Sunday, August 30, 2015

Inspirations and Frustrations - Finding My Illustration Voice

Yesterday, after a day of drawing and painting, I felt intensely frustrated with myself. In January I started some sketchbook experiments in search of my "illustration voice," a medium and style I can use in my children's book illustration. While printmaking is the medium I work with most often, I wanted to find a more direct approach to my children's illustration, such as drawing, painting, collage, and/or mixed media. This active search for a new voice began in 2013 after taking Joy Chu's online "Illustrating Books for Children" course. I had completed a few visual story sequences, including a dummy (you can see some spreads here), and I realized that I didn't know how to execute the finished illustrations. In particular, I felt unsure of how to translate my black and white pen sketches into full-color pieces.

This has been a problem for me. I feel comfortable working in printmaking, particularly linocut, but I don't want to feel obligated to work in this medium all the time. Each particular medium has its own unique quality that has a certain look and mood. Because linocuts are carved from linoleum and printed, they often produce a highly graphic look. The way that you carve into a linocut or woodcut requires a conscious use of value, contrast, and negative and positive shapes. It can be great for well-defined compositions, pronounced linework, and shapes that stand as bold silhouettes or patterned forms. While linocuts can be very colorful, often linocuts will have a limited color palette because a lot of work goes into creating each separate color layer.

My line work tends to be the strongest and most distinctive element of my artwork. Here are some examples of linocuts I made which I think are successful:
Call to Morning, linocut, 2014

April Mouse, linocut, 2012

I Went Hunting, linocut, 2010

The Greedy Bird, linocut, 2010

I also feel confident in my pen/ink/brush work in black and white:

Here are some examples of mostly published children's illustrators who have successfully and gorgeously used linocut or woodcut in their book illustration:

From The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes and written by Susan Marie Swanson. This was actually executed in scratchboard, but the look is very similar to linocut. This won a Caldecott!

From Tiny's Big Adventure, illustrated by John Lawrence and written by Martin Waddell

From Dark Emperor, illustrated by Rick Allen and written by Joyce Sidman

Unpublished (as far as I know) linocuts by Olga Ezova-Denisova. The last image shows her carved linocut plates.

From Beastly Verse, illustrated by JooHee Yoon, poetry by various authors. I'm not sure if this was actually a print, but the colors are layered like one.

While I love linocut, there are downsides to using the medium for illustration. It can be laborious and time-consuming to plan and execute a print. Because I'm working indirectly, I first have to carve all the plates (usually one plate per color), and then I have to mix my ink colors and print the plates. It can be tricky to find a harmonious blend of colors, even if I've planned out color sketches beforehand. It's also hard to use many colors in one piece, unless I want to hand-color the print afterwards with watercolor or carve out a zillion plates or stamps, one for each color. Though as I'm learning with my recent painting/drawing experiments, it's probably a good thing for me to limit my color because my work can get lost and muddled when I use too many colors. The other drawback to using linocut is that it's difficult to make it look spontaneous in the way that a loose watercolor or crayon scribble can. I want to find a style to work in that uses drawing and painting, rather than printmaking, so that I can work more directly.

As I look at children's illustrators that I admire, I start to see some patterns. Aside from the printmakers whose work I enjoy, I am drawn to certain visual devices. I tend to like a pared-down color palette. In fact, often I like work with a lot of grays and blacks, with no more than a few main colors. 

From Jane, the Fox, and Me by Isabelle Arsenault

 I also love textural, patterned, and/or detailed linework. Joanna Concejo illustrates these qualities masterfully, along with a limited palette. Her work is truly some of the most amazing I've seen!

Illustrations by Joanna Concejo (first two images from Little Red Riding Hood)

I love the ethereal mark-making and use of color in Laura Carlin's illustrations for The Promise, written by Nicola Davies.

Peter Sis makes me marvel with his fantastic use of color and teeny-tiny mark ink marks in this spread from Conference of the Birds. He is one of my favorite illustrators.

I just discovered the illustrator Signe Kjaer. I love the loose freshness of her paintings.

And Henrik Drescher really shakes things up with his sketchy organic lines and bright pops of color. The first image is from his book Simon's Book.

When I look at these artists, I can see how my painting work does not look like theirs. Through drawing, painting, and mixed media, they have complete mastery over their visuals and storytelling, even in images that look simplistic or child-like. They have captured a freshness, a seemingly untamed spontaneity, with their work. There is something that goes beyond the isolated elements that I like, though. Something about the artist's content, their style, mood, medium, and composition that adds up to a magical sum. This is the artist's voice - something they're born with and that they develop throughout their lives. I know that finding and using one's artistic voice doesn't happen automatically. There is usually a lot of experimentation, practice, and muddling along the way, yet it's also innate in each of us. This uniqueness, how do we find it?

