Sunday, July 4, 2021

Just Arting Around

In a creative rut? Me too! Turns out it’s hard to keep the creative energy flowing while living in a social vacuum for a year or so. (Living with an unvaccinated, high risk, immunocompromised family member means this is far from over for us here in our little Ohio home)  Because I couldn’t/can’t  journey out into the world much, I brought the journey into the studio in the form of new media and techniques. Since this has been helping me, I thought I’d bring you along for some art experiments, and a little at home printmaking tutorial. Rut or no rut, I hope you find something fun along the way.

Let’s dip our toes into the unfamiliar. Let's try drawing in a new way, get out materials that don’t “fit” our style and just see where they lead us. There’s no goal except to have fun and maybe catch the creative spark that makes us think, “Oh, yeah! This is why I chose to do this thing!”

Now, I know we don’t all have a ton of time to spend experimenting, but even 15 mins or so could feel like a lot and feed that desire for the new and unexplored.

Here’s a glimpse of things I’ve tried recently:

Using media on surfaces they’re not intended for. Like watercolor pencils and pastels on unprimed canvas. See strange drawing below.

Stuck? Use a stick! Had fun drawing with a big stick dipped in ink. Have to thank the fabulous ladies at  for that one. I think I actually drew those seed pods and twigs using those same seed pods and twigs :-)

Fabric collage, plus some charcoal, plus a dried flower stem from the vase of dead flowers that I never emptied, turned into this little adventurer. (Used Mod Podge to hold it all down.)

Not really a crazy experiment, just different for me: Using gouache in a bold, flat manner. (ok, so there might also be some watercolor pencil, fabric and pastel in there.)

My most recent, “oh, goody!” moment was learning a way to do intaglio printmaking at home, without a press or metal plates. Thanks to a tutorial from  I found my way back to printmaking after over a decade away. So, the experience was both new and old, and fabulous. And I have yet to even accomplish a great quality print. What matters is that I was having fun, my brain was waking up and making new connections. And since I loved it so much, here’s a little tutorial so you can try your hand at it too!

What you’ll need at the ready:

  • Tetra Pak - washed and cut open (You know, those boxy cartons you get plant milk or broth in from the dry goods isle.)

  • Scissors and/or exacto blade

  • Etching tool (Anything with a sharp point that isn’t flimsy should work, I used my needle tools that are for carving clay.)

  • Akua Intaglio Ink (I also tried acrylic paint with a medium extender added to keep it wet, it worked okay-ish, but not as well as the ink.)

  • backing board or chipboard cut into small rectangles 

  • Tarleton (or similar e.g. vegetable net. I used cheesecloth, which worked ok, but was maybe a bit too absorbent.)

  • Tissue paper or pages from the phone book

  • Paper to print on (Thick paper is best. I used a hot press watercolor paper, but actual printmaking paper would have a better result.)

  • Tray/baking dish with water to soak paper in

  • Blotting Paper (or tea towel) for blotting your soaked paper

  • Tea towel/rag to use as your printing surface

  • Baking parchment or tracing paper

  • Spoon

One thing I love about using the tetra pak instead of a metal plate, is you can cut them into whatever shape you like or stick with a traditional rectangle. The possibilities are endless!

Once you have your (clean) tetra pak cut into whatever shape you like, use an etching tool (a nail or whatever you’ve got)  to draw your image into the silver surface. Don't forget! It’s going to print in reverse, so plan accordingly.

Wherever you etch a line, that’s where the ink will settle. When you print, your paper will press into the lines slightly, grabbing the ink from the groove.

It’s best to print onto damp paper, so before you start inking your plate is a good time to put it to soak in your tray of water.

Once you have your image, use the edge of a small bit of chipboard or other firm board to wipe some ink across the surface, As you scrape it across, ink gets pressed down into your line work.

Next up! We wipe it, wipe it real good. Well, not too good. Using some kind of mesh material, (traditionally tarleton) you want to gently wipe the surface in a circular motion, not too hard or you may remove ink from the grooves. Wipe until the silver surface starts to show again. 

Finish wiping with tissue paper or phone book pages (You can experiment with how much ink you remove to get different qualities of print. If you leave more ink, it will create an atmospheric but less controlled print.)

Place your inked plate on a non slippery surface like a tea towel that you don’t mind getting inky. (I forgot this part and mine was definitely trying to get away from me.) 

