All posts in words of wisdom

Personal Projects: Why They Are so Important

As artists and illustrators you’ve probably heard it before –  working on your own projects outside of client work is really important for your development.

Let’s face it, working in the field of illustration can be difficult and discouraging at times. Finding client work, submitting to publishers, trying to find an agent – it’s a constant grind for most of us, so it’s important to set aside time to work on personal projects. This can be anything – a single illustration, a series of illustrations on a theme, a comic, a picture book, the possibilities are endless. A personal project will be something that excites or inspires you – something you are passionate about. Working on a project that means something to you will give you the fulfillment and satisfaction you can’t get from client work alone. And this is vital over the long term in maintaining your creative energy levels and personal artistic happiness that will spread out into all other areas of your work and life.

I think the importance of personal projects can be summed up into three main points:

Skill Building

Personal projects are a great way to build your skills and discover new techniques. When working on something for yourself you’ll push yourself harder, and often find you produce your best work. Creating something that has personal meaning almost always gives you better results than something you create for a client.

Gain Confidence

Building skills with personal projects will also help grow your confidence. It’s a good idea to start out with smaller projects at first, so you can see them through to completion. Completing your projects is key, because that gives you the confidence that you can see them through, and will give you a sense of accomplishment. This will in turn motivate you to start another project – perhaps bigger or more ambitious that the last.

Personal Fulfillment

Have a picture book or comic idea that you are excited about? Instead of submitting it to agents or publishers and playing the waiting game, you may want to consider working on it for yourself. There are many options for self publishing these days, even if you just decide to simply publish your project on the internet. There is a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in seeing your project complete, and you may even find you can build yourself an audience along the way. I myself have published quite a few projects this way, and I have found it very fulfilling and motivating.

A Final Word

With the openness of the internet and social media right now, there are minimal barriers to getting your work out there. Of course the challenge is in getting your work noticed, but that’s part of the fun in building an audience. There’s never been a better time to be an independent creator. There are so many creative ways to get your work in front of people, and many artists are already doing just that – side stepping the traditional publishing routes and building audiences for themselves. I think we will see this trend continue to grow in the future.

About the author

  • Chris JonesCHRIS JONESContributor

    Chris Jones is a Canadian based children's illustrator. He has always been interested in telling stories visually, and his colorful style focuses on humor and expressiveness. A graduate of the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD), he has illustrated for several magazines and educational publishers. Chris is inspired by good music, good books, long walks, and generous amounts of coffee. Chris is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

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.

More Life with Subsurface Scattering

Subsurface scattering (SSS) is the phenomenon when light enters a translucent material and upon entering it the light scatters inside the material before either being absorbed or leaving the material at a different location. I know this sounds like a hard idea to grasp but it’s a good concept to keep in the back of your mind when painting skin or other translucent materials.


Subsurface scattering is mostly used in 3D applications, but I apply it when illustrating organic characters such as people. Adding a red tint to parts of the character such as the fingertips, nostrils, and ears really brings a character to life. SSS occurs most often when three conditions are met: translucent flesh, thin forms, and backlighting. Any organic surface where the light doesn’t have to travel very far to emerge out the other side is where this phenomenon occurs. Why do you add this additional color to these areas? Because of SSS many organic and inorganic materials are not totally opaque at the surface, so light does not just bounce off the top of there surfaces like it would in say a material like metal. Opaque materials allow light to enter the surface and once inside the light scatters around. As the light scatters around it takes on the color of whatever is inside the material. Finally, the light emerges out at a different location, but it projects a hint of the color of what is on the inside. For example, human skin is opaque. Blood is trapped within the skin. The light enters the skin. Then the light enters the blood and emerges out the other side with a reddish tint. A great example of SSS, hold up your hand in a dark room and using a flashlight shine the light back through your hand and watch how the light travels through your skin and gets scattered, taking on a reddish color.


Subsurface scattering not only occurs with skin but other surfaces like the skin of fruits, leafs, marble, milk and gels. Without knowledge of SSS photo-realism really cannot be achieved so next time you’re drawing keep in mind the principles of subsurface scattering and watch how your characters are brought to life.

