All posts in Spreading Your WIngs

Getting a Critique: When to Listen, When to Move On

Since it’s back to school time for many of us, I thought I’d focus on an old-school aspect of the illustrator’s journey: the critique. We all get them (if we’re smart) but how do we know what to listen to? I know seasoned illustrators who still ask this question. Over the years I’ve queried various illustrators about when they know how to listen and I’ve gotten many of the same answers.

Here’s when you tune in with all ears… and more than a grain of salt:

• When it’s someone in the position to move your career up a notch and you respect their opinion. That seems like a no brainer but notice I said AND. We often listen to one or the other. If it’s someone you respect but they don’t understand the particular industry you are approaching, then they may not be in the best position to offer advice. Likewise for someone who buys art… you may change your piece to fit their expectations but what if your long term goal is illustrating in a different field?

• When more than one person has mentioned the exact same problem, especially if it’s someone you trust, then it’s worth listening to.

• When the critique mentions a problem you already suspected was there in your heart of hearts….. you should listen, you were probably correct when you worried about it the first time.

• When it points out a way to get more story into the illustration, and it’s the story  – the intent of the piece – you are trying to tell, then listen.

Here’s when you consider smiling and saying, “thanks, I’ll think about it.”

• When the advice seems in conflict with the story you are trying to tell. Like my last bullet, this is also a toughie and demands that you be completely objective about your own work. Are you sure of the story?

• When the critique seems more like a commentary on someone else’s taste. Just because a very respected and highly competent art buyer likes blue doesn’t mean you have to add it to the image IF it goes against the story you were trying to tell.

• When the critique comes from someone outside your particular illustration industry, even if you respect them. This is also a toughie because it’s possible they have sound advice. But before you listen make sure you are educated about the standards in your field. It’s possible that you can bend their advice to work for you.  If, like myself, you are both an illustrator and a writer then that goes double. Some of the best critiques I’ve heard actually came from writers who were adept at thinking visually.

To paraphrase a comment from agent Michael Bourret about writers and editors: “sometimes the worst mistake is to do exactly what the editor asked for… instead of looking for the real problem.” And when it comes to critiques from buyers you are trying to impress but who have rejected the work,  Jane Yolen said it very well in her interview on 12 x 12 earlier this year: “Just because someone offers you a free critique on work they ultimately don’t want, they aren’t taking it! Sometimes it’s just better to forget those.” While it can be hard to get good constructive critiques and equally hard to listen to the criticism, the only way to become good at it is to seek them out regularly. Similar to learning perspective or how to draw the figure, practice is what develops the artists’ ability to receive – and to give – great critiques.

About the author

  • Mary Reaves UhlesMARY REAVES UHLESContributor

    Mary Reaves Uhles has created award winning illustrations in books and magazines for clients such as Cricket Magazine Group, McGraw Hill, Magic Wagon, and Thomas Nelson. Before beginning her career as a freelance illustrator, Mary worked as an animator on projects for Warner Brothers and Fisher-Price Interactive. A PAL member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Mary calls Nashville home and spends her free time behind the wheel of the family mini van.

Going Digital

When I talk with other artists, one thing people seem interested in is my experience transitioning from being a traditional artist to working digitally, and any tips I might have for other who also want to make the switch.  The most important thing to remember for artists who want to go digital is that you are switching your medium, and just like if you were to decide to transition from watercolor to sculpted clay, there is going to be a learning curve.  This post covers the basics that traditional artists who are considering transitioning to a digital medium should know.

Why Go Digital?

Attracting new clients.  There are some clients who specifically want artwork layered.  This is only possible in digital programs.

Evolving your style.  As with any new medium, going digital opens up the opportunity to use new techniques and tools to create a new style and take your artwork in a new direction.

Changing your work process.  When I painted with watercolors, it was important that colors be applied in a certain way at a certain time, and so I needed a large block of time in which to work.  When I became a working mother with a baby, I hardly ever had a few hours straight to paint.  Going digital allowed me to work in smaller blocks of time – 10 minutes, 30 minutes….whatever the baby would give me.  I could work, save the file, and then come back to the piece at the next available opportunity.  There is also something to be said for not having to use up valuable time stretching paper or color-correcting scanned artwork.

