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. 
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!)


  1. Great advice! You definitely have your craft rolling in the right direction, Kathryn! Glad you are having fun creating the beautiful art that you do.

    1. Is one month later better late than never?! I never thought to see if anyone would comment on my blog. Thank you very much, Dow! I am truly am enjoying the process.

  2. You, Kathryn, are one of the hardest working kid-lit illustrators I know, diligent in your acquisition of skills and knowledge - how else could you write such an in-depth post? And yet you find the time to be so generous in sharing knowledge and support! I consider myself lucky to be striving within the same community. Now off to read your other amazing post! Rock on, Kathryn!

    1. How exciting to find your comment today! Such kind words, dear Julie. It is my honor to be walking this path with you!

  3. Fantastic post. I really enjoyed your process and experimentation. Thank you for sharing your journey, it is very inspirational.

    1. Thank you very much, Anne-Louise! I sure am enjoying connecting with you on Instagram. . .I love your sketches!

  4. Wow, what an in-depth and insightful blog post. You always offer so much more on a subject and I'm actually re-reading this, more than once, as my mind needs to wrap around each sentence you are saying. Thank you for all of your knowledge and input on many different topics. Really enjoy your way of thinking as it challenges me to rethink what I'm doing every day. I'm in love with concept and character - thanks to you!!! And it's just what I'm working on now also - so a really big thank you!

  5. I could not be happier to be an inspiration to you, Virginia! I am working on my website this week and will start blogging again. It's been almost two years since I shut down my old process site (after winning the mentorship award) so it's time to crank up the new one. Hopefully I have a few more inspirational posts up my sleeve. ;)

  6. Terrific advice/post, Kathryn! I must admit I'm confused as to why Cecilia Yung said to take out the outlines? My favorite illustrators, like Lauren Castillo and Julie R-Z both have strong outlines.

    Oh, if I worked a fraction as hard as you do!