Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 12, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Brian Bowes

Brian Bowes sent me an illustration for April and I was taken by his talent. and had to share him with you.  He lives in San Francisco, CA with his lovely wife, 2 cats and a dog. He attended and graduated from the Santa Rosa Junior College with an AA in Graphic Design. From there hewent to and graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts (now titled the California College of the Arts.)

He loves drawing, and like so many people, he started when he was really young with the encouragement of his family. Somewhere along the way he got the bug for watercolor painting.  He admires the works of Andrew Wyeth as well as some of the artists from the Golden Age of British Watercolor. Currently Brian is pursuing work in the field of Children’s Books, Middle Readers specifically.

This project is one of those times when there’s a real harmony between art and family.  In the later part of 2011, Uncle Ed began to put together a collection of his own original songs for a CD project that he was working on. Some of the songs had been percolating for quite some time, while others were a bit more off-the-cuff. It was a perfect moment for us to work together, and to both do what we love to do.

A bit of backstory here, even as a very small boy, I can remember my Uncle playing his guitar in my Grandparents home. He played a wide range of music, ranging from Classical to Bluegrass. Our whole family has been pretty well steeped in Bluegrass for a long time. His musical journey didn’t stop there, he moved on to other types of music that fascinated him: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Cowboy songs, and more recently the sweeter side of Jazz Guitar.

His CD, The Beverly Waltz, shows off many of his influences from the first notes picked out on his banjo in the opening song entitled “Going Down to Upperville”, to lyrical and romantically slow waltz of the title track “The Beverly Waltz.” As the music rolls on one can easily imagine warm evenings on a back porch watching the evening sunset as the world rolls by. There’s a wonderful sincerity to each of the tracks. So, as I embarked to create an image that might begin to encapsulate some of the energy and emotion that his music evoked, I began where illustrators always begin; thumbnails. Lots and lots of thumbnails.

Isolating part of the painting for the insert was fun too. I spend so much of my time with my nose about 6 inches away from the paper, that it’s pretty gratifying to show off a smaller more intimate selection from the painting. Also, the flow of the dress was another of the key elements that my Uncle tuned in to early on in the process, so it was nice to highlight it a bit.

To start with, I like to give a lot of thought to the concept and the overall design of a project, and these usually come out in the thumbnails. In this particular case I started with listening to an early version of the CD and tried to match that up with the original ideas that my Uncle had presented me with. While I was listening to the music, there were some tonal qualities that stood out to me: delicate, relaxed rolling, lyrical, and warm. I knew that I wanted t the final piece to embody those feelings. Then, while I was listening to the music with my headphones, I could also hear the birds outside. It occurred to me how nicely their gentle chirps and warbles blended into the music, and so ideas about birds, or birdsongs, or The Bluebird of Happiness started show up in the sketches. In the end I took some of my sketches and started putting birds in them.

I suspected that this more fantastic solution would be a lot different than what he originally had in mind. So I did some research and found some historic precedence for these kinds of images, I found this old cartoon and liked the overall look and feel of the image, but wanted to make mine much more earnest in character and not so goofy. In the back of my mind I was also thinking of some delightful watercolors by Kristin Kwan which I’d spotted on IllustrationMundo awhile back.

I also dashed off a quick watercolor to begin to give a sense of the direction that I wanted to head.

By the first round of roughs I felt that I’d found something quite unique, albeit a bit more fantastic in nature than I suspected that he wanted for his CD. So, I put this all together and sent it off.

Understandably after sending off thumbnails of dancing birds, the project concept came back to what was originally what my Uncle had requested; something a more realistic and human based. I think it’s worth openly stating that ultimately any project is about me providing an image that speaks to the clients needs, and is not all about self gratification. I will just have to wait for another occasion to paint dancing birds. Happily I went back to the drawing board and began work anew, and came up with some dancers that were more in line with what the client was envisioning. Here I was working with a little reference from the movie “Heaven’s Gate.”

After the approval of this sketch, I worked up some very rough color sketches. For reference and inspiration, I was looking a lot at the watercolors of J.M.W. Turner. In an effort to connect and communicate the tonal qualities that I originally responded to, I began delving into the abstract color fields in his paintings.

