Monthly Archives: June 2014

Sample Is Not The Same As Spec

In an earlier post Once Upon A Sketch addressed the subject of being asked to work on spec for a prospective client. Generally defined as creating a sample specifically for an upcoming project, spec (short for speculative) work is often requested by individuals unfamiliar with the industry, impatient to get their book ‘on the market’, and often not offering any payment to the illustrator.  An increasing trend among traditional trade publishers is the process of sampling illustrations. It works like this: an illustrator will get an email from the editor or art director who is late in the process of assigning an illustrator to a manuscript. They will inquire about availability to do the book and ask if the artist is open to creating one or two character samples. They will inform the artist that other illustrators are being considered. While this sounds similar to spec work, I would argue that sampling for a major publisher is not the same as working on spec for a novice or self publishing client.

Here’s how they differ:

• Unlike spec work there is often a small fee paid to the artist. But even in the cases where that is not offered, art director Giuseppe Castellano argues in his #arttips thread on Twitter that illustrators should always take it seriously and return a sample. At the very least the illustrator’s work will be viewed by an art director and the illustrator should get a great portfolio piece out of the process.

• While the novice client really  has no idea how to view a portfolio and decide if the style presented is appropriate, the trade art director has already vetted the artist’s portfolio and has two or three illustrators that  the editorial team just can’t decide between. Particularly in the case of high profile author or celebrity books, editorial needs to know how easy the illustrator is to work with and how sales thinks the art will help position the book.

• The traditional publishing house has other projects in the pipeline. The novice client or self publisher likely has only one. Working on spec has little return on the time invested simply because there’s just not another job to be hired for. Even if you are not chosen during the sampling process with a traditional publisher, your chances of being called on again are greatly increased.

When choosing to be part of the sample process here are some tips an illustrator should keep in mind:

• First of all, if it’s a publisher you’ve never heard of then it’s probably spec work… not a sample. Don’t do it unless you are paid.

• It’s perfectly ok to ask how many other illustrators are being considered and when the publisher expects to make the decision. I’ve even asked the editor to tell me how many people will have to approve the sample.

• If you can’t do a good sample by the time requested, offer something different. Generally an illustrator will be asked for only one color sample of a character but i’ve been asked for spreads as well. In that case I asked if I could do a color character and just a sketch of the spread.

• Even if the art director does not request samples by a certain time, set your own (relatively quick) deadline and then beat it. It’s always nice to show that you are disciplined about meeting a project’s timeline.

• No matter what, go above and beyond in the work you create. After months or years of sending postcards to this publisher you got a call. Now’s your chance to shine.

I’ve sampled for a small number of publishers. In all cases I felt like I was opening a line of communication with a potential client that I had previously only been able to reach through mailings. Even on the projects I wasn’t chosen for, the art directors were enthusiastic about my work and the samples created have gotten me other projects. As Castellano’s #arttips suggest, doing exemplary work for a sample is a small investment of time that can pay big dividends in the future by making a good impression on art directors that are on the lookout for the next great illustrator.

When It’s OK To Fire A Client

It’s a rare occurrence, when things get so bad with a client, that cutting ties is the best course of action. It can be hard, especially considering how bad the economy has been these past few years and how rates have plummeted for many in creative fields, but sometimes its the best thing to do. Below are examples of times when it is OK to fire a client.

When a client doesn’t pay their bills.
We love our jobs, but this is a business and we need to make a living. If a client doesn’t pay there is no reason to continue to do work for them. That’s time better spent on developing your own projects and/or doing work for clients that respect you as a professional.
Make sure to have everything spelled out in your contracts with regards to when payments are due and what the consequences are for late or non-payment. This will let them know exactly what needs to be done and discourage them from changing payment milestones or waiting to pay you until after they have some money.

When a client is a low-paying time-waster.
If you have a client that pays a very low rate, refuses to pay what you are worth, and takes too much of your time away from clients who pay more. It may be time to say “goodbye”.

Rude or disrespectful clients.
This one is, thankfully, fairly rare. However, if a client sends rude emails, makes angry unwarranted phone calls, or attacks you personally… Cut that rope! Make sure you’re not confusing criticism, from a client not happy with your work, as them being rude first.

