An Interview with Kelly Light, A Pit Bull (In Polka-dots)!I had a wonderful opportunity to chat with fellow SCBWI illustrator/author Kelly Light about her journey from aspiring children's book illustrator to full-fledged-real-deal-full-time illustrator/author. Grab a cup of something and enjoy this glimpse into an inspiring success story.
Give us a summary of your transition from animation/marketing to pursuing a career in children's books to full-time children's illustrator and purchaser of Series 7 brushes, which we all know is the ultimate sign of arrival? (Including time frame, for all of us that are still pursuing:)
I graduated from college in 1992.
I went out to Los Angeles immediately after graduation to try to break into animation. It was a rough time for studios then, lay offs by the thousands- the economy was in the toilet. I started to schlep the portfolio and go on “tests” at studios large and small. I got some small jobs on commercials, the original Coca Cola Bears and a Super Bowl Pepsi commercial with cows stampeding to a fridge stocked with Pepsi. I would go to Disney drop off day once a month with whatever new art I had made. After 6 times... progress! The rejections went from a form letter to a personal note with advice. This was my first lesson in tenacity.
I followed that advice. I kept plugging. I also kept not being able to pay my rent. One day- in desperation, I bought a huge box of See’s Candies and a bundle of balloons and drove to the studio that made The Simpson’s. I walked in with my portfolio and a smile and I got an internship. That was my first lesson in throwing Hail Mary Passes. If what you are doing is not working - if doing what everyone else is doing isn’t getting you noticed - do something else.
Then I got pulled back to the East Coast.
Just when things were starting to happen, I moved back to the East Coast.
In 1994 I was sitting in a N.Y.C. independent animator’s studio working for free. I would work there for no pay in exchange for the use of all of the equipment to make my own animated samples. One day, the phone at my desk rang- it was a cold call from a head hunter looking for someone who could draw the Looney Tunes characters. I said “I could and would do that if it meant that I could pay my rent.” I started drawing characters for licensed merchandise the very next day and did that for years until my daughter was was born. This was when I learned the lesson - do not move back home or take a job at the Gap. I saw so many fellow young artists give up. Stay in it if you really, really want it. Do everything you can to keep drawing. Draw anything.
Working in the world of licensing is kind of like working in advertising. Everything needs to be done immediately. You have to come up with a million concepts for some lunch meeting in an hour.. You stay at work all night and the boss buys you a pizza because Disney is coming in the morning and you have to knock their socks off. This was when I learned the lesson to think fast. I learned to sell. I learned to convey in one image a clear, concise story. I also learned that I had ambition.
Before long, I had made art director. I was getting burnt out on drawing Mickey, Bugs, Fred and Barney and the Muppets. I had gone back to school to get my masters in animation to force myself to get back into that world... but... life happens. I got married and my biological clock alarm went off. I had my daughter at 29, in 1999. Having a baby seemed to be the logical way to move into the next phase of life- and Hey! As a mom,I could always freelance! Right?
After attempting to freelance with a baby at home.... I stopped working. I stopped making work. I didn’t make art. I was a little coo coo for cocoa puffs. Five years went by in a blur of diapers and potty training and birthday parties until kindergarten. During those years I learned the lesson: “Inspiration without expression = depression.”
When I found some time while my daughter was in kindergarten, I went to a life drawing class. I started to keep a sketch book. By the time she was in school full day, I decided it was time to go back to work. In 2006, I took a summer SVA continuing ed course called “Children’s book portfolio” in NYC. I was like a pit bull with a bone. I had chosen a path and this time there was no stopping me. My instructor saw this and took me to her Art Director. I showed my portfolio for the first time in the children’s book market. In the nicest way possible the editor said “I hate it”.
It looked too animated. Too cartoony.
Lesson learned: Listen to opinions. Listen, devour, digest and go back to work.
2007 - I joined SCBWI. I went to my first NY conference and was completely overwhelmed by the whole thing. I went home and kept working, drawing, started writing. I started a blog, “Pretty Good for a Girl.” That blog connected me online with some friends I still have. That blog- was everything. That blog taught me the lesson to get myself out there- online- showing my work and sharing myself. I have learned a lot from keeping that blog.
2008 - I went back to the NY conference. I met a few people who I still keep in touch with today. I learned that it is important to connect with other children’s book people. I went to the New England SCBWI conference. I thought that it would be better to be a fish in a small pond. I won 2 awards in the poster contest. I met great people who I still keep in touch with and an agent approached me from Curtis Brown. I learned the lesson that you can make strides if you keep working hard. But mannnnn, was this taking a while.
