After graduating from the University of Washington concentrating in graphic design, Nancy worked as a graphic designer and art director in the technology industry before discovering the magic of children’s books. Nancy lives and works in Seattle, Washington. She enjoys creating characters that have a sense of humor. She works in watercolor, colored pencil, and pen and ink – mixed together with a little bit of digital polish. When not in the studio, Nancy enjoys kayaking, skiing, and most of all spending time with her family and a grumpy little white dog named Lucy.
Here’s Nancy showing her process:
I hang line drawings on a large corkboard to check for any inconsistencies in the story or characters, and to check the flow of the pages.
It is amazing what sometimes jumps out when you stand back a bit.
Final line drawing in pencil
Very light printed copy of drawing on Arches 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper done on an Epson 1100 printer.
The finished illustration is a single page spread. Winsor & Newton watercolors Cadmium Yellow and Cerulean Blue were mixed together and used for the background grass and the frog’s skin. Prismacolor pencils were used on top of the watercolor in the grass and the frog’s skin to give highlights and vary the green in the grass to help create depth and separation of each blade of grass. The color of the duck’s feet and beak was achieved by blending four different shades of Prismacolor oranges and a creme for highlight. The frog’s eyes were also done with a Prismacolor pencil, as were the highlights on his hands, tummy and face. The white of the duck is the paper white and the shading in the wings, neck and bottom were done with a 4B graphite pencil rubbed into the paper with a cotton cloth then lightly picked up with a knead easer. All shadows and shading on the grass and frog are done with a 6B graphite pencil rubbed into the paper and then picked up with the knead easer. The ground was a very light wash of a greenish brown with a second overlay wash of light warm grey then blotted with a wet paper towel to give it a slight texture. For the final result the illustration was scanned in PhotoShop and areas were blurred to create a smoother gradation in the color of the duck’s feet and beak. Some of the green areas were saturated to create a richer color. The ladybugs were done in watercolor with a creme pencil highlight. All final outlines were done with a mechanical pencil to create a thin line for definition.
When did you start illustrating?
I’ve always enjoyed quirky characters and their stories, especially those found in children’s books. It’s great fun to be able to create worlds where anything can happen. I explored this idea in depth in a children’s book illustration class I took three years ago. After that experience, I was hooked.
I see that you attended the University of Washington for graphic design. Could you tell us a little bit about the University of Washington and the classes you took there?
The graphic design program at the University of Washington was intense. My area of concentration was in publication design and corporate identity. This focus lead me to a career at Hewlett Packard as a graphic designer – and eventually art director for product publications. After Hewlett Packard I worked as an art director at an industrial design firm doing package design. All of these work experiences taught me that good art comes from solid composition.
What was the first thing you did that you got paid for? How did that come about?
When I was in the fourth grade I entered the children’s section of the Bellevue Art and Crafts Fair. I did a watercolor close-up of a dandelion and priced it at twenty dollars, which of course was a lot of money for me at the time. Someone bought the painting and left a note telling me to keep painting. That left a huge impression, and from then on, art was my passion. If you needed a drawing of a pirate or a scary witch for Halloween I was your person.
What type of paint do you like using the most?
I use Winsor & Newton Water Colors on 140 lb hot press Arches watercolor paper for the transparent washes. Then I apply Prismacolor pencils and a 4B graphite pencil on top of the watercolor.
Do you ever use two different materials in one illustration?
All the time. I use watercolor for the loose transparent washes and Prismacolor pencils for rich deep colors. I have also used salt, turpentine, rubbing alcohol, and wax to create special effects and textures.
Have you changed your approach or style over the years?
Because I am now focusing on children’s illustration for the under-three audience, my drawings have more humor in them. I try to have each illustration tell a narrative, because my audience can’t read. So the challenge is to communicate the whole story through visual clues, and I love that.
When did you get interested in illustrating children’s books?
After my children were born, children’s books from the library became a very big part of our family routine. We would read before naps, at night before bed, in the doctor’s waiting room, on airplanes – just about any time we needed a diversion. Reading children’s books was magical because you were asked to come along on an adventure. Everyone can remember their favorite book from childhood. Mine was Little Old Mrs. Pepperpot. After, my children had grown busy with their own lives and schedules, I realized how much I missed the storytelling and wonderful illustrations. So I decided to go on my own journey with writing and illustrating.
Do you use PhotoShop? If so how and where?
