Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ranger in Time: Battle on the Beach

It's hard to believe that we're on the 7th book in the Ranger in Time series!

For this cover, the team at Scholastic asked me to draw Ranger on the beach at Normandy. (Yes, really!) They wanted to see the Allied fleet landing on the beach and some planes in the sky overhead. But it also had to look fun and exciting.

(Since I've been doing so much historical illustration lately, this is something that's come up multiple times: how to depict war or other disasters in a way that's historically accurate but also child-appropriate, even fun and eye-catching? It's an interesting conundrum.)

This cover also had to have a color scheme different from the other covers in the series so far. With each book, this gets more and more challenging!

I started sketching out some possibilities, trying to find ways to fit in a fleet of ships and planes without distracting too much from Ranger himself, and not competing with the title text.

Here are the three sketches I sent to Scholastic. I needed to depict drama and an epic scale without relying on guns, gore, or explosions. So instead I relied on some big storm clouds and dramatic rays of light in order to make the scene look exciting. Having Ranger in an action pose, splashing through the water, also helps bring some movement into the scene.

The art director, Maeve Norton, told me that the team liked the background of #1 with Ranger's pose from #2. They also asked me to add in some of the obstructions that the Germans had scattered along the beach. Here is the revised sketch.

Next it was time to add some color. This was another tricky balance of historical accuracy versus artistic license. The Allies landed on the beach on D-Day at 6:30 AM during a rainstorm. So naturally, the environment would be grey and dark, but that doesn't work for a children's book cover. We need something that's going to pop off store bookshelves! So the art director and I decided to split the difference by depicting storm clouds and a bright sunrise.

This was my first attempt at the color rough. I was afraid to go too bright with the dawn colors because I thought it would detract from Ranger's orange color. (See my last attempt at an orange sky behind Ranger.) But the art director told me these colors were too soft and pastel. She told me to push the saturation more.

She was right, this was much more exciting and bold. I got the go-ahead for the final.

I love how it looks with the title text!

The author, Kate Messner, posted this photo of her advance copies.

Ranger in Time #7: Battle on the Beach comes out on January 30, and includes 15 interior illustrations by yours truly! In my next blog post I'll be talking a little bit about the process of drawing the interior illustrations - with a special guest star!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Escape Cheapskate Clients & Break into Professional Illustration

I received this message earlier this year:
I wish I could make money with my art, I am gifted/talented the same as you. I only get people in my life that are looking not to compensate me for my skills...people are cheap or diminish the talent as if it there is a fine artist available anywhere. What do you say to those that discredit our gift/talent and expect our work to be cheap...Or how do you find clients that respect our gift/talent?
I regret to say that I never responded. But it's a legitimate and sincere question I see many artists struggling with: how can I make a decent living when everyone wants work for cheap?

When it comes to art careers, there are two parallel universes that exist.

The Amateur Universe

A screenshot I took recently of a conversation on Facebook.

The Amateur Universe is a bleak place for those who aspire to make a living doing art. This is a universe of dealing with clients who have never worked with artists before, have no understanding of the level of skill required, and have little to no money budgeted for artwork. This is the land of:

  • Sites like Fiverr and Upwork
  • authors who want an entire picture book illustrated for $100
  • People With An Amazing Idea who just need someone to help them out
  • "I just want a few quick sketches, shouldn't take you long, so I think $20 is fair"
  • Forums where teenagers want drawings of their OCs
  • "You'll be paid once the book is picked up by a publisher." (Not how it works)
  • promises of exposure and future riches from this guaranteed bestseller

Unfortunately, this is the first universe that beginning artists usually encounter. They look around and ask themselves, "Is this what it means to be an artist? Is this really how much society values my skills? How can I possibly make a living doing this?"

The Professional Universe

A scan from the 2014 edition of the Graphic Arts Guild Pricing Handbook

This is the world of publishers, design agencies, video game companies, animation studios, ad agencies, art collectors, and even the occasional well-off author or other individual. These are clients who understand the value of a good artist and respect them enough to pay them well. In this world, it's normal to be paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single illustration, even tens of thousands for some projects.