When a client changes the parameters of the job or doesn’t stick to your agreement.
Again, this goes back to making a contract as bullet-proof as possible. If you have an agreement with a client, that they are breaking, it might be time to rethink the relationship. If they are adding more work, beyond what you agreed to, or constantly changing scheduled milestones and delaying payment without your consent or without offering monetary compensation for your extra labor… yep… you guessed it… it may be time to give them the boot.

World’s First Color Picking Pen


What the what? A pen that’s a color picker, like in PhotoShop? Well that’s what the Scribble pen is promising it can do. Select a color from real-life and start drawing with that same color on paper or a mobile device. It’s a pretty amazing idea. “The Scribble color picker pen will make copying an exact color, any color from any object, an absolute breeze.” “With Scribble you can scan, match or compare colors, draw on paper or your mobile device.” reads the company’s press release.Scribblepen002The pen uses an advanced color sensor and bright led lights to illuminate and capture colors from any object around you. Then a microprocessor takes the picked color and mixes the ink for drawing. Can this be real? I would love to say yes, but we don’t have much more to go off of then a website and a press release at this point. There’s not a video out there of this new wonder pen in action, so we’ll just have to wait and see when the Scribble pen’s expected Kickstarter launches on the 7th of July, 2014. Maybe we’ll get more on this product then. If you can’t wait until then visit the Scribbles pen’s website to sign up for an alert when more information is available.

About the author

  • Norm GrockNORM GROCKContributor, Founder

    Having grown up on the shores of Maui, Hawaii, Norm has always had a love for drawing. Since leaving the Islands’ beautiful beaches and landing in Oregon he went to college and received a degree in graphic design. Now living in Beaverton, Oregon, Norm has been working as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator for the last 12 years. He has spent countless hours perfecting his craft as a freelance illustrator working on several children’s books, a few video games and creating numerous educational products. His ability to draw has given him the chance to do the thing he truly loves — Create.

Making The Legend of Halloween Book Cover Part 2

Thanks for checking back for the second part of this two part post about how I created the Magical World of Sebella: Legend of Halloween book cover.  In part one we discussed how I started this project learning the clients expectations and how the client suggested scenes from the book that might make good imagery for the cover. Next, based off these discussions how I design characters to fit into this magical world. Finishing up last weeks post with talking about how I created a final Black and white line drawing, got it approved, and ready to be colored. This week I’m going to show you the process I used for coloring the entire image and how I finished the project up by laying the cover out in InDesign. If you’d like to read part one you can find it here.

For my coloring process I screen recorded the entire session of me painting the cover. This process was over several days and the video is sped up quite a bit. I think it took me about 10 hours to paint the cover and the full-length of the video is about nine minutes. I hope you enjoy zooming through 10 hours of my life.

When coloring I normally use five or six different tools: brush, eraser, gradient, smudge,  lasso selection, and the magic wand tool. In this case I took my color rough and snapped it to the right side of my Photoshop layout, just for reference as I’m adding color. In this illustration’s case the first thing I started with was a gradient just to establish a base color. From there I roughed in some of the background elements. Once I was happy with the rough background I began adding a base color for the characters. For me, it’s easiest if I use the brush tool and establish the outline of the area I’m trying to fill and making sure there are no open areas. Using the magic wand tool I select the inside of the area. Once that selection has been established I expanded anywhere from two pixels to six pixels out as to avoid the nasty pixel ring that can be left behind if you don’t expand your selection. To do this quickly I create an action in Photoshop that expands my selection two pixels out. Once the flat colors are laid down for all the characters, I begin establishing some quick shadows on the characters using the gradient tool. I know a lot of artists don’t like to use the gradient tool, they say it makes it feel more computer-generated and for the most part I agree. Since this is just the base and I’ll come back painting over these areas later, I don’t have a problem starting with the gradient tool. It just helps me define shapes. Now I’m going in and adding a few lines to faces and areas so I won’t need to use my sketch layer anymore. I never delete the sketch layer until the end because I will refer back to it several times.

