Illustrator Roundtable

Introduction by Jennifer Baker

Thanks for reading the latest We Need Diverse Books Roundtable dedicated to the illustrator’s journey. As a fan of the visual form I’m delighted to ask these wonderfully talented illustrators of comics, picture books, and graphic novels about their process and how budding illustrators can navigate the industry.

The visual medium helps elevate and translate words on the page and further build worlds stroke by stroke via collaboration between author and illustrator (or sometimes they are one in the same!). But, as we know with other aspects of the industry, there is a dearth of marginalized representation not only when it comes to those represented in the illustrations but by their creators as well.

I do hope those who are pursuing illustration glean insight from those interviewed in this roundtable who have experienced both traditional publication and also pursued self-publishing as a way to get their stories into the world. Thanks again to Jerry, Pat, Robert, Rebecca, and Arigon for their time and wonderful answers!

Jennifer Baker is production editor in publishing, the creator/host of Minorities in Publishing podcast, and panels organizer for We Need Diverse Books.

What tools do you use and what’s your artistic process? What tools are out there for people to learn with, especially if money is an issue for them?

Jerry Craft: I used to be exclusively a mechanical pencil and ink guy for all of my illustrations. Then I would scan it and color it in (Adobe) Photoshop. A few years ago, I decided to try a Wacom tablet, so I bought an Intuos. And now I’m almost exclusively digital. In fact, I just did my entire Mama’s Boyz graphic novel (Mama’s Boyz: In Living Color!) with my Wacom. But I think it’s important to learn pencil, pen, and brushstrokes first to give you the foundation. So those supplies can be as simple as a regular pencil and copy paper. As far as going digital, I bought my first tablet, I think it was a Wacom Bamboo, at an open box sale at Best Buy for like $80. Once I got the hang of it, I bought a really nice one. For learning, there are some amazing videos on YouTube.

Pat Cummings: No exotic tools: my computer, brushes, pens, paints. The best tool I’d recommend is a notebook or sketchbook. Getting ideas out of your head and onto paper is step one. My process is first, to keep all notes, sketches, and inspirational reference in one place. I have folders for about a lifetime’s worth of books. I don’t throw out much because I’ve learned that if a story doesn’t gel right away, it might catch fire later. The book I’m working on now began with a photo a friend showed me of her granddaughter’s drawing. Those stick figures inspired the whole story. Ideas are golden and usually don’t cost a thing. Yet, they’re the most vital part of the process of creating a book.

Robert Liu-Trujillo: For me I use pencil, colored pencils, paper, watercolor, canvas, acrylic paint, a MacBook Pro, a Wacom tablet, etc. For folks who have an issue with funds for tools, I’d say that for visual artists you can get by with whatever is around you. I’ve seen books illustrated with ballpoint pens and coffee. And what I mean by that is that if you like drawing or illustrating, use whatever you can find at your local bodega, school, copy shop, pharmacy, and get to work. The issue is reproducing the art digitally. This takes some know-how, and one of the best ways to reproduce on a small budget is to go to a major city center and find co-working spaces, libraries, or copy shops where you can borrow, rent, or use their equipment to get it done. As a freelancer, this is how I started.

Rebecca Mock: I use a desktop iMac computer, and a Wacom Cintiq tablet-monitor. My Cintiq allows me to draw directly on my computer screen. I use Adobe Photoshop for all my drawing, painting, and inking, as well as animation. For a long time I used an older version of Photoshop I’d gotten from a friend, so I didn’t have to pay for it. A lot of my artist friends use other programs that are way cheaper but work just as well as Photoshop for comics–Clip Studio Paint, Paint Tool Sai, Manga Studio. The desktop computer was something I saved up for, I worked on my laptop with a small cheap tablet for many years. Even having the laptop was a luxury, at the time, and before I started working digitally, I studied traditional drawing and painting. I have always loved drawing with a mechanical pencil on copy paper, or with charcoal on newsprint. Whatever art you want to make, you need to practice plain old drawing A LOT first–there is no shortcut for this, but it’s an easy thing for anyone with pencil and paper to do! Draw everything, draw often.

Arigon Starr: I work on a MacBook Pro and use a Wacom tablet. I am all digital with my comic book process. I use Final Draft to write my scripts, then do all of my thumbnails, pencils, inks and colors in Photoshop. Lettering is done in Adobe Illustrator, then the final set-up for printing is done in Adobe InDesign. If there are aspiring comic writers out there, I’ve seen sites that provide examples of comic book scripts, plus Microsoft Word templates to create the proper formatting. I know there are ‘lite’ versions of Photoshop, but I really haven’t worked with them. If the beginning artist just wants to try drawing with a computer, Smith Micro offers a free 30-day trial of Clip Studio Paint Pro (formerly known as Manga Studio). Adobe Creative Cloud offers a variety of price levels, depending on the apps you want to use. You can get Photoshop for $9.99 a month or use a single app for $19.99 a month.

How did you break into the industry and what are your recommendations for those who are not in the publishing industry, such as art majors or self-taught artists, who may work in another professional arena?