The Tools

TabletsPick your pen & paper.  While it is possible to illustrate with a mouse or trackball, the majority of digital artists prefer to use a tablet and stylus.  There are two general varieties.   Tablets like the Wacom Intuos are like a mousepad that sits in your lap.  As you move the stylus across the pressure-sensitive pad, the cursor will draw corresponding marks on your main monitor.  This is an affordable option for those who want to try their hand at digital art to see if the medium is a good fit for their art.  These types of tablets are also nice for artist who may want to work primarily traditionally, but want to make edits/touch ups to their artwork digitally before sending to a client.  There are also tablets that allow the artist to draw directly  on the monitor/screen.  Ipads and similar tablets can be used in this way, but the most elite option for this type of tablet is the Wacom Cintiq.  This tablet, though expensive, is a highly pressure-sensitive monitor that sits in your lap or on the desk, allowing the artist to paint directly onto the screen in a very natural manner.  For those who want a more mobile option, Wacom released it’s Companion model last year, which is a combination Cintiq-laptop.

Pick your program.  There are lots of programs out there to use for digital art, but the most popular are Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Corel Painter.  Illustrator specializes in creating vecctor artwork, which is typically flat or gradated color, very graphic looking, and capable of being up or down dramatically without affecting image clarity.  Painter is a tool for those who want to create realistic painterly illustrations that mimic oil paints, chalk, pastels and other traditional media.  Photoshop allows for painting with a variety of brushes for different effects as well as image/photo editing capabilities.

Time to Learn

Traditional artists, particularly those not accustomed to scanning their own artwork, may find that they need to brush up on some technical knowledge.   For example, digital artists must know what file format the final images should be delivered in.  It is common for clients to want CMYK (color profile) 300 DPI (resolution) Tiff (file format) files.  However, some clients may have other preferences, and the digital artist should know how to set up their image to reflect these preferences before they start painting.  Digital artists also know that the colors on their monitor may not be trustworthy for print-correct-colors.  It is helpful to preview your artwork on a variety of monitors to look for any colors or values that are not reading correctly, or to compare the colors on your monitor to a Pantone color swatch book.  The digital artist must also understand file size, and be able to store and deliver large files in a way that is not inconvenient to the client.  It is not uncommon for a layered working Photoshop file to be over 300 MB in size.  Most email inbox can only take up to 100 MB total, so email is not a good way to deliver many 300 MB files to a client.  Luckily, there are lots of online file sharing services, such as Dropbox, that can help the digital artist get his/her artwork to the client.  Some of these services are free, and some are not.  Other artists have personal FTP sites related to their personal websites to deliver files to a client. Before promising digital art to a client, it is important to understand file formats and specifications, and to have a reliable method for artwork delivery.

Time to Explore

As with any new medium, an artist cannot master it overnight.  Some techniques that worked for the artist traditionally will carry over to the computer environment easily, and some will not.  And just like every oil painter works differently to create the style that he/she wants, the same is true for digital artist.  Every digital art program has brushes and settings that can be used to achieve different looks, and it will take time for the new digital artist to find the tools and techniques that are right for his/her own artistic method.  After talking to a variety of artists who made the switch, you can expect about 6 months of practice and exploration before finding your digital style and being proficient enough at it to execute an illustration project on a deadline.  Youtube has lots of great videos of artists working digitally and sharing their work method.  These resources can be great sources of inspiration for those who need a little help learning the many techniques available for constructing  digital art.

Time to Change?

While many new digital artists try to identify techniques and tools that will allow them to duplicate their traditional style on the computer screen, it can be an unexpected pleasure to find that changing mediums can also change and evolve your illustration style.   For me  experimentation has been the best part of working digitally. With watercolor, I was always playing it safe, particularly with colors, because one wrong brush stroke could ruin hours of work. However, in Photoshop, I am able to try out colors, lighting and textures on separate layers without risking losing hours of work. By having the freedom to explore, I have been able to diversify my colors, create more engaging compositions, and add scanned textures and patterns.  I also found myself eventually gravitating towards more textured brushes, giving some areas of my artwork the look of chalk pastels rather than paint.  This enabled me to achieve color layering and depth that I was unable to achieve through traditional means.  Once I let go and stopped trying to get my new medium to behave like watercolor, I became open to using new color application techniques that eventually took my artwork to a more satisfying place.  The image below shows one of my last watercolor images, my first successful digital illustration, and my current digital style.

DigitalArtProgressionI hope all artists who are thinking about making the switch to digital enjoy the process of learning a new medium and seeing where it takes their artwork!  Happy illustrating!

About the author

  • Jennifer ZivoinJENNIFER ZIVOINContributor

    Jennifer Zivoin has always loved art and storytelling, so becoming a children's book illustrator was a natural career path. Most of her illustrations are painted digitally, though she draws inspiration from traditional media. In addition to artwork, Jennifer enjoys reading, cooking, and ballroom dancing - especially tango! She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.

