Lauren-Susan Thomas currently illustrating children’s books, on the foggy Central Coast of California. She earned my BFA in Illustration at the University of Arizona, worked as an illustrator/designer since graduating in ’87’ and worked as a ‘Walt Disney Imagineer’ for 11 years creating themed dimensional graphics and illustrations from creatures under the sea mermaids to dinosaurs to ancient Tibetan ruins.
She has illustrated for, BabyBug magazine, Kids Reading Room LA TImes and an up coming book series, ‘Reid’s Amazing Universe’ the first of which is out on ibooks for children.
Here is Laura-Susan discussing her illustrating process:
I had to share Laura-Susan’s cute little studio. It is only a few yards from her house.
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been Illustrating since graduating from college, way back in 1987, but drawing since I was a kid. I doodled on my notebooks, school assignments and was forever thrilled when my elementary teachers uttered the word, Diorama. My dad would bring home reams of old spreadsheets from his work and I would draw on the backsides. My favorite thing to draw were characters and the worlds they inhabited in my imagination, which without realizing was a great primer for the storytelling and world building later at Disney and the children’s literature world.
What made you choose to you study art at the University of Arizona and get your BFA?
I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but I also loved archeology and the romance of ancient civilizations, so I chose U of A because they had a strong Fine Arts department and a renowned Archeology Department as well! I actually was able to combine some of my love for archeology and old civilizations with art and when I was at Disney Imagineering on some of the lands I worked on.
Have you taken any other art related courses after that?
Currently I am very excited and inspired, in August I started with EB Lewis in his “Visual Mentor” program. It has been such great opportunity and chance to learn and expand the feel and look of my artwork!
After graduation form college, I took some animation courses and many figure drawing courses. At Disney they encouraged their artists to keep learning and offered free Wednesday figure drawing sessions after work. I went back to school while at Disney in the evenings, for computer arts, learning vector based and digital based tools for the arts, photoshop and illustrator.
What was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
The first legit paying gigs I had were in College. I created the character/mascot for a yearly triathlon in Tucson, A buff bike riding, running swimming frog and I painted the billboards for the drama theater on campus for a time and did some summer theater backstage work.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
I worked for a screen printer creating graphics and designs for surf wear and clothing.
How did you get the job with Disney?
I applied through an industry ad for a screen printing fine arts separator. It was my fine arts background and my first job in screen printing that helped me get the job at Disney Imagineering. Our department produced the final hand done separations and the fine arts Serigraphs and posters for the parks. From there I moved on and worked in the Graphic Design department as a comp/production artist, and later as a Designer and Illustrator. As an Imagineer you are part of creating essentially the worlds biggest stage sets. Being an artist at Imagineering was a fun, nontraditional, imaginative, job. As a designer, you had the honor of working with, Blue sky designers, writers, architects, interior designers, props, sculptors, robotics experts and more. I got to be part of creating all sorts of things, from themed ancient tibetan ruins, giant carved fish characters, to dinosaur paintings and mermaids, in Euro Disney, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Tokyo Disney Seas.
How did you decide you wanted to venture into freelance art projects?
In 1996, my husband, Hariette (our pet rabbit) and I took a a chance and an adventure and made our way from Los Angeles up to the little surf towns, ranches and rolling oak covered hills of the Central Coast of California. I continued to work for Disney full time from afar. I was one of their first full time telecommuters back in the age of dial up, conference calls and Fedex, painting away in my foggy studio. Our Fedex planes here were prop planes and our post office was actually in the back of hardware store and I admit many conference phone calls were done while working, wearing my “casual attire”. FaceTime did not exist yet thank goodness. It worked wonderfully and I would drive to LA once week and travel to job sites in Florida for many years. When my daughter and later my son arrived I took a break from travel and full time work, it seemed the perfect time to start working on a freelance basis.
Do you think Disney influenced your style?
