Sheralyn’s first successful drawing was of a hot air balloon in the third grade. When her teacher returned it, there was a big check-plus scrawled on the back with a smiley face. It was at this moment that she knew art was going to be my lifelong companion. There was no going back.
Since art instruction was not a priority in the small town where she grew up, she did my best to learn to draw. She spent many hours in her room keeping company with her fish, becoming paler by the day. She challenged herself to draw anything she could find. Most note worthy were the eleven drawings she made of a photo of Han Solo in Teen Magazine until it looked like him. Sheralyn says, “Many thanks to George Lucas. I owe most of my drawing skills to him.”
Here is Sheralyn showing her process:
This is the original pencil sketch from my sketchbook. I used this for the basic idea.
I then composed the final composition in Photoshop, adding other characters that I had done as rough pencil sketches. I blew up my composition to fit 12″ x 16″ and then transferred it using graphite paper to a black Ampersand Scratchbord panel (black coated clayboard panel).
I then spent hours scratching out the image using both a fine point and a curved scratch nib as well as this great tool Ampersand has called a parallel line tool, which works great for fur. Here is the completed black and white scratchboard before adding color with ink. I like Ampersand Scratchbord because it is very forgiving and has a very deep base of clay, so if I made any mistakes or wanted to make adjustments in any way, I could use a black india ink marker to mark over the area and then scratch again. Also the panel is very sturdy and not brittle, which was a problem I encountered regularly with other scratchboards I had used in the past.
This is the completed piece with color ink washes added to the original black and white version. Again, the panel is very forgiving and the black areas of the board repel the color pretty well so you don’t have to be too terribly careful, just dab up the excess color off the black surface while it absorbs nicely into the exposed clay surfaces on the board. I like to use Daler-Rowney FW Acrylic Artist Inks which is my ink of choice. Ampersand also offers inks for their boards and they work well. However, I like to have a larger palette to work with than what they offer and the FW’s work really well.
This is the original very loose sketch idea.
This is the refined sketch with pencil. I scan the sketch into the computer and tweak as necessary.
Now I do all the work in Photoshop. Here I make a monochromatic “digital underpainting” to create my tones on which to layer the colors.
Here I create another layer and begin to lay in my basic colors.
This is the point where all the basic colors are laid into the initial sketch. After I’ve laid in the initial colors, I separate all the components into separate layers so I can work on them individually as well.
A bit of a jump here, but I have essentially taken each component of the composition and created layers of color over and over again to create smoothness and saturation. It’s essentially the digital equivalent of using translucent layers to build up colors over the initial underpainting. I also use the smudge tool like I would use a blending brush for an oil painting to blend colors. When I have finished refining all the individual components and their layers, I merge them back into one single layer (although not deleting the individual layers) and refine the entire composition as needed. Photoshop enables a lot of flexibility in this way which is quite wonderful.
Above and Below illustrations are from “Mrs. Mosley’s Christmas Tree” by Janie Devoe
Where did you grow up? Do you still live in the area?
Demotte, Indiana (a small town in northwest Indiana).
No. I’ve lived many places since. I have lived in St. Paul, Minnesota most of my adult life, with a few years spent in Yellowstone National Park, Northwest Wisconsin , and Louisville, Kentucky.
Did you ever take any art lessons?
Art was not considered all that valuable in my hometown, so there was minimal instruction and inspiration available. I was pretty much self taught until I went to Ball State University where I received a BFA in Drawing.
What was the first art related thing you got paid for?
I can remember painting an old time main street scene on our local IGA grocery store’s front window in high school. I think they paid me twenty dollars. Otherwise, I believe the first “published” art I did was for CD covers and T-shirts for local musicians when I first moved to Minnesota in my early twenties.
When did you decide you wanted to be an illustrator?
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to illustrate children’s books.
Scratch board illustrations above and below.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve freelanced as an illustrator on the side for the last twenty five years while making my living in additional ways (server, picture framer, landscape painter, gallery owner, musician). In 2010 I decided to become more serious about making children’s book illustration my main focus.
What types of things did you do to help develop your work?