This leads me to a few questions:

What makes a picture interesting? 

Seems like a simple question. I could try to replicate someone else's style exactly, but somehow it wouldn't look as good or feel the same. And it just wouldn't be as interesting as what that specific artist came up with through their own unique art processes and life experiences.

How shall I go about finding my voice in children's book illustration? 

I've thought of some possibilities, some suggested by other artist friends. 

- Look through all my previous work and isolate the specific elements that make a piece successful. Emphasize those elements in the different media.

- Work on strengthening weak points. Take a painting class, do more observational drawing, practice the skills I need.

- Write and work on my own story that is more personal to me. Perhaps just doing random experiments won't yield the results I seek as much as working on a specific story that has its own logic and set of problems which require specific visual solutions.

- Start with an illustration style using the medium I am most comfortable with first before trying something more difficult. For me that's printmaking. And after all, I haven't done much with linocut specifically for children's book illustration, maybe I will find that it will be more of a challenge than I thought painting was!

- Mix and match mediums. Experiment with ways of incorporating printmaking with mixed media in a way that can combine the graphically-defined look of linocut with the looseness of painting.

- Don't try to make my work look like anything specific. Don't aim to be like the artists I like. Experiment with extremes of style, medium, and content and my painting voice may reveal itself in an organic, rambling way.

- Work in a totally new medium (not necessarily visual art) to refresh my soul and gain a new perspective, then go back to what I was working on before.

What if I'll never be good enough? 

Art-making is the thing I am perhaps most confident about in my life. Yet I know there are thousands (millions?) of artists better than me. And it's in the eye of the beholder anyway, so I know it's not sensible to compare. But if I'm going to make art as my living - as something I share with others that they look at or purchase or find some solace in - I want it to be GOOD. I want it to say something with visuals that only I can say in my own particular artist's voice. If someone could say it better or more uniquely, than I don't see the point of doing it myself. I know I have a unique voice, because every person is unique. But can it be unique, and good, and interesting at the same time?

Maybe after awhile I will hit upon something interesting in drawing/painting/whatever, but there is also the possibility that I will never be as good at painting as I am at printmaking. Maybe what makes me distinct can best be translated through the medium of printmaking. I don't know how I feel about that.

And now, on to a peek in my sketchbooks. I can't say I'm proud of all of these works. I like some much more than others. And some I think are downright boring or crappy. But they're just experiments and stepping stones towards something I hope I will like a lot. I don't know how long it will take me to get there. I want to find a process that I enjoy creating with, while broadening my understanding of how to use color successfully. For me, the hardest part of working with color is establishing a strong value structure and contrast. I can get lost in the possibilities of color and my work loses strength. Also, I just don't "get" painting the way I get printmaking. I think in black and white before thinking in color. But I do love color, so it's worth the effort to work on it! 

Pen and ink with watercolor (A portrait of my fat lil' cat.)

Acrylic paint.

Acrylic paint with pen and ink.

Acrylic paint, collage, and the goose comes from one of my linocuts. I was seeing if I could create the "look" of linocut in paint with this dog.

Acrylic paint and collage with pen and ink.

Watercolor, colored ink, and cut paper collage.

Watercolor with pencil, charcoal pencil, and pen and ink.

Watercolor, pencil, and sumi ink.

Watercolor on one of my linocuts.

Again, trying to translate the look of linocuts with pen and ink and watercolor.

Acrylic paint. I was pretty pleased with how she came out. I feel like I chose the colors just right for this one.

The same image, this time translated into a 4-layer screenprint. (Soon to be listed for purchase in my Etsy Shop, Sprout Head).

My sketches from yesterday. Colored pencil, some with watercolor wash laid over or under the pencil. I was excited about these drawings because I was able to get a loose, spontaneous-looking texture with the colored pencil.

I then tried to translate the watercolor/colored pencil technique to these girls, but they just don't have much life. This may partly have to do with the fact that I don't really love drawing people, I'd much rather draw animals or creatures instead.

Again, trying colored pencil and watercolor on the same subject. I like how the cat turned out with just colored pencil, and I think the bottom two girls have more life, but I still don't think they look as interesting as the cat does.

Brush and sumi ink.

Tried to recreate the top image but inject a bit more color into a small portion of the drawing.

As I work on my drawing and painting experiments, I wonder if my work will ever possess the qualities of illustrators that I admire. I realized something that works against me in painting: with linocut, even if a line is simple it takes longer to carve. I spend a long time on my linocuts, but painting can be so fast. I wonder if I need that element of time and slow care for my work to have that special quality. Some artists are great at dashing off a quick, spontaneous-looking piece of art and it's so full of personality, like the artist Quentin Blake. I know that fast does not equate with easy. When I do it, it just looks kind of careless, in my opinion. I want to create work that you can get lost in and feels fully realized.