I do use PhotoShop. It is a great tool to clean up and enhance illustrations. I use it to modify colors, line edit, and to resize and reposition images. It is wonderful for type placement when you are playing around with dummy mockups. I don’t create illustrations in PhotoShop because I love the messy part of creating with real paint and pencil, and the happy accidents that happen with experimentation.
Do you own a graphic tablet? If not have you ever tried one? If yes, what do think of their performance?
I don’t own a graphic tablet…yet. I have test driven a few like Wacom and they certainly can enhance one’s productivity. But there is a weird eye hand coordination thing you must get use to when using a tablet. I am not there yet. It is something I am thinking about for concept drawings but I don’t think I would use it for final art. But who knows.
Are you represented by an agent? If so, who?
No agent yet. I have been focused on improving my writing and illustration skills to get to a level that an agent or publisher would be interested. I have been taking writing classes and illustration workshops through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). An agent would certainly be helpful in getting me out of the slush pile.
What are you working on now?
Right now I have 3 picture book dummies that I have written and illustrated and are ready for their close up with art directors and editors. Two are out and one is still at home getting ready for final assembly. It is like sending your children to school for the first time. You are so comfortable living with these characters every day that when they leave, you miss them. My books are filled with monkeys, dogs, zooming mosquitoes, and bossy ducks. As you can tell I take the road less traveled with my stories.
Do you try to follow a schedule for working on your art? Have a regular routine?
Since I work at home it’s easy to get distracted or pulled into doing things other than working on manuscripts or illustrations – especially when things are not coming together. What works best for me is to keep my butt in the chair and do the work every day to keep the momentum going. It doesn’t have to be perfect right off the bat. Sometimes it’s the 30th revision that is the winner. It’s the old Nike thing – “just do it.” I’ve found it’s the only way to get better. My daily routine is to start the day early looking at emails and blogs for about an hour. If I don’t set a limit, it becomes a total time sink. Then I am in the studio (a nice word for the upstairs guest bedroom) until 6 pm. There are times, however, when I am in the zone and things are going well. Then I just keep plugging away.
Do you do things other than children’s illustrating to help pay the bills?
Well, children’s illustrating is not paying any bills right now, so yes I do freelance work for non-profits. Mostly fundraising campaigns and logo designs for startups.
Have you ever thought of writing your own book and illustrating it?
Yes. I think the best part of being an illustrator is that you can see images like a movie inside your head. Every character has a back-story that comes out in their expressions and body language. The trick is being true to the character’s story so that a child can relate to it, or perhaps see parts of themselves in the character.
What type of things have you put in your portfolio?
Because my characters and stories are geared for a young audience, my portfolio reflects images that would appeal to them. I use bright colors and make sure each illustration tells a story. For that reason I have illustrations of animals and children busy doing familiar things.
Have you ever made a book dummy? If so, how long did it take?
I am obsessive about making book dummies. Once I have a solid idea I will first break it down with a small thumbnail dummy to see where the holes are in the story. Then I move to a rough full-scale dummy to see if the page turn is going okay. This is a great way to tell if the story is too short or too long. Scanning rough drawings and placing text with PhotoShop, makes the dummy process go faster.
Then I go through increasingly detailed dummies until it is ready for my critique group. We meet once a week for two hours and review each other’s work. It is a great way to have fresh eyes look at your work and make suggestions before you go too far with it.
Are there any marketing things you have done that helped you get additional work?
My freelance design work is very different from my children’s illustration. For the children’s illustration work, the best thing I have done so far is to attend SCBWI conferences and be involved in the portfolio showcase where everyone at the conference has the opportunity to review your portfolio. I’ve found it useful to have printed business cards and postcards alongside the portfolio. My next step is to send out postcards to agents and art directors.
Do you have any words of wisdom for your fellow illustrators that might help them become more successful?
It can be a long road to publication and it is very competitive. It is easy to get discouraged and give up. So believe in your talent, keep challenging yourself and take every opportunity to get your work in front of people who can help you. Critique groups with other illustrators can be especially useful. The most important thing is to have fun creating art that you love.
Thank you Nancy for sharing your lovely illustrations, your work process, and journey with us. We will be watching for your illustrations to show up in a picture book in the near future. If you would like to visit Nancy’s website, it is: www.nancyarmo.com
If you get a minute, please leave Nancy a comment about her work.