I’ve always studied favorite illustrators and artists. I took classes in oil painting technique and the business of illustrating. I became more involved with SCBWI in 2010 and attended several national conferences. Having portfolio critiques and attending workshops by so many amazing illustrators and art directors really opened my eyes to the story telling aspect of children’s illustration. Since all my formal training was in fine art and not illustration, I really had missed out on essential information about how good illustrations really move a story along.
I see that you use oils for your fine art. What is your favorite illustrating material?
The computer has become my tool of choice for color work for illustration, but my first true love is and always will be the pencil. I love sketching and working up tones with a pencil. Love it. I really find painting with oils much more enjoyable, but realize that with the technique of oil painting that I use, it takes a very long time to complete a full book that way.
Have you ever tried to write and illustrate a children’s book?
Yes. I’ve had one in the works that has evolved for a couple years now. It’s a counting book with a bit of a different take on the whole sheep and sleep thing. Most people can tell by looking at my body of work that I have a bit of obsession for drawing sheep.
The above is from Sheralyn’s sheep bookdummy, “A Heap of Sheep.”
Have you made a picture book dummy to show art directors, editors, and reps.?
Yes, I have a dummy for my sheep book that I mentioned earlier as well as another dummy I put together for a book based on the poem “A Piper” by the turn of the century Irish poet Seumas O’Sullivan. It’s a lovely poem about how a traveling musician comes to town and the music brightens up the day for the people of the town. I also have another dummy that another author is circulating. A few years back, an agent who saw my work at the New York SCBWI conference contacted me about illustrating one of her client’s stories. Even though I knew it was a bit unconventional for an author to submit with illustrations by another illustrator, I loved the story and thought it was a good opportunity to gain some experience in putting together a book, so I agreed. Over time, the literary agent moved more towards promoting YA books and less towards picture books. It was disappointing because in the end, she didn’t submit the dummy to many publishers. However it was a very valuable experience for me and I learned a lot. When the agent’s contract for the book was up, the author and I decided to continue our partnership in the book and she is currently submitting it to publishers. I did two full color illustrations to go with the dummy.
I see that you are in a illustrator’s group that blogs. How did that evolve?
My friend Hazel Mitchell started the group (Pixel Shavings). I met Hazel at my first NY SCBWI conference and about four months later she asked me if I would be interested in being a part of the group. It’s a great group of very fun and talented people and I am very honored to be in it.
Do want to concentrate on being a children’s picture book illustrator?
Yes. It really is my first love and what inspires me most. Not to mention it’s a great way to make the world a better place.
What types of things do you do to get your work seen by publishing professionals?
I attend SCBWI conferences whenever possible as well as send out postcards. I’ve also found that our group blog (Pixel Shavings) has been helpful as well as are the wonders of facebook and other social online interactions. To be honest, my goal this year is to be more persistent with submitting my book dummies and artwork.
Do you have an agent? If so, who and how long have the represented you? If not, would you like one?
No, I do not. I haven’t pursued an agent yet because I have been making my living as both a musician and an artist up til now. I play mandolin in a duo and trio with my husband (who has always made his living in music). This year, I am changing my priorities to focus more on Illustration and less on music for income, so I intend to pursue an agent.
Do you ever use two different materials in one illustration?
Other than digitally combining my pencil work with the computer, not generally. I have experimented with a bit of collage and painting in the past for some of my own book dummy ideas. I had a book idea years ago that portrayed the joys, trials, and tribulations of learning to play the violin. For sample illustrations, I gessoed sheet music on to the panels to create interesting backgrounds. It was fun and a nice effect.
I see that you have some illustrations that are listed under scratchboard. Can you tell us a little bit about how you do them? Do you make y our own scratchboards? Looking at the one in the library with the ghost; how did you do the color? It looks too exact to have been painted underneath.
I really like to use the Black Clayboard/Scratchboard by Ambersand. It’s very smooth, consistent in texture, durable, and takes colored inks really well. I start with a pencil sketch that I transfer to the board using graphite transfer paper. Then I draw the black and white image by scratching away the black. I use pigmented inks for coloring. The entire Monsters in the Library piece is done by hand. I only used the computer to organize and expand the layout from an original sketch. The ghost was a fun challenge. I was able to get the translucence by putting down the color and then quickly absorbing it back up again with a paper towel. The nice thing about the clayboard is that after applying the color, there is still enough of a base to go back in and scratch a bit more, which also lent to the ghostly effect.
