would use daily sketches to add the things that are missing.  
I did this to add animals, environments, kids etc to build my portfolio. Since these were just
sketches I was fearless and picked my favorites to build future stories
and my portfolio around.  I owe this idea all to Lucy Ruth Cummins an
Art Director at Simon and Schuster.
Q: Do you have a method for motivating yourself to do tasks you
really don't want to do?
Lunches with friends.  Also, it is perfectly ok to choose not to do something
and that is ok.
Q: Do you have a lull in your day where it's hard to focus? If so, what do you
do with that time?
Afternoon and before lunch I struggle as I love lunch and dinner.  I go to lunch,
call illustrator pals, take walks with illustrator friends
and just hang out with my daughters.  
This is a good time to reconnect with the real world.
Q: What is your favorite thing about freelancing?
I love not driving in the horrible Seattle traffic.  For almost twenty years I spent
sometimes a few hours a day instop and go traffic with a lot of angry people.
Also, I love I get to see my girls grow into amazing people.

Pamela Goodman

Pamela illustrated this beautiful book, Love You From Right Here about foster kids and parents. (It is so sweet I still cry when I read it.)
You can get a copy here. Look for more of Pamela’s adorable illustrations on Instagram and Twitter.

my schedule:
keeping it consistent is the hardest, but once I get into a rhythm (doing it for at least a week)
it gets easier. My schedule is usually (ideally) like this:
- wake up, have coffee/ eat
- walk the dog
- shower/ get ready for “work” (getting dressed in non-pajama clothes
has really helped me get into Work Mode!)
- arrive at “work” usually by 10am, put on some music with coffee/tea
- sit at my art desk (not my computer!) and do some sketching warmups
(either ideas I have in my head, doodles,
or using a prompt word) Sometimes these doodles will turn into a story or illustration later
- lunch
- check email (just once a day! not all day long! it’s too easy to get lost on the computer )
-  return to a long-term ongoing project
- OR if I have major errands, or its my grocery shopping day I do it in afternoon after lunch
-try to wrap up my day by 5pm/ start dinner

other notes on schedule:
To avoid the feeling of house chores or laundry staring at you during the workday I assign a
day for cleaning. Friday is my cleaning/ laundry day- I try not to let any
kind of chore or cleaning distract me until Friday.
(its HARD but it has really helped!! plus its done for the weekend and
I can relax on Saturday) Tuesday is grocery shopping day-
same thing try to finish what’s in the fridge all
week and NOT run out to shop every other day.

my approach to marketing:
so far the marketing that has worked for me (gotten me actual jobs) has been word of mouth
through other illustrator friends, people finding me on facebook and instagram
and I have also done postcards, but nothing
panned out from them so far

my best advice to freelancers starting out full-time:

Stick to a schedule, once you’ve found something you like. and set your working hours.
Don’t answer the phone or texts from friends/ family unless its work related
(you are at WORK duh! so they gotta wait)
- you have to make work to get work, so if you don’t have an immediate paid project,
make one up. Make it look like you’re busy and in demand, pretty soon you will be
- don’t wait around for someone to take you seriously as a professional, take yourself
seriously (that goes for how much you charge too. )
Someone once told me this saying: “Act like a Pro, bill like a Pro"

~Jeslyn Kate

Jeslyn Kate writes/illustrates for children and teaches art.
You can find her work at these different locations:
Instagram: Jeslyn Kate
Twitter: @jeslynkate

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

I'm An Illustrator But...

. . . another illustrator is illustrating my book. Although I never imagined this would happen to me, it turns out to be a common occurrence in children’s publishing. 

Since my last contribution on the Kidlit Artist blog, I’ve been painting, drawing and exploring fun and different styles of illustration. I’ve also devoted more time to writing and discovered that I enjoy creating lyrical and poetic stories.  It turns out that humor tends to come out in my writing — more so than in my art, which turned out to be a  challenge with my funny, new story.   This post is about how I came to embrace the idea of another artist illustrating my humorous story.

Here’s what happened.

At an SCBWI writers’ retreat in Iowa, I Am Goose!, caught the attention of editor and agent Laura Biagi, who offered representation. After many revisions, back and forth with Laura, tweaking the nuances of the story, finding the style of the art, she submitted it to several publishers.

Soon after, Laura called to let me know that we had two offers for my story. I was elated! But, that excitement quickly turned to disappointment as I learned neither publisher thought the illustration style worked with the story. 

Needless to say, it was a bitter pill to swallow. I have always perceived myself as an illustrator first and writer second. Not to mention, I had been working on for this book for quite a long time. In fact, I created a story bible for this manuscript. Here is a link to a previous post:

At this point I was still determined to illustrate the story. I thought if I knew exactly what the editor and art director wanted, that I could do it. They agreed to give me another shot at finding the right style. They described the style that they felt would enhance the manuscript. I got to work. I came up with a completely different look — more modern and stylized. When I sent it to my agent, I told her, “That’s all I’ve got. If this isn’t right, then I will step aside and let another artist envision my characters.”