I don't want to give the impression that illustration is a gold mine. It's extremely competitive and honestly often not particularly lucrative. I'm also not saying that everything at the professional level is perfect and artists are always treated well buuuuuut that's another blog post for another day.

There's nothing wrong with starting small, but there's more out there than random people asking you to draw stuff for pennies. There are better things out there.


So how does one break into the professional world? Two steps, both of which are easier said than done. Well, it's sort of three steps.

1. You have to put your art in the right places

The door to the professional universe doesn't lie in posting "please hire me" on forums, Facebook, Craigslist and the community bulletin board at your local cafe. It doesn't lie in telling your neighbors and friends that you're an artist. No matter how much hustle you have, this is only going to bring you exactly the kind of amateur clients you're trying to avoid.

In order to identify the professional clients, you're going to have to do some detective work into the market you want to enter. Learn about who the big names are, what kind of art they're looking for, and how to reach them. Here are some questions to get you started on your quest for professional clients:
  • Who are the famous, well-known artists in this market?
  • Can you follow those people on social media? What events do they attend, what awards are they talking about, what new projects are they launching?
  • Who are the major, minor and mid-level publishers/companies/agencies/magazines?
  • Do they have submission guidelines on their websites?
  • What books/comics/video games/products have they released lately?
  • Are there any conventions where you can meet both professional and aspiring artists?
  • Are there agents who represent artists in this industry?

2. You have to be good enough

In step one, you identified the gatekeepers of the professional world. But if you have nothing good to show them, they're not going to respond to you. They're not going to open that door.

You need to honestly evaluate whether your artwork is at or near a professional level. There are a few ways you can evaluate your own artwork level:
  • Immerse yourself in published art from the market you're interested in. Get out of the house and visit bookstores, comic book shops, galleries or wherever it is that you'll find the kinds of products you're interested in creating. You want to consume lots and lots of professional-level artwork so that you can raise your taste level and start to distinguish professional art from amateur.
  • Attend a convention and get a portfolio review from a professional who works in the industry you're interested in.
  • Write an email to an artist who works in the industry you're interested in. If you're polite, most artists are pretty nice and generous with their advice.
  • Submit your artwork to professional contests such as Spectrum, SILA, Applied Arts or Communication Arts. Look at past winners of those contests and compare their artwork to yours.
  • Submit your artwork to art reps (agents) and see if they respond.

If you come to the conclusion that your art isn't good enough right now, you don't have to give up. But you do have to decide whether you can put in the time and effort that it takes to get your art to that level.

3. Keep doing steps 1 and 2.

Make good art. Show it around. Then, keep making good art. Keep showing it around.

When you meet with rejection, and you will, don't let it get you down. Keep making good art and keep showing it around. Eventually you will get your foot in the door of the professional-level universe.

One last note

Let's say that you're following the steps above; you believe that your work is at or near a professional level, and you're pursuing professional-level clients. And yet over and over again, emails pop into your inbox asking you to work for chump change. What are you doing wrong?

Answer: Nothing. You're doing nothing wrong. It happens to all of us.

Quick story: I had a table at an artist alley at a convention. A guy stopped by my table and we chatted some. A few weeks later, he emailed me asking to illustrate his 50-issue comic book series for free. I gently explained to him that art was how I made my living and that what he was asking for would take me years to do. So unless he was willing to pay me an entire year's salary, I couldn't afford to take the job.

You will always hear from the amateur universe, people who recognize good art but underestimate how much good art costs. Don't worry about it. Don't take it personally or as a judgement on the value of your work. Don't bend over backwards trying to convince a broke person to pay you more. I wouldn't even spend the emotional energy in getting offended by it.

If you plan on freelancing, turning down cheap work is going to be a regular part of your job. Think of it as "cheapskate whack-a-mole" if that helps. Develop a template polite response. Maybe take a moment to educate the person a bit. Write "I don't work for free" on the contact page on your website.