Have you seen your style change since you first started illustrating?
Definitely. I am more detail oriented and I render more now than when I first started. I have to be careful with this on the computer though because it makes detailing limitless, and it’s easy to overwork pieces.
What types of jobs have you gotten with your art?
Everything from CD covers and T-shirt designs to violin maker’s labels and storefront signs to books. Since playing music has always been a part of my life, there have always been musicians I know who need art. I’ve also illustrated two books for Reading A to Z, “Silly Sarah” and “Why the Bat Flies at Night”. They are a publisher of reading program books for kids. Currently I am working on illustrations for a book about the national parks being published by Sequoia Natural History Association. I spent five years of my young adult life working in Yellowstone Park, so that experience has really come in handy for this project. The images on my website of the little duck, mole, and pigs are from Silly Sarah.
Have you gotten any work through networking?
Actually the Sequoia book came about through social online networking. My relationship with Reading A to Z happened because of my involvement with SCBWI and Pixel Shavings.
Have you published any illustration in magazines or newspapers?
Early on I did illustrations for a conservation organization here in Minnesota called Pheasants Forever. They had a environmental awareness magazine for kids called the PF flyer. I also did illustrations for the magazine for the Minnesota Bluegrass Musician’s Association. I’ve had one spot drawing appear in the SCBWI Bulletin magazine.
Do you do any art exhibits to help get noticed?
Yes. Since I’m also a landscape oil painter I have shown and sold my work in various exhibit and art fair situations and owned a gallery called “Blue Moment Fine Arts” for eight years. I sell my paintings at B. Deemer Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky as well as The Steeple Gallery in St. John, Indiana and have had shows at Seasons on St. Croix Gallery in Hudson Wisconsin. I have also had shows and sold prints and cards of my work in Ireland where a lot of my inspiration comes from. I still sell my Irish prints and cards at a specialty shop called Irish on Grand here in St. Paul.
Are you open to doing illustrations for self-published picture book authors?
It depends on the book and the professional attitude of the author. If an author is a member of SCBWI or has really studied the business and seems to have taken the time to study and consider my work in relation to their project, then I would consider it. I received several inquiries last year from self-publishing authors whose books I felt were a bad fit for me as an illustrator. This left me with the impression that they had not really looked over my portfolio very well to see what I do best before contacting me.
You have a section on your website titled, “Ireland.” Do you visit Ireland regularly?
Yes. I spent a fair amount of time there from college through my late twenties. In my thirties, I had a show of my paintings at the Clare Museum and sold cards and prints of my work there through the Russell Gallery in New Quay. In 2007 I led a sketching tour on the west coast. A lot of my inspiration to paint comes from the landscapes and music there. It’s where I go to recharge my soul.
Do you ever use Photoshop?
Yes. Fortunately, it is a great way to get the look of oil painting with pixels.
Do you own a graphic tablet? If so, how do you use it?
I use a Wacom Intuous tablet and couldn’t live without it for a lot of my current work. I use it just like a brush or pencil, building up layers and layers of pixel paint just like I would with real paint on a canvas.
How much time do you spend illustrating?
Since my husband and I both make our living in the arts, we tend to be working most of the time. For me, if I’m not playing the mandolin for practice or profit, I’m painting or working on illustration. I try to illustrate on my hired jobs Monday through Friday, usually about 8 hours a day, and do music at night and on weekends. Of course, this changes all the time since our music schedule and project deadlines are always in flux. We don’t own a TV and weekends don’t really exist in our world, so I spend most of my time creating for my living or for fun.
Do you have a studio set up in your house?
Yes. It’s a bit small but works quite well presently, and I have to admit it’s nice to not pay extra rent for a space. I’m thinking of looking for a larger studio in the next year though. I used to have a roomy studio in downtown St. Paul, which was nice and it got me out and about a bit more. I feel a bit of a recluse working at home these days. I’m a homebody by nature, so it’s always good to have a reason to leave the house to go to work.
Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?
