Thursday, September 25, 2014

Interview with new SCBWI mentee, Kathryn Ault Noble

Kathryn Ault Noble was the recipient of the SCBWI Mentorship Award at the 2014 Summer Conference. Kidlit Artists would like to officially welcome Kathryn to the blog, and ask her a few questions about the Mentorship experience and about what she is up to these days.

Did the feedback you received during the mentorship critiques either change or confirm the direction of your illustration?

Confirm! And change. It confirmed that the piece I thought was the strongest was the one everyone wanted me to do more of. So I am removing pieces that aren't quite in that zone, redoing some pieces, and making new ones based on the critiques.

I had also paid for an individual critique with Laurent Linn which happened before the mentor critiques. Laurent looked through my portfolio and said, "You have a unique voice." That is the part where I struggled to sit still and act professional, but inside I was jumping up and down like a giddy school girl. He pointed out one piece in particular as being the most successful which was also the last one I had done. He tapped on it and indicated I should do more like that one. 

I asked him which piece he would remove as the weakest, and he said he would not remove anything, that I had a "strong portfolio." I smiled thanked him for his time, walked out into the hallway and literally exploded into a happy dance. . . portfolio held high. Of course people wanted to know what had just happened and I told them I had just received the critique I had been working towards since joining SCBWI five years before. It was one of those moments where a thousand pounds of doubt was suddenly lifted from my shoulders and I floated through the rest of the day. That evening when I heard my name called as winning a mentor award, I had a flash thought that I could die happy. But quickly realized it was only a marker in my journey, not the end, but a powerful place where in epic adventures the hero makes a pile of stones to remember what happened there. And now I find that I am not plodding as I work towards my goals, I am running. Skipping even. The positive affirmation from a group of mentors that includes Caldecott Medal Winners was a pot of black coffee to my energy levels.

Are there any specific examples you can share?

This is a crop of an area that was pointed to a couple of times by various mentors as being a direction stylistically for me to pursue. It has outlines, but they are variable and disappear in some areas. Although I had been working at removing strong outlines from my sketches, there were still a couple of pieces in the portfolio that had them, but this particular piece had more areas of loose pencil work.

Also pointed out was just a wee bit of having fun with my pencil. . . a scribble instead of cross-hatch or other tight dashes with the page full of tumbling baby chicks. This is an enlarged crop to show the tiny bit of a loose scribble. What?! How dare I have fun with my pencil?

I put up a companion blog post to go along with this interview that has other close-ups of the tight rendering that I will be moving away from just a bit. One mentor told me I can have two styles, so one will be tighter pencil work with full backgrounds, and the other will be looser strokes with just the characters, no backgrounds. That was also a suggestion from another mentor, that to take the age level down to picture books I should include illustrations with just the characters.

What kind of projects are you working on now?

I am working on characters for a couple of stories which I am taking to dummy stage as soon as possible. I pitched one of the stories to a mentor and received a thumbs up so I'm pretty excited about it's potential. Some of the character work is showing up on my process blog with much looser pencil work. I've been slipping back into my cut paper addiction as well, which seems to happen every Fall. I think it is because I did hand-made holiday crafts for so many years my brain just prompts me to start cutting and pasting when the weather changes.

Is there any type of illustration (or other work) that you're hoping for in the near future?

Picture books of course, but I had done educational illustrations back in the early 90s when I was represented by Susan Trimpe and plan to get back into that eventually. I enjoyed producing some of the classroom materials for teachers, actually illustrations that were printed on film and used on opaque projectors. Hard to believe that was just 20 years ago. I am particularly interested in creating stories that not only entertain, but uplift, encourage and guide children as they navigate unknown and often troubled waters.

Is there one really helpful piece of advice that you've gotten since pursuing illustration?

"Don't let go! Don't you dare let go!" Actually that was from Lord of the Rings, but something similar happened when I attended my first SCBWI conference in Seattle when Arree Chung did an intervention as I was crashing and burning. I had been teaching digital painting and concept art for animation and games so my portfolio was only marginally close to something that would appear in a children's book. I had signed up for a personal critique and was not actually feeling nervous. Apparently I should have been, because I quickly realized everything I had in my portfolio was not applicable to the children's book industry. For one thing, I was used to the idea of working with teams. I had worked with a bunch of grads on an animation and very much enjoyed the specialization. I did backgrounds, someone else designed characters, someone else did the pencil test, etc. So I had a portfolio that included pieces that were produced by myself and a friend, one of the grads who did brilliant characters work. Bottom line was I left my first SCBWI critique literally in tears and was thinking about leaving the conference. About that time I ran into Arree Chung. He understood completely the idea of team work but also shook his head, no, not for children's books. I wailed that I was not a character artist, that I am a digital painter and graphic designer. He said, but you can! He basically told me that I was fully capable of doing my own characters and to start as soon as the conference was over. So I stayed. And his words would ring in my head from time to time as I stumbled towards viable character design.