Then get back to making good work and showing it around.

You got this.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

1001 Knights

Back in 2015, I created some illustrations for the collective anthology 1001 Knights, a massive 3-volume art book where artists of all backgrounds painted knights. The project was organized by Kevin Jay Stanton and Annie Stoll, and the Kickstarter was phenomenally successful, raising almost $300,000.

Because the super-successful Kickstarter significantly increased the scope of the project, the timeline got pushed back pretty far. It took time as the books were professionally designed, printed, shipped over from China by boat. For a year or two the project was pretty quiet.

Then one day, BOOM. An exhausted UPS employee dropped a massive, heavy box on my front steps. Inside was a treasure trove of beautiful hardback copies of 1001 Knights!

Every single aspect of these books is lovingly designed. From the gold foil embossed fronts and silk bookmark...

...to the snazzy backs...

...to the gorgeous end papers.

When I opened the first book, there was a surprise waiting for me!

My illustration, "The Sun Knight," opens the series adjacent to a piece by Lois Van Baarle, aka Loish. I've been a fan of Loish's artwork since high school, so this is a huge honor for me!

I flipped through some of the first volume last night, and I have to say it's a fascinating experience to see so many diverse styles of artwork represented in one place.

art by Stephanie Bailey and Jen Bartel

Some art is strange. Some poignant. Others are funny, weird, dark, pretty.

I could easily spend hours just trying to absorb all the art in this series. It really goes to show was a breadth and diversity of artistic talent there is out there in the world. It makes me proud to be a part of the illustration community.

I've posted my copies of Volume I: Courage for sale in my Etsy shop. Just two hours after I posted them, I sold my only copy of the 3-volume slipcase set! The buyer told me they'd missed the Kickstarter and had been waiting all this time to buy the book! So I decided to do a little something special for them.

I went to the craft store and picked up some odds and ends.

I found this awesome ribbon that looks like links of chain mail. Then I packaged up the books all pretty.

Such a beautiful book deserves beautiful packaging. If you order a book from my Etsy shop, I'll pack it up like this or something similar!

I have to hand it to 1001 Knights organizers, Kevin Jay Stanton and Annie Stoll. They really did a great job following through on the project, from the gorgeous design, proofing all the books, working with a printer and fulfillment company, sending copies to all the artists for us to sell, sending copies to libraries, and in the end distributing the profits among all the artists. They just...started this project, just for the sake of it, and for the good of the art community. How often do you see that happen in life? Where someone just starts a project, sees it through to the end, and does a great job?

Well done, Annie and Kevin.

I hope that when you hold your copy of the 1001 Knights, you can feel that it's really something special.

I took this photo as part of a failed photoshoot thing I was trying to do. And I needed a photo to end this blog post and it's dark out so I can't take any more photos so yeah.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Nativity, Unscripted

Back in high school, I used to eagerly look forward to my monthly delivery of Brio, the magazine for Christian teenage girls. Inside I would read articles about cool girls going on mission trips, trendy but modest fashion tips, and an advice column where girls would ask questions such as whether it was God's will for them to marry the youngest Hanson brother.

A few months ago I was commissioned to do an illustration for the December 2017 issue of Brio. As soon as I read the art brief I knew that it would be fun to draw: a church group's last-minute attempt to do a nativity skit that turns into a fiasco. It's been a while since I've attempted to draw a humorous scene.

The story takes place at a children's hospital, so there had to be "sick-looking" kids in the foreground. The art director also pulled some specific details from the story, such as the lamb running off to the restroom, and Baby Jesus escaping from the manger.

I started with a very rough thumbnail.

Then, piece by piece, I started sketching each person in the scene. For me, this is the hardest part of building an illustration. It's like taking a big rock of marble and starting to sculpt the first few chunks out of it.

Then I went over the sketch again, cleaning up the lines and adding color. This took a very long time. I sent this sketch to the client.