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.

Illustration Biz Best Practices: Dealing With Difficult Clients

While all freelance creatives have the unique benefit of being paid to do what we would do for free anyway, along with that benefit comes the responsibility to run our businesses wisely. There are several posts on Once Upon A Sketch about dealing with spec work, managing studio expenses and getting work. But what if you’ve done your homework; gotten what looks like a good, non-amateur client that’s paying a decent commission and the project still goes south? There is an old proverb that says “a learning experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” For the last few weeks I’ve been getting a learning experience dealing with quite possibly the most challenging client of my career. We’re not at a finished point yet but I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned so far:

 1) Don’t ignore orange flags. I take vetting a client very seriously. I don’t show my work in places where wannabe, McClient types would seek to get work for cheap or free. I understand my rights and make sure I understand the scope of the project and the contract. But let’s just say something innocuous, like the trim size, doesn’t seem right. In my example, I questioned the dimensions presented as they didn’t include a bleed and the single and spread sizes didn’t match. I was assured the dimensions were correct. When I started finals, I double checked the contract, surely they wouldn’t make a mistake there. Yep, the contract had the same strange sizes I was given. So I proceeded… but decided to add my own bleed area just to listen to my intuition. Three weeks later after a series of stops and starts from the designer’s side I was given the “actual” dimensions and they were quite a bit different. Fortunately my self added bleed helped some but not enough. The strange size wasn’t a big red flag, it wasn’t a terrible manuscript or teeny tiny budget. It wasn’t being asked to work in someone else’s style. In my opinion these are all reasons to bolt from a project. But looking back, that one wrinkle set up the entire trajectory of the project. Next time I will press and question, even to the point of saying “I want to confirm this doesn’t change after sketch approval”…. and if the answer’s not good enough, I might consider that a reason to bolt.

2) Once you see an orange flag, get explicit approval for EVERYTHING. I’d finished sketches, finished revisions for those sketches, the designer had said “everything looks great!” At that point the deadline was a comfortable three week margin away. Everything was rosy. I did what every responsible illustrator would do – I started the finals. Because when the client says “everything looks great” that’s what you should do right? Maybe not, looking back I wish I’d pressed them again and point blank asked “Can I start finals?” Because 10 days later, after half the project was complete, I hear there’s a new approval process… and my sketches “may not really be approved.” When I pointed out the earlier communication of everything being great, the client questioned whether they had ever approved anything. Fortunately I was able to lay out email correspondence showing the timeline of sketches, requested revisions, and how everything looked great before they ever mentioned a new approval process.

3) Communicate entirely in writing. It was tempting to pick up the phone and sort everything out with a single half-hour chat. That’s what I would have done with any of my long time clients. But as their changes, approvals, and deadlines got more and more tangled I realized that the person I was working with was only caught in the middle. Talking would leave me with no proof of what we decided and possibly start a “he said/she said” scenario. By communicating exclusively over email I was able to lay out my understanding of the project and have a record of it. Be as professional and enthusiastic as possible, but be ready to defend your side reasonably in writing.

4) Know when to say when. Once the process has started to tilt toward endless revisions beyond the deadline and beyond the budget it’s time for the illustrator to consider whether or not they will continue the project. At that point you can say “this is my last series of changes unless you increase the budget” or “unless this is approved without changes I can’t do any more on this project.” You can fight about a kill fee or just walk away. But the main thing is you have to know at what point you should move from helping the client to protecting your business. In the long run, a difficult client will drag your business down no matter how much money the contract says they will pay you. Finishing this project is on my to-do list but I grind my teeth when I think about it. I have other really exciting books to work on at the moment plus, my own projects which are close to my heart. This difficult client is sucking out my inspiration for those. Just like any relationship, once you reach this tipping point, spend time with the “good projects” and get the difficult ones out of your studio as quickly as you can.