Jerry: I still don’t always consider myself as being “broken in.” When I first tried to, I got such uninspiring responses that I didn’t ever try to contact a publisher again until a few years ago. Instead, I learned how to self-publish my work. I’ve done close to two dozen picture books, graphic novels, and middle grade novels in the past 20 years. So when I got the offer to illustrate The Zero Degree Zombie Zone for Scholastic that came as quite a surprise. The biggest advice is to continue to improve. I think I’m a much better artist now, than I was a year ago.

Pat: I started the old-fashioned way … making appointments to show my portfolio and sending out promotional material. It’s difficult to see people in person these days though. My recommendation for writers is to work on getting an agent. That can be nearly as difficult as finding a publisher, but they really do help place your manuscript with the right editor. For illustrators, I think it’s a bit easier. Promotional pieces that showcase your ability to create narrative illustrations will be accepted by almost every art director and editor. My advice is to get the catalogue from the Society of Illustrator’s Original Art Show that takes place in the fall and to mail a promotional postcard to every publisher of the books in the show that you admire. By identifying the art director and editor who worked on a book you loved, you’ve identified people who share your taste. The more precisely you target clients, the less frustration I think you’ll experience. Ideally, your story and/or art will land on the desk of someone who resonates with it if you’ve done your homework.

Robert: What I would say is, if you really want to do kids books, YA, MG art, etc. you have to do your homework. That means learning the lingo, the people out there working currently, those from the past, and asking a lot of basic questions. If you go to the library or bookstore you will find a wealth of information on who is doing what. Research the creators and find out how they do it. There are no guidebooks, so asking actual live humans all of your questions is the best way to start. If you consistently do that, you’ll wake up one day and realize people are starting to ask you. As for breaking into the Big 5 or 15 major publishers, I’m still working on that. I’d say the best strategy is to start out small and to stay consistent. Let people know it is something you are passionate about at family gatherings, work meetings, school, wherever. The more you tell people what you’re doing, the more they will think of you when they see something that is related.

Rebecca: I started out in high school drawing short comics for myself and my friends. I would post them online. It was good to have an online archive of the work I’d done, so I could send it to new friends. When I started attending comic book conventions, I talked with artists about their processes and work. This helped me improve my own process and strive to make my work as good as theirs. Each comic I made, I tried to make it better than the last. After a few years I started printing and selling my own short comics. I split the cost of a convention table with 5 other friends, bought cheap bus tickets and slept on couches when we attended the shows. (Nowadays, with social media, you can more easily share and even sell your comics online and start making connections with other artists you like, you don’t need to necessarily go to a show.) Selling my small zines at big shows like MoCCA and SPX put me in touch with other artists at my level who I could collaborate with, as well as artists I admired, who helped me out by supporting and sharing my work online. This eventually (after a couple more years) put me in touch with Hope Larson, who I worked with on Compass South, and onwards.

Arigon: I broke into the industry as a writer. Super Indian was created as a radio series, and I adapted the scripts I’d written for the radio show into longer, more detailed comic book scripts. Luckily for me, I had drawing and art skills and didn’t fear learning new computer skills to accomplish the task. One thing I’ve found is that I was able to gather information and useful tools at whatever job I was doing. I spent a lot of time working as a secretary/assistant, which meant a lot of typing, plus experiencing the evolution of word processing programs. If you can handle Word, most likely you can easily pick-up scriptwriting programs like Final Draft. Another useful tool was my job as a publicity assistant for a television production company and a network. I was asked to read each episodic script as the shows went into production, break the script down into a single paragraph, then a one sentence logline. What an invaluable skill to add to my own toolbox as a writer. Folks also knew that I was an artist and would ask me to help them with newsletter and flyer design, and I leapt at the chance to make something professional for the community. What I learned in those late night hours became graphic design, layout and editing. If you can, learn on someone else’s dime. That’s how I was able to transition from a traditional pen, ink and paper artist to a skilled digital artist. A company hired me to create art for a poster series and I used the time and money they paid me to learn to draw and color in Photoshop, plus acquire a new laptop.

How do you go about research for visual representations of people, places, objects of other cultures & communities? Do you use an illustrator type of “sensitivity reader” when this is the case?

Jerry: I write and draw about the things that I know to be as authentic as possible. But I did ask for help when I was writing The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! For the character of Dexter Diaz, who is Puerto Rican, I asked a female friend and a male, who was my buddy and fellow illustrator/author Eric Velasquez. They both offered great insight. Having Puerto Rican friends is NOT the same as growing up in a Puerto Rican household so I wanted to make sure I captured the feel. I did the same for Bobby Bonderman, a Korean boy who was adopted by a white family.

Pat: It’s always been best to go get the reference myself. Traveling to photograph people and settings used to be my preferred way of collecting reference but I also maintained an enormous picture file. Now, I rely mostly on imagery from photographic books, from magazines like National Geographic and from google image. If I intend to do fairly representative art, I try to find models who fit the image I have in mind of the characters. Fortunately, New York has a wealth of resources so finding authentic imagery from different cultures isn’t difficult. For example, for Harvey Moon, Museum Boy I was able to sketch actual Samurai weapons and armor at the Metropolitan Museum.