A note on process here; it is at this time that I started to adopt this way of sketching on regular old paper, and just adding pieces at the drawing develops. I find that this way of working really allows me to let go and to not be so precious with the drawings because they’re just on typing paper or whatever.

As the drawing and overall illustration began to take shape, I also need to start considering the overall design of the CD packaging. Here again, I wanted to stay on point with the qualities that had originally stood out to me: delicate, relaxed rolling, lyrical, and warm. Elements such as the type face, and the framing of the image needed to reflect these ideas.

Initially, I thought I wanted to go with this wood grained border around the image. I thought it gave a really good sense of the type of music that it was representing, but of course… in the end everything changes.

After many weeks of work, the painting began to take shape and all the elements began to come together. During the process of painting the final image, I really enjoyed getting out my big brushes and laying in wash after wash of colors for the background. It’s not often enough that I allow myself the opportunity to just slosh color washes around on the page, after this experience however, I may allow myself more chances to do just that. I feel that the large washes really give a nice atmosphere to the piece.

It was at this point that I was glad that I’d left a fair amount of white-space to put the type in. Though I kept the original typeface, I integrated the woodgrain border into the actual type it’s self; sort of like the inlay that one might find in a guitar neck.

How long have you been creating illustrations?

I suppose like many other people I’ve been drawing since I was very small, but I didn’t find out that there was such a thing as an Illustrator until about 2000 or 2001. When I was attending the Santa Rosa Junior College for an associates degree in Graphic Design. After I graduated from there, I went on to graduate from the California College of Arts and Crafts. (or CCA as it’s now known.)

It looks like you do a lot of watercolor. Do you use other painting techniques?

I’ve tried just about every technique I could lay my hands on. I experimented a lot, but I kept coming back to my love of drawing and actually I am attracted to the difficulties that Watercolor can pose.

Has the materials you used changed over the years?

Not too much, I still have a brush that I love that was maybe my first ‘real’ watercolor brush. I make sure to make a few moves on each piece with it! It’s like an old friend. Other than that, I’ve experimented with different papers over the years. I’ve definitely gravitated towards a hot press paper, and enjoy working on a plate finish bristol put out by Strathmore. A tip I learned from examine David Levine’s watercolors, and then reading Burt Silverman’s “Breaking the Rules of Watercolor.”

Has the style of your illustration change or evolved into a new style?

Oh certainly, with all that experimentation… I mean, every piece has ‘me’ in it, but I’ve tried on a few different things over time. Of course it’s a fluid thing right? I may be on to something different next week, we’ll find out!

The five black and white illustrations above are interior images from IVY HOMELESS IN SAN FRANCISCO.  Below is the cover image.

Do you have a critique group who give you feedback on your artwork?

I have a few places that I regularly turn for some help with work, some are online, some are nearby, and some are my family (so they kinda have to!)

Do you feel there is more business in Black and white illustration?

Oh, I don’t know if there’s more or less work in black and white, but I do know that in order to make a piece read well in color, it better darn well work in black and white first; values are everything. So I think it’s super important to be able to work in black and white. I will say too that my most successful pieces (at least in my eyes) are the ones that I worked out a value study for first. I am not so brilliant as to be able to work that stuff out on the fly.

What was the first thing you illustrated and got paid for doing?

Well, I don’t know if these were the first-first paid gigs, but I did a series of Noir Covers for a small Nor Cal publisher called PM Press. Those were fun and challenging, but a real struggle to get dark enough and gritty like Noir should be. But, I did as well as I could and luckily that turned into my first YA book, “Ivy; Homeless In San Francisco” by another small publisher called Reach and Teach.

What is the art community like where you live?

I think it’s interesting, actually I recently got involved with the SCBWI as an Illustration Coordinator, and since then I’ve gotten in touch with more illustrators in the area. So right now my circle of people is broadening which is really great.

How many book covers have you illustrated?

I am still in the beginning of my career, so including the books I mentioned before that comes to 5. I am really working hard to land more books this summer.

Was Beverley Waltz your first CD cover?

Yes, it was! I am really jazzed about that one, I got to work with my Uncle to make a cover for his work. He’s been a big supporter of me for my whole life and it was really nice to be able to connect with him through the arts that we both love; music and illustration.

Have you ever illustrated a whole book?