I know I shouldn't put so much pressure on myself to figure this out right away. I can look at it as a fun challenge, a way to keep evolving as an artist. It's funny how sometimes I'll take it for granted that I'm good at something, and then realize there are loads of things I've still yet to master! But I suppose life would be boring if it all came so easy. Who knows, I may discover a new way of working that I'd never even considered before.

Dear Readers: Is there anything that you long to be good at, but feel daunted by?

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Since moving to Richmond, VA six years ago, I've never successfully maintained a compost pile. The first time, I kept it in a big garbage pail that my landlord had okay'ed, but after several months when I was ready to use the compost he came and dumped it in the garbage. This happened to me twice! In my second apartment in Richmond, I had a composter out back, but then the chimneys of the apartment caught on fire and I had to move out so my landlords could repair the building. In the rush of having to find a new place to live in the middle of February, I didn't bother bringing my composter over, and I think my landlords threw it away. 

I thought I was done with trying to compost in an apartment, especially because now I live on the second floor. But I had a big pot on my balcony that I started throwing vegetable scraps into over the past winter. In the spring I bought a little shovel so I could turn my compost, and I decided to keep it up. 

Look what grew out of my compost last month!

At first I thought it was zucchini or maybe cucumbers. Then as I was weeding through the compost and pulling up the dozens of plants that had sprouted, I saw the baby leaves of one sprout still stuck inside of a seed... a PUMPKIN SEED!!! So it turns out I am growing pumpkins. My next door neighbor gave me a pie pumpkin when she moved out, and it just sat there until it started rotting, so I threw it in the compost pot. I've never grown pumpkins before, and I think it will be really fun. I transplanted a couple of the pumpkin plants to another pot, and kept a couple in the compost. I learned that pumpkins like very rich, well-fed soil, which makes sense since they grew out of my compost.

Here's my mint plant that started sprouting a bunch of babies after I harvested some of the sprigs for mint tea. I also bought a bunch of herb plant starters because I want to create a medicinal herb garden. Nothing too crazy, since I'm just an amateur gardener. I'm studying up on the medicinal benefits of herbs, like lemon balm, chamomile, mint, and thyme. I highly recommend the book "Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide" by Rosemary Gladstar. It focuses on 33 herbs (many of which are common kitchen herbs) and recipes for using them for healthful benefits. I welcome any other book suggestions on herbalism for the beginner if you want to leave a comment below!

By the way, here's my recipe:


- Pick a couple sprigs of fresh mint from your garden (mint is a thug, so plant it in pots if you don't want it to take over. It's easy to grow!)
- Clean the mint by placing it in a bowl of water for about ten minutes and let the debris sift away. 
- Put a small pot of water on boil.
- Turn off the heat and place mint leaves in water and let steep, covered, for at least 20 minutes - the longer the stronger the tea. (I like it strong!) I'm not sure if you HAVE to remove the leaves from the stems, but I do because I'm afraid the stems might make it bitter. I will have to test this theory and see if there's a difference.
- Pour in some honey to sweeten and place the concoction in your fridge.
- Drink cold glasses of tea whenever you feel sluggish in this summer heat. It's so refreshing and it really helps!

I've always loved plants, but I know relatively little about them. Learning about their benefits makes me happy and I feel more connected with the plant. 

I think the reason I love plants is because they are quiet and it's easy to see how they work with outside nature (the seasons and weather conditions) and their own natures. Ever since my aunt helped me transform my parents' yard into a garden about eight years ago, I learned that plants can be like humans. Some plants (like mint) are thugs and will take over if you don't reign them in! I felt bad pulling out all the mint to make way for other plants, until I saw how their root systems send runners all across the soil, even under our porch steps. Then I wasn't afraid to pull them. Some plants thrive in poor conditions, showing that they have an inner strength - they're survivors. Some plants are fussy and need a lot of care. Some plants like a lot of sun shining on them, and some wither under all that light and prefer the shade. Some take a long time to bloom. 

Purslane, one of those plants that thrives with little care.

I think if I was a plant, I'd be one of those plants that doesn't like too much sun, is a slow bloomer, and is somewhat delicate yet also stubborn, refusing to die.

As I was looking up websites on herbalism and on growing pumpkins, I stumbled across the information that plants that have been recently transplanted often just "sit there" for awhile without appearing to grow because they are sending energy to their root systems instead of to their leaves or flowers. For edible plants like basil, you're supposed to pinch off the flowers so the plant focuses its growth on the leaves (so you can eat them!) I like the metaphor of directing energy in a plant, and I think it applies to humans, too. 

