Friday, December 30, 2011

Illustration Friday: Messenger

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
crow: messenger of the gods in many cultures and myths; in some, seen as an ill omen, and in others, a positive sign

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Improve your Blog Title's SEO without Giving up your Creativity

Note:This post has been superceded by Blogger's handy permalink creator (see this post to learn how to create a permalink). 

The old article follows:

Here's a simple SEO tip that I haven't seen elsewhere: how to improve your blog post title's SEO while maintaining your creative integrity.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How to be a Children's Book Illustrator: Interview with Mark Mitchell

Are you looking for a great last minute present for a loved one who dreams of being a children's illustrator? You will not regret investing in author-illustrator Mark Mitchell's online course on children's book illustration, "Make Your Splashes, Make Your Marks."

Make Your Splashes, Make Your Marks online course

Several years ago I came across Mark's blog, "How to Be a Children's Book Illustrator" and his self-paced online course. I had both art and illustration experience, but I wanted to learn some specifics about illustrating children's books. Little did I know that I would learn from an amazingly talented and generous teacher and join a vibrant and supportive community of illustrators.  

Mark's "How to Be a Children's Book Illustrator" blog

The course includes four modules: (1) Dynamic Drawing and Design, (2) Power Color, (3) Painting Pretty, and (4) Your Place in the Marketplace. When I took the course, the structure was slightly different, but the two main things I got out of it are still there: 

1. Key drawing and painting tips that I use every day. Every time I take an art class, I learn a new technique or get inspired in new ways. Mark's course is jammed with valuable and concrete tips, such as (1) his drawing and design tips, including the "scribbled start" to drawing, and (2) his lessons on color theory and the use of a restricted palette. I had studied color theory before but I truly had an "aha" moment when I learned about "dueling colors."

2. Being part of a supportive online critique group. Students are invited to take part in an ongoing series of monthly critiques, where others help critique their illustrations. I still stop by sometimes to get my work critiqued or to be inspired. Every time I've had a piece critiqued, I've been able to improve it. Students are also part of a listserv where people exchange links, articles, and discuss topics of interest.

Interview with Mark Mitchell

photo by Patrice Barton
I've gotten to know Mark over the years and am amazed by how he has developed such a vibrant community of children's illustrators, both online and in Austin, Texas. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions:

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your background?

I didn't really "discover" the world of children's illustration until I was 23 or 24 and standing in a Walden's bookstore in a mall one day. I'd grown up with books (including illustrated children's literature) and art (my mother has always painted watercolors). But I was unfamiliar with the idea of picture books as their own art form -- until I saw the display table that featured "Where the Wild Things" and other books by Maurice Sendak. If I remember, there were also some Christmas themed books by Rosemary Wells and Tasha Tudor. I was enchanted. I stayed in that bookstore all day.
illustration by Mark Mitchell

I had not majored in Fine Arts in college, but had taken a number of studio art courses. After graduating from the College of Communication I continued to take drawing and painting courses where I could find them.

Eventually, when I felt ready and while working a day job as a reporter, I showed my portfolio to a regional publisher who did a lot of Texas-themed children's books. I got my first illustration assignments from him. From there I went on to illustrate other books including my own and for the children's American history magazines, "AppleSeeds" and "Cobblestone" and other publications.

Q. What made you create your website and online course?

Sometime around 2008-2009 I started to see the web as a new model for publishing and felt that I should bring my journalism online somehow.

For several years I'd taught a children's book illustration class at the Austin Museum of Art Art School (I still teach the course there!). I thought I could bring my illustration class, which I'd fine-tuned over the years, to the web and combine it with a blog where I could write on painting, illustration and children's publishing -- and showcase the work of my illustrator friends in an instructive way and other artists whose work I admired.

Back when I was trying to learn everything I could about children's book illustration, I remember feeling that I could never find enough out there. I wanted more clues about the process and about incorporating good storytelling into pictures. There was Uri Shulevitz's great book, Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books, and Something about the Illustrator that I would spend hours with in the reference section of our public library. And those were about it.

So I wanted to create the resource I craved when I was starting.

Q. What do students tell you is the most valuable part of your course?

illustration by Mark Mitchell
Several students have reported experiencing real breakthroughs in their drawing and painting with the lessons on color and on "scribble drawing." Several have reported that the course has made watercolor painting easier for them. Also, many state that they've enjoyed meeting and interacting with fellow afficianados -- other students -- and sharing resources and learning a lot from each other. (I like this part, too.)

