Let’s talk art process

I just participated in a wonderful SCBWI webinar today where an Art Director talked about portfolios.  If you’re a SCBWI member, I hope you take advantage of every webinar you find out about.  They’re super cheap and I’ve found them to be incredibly informational, even on topics I think I’ve already heard everything there is to say.

Today’s webinar mentioned a few things that I knew about and then elaborated on them in a way I hadn’t heard before. shock NEW information!  And I now know that I need to revamp all the things this summer (my website, my online portfolio, my SCBWI profile, my RedBubble shop, etc.).  Oh boy.  I’ve neglected doing that.

There were a lot of things that were revelations to me (including the fact that she loves Instagram and looks at it as a professional piece of an illustrator’s portfolio!), and some reminders (like the update your website regularly thing).  I also got feedback on a piece I’d been working on for the last few months thanks to a series of instructional illustration webinars.  It was disappointing feedback, to be honest, but I wasn’t expecting it to be perfect either.  It’s from a dummy project that I’ve been working on for years and I’m guessing it will be a few more years on that one. sigh

BUT I just heard one of my dear illustrating friends say she finally sold a manuscript that she’s been working on for TEN years.  So there IS hope!  I will keep plugging away at it because it’s a project near and dear to my heart.  In the meantime, the AD also mentioned that she loved seeing the creative process illustrators go through (whether it’s their sketchbooks, how a piece came together, or a personal story, etc.).  Lightbulb!

I tend to shy away from showing process or mistakes.  I tend to shy away from sharing too much of myself on this blog that has almost 1,000 followers now (Holy Cacti! How is that even possible?!).  And I most definitely tend to shy away from sharing the illustration side of my process, because … well, let’s be honest, imposter syndrome.  I’ve yet to meet an artist of any kind that doesn’t suffer from that at some point of their journey.

I love to draw and paint and learn about HOW to illustrate, but do YOU my readers really want to see behind the curtain on all of that?  This AD said yes.  SO, I thought I’d do a test blog wherein I share this very thing.

For those of you who are new to my blog, let me tell you a little story about myself that reveals some personal things.  I was the single gal on every sitcom who had a bad date.  I could tell you some seriously BAD date stories that would have you laughing like I was Rachel on “Friends.”  I’m not kidding.  I had almost accepted the fact that I was never going to meet Mr. Right (he was obviously a myth) when … yup, I did.  I’ve been married for a little over 3 years now and it’s still glorious.  He is my soulmate in every way.

Why do I tell you this?  Well, it started an art tradition and that’s what I’m going to share with you today.  You see, he’s a crazy punster (and I LOVE a good pun).  So I painted him my first pun love card way back as a birthday or anniversary or Christmas present (they blur together now) and it became a thing.  He has a bit of a collection going now (which you can find in my RedBubble shop).  I made him one for this last Christmas and started working on one for his birthday in January.  Only it didn’t get done in time for a variety of reasons (work, struggling to figure out the picture, etc.).  SO it ended up being the perfect Valentine’s gift this year .

Let’s start at the beginning.  It starts with a phrase like “You Are My Sunshine” and I try to think of some way to interpret it that hasn’t been done before AND is unique to me (and us).  I started thinking “what loves the sun” because I knew I wanted a sunshine in it.  Well lizards love the sun because they’re cold blooded and need the warmth.  So I chewed on that a while and thought “gecko”!  Specifically a Hawaiian gecko as they were one of my memories I will never forget from our Honeymoon.

Our honeymoon Airbnb was on Kauai and at night, I thought these industrial fans were kicking on and chirping from rust or something.  I could hear the chirping so loudly I was wondering if something was broken.  My husband and I talked about this.  What was wrong?  Until we discovered it was geckos!  They chirp at night and they were hidden everywhere around this place in the bushes, on gutters, etc.  Never inside our place, but just outside the front door.  I even bought a Hawaiian Christmas ornament of caroling geckos to remember this.  Geckos are incredibly rare to see and on my many trips to Hawaii, I’d never heard them like this.

Back to art process.  When I sat down to draw a gecko from reference, I found that they had a really odd body shape and anthropomorphizing them was not going to be easy.  I did an initial sketch to try and figure out what a gecko standing on two legs would look like and where clothes would hit on his body to make him “decent” for a picture book type picture.Gecko1

Their legs are super bendy and not really attached like this.  Their toes look like their backwards (I realized my initial sketch was too nice about those toes).  And I did NOT like the shape of his head (not “cute” enough).  It was obvious that he would need clothes to cover up his crotch if he was facing forward, but … how do you put clothes on a gecko?

Then it occurred to me: if he’s Hawaiian, he’d wear a Hawaiian shirt (just like my hubby does–I have bought him quite a few Hawaiian shirts over the years as he looks great in them).  But then I got hung up on the pattern and the fit.  The pattern most of all.  What would be masculine (I researched men’s Hawaiian shirt patterns)?  I practiced some designs that looked surf friendly, thinking I’d scan them in and shrink them.  But I didn’t end up using them at all, because I realized that this was one I wanted to paint, not do digitally.


So then I started thinking about hand lettering and layout.  I’d been thinking about this one for several months and thought the layout was pretty straight forward (though this changed too).


Then came the real sketch.  I laid it out slowly.  I wanted the details to be right so it actually took me a while to sketch out.


That shirt was a killer.  And as much time as I spent worrying about the pattern and those details, they hardly show up in the finished painting.  PLUS, I ran out of room for the gecko’s toes and tail!  That’s okay, this wasn’t the last piece either.  I inked the sketch and then I went OLD SCHOOL.

I took it to a photocopy machine and copied it in a couple of different sizes (using the zoom in or zoom out features).  I took those copies home and compared it to a variety of sizes of watercolor papers I had to decide which size I liked best.  Then I pulled out some Graphite Transfer Paper and traced my copy (in the size I wanted and positioned where I wanted) onto watercolor paper.  I inked in details where I wanted lines (which for me is just about everywhere–that’s my cartooning background), and finished off those toes and tail, before adding in the hand lettering.

Finally, I pulled out the watercolor palette, locked myself in my studio for a day (so my hubby wouldn’t see), and went to town.  As I paint, there are changes that occur as well.  I really wanted there to be texture on the gecko.  So I did layers and mixed colors that turned out amazing well.  But then the sun seemed too flat to me and I went in and added texture to the sun’s face too (to make them match a bit better).  I used frisket to block out the pattern on the shirt so I could paint many layers of the red material of the shirt (many layers to really make it bright) without ruining the pattern.  I had fully intended to color in the pattern with other colors, but when I pulled the frisket off, I realized the white pattern worked better.  Nice contrast.  As a last measure, I scanned my artwork into Photoshop and cleaned up edges and stamped my digital signature on it.  And voila!  Here is the finished piece (which you can also find in my RedBubble shop):


I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

On a final note, I fudged the gecko’s eyes.  Did you know that geckos don’t have eyelids???  They lick their eyes to keep them moist.  WHO KNEW?  But I felt closing this gecko’s eyes would convey the emotion I wanted a tiny bit more.

So there you have it.  I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my process as well.


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