After the conference I began to dabble with characters. . . so stiff, so awkward, soooo boring! I kept working with the grad on some commercial projects, not wanting to dissolve our fun collaborations, but gradually it became apparent that I had to cut the apron strings and stand on my own two feet. I copied page after page of Vilpuu and Bridgman. Although I frequently attended the open life drawing sessions at school where I taught, I had never done character work, not even as a kid. When I was a kid I looked at the backgrounds on the Disney animations and tried to draw the trees and vegetation, but not the characters. I can't remember drawing any "cartoon" characters as a kid.

So I copied Preston Blair's book and anything else I could get my hands on that had character development for kids. I looked online for character styles that caught my eye and copied them. I studied and drew, copied, cried, studied, researched, cried and went back each year to the Seattle conference. I signed up each year for a critique and the master class and over the years I received critiques from Dan Santat, Melissa Sweet, Sophie Blackall, Patti Ann Harris, Lucy Ruth Cummins, Scott Magoon, Richard Jesse Watson, Craig Orback. . .and I took notes and made changes, took notes and made changes. One year both Richard Jesse Watson and Melissa Sweet each pointed to one particular illustration and said, "cover of the New Yorker". I was pretty blown away that two people independently said the same thing, but I realized that the cover of the New Yorker was not what I was aiming for. The style was probably inspired by Al Hirschfeld's fluid ink work which I enjoyed but was not really "me". So I went back to the drawing board. I continued to quest through digital graphic styles, cut paper (which I adore), pastels, watercolor, pencil. . .then it hit. Last January I suddenly realized I simply love to draw with a REAL pencil so I began to noodle and cross-hatch my way towards a new portfolio drawn traditionally and painted digitally, which is what I took to LA. Now I am working with all REAL media due to one of the mentors encouraging me to go back to watercolor and other materials I used pre digital.

What was one of your favorite quotes or lessons from the SCBWI Summer Conference?

So many brilliant people, it's hard to chose a favorite. I was gobsmacked with Judy Schachner who kindly let me hang out and have dinner with her and her husband. There were so many things she said that I was like a little kid going "me, too!" If we were in the third grade she would have been my new best friend, which is apparently a common response to meeting Judy!

Generally I found the illustrator intensive on Monday to be the time that jelled so many ideas together for me. I loved the presentation by Nick Clark, curator of the Eric Carle Museum. He showed many examples of work done by the children's book greats of the early part of the last century then showed how current illustrators were studying and adapting those styles into their own unique voices. Quite a few of the illustrators he showed had worked for Disney or in animation in the early days, such as Mary Blair. Fortunately because I had lectured so many times on the history of animation, I was familiar with most of the illustrators. But the idea that he was encouraging us to study, copy and adapt was quite a revelation. . .he was giving us permission to not only admit but cultivate the idea that we were heavily influenced by this or that illustrator(s). And that it was OK for their style to be showing through in our own work. Then Peter Brown talked about his influences, such as Mary Blair, and Judy Schachner mentioned Evaline Ness who illustrated a couple of books I have, and of course Alice and Martin Provensen. Back in my studio, I look through a stack of their books on a regular basis, drinking in every little stroke, nuance, color, texture and shape.

What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid?

I doubt anyone has heard of this one, but it was called Cry Baby Calf by Helen and Alf Evers.

I don't remember much about any other books until a librarian turned me on to A Wrinkle in Time in sixth grade. She had seen my art that had won a prize and was hanging in the library, so she had a hunch I might like the fantasy romp. After that I devoured every book in the library that had anything to do with science fiction or fantasy, which pretty much remained my diet for many years. I managed to have not read any of the books that girls my age were reading but I could tell you all about Robert E. Howard books, or J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov. :) So when my sons were young, I began to explore children's books in a way that probably other people my age had done when they were young. I soon realized I was buying children's books for ME! 

Where can we find you online?

I am building out a new website for my portfolio that will include a blog devoted mostly to news and book reviews.

Primarily Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Mostly I post on Facebook on my personal page, my illustrator page, and course all the different kidlit FB groups.

Interviews, Articles, and Illustrator Spotlight (Updated April 2016}: (Featured for Draw This- Bounce) (members only) (Illustration featured)

Thanks, Kathryn!


  1. Great interview, Kathryn. You are the hardest working person I've met in the illustration world, and you deserve all of your success. Looking forward to following your successes.

  2. I second Sylvia, Kathryn! Go get 'em!