Smithereens, Post No. 8: Expressions!

Smithereens: [smith -uh-reenz] Plural Noun. 1. Small pieces, bits.
Smithereens are tiny pieces, fragments of a larger thing. In this series of blog posts, I share small slivers of my process, thoughts on materials, and insights into the larger world of illustration.  

A couple of years ago when I dove into the publishing world, I learned quickly how little I knew about character development. Not only did I have to draw a character consistently, but also to individualize and understand their range of emotions. This is unfortunately not something I learned in school so it’s been an interesting journey to find a way to convey expressions in my characters. Because the lines are so simple and sparse, every little nuance or tick can drastically change the entire mood and emotion of the situation. For this reason, it usually takes drawing the characters 6 million times before I start to see their personalities come out. Once that’s done, I can play more with their emotions.
The most valuable tool I can use to understand and convey emotion, is to feel it myself. 


I think we all tend to do this when drawing emotion. It really helps to 'act it out'. (Good thing we spend a lot of time drawing alone, since we'd look rather odd weeping or looking vengeful while working (although now that I'm thinking of it, those are emotions that come up while making art too!) When I need to find the best stance, facial expression, etc. for an illustration, I literally just act it out while paying attention to my own body's instinctive actions. When proud, my chin goes up. When nervous, I shrink. When eager, my eyes open and my body moves forward.

Last night when I was drawing these next studies, I asked my husband to act out these emotions and he almost exactly copied my postures! Now, we're two in billions, and all humans have different ways of feeling emotions. For some, proudness might be quieter, fear might be running instead of freezing, eager might still look timid. It's our responsibility as illustrators to understand the characters enough to be able to accurately portray not how we would feel, but how they would feel.  

Besides body posture and color, one of my favorite ways to portray expressions is in the eyes and eyebrows. You can have the simplest lines and still put so much emotion into a face. Below are some examples of what can be down in just a few strokes!

Now that I have the hang of creating basic characters and emotions, my goals have shifted and expanded. In the future, I'd love to vary my character shapes, adding personality into their build. I'd also love to add more movement in my work, showing emotion through lines and layout, rather than having all of the focus be inside the character. I want people to literally get swept up in the emotion. I don't want to make you weep, but I want to make you weep! Make sense? 

What tools have you found helpful in creating dynamic characters and expressions? What's the hardest part of portraying emotion in your work? 

Alright guys! I hope this weekend is filled with all the best emotions and expressions.
Happy Friday and Happy Expressing! 

Smithereens, Post No. 7: Picture Book Illustration

Smithereens: [smith -uh-reenz] Plural Noun. 1. Small pieces, bits.
Smithereens are tiny pieces, fragments of a larger thing. In this series of blog posts, I share small slivers of my process, thoughts on materials, and insights into the larger world of illustration. 

What goes on behind the illustrations in a picture book? (I'll give you a hint...way more work than I ever imagined!) I'm just skimming the surface, having only finished three, but each one gives me a new light into what I know, what I definitely don't know, and how I can improve. 


Today I'm sharing a behind the scenes look at Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea, which is a Citizen Kid book written by Elizabeth Suneby and published by Kids Can Press. An excerpt from the publisher:
"It's monsoon season in Bangladesh, which means Iqbal's mother must cook the family's meals indoors, over an open fire. The smoke from the fire makes breathing difficult for his mother and baby sister, and it's even making them sick. Hearing them coughing at night worries Iqbal. So when he learns that his school's upcoming science fair has the theme of sustainability, Iqbal comes up with the perfect idea for his entry: he'll design a stove that doesn't produce smoke! With help from his teacher, Iqbal learns all about solar energy cooking, which uses heat from the sun to cook --- ingenious! Has Iqbal found a way to win first prize in the science fair while providing cleaner air and better health for his family at the same time?"

This book proved most challenging in the area of research, though the publisher was quite generous in providing reference materials which are always incredibly helpful. I began the project was by first testing what style would capture the characters and setting in a realistic but interesting and playful manner. I also tested materials to see what worked best, and decided ultimately to do the entire book in colored pencil. (Which later turned out to be a short-sighted decision - more on that later.)  