In my recent post about my artist's rut, I said that my creativity had returned. It's true that I no longer feel paralyzed with fear about art-making, yet I still feel like I'm moving very slowly. I realized I must be focusing my energy on my roots - the system inside me that anchors and nourishes myself so I can be stronger. Last year I focused so much on the fruits of my labor (making money, particularly with wholesaling my notecards) that I burned out. This year, I knew I needed a break but thought I would probably have to do another big wholesale push at some point in order to help my income. I felt so wishy-washy about the whole thing. I went to the National Stationery Show last month as a looker (not vendor), which I'm sure I'll blog about soon, hoping it would inspire me to make card new designs and get back into wholesale.

But after reading about plant transplants, I decided I'm going to let go of wholesale this year. It's a big relief. I may try to find a few more stockists and I'll supply cards to stores that already order from me, but I don't want that to be my main focus. It's too much for me right now. Now I can focus the energy from "solving the wholesale problem" to healing and strengthening the other things I do. I can always return to wholesale if or when I feel ready to. 

I am moving to slowly these days in everything I do, and I need to just embrace that. I have to remember that I am re-establishing that subtle internal infrastructure before I can "flower" again.

What about you, Readers? Where are you directing your energy at the moment - to the roots, leaves, flowers, or fruits? Actually, I'm not totally sure what leaves would represent in this metaphor. Leaves take in the sun and photosynthesize, providing food to the plant. Okay, this metaphor is getting complicated and I really do need to learn more about plants.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fortune Cards Workshop

Ever since creating my own oracle deck, The Golden Moth Illumination Deck, I've wanted to lead a workshop to encourage others to make their own. But unlike my deck, which was reproduced by offset and digital printing, I thought the experience of making a one-of-a-kind handmade deck would be approachable for beginners, and a refreshing change for me. The cards above were some samples that I created using acrylic paint, collage, and ink. 

In February I taught my first "How to Make Your Own Fortune Cards" workshop at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond. I will be teaching another section of this weekend workshop on July 18 and 19th, so sign up here if you're interested.

I call them "fortune cards" because I don't want to be too confining by calling them tarot or oracle cards, though they are definitely inspired by them. I thought participants might want the openness of using them for different purposes. The title was also kind of a play on words - people can "make their own fortune" as well as "make their own fortune cards."

The participants in the workshop were wonderful. Everyone came in with such an open mind. I loved the concepts behind their cards as much as I loved the cards themselves. Many of the students were at least somewhat knowledgeable of tarot and oracle cards, but there were a couple of people who weren't. Some students professed they had little art experience, so it was pretty amazing to see what they turned out. Every student had their own unique perspective and each approached their cards thoughtfully. They used watercolor, ink, colored pencil, collage, and photocopy transfer, and they graciously allowed me to share their cards with you.

This deck was inspired by the major arcana of the Rider-Waite tarot. She mixed traditional tarot imagery with her own symbolism and and a fresh color palette.

These cards were based on the sun, moon, moths, and butterflies as symbols of introverted and extroverted energy.

This deck used four suits as in tarot, but each suit was based upon different pyschological states. I love how she used action and sound words in her cards.

This deck was also based on the major arcana, but each symbol she chose had personal significance in her life. 

These cards also used personal symbolism, and each card represented one year of his life.

He used a cool technique called xylene transfer. He placed photocopies of images face-down onto his cards, saturated them with a clear blender marker, then rubbed the backs of the copies down hard with a spoon to transfer the images into the cards. This technique works for laser copies in black and white and color, but it's not the best for your health so I'd recommend you do it in a well-ventilated room.

This student is a poet, and she used titles and imagery from various poems to create her deck. Great idea, huh?

This student is an illustrator who used imagery from her own dreams.

Look closer at some of this surreal imagery. She hopes to create a more finished deck in the future, and I hope she does because I'd love to own a copy myself! You can check out more of Amy Lovvik's art here

Here are some more sample cards I made during and after the class. The beetle card in the middle uses another form of photocopy transfer called gel transfer. There are a couple techniques to do this, but for this one I applied clear acrylic medium to my painted card, placed the photocopy of the beetle face-down on top of it, and burnished it so it stuck flat. After it dried, I wet the back of the paper with water and rubbed the paper off with my finger. Some of the image rubbed off, but most of it remained. 

I also created stencils for the backs of my cards out of cut-out cardstock. I placed the stencils on top of the cards and dabbed acrylic paint on them with a paintbrush. 

Teaching the workshop made me see how empowering and creative it is for individuals to make their own decks of cards. It was an amazing thing to witness.

I hope you've enjoyed seeing some of the wonderful things that came out of this workshop, and maybe you're inspired to make your own!