VSS Illustrator Interviews

In doing these interviews, we hope to give you a glimpse into our artist members' unique personalities, a new perspective on their wonderful work, and the opportunity to know what inspires them!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Samuel Kirkman

This week our featured artist is Sam Kirkman. Sam is always so full of energy and enthusiasm for his artwork. He has an amazing eye for detail and a strong pioneering spirit that combine to create some very cool comics! Check out more of his work at his website.

How did you get started in illustration?
The short answer? I never did. Er.. well... I mean I haven't yet, that is professionally. Unless you count the time YYYEEEAAARRRS ago when I designed a line of monster cards for a friend, back when Dungeons & Dragons was just catching on. Or perhaps it was the time back in 4th grade in Old Lady Wakefield's class (you had to have an imagination or go crazy). She was a tyrant of a teacher. She would march down the aisles between our desks, book in one hand reading, a wooden ruler on the other hand swatting. She'd  stomp our toes if our feet were sticking out in the isle. This was a time before corporal punishment was a no-no. I remember the giggly gross-outs we kids would have at her expense joking about the hairs on her legs sticking out through her stockings. ITCH! Anyway, where was I going with this? OH yea, illustration. One of the first serious projects I can remember doing as a boy was a little comic of Old Lady Wakefield going on a vacation to a tropical island with a palm tree on it. I drew her sitting under that palm tree and had a coconut fall on her head. Oh the joys of childhood vengeance through creative expression. Yep! Thats how it all began.                  

What is your favorite medium? Can you describe your usual work process for us?
That would have to be Professor Marvel in the Wizard of Oz. Oh! you mean artistic medium. Well, I have to confess it is digital. I still appreciate the classic mediums and I guess if I'm painting it would have to be oils, and I do love watercolor, but digital has stolen my heart. The main reason? Speed. Speed and versatility. With the new generation of media emulating software, such as Corel Painter 11, you can achieve effects and techniques that look convincingly real. And with the use of a digital stylus and pad, such as the Wacom intuos and Cyntiques, in application, they feel "real" as you use them and without the mess!
I work in Comics and classically one person would "Pencil" the pages on bristol, another would ink over the pencil sketches and another would apply the color. Another still would then do the lettering and another the cover, and sometimes the writing would be handled by a sixth person. I was shocked at first to learn this. My naivety led me to think that one person did it all. The big comic book companies had to crank out a new issue every month. Most of the titles they produced were serial in nature with a cliff-hanger at the end of every issue. So the artists and writers had to really push to accomplish what they did. Working digitally, I get to be a one man show. I do it all, and the new digital medium allows me to do this.
My process follows the same general sequence. I use a pencil tool with a medium grey to get the basic sketching and drawing done. Then on another layer I "apply" the digital ink. I like to ink with the scratch board tool. It gives a similar effect to using a nib or crow quill.  Then I simply delete the pencil layer. To color I use the "Oil pastel" emulating tool. it allows for a bit of natural variation in color. I do this on a layer under the inked layer. To further build up and render the image, I alternate between using the burn and dodge tools, and various blending tools. The burn tool deepens, darkens, and intensifies the color. It leads to unexpected and unusual color variations as well. The dodge tool works just the opposite by highlighting and brightening the color towards a white point. This affords the "Happy accidents" that my High school art teacher led me to appreciate. This is all done on what is called the "canvas" layer, the base layer below everything. I then lift the canvas layer to a watercolor layer, making the color layer transparent. This is where I can do some interesting underpainting. Sometimes just the application of shadows brings depth and presence to the image. What is wonderful about digital media is that at every step, every layer, you can adjust the values, hues, opacities, saturations, textures, add lighting... you can't do that with physical media and easily reverse it if you don't like it. The next step, I drop all layers, then select the negative spaces of the image and then reverse the selection, Copy and paste. I could use some help here because this usually means a lot of working around the edges to reduce that pasted look that this can give. Backgrounds are painted independently and used over and over leading to easily achieved continuity. Hope that's not all too dry and boring.                       

Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you?
As I mentioned before, I'm a one man band. As my influences and inspirations will show, I value most highly the singular voice in sequential art. The work done by a sole individual. I'm not saying that the collaborative methods of the pros are not without merit, but for me personally I'm drawn to work imagined, written, drawn, inked, colored... by the artist with the guts to do it all. And it's not that I look for this to be the case when I find inspiration, it just simply has worked out that way. So for me, it usually starts with the story. As in the case of my all-age comic Ouwangalaymah! The "Tail" Of The Name Of The Tree. I've been hammering away at the story for years now. Even now, as I work on its final expression, I find myself rethinking things and making adjustments as I go. Being the somewhat benignly rebellious and free-thinking soul I am, I would never say it has to be that way. Looking back at the history of the arts, I find that whenever someone tried to apply a "LAW" or strict "Rule of procedure" to artistic expression a dulling, or stagnation set in. The antithesis of this can be just as vacuous though, leading to the "Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome that the fine arts are suffering from today. But one never knows where inspiration will come from or lead you. My other major project is following a very different course.  It began from a lingering dream image I had one morning. I immediately, upon awakening set it to paper and from that initial sketch the story of GREW has developed. This story is evolving in a way. Major themes and elements reveal themselves during the process and one day I feel the whole thing will congeal and "grow" into what I hope others will appreciate. And in both cases, I want people to have an emotional response to my storytelling. If an audience connects emotionally to a story then I feel it is successful. It may be that only a handful of people will ever see it or experience it, but I feel it is none the less successful.             

Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job?  How do you balance the different aspects of your life?
Living as we do, in a world that values the dollar over most everything else, I find myself tied to the grindstone. I work as a Live Nursery Sales Specialist for a hardware store on steroids. Teaching customers to plant things green side up.  Obviously I find inspiration there. I love plants and gardening. But I must say, after 15 years of retail I'm wearing thin. The only thing that keeps me going is a firm hope for a better world and a sketch book in my apron. Since my work there is driving forklifts, loading landscape block and bags of manure for folks, my mind is free to mull over my stories. Having a sketch book near by allows me to catch those fleeting thoughts that I can either use or discard later. When I get home I can set my attention to my REAL work. I do have a family, my wonderful wife Melissa has put up with me for over 20 years now, and our two beautiful boys, Ethan 19, and James 5. They keep me going and are very supportive of my aspirations in the arts. It takes a tremendous amount of time to do what I am doing. I try to minimize the amount of time taken from family by waking up early usually at 4:30ish. I do need to achieve a balance though, because my days of are usually heavy into my books. I hope this time isn't wasted, but then that is the plight of the artist. You have to have faith in yourself and in your vision, and trust that
in some way the hard work will pay off someday.               

Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio and include some photos?
We live in Fresno California. We've been here for over ten years now and we love it.  My "studio" is a sitting room behind a pair of french doors off the main hall of the house. It's right in the middle of everything, allowing me to still feel a part of what's going on, but apart enough to be a rather pleasant work space. It's the warmest room of the house too so it is very cozy. My garage isn't for cars either. I do stained glass work out there and that's where I have my easel for oil painting.         

Tell us about your education and training. 
I've had close to three years of college. Most through the University of Texas at Austin. I had a wonderful summer in the south of France, Lacoste in Provance. I studied under Bernard Pfriem, the founder of the Lacoste School of Arts which was in conjunction with the Sarah Lawrence College and the Cleveland Institute of Art. I think I learned more that summer than all of my schooling combined. There is still a school there directed through the Savannah College of Art and Design
If you can afford it, GO! In the end, I think we indeed teach ourselves. We need schooling, and I would recommend looking into an art school, just do your research. Know where you want to go with your art and pick accordingly.

