Monday, January 13, 2020

INTERVIEW WITH LYNN PORTNOFF, Art Director, Penguin Workshop - by Eddie Edwards

I asked Lynn to share her thoughts about hiring and working with illustrators. Hint: SHE WANTS YOUR POSTCARDS!

How long have you been at Penguin and what is a typical day like? 
I’ve been with Penguin Workshop, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers for 5 years and I’ve been the Art Director for 2 years. My typical day is very busy since I oversee the art and design for each of the 225+ books a year that the imprint publishes. I review and approve all of the artists who are hired to illustrate our books. I’m also available to my staff of 8 designers throughout the day to give art direction and answer questions. 

Do Art Directors at Penguin specialize in a particular age range or type of book? If so, what is your specialty? 
Penguin Young Readers is organized by imprint and each imprint has their own Art Director and design team. Penguin Workshop is actually comprised of 6 imprints; Penguin Workshop, Grosset & Dunlap, Fredrick Warne, The World of Eric Carle, Mad Libs, and Penguin Licenses so I’m lucky to be able to make every kind of book for every kind of reader ages 0-12, some YA and even some adult novelty books.

Can you talk a bit about your process of choosing an illustrator? Do you have a postcard file, do you look through instagram, etc?
I do have a postcard file! I actually prefer postcards over any other form of communication. Please send them to me Lynn Portnoff, Art Director, Penguin Random House, 1745 Broadway, NY NY 10019. I’m also a big Instagram fan. The process always starts with a meeting with the editor to find out the age group, genre, main characters, key plot points, and comp titles. Then I start rifling though my postcard file and combing the internet. Unfortunately the artists I’m dying to work with don’t always match with the books that are on the list. I can have as many as 10 artists to present and I try to get at least 2 to 3 approved since you can run into scheduling problems and first choices aren’t always available.

I love the 90th Anniversary Edition of The Little Engine That Could. So adorable! And your design is so fresh. Would you talk a bit about how you went about choosing the wonderful Dan Santat? 
Oh, thank you! That’s one of my favorite books that I’ve worked on! For the 90th celebration of the book we wanted an artist who was going to have a fresh take the iconic engine but still keep the classic feel. We also wanted a really special artist and Dan fit the bill perfectly.

How many books do you work on at one time? 
I personally design up to 10 books a season and they are all in various stages.

Let’s say you have a new illustrator (or a couple of new illustrators) in mind for a project. Do you usually ask them to do a sample before you hire them?
We might do that if a licensor is involved and the artist needs to be approved by them but I typically don’t find samples necessary. You can tell from a portfolio what an artist is capable of. 

Now imagine you have hired a new illustrator. Would you list the general steps of your process? 
Once the fee and the schedule are agreed upon they will be sent specs and art notes. For a cover they get a cover concept and notes about the characters. For an interior they will receive art notes in a manuscript and a PDF of the layout so they know what size the art should be and how the text will be incorporated. The artist delivers 4 rounds: rough sketches, revised sketches, final art, and revised final art. At each stage they will get notes to incorporate. Sometimes there are more rounds and I even work with an artist who skips the sketch stage altogether and goes straight to final art. The sketches are full size B&W pencil sketches that are either scanned live art or created digitally. The final art I receive is almost always created digitally, but I do have a few artists that deliver live art via snail mail and we send it out to have it professionally scanned.

Are you drawn to a portfolio that has a variety of work for different ages and genres or do you prefer a really focused portfolio (e.g. all picture book or  all chapter book or all non-fiction)?
It makes no difference how many styles or genres you have, I’m only looking for talent. I’m asking myself, can this artist carry this book? If I see one piece of art that is off, it’s a pass. The best portfolios are the ones that show a ton of work that is all at the same level of quality. That’s why I like Instagram. You can see the difference between the artists that draw at a consistently high level every day and the ones that labored on 10 or so perfect pieces for a portfolio. 

What is one thing you love to see in a portfolio?
I like thoughtful color palettes. That could mean bright bold colors, unexpected color combinations, or maybe a limited palette. It can be anything as long as it’s thoughtful. 

What is one thing that you find undesirable in a portfolio? 
Unless you’re really good at hand lettering or typography please avoid adding type to your art. The wrong lettering can really distract from your art. Most Art Directors and Designers want to do their own lettering anyway so unless you’re going for a lettering career as well I would skip it. 

And finally, Pet Peeve? Is there something an illustrator might do that drives you nutty?
The only thing that drives me nuts is artists that deliver black and white art as RGB JPGs. It’s grayscale TIFFs people! Other than that I’m pretty easy to work with.

Thanks Lynn!

Eddie Edwards is an illustrator and a recipient of the SCBWI 2019 Mentorship Award. You can find her at and on twitter and instagram at @helloeddieillo.

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