At this point (2:00 minutes in) in the drawing I’m looking at it and not really enjoying the way the characters are turning out. There’s a lot of things that I could nitpick about it but instead of scrapping the entire picture I decide to focus on the background. Hiding the characters layer I find myself enjoying the task of painting the background and it really energizes me for the rest of the image. Sometimes I find myself worrying about silly things like the way layers are organized and making sure I use selections so that I don’t paint outside defined shapes. When I feel this way I normally do the scariest thing I can, which is flatten the image. It helps me let go of all that silly stuff and just paint.

Once again happy with the background, I turn my attention back to the characters. When I find myself unhappy with a part of the painting it’s nice to focus on something else and come back later to the problem areas. Just don’t wait too long. Remembering to flip the canvas horizontally helps me see the problem areas of the image. By flipping the canvas you can see the image in a whole new light. Sometimes I’m staring at a drawing for too long and I start to gloss over the mistakes I’ve made. In this case a characters eye was to low on his face and when I flipped the canvas I was able to correct this mistake (3:30; it goes by really quick). I continued to add details where needed. I added some needed color to the sky and bats flying in the background. Now back to refining the characters. I start adding darker shadows and highlights of the edges of characters to help better define the light sources. Finally, I add details, details, and more details. My last few steps are to add some missing pieces of candy (7:45). A color adjustment layer and a dark blue gradient from the top of the image to help sell the idea of night. It also helps the title pop off the page a bit more.

Once again I send this image to the client and her only change is to make the text “The Legend of Halloween” a different color.


Now that the cover is approved it’s time for me to lay out the artwork in Adobe Indesign. With this cover there was also a design element which was designing the back cover and spine of the book. The author had already sent me the text for the back, so it was really just a matter of defining the colors, coming up with some decorative elements, adding the UPC code area and applying some of the design elements from the back cover to the spine.

I hope you enjoyed my process for creating this cover. It was well worth it and I really enjoyed creating it. I really appreciate Thea Berg allowing me to share all of this with you. If you have any questions about this process please leave them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to answer them.

About the author

  • Norm GrockNORM GROCKContributor, Founder

    Having grown up on the shores of Maui, Hawaii, Norm has always had a love for drawing. Since leaving the Islands’ beautiful beaches and landing in Oregon he went to college and received a degree in graphic design. Now living in Beaverton, Oregon, Norm has been working as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator for the last 12 years. He has spent countless hours perfecting his craft as a freelance illustrator working on several children’s books, a few video games and creating numerous educational products. His ability to draw has given him the chance to do the thing he truly loves — Create.

Characters with Character

Remember that one book with the kid with the hair and the shorts and the solid colored shirt and a smiling face?  Yeah, me neither.   Think of your favorite children’s picture books.  For me, books like “Olivia”, “Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon”, and “Knuffle Bunny” come to mind.  Chances are, you can picture your favorite characters from your favorite picture books clearly, and they can’t be mistake with any other character from any other book.  They are unique, 3-dimentional people with personalities that are expressed through the text and the images.  As illustrators, we have the job of creating characters that are as one-of-a-kind as real people that we might meet in real life.  To fully realize a character, it is important to visualize and link the person and the environment.

The Character:

After reading the manuscript and description, try to envision everything about your character.  How tall is he/she?  What sort of build?  How about facial expressions?  How does he/she wear he/her hair?  What sorts of clothes would he/she prefer to buy on a shopping trip?  Does your character have a hobby, quirk, or particular interest?  If the manuscript does not specify, take artistic liberties and fill in the gaps!  For example, for one of my recent books “Riley Mae and the Rock Shocker Trek”, I was given a manuscript about a Riley, an athletic girl who becomes the spokesperson for a line of girls’ shoes, and who goes by the name “Riley Mae” so that people will know she is a girl.  This told me that while Riley was sporty, she was not defined by the “tomboy” stereotype. (By the way, I HATE the word “tomboy” and all that it implies…..ok moving on.)  She is in touch with her femininity, and has an interest in fashion.  So, when it came time to design her character, I thought about how Riley would want to look.  Her hair would be pulled back in a pony tale, but have you ever seen an active athletic girl with permanently perfect hair?  So, I gave her a few front pieces that never quite stay in place.  So she holds those stray hairs back with a decorative clip (a different one for each book).  She has freckles from being outside in the sun.  Also, when she chooses her outfits, I figured that Riley would want to keep thing comfortable, but with a little embellishment, just like her hair.   As for the shoes, Riley goes all out.  They are sporty, fashionable, fun and girly, and full of details.

