Thursday, June 28, 2012

Photoshop Tip Tutorial

I'm working on a project right now that I thought would make a great little tutorial for working with spot images. What used to take me forever working traditionally is now a snap - and if you're using photoshop this might give you a few more ways to think about your edges and feathering those highlights. As I make new discoveries or figure out new ways to use photoshop I'll add a video tutorial. And as always - if you feel that this video doesn't give you all the answers I still have my full tutorials available at You can also subscribe to my youtube channel to check out my library of videos here.

Grab your favorite beverage and watch as I fumble for the controls but finally set her down nice and easy.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Artist For Life

I'm in my mid forties now and I've realized - I'm an artist for life. I've met a lot of artists - some successful and some working on becoming successful and a few who have given up. I would like to talk to those of you who might be thinking of giving up or working on your back up plan.

First, I believe that we're all artists. Even someone who is mostly left brained has had to create a solution to a problem using duct tape and for that moment he/she was an artist. Second, for those of us who are mostly right brained - using our creativity feels natural and is expressed on a daily basis in one form or another. How we approach a simple interaction with a stranger is a chance to either use art or shut down and go into robot mode. Of course we all do that from time to time - like in elevators - it's ok - sometimes you just can't think of anything to say right? 

So if using your art is natural to you - you can't really turn it off. You can choose to do different things with it - different occupations - different projects etc. But some occupational choices will leave you fulfilled at the end of the day while others will leave you frustrated and discouraged. I don't mean tired and annoyed like many school teachers. At the end of the day a school teacher still has a lot of autonomy and can exercise a great deal of creativity in the classroom with each student interaction. I'm talking about taking on a job or project where using your art is unwanted, unappreciated, and unnecessary.

Let me tell you about the time I almost became a prison guard. Yes you read that right. Six years ago we were living in California and had just learned that my wife had contracted an auto-immune disease. She was a special ed teacher at the time and we realized she was going to have to quit her job due to this illness. I was worried that we would lose our medical insurance and knew that I wouldn't be able to purchase any for her. We both went into panic mode and over the next few months I found myself looking into occupations that would provide coverage.

I'm really only "qualified" to do a few things on this planet - one of which is painting pictures. Trash pick up is another but they don't provide medical insurance so I skipped over that one. Soon my search revealed that working for the state of California not only provided a decent salary and hefty benefits but was also relatively easy to land. A few classes and training and they would practically take anyone willing to lock themselves up with murderers and pedophiles. I was frustrated, scared, disappointed and broken as I filled out the proper paper work and checked myself into the preliminary classes to become a California Corrections Officer.

I felt like I was turning my back on my creative side. In prison creativity can get you killed. My next door neighbor was a corrections officer and we spent a lot of time talking about how different I would need to become in order to survive as a C.O. He basically said I would have to become a robot in order to avoid getting noticed. Inmates will try to get to know you so they can manipulate you, extort you, threaten you, and exploit you. He said, "I'm a totally different person inside the prison - you wouldn't even recognize me".

I got letter from the state telling me that my application was complete and that I was to report to the academy in one month for final training and then I would receive my assignment. My wife and I struggled with the decision. She didn't want me in there any more than I did. In the end we decided that the price was too great and we moved to Utah to be closer to family and figure out our next steps. In the end I can tell you we made the right decision - for many reasons.

The truth is that I probably would have "washed out" in that occupation. The whole goal was to last 25 years for a full retirement but in reality many can't take it and as one ex- C.O. told me, "I would rather wash dishes for the rest of my life than go back in there one more day"...It's as if you're just one of the inmates in many'll see horrible things...they're a bunch of animals" -this after he had recently quit. For the record there are some people who not only do that job well - they love it. I don't think I would have been one of them.

So back to art. I've come to realize that I'm an artist - period. No matter what - I'm going to be making art and trying to figure out a way to monetize it. I love it! I will never retire from it because it's what I love to do. I think you'll find that most successful artists have a desire to create and while not all of what they produce is commercially successful they never stop. There's always the next project - the next canvas - the next film, album, photo, or book...they're artist's for life.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Advice For Beginning Illustrators

"I've decided to throw my hat in the ring and become an illustrator - what should I do?"

I get asked this question all the time and the following are the answers I give. Whether you're just out of school or changing careers you probably have a lot of emotions bouncing around in your head. Hopefully this will give you a few ideas to approach your new career.

1) Make great art! This is my number one and it always will be! Know this: art directors, editors, and art buyers are ALWAYS looking for new fresh quality work. This business isn't like the acting world - only in super rare cases is getting that "big break" going to make your career. It's like this: do great work and you will probably start getting good gigs. This sounds overly simple but I'm constantly surprised when I see artists spending lots of time and money marketing work that doesn't stand on it's own.