Imagineering was all about backstory, telling the tale of the place through characters, through writing, props and themed space, that helped a guest believe they had gone from reality to another world. I think that idea greatly influenced my work and I love to be able to create art for books, that transports someone to a world they believe in and get to play in for awhile.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I attended a Conference in Marian Del Rey when the SCBWI was SCBW and was hooked. I began collecting children books before I had kids. When my kids were school age, I jumped in full time. Five years ago. I Attended a conference in LA, met a circle of friends who later became our fantastic illustrators critique group! Between my critique group and all the amazing people I have met through the SCBWI, I am so excited to be a part of this community!
What are you doing to help connect with art directors and editors?
I have postcards and a website with childrensillustrators.com and Carbonmade, and try to keep up by reading industry blogs. Attending conferences and smaller SCBWI events and participating in portfolio reviews whenever they are offered and portfolio showcase through the LA conference.
Have you put together a portfolio and or a book dummy?
Definitely a portfolio online and a real world portfolio. I try to update both when I have new work. Sometimes I make small dummies for ideas I am working on. It is a interesting process and great way to really see how your work flows with the page turns.
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?
I had the opportunity to do a cover illustration and a full spread for Babybug Magazine. As well as Magazine work, I produced illustrations for some of the short stories featured in the, Los Angeles Time’s Kids Reading Room. It is fast turnaround but fun to focus so intently and figure out how to tell a story in one illustration.
Do you have an Artist Rep. to represent you? If not, would you like to find representation?
I don’t have an artists rep., but I would love to find representation.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I tend to be a bit of a very shy, nerdy, introvert so Social media and self promotion are the hardest parts of children illustration for me. I know it is important though so I try and get out there at conferences and talk to people, make connections, get my work into portfolio reviews and such. Sending postcards, is an introverts best friend! A great way to reach out and have your work be seen from afar. So far I have only met wonderful nurturing people in this field, so for my fellow artists introverts, take the leap and put yourself out there and take chances, it does pay off!
What is your favorite medium to use?
For sketching I love regular old black ball point pens. The cheaper the better. I find when you sketch with a medium where there is no eraser and no “undo” it frees you up. I also love that you can get so much variation in line and shading with those old crummy pens. For finished work, I love to work in gouache. and pen and ink in the real world, Corel Painter and my Wacom in the digital world.
Has that changed over time?
Yes, Since the recent ebooks series I worked on was going to have some animation, I wanted to be able to manipulate the art on layers. I started using Corel painter and a wacom tablet. I love the way you can mimic real world art mediums and still maintain layers and experiment. I still start with those old crummy pens and pencil in the real world even when I am going digital. It still feels fresher to me.
What do you consider is your first big success?
BabyBug was exciting, to be able to do not just create a spread but also the cover art for a large publication was wonderful! It was happy dance day!
How did that come about?
I think getting your work out there with websites and postcards. The art director at Carus Publishing had seen some of my work and when a job came along that matched my style, she contacted me. I had missed the call, as I was out picking up kids, so she had left a message for me. I listened to the message three times, did a dance around the room with the kids, regained my demeanor and called her back, very excited to be working with them.
Do you ever want to write and illustrate a picture book?
Absolutely, I would love to get some of the worlds and the stories, rolling around in my imagination and my sketchbooks, onto the page and into a book! I am working on my writing craft along with my illustration.
Would you be open to working with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?
It would depend on the story and situation. I have worked with one author, self publishing an ebook series, “Reid’s Amazing Universe”. Getting a book, out there and seen, seems to be an issue in self publishing, especially in the digital realm, competing with apps and more. The author and developer in this case, are very good at self promotion and marketing and had some good connections so it seemed like a good challenge. I think the challenge to self publishing for an illustrator specifically, is not having an Art Director. It is difficult to self edit your work and having a talented art director on board is invaluable.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I get books from the library, google images and make big image boards for characters and setting and color palates. Right now my wall is filled with gorillas, smug kids, and downtown street scenes. I have a little mirror above my art table so I can make faces at myself, in order to get a great facial expression in my characters.