I enjoyed a comment recently posted on our community wall by a student, "Besides the course [lessons] I am trying to keep up with the tech sessions and learn how to work between IBM and Apple - my brain is so stretched it reminds me of being in labour."

Q. When I google "how to become a children's book illustrator," your website comes up in the coveted #1 spot and I'm sure it routinely ranks in the first page. Did you have a nefarious master plan to dominate the children's illustration space online, or did it just happen naturally?

I bought my first domain: "How To Be A Children's Book Illustrator," thinking how audacious of me. I never expected the blog to land in or near the top spot in Google search for keywords like "Children's Book Illustration." I'm not sure why it does. I like to think that its because Google recognizes that my content is good.

I wish I could take credit for a nefarious master plan to dominate the web. 
In fact I've taken some online courses to learn about blogs, search engine optimization and building online teaching communities. 

I think the platform and community have helped the blog to

gain visibility. Also I should mention that I'm part of the rather amazing social web
presence of the Austin SCBWI chapter, with so many published YA and children's authors and illustrators who actively blog and maintain Facebook pages. We're always linking to and referencing each other.

Mark's second blog, Illustration Course
I have two blogs now. They compete with each other for readership. The second one is Illustration It's a little more commercial than the first. It unabashedly markets my online course and focuses more on the changing technology of the marketplace -- interactive digital children's books, electronic publishing and picturemaking, etc.

Q. The world of publishing, including children's books, is rapidly changing with electronic readers and the ability of creators to self-publish their work electronically.  Does your course address these issues?

Yes! We've recently incorporated a "tech track" with near-weekly webinars that cover topics like e-publishing and creating interactive books and apps for the iPad, iPhone and other tablets.

Down the road we'll talk about children's book trailers, animation and "Doodle Talks," and anything else that looks interesting. We'll explore digital illustration and design tools and other resources for artists. I'd also like to include some sessions where we talk to agents and art directors.

While rapid changes in technology are having a cataclysmic impact on most businesses, including children's publishing, they may also be opening some
new opportunities for illustrators and writers.

Q. How can children's illustrators thrive in these changing times?

It IS a challengingly dangerous time for illustrated children's books -- 
at least books as we've known them.  Trade and educational publishers continue to constrict their output and lay off personnel. School and public libraries are on the ropes. Brick and mortar bookstores are nearly gone.

As a result of the web, stock illustration sites and the global economy, illustrative art is being treated increasingly as a commodity. Fine artists and illustrators are competing with each other as never before.

On the upside, we're enjoying a renaissance of self-publishing and grass roots publishing and they seem to be making more big budget hit movies of children's picture books than ever.

Your weapons in this "war of Art" (to borrow author Steve Pressfield's phrase) are your imagination, the skills you develop and your simple networking.

I'm a big believer in how the right information (the right conversation, even) can lop years off a person's learning curve and change one's life dramatically for the better. Even if it's just planting one small idea or erasing a few wrong assumptions.

I should say that, tech track aside, the heart of the course remains the bedrock ideas of good drawing, composition, color and painting. These apply to every medium -- electronic or traditional print.

Q. What are you working on these days as an illustrator? Can we expect any
upcoming books or works?

I hope so! I'm pulling together the 2012 contents of the course. I'm also working on two picture books of my own right now -- one in association with a team of my students! Also working on my sketchbook for the 2012 Sketchbook Project World Tour, and trying to be a good mother hen to Austin SCBWI illustrators (as the chapter's Illustrators Coordinator.)

Q: How can someone reach you online?

I should mention that the name of the course is "Make Your Splashes - Make Your Marks!" You can find me in these ways:

How to Be a Children's Book Illustrator

Illustration Course

Download your free "best drawing secret" videos and PDF report:

How to Illustrate a Children's Book Fan Page 
Illustrators Using Watercolor Group 

Videos for Illustration Course 

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Google+ Hangouts: A Promising Tool for Online Artistic Collaboration

I'm a newbie at Google+ but yesterday I tried the Hangout feature, where several children's illustrators met online to video chat and experiment with collaborating in real time. Debbie Ohi, writer, illustrator, and blogger extraordinaire, organized the hangout and reported on it yesterday at her website Inky Girl:

screenshot from Inky Girl post on Google+ hangouts

Monday, December 12, 2011

Illustration Friday: Separated (Lionfish)

