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Becoming an Illustrator
My Illustration Timeline
Each month members of the IlloGuild answer a question together and our 5th question is:
How did you become an illustrator?
Every question so far has been really insightful to me! Unpacking different parts of this profession has made me love it even more. The “illustration thread” has been woven through out my entire life! I don’t know how to answer this particular question without telling the whole story. I’ve also included an audio version of this story. So, if you’re short on time, you can listen to it.
I wrote and illustrated my first book at age 7.
My first book was published with care in my childhood home. And I had one extremely happy costumer, my mom. It made me feel so excited. In fact, EVERY drawing and art project made me excited. The idea that you could create a whole story, a whole new world, an image that didn’t exist before!! I’m convinced, this is where my path to illustration first started.
Here is a few examples of my early children’s book work:
I grew up knowing art was my favorite, but I never considered it could actually be my future career. My high school art teacher was the one who enlightened me. One of my favorite assignments was when we were given 4 words we had to put together in an image. These were my first illustration prompts! My teacher noticed my joy. Without his support I might not have pursued further education in art. He made me feel like art was not just a fun hobby for me, it was my life long calling. This idea thrilled me. His help was subtle, but powerful. My junior year, I was allowed to edit my schedule so I could take a block art class. Then as a senior, I was his “student teacher”. He let me take attendance and then basically take over a small section in the front of the class as my own studio. I could use any art supply I wanted, I learned to use oil paints, I picked out my own projects, and I basically built my first portfolio. Now looking back, I realize just how special that was. He wrote me a recommendation letter, he urged me to apply to art schools, and basically gently nudged me into art as my life profession!
Here is some of my high school artwork:
In art school, I loved being able to work in a studio, a place I could make a mess and really experiment!
I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Colorado State University. Art school was such a dream! I had a real excuse to buy ALL the art supplies I wanted (some where for class of course). I thrived in all my fine art classes…drawing, still life, portraits, painting, printmaking, woodcarving, sculpture, bookmaking, pottery and anything I could get my hands on. My art history classes were interesting, but watching slides in the dark always made me so sleepy! I needed hands on creativity. Visual story telling was my jam.
I slowly shuffled into my concentration, graphic design. I was unsure about it. I knew it was a good avenue for me, but I wasn’t particularly interested in it. It was computer based and at that time it seemed fairly new to me. My design teachers came from a era when everything was done by hand and they hardly told us anything about the technical side of things. We had a computer lab, but it was basically “fend for yourself” in there! The teachers taught us theory and good design, while we taught each other how to use the early versions of the adobe programs. I learned basic shortcuts like Command C to copy…command V to paste. I had a short lived panic attack wondering if I had made the right choice to become a graphic designer. I went to the counseling center where a career test told me I should have been a creative writer instead. Wow. Well, I was intrigued by story telling in general. So… maybe I wasn’t that far off? Every where you go there are stories right?…on posters, business cards, billboards, magazines, books, marketing, branding, packaging ( Of course, I was justifying my decision to choose design).
No one would notice me in the dark… Instead, class was suddenly paused. I was immediately called up to the front spotlight to show what I had been working on.
While I was learning design, I took illustration. My illustration teacher and me got along great! He was always interested in my wild ideas. Mainly because I would take the assignment and make it unnecessarily elaborate. For example, one of our assignments was to illustrate the Chinese Zodiac and then transform it into a real world product like a poster, postal stamps, or an album cover. I decided I’d make a pop-up book. My teacher gave me an amused look, knowing the intricate work it entailed and the amount of hours I was adding to the task! He was curious if I had it in me. Sure enough, I somehow taught myself paper engineering, crunched 1,000 hours into two weeks, glued my last page, ran to class, and walked into our critique day 10 minutes late. I thought I could sneak in the back. No one would notice me in the dark. Instead, class was suddenly paused. I was immediately called up to the front spotlight to show what I had been working on. To the amazement of my classmates, I unveiled a fully functional pop up book. The rabbit jumped, the snake slithered, and the dragon wings fluttered. It was a memorable and proud moment for me. Later my professor told me, “You’re going to work for yourself one day. I just know it.” He meant I would have my own business, and somehow I knew it too. This project AND a recommendation from this teacher got me my senior scholarship. My pop up book:
Design suited me for awhile. I learned that I was amazing at customer service, being flexible, designing on the spot, learning quickly, and making small budgets work for any project. I wore many “hats”. I worked print production, management, design lead, art director and I took my design skills to a variety of business and different states. When I became a mom, I worked from home and became a freelancer. I was adaptable. I eventually found my niche in working for small businesses and non profits. I love working with passionate people who really care about their product or service. I enjoy being helpful and making ideas come to life, but I missed walking down my own path. Making my own projects. Telling my own stories. 10 years ago I drew this image with pen and ink….and I started to feel like I had missed the mark a little bit…
I had taken my design skills everywhere I went. Now what? More design? I was feeling unfulfilled.
After getting married, moving a few times, and having two kiddos, we finally bought a house and settled. I had taken my design skills everywhere I went. Now what? More design? I was feeling unfufilled. I had been keeping my eye on a collection of classes called Make Art That Sells with Lilla Rogers. I finally took the leap and enrolled in MATS: MBA. Lilla Rogers is known for this epic quote: “People buy your joy!” and she’s totally right of course! I will never be the same after taking this class! I suddenly found my community, work that excited me, and a permission to find exactly what gives me joy.
Here is some of my early MATS sketches and artwork:
It was weird feeling confident in design and totally incompetent in illustration. Like starting from the bottom again.
The process of becoming an illustrator felt like the scene from Tangled…when Repunzel finally leaves her tower…and freaks out. She’s so happy and also riddled with guilt and fear. It was weird feeling confident in design and totally incompetent in illustration. Like starting from the bottom again. There were other illustrators that where rockstar artists! Creating consistent, unique, jaw dropping artwork. The comparison trap was rough and at the same time motivated me... I want to be a rockstar illustrator too! AND I want to make my own rockstar rules! So there! This meant I had to trust the process. Be okay with where I was at and climb from there. The crazy thing is, somehow all my past experience eventually met up with my current progress. Suddenly, knowing design was an asset and being able to build a website was a bonus! I purchased the tools I needed, transitioned effortlessly to digital art, progressed through all the MATS classes, refined my portfolio, and joined peer critique groups like IlloGuild. I participated in social media prompts. I sought advice and critique from professionals. Step by step…I trusted my journey on the creative road.
Here is one of my most recent MATS work:
Here is one of my most recent children’s book portfolio pieces:
Currently, I’m completing illustrations for my first children's book commission. I still freelance design and I have a few other illustration projects in the works. I’m also looking for a literary agent. I teach painting classes locally, host Friday Doodle Club (a prompt group on instagram) and I experiment with art everyday. You don’t need a fancy studio or the most expensive tools to make art. I work from my kitchen table and I feel something I remember feeling back when I was just 7 years old…I’m excited. So, my lesson to anyone who’s trying to figure this whole thing out…is to follow what excites you. Listen to your gut when you feel like something isn’t a good fit. It probably isn’t! Trust your joy!
I can’t wait to see where illustration takes me!
Thank you for reading or listening! ~ Brenda
If you’d like to hear more inspiring stories, follow Iloguild. It’s a collective of kids book illustrators from around the world. This is where we share our experience, advice and help you grow!
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