Collaboration: Stretch Your Creative Muscles

What is collaboration? It’s a process where two or more individuals work together to achieve shared goals. Collaboration can take many forms, but for this post I’m mainly referring to an artist/writer or artist/artist partnership. Since the internet came along, collaboration has become more popular and a lot easier. With the barriers of geographical location removed, there are many more opportunities to find a partner you work well with.

I’ve made a point of collaborating on various projects for quite a few years and I’ve found that it has many benefits. I’ve worked on projects I would not have otherwise, and I feel it has helped me to grow professionally and creatively.

Finding the Right Partner

Finding the right partner to collaborate with is key. Ideally, you want to find someone you work well with, where each partner can focus on their respective strengths to create something unique, something different than either of you could have created alone. For a partnership to work well, both collaborators need to treat the relationship with respect and professionalism.

Here are a few of the key benefits I found in my experience with collaboration:


Working on personal projects is fun and exciting. But there can be times where you struggle with maintaining momentum. When working in collaboration there is another person invested in the process and outcome, and this can be a real boost to your motivation and energy level throughout a project. When someone else is counting on you to deliver your part of the work, it can really help you buckle down and just get it done.

A Creative Challenge

Working with a partner can help you break out of your comfort zone and grow as an artist. Your collaborator will have their own way of thinking, and you can be exposed to new ideas, subject matter, and points of view. All of this can lead to solutions you may not have considered otherwise, and often it can help you break through barriers in your own work.

Develop Relationship Skills

If you treat the collaborative partnership in a professional manner, you can benefit from gaining experience in a number of areas that will serve you well in your career. You’ll develop your communication skills, a sense of accountability for your work, the art of compromise, more patience, and a level of professional trust. All of these skills are very valuable when you are working with clients.

Build up a Body of Work

If you are sharing the workload with another person and each working in your areas of strength, you’ll have the opportunity to complete projects more efficiently than if you were working alone. And, if you are an illustrator working with a writer, perhaps you’ll be able to complete projects you may never have completed alone – especially if you do not write yourself.

Expand Your Network

While you’re collaborating you’re also building a professional relationship with another person. Good working relationships are very valuable, and building them over time through collaboration is a good way to expand your network. You never know where opportunity will arise in the future from those relationships that you have developed.

Cross Promotion

When you are working with a partner, you add their network to your own when it’s time to promote your projects. A bigger network means more exposure, and more exposure is always a good thing.

Is Collaboration Right for You?

Even if you prefer to work alone, it’s worth exploring the possibility of collaboration. It can open up a whole new set of opportunities for professional and artistic growth, as well as develop your skills in other areas.

If any of you reading this post have had any experiences with collaboration, we’d love to hear what you may have learned, or any tips you’d like to share.

As You Wish…

Happy 2014, everyone!  It’s that time of year again.  That time when we all resolve with great intention to organize the house/lose the weight/run that marathon/kick that bad habit/save up for that thing we’ve been wanting……and a few months later lose motivation because we just don’t seem to be getting anywhere.  The same can be said for the business of children’s illustration. An artist can jump into the industry with the best of hopes, but become discouraged when those hopes don’t become reality.

So, how can we illustrators push our art and our careers to the next level in ways that yield results?  It comes down to setting the right goals.  Goals such as “I will get published this year” or “I will get that trade book” or “I will win that award” aren’t goals that we can actually do anything about.  We can’t make our favorite publishers hire us, and we can’t make that committee give us that award.  However, we can set realistic goals for ourselves that can make our art more competitive in the marketplace.  I recommend identifying 2-3 goals for your ARTWORK, and 2-3 goals for your BUSINESS.


Your Artwork
We’ve all done it.  We’ve gone into libraries and book stores, browsed the shelves of new children’s books, and sighed, “I wish my art was as good as insert-name-of-fabulous-artist-here.”  In fact, most of us have several illustrators that we admire, usually for different reasons.  This is informative! We can look at the artists that inspire us, evaluate our own portfolios, and make a wish list. Continue reading

Spreading Your Wings with Ward Jenkins

Our Spreading Your Wings posts are about looking for other places in the industry that your children’s market style can find a home. Learning to not limit ourselves to thinking that the only place our style can find us work is strictly doing children’s books. That’s simply not true.

In this post award winning children’s book illustrator, Ward Jenkins drops in to shed some light adn show some sketches from his recent foray into co-directing an animated public service announcement for the NBA and NRDC  about going green and recycling. Ward storyboarded the commercial, did layouts, and illustrated some key frames while another studio used Flash to animate the commercial to completion.  I’ll let Ward explain it better.


NRDC NBA Adds Up PSA – Ward Jenkins/Paul Golden from FFAKE Animation on Vimeo.