*** These reference drawings are drawn from photos, and since I no longer have the original reference materials, I'm not sure who to credit for the originals, though these drawings are for study only.*** 


Once the publisher had approved the initial hand drawn look of the first sketches, I developed the main characters, Iqbal and his sister Sadia.


I then drew thumbnails to share an idea of the layouts and concepts. I find it best to work this simple from the beginning so if there are any major changes, they can be addressed at this stage.
The Art Director made suggestions on adding more white space and varying the perspectives of the illustrations. I tend to draw everything from eye level, but I'm trying to challenge myself to add interest in the from of perspective (worm's or bird's eye view) or adding the ground in at an angle. These drawings are only about 3-4". 


Once we finalized the layout and design, I sketched the drawings at full size, which was around 9x18" (I draw them in spreads, meaning both pages at once). I draw most sketches in blue or black colored pencil. 


At this stage the art director and I went back and forth, making subtle changes to layout, setting and characters to prepare for the next stage, which were the linears, or final lines before colors. I should say at this point - I'm sharing this as an experience, but not as a complete instruction for what you should do, because I, as always, overcomplicated the process by doing the final linears on tracing paper, which only meant the final lines had to 'finally' be drawn once again on the actual paper. *face palm*


I used a lightbox to transfer the linears onto bristol paper, and created the finals in colored pencil. Here's where the poor medium choice comes in - while I love the look of colored pencil, I didn't realize I had so many full bleed illustrations at 9x18". For colored pencils working one little line at a time, that's quite the undertaking! While it's not the biggest book in the industry, for someone like me who is quite new to picture books, it felt monumental! In the beginning I planned to be a purist and only use traditional media without digitally editing but either my fear or smarts saved me and I added all the rain digitally. I did do the smoke traditionally with gouache and neocolor crayons and I gotta say I was proud of that. (!) 


There you have it! A simplified behind the scene version of a picture book. What did I learn from this process? A couple of things...

1. Make it simple. I did too many drawings here - between the sketches and linears and finals, I was essentially drawing the same thing three times and that's where I start to lose my spark and spontaneity. 
2. Check the size before finalizing your material. I would have saved lots of time had I allowed myself to use gouache or watercolor as a base layer. Alas, I'm happy with the colored pencil look, but it added lots of extra hours. 
3. Add variation and white space. This is a hard one for me. For some reason, I always plan for illustrations to be rectangles with full bleed. I'm trying to loosen up and not cover every square inch of paper. 

Have you worked on a picture book? What are some of the lessons you've learned? I'd love to hear them! 



Interested in more behind the scenes? I recently joined up with Sketchbook Skool to teach a class where I invite you into my studio. I share insights on the creative process, I walk you through my sketchbooks, dive into materials and of course, provide you with a painting demonstration. (and...there will be homework!!)  

The Whimsical Sketchbook:

"This kourse is designed to inspire your creativity as well, by immersing you in the lives and the studios of five brilliant artists who use their sketchbooks as incubators of stories, emotions, and vivid new worlds.
We’ll learn by sharing their step-by-step process in a 12 different demos using everything from gouache, markers, ink, crayons, collage, iPads, colored pencils, watercolors, pastels, and more.
Their passion and invention is sure to rub off on you every week, and inject creativity and whimsy into the pages of your sketchbook too."

Instructors include: Mike Lowery, Vanessa Brantley Newton, Miriam Bos, Anna Denise Floor, and myself!

If you're interested in signing up, the class begins June 18! 

That's it for now friends, have an absolute lovely weekend. xoxo









Smithereens, Post No. 6: Drawing from Life

Smithereens: [smith -uh-reenz] Plural Noun. 1. Small pieces, bits.
Smithereens are tiny pieces, fragments of a larger thing. In this series of blog posts, I share small slivers of my process, thoughts on materials, and insights into the larger world of illustration. 