Wipe off the ink that you definitely got all over your hands.

(Ready to print! Now where's a clean surface I can print on?)

Remove your paper from the water and blot it gently so it's no longer dripping.

Lay the damp paper on top of your inked plate, then a sheet of parchment or tracing paper on top of that. (It will help with the rubby spoony bit coming up.)

Now we press like the dickens with the back of a spoon. Make sure you get every part of your print. I found I had to press/rub pretty firmly and for some time. (But, perhaps that’s because of my little bird arms, and the wooden spoon I was using. Metal would probably be best.)

And tada! It is print!

Because I was in experiment mode, both my prints are printed on top of another medium. One is watercolor and graphite, and the other some fabric scraps I had lying about.

And there are even more possibilities with this. You can try your hand at monotype prints on the tetra pak surface or use cutouts more like block prints by just rolling ink on and printing the shape!  Looking back at Handprinted UK's tutorial, I'm reminded that you can even use an exacto blade to cut the surface of the tetra pak and carefully peal back the top layer to reveal a fuzzy layer that holds ink. This will create large, dark areas, similar to aquatint. Definitely check out their original post for more detailed photos and instructions.

Here’s to having fun, letting go, and finding our way back to our creative energy! Hope you all have fun with your experiments.


Tenaya Lena Gunter Brown is an illustrator/author. Born and raised in Oakland, CA, she makes stories and art that speak to our wonder, our connection to each other and the earth under our feet.

Find more of her work at

Instagram @tenayalena

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Expressing the Depths of your Heart and Sustaining yourself Economically


Cory brought me peonies mixed with chamomile flowers. We stood on my porch and the clouds were grey and heavy with rain, making our city in the desert feel quiet and still. Cory is a professional musician with the San Juan Symphony and works with an independent group of flamenco dancers called Spanish Broom, dancing in a bistro in the Corrales Village adjacent to Albuquerque.

With flowers and an open heart, Cory thought critically out loud about why he's doing what he does.

He ruminated about hearing professional musicians from national orchestras sighing with relief that their work was at a still when the pandemic put a pause to the world. He felt certain that music to him meant more than a job, that there was meaning in creativity. That there was reason to make music outside of professional accolades, and that there had to be a balance between expressing the depths of your heart and sustaining yourself economically.

I wonder a lot, too.  My first book in progress Where Butterflies Fill the Sky (Bloomsbury 2022) is from my deepest heartbreak and anguish. It's about the love I have of people and home and the luck of coming to a city where people treat me as an equal. It's a short expression of a bureaucracy that robbed me of a normal life among my family. Full of symbolism like bulls from ancient Dilmun art as background characters and walking fish to accompany the main character. It's deeply personal, and something which affects my life every single day, still.

Though I wonder if I have anything else to offer as a writer and artist. Another personal story that I can craft into something dream-like? Or something strictly imaginative, creative? Am I able as a person to make a book about toast? Dinosaurs and pancakes? Or is all I have to offer is stories from the margins? How have I come to hold these matters as parallel to each other? I often feel very lighthearted and happy, and wonder how to explore those feelings in my art, while otherwise no matter where I am in the world I have to explain how my fringe belonging fits in society.

I make small, single illustrative watercolor vignettes almost daily to express things like Cory's flowers and honest heart. Or things like “Summers like Boars Far from the Sea” expressing a change of time, change of place, the joy of having a close friend and even witnessing the end this friendship. Playing with reality and imbuing it with imagination.

Snapping at ideas like a lobster at a butterfly.

Exploring brave figures from cultures I currently reside with, like Cesar Chavez, and thinking of my illiterate grandparents.

Or a friendship like an octopus rolled up in sea shells.

A look at my cousin Abbass when he came across two stray macaws.


Exploring the pain of losing a parent and their appearance in a dream.

Trying to figure out how to build these ideas into larger works, like a piano in water, wishing I had been brave enough to go home sooner.

I wonder what club soda really is. What it's like to be a part of a low-rider procession. To be a garlic farmer and what those flowers could look like. If I continually have to betray myself for the comfort of others.


Learning that pink dolphins exist in rivers, or translating poetry into art.

Under the weight of locusts and grief, people saw him burn his old coat among the jasmine flowers.” Or reducing the importance of men visually in my Grandma's portrait.