It's like trying to ride a bike with a flat tire - sure you can make it move but you'll never gain momentum or coast. I'm not saying don't try. Get on that bike and pedal like a mad man but don't be satisfied with flat tires! Constantly evaluate your work against your heroes. Ask yourself hard questions: Why do I like their work better than mine? What are they doing that I'm not? What are my weaknesses and how can I turn them into strengths. Where am I cutting corners? How long are they spending on a piece of art? (don't know? - find out)

I did this. I asked these hard questions when I almost got kicked out of my college illustration program. I asked these questions in my first years of working as an illustrator. I still ask these questions because I'm still on a quest! I don't want to settle for what I'm currently capable of. You have to get pissed off at your current portfolio if you want it to get better in the future! (can you tell I'm passionate about this :)

2) Show your work. If you're making great art you need to understand that there are clients that will hire you if they know you exist. Marketing unfortunately has gotten much harder but also cheaper. Art directors used to look in a few places to find illustrators so life used to be much simpler. Now there are a zillion places you can pay to display your work. I'm noticing that many illustrators aren't finding great success with paid sites, source books, etc. The most important piece of marketing you can do is start blogging - adding regular new work and communicating using your humanity. If you're making great art others will link to you and share your work. Art directors are looking for and hire quite a few illustrators from blog hopping - I know this because I take the time to ask them.

The old stand by - post cards are still a great use of time and money as well. If you're sending out really good work - your cards will no doubt land on a few desks at the right time and you'll start to see them pay off. Again - what you put on that card matters more than who it's going to - more than a clever phrase - more than credentials - and more than the grades you got or are trying to get.

3) Create your own properties. As the publishing world is downsizing from the economy and the proliferation of electronic books - they're creating fewer books and subsequently hiring fewer illustrators. This is both good and bad for illustrators. On one hand it's harder to get commissions - on the other you can now create your own stories and publish them for little to no cost in the form of ebooks and apps. Now you don't have to wait by the phone hoping it will ring with that big job or book deal. Get busy writing and join or form a critique group with like minded people so you can get good honest feedback.

Make relevant apps or ebooks for your audience. It sounds overly simple but simply put - they have to be great. Average, predictable, mediocre aren't words you want used to describe your creations. You have to be honest with your work and only produce properties that you yourself would buy. But don't be paralyzed thinking that you don't have the right or that you're not good enough. You'll learn more by doing than by standing on the sidelines. Get in there and fail. Fail often but learn lessons each time you fail - you're walking aren't you? how did you learn to do that?

4) Go to conferences. It's time consuming and expensive but attending conferences like SCBWI and other writing & illustrating conferences around the country will expose you to people who have the same struggles you do. People who are having successes and are eager to share them - art directors, editors, and art buyers sharing their opinions, preferences, methods, and desires. There is a culture in the publishing industry that you need to tap into to start to understand where you can fit in. You should be getting your advice from many different sources so you can be better equipped to formulate your own opinions.

People who attend conferences get published and hired more often than those that don't.

5) Socialize. You need to be connecting with people using social media. Assignments and opportunities can come from many different directions and connecting through the internet can open you up for many new opportunities. Pick a few social sites and start developing relationships but be careful not to let it take over your time. You can connect with the world now - why wouldn't you take advantage of that?

And if you do decide to create your own projects you'll have a group of people who you've been connecting with that might buy your new_________...and if it's good - they'll talk it up. The days of "buy my product" are dying if not dead - it's the connections you make that will introduce your new_________to the world.

6) Don't always do it the right way. Be careful of looking for the right way to launch or maintain your career. We're in a creative industry so don't clam up and get mechanical about your marketing. It's time to separate yourself from your counterparts. Use your brain and don't be afraid to innovate new ways of getting your art out there. If you were to poll 10 of your favorite illustrators chances are they would all paint a different picture of their success story so don't get caught up in following the map - venture off the trail - you might be talking about your trip at a future conference!

7) Give. Number 7 wasn't in my original post but I'm going to add it now. Help others with their art. Ironically you'll learn and grow faster if you force yourself to put into words the processes you're using to teach someone else. It doesn't matter if you're an expert or not - just help someone that needs it. When you reverse engineer your process you'll hear yourself say things you didn't even know you knew. It will also force you to seek out principles from respected sources so you don't feel like an idiot when teaching. You'll make discoveries that you were never taught in school and you'll also feel great helping others but that's not the important thing...or is it?

Monday, June 11, 2012

I Live To Create

As many of you know I'm working on a few iPad apps at the moment and starting two more book projects and in the middle of a very frustrating freelance assignment. Yesterday I found myself sketching on my iPad while watching Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe with the fam (hilarious). Sometimes my doodles are just doodles but now and then one really starts to take shape.

So when I finished this sketch on my iPad ("Brushes" program $8.99 - I use my finger - no stylus) I had to finish it in photoshop. When I say, "had to" I really mean had to. I don't want to go wacko on you guys but I really feel this inner dependence on creation...almost like I can't breath if I'm not creating something regularly.

It has actually been this way since I was a kid. I couldn't work on a piece all day - or multiple days like I can now - in fact in college I think the longest I ever worked on one image was about 2 hours.