As the process got more out of whack with this client I began researching them online to see if any other illustrators had had problems. I recommend doing this at the start of a new client project anyway. I didn’t find anything substantial but I did find a few other interesting tips for freelancers in this same position. I hope my fellow illustrators never have reason to need it, but in case they do I add this advice to mine:

Dealing With Difficult Clients

Three Questions To Ask Your Illustration Clients

The Bad Client Diet


100 Days of Personal Work

I have been an advocate for illustrators to work on self-directed work for some time now. The problem is that making the time for personal work can be difficult when clients come calling and your belly is rumbling. Those are the times when a lot of us put our own comics, children’s books, and dreams back on the shelf to collect dust until our client work has been cleared off our plates. This can create another problem… It may take more time to build up the steam we had, on our personal projects, if we only work on them in the spaces between commissioned gigs. In my experience, this usually means the self-directed projects never get done and I remain a contractor that only works on the dreams of others.

I recently became inspired by a website called Giveit100. The big idea, presented by this site, is that if you practice something for 100 days you will gradually learn whatever it is you want to do, whether that be dancing, cooking, or playing a musical instrument for example. People who sign up at this site are asked to make a short video everyday for 100 days to track their progress and as a way to stay motivated to stay on course while being held publicly accountable.

I slightly altered the goal of Giveit100 to fit what I want to do, which is to consistently work on my personal projects despite the amount of client work I am often saddled with. In my case, I’m trying to finish my own books while working on books I’ve been hired to do for publishers. Right now I am trying to finish a 4 issue comic book story and am devoting, at very least, 30 minutes a day to it. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but as of this writing, I’ve finished over two whole working days worth of time on this project that I wouldn’t have had completed had I not decided to do this. The benefit I’m getting is that my motivation to finish my personal project increases everyday. I jones to work on it and feel satisfied keeping the ball rolling. Additionally, its becoming a habit already just 17 days in.

I want to encourage you to try something similar. All of us working professionals are making money for other people and making their dreams a reality. Its our job, but I’d like to see more of us take the initiative to get our own personal vision out into the public sphere. In a world of decreasing advances with no promise of retirement, where quality art is made mediocre through design-by-committee, I think we owe it to ourselves to live our dreams and give the public better alternatives.

If you’d like to follow my progress as I work on a comic book for 100 days in a row, you can do so here.

Good luck!
Kevin Cross

How FREE can help you and your illustration business

Free: The Future of a Radical Price is a book written by Chris Anderson that examines the pricing models of free and how companies can make money by giving things away. We see it all the time from Google giving away services like email, Google Docs, and music groups giving away their music in hopes that you will buy a ticket to their concert. Often the strategy is to attract users and up-sell some to a premium level. This model has become widely referred to as “freemium”. Anderson makes the case that some businesses can make money by giving products and services away rather then charging a premium price. Chris explains how this radical pricing model can be used for the benefit of consumers and businesses alike.

How does this apply to running an illustration business? Well there is a chance you’re doing it already. Maybe you’re writing a blog, giving away coloring sheets on your website, or just putting your work on the web for all to see. Things that cost you very little to produce, but can possibly give you a big return if seen by the right people.

Of course this model is not for everyone and not everyone will agree with what Chris has to say but he has made the barrier to entry very small because Chris walks the walk by giving away his book in  digital form. Of course the printed version costs, but if this book sounds interesting to you its free to try. I personally see this model as a way we illustrators can use to promote our selves. No matter what you think about Free hopefully you’ll find an idea in this book that will be helpful to your career. Oh and did I mention it’s free.

The Book is available for free at:
Chris Anderson’s blog

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.

Who Inspires You?

Who are some of the illustrators out there that inspire you? That was the question I asked my fellow contributors here at Once Upon a Sketch. Along with giving me some names, I also wanted to know why they loved their work. This is what I got:

Macky Pamintuan

James Bennett – One of my all-time favorite children’s book illustrators. From colors, to background detail and storytelling, just an overall superb illustrator. His editorial artwork is something I’ve looked up to all the way back to my art school days.


Peter De Seve – To me, one of the best narrative illustrators in the biz. He’s known for his character designs, and justifiably so, but his compositions and the way he delivers a story in just one image (His New Yorker covers are amazing) is also why I picked him. I also love his muddy watercolor palette and rough, free flowing sketch work that show underneath his paintings.