And continually building strength. Rejection after rejection after rejection.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Picture book master studies

Master Studies. 

As artists, I think most of us have heard the term “master studies” used to train and develop budding artists in different mediums. For those who don’t know, the concept is going to a museum (or studying a high resolution reproduction/digital image) and trying to recreate a painting of a historical artist who was well into their established technique--a master of their painting style. We can learn different things from doing this: composition, color palette, how to use color and dark/light to focus the eye, how they apply the paint, etc. In some museums, there would be days where you could set up your canvas IN the museum and paint/recreate the artwork en plein air.

But how does one do a master study of picture books? I decided to try and find out. 

First, I had to establish parameters. How do I find books to read? How do I find artists? What types of books am I reviewing? I knew that I was specifically interested in studying INTERNATIONAL picture books as opposed to just books in the American market. I started with two books that I purchased when I traveled internationally: one purchased in Italy, one purchased in Japan. Researching these illustrators led me to looking at blogs, international picture book conferences, international picture book journals, and, more specifically, awards and lifetime achievement lists created by these organizations. While awards can be both very politicized and very subjective, most tend to include a jury of peers or industry professionals. I figured this was a good baseline for trying to determine and define a MASTER picture book creator. 

Here’s a selection of sources that I have or will source names of authors/illustrators from:

Second, build a list. You will probably grow your list faster than you are able to research/read books created by these authors or artists. I have a Google Keep list I started to specifically track award-winning international illustrators.

Google keep list of picture book creators

Third, research. This takes a lot of time, but can also be a lot of fun when you go down the rabbit hole. The type of research also comes in multiple forms. When I find an artist I want to study, I first go and see which of their titles are available to be checked out through my local library. Alternatively, if you want to own the books you study, you can see what is available for purchase in your country by that creator. I also try to research the artist online, reading wikipedia entries, interviews, and occasionally stumbling upon a video about the artist and their creations, such as this interview with Satoe Tone.

Fourth, acquire your source material to study. I usually try to check out 2-3 books from an artist if they are available to get a sense of the type of books the author/illustrator creates and just in case the book(s) they are known for are illustrated books that do not fall within my self-determined parameters of “picture book.” I decided that I would focus on books that fell within the parameters of a traditional/classic picture book: larger format with minimal words; approximately 32-48 pages, occasionally slightly longer; not a graphic novel/comic book format; not a board book aimed towards the youngest age range (0-2 years); not a chapter book with illustrations. 

Cover image for La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone
Cover of La Carota Gigante by Satoe Tone

one interior spread of La Carota Gigante showing rabbits carrying a giant carrot, with handwritten notes below book.
interior spread for La Carota Gigante with my notes in progress

Fifth, study your source material. Read. Read it again. And again. Study it. Thoroughly. This stage loops back to how you define your original parameters: WHAT are you studying within this book? HOW are you tracking what you are studying? 

Cover for Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska
Cover for Ojos by Iwona Chmielewska

Studying the role of die cuts and page turns in the picture book Ojos. The book is open to a spread with one line of text on the lower left hand page and two eyes staring at you from the right hand page.
Studying the role of die cuts and page turns in the picture book, Ojos

The same spread as the previous image, this time with a hand lifting the page and poking a finger through the hole to show the eye shapes cut out of the page on the right hand side.
As you turn the physical page, the die cuts become apparent

The following spread in the book Ojos that reveals a present on the left hand side and two flowers on the right hand side. The center of the two flowers made up the pupils of the original eye image.
Layers unfold in the story when the eyes are revealed to be more than what is expected at first glance.

I originally defined my research project as studying “international picture books” and then my coworker sent me a digital picture book from India. I read it, it was a beautiful book, but in doing so, I realized there was something missing in this book: what I REALLY wanted to study was “international picture books in their tangible, printed format.” I was curious about the decisions on trim size, paper stock, binding types, typefaces and sizes, color palettes, special finishes, and the physical page turn effect of the book. You know, all the geeky, design-oriented decisions that were made in producing the physical product that is a picture book. Just the thing that this geeky graphic designer and illustrator loves. 

I began to document my research in what will probably be my one-and-only meticulously organized sketchbook. I wanted each book study to fill a single page and I broke down my categories to fill in on each page as follows:

  • Sketch of cover art

  • Color palette: what 6(ish) colors were the most dominant in this book?