Finishing a piece like this makes me right with the world.

This is where I used one of my digital photos for the background layer - I'm having fun experimenting with this technique. It's a huge time saver and with the blur filters in photoshop you can really do a lot to hide the fact that it's a photo.

This is where I realized that my little mouse would never fit through the door. Sometimes when I get working along I lose objectivity and this is a good example. I had to come to terms with the fact that if I wanted it to look right I would have to spend an extra hour or so fixing my mistake. So, I had to cut out little mouse and move her forward in front of her vegetable basket. In the past I would have settled. In the future I'm sure I'll be able to spot the places where I settled in this image.

So, if you're not creating the kind of art that really makes you happy - know that 1. You can - and 2. You owe it to yourself to figure out your path.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What Kind Of Illustrator Are You?

I've been wanting to make this post for a long time and it's taken a long time to formulate my opinions on this subject. If you're an illustrator perhaps you really haven't thought too much about who you are. One thing's for sure - you need to know who you are to be able to exploit your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

1. The Gunslinger. Like Clint Eastwood wielding his Smith & Wesson the gunslinger illustrator wields his paintbrush, stylus, or drawing instruments with great skill. Great craftsmanship, design, and rendering skills are his/her trademark and the reason clients want him/her in their posse. This illustrator is typically brought in when the job has been defined and visual communication is needed. The skill level of the gunslinger can vary greatly. Most illustrators fall into this category. Examples: David Catrow, Dan Santat, Kadir Nelson, and Paul o. Zelinsky.

2. The Story Teller. This is a writer turned illustrator - a dangerous combination. Not willing to allow someone else to visualize his/her dream - the Story Teller has developed the art of picture making second -to pair with his/her master story telling skill. Often primitive, the art communicates quickly and effectively while craftsmanship and rendering are less important. Examples, Mo Willems, Laura Vaccara Seeger and Gerald hawksley

3 The Renaissance Man. The rare combination of story teller and gunslinger - this complete package can tell a mean story and back it up with very skilled illustrations. The renaissance man (or woman) dares you to find a weakness in his/her game. The R-Man is often a strong contender for the coveted Caldecott award. Examples: Lane Smith, Chris Van Allsburg, and Peter Brown.

4. The Gambler. With no real polish to either the story telling or visual communication skills - the gambler hopes to get lucky. While some gamblers are working hard to earn a higher rank others are content to roll the dice. Sometimes gamblers get lucky and win a contract - sometimes they wait and wait wondering when their luck will change.

I won't give any examples of gamblers because it would be too controversial and potentially hurtful. If primitive unrefined art is your thing and you're good at communicating with it I would suggest that you incorporate storytelling with it. It's a much harder sell to editors and art directors to catch your vision if you send them a portfolio of basic art. You're much more likely to sell rudimentary drawings with a great story.

If you've mastered good design, drawing, and rendering skills and are having a tough time finding contract work it might be due to the rough economy. It also could be that your style isn't exactly what editors are looking for. With so many changes in the world of digital publishing you may find it more attractive to partner with an author or write your own stories and go directly to market with digital ebooks or apps.

Knowing who you are and what you can become is crucial to making a good living as an illustrator.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Who's Got Your Back?

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the importance of opportunity in the success of the successful in "Outliers". I totally buy into this idea. Example: you grew up on a farm - you have more opportunity of becoming a farmer than someone who grew up in the city. A tall kid growing up in a "basketball family" - probably has more chance of making the NBA than most and so on...

So I had to take a look at my own life to figure out what opportunities I had. The list is too long to mention here but at the top would be my parents. My mom and dad were always very encouraging when it came to my art. You might be thinking, "yeah, what's the big deal?" but I've realized that many kids don't have this kind of support when they want to tackle a non-mainstream career.

But my mom went way beyond support. She was truly excited whenever I showed her what I was working on. She NEVER gave me a critique. She was much smarter than I ever gave her credit - she knew I just wanted acceptance and she was more than willing to pour that all over me. We lost her last year but I can still hear her words of encouragement and see her smile as her genuine enthusiasm shined through. I owe her more than I ever told her - I wish I could now.

My wife Lori also get's a huge piece of the credit pie. What a wife. She's put up with the ups and downs of my non traditional career and learned to ride it with me. Without her support I wouldn't be an illustrator. My kids also give me a lot of love and words of encouragement even though they usually revert back to being boys.

I also have many wonderful friends who also provide me with the support and encouragement I need to feel confident about trying new ventures. Like the I HATE READING! app project. It's a scary thing venturing down a road you've never been on before. The voices of doubt are constantly throwing negative questions in your path to trip you and turn you away from the very thing you set out to do.

So - in order to be successful you need to surround yourself with "can do" types that give you encouragement without tearing you down. The world will do it's best to do that for you. What you need is a posse of people who unconditionally love you and get the fact that you're in it to win it. Self doubt is relentless and needs no sleep but you'll be fine if you have a group that has your back.

Progress: here are some sketches and finished work on the I HATE READING! app.