Phil Hale – All emotion and kinetic energy. His form & compositions are always inspiring. There is nothing static and boring in his work and I can always feel a dark intimidating energy from them.


Chris Jones

Robert Williams – During my early school years he was a big inspiration and influence for me. I really admired his painting style and how he mixed it with flat compositional elements. And his mix of car culture and psychedelic and apocalyptic imagery are just plain crazy fun.


Dan Santat – I really admire his great character designs, sense of humour and playfulness in his work, and his wonderful use of colour.

1897018_10152308065881488_1638602574_n Continue reading

Spec Work, No Thanks

A little while ago a client asked me to work on a project with them. I quoted the job and waited to hear back, but the response I got took me by surprise. The response said:

“Please move forward with the project, but we will only pay for the work if we use it. If you do not agree to this, please let me know. Just wanted to make sure we are both on the same page.”

Well to be honest the response was not what I was expecting and left me a little upset. So I kindly wrote back:

“As much as I would like to work on this project with you, I can’t in good conscience work under these terms. I’m sure I will provide a wonderful service and you will love the work I create, but with this stipulation being in place it becomes too arbitrary to determine whether I will get paid for my ideas or not. If you’re willing to waive this stipulation I would love to work with you on this project.”

So I thought that was that and continued on with my day. Lo and behold within a few hours I heard back from this client and they were willing to waive their stipulation and send me a signed version of my contract as well as the first half of the payment for me to begin the project. I was completely surprised and caught off guard. I couldn’t believe that somebody a few hours ago had just asked me to work for free and just as quickly change their mind to get me to work with them. I guess the moral of the story is people will see what they can get away with and if they really want you to work for free they’re not worth working with.

There’s a term in the creative community for someone asking people to work for free, it’s called spec work. Basically, “spec” work, short for speculative work, is any work done for a client, completed or not, in the hopes that you will be paid for your ideas and time. So what are the risks of participating in spec work. Personally, I feel it devalues the work that you do. It says that you’ll do it for free and if you like it you can possibly pay for the work. Creative people are at risk being taken advantage of all the time. People who normally look for free work say things like “this is a great opportunity for you” or “this could make a great portfolio piece.” These days more and more spec work is wrapped inside a contest. “Illustrate this poster for us and we’ll use it for blank project.” People may see this as a way to get free ideas for their project and not have to pay for them. There’s nothing to stop somebody from taking your ideas to somebody else who will work for less and then have someone create it for them. Some Artistes may say that this is a lesser version of your idea if someone else creates it, but either way you’re not getting any value for your ideas. Please remember that your ideas are half of the process and that your ideas have value. It diminishes the true value of other people’s work as well. If these people continue to get away with getting free ideas then the value of the other Artistes work goes down too.

Not all “free” work is spec work. You can volunteer your time for a good cause or do an internship. These are different types of work that you don’t get paid for but you can get some type of credit for, which helps you out in other ways. For instance, an internship you get on-the-job training or if you’re doing some type of Pro Bono job normally you can negotiate some sort of credit line that will be added to the piece which in turn gets you a little bit of marketing. I personally suggest doing this for nonprofits or say a school district, somewhere that is not planning on monetizing your ideas. Just last year I created an illustration for a project that I thought was worth working on for free. A few artists were putting together a art book for another artist who has cancer. All the proceeds go to this particular artist to help take care of the medical costs associated with the illness. To me, this is a good reason to work for free. I will get credit in the book and I have become part of this community of artists but helping someone else in need is payment enough.

I know there’s been a lot of other articles written about spec work but my personal favorite is the position that the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) takes on this subject. This article also includes a good sample letter to send to someone that is asking you to do spec work. If you’re still interested after reading this article just search “spec work” on your favorite search engine and you will find plenty of information.

My message to you after having this experience would be please choose your “Free” projects wisely.

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.

New Illustrator to the OUaS Family

Here at Once Upon a Sketch, we are delighted to welcome our new contributor, the super talented Macky Pamintuan to the family. Along with multiple picture books, you might be familiar with his work such as the Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew and the Flat Stanley series. I had the pleasure of interviewing Macky and he offered some insight into his career and background.