  • Title: In both original language and English, if possible

  • Author: Who wrote the book?

  • Illustrator: who illustrated the book? Is this the same as the author?

  • Publisher(s): more than one if it’s a translation; you can often find the original publisher name on the copyright page

  • Country/Countries: Where did this book originate and/or where was this creator from and/or where was this translation from? Sometimes they are not the same.

  • Theme: VERY brief summary of what the book is about

  • Pages: length of book

  • Cover: is there a dust jacket? Is there a printed illustration on the case bound books that differs from the dust jacket? Special finishes? 

  • Endsheets: Are these just plain pages of a contrasting color/stock? Are there illustrations on the endsheets that expand on the story?

  • Text: font choice(s)? Font size? Font color? specific/repeating placement on the pages? Are the lines of text broken into poetic stanzas? Are there varying sizes/colors/fonts to emphasize or represent different things?

  • Illustrations: what materials do they use? Is there a recurring pattern to how the illustrations are presented? How many are double-page spreads, single pages, vignettes? 

  • Other: a little information about the artist or awards this book won

  • Translation format: If not printed in English, I typically used Google Translate to comprehend the text well enough to get a sense of the book as a whole. While there is definitely an elegance of words and cadence lost in translation, my primary focus is from the visual/artistic standpoint of the book including how the text VISUALLY appears on a page. 

  • Origin of book: usually checked out from LAPL, but occasionally a purchased title

Image of sketchbook with handwritten notes analyzing the book Little Bird by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine. On top of the notebook rests an issue of Bookbird journal. Listed on the cover is "2020 Hans Christian Anderson Award Winners
Using the journal Bookbird to discover creators, specifically their annual issue highlighting Hans Christian Andersen Award Winners and Finalists. Underneath sits my handwritten notes documenting my research of a book illustrated by Albertine, one of the creators interviewed in this issue

Close up of the title of an article within Bookbird 2020 vol. 58 no. 3, entitled "I am an author who draws: an interview with Albertine, Winner of the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration" side by side with my handwritten analysis of Albertine's artwork in Little Bird by Germano Zullo. The notes include a thumbnail sketch of the cover, 6 circles of color showing the main color palette and detailed notes about the book.
An article on Albertine lead to my reading Little Bird by Germano Zullo and illustrated by Albertine. These articles can give you more insight into the breadth of a creator's work and some of their thought process that goes into each creation. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Becoming a Creative Jedi

You know how whenever just about anyone first hears that you make picture books, their immediate follow-up is, "oh! I've always had this idea for a picture book..." Guess what? - Me too. Having ideas and getting them on the page are two very different beasts. I have a baby animal petting zoo of ideas, but growing them into full-fledged manuscripts and dummies is a job for the Mother of Dragons. As an illustrator first and an aspiring author at present, I've struggled to write to the finish. Stringing those ideas together like pearls feels impossible. Or, at least it did. 

I was going to call this post something like "Harnessing Your Creative Morning Magic." Since today is May the 4th, it is now, of course, titled "Becoming a Creative Jedi." 

I'm early in my training, but after years of trying to harness my frenetic creative energy, I've been successfully nurturing two Jedi-level mind tricks to conquer my personal Darkside.  It's my goal to help you harness your Force.  After all, we're our only hope.

Lesson 1: Commit Your Life

"A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one, long time have I watched. All his life, he has looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing." --Yoda 


Today is all we have. You hear this all the time, but for me, one day, it clicked. I like big pictures. I like minutia. Like many artists, it's the mid-field that gets me in trouble. I can ace my to-do list in the morning, make sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour a few days a week, write for a bit here and there when it feels good, and hit the gym Monday - Wednesday, but somewhere along the way, things fall apart. I have lofty and grand "somedays" in my mind, but they distract from the simple beauty of my to-day.

Putting this together at last, I set myself to task. I decided that I was going to dedicate myself, body, and soul to the making. All I needed to do was have One Perfect Day. For me, a perfect day means not forgetting to eat until I'm mumbling and mad at 2 in the afternoon; it means working out, so I'm tired enough to go to bed at a decent hour, that way, I can get up out of bed when my Muse is ready to go at six am. With ONE PERFECT DAY activated in my life, I never miss sitting with my Muse because they've grown tired of waiting in my studio while I sleep off a 2 am TRUE CRIME binge. ONE PERFECT DAY means living the life I imagine a writer to live, and the key here - is writing every day. 