2009 - that agent said I was not ready yet, keep working. I did. That year I made crazy amounts of new work. I went back to the NY conference. I was part of the “first look” intensive. An art director said that I had “no business being in children’s books.” “Licensing maybe, animation , maybe, .but not children’s books.” - D’UH-O! Really? Could he have cut me to the core anymore? Lesson learned: Give a person a platform... sometimes they will start talking out of their tucchus.
I went into a total spiral of self doubt. “Fate, is kind”, tho as the Disney song goes... I blogged a blog post of doom and Jarret J. Krosoczka and his wife read it. He emailed me and said “Do not give up.”
I went back to work. In 2009, I went to the Florida SCBWI Summer conference- to go back to being in a small pond and to go back to work for Disney as a licensed character artist.
I landed my first agent at that conference. Having that agent, in the end didn’t help at all. It was a two year black hole. I continued to work my rear end off. I showed my portfolio constantly in NYC. I went to the Los Angeles conference. I went back to the NY conference.
In 2010 I won 2nd place in the art showcase. I thought that would lead to something!! It didn’t.
I was spinning my wheels waiting for the agent to do something. Lesson learned: Don’t put worrying about someone else’s feelings ahead of yourself- your career. Be a shark. Cold blood is useful in small doses. I left my agent.
In 2011, I made some books. Small books, a novelty book, some readers. Not at all what I wanted to do. As soon as I finished one- there was another waiting right behind it. Low pay, fast turn around... small press or educational work. This was not what I wanted. I was not going to get sucked into this. Lesson learned: “Eyes on the prize”.
I became my own agent. I tracked down every judge from that NY showcase and got my face in front of them with my work. I learned a lesson: "Sell yourself and your work. Put yourself so much into your work, your personality, your interests...... that you are magically delicious. You are a product. "
I went to the Los Angles conference in 2011 wildly over confident. I made a big show of mini portfolio book hand outs... I thought I had a good shot at a mentee spot, having won an award in NYC. Nope.
Now I was mad. I vowed to never show a portfolio in NYC or Los Angeles ever again. I would make this happen, so that I did not have to enter another art contest as long as I lived.
I decided to throw a Hail Mary pass - like the the balloons and the candy at the Simpson’s. I proposed a workshop at the 2012 New England SCBWI conference in character design. I had all of this knowledge from licensing and animation about consistently drawing characters. Lesson : Show the world what you are made of.
While at that conference, I got to know some very important people in my life. I also got my first book offer. I got home and got my second. A week later I had my third. Two weeks after that 4 and 5. Things have continued like that. I have some middle grade books that I illustrated coming out right now. I have work to do through 2015 and as of the this week- possibly beyond.
Lesson: Do not give up. Do not let go. Be a pit bull. (in polka dots)
From one artsy momma to another, how do you do it? Raise happy marginally damaged offspring while simultaneously creating, promoting and producing amazing work?
Make the kids part of this. Have them see your dream and then they dream for you.Then they dream big for themselves! Show them the hard work and the determination. They need to know that dreams are just the start. Teach by example. Work your butt off at the work and at being happy. Don’t accept less -they’ll pick up on that!!
Let go of being perfect as a Mom - as a home maker. You can not be all things. There is nothing better for kids than a happy Mom.
Learn to say NO. No to volunteering too much. Choose carefully what you CAN do for others/school. Don’t worry what the PTA thinks of you. They will buy allll of your books when you have them..... and you will smillllle. :)
How has your technique and process changed along the way and are there any mediums your currently exploring?
I would say I have gotten less digital, to I work digitally. I draw by hand and keep my drawings in the work. I am just going back to watercolor a lot. The Photoshop addiction is really strong tho. I am just trying to use it to manipulate hand work more than create completely in it these days.
Can you give some insight into how your relationship with your agent began and are you still doing your own promotional mailings?
I had three book deals in hand this past summer and no agent. I needed someone very badly. My head was spinning and I needed someone to smack me in the face and yell “Snap out of it!” Luckily, a very experienced friend did that and a few others helped point me towards their agents. This goes back to the importance of making connections and friendships in this industry. There is support out there. I contacted 2 agents and went with Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown... the same agency that contacted me all of those years ago. Weird, huh?