Denise Clemmensen has been an artist from the moment she tore open her first box of crayons. In fact she became a drawing maniac. She drew on everything. Her parents finally bought her a little table where her coloring passion could be unleashed a little less destructively. Being a very shy child during her school years, she kept her passion for art quite. Though, one time in fifth grade, while helping out on the class history mural, her fifth-grade teacher noticed she could draw. For the rest of the week her teacher asked her to work on the mural while the rest of the class studied math.
Artistically, Denise has worn many hats; she has done both fine and graphic art, and has even made handmade rag dolls. But, throughout her artistic journey, her love of children’s books has never wavered.
In 2011, Denise illustrated the award-wining picture book, “Just Because.” This is her first picture book and in 2013 it won the prestigious Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. And, in 2012 it won the Young Voices Award, The Mom’s Choice Gold Award, and was named a Book of the Year by Creative Child Magazine.
She has illustrated artwork for various traditional and Internet-based educational publishers, and produces illustrations and character designs for many private clients.
Denise lives in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, with her husband, and for the time being, her grown kids, grandkids, two dogs, two cats, and three fish!
Here is Denise explaining her process:
Sketch of the kids. Sometimes when I start a project I do character sketches. That way I can get to know and shape the different characters and their personalities. Here are three children from “Just Because” and their favorite toys.
Sketches of Mom and Dad. This is the rest of the family getting ready for breakfast. The family even has a fluffy dog.
Sketch of page 9-Dad holding the kids in a chair. Here is the finished sketch of the kids sitting on their dad’s lap that was used in the book “Just Because.” The white square is where the text will go. I always put in the text, so I can make sure that the words and the picture fit together well.
Light box. Once the sketch is finalized I transfer it on to watercolor paper by using a light box. My favorite watercolor paper is Canson 140lb cold press.
The start of painting. I use either acrylic matt or gouache paints.
The second picture of the painting. I paint in layers so I can build up the colors and add depth.
The final painting. After I finish painting I go in with colored pencils to help bring out the details.
All the paintings together. When I do a project that has more then one illustration I like to work on all the paintings at the same time. I rotate my time on each one so I can keep a constant color palette.
How long have you been interested in art?
All my life, I even remember as a small child having a drawing table in my bedroom.
Did you study art in college?
Yes, I was a Fine Art major all through college.
Did you study to be a librarian?
No, being a librarian is something I just kind of fell in to. I was a stay-at-home mom for many years and when the time came that I needed to go back into the work force, a friend of mine, who was a library aide with the Los Angeles School District, suggested I might like it.
Before I was a mom I had been a graphic artist, but with the coming of the computer age, I no longer possessed the skills needed to compete in that market. So I have been a library aide for 14 years now and I really enjoy the job and the kids. Plus I am surrounded by children’s literature, how great is that?
What was the first painting or illustration that you did for money?
In my early twenties I tried selling my artwork at local craft shows. I did a bunch of pen and ink fantasy drawings. I think the first one I sold was of a baby unicorn.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
I never quite graduated from college. You know that old story. I was only taking a semester off, I meant to go back and finish, I only had a year left, but life got in the way. My first art job was as a graphic artist. When I took graphic art in college I really didn’t care for it, my heart was really in the fine arts. That quickly changed, I learned so much more on the job and it turned out that I really enjoyed being a graphic artist. By the way, I learned everything old school: T-squares, triangles, French curves, mechanical pens, rubdown type, and so on. It was right before the onset of computers.
What do you think influenced your artistic style?
I have always loved animated movies. I hate to admit it, but I think Disney had a lot of influence on me, and so did getting married and having a family. Before I met my husband, my artwork was always a little sad and dark.
When did you do your the first illustration for children?
While I was a stay-at-home mom, I still did some freelance illustration jobs here and there. I was hired to do some black and white line drawings for a science book for children.
How did that come about?
A friend of a friend knew the gentleman who was writing the book and knew that he was looking for someone to do some of the artwork. They introduced us.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?