Please list any of your publications and let us know your website.
So far I have finished the first issue of Ouwangalaymah! The "Tail" of the Name of the Tree  It
 is now available at indyplanet.com. I am currently working with a group of comic artists on a series of anthology projects. our first  "8" a Kids Book Anthology is also available through indyplanet.com. The next, an anthology of 8 Steampunk inspired stories will be available in the spring 2011. I would encourage everyone to check out what we have going on over at illopond.com. It is a Word Press forum we have set up to collaborate and build on our combined efforts. We hope it will become a place where other creatives can gather to work on similar projects. I could go on forever about the importance of online collaboration, but for now you might enjoy a podcast we put together at The Process Diary. You can find out more by visiting my blogs Samkirkman.blogspot.comOuwangalaymah.blogspot.com, or web.me.com/samuelkirkman
Hopefully  we will be debuting our current Steampunk anthology at next year's Wondercon in San Francisco. I will have my first two issues of Ouwangalaymah! there and at least an eight page promo of my story For the Public Good, available. Please come by and say Hi! I would love to meet everyone there! 

Who are your favorite  illustrators or authors?
Jeff Smith the author/artist of Bone.  
www.boneville.com  He is the perfect example of what getting your stuff out there on your own can mean as far as finding success.
David Petersen of MouseGuard  
www.mouseguard.net  He is another initially self-published artist who, because he stuck with it and had something of substance to offer has found success.
Shaun Tan
shauntan.net an incredible Australian artist/author who's work on The Arrival has been a major inspiration for me.
And David Smalls Stitches 
stitches.davidsmallbooks.com is a sterling example of how powerful this medium of storytelling  can be.

If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?
Probably Pugsly Adams. Or Willy Wonka. I don't know, just because. :o)

What inspires you?
The Truth.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An adult but I'm still working on that one. No Really, I guess I just wanted to be an artist from as far back as I can remember.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
Sleep :o)

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?
My dream job would be to work for PIXAR or be an imaginer for Disney. I guess if I couldn't do something creative I wouldn't really want to be anything.

Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?
Don't waste time. It is a priceless commodity and a nonrenewable resource. Whatever you are doing, go at it as if it meant your life because it does. I woke up to this reality very late in life, just around four years ago. Otherwise I might be where I want to be right now. Don't give up. Don't ever think that you know everything because I promise you, you don't. If you are going to make advancements in your art you have to listen to the knowledge and experience of others which brings me to another extremely important bit of advice. Surround yourself with supportive and positive individuals. The only way to achieve this is to return the same in kind. Be that for others. Which means seriously taking their concerns to heart. We have to be so self-oriented in this business by putting ourselves out there, tooting our own horns... It is really easy to loose perspective and become obsessed with our own work and vision. So open up. Have the self-confidence you need and faith in your own work, but be willing to sincerely reach out and be of assistance to others. You have to be the kind of person others want to be around. People have got to want to work it you if you are going to find work. The days of the rock star artist are dead. Very few if any, can rest their success on their talents alone. 

One of my favorite movies of all time has to be Mr Holland's Opus. That kind of puts everything in perspective for me. And people say I look like him.   :o)
 Also be willing to give up the "precious." I mean that you have to get to the point that your work is no longer sacred to your thinking, especially in a collaborative venture. You might spend hours on a piece, but if you don't let go of the "preciousness" of it you probably wont make it. You will be crushed each time a design is rejected. So think of it all as process. To the storyteller all must yield to the story.
Lastly just don't give up! Keep working at it. Don't loose heart if you have to keep a day job you hate. Be thankful that in this economy you are working! What you do to pay the rent or the mortgage is not what defines you. As soon as you have convinced yourself that you are an artist then others will know it is true.  