It’s been a while since I’d directed anything lately, so it was a welcome pleasure for Paul Golden of Ffake to contact me about co-directing this fun public service announcement for the NBA and NRDC. That’s National Basketball Association (of course) and the National Resources Defense Council – they’re all about going green and recycling, etc. The PSA was a simple walk through of all the ways that the NBA has been working with the NRDC to make sure the league is going green – mostly through the basketball arenas and facilities.

Paul wanted to emulate the look and feel of M. Sasek and his “This Is…” children’s book series, and I – of course, couldn’t say no to that. It was quite a fun adventure working on this spot. Below are some of the first sketches I did of the NBA player and the NRDC scientist guy: Sketches 1 Sketches 2 Sketches 3

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Guest Post-Tom Bancroft-Disney layoffs, 2D animation, and you


Recently many were worried for the future of hand drawn animation with the announcement that Disney had no plans for any hand drawn projects in the future. This made many feel that they were witnessing the final days of traditional animation. Things seemed to be cemented with the recent announcement that a number of traditional animators had been laid off by Disney. There was panic in the streets!

Many felt that with Disney backing away from this art form that their dreams of seeing non computer generated imagery onscreen had gone the way of vinyl and 8 track cassettes. Luckily we have industry veteran Tom Bancroft to come in and quell the fires and rage of our passion for a craft many artists love dearly.

Tom Bancroft has almost 25 years of experience in the animation industry, most of which was for Walt Disney Feature animation where he was an animator for 11 years. He is the author of several character design books and his most recent project is a graphic novel titled Opposing Forces.  So join us as Tom reacts to the news and helps to incite hope by giving his perspective of the issue. Enjoy.

A very nervous animation student (he didn’t say, but I assume he is studying 2D animation) asked me about my opinions on the state of animation these days.  What are the companies thinking with laying off all the employees, not doing 2D animation, canceling great TV series, etc.?  Are the business people just evil?  AND the even bigger question: Is John Lassiter a jerk (or worse) for letting all the 2D animators at Disney go yesterday?

MY ANSWER:  I have a slightly controversial (for an artist) perspective on businesses and business people.  Over all, I like them.  At times, I have even been grateful for them.  (Steady paychecks should never be taken for granted.  Wait till you don’t have one one day, then you’ll know!) Remember, we live in a world where businesses are expected to make money to stay alive.  It’s called capitalism. Others call it “business”. That means, the animation world isn’t any different from any other job/company. I see the other side of the equation since I owned my own company for about 8 years. It was a small studio, but until you work “out in the real world” away from mom and dad’s money and/or a companies’ steady paycheck, you have no idea how hard it is to stay afloat as an artist. I don’t suggest it to people right after art school by any means. That doesn’t mean I think that studios are run poorly at times.  They OFTEN are.  Its is near impossible to find a person that understands creative people AND knows business well enough to run a studio.  That person was NOT Walt Disney, as many of you think.  Walt had his brother Roy, to handle the money side of things and make sure Walt didn’t destroy the company.  And he would have.  Imagine a world where Disney animation only made “Snow White”.  That’s the Disney company with Walt as the sole head.  You need both sides and I admit, the Disney company of today (and for years now) is short sighted.  They want quick money and are not looking long term at investments and legacy, as they should.
They say they are, but its obvious they are not.

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Guest Post-Travis Hanson-Understanding Kickstarter

Travis Hanson is a professional fantasy artist and creator of  the Eisner Award nominated Webcomic, “the Bean”.

He stops in today to tell us about Kickstarter.  How he has used it successfully in his career and how much of an integral part he sees it playing in the future of publishing. Travis has had three Kickstarter projects and one that is currently in progress.   Check at bottom of post for more info on his current campaign.) All of them were not only funded successfully but went over the allotted amounts by at least 50% (one even went as far as 229% over it’s goal!) He obviously knows what he’s talking about!

So take notes and enjoy! Then be sure to visit his current Kickstarter campaign to help support him in his efforts.


Understanding Kickstarter and why small press thrives off it (especially webcomics)

I want to talk about Kickstarter. Why I am for it and how people can make it work for them… I realize that a lot of you might not know me or my comic. You probably wondering where I get off talking about Kickstarter and why I think it is fantastic for the industry or how to make it work?

My name is Travis Hanson. I am a fantasy illustrator. I write and illustrate a webcomic called Bean, which was nominated for an Eisner in 2011, it is a black and white epic fantasy tale of a dishwasher. I also do fantasy illustrations that focus on the power of imagination. I have been for 15 years. Now, what does that have to do with Kickstarter? Well, in the last two years I have put together three successful Kickstarter campaigns for the bean and now I am working on 4th campaign, which reached it’s target goal in 4 days of 11k.