© 2011 Sylvia Liu

The lionfish is a beautiful and poisonous saltwater fish that is native to the South Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, it has become separated from its native ecosystem and become an invasive species in the Atlantic Ocean. Introduced by saltwater fish collectors in southern Florida, the lionfish has no predators in the Atlantic and Caribbean and has spread rapidly in this region.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review: Pig Kahuna and Chick 'n' Pug

Jennifer Sattler is one of my new favorite illustrators. Her recent book, Pig Kahuna (Bloombury Publishing, 2011), is a great example of what excellent picture books can do: interesting and fun illustrations and lively text work together to tell a delightful story of two engaging characters. Fergus and his baby brother Dink are at the beach, collecting treasures. They encounter an abandoned surfboard and play with it, because "[o]f course, surfing on it was out of the question because of the lurking, murky ickiness factor of the water." They decorate and name the surfboard Dave.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gingerbread Picture Books!

It’s that time of year to revisit the classic story of the runaway gingerbread boy. In the original story, the gingerbread boy doesn’t fare too well as he is snapped up by a wily fox. Here are some fun variations:

The Gingerbread Girl image
Gingerbread Girl, written & illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst (Dutton Children’s Books, 2006) This is the story of the gingerbread boy’s younger sister who escapes the oven like her brother did. Taunting everyone who chases her (“I’ll run and I’ll run with a leap and a twirl. You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Girl.”), she eventually runs into the sly fox. But Gingerbread Girl proves to be a match for the fox, as she tames him with her superior rodeo skills and brings home a crowd of friends to the lonely couple’s house.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How I use Twitter as Fodder for my Blog

I love Twitter because I'm always reading some fascinating tidbit, and it's a quick way to share interesting items. Recently, I've found that it's also a useful aid in blogging:

1. Favoriting or retweeting helps me collect research for a topic. 

Instead of actively researching a blog post, I prefer to let topics percolate and develop organically. For example, I recently wrote a post on 
5 nontraditional publishing methods. I didn't decide on the topic and then go looking for examples. Instead, I had been reading about nontraditional publishing methods over the past months, and either favorited or retweeted interesting tweets on the topic. One day, the idea for the post coalesced, and I went back to my Twitter stream and favorites list. I gathered my sources, including a tweet I had favorited six months earlier (from the always interesting Maria Popova):

Monday, November 28, 2011

More Picture Book Trends: Holiday Edition

Less than a week after I wrote my previous picture book trends post
, the displays at Barnes & Noble had switched to full holiday mode. The prime real estate is now dominated by holiday picture books, as seen above. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The 33 Best Apps for Your New iPad

You just bought an iPad and you don't want to spend hours researching what apps to get. Here’s my subjective list of 33 great iPad apps to get you started:


If you’re like me, your first downloads will be games. Some of our family favorites:

1. Angry birds ($.99) The birds are angry at the pigs who have stolen their eggs. It is your job to launch them from catapults to destroy the pigs.

2. Cut the Rope ($.99) Figure out how to cut the ropes to feed the hungry candy-loving monster. Each level gets harder and more intricate.  

3. Veggie Samurai ($.99) Take out your aggressions against vegetables by slicing and dicing them with your fingers.

4. Moron Test ($.99) Developed for kids, this is fun & challenging for all. Prove you’re not a moron by following the instructions carefully and quickly. Sometimes you need to think outside the box to advance.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Interview With Children's Illustrator Chris Soentpiet

photo of Chris Soentpiet, children's illustrator
Chris Soentpiet at my daughters' school
I recently had the opportunity to interview Chris Soentpiet, the talented award-winning illustrator of twenty picture books known for his historical and realistic illustrations. We talked while he visited my daughters’ school last month.

Q. How did you start illustrating children's books?

When I was an art student at The Pratt Institute, a four-year art college in Brooklyn, NY, we had several illustrators come to visit our school. I was particularly inspired by Ted and Betsy Lewin. They gave a presentation about their books, and I was so impressed by their lifestyle and general outlook on life, that I thought it would be a perfect career. I was also inspired by my favorite illustrator, Norman Rockwell. I have all of his books in my office.

After I graduated from Pratt, I showed my work to publishing houses. Although I was rejected numerous times, I was given the opportunity to illustrate my first book, Around Town, about a day in New York City. I have been illustrating since then.

