Penguin Art Director Giuseppe Castellano Critiques Our Class

How does it feel like to be critiqued by an Art Director at a Big Six publisher?

Before: nervous, excited
During: a bit hurt/indignant, thoughtful
After: humbled, grateful, inspired

Here's how it happened...

The Assignment

A few months ago on Twitter, Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director at Penguin USA (who oversees the Grossett & Dunlap, PSS!, Warne, PYR, and Poptropica imprints), offered to give students in illustration or art schools critiques based on an assignment he would give. Mark Mitchell, who helms an online children's illustration course, took Giuseppe up on the offer. Giuseppe's assigment to us: re-envision the cover of either the first Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys story. Twenty-six students from the class submitted covers.

my inspiration

When I started on my cover of The Secret of the Old Clock, I was inspired by the recent Lemony Snicket book, Who Could It Be at This Hour? I liked its fresh approach to the traditional middle grade cover:

I came up with this graphic novel look as a result:

© 2013 Sylvia Liu

I liked how the vignettes told different parts of the story, but it was a bit busy. I simplified the design, using circles to evoke flashlights, deepened the colors, and focused on Nancy Drew, silhouettes and shadows:

© 2013 Sylvia Liu

In drawing Nancy, I used photos as references: a running teenager and my daughters holding a box. I chose a contemporary haircut and casual outfit to update her image. Some members of my critique group thought the haircut made her look too much like a boy, so I tweaked her silhouette and added eyelashes. Knowing that designing a cover involves thinking about both print and ebooks, I checked the design at a thumbnail scale to make sure it would pop in an online bookstore.

The Critique

On June 10, 2013, Giuseppe held a three hour online critique session with the class. He told us we were one of four classes that did this assignment. He spent the first two hours critiquing each piece and the last hour answering general Q & As.

Giuseppe pulled no punches. He explained that he does not sugarcoat his critiques: he tells it like he sees it from his perspective of 25 years working in children's publishing and looking at art. For several pieces, he mentioned elements he liked and what didn't work for him. Overall, he found a handful of pieces that were successful and provided suggestions for improvement. For many of the pieces, however, he focused only on the parts that did not work, which was tough to hear. Some comments we heard that night:

  • Learn how to draw people. Draw people from life as often as possible. Drawing people well is really hard and most students need to get better at it. You must draw characters from reference, even if you are abstracting them.
  • Don't cut people off at joints, like ankles or elbows.
  • Follow the Art Director's notes and directions, such as format, templates, and bleeds.
  • When creating highlights and shadows, don't just use lighter or darker versions of a color, but find all the colors that exist in the object (for example, skin includes all sorts of colors)
  • Although title design was not part of the assignment, pay attention to the placement of titles and credits in a cover design. Art and text must work together.
  • Make sure every artistic choice you make is related to the story or done for a purpose. For example, don't just use interesting texture without asking yourself why you are using it. Pick a texture that is relevant to the story or to the object you are depicting.
  • Work to your strengths. If you're good at gesture, focus on gesture. If you're better at silhouettes than rendering people, do a cover full of silhouettes.
  • Illustration is equal parts art and trade. Make sure your art is appealing to others as well as yourself.

Critiques of Specific Covers

Some of my classmates agreed to share their pieces for this article, as well as Giuseppe's critiques. Putting art in the world is not easy. Sharing it for a critique is harder. And sharing the results of the critique is even more difficult, so kudos to these talented illustrators. These covers have a 1/2 inch bleed all around. (Click on each image to see it larger). In alphabetical order:

© 2013 Theresa Bayer
Giuseppe had high praise for Theresa Bayer: "This is a pretty painting. It is really solid. It is a really successful cover." He lauded her for her use of color, particularly for the skin. His few nit-picks: the length of the forearm was off; the left line of the clock is not parallel to the right, and she could provide more detail on the blocks to show what they are (whether books or gifts or what).

© 2013 Riman Boen
Giuseppe liked how Riman Boen was able to convey a sense of danger with a few well placed shadows. His main comment was that the rendering of the background elements (wood, straw, truck) were all done in the same way, which flattened the artwork. He made the point that once an artist has learned how to make texture or use a tool, he or she should take it to the next level and say something about what he or she thinks of the subject. For example, here Giuseppe wanted to see more character in the wood.