Riley-Mae-and-the-Rock-Shocker-Trek-604x270I also wanted to make sure that she had a least one quirky facial feature.  You know how when babies are born, everyone says “Oh, she has Aunt Kathryn’s nose” or “Oh, those are daddy’s eyes!”?  Making sure that your character has deliberately designed, not generic, facial features helps to keep your character reading as an individual, real person.  For Riley, I gave her a dimple on just one side of her mouth, a cute rounded nose and a heart shaped face.


The Environment:

You can really tell a lot about a person by walking into their house.  How a person decorates, cleans (or not) and keeps their personal space says something about their personality and priorities.  For our characters, there are lots of opportunities to visual express who they are as people by remembering that the environment’s design is really a part of the character design.  There are lots of places where we might use the setting to add little touches that support and flesh out the character.  Bedrooms.  Closets.  Lockers.  Refrigerator doors.  School cubbies.  Backpacks.  Real kids decorate their rooms, scribble on their notebook covers, tape up photographs, draw pictures, display keepsakes and personalize their space.  Our characters should do so as well.  We can also make our characters more interesting by breaking stereotypes.  Not every girl loves pink and princesses.  Not every boy loves sports.  Why not have a girl’s room decorated with a dinosaur theme?  A boy’s backpack with a space ship doodled on it with permanent marker?  Maybe your character is interested in trains, or nature, or is obsessed with a particular animal, or has a favorite color.  Few kids have only one interest.  Having a setting with little details that express your character’s hobbies and passions, even if they are not mentioned in the story, makes your image feel more real and unique, and builds up the world in which your character lives and moves.

HowIHelp_10n11_FullKeeping it Real:

Coming up with current outfits, accessories, unique props and fun environments takes time and research, and tight deadlines and project juggling can make it difficult to be creative within a time-crunch.  One solution that has worked for me is keeping a digital archive of inspiration on Pinterest.  Every week, I make some time to surf the web looking for bedding, curtains, lamps, clothing, and gathering them together in my digital artist reference archive.  This way, when I need inspiration for a trendy teen character, or a little boy’s bedroom, I have references at my fingertips.  This also allows me to keep my references current, so that my outfits and props don’t look dated.  I am sure other artists have other tricks for gathering and keeping track of references as well.

The more unique we make our characters, the more we as readers can relate to them, because they resonate as actual people with quirks, interests and personalities, not as characters just demonstrating an action from the text. Thanks for reading, and have fun looking for interesting props, patterns and people to inspire your next piece!

Making The Legend of Halloween Book Cover Part 1

In this post I’m going to walk you through my process for creating a book cover. A self-publishing author, Thea Berg, approached me to do a cover in her book series The Magical World of Sebella. The first book cover was illustrated by Wilson Williams, Jr. who sadly passed away last year. So I thought it was very nice of the author to think of me to do the second book’s cover. Wilson was a good friend and I was honored that I could continue the work he had started with the first cover.


I’m going to breakdown my entire process for creating the second book cover in the series The Magical World of Sebella book 2: The Legend of Halloween. I’ll show you the character designs, the cover sketches, color comps, my coloring process and finally how I laid the book out in Adobe Indesign. With all that being in this post, it’s going to be a little bit longer than normal so it may end up being broken into two parts. Let’s get started.