Have you done any work for educational publishers?
No, but I am interested in both this area and the Middle Grade areas, after hearing two great breakout sessions at the conference this summer in LA.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Music, I tend to work in different mediums and love my studio space, but I have about six different albums that play in the background when I work. It helps me to get lost in my drawings.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I really believe keeping a good balance helps your creativity and with your life as a whole. I try hard to do this, even though I am an Artist-Mom/taxi driver of short people, I set aside around 5 to 6 hours each day during the week to sketch, paint, research and learn. If I have a deadline approaching then it is whatever it takes. That can mean, walking out to my studio at 4am in the quiet hours, or in the late evening hours, keeping the balance with my family’s daily life and get the deadline met. My kids love the studio. If I need to put in the extra time even as my kids get older, I will find myself working with someone reading a book under my art table and listening to my husband practice guitar in the house. It becomes creative time for everyone.
Do you have an agent? If yes, who? If not would you like to find one?
I don’t have an Agent, but yes, I’d love to have an agent. I think it can be a great partnership for an artist, to navigate the ins and outs of the children’s field and to help further their work.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
For artists I think the internet is fantastic! It allows us to share our work and inspiration and ideas and connect with other artists and people in our industry through Facebook, websites , Instagram and more. In my case, I Skype each week for the Visual Mentor program, and my critique group has maintained a strong bond and can help each other in an instant, even though we are from all different parts of the country. Once again internet a great tool for introverted artists!
Do you use Photoshop or Corel Painter with your illustrations?
For many years I used Photoshop, but I have become a Corel Painter fan. If I work digitally I tend to work in Corel with a Wacom tablet.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
I love my Bamboo Wacom tablet. it is as portable as a sketchbook!
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
My Career Dream, I would like to have been a part of creating books with humor and heart, that are worn on the edges, because they are the ones grabbed off the bookshelf over an over again to be read We on the couch at bedtime.
What are you working on now?
I’m starting to sketch on the third ebook series for “Reid’s Amazing Universe” and working on expanding my art and creating illustrations for a possible book in my Visual Mentor program.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
I love sketching with ball point pens but also I have a few sets of warm and cool grays, and black Faber-Castell pens and tracing paper. They come in sets of warm and cool grey and black with different sized tips and brush pens. When I am working I will have several layers of tracing paper with different shading or trying out different gestures above the original sketch. I find my work is much looser if I am sketching by hand rather than on a screen. Later I will combine what is working either in the real world or in Corel Painter to form a final sketch before going on to the finished art.
For Art supplies we live in a small coastal area so Blicks online is my go to source for supplies.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
I am not nearly as far along as many of the creative and talented illustrators whom I admire, interviewed on this blog. As far as words of wisdom, I think to get where I am today with some success at being published and hopefully more opportunities in my future, for me it comes down to truly wanting to be a children’s illustrator, loving this field, and as an Artis/Mom, finding the time to truly work hard, getting your work out there to be seen.
Becoming a member of the SCBWI was an important step for me and an amazing organization with wonderful talented people. Everyone I have met has been willing to talk or help a new or emerging illustrator or writer to the find their way and welcome them into the children’s books community. It is where I have garnered friends, critique groups and contacts. Attend conferences and events through the SCBWI. Take classes, be open to opportunities!
Most importantly, find the time and the balance for your art or writing in your week and stick to it. Laundry will still be there tomorrow and I do believe Dust Bunnies qualify as pets, so give them a cute name, pat them on the head, and go sketch!
Thank you Laura-Susan for sharing your journey and process with us. Please let us know all your future successes. We’d love to hear about them and cheer you on. You can visit Susan at: www.laurasusanthomasillustrator.carbonmade.com
If you have a moment I am sure Anne would like to read your comments. I enjoy reading them, too, even if I don’t always have time to reply. Thanks!