So how does small press, unknown, indy creator able to make Kickstarter work? Why do thrive off of it?

Well that is because I understand what Kickstarter really is. It is a funding platform for projects of creators who want control over their works. Anyone can use it and it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as you follow their guidelines. They encourage you to do as many projects as you want… yet you can only do one at a time…. which is cool. So with the understanding of what it really is, it’s hard for me to get upset at the movies, big games or big that want to fund their works. Kickstarter actually allows them to connect with their fans, produce work they want full control  and to me this important and crucial to making this platform work. It is important to note, its not a publishing house, distribution center or marketing firm. That is the sole responsibility of the creator.

A fan, or pledge, chooses for themselves if they will back a project or not. There is no force and if you don’t like a certain project, for whatever reason, than you don’t have to back it. That means if people want to support indy guys, like me, and small press, or maybe their favorite artist they can find us and back us. Honestly I can’t blame the million dollar campaigns because they have an established fan base… all I can do is find a way to make it work best for me.

What Kickstarter has done as a funding platform is made it possible for creative people to get their works out there and get their dreams a start. Not all projects will fund and most of it deal with rushing the project out there without preparing on how you the creator will market it to your fan base. Some projects catch fire and shoot the moon and some, like mine and many others make our goals and allows us to follow our dreams. There are people uncomfortable with this work model. Established artist and designers that are afraid that the market will be flooded with subpar work, maybe the true fear is they are afraid their own fan base will diminish. I doubt it. In fact I have found that some incredible work is being produced and that I am finding a lot of hidden talent that needs to be noticed through the world of Kickstarter

So in reality I am writing this for the indy creator, the one that has a dream and wants to see that dream become a reality. I hope that you take to heart what I say. It could probably save you some time and money and a little heartache. I hope you realize that all Kickstarter is is a way to crowd fund your books and that you have to do the rest, which can be a lot of hard work, but in the end so worth it…  Now if your planning one, here are some guidelines that have worked for me.

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Guest Post-Will Terry-New Ways to Market Your Illustration


In this informative and insightful post, Will Terry delves into the current state of the industry. He deals with the changes he’s seen it go through in the duration of his career as well as the steps he’s taken to be able to continue to survive within it.
Whether you agree with his opinion or not you have to agree that things are changing. Our industry is in a constant state of flux and as artists it may simply no longer be good enough to be good or great artists.

Check out the video and let us know your thoughts in the comments. Do you agree or disagree? Can you think of others within our industry who are examples of Will’s ideology and are making their own paths and finding success? Let us know!

Spreading Your Wings-Breaking in to Toy Design-Part 5

Past Articles:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Toy design and artwork by Claude Bonnaud

This final article will call to attention something a commenter named Jim Bousman brought up in comments on previous articles. Jim is well established within the toy and gaming industry and knows a great deal about what it takes to get hired within the market.   So what was the additional skill that he looks for when hiring toy designers that we didn’t mention? More on that in a sec.

The reason we didn’t mention the item brought up by Jim it is that our research showed us that the specific skill mentioned wasn’t needed for an entry level position. So while this skill isn’t “needed,” it can be the thing that differentiates you from others who may be applying for the same position. Any additional skill you can wrangle and add to your resume can only help in guaranteeing that you are the one chosen for the job.


Toy design and artwork by Claude Bonnaud

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Spreading Your Wings-Breaking In to Toy Design-Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of our series of Toy Design Articles. You can find links below to the other articles before this one.

Past Articles:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The next question we will cover is,

How do I find work?

There are a number of ways and resources to begin your search for freelance or full time employment opportunities within the Toy Industry.

Have you found a company who’s work you are drawn to or they fit your style? I hope that while you were going up and down those aisles in the toy store that you noted which companies did work that excited you. I also hope that you picked up those toys and wrote down, at the very least, the names of those companies.  If not go back and do it.

Once home I would ask that you go online and peruse their websites. Many of the companies will have a job database on their webpages that shows open positions.

You can also join a social network like LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional social website intended to be used primarily to make business contacts and networking.

One of LinkedIn’s many features is that if the company you are interested in is in their database, you can follow them.  This will allow you to be updated when people leave the company as well as when new jobs or positions open. Most of your major companies will have listings on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn also has a number of Toy Industry related groups that you can join. Many of them have Job listings. You can use these groups to place links to your portfolio as well as peruse any jobs that are posted to them. These groups can also be a great place to post industry related questions, get input on your portfolio and engage in thoughtful discussions with your professional peers.

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