My mandolin, music, Irish tea, and my cheering section of toys and stuffed animals.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
My husband and I are working on a couple of projects that combine our love of children’s literature, my illustration skills, his writing skills, and our music. One project is a nonfiction picture book and the other involves a character who likes to share his enthusiasm for travel and history through music. Fortunately for me, my husband began to pursue writing mid-grade nonfiction about two years ago. His background is in performance and cultural music history, he teaches music to both kids and adults, and he has the unending curiosity of an eight year old, so it’s a good fit. We also work really well together, which is a major plus.
What are your career goals?
I would love to spend the rest of my life illustrating books that utilize both my color work and pencil work. I would also like to see my illustrated sheep get out in the world in the form of books, cards, etc., so I want to learn more about licensing. Somewhere in the midst of that, I want to keep making music as well and with some luck, maybe my two passions will converge.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of a book of forty illustrations for Sequoia Natural History Association as well as working on some characters and illustrations of my own that I’m really excited about. I’m setting up online sales for my paintings and prints. And the phone just rang for a gig with lots of Italian mandolin music….so I’ll be working on that as well!
The above illustration is from Sheralyn’s book dummy, “A Piper” based on the poem “A Piper” by the turn of the century Irish poet Seumas O’Sullivan. Sheralyn illustrated this with colored pencil.
The rest of the pictures are ones done in oil during Sheralyn’s visit to Ireland.
I work in oil paint. I use only the highest quality, pigmented paints ( Old Holland, Schmincke Mussini, Winsor and Newton) and work on museum quality panels by Ampersand. My style works well with the smooth surface that the panels provide, and they offer a rigid ground to ensure longevity and non-cracking of the paints over time (oil paints become more brittle as they age, so the more rigid the better). You will notice that some of my paintings are listed as “oil with wax”. For these paintings, I combine a very small portion of wax medium to increase my ability to create an atmospheric effect. This medium also adds extra stability to the paints themselves.
I am an illustrator by nature. Many of the scenes I create with my paintings illustrate moments – ordinary moments that for some reason or another mark themselves as extraordinary. Moments that have embraced my senses with the smells, sounds, and feelings of being aware; the smell of rain, the sound of my footsteps, the touch of wet leaves. As I look back on my life, I realize that some of my most resonant memories have not necessarily been exotic experiences, but these seemingly unimportant moments that ring of true presence. These are the experiences that I wish to communicate.
Have the materials you use changed over the years?
The pencil was really the only thing I had available to me when I was a kid. I spent many hours in my room teaching myself to draw. When I graduated from college, most of my color work was done in prismacolor pencil. I liked working with prismacolors because you could get fine detail, but they had limitations in that the wax of the pencils could only be layered so far. So later on, I studied oil painting with a painter who specialized in traditional methods of underpainting and transparent layering of color. Learning this technique for my landscape painting also lent to new possibilities for my illustration and gave my work a fresher and more vibrant quality. Now I’ve transferred that same technique of layering color on to the computer.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
I love Cachet sketchbooks and Ampersand panels, both for their ease of use, quality, and durability. For paints, I adore Old Holland brand. I have an artillery of Alvin mechanical pencils I always carry with me, each loaded with different leads, so I can have the gamut of 4B to 4H lead at my disposal when the need strikes. I’m the type of person who just loves to just sit around building tones with pencil. It’s a bit like playing scales on a musical instrument. To me it’s very zen and relaxing, not to mention good practice.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
My words of wisdom come from others who have embraced life. This is one of my favorites from animator Chuck Jones:
“The rules are simple. Take your work, but never yourself, seriously. Pour in the love and whatever skill you have, and it will come out.”
In addition, I guess I would say to join SCBWI and go to their regional and national conferences if you can. Get to know other illustrators and find support and comradery. Being a creative freelancer is a roller coaster ride of a life and has it’s ups and downs. So when frustration hits, be driven by your joy and desire to make the world a more colorful place. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and ask questions. Be bold and smile a lot. I’m still working on the bold part myself, but I think I’ve got the smiling part down and it really makes a difference.
Thank you Sheralyn for sharing your work and process with us. I enjoyed spending time with your illustrations and finding out more about you. Please keep in touch and let us know when you have a new success. We’ll be watching.
I am sure Sheralyn would love if you left her and comment with this post, so if you have a minute, please drop us a line. Thanks! You can visit Sheralyn at: www.sheralynbarnes.com