Robert: If I’m working on a project, I do a lot of research about the specific community. Even if I’m from that community, I research. This is so I have specific examples of things to look for. For example, if I was searching for aspects of Mexican culture, I wouldn’t just start with a calavera or an altar from “Dia de los muertos.” I would find out where in Mexico the tradition started, and interview people who still make altars asking them why they use flowers, pan dulce, framed photos, and cloth. To get a reader to look at the pictures, enjoy them, and keep turning the page is to convince a viewer that what they are seeing is not a prop or a cut & paste drawing from a catalogue. It has to be researched to feel real.

Rebecca: Hope and I both do extensive research. We discuss each character, setting and cultural representation carefully. Our stories are set in the past and sometimes draw from real historical events. If we set a story in the American West, we consider on one hand, what has been the history of this place in this decade? How was this area shaped by the conflicts between colonists and Native Americans, how was this area shaped by slavery? What historical figures have been written about who lived here? What was daily life like in the year 1860, for different types of people? On the other hand, we look at how a certain time and place has been depicted in other fictional works. What famous fiction has been written about America in a certain year? What cliches and preconceptions can we use to our advantage, and what can we subvert? I think “sensitivity reads” are very important, too. Because even after all that research and discussion, I might still have my own ingrained preconceptions, my own narrow perspective. For Compass South and Knife’s Edge, I asked friends for advice here and there, but for the most part Hope was my sensitivity reader. For future works, we will both be looking to others to help us as well.

Arigon: Like many people, I search online and gather as much visual and written information as possible. The folks at the local library are also a tremendous resource. If I’m writing or drawing a certain tribal community, I reach out to someone from that community to make sure that I’m not crossing any lines into sensitive or taboo areas. For my project Laguna Woman, I’m working with Shayai Lucero, an entrepreneur and Laguna community member. She and I have had many discussions about how the character dresses and acts. Laguna Woman’s super hero outfit is a version of the traditional clothes that Laguna women actually wear. I’m honored to be able to bring a contemporary hero to life that accurately reflects her very real and thriving community.

The Illustrator Roundtable Continues with Part 2.

About the Illustrators:
Jerry Craft has illustrated and written close to two dozen children’s books and middle grade novels including The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! An adventure story that teaches kids about the negative effects of bullying. It was co-authored by his two teenage sons. In 2014, Jerry illustrated The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, for Scholastic which earned him recognition from the Junior Library Guild. He is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, an award-winning comic strip that was distributed by King Features Syndicate from 1995-2013. Jerry has won five African American Literary Awards.

Pat Cummings is an author and/or illustrator of over 35 books, Pat also compiled and edited Talking With Artists, a series featuring notable children’s book illustrators. Her Parsons and Pratt classes list a growing number of award-winning children’s books creators. She frequently lectures at schools, libraries and conventions and conducts an annual Children’s Book Boot Camp that connects writers and illustrators with agents and publishers. Pat serves on the boards of The Authors Guild, The Authors League Foundation and SCBWI, is a member of The Writers Guild of America, East, and Chair of the Society of Illustrators Founders Award committee for the annual Original Art Show. Her latest book, Beauty and the Beast (HarperCollins), was translated and retold by her husband Chuku Lee.

Robert Liu-Trujillo is the author and illustrator of Furqan’s First Flat Top. Born in Oakland, California and raised all across the Bay Area he is a visual artist, father, and a husband who employs the use of illustration, public art, and storytelling. These stories manifest in a variety of forms and they reflect his cultural background, dreams, and political / personal beliefs. His motivation to the work is to unearth beautiful and un-told stories, to be a positive and nurturing influence on his son, and to honor the ancestors and family who worked so hard to get us here. He loves music, nerdy things, and can get along well with most people. He seeks fun, ice cream, and justice. He’s also a co-founder of The Trust Your Struggle Collective, a contributor to Rad Dad, and the founder of Come Bien Books.
Rebecca Mock is an illustrator and comics artist. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the New York Times and the New Yorker. She is co-organizer of the Hana Doki Kira anthology. Compass South is her first book.

Arigon Starr is an enrolled member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, and a multi-talented and award winning musician, actor, playwright and artist. “Super Indian” began as a nationally broadcast radio comedy series for the Native Radio Theater Project and Native Voices at the Autry. In 2011, she penciled, inked, colored and lettered the webcomic version of “Super Indian.” Starr is a founder of the Indigenous Narratives Collective (INC), a group of Native American comic book writers and artists. “Super Indian Volume One” was published in 2012, followed by INC’s “Generation INC #0” and “Super Indian Volume Two.” She was the editor and a contributor to “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, Volume One” released in 2016 by Native Realities Press. Her work has been featured in several art exhibits across the country and she was named a 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellow, sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.