Q. What is your process for illustrating a book?

Once hired by a publisher, I study the manuscript. I don’t talk to the author, only the editor and art director. I prepare and send the publisher seventeen 3 x 5 inch thumbnail sketches for the story. After getting feedback, I send final thumbnails. This process takes about 3 months.

Once we agree on the thumbnails, I make final pencil sketches 20% bigger than the final copy, sketched on tracing paper. I use a 7h pencil for detail. This takes about 4 months. When the sketches are approved, I re-sketch the drawings on watercolor paper using an 8h pencil, and paint them in watercolors.

Each finished spread can take 2-4 weeks to make. For example, the following spread from Coolies, written by my wife Lin, took 3 weeks to make, painting 8 hours a day. I like to paint the background first, and then work my way to the main characters:
spread from Coolies, by Chris Soentpiet
Spread from Coolies  © Chris Soentpiet
From start to finish, it can take a year for me to finish a book.

Q. Your books have such detailed and realistic people. What is your process for illustrating people?

I use real people as models. I hire children in my neighborhood or nearby schools to pose as models, or ask my friends and family. I photograph them in the positions and angles that I want to paint, in costumes and with props. My wife Yin is a frequent model in my books, and I have even put myself in my books. For example, my wife and I are the waiters in this spread from Jin Woo, written by Eve Bunting:    
Spread from Jin Woo © Chris Soentpiet
Q. Do you have a favorite book that you have illustrated?

All of my books are special to me, but Jin Woo holds a special place in my heart, because it is about the adoption of a baby boy from South Korea. Like Jin Woo, I was adopted from South Korea. 

Q. What are you working on now?

I'm working on the sequel to my most recent book, Amazing Faces. (In Amazing Faces, noted poet Lee Bennett Hopkins collected 16 poems about people all over the world experiencing universal emotions.)  My new book is called Amazing Places, and Mr. Hopkins will gather 16 new authors to write about amazing places from all over the world. 

Q. What do you like best about illustrating for children?  

Children are honest and they tell you what they really think of your work.  Unlike adults who are not as blunt.

Q. Do you have any words of advice for aspiring illustrators?

As I tell students when I visit them at their schools, follow your dreams and believe in yourself. Also, keep practicing. That’s the only way you get better.

To find out more about Chris Soentpiet, visit his website at

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Illustration Friday: Silent

© 2010 Sylvia Liu
This is a painting I worked on last year. I'm not completely happy with it, because the water still needs work, but it does seem to evoke silence.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

5 Nontraditional Publishing Models from Around the World

The world of publishing is changing with ebooks, but writers and readers may not be thinking outside the box enough when it comes to new forms of publishing. Authors and publishers around the world are figuring out intriguing new ways to publish:

1. Let readers read through the slushpile, then micropay for good fiction.

Recently, the press has been abuzz by the "freemium" model of self-publishing that has become popular in China. As Publishing Perspectives reports, hundreds of websites offering free original fiction web serials are attracting 40% of all Chinese internet traffic. Once an individual author's serials gain enough followers, he or she is invited to a separate paid section of the site, where readers pay small amounts of money for the next installments. Successful authors reportedly have made substantial amounts using this model.

Monday, November 7, 2011

IF: stripes (made with ArtStudio app)

© 2011 Sylvia Liu

This week, I experimented by making this illustration entirely on my iPad. I used the ArtStudio app, a fun, intuitive Photoshop-like program that allows up to five layers. It has special effects, like the tubular paint used for the bars, and filters like the "noise" added to the background. It was unwieldy drawing only with my fingers, so I'm going to investigate getting a tablet pen. Let me know if you have a good recommendation for one.

Many people have discovered the art of making art on an iPad. Here is a collection of excellent paintings made on an iPad, and another compilation of twenty more interesting ones.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

4 Ways for Picture Book Creators to Find Inspiration

November is turning into a great month for inspiration for children's book writers and illustrators. Here are some things inspiring me to be more creative:

1. Picture Book Idea Month, also known as PiBoIdMo

Children's book author Tara Lazar organizes this month-long event, which challenges writers to come up with 30 picture book ideas during the month of November. Each day, she blogs or has guests blog about writing picture books. Today is the last day to sign up in order to be eligible for prizes and giveaways, but anyone can participate at anytime this month.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Picture Book Trends, Part 2

My simple way to figure out picture book trends is to visit Barnes & Noble and check out what it's featuring. This fall, if you're not Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, a Caldecott winner, or an established bestseller, it seems like you're out of luck.