My process begins with talking to the client. In this case it was a few emails and a phone conversation. During these conversations we discussed her characters, who her target audience is, and the story. I wasn’t able to read through the entire book’s script so she sent me over chunks of the book that she thought would make the best imagery. In our conversations we kept coming back to this same scene, in which the characters are entering a magical candy garden. This ended up being the area we chose for the illustration to take place in. With all of that out of the way I was able to start drawing. First, I looked at the first book’s cover and the look of the characters that were established in the cover. With this book taking place on Halloween we knew that these characters would need completely new outfits. The first thing I wanted to do was establish the characters’ costumes. We had already discussed what costumes the characters would wear: witch, cowgirl, Princess, and ninja costumes. When I’m designing characters I usually start off with a silhouette of the character but since a majority of that was already established from the first cover I was really able to focus solely on the characters’ outfits. I started with really rough sketches and then continued to refine. By dropping the opacity of the layer of my last rough sketch, creating a new layer and continuing to draw over the top of the last sketch, I refined the image until I came up with an image that I’m happy with. Once I  created a sketch I enjoyed, I darkened the line work and added some color. Then I sent the designs over to the client for approval. The sketches were approved rather easily with one minor change; the witch character looked a little old. I reworked the image and was on to the next step of rough sketches for the cover. Continue reading

My First SCBWI Illustrator Intensive

I recently attended my first Illustrator Intensive hosted by my regional chapter of SCBWI. For several years I’ve wondered whether these workshops were really worthwhile. And after some thought, I decided to feed my curiosity and see for myself…and what I found was a mix of both good and bad. I wanted to share my experience with everyone.

But before I go any further, I wanted to quickly go over the general setup of the intensive. Along with an option for a portfolio review, the main event of the intensive were the advanced exercises. Participants were given a choice between two exercises, one by each of the two speakers. Our speakers for our intensive were Loraine Joyner, Senior Art Director at Peachtree Publishers, and Ronnie Ann Herman, Artist Rep at Herman Agency. We were required to start on our exercises prior to the actual day of the intensive, and we would bring our work and get feedback and share with the group. Loraine’s exercise involved choosing a story from three selected manuscript and with that, we were tasked with creating character concepts, a 32-page storyboard, one tightly rendered sketch, and finally a finished color illustration. Ronnie’s exercise was slightly different, she had two basic scene ideas. For each scene, she wanted characters sketches, a rough sketch, and a finished illustration.

I ultimately went with Loraine’s exercise. I thought it was the more challenging of the two, and developing a storyboard was something I felt I could use more practice in. For this exercise, we had about two months to create the character concepts, storyboard, and tight sketch, with a two week deadline to complete each portion of the exercise. As we finished each part, we turned in our work via dropbox our regional adviser with SCBWI. Once we had everything submitted, the work was then forwarded to Loraine and she critiqued it. We would then take her comments as we worked on our final colored illustration. This was presented on the day of the workshop and shared with the group.

Below are my two character concepts for the story I selected. For my exercise, the main characters were a zebra and a lion;


And here is my finished illustration;


The main highlights of the intensive include;
– After meeting Loraine in person, I definitely felt I made the right choice in working with her, I thought her presentation was very informative and she had a lot of useful nuggets to share.
– Loraine gave my work a very thorough critique, and made some really good comments.
– The day reminded me of my time in art school, and I enjoyed the energy in the room. Everyone was engaged and eager to learn.
– The day long intensive allowed for time to catch up with some friends and fellow illustrators who also attended. It’s always nice to be able to “talk shop” with other people who know can relate.

On the flip side, here are some things I wish were better;
– Poor communication was a big source of frustration for myself as well as other attendees I spoke to. Some of this blame fell on the shoulders of the regional adviser that was collecting the work. To me, she gave the impression that she wasn’t receptive to any questions we might of have.
– For the better part of this venture, I personally didn’t feel like I had anyone I could go to for questions. And this almost ended up in disaster! It was unclear whether we were required to complete a finished illustration, and in the end, I had to rush at the last minute to get it done.

All in all, I’m glad I decided to do it at least once. Would I do it again…probably not. I really enjoyed being in the company of “my” people. It was reminiscent of my college days. And though it felt like this workshop catered more for novices and the inspiring, I still walked away feeling recharged and inspired. I recommend these workshops for those who might need that extra bit of motivation, or for someone looking to get a little taste of an art school class setting.