Every night I sit down with a little black book and plan my ONE PERFECT DAY. Everything serves the books in some way. I am happy and fulfilled, and for the first time in my life, my mind is where I am, what I am doing - here in the studio, where I'm living my most profound commitment. 

As an aside, as an artist living in a pandemic with a spouse who is in close quarters too, sharing my OPD plan with my husband has eliminated the daily struggle for creative space I've had since last March. Everyone in the house knows that I have a perfect day ahead of me. No one expects me to go to Trader Joe's with them at 11 am on a Thursday anymore. Jedis do not go to TJ's before noon on a weekday. They are in training. 

I challenge you to attempt ONE PERFECT DAY. Design your day to serve your Muse and your purpose. Take it up with complete sincerity. I'm convinced you'll find it astonishing what your Jedi can do. 

Lesson 2: Ask the Right Questions

"Which way is the right way?" Ezra asks as he steps inside the Jedi Temple. 

To which the tiny wise master Yoda responds, "The wrong question, that is."  



For years I have worked half-heartedly following THE ARTIST'S WAY, by Julia Cameron. The thing that stuck with me was Morning Pages. I do them when I'm struggling emotionally or artistically, and they always help. In the past month, I've started using them as my figurative lightsaber. This idea came to me, like nearly all my good ideas do, during morning pages. For those who aren't familiar with the practice, morning pages are simply three pages of longhand, a stream of conscious writing, done first thing in the morning upon waking up.*

"They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind - and they are for your eyes only." - Julia Cameron

I've come to realize that my natural inclination when I hit a creative snag is to talk about it. I grew up as an apprentice to my fine-artist father, and now he lives downstairs in my house - he's clever about this stuff, so is my chef husband and my mom, who all live here too. My best friends are all writers and illustrators of picture books, and they're all just a phone call away. 

Guess what writing is not? Writing is not talking about it. I've been living with this nasty habit, and I hadn't even recognized it. The only way I can access my Muse is by talking to them. The less crazy way to do that is through longhand writing three pages in the wee hours of the morning before I'm fully awake. 

When I'm writing my pages, I intentionally open myself to asking creative questions and answering them. I do it half paying attention, letting my subconscious run the show. When I finish the day's pages, I take out three highlighters, turn to yesterday's pages, and highlight each sentence or thought I scrawled about my book. I highlight each new idea with a different color. Then I type those ideas out and cut them into strips. Like spaghetti confetti, I toss the strips into a bell jar on my writing table. If I hit a wall in my work, I fish out a strip of paper or three. The answer is almost always sitting in that jar at my elbow. I've never experienced anything like this magic; I'm almost nervous about sharing it, lest it stops working. Unseen, it's hard to believe a creative force exists, but wave your hand, and read what you wrote yesterday. Just like that, your manuscript will bend as easily as a stormtrooper under the spell of Obi-Wan. 

I have tried to access this process with my conscious self. Nope. Doesn't work. I 100% believe I'm more brilliant in pages. That's where I meet my Muse. The Muse is your personal Yoda, and you ask the wrong questions, you do. 

I hope that these two practices can come alongside you on your journey to control your Force. 

I want to remind you of one critical Jedi thought you should carry in your pocket all year, not just on this particular day. 

In this business, I find there to be a fair amount of doomsaying. I was a member of SCBWI when the publishing industry was convinced the Kindle was going to send us obsolete, and again when no one could fathom how you'd possibly sell a graphic novel. If your Muse is there for you in your studio on your ONE PERFECT DAY, do NOT second guess them! 

"Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future." --Yoda,

I wish you all the best as you set out to conquer your Darkside, and, of course, today especially, May the 4th be with you! 

Below you'll find a bit of an early draft to something a nerdy, struggling writer once hoped might turn out cool.


Amber Alvarez is the illustrator of Diana Murray's WILD ABOUT DADS, published by Macmillan Kids books, and the forthcoming MY MAGIC WAND, written by Pat Mora, and published by Lee & Low Books!

See more of her work at and on Instagram @SheSureisSketchy