The “Ivy” book included 5 interior spots. I learned quite a bit on that project, for instance the difference between a cover image and an interior image. I really like the sort of depth of story that can be brought into the interior illustrations.

Do you ever see yourself writing your own books?

I think so. I have a project that I am cultivating right now that’s a retelling of an American classic. I am working towards getting it to be pitch worthy in the near future. Also another story that’s completely of my own fabrication. I really enjoy well written stories, and am curious to see how I might do by writing one on my own.

Are you represented by an artist rep.? Of so, who? If not, would you like to have one?

Nope, no rep for me yet. I want to get out there an get some work on my own first. The reps that I’ve gotten interest from thus far are ones that have a big stable of illustrators working with them, and if I was to have a rep, I think I’d want someone who was more intimately involved with the people that they work with. I just don’t know if someone who represents 100 people would be as good a representation of me as someone who represents 10 people.

How long have you been doing fantasy art?

For a very long time, I can remember doodling Star Wars scenes on my school papers when I was a boy! I find that the stories that I enjoy reading, and the movies I like are all fantastic fiction of one sort or another. As a boy I reveled in reading Ray Bradbury. One of my strongest memories of reading is Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” I was like 11 or so and plowed through that thing and really enjoyed it. So, as a result now when I create work it is mostly fantastic. As an adult, I have begun to see and enjoy the kind of mirroring that Fantasy stories can provide us; it’s a fresh way of seeing the world around us. I love it.

Do you own and graphic tablet? If so, which one and what does it bring to your artist toolbox?

I do have a tablet, it’s an old one that’s super small, like 4×5″. I rarely use it. If I need to do any digital correction I find that I’m able to get just as far with my mouse. I like using the computer for doing final adjustments, and minor modifications. The biggest benefit of going back into a piece with Photoshop is that it allows me to go much bolder that I would’ve risked with just the paints, and as a result the next painting I do tends to be a little stronger, a little riskier for that.

Do you do art shows to help get noticed?

I’ve done a few Art Shows, and submitted to contests and so on, but recently I’ve been going for a less ‘shot gun’ method of getting my work out there, to a more ‘laser focused’ targeted method.

Are there any marketing things you have done that helped you get additional work?

I view my career as being on the upswing right now, and I am endeavoring to create opportunities to meet and talk with people on a human level. I mean, first I am looking into, researching, where my work is most appropriate and then contacting just those folks. Ask me this question a year from now and I’ll let you know how it goes.

I want to add here that part of what’s really helped me wrap my mind around this problem of marketing has definitely been a lot of soul searching and asking myself why I do the things I do, what does success look like, or who’s work do I most admire and why, what are my artistic strengths and weaknesses, etc. By challenging myself in this way, I’ve found clarity of purpose and have been able to start training for those weaknesses.

Do you have any words of wisdom for your fellow illustrators that might help them become more successful?

I’m going to have to go for a quote on this one, it’s one of my favorites from Robert Fawcett, and can be found in his book “On The Art of Drawing” and can be found in chapter one; The Why Of Drawing:
“High on the list of the applied arts is a so-called graphic art, illustration in particular. For this reason I have included at the end a section on the illustrator, for good illustration demands a particularly high degree of draftsmanship. But during the argument we will try not to single out the illustrator for special consideration. Suffice it to say that it is impossible for him to draw too well. If a student illustrator fears that he is on the way to achieving a greater aptitude that he will ever need to employ, he is almost certainly wrong. As we have said, greater knowledge will result in a better illustrator,(though, perhaps, under commercial conditions, not necessarily a happier one). His drawings are not likely to display dazzling feats of draftsmanship. They are much more likely to be characterized as the restraint of self-confidence. The artist who has resources doesn’t not need to announce this fact from the housetops – it will be apparent.” {emphasis added} I just love that quote, it’s so good on so many levels!

Thank you Brian for sharing your process and wonderful art with us. I see a long fruitful career a head of you and will be watching your career.

I am sure Brian would love to hear your comments about his work, so please leave one if you have the time. You can see more of Brian’s work by visiting his website: . You will find a link to his blog on his website.  That is where you will find more on his process.  You can also sign up for receive his newsletter. 

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Howdy Kathy,

    Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my work. I really appreciate your kindness, and look forward to reading more of these wonderful Saturday Illustrator Posts!

    Best Wishes,


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