This is consistent with last fall's depressing New York Times article, "Picture Books No Longer a Staple with Children." The article reported that perennial bestsellers like Sendak and Seuss continue to sell well, but parents are buying fewer picture books. Why? Because they are pushing preschoolers to read chapter books in a misguided effort to help them become more "advanced" readers. Librarians and others quickly pointed out that picture books are critical for helping children develop literacy. (See Huffington Post article summarizing librarians' views).

My guess is that traditional hardback picture books will also suffer from the increasing popularity of color readers such as the Kindle Fire, which will soon join the Nook color, iPad, and other color ereaders. Not only do these readers provide the same books at paperback prices, but they also offer exciting and interactive picture book apps.

As a children's book writer and illustrator who hopes to finish and publish my picture books, the changing landscape of publishing is at once depressing and heartening. Depressing, because the likelihood of obtaining a traditional picture book contract is very slim, but heartening, because the options for publishing electronically have increased dramatically.

What do you think? Do you need to have a traditional picture book to read to your child as you cuddle together in bed, or will an iPad or ereader do as well?

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Least Efficient Form of Solar Energy (Illustration Friday: Fuel)

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
(click on the image to enlarge)

Almost every fuel we use or consume is a form of solar energy. Some captured the sun's energy hundreds of millions of years ago (fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal). Some indirectly reflect the sun's effects on weather and water systems (wind and hydropower). Some directly tap the sun's energy (solar power). Even the foods we consume either directly transformed solar power (plants) or indirectly did so through the food chain (animals). 

Every hour, the sun floods the earth with more energy than the human population can use in a year. Wouldn't it be great if we could use our collective ingenuity to capture some of that directly instead of relying on Paleozoic algae and plankton? A recent Scientific American article, "Making Solar Panels as Ubiquitous and Efficient as Leaves," argues that we need to imitate the leaf, the ultimate inexpensive solar panel.

Can you think of any fuels that are not ultimately solar powered? Maybe nuclear power?

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

illustration friday: scattered

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
Kraken scattered the bones of Ichthyosaur before she organized them into a self-portrait.

This illustration was inspired by a crazy fun Popular Science article I read this weekend, "Did an Ancient Kraken Create its Own Friends? What About a Modern Jellyfish?" A scientist from the Geological Society of America announced the discovery of a giant Triassic-era Kraken that arranged the bones of its prey, Ichthyosaurs, into curious patterns resembling its own suckers. Basically, it played with its food and made a self-portrait. (See the press release).

For decades, scientists had puzzled over the fact that fossils of nine prehistoric Ichthyosaurs (bus-sized fish-like dinosaurs) found in a Nevada state park were arranged in a strange way:
Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark McNenamin, GSA
The evidence showed that the ichthyosaurs had not died at the same time and had not been stranded in shallow water. Dr. Mark McNenamin came up with his theory after realizing that the octopus is a modern predator with the intelligence to manipulate the bones of its prey, and that it can take on a fish equal or larger to it in size (as seen in the video, "Shark vs. Octopus," taken at the Seattle Aquarium, when scientists discovered that a giant octopus was the mysterious killer of several sharks).

Dr. McNenamin figured that a prehistoric giant octopus could have done the same with Ichthyosaur bones. He further theorized that the giant Kraken actually arranged the bones to resemble the suckers of its own legs. He acknowledges there is no fossil evidence such as a giant beak (the only hard part of an octopus) to support the theory.

I love this story and the leap of imagination and creativity that spawned the theory. I love how a little known scientific society captured peoples' imaginations in what is essentially a PR coup. Of course, spoil sports were quick to dismiss the press release and reporting (see, for example, the article, "The Giant Prehistoric Squid that Ate Common Sense"), pointing out that there was no supporting fossil evidence.

I still think it's a pretty good theory. Though maybe the self-portrait part was a bit of a stretch.

Bonus Illustration Friday: contraption

I was so scattered last week, helping eight 1st and 2nd grade classes paint Chinese lanterns as well as make the scenery for a class play, that I didn't finish last week's illustration for "Contraption" until this week. So here it is:

© 2011 Sylvia Liu

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