The art director asked me to put the children in chairs and to emphasize the medical equipment a a bit more. In order to save time, I arranged some folding chairs in the 3D program Google Sketchup, then pasted them into my illustration. (I painted over them in the final.)

From there I was clear to go to final. This is the fun part. In the past I've drawn so many (so many) people wearing Biblical clothing, but this was a chance to make the costumes look a little cheesy and ill-fitting. Looking back on this, I wish I had gone a little further with the cheesiness, but I was under a bit of a deadline crunch and there was a LOT to draw in this scene!

The art director kindly sent me some copies of the issue in the mail! It's always so exciting to see my work in print!

Thanks to Jenny Dillon for the assignment!


So it's a general rule of blogging that you're not supposed to apologize for not blogging more often, but I'M SORRY FOR NOT BLOGGING MORE OFTEN. This year has been challenging in a lot of ways, and client work obviously takes precedence over the blog. But I do miss blogging, and I miss sharing motivational and informational posts rather than just talking about my own work. I hope that in the next few weeks, as I get a break over the holidays, I'll have a chance to set aside some time for writing. As always, thanks for reading the blog and leaving nice comments!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Clubhouse Magazine

This summer I was commissioned to illustrate an article for Clubhouse magazine. When I read the article I was very excited because it was about Vikings, and I happened to be traveling through Viking country at the time - specifically Sweden!

Obligatory vacation photo! This is me exploring the ruins of a cathedral in the town of Visby. As you can see I'm using directional light to establish myself as a focal point.

(Buckle in, this post is going to be nerdy.)

(More than usual, I mean.)

My husband and I joked that maybe this assignment would allow us to write off our whole Sweden trip as a "business expense" for "research." Obviously we didn't do that, but when I saw that the Stockholm History Museum had a Viking exhibit going on, I figured my museum admission could be considered a legitimate business expense.

Turns out admission was free. I've never been so disappointed to NOT pay for something.

Initially the art brief asked for a full-page illustration of the main character, Gunther, with his goat, three Viking longships, and the Greenland fjord during summer. As I started sketching thumbnails, I was struggling to fit all these elements into a vertical format, especially the fjord. Fjords are wide and spacious, but my sketches were feeling cramped.

The art director, Jenny Dillon, had mentioned that the format was flexible. I took a chance and asked if, instead of drawing one full-page illustration, I could draw an illustration that spanned two half-pages. I was thrilled when she gave me permission to do whatever I wanted with the format. I literally clapped my hands in glee. Horizontal formats? Double-page spreads? EEEEEEEEE!

This is the most obscure kind of nerdiness, I don't even know what to call it. Why do you guys even read this blog?

Here's the rough I sent to the AD.

There was also a secondary illustration of an eskimo teaching Gunther how to build a fire in front of a stave church.

I quickly got permission to go to final, so now it was time to have fun with the colors.

While I was painting the main characters I realized that I had neglected to do any research into what types of goats Vikings might have owned. The breed of goat I originally sketched was a Nubian goat, which is a very cute breed, but the breed originated in the 19th century. After some Googling I discovered a breed called "British Primitive Goats" which were probably closer to the types of goats Vikings would have owned.

(So nerdy)

For the secondary illustration, the emphasis would be on the contrast between the warm fire and the cold environment. In order to keep it from being too similar in color to the first illustration, I set the scene in the early morning, so I could work some pinks, purples and yellows into the environment.

I eagerly awaited my copies of the magazine. I was curious to see how the double-page spread would turn out. I got my copies just a few days ago and it looks great!

This was a lot of fun to do and I'm really happy with how it turned out!

If you read all the way to the end of this blog post, you are a truly dedicated Kelley McMorris fan. Hi mom!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book covers before and after - November edition

Every once in a while I do a roundup of book cover illustrations, showing them before and after the cover text was added on top. The cool thing about book covers is that they're made to work together with text, but they also stand on their own. Here are some great examples from some talented illustrators and designers.

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