I think this is something I have always wanted to do, but in my early twenties I took an extension class, How to illustrate Children’s Books, through Cal State Northridge, and that cemented it.
How long did it take you to get your first picture book contract?
It took a long time to get the first book contract and then there was a fourteen year gap between “Aides: first facts for kids” and “Just Because.”
What was your first book that you illustrated?
My first book was an educational book “Aides: first Facts for kids” written by Linda Schwartz. All of the illustrations where done in pen and ink.
Was it a self-published book
No, the book was published by The Learning Works, Inc., a small publisher in Santa Barbara, Ca.
Are you open to illustrating a self-published book?
Yes, the second book I illustrated “Just Because” written by Amber Housey was self-published.
How did you get the contract to illustrate JUST BECAUSE?
The author found my illustrations through a website that I belong to. She then contacted the self-publishing house she was using and they in turn contacted me.
Have you worked with educational publishers?
Yes, I just recently did four illustrations that will be included in an educational textbook and a few years ago I did two eight-page booklets written for English learners.
How many children’s books have you illustrated?
To date, I have done four books, but only one is a traditional 32-page picture book.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Yes, I have a few stories that I have been working on.
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?
No, not yet, but I am hopeful.
Do you have an agent to represent you? If so how did you connect? If not, would you like one?
No not at this time. I did submit my portfolio to an agency once. They were very polite and helpful but were not interested. I might try again because having an agent does allow more doors to be open for your work to be seen. Though, I believe even if one does have an agent they should still self-promote.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I have a website and a blog. I also advertise on a Children’s illustrators website and I send out post cards to publishers and editors. SCBWI has a spot on their website for illustrators to show their work. Last year, I also ran an ad in the Directory of Illustration.
What is your favorite medium to use?
I would have to say pen and ink, and colored pencil.
Has that changed over time?
Yes for me there has not been much demand these days for just pen and ink and colored pencil is very time consuming. In order to save time I started to use acrylic paints with the colored pencil (though I am not sure if any time is actually saved) and I have just recently started to explore painting in Photoshop.
Do you have a studio in your house?
For years my studio was the kitchen table, then I was able to set up a drawing table in the corner of my family room. Two years ago, one of my children moved out, and I was able to turn that room into my art studio.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
Yes, I look at it as another job. If I am not working on a project for someone I am working on something for self-promotion. I work everyday.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
Yes, I have taken lots of photos and I do online and book research. Whenever I go on vacation somewhere I always end up taking photos of all the different plants I come across. Sometimes at home when I am working on a sketch, I will physically put myself in the character’s pose to see how it looks and feels. I even have a small mirror next to my drawing table to reference hands or facial expressions.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Most definitely, it allows me to show my portfolio to more perspective clients than I could before.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
I have just started playing with Photoshop. I bought a Wacom Tablet a little while back and I have been experimenting with it ever since. It’s fun and I have put a few of my digital works up on my website and blog.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
I have just started using the Wacom tablet and for right now, I have just been scanning in my pencil sketches into Photoshop.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I would like to illustrate a 32-page picture book from a traditional publisher and I also think it would be great fun to do the cover and inside drawings for a children’s chapter book.
What are you working on now?
At the moment, besides learning Photoshop and the Wacom tablet, I am busy finishing up some new illustration to add to my portfolio.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us?
When I was working on “Just Because” I bought a light table and that was the best investment I ever made. It took one step out of the process of transferring the sketch on to the watercolor paper. I have found that anything that saves any time when working on a project is great, because deadlines are always so tight.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Never give up. Work hard. Keep learning and honing your skills, and most important illustrate what you love.
Thank you Denise for sharing your illustrations, journey, and process with us this week. We look forward to following your career, so please let us know about your new books and all of your future successes.
You can visit Denise and see her work at http://deniseclemmensen.blogspot.com/ Please take a minute to leave Denise a comment. I am sure she would love to hear from you and I would appreciate it, too. Thanks!