A few days later while I was walking on the prairie, Laura called. It still wasn’t right. At that point, I felt a sense of relief. Possibly the fresh air or birds singing helped me to feel at peace with this decision. I had worked on this story for so long, and I needed to move on. Thank goodness I had many other manuscripts and dummy books waiting for me to finish. 

Laura suggested I continue writing humorous stories, with an understanding that other artists would be a better fit, while also writing lyrical stories that fit my own style of art. After this long walk and talk with Laura, I knew this was the right decision for me and my manuscript. 

I was thrilled when the editor, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion chose the talented Vanya Nastanlieva to illustrate “our” story. I came to see that the book no longer belonged to me, but to each person who had a role in its publication.  

I Am Goose! will be released in 2019. I can’t wait to see the illustrations and read it to the Head Start children who inspired this story. 

I hope this post will help illustrators who might be in this situation some day. 

Happy writing and illustrating,



Dorothia Rohner enjoys illustrating and writing stories for children
 that combine nature, humor and the magic of imagination.

Author: I Am Goose! (Clarion, 2019)
Twitter: @dorothiar
Instagram: @dorothiar

Debut Authors 2019:

Monday, April 9, 2018

What a budget can (and can’t) do, and why you should (really) have one

It’s that time of year when people panic to finish their taxes and stress out over money they inevitably owe. It’s also that time of year where I say to myself, “I should get better at managing my money. Maybe I’ll make a budget.” I might google “budgeting for artists” and then that tab stays open in my browser for 3 months on what I call “tab hospice” (until I accidentally restart my computer).

I’ve had a complex (i.e., bad) relationship with money. I’ve been lucky to get by, through occasionally maxing out credit cards, paying the $25 minimum on my student loans, living in my studio at one point, not having health insurance/going to planned parenthood for all of my medical needs, and getting part-time gigs through friends. I didn’t make my best work at this time; my financial insecurity resulted in constant low-level anxiety. Perhaps my insecurity is easier to manage because I don’t have anyone (parents, loved ones, or kids) relying on me for money. But regardless I’m lucky to continue to survive, draw, and write.

All through my financially leanest times I felt that making a budget would be the responsible thing to do. But the idea of doing a budget terrified me because 1) I didn’t know how and it felt like budgets were complex, and 2) I was scared of finding out how little I actually had, because then I’d know I was truly screwed. Instead, I approached money the way I approached standardized tests: closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

I met Jericha Senyak, who offers budgeting and planning workshops for artists and nonprofits through a workshop organized by Independent Arts & Media in San Francisco. Jericha introduced me to using a budget, and talked me through ways to approach budgeting. Know and expect this: budgeting can be a painful and humiliating process, especially when you have very little money. It can feel like a punishment. Jericha urged me to think of it more as a way of gaining control over what you do have. A budget is a tool for your survival.

You can use this template that Jericha helped me to make. All of the numbers are made-up, FYI. They are also a reflection of me as a single person, living in a city with no financial dependents. Jerchia recommended that I update the numbers every couple of months based on what I actually spend. I do it about once every 6 months TBH. A budget is actually very simple. You want to track all of the money you have coming in, and the money you have going out. I found another resource recently on the New York Times Smarter Living blog that mentions another free spreadsheet called Pear Budget. You make 2-3 potential budgets:
  • a “things are going really well for me financially” budget, where you could put some money away, go on a vacation, save money in case you get sick or injured, or need to get expensive dental work done; 
  • a “what I actually expect to happen” budget where you’d feel like you’re financially comfortable; and
  • a worst-case scenario budget where you figure out the absolute minimum that you’d need to make rent and eat. 
Another resource related to budgeting is to know how much you should be making in order to meet these budgets, and how much to charge clients for your work and your time. For example, if you decide you need to make $35,000 yearly to not live in panic, that breaks down to:
  • 35,000 ÷ 1,500 = $23/hour 
  • 23 x 8 = $184/day 
  • 184 x 5 = $920/week 
It’s also good to remember that a budget is useful, but it won’t solve deeper, more pervasive structural problems. I wrote an article a few months ago where I asked over 100 picture book creators how they make money. Many of them said that they had some kind of existing financial stability or support. In the article, I proposed that simply being able to hang in there financially while you try to make it as an illustrator or a writer is a privilege, and that perhaps this privilege is contributing to the low rate of success in publishing and participation amongst people who aren’t part of the dominant paradigm in the US. If you grow up wealthy, you’ll probably be more likely to have access to financial planning, knowledge, and tools about growing wealth.

Growing and keeping wealth is also deeply tied to race in the United States. According to a recent Stanford longitudinal study: “when we compare the outcomes of black and white men who grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth, and education, we continue to find that the black men still have substantially lower incomes in adulthood.” That’s not a problem of being black and not working hard enough; that’s a systematic problem: “white boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.”