Video – Smartpen Draws on Paper and then Straight onto Smart Phone

I’m always on the lookout for cool new drawing technologies and this YouTube video of JungGi Kim drawing with the NEO1 Smartpen caught my eye and made me ask the question “how are they doing that?” Sorry, I’m a nerd about technology and I just need to know.

At the World IT Show last year NeoLAB Convergence, Inc. showed off a new user interface, or UI solution that converts a users’ handwritten notes or drawings into a series of 0 and 1 digital signals that are then uploaded to the screen of any smart phone, or tablet PC. The fountain pen-shaped Neo1 smart pen is nothing more than a ultra-tiny computer that talks to a special coded paper. So how does it work? Well, it starts with the special dot-coded paper, or notebook, which is printed with a lot of ultra-tiny dots. Each of the dots is assigned a coordinate. The user starts writing or drawing with the Neo1 smart pen on the special paper and the built-in optical IR sensor keeps track of what the pen writes down and analyzes the coordinates. Then immediately uploads the information to the smart phone, or tablet. It sounds so simple, if I was from the future.

About the author

  • Norm GrockNORM GROCKContributor, Founder

    Having grown up on the shores of Maui, Hawaii, Norm has always had a love for drawing. Since leaving the Islands’ beautiful beaches and landing in Oregon he went to college and received a degree in graphic design. Now living in Beaverton, Oregon, Norm has been working as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator for the last 12 years. He has spent countless hours perfecting his craft as a freelance illustrator working on several children’s books, a few video games and creating numerous educational products. His ability to draw has given him the chance to do the thing he truly loves — Create.

Managing your image files with Adobe Bridge

For those who use the Adobe Suite in their workflow, you may have had Adobe Bridge when it came bundled with Photoshop but never bothered to use it. Or rather, opened it by mistake when attempting to open a new Photoshop file, and then quickly closed it again. I had always thought it was a tool made for photographers, but I recently decided to give it a try, and I’ve found it so helpful for my workflow that it’s now the first application I open when starting my day. If you’re not currently using Bridge, here’s a quick summary of the features that make it a great tool for illustrators to view and manage images:

  • When working on projects (such as picture books or graphic novels) with a large number of image files, Bridge can make it a whole lot easier to compare them all together to check for things like the color scheme across the series, pacing, or consistency of any little details. And, you can easily open any image type in its native application directly from Bridge if you need to make a quick correction. You can even open multiple files at once. Once you make your correction and save the file, it’s view is automatically updated in Bridge
  • You can get thumbnail previews of pretty much any image type (.PSD, .AI, Cam RAW, PDFs, Indesign files, Videos) that normally windows explorer or the file viewer on mac will not generate previews for
  • It’s great when viewing large groups of images – where a quick drag of the zoom bar will increase or decrease the thumbnail sizes, allowing you to customize your view and see all your images as a whole, or zoom in to check details on a smaller group of images
  • The Path bar is a great tool, and with it you can quickly and easily get to the folders and files you need. Right-clicking on a folder will show you all sub-folders within

The path bar at the top of the Bridge window is a really convenient and quick way to get to your files. It has a lot of nice functionality that makes it super quick to use (see it in action in the video links at the end of this post)

  • When viewing files you also have the option to view multiple sub folders at the same time (this can be really helpful if you have groups of imagesfor a project in different sub folders you want to compare or preview all together)
  • You can easily drag thumbnails around to reorder them any way you like, or sort them based on any number of preferences (filename, date, color profile, label, rating, keywords). This can be helpful if you are comparing a group of images and want to place them next to each other
  • The Output view lets you quickly and easily batch create PDFs, contact sheets, or web galleries for groups of images directly from Bridge. This is a really nice feature if you need to prepare an archive of a group of images for client viewing

There are many viewing options, and the Output view is really handy for batch exporting groups of images

  • If outputting a group of images or even various file types for a job, it’s very easy within Bridge to check the color profile for all the files to make sure they are the same (this is very important when sending files for printing)


To get a feel for the interface and see some of the very useful features in action, check out this quick video tour by Martin Perhiniak on Tuts+–psd-17633

Here’s another great video covering the basics of the Bridge interface on –