© 2013 Helene Craig

Giuseppe found Helene Craig's cover to be an interesting piece. He liked the idea of it, but noted that it might be too abstract for the average reader. He  has nothing against abstract art, but he pointed out that this cover could have incorporated more cues from the story, for example, elements of the story made into patterns, or making what is happening a bit more clear. He also noted that the art needed to make room for the title.

©2013 Kathy Jurek
Giuseppe thought Kathy Jurek's Nancy was one of the most modern and appealing Nancy Drews he had seen in all four classes. The drawing "works" with good gestures. His main suggestion was that the background composition could be improved to show what was happening more clearly (two thugs chasing her into a barn).

© 2013 Laci Morgan
Giuseppe liked Laci Morgan's composition, the sense of mystery, and how the eye moves from the main character to the action in the background. He felt that the rendering of Nancy could be improved, and emphasized the importance of using references. A general tip he provided was to practice drawing the same character fifty times until one knows the character inside and out and can draw the character from any angle.

© 2013 Gayle Wing O'Donnell

Giuseppe liked the basic concept of the cover, a sliver of light falling across Nancy's face ("I really like that band"), but thought Gayle Wing O'Donnell could improve the rendering of the face. He noted some areas that could be fixed (the eyes may be too big and the nose too low), and suggested adding other colors to create highlights and shadows. The reflections in the eyes didn't work for him.

© 2013 Charlie Eve Ryan

Giuseppe really liked Charlie Eve Ryan's piece for its "nice simplicity." He liked the line work of Nancy, but was distracted by the dotted pattern and the additional elements (the boat and gravestone). He suggested simplifying the cover by making it all about the Nancy Drew line work.

© 2013 Kendra Shendenhelm
Giuseppe had nothing bad to say about Kendra Shedenhelm's piece. He said, "I love it." He also approved of the type, which wasn't part of the assignment. He thought the textures were enough to capture one's attention and the overall effect was sucessful. He suggested that she could illustrate the text in the future (apply the same kind of texture to the words as to the text).

© 2013 Rob Smith

Giuseppe liked the lighting, the eerie feeling, and appreciated the amount of work and detail that Rob Smith put into much of the illustration: the motorcycles, the trees, and the tower. He was puzzled, however, by the figures, which seemed unfinished due to their indistinct faces. He noted that it was likely that Rob had not looked at references for the faces. He recommends to all illustrators, from students to professionals, to draw as many humans from life as possible.

© 2013 Karen Watson
Giuseppe thought each element of Karen Watson's cover was appealing, the car, Nancy, the clock, and the title, but they didn't work well together. He suggested that she take the strongest part of the cover, the car and Nancy, and make that the focus of the cover.

My Piece

For my cover, Giuseppe liked how the title was set off and noted that it can work on occasion. Otherwise, he focused on the problems: I cut off Nancy's foot ("one of the top three biggest faux pas for illustrators");  it didn't look like I used references; the overall look is simplistic but inconsistently so (I added details like eyelashes and shoelaces which are more details than warranted by the style); and her neck is not well-drawn, lacking elements like muscles and indentations, making it look like the back of her neck.

It was hard to hear him go on about eyelashes, shoelaces, and badly drawn necks. But I appreciate his comments. I know Nancy isn't perfect, and it was helpful to hear his opinions. I understand that even a stylized rendering must be believable. While he was critiquing my piece, though, I wanted him to notice the elements I was proud of, such as the design (the shapes, silhouettes, and use of color to convey mystery) and the contemporary take on Nancy, but I realize that he was just cutting to the chase, providing constructive feedback.


At the end of the session, Giuseppe spent an hour answering questions about children's publishing, his job, and how he finds illustrators. Mark Mitchell will blog about that part of the session in detail, and I will link to it when it is available.

In the meantime, children's illustrators: head over to Twitter and follow Giuseppe Castellano (@pinocastellano). He routinely provides illustration advice under the hashtag #arttips and for every 100 new followers, he picks a random follower to provide a portfolio critique.

For me, his most valuable advice was this: "Everyone should always carry a sketchbook with them. . . . Everyone should draw every day, even if you don't feel like it. . . You have to really look, not just see it, but really look. . . and figure out a way that is natural to you, that is your handwriting. . . your visual mark making. Figure that out. Figure out what it is that makes it work for you and apply it. . . . You have to give yourself time and put in the work."

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