Can you tell us a bit about your background? School?

I’m originally from the Philippines and moved to San Francisco when I turned 21. There, I studied at the Academy of Art University and initially majored in 2D animation but soon switched to Traditional Illustration after realizing that I enjoyed that craft more.

I’m glad I did. I was always that one kid in class who did nothing but draw, but the 5 years learning the proper discipline of approaching an illustration (photo refs! thumbnails! commitment!)really helped me.

Shortly after graduating, I was at a fork on the road career wise. Not sure whether to seek stable employment under an art related company or try to go on my own and freelance. I gave myself 6 months to see if I could do the latter. Luckily, it all panned out and here I am.


How long have you been illustrating?

As a working (translation: starving) art student, I’d pick up freelancing projects like an illustrated poetry book, theater posters, logos and even as a caricaturist for private parties. Around 2004, a few months after signing with my rep, I quit my job as an after school art teacher and began illustrating full time.

I’m still amazed that I’ve been doing this professionally for over decade now.

What do you consider was your big break?

That’s a tough question. I think my opportunities came in increments, most of them unexpected. For example, a small baseball portfolio piece that I did opened doors for me to do a lot of baseball artwork including three picture books (one of them for my beloved SF Giants).

NBB cover

Come to think of it, there was no singular “big break” for me. Slowly building working relationships with publishers and art directors no matter how big or small the project may be helped me get considered for future work.

Sometimes, It’s hard to tell which piece leads you to more projects. One of my earliest picture books, “I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Track” (2006), still gets me work inquiries to this day. And sometimes, it’s hard to tell when it will happen. I was backpacking in Europe when I got offered to do the relaunched “Nancy Drew & The Clue Crew” series.


We are both represented by MBArtists, can you tell us how you came to sign with them?

Yes, we are! In 2004, when I resolved to see if I can pursue a career as a freelance illustrator, I contacted a long list of art reps to inquire if they’d be interested in representing me.

After more than a few “No’s,” I found two reps who were interested. A Chicago based advertising rep and Mela Bolinao from MB Artists. The Chicago guy was talking big numbers, but I went with my gut and signed with Mela. I enjoyed the energy she brought and I foresaw a valuable partnership and friendship in the years to come. Easily one of the best decisions I’ve made. Continue reading

13 Rules For Making Comics

by Kevin Cross

1. Write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite again. Etcetera…

After you’ve figured out who your main character is and what genre your story will fall in to, write a rough outline. Don’t worry about how it looks or if there are tons of misspellings. The outline is for you to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks while figuring out  the beginning, middle, and end of your story. When you are satisfied with your rough outline, write another more detailed outline. Then write the first draft of your script. Put it away for a few days. I guarantee that you’ll find flaws with your first draft after you come back to it with fresh eyes, so write a second draft. Once the second draft is finished, if possible, show it to someone whose opinion you trust. Show it to someone who can be honest with you. Don’t get butt hurt and remember to say thank you! If you can’t show it to anyone… you guessed it… put it away for a few days. In my experience, no script is ready to go until at least the third draft is written, so get cracking on your next draft. Put it away again, but let it sit for a month or two while you work on something else. Use this time to nail down your character designs or design the environments your story takes place in, for example. After some time has elapsed, pull out that third draft. See if the story feels finished. You may want to show it to someone again or maybe you find more flaws or have ideas to make it better. You might need to do more drafts or less if you are a brilliant genius. Make sure that you know exactly what the story is, in and out, before you draw one line. It’ll save you headaches in the long run.

2.  Read!

Read stories without pictures. Don’t just read comics in your genre, and for goodness sake, don’t just read comics. Doing so can make your comic come off as derivative. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read those comics at all. They can help you learn the language of comic storytelling, but please, vary your diet to see what works and what doesn’t work from storytellers that have come before you. Study that sh*t! I know its cliche, but reading does make you a better writer.

3.  Keep It Simple Stupid!

Comics are about communication. Get rid of superfluous details! They can be distracting and take you out of the story. Simplify and go for clarity in your storytelling.

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