Thanks to the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, People of Color in Publishing, and so many more, the needle is slowly moving within our industry. I spent this Saturday at The Color of Children’s Literature Conference, hosted by Kweli Journal in New York, a children’s book conference that convened over 150 people of color and indigenous people who are writers and illustrators. It was a powerful, affirming, wholly supportive experience, without competition, where creators shared resources, tools, and approaches to craft and the business of publishing. It was an antidote to the frustrating experiences and conversations I’ve had with primarily white cisgender female authors and illustrators claim that they don’t get book deals or awards because their books don’t have diversity, or they’re not themselves diverse. To clarify: it might seem like all of the black and brown people are getting all of the awards and the book deals right now, but look at the statistics of the people who are publishing books in the US. Don’t believe the data? Here’s a good litmus test: name 5 Native American or First Nations picture book illustrators. Name 5 Latinx illustrators. Now name 5 white illustrators. One category is much easier than the others, right? They’re also the people who end up winning the awards.

Sometimes at conferences the speakers get asked what they wish they could go back and tell the younger versions of themselves. I would go back and teach myself how to build a budget. I would also tell myself to value my work, my time, and myself more. The systems we work in are challenging and have imbalanced power structures; publishing is no exception. At the end of the day, regardless of your race, gender, or other sum of parts and experiences that make you “you”, you’re probably reading this blog because we’re all united by the same impulse: to make art and books, and to live in a world with great art and books. This budget does not and will not solve systemic problems, but perhaps it offers a tool for people to use to get one obstacle out of the way.


K-Fai Steele is a writer and drawer who lives in San Francisco. You can find her work on Instagram. Her debut picture book, A Normal Pig, comes out in Summer 2019 with Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Childrens.

She is also illustrating Jacob Kramer's Noodlephant (Enchanted Lion, January 2019) and Emily Snape's Old MacDonald Had a Baby with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan (Fall 2019).

Monday, March 26, 2018

Overcoming fear and becoming the our best artistic selves.

I had a conversation recently with an arty friend. She was telling me about her fear of pursuing her passion of illustrating children's books. She believed that she just wasn't "good enough." The conversation broke my heart, but I could identify with how she felt. I certainly have had my own doubts and struggles. So how can we conquer these fears and become the artists that we want to be?

"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do." 
-Henry Ford

1. First you have to start.

This seems so obvious. But how many of your projects, and how many of your goals are still just a dream? (I'll be honest I have quite a few sitting in a box in my studio. And I need to change that.)

But when we do start, I do think it's important to have specific goals. We need to ask ourselves; "Who am I as an artist? What exactly do I want to illustrate? And what I am I passionate about?"

The more specific you are, the less time you will waste in pursuing something that will distract you from your goals. I can paint in many styles, and someone once asked why I didn't advertise that I can paint realistic portraits. Well, because I don't want to paint realistic portraits. I want to illustrate children's books and magazines in the styles that I like. I want to write my own kidlit stories. So everything I do artistically, and recreationally for that matter, is serving that very specific goal.

2. Create A LOT of art.

We've all heard the adage that it takes 10,000 drawings for you to become a master at drawing. We need to draw a lot of art garbage before we get really good at drawing. I have a mountain of terrible sketches that I have happily recycled. Terrible art is not indicative that I am a terrible artist. It's part and parcel of my art process and how I visually problem solve. The more we create art, the better artists we become. 

Quote by Ira Glass, Poster art by Nikki Hampson

3. Acknowledge your fear.

"Are you paralyzed with fear? That's a good sign. Fear is Good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember [the] rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that the enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul."

-Steven Pressfield's The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

"The empty space is the great horror and stimulant of creation. But there is also something predictable in the way the fear and apathy encountered at the beginning are accountable for feelings of elation at the end. These intensities of the creative process can stimulate desires of consistency and control, but history affirms that few transformative experiences are generated by regularity.
When asked for advice on painting, Claude Monet told people not to fear mistakes. The discipline of art requires constant experimentation, wherein errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression. The mistake is outside the intended course of action, and it may present something that we never saw before, something unexpected and contradictory, something that may be put to use."

4. Have the courage to continue.

In order to be successful we need to find courage within ourselves to keep working despite our self-doubt. Vincent Van Gogh started creating art within the last 10 years of his art, and it is comforting to know that his early works were pretty crummy. (Compare these examples from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain showing his early drawing compared to one completed two years later:)
Carpenter, 1880 and Woman Mourning, 1882 by Vincent Van Gogh

But even with his anxieties and despite all the awful art he created earlier in his artistic journey, he kept creating. Through his hard work and stick-to-itiveness he eventually evolved into a master artist that we know and love today.

So friends, let's just take it one drawing and one painting at a time. If we have the courage to start and continue in our calling as kidlit creators, I know we will all be creating some beautiful art.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." 
-Winston Churchill

Art by Meridth McKean Gimbel (me)


Meridth McKean 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. 

Meridth is happily represented by Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt. You can follow her work at:
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