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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