What's the first thing you do when tasked to draw something new? Google! Me too, me too. But while the magic of a plethora of images at our finger tips is unprecedented and completely beneficial, it does leave a bit to be desired. And this missing bit is...

YOU (and your life and your perspective!) 

What comes to mind when I say drawing from life? Those stuffy still life classes where you're realistically rendering a bowl of dusty fruit, a glass bottle and a wrinkled up sheet? Not quite. (YES those classes are valuable and we should take them seriously and it's monumental to set up basic and skilled foundations in drawing - drawing professors, don't hate me!) While these set ups are important, they can be uninspiring to think about revisiting, so this is not what I'm talking about when I say 'drawing from life'. I'm talking about looking at the world with your own eyes and choosing which way you are going to represent it. 

This all came to mind when I was choosing how to represent fish. 

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Now to be fair, I wasn't only using online images as a starting point. I went to the library to scour books featuring underwater illustrations, photography and painting as I began to draw. (The drawing above is not the first round - remember Post No. 4 about Stylizing realistic images?) The thing I realized after my first drafts though, was that all of my fish were coming out quite two dimensionally. They were all drawn from the side, and not only that - it was hard for me to get a grasp on the scale of some fish since they are often photographed alone and out of context. 

SO I took a trip to the Aquarium and do you know what I learned? It's freaking hard to draw fish from life!! They don't hold still very long, and they're actually quite three dimensional - not too flat at all. 

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I saw them from a whole new perspective - my perspective. And this isn't a narcissistic statement - I mean, they're their own precious selves, but I realized the problem with drawing from photos, is that you're literally drawing through someone else's eyes. There is a whole other human in between you and the object and they decide what you capture - you can't truly find all possible angles of an object or creature unless you see it with your own eyes. 

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Why I hadn't considered it, I'm not sure, but I never even thought about drawing a fish from the backside until I saw them swim away from me. And then the lights starting exploding in my head - all these opportunities I hadn't realized I was missing. Fish butts! But seriously, I was able to draw them in shapes that challenged my brain instead of using muscle memory to draw what I thought a fish should look like. I also saw other details I'd have missed in images - shadows the animals cast over the ocean floor - the way the water reflects the light and the movement which is constant in the water, swaying strands of leaf and coral. It's really just breathtaking. In regards to materials, I just used a green ink pen, which let me make bold intuitive marks, instead of trying to 'sketch'. 

A couple thoughts to follow up - I know we can't all afford to go to Aquariums nor do all of us have access. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us might be able to take a drive right into the ocean and witness what the actual ocean looks like! And what about things we literally can't witness in person? That's where we have to be thankful for the incredible and dedicated photographers who spend their lives recording the majesty of this Earth. It's all relative, but know that when the option does come up for you to see with your own eyes and record the world from your own point of view, it will always, always be worth it. 

Happy Friday, and Happy Drawing from Life!

PS. These fish are part of a large project that will be revealed this Fall in Nashville! I can't wait to share more with you!


Last week I visited the Cleveland Institute of Art during their Spring Show and had a memorable and fantastic time. The faculty, building and the students honestly made me want to go back to school and I was blown away by the level of talent I saw from the illustration and animation students. The morning of my presentation started off with an hour demonstration, where I worked on a personal piece in gouache, colored pencil, and neocolor crayons. Afterwards, I gave an artist talk in their lovely theatre, sharing my journey as an illustrator, from gallery work to editorial work - and eventually how I ended up in the publishing world. My agent, Nicole, was there to introduce me for the presentation, and that along with the wonderful questions the students asked just made it a dream talk. (For me anyway, hope the students enjoyed it! ha)

Photo by Robert Muller/CIA.

Photo by Robert Muller/CIA.

Unfinished Demo Study! (An hour goes by fast!) 

Unfinished Demo Study! (An hour goes by fast!) 

Photo by Greg Wilson at

Photo by Greg Wilson at

If you want to learn more about the visit or my illustration practice, the school did an interview which you can read here! 

Thank you again to the kind folks at CIA for hosting me,  and to the students who are sure to have amazing careers ahead of them.