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Penny Weber

This week we are lucky to get to see Penny Weber's wonderful illustrations. Penny works hard and accomplishes so much. I was really happy to read that her recent picture book release, One of Us written by Peggy Moss just won the book of the year voted by school librarians! That's awesome! 
How did you get started in illustration?
I started in illustration about three years ago after visiting the LA conference, taking a look at what other illustrators were doing and basically deciding to go for it. I spent a few months working on a portfolio and then I attended the Spring Conference at the Society of Illustrators. It turned out that it was the last time they would have that conference but I was able to get an agent out of the day and then my first job in children’s books which was “The Jungle Book” for Compass Publishing.
What is your favorite medium? Can you describe your usual work process for us?
I work mostly in acrylics. My process has changed so much and is still changing I’m sure- but for now I start out sketching from photos and painting layers of very watered down color. I treat the acrylics like water color until I’ve built up some good values and then I begin adding more opaque color. I usually finish off the illustration with markers and colored pencils for more definition.
Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you?
So far I only illustrate although I have a bunch of stories of my own that I’d love to do. Mostly my story ideas are picture driven with minimal words so I do definitely think visually first.

Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job? How do you balance the different aspects of your life?
I illustrate full time- when my third and youngest child went to kindergarten and my husband vigorously hinted that I should get a job,(I was painting murals part time but wasn’t really loving it), I made it my mission to be able to earn enough to work full time at home and it’s worked out great! I do need to have early work hours so I am able to be available for the kids after school, especially when I am on a deadline but it works for me. (Who needs sleep!)
Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio and include some photos?
I live on Long Island in New York. For now my studio is the little room downstairs at the back of the house and it’s a little cramped. We hope to buy a new home in our area soon- my 15 year old son is 6 feet tall, (takes after his dad thank goodness!) and is still sharing a small room with my 11 year old but I’ll make sure the new house has a huge and bright studio for me! I’ve attached a couple of photos for now- excuse the mess! I am finishing up a rush job which I will be sending in later today! You can see that I’ve hung some strings around where I can clip the paintings so I can easily make sure I am keeping my characters consistent.

Tell us about your education and training. Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?
Well in art I am basically self taught. The sad story is that my twin sister went to Cornell and they could not afford art school for me. But it actually worked out better because I was able to focus and learn on my own very quickly when I was ready. The toughest part is getting started but I actually learn so much after each job.
Please list any of your publications and let us know your website.
My website is www.pennyweberart.com.
There is a list of books there- I’ve done a lot of educational and independent projects. The latest ones by more main stream publishers are “One Of Us” by Tilbury Press (which just won the book of the year voted by school librarians!), “Amazingly Wonderful Things” which will be out early 2011 by Raven Tree Press, and “Growing Up With a Bucket Full of Happiness” which has just been released I believe by Nelson Publishing.

Tell us about your current project.
Right now am working on another project for Compass Publishing- they are educational and have very fast deadlines. It is called “What’s That Smell?” about a meeting between a skunk and a little boy’s toys.

Who are your favorite children’s illustrators or authors?
Well I loved Maurice Sendak as a kid but lately I have been inspired by so many illustrators. Dinotopia’s James Gurney is a favorite of mine and I study his illustrations all the time. I met Marla Frazee at the LA conference and just love her approach to illustrating chapter books which is something I’m shooting for. I also would love to do more cover art like Mary GrandPre’ and so many others- too many to name!
If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?
Well, I’m a big Harry Potter fan so I have to say Hermione Granger.

What inspires you?
My kids inspire me- I love painting people and faces and happiness and I always use my children as inspiration and models!
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was always an artist but I did also want to be on TV as a weather girl.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I love to read and go to the movies. On Fridays we all watch the dvr and catch up on our shows- that’s fun. I do love to travel and hope to take my first cruise this year!
What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?
The weather girl would be fun but my voice is horrible so I might like to be an art teacher.

Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?
Don’t give up- don’t listen to nay sayers- draw and practice every day- work at a professional level and believe in yourself. Also, for me working as an illustrator first has worked well. I have stories of my own like I’ve said and now I believe I am more ready to do both then I was before.

Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Thank you for reading this!!