After completing a serious degree in fine arts, Cathy Gendron beg an making pictures as an illustrator and graphic designer for the Ann Arbor News somewhere late in the last century. Just a few years as Art Director of the Detroit Free Press convinced her that what she really wanted to do was paint, and since then she has pursued it with a passion. Somewhere within that fuzzy time frame, she also began teaching and has proudly remained on the faculty of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit for over 25 years. As an illustrator, she has primarily worked for the editorial, book and corporate markets. A confessed bookworm, she spent many hours reading aloud to her son, Ian, and developed a life-long love of children’s books, amassing a rather large and wonderful collection. Her bright, color-intensive oil paintings have appeared in many publications throughout the country and have won her awards from, among others, Communication Arts, Print and the Society for Publication Design. Her publishing clients include: Great Source Education Group, Holiday House, Kensington Publishing, Llewellyn Worldwide, McGraw Hill, Peaceable Kingdom Press, Penguin and Scholastic. She works from her studio in the culturally rich and bookish college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Here is Cathy Explaining her process:
This promotional piece was inspired by a story my sister told me. She and her family live southwest of New Orleans in the bayou (seriously). She was sunning herself on the dock at her husband’s fishing camp and had gotten used to a friendly alligator that liked to sunbathe with her – nose to nose. One afternoon “Allie” got into a tussle with a giant snake. It was frightening. The snake and Allie were tangling at the edge of the shore, roiling the water and flipping around this way and that. Lisa was blocked from returning to dry land and could only watch in horror. Allie won, the snake swam away, but the next weekend the family had Alligator Sauce Piquant for dinner!
Preliminary rough character sketches.
Rough sketch of the composition
I work with oil glazes on gessoed illustration board. The texture comes from distressing the gesso with coarse sandpaper. For this piece, I’ve tinted the gesso with Cobalt blue and painted a value under-layer in acrylics.
Here is my first layer of oils. I will build up the colors slowly, adding hues that create light and shade. The intense color is a result of this layering process.
And then the final painted image.
Above is the cover artwork for Cathy’s debut picture book, The Nutcracker, Opera House, which is coming out later this year.
Above and Below: Interior Art from The Nutcracker, Opera House.
How long have you been illustrating?
40 years. Yikes. I spent 6 years as an art director for, first the Ann Arbor News, then the Detroit Free Press, but I was freelancing all the while.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
They were charcoal drawings. My psychology professor was writing a textbook and asked me to do all the interior portraits. McGraw Hill liked my work and hired me to do the cover (very low budget of course), but I was so green that I rolled up the finished art for the cover and sent it in a triangular mailing tube (Fed Ex doesn’t use them anymore.). You can probably guess at the result. They didn’t call me again.
Where did you study art?
I have a BFA from Eastern Michigan University but am mostly self-taught. My college years were in the 1970s when abstract art was the rage and I was definitely an outcast with my love of representational art. I learned to put paint on canvas by slashing here and there, but not the way illustration students learn it now.
What did you study there?
Drawing mostly – ironically, not much painting. I was overly sensitive to turpentine and could only tolerate the painting classroom for short periods of time. I loved figure drawing and still do.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
It helped me with attitude. I kept thinking my illustrations needed to be “fine art”. Even if I never got there, the goal kept me working harder and my standards impossibly high.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
I continued waiting on tables for over a year, and then stumbled into my first job as an advertising artist at the Ann Arbor News – took a sizeable pay cut to do it too!
Did the college you attended help you get work when you graduated?
No, but I do remember talking to Career Counseling once but I don’t think they knew what to do with a Fine Arts Major!
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Constantly. The possibility of change is what makes it all interesting.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
From the day I started reading aloud to my son, almost 25 years ago.
It looks like you have a picture book coming out in September titled: The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition. Is this your first picture book? Are the illustrations finished?
Yes, my very first. The author is the wonderful Chris Barton. The paintings are finished and the galleys are being circulated.
How did that contract come your way?
A mailer! One of the art directors at Milbrook Press liked my image and recommended me to the editor Carol Hinz. She called, I did a sample and got the contract. It was an all-around wonderful experience.
Do you illustrate full time?
Yes. As many freelancers will attest to, it’s not an easy career and it’s hard on the family too. But I pinch myself when I think about my daily routine. People actually PAY ME to paint! Feast or famine means I have to try and take everything that comes in the door. Balancing several projects at once with tight deadlines is challenging. I rarely do all-nighters these days, but quite often make it into my studio by 6:30 a.m. and home just in time to put dinner on the table.
Did you do other types of illustrating before you got the book contract?
Yes, mostly editorial and book covers. Some of the publications I’ve worked for include The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, Newsweek, Seventeen, Bicycling Magazine, Gof Magazine, Eating Well, Bloomberg Markets, Forbes, Harvard Business Review and Johns-Hopkins.
I’ve also illustrated covers for quite a few mystery novels, including all the Coffeehouse Mystery Series for Penguin, and additional series for Penguin, Kensington Publishing and Llewellyn.
Advertising and Corporate assignments occasionally come my way too. Having such a wide variety of commissions keeps things fresh and interesting.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?
Yes, I have lots of ideas, one in particular that involves an alligator and a snake and is set in the bayou, southwest of New Orleans. It’s based on a true, but crazy story involving my sister and the aforementioned critters.
Have you ever thought about doing a wordless picture book?
Yes, and have some sketches for one or two.
I see you are represented by Chris Tugeau? How and when did you connect?
About 5 years ago, I decided that if I didn’t pursue children’s picture books, it was never going to happen. I researched the field, contacted my good friend Ellie at Serbin Communications for advise on an agent and she set us up. Chris has so much wisdom and experience. She has been incredibly supportive and helpful.
What types of things did you do before Chris represented you to get work?
Getting work is not easy. The best way for me is word of mouth, but I also advertise a lot. My work is up on several online illustration sites. I also buy a list service and send occasional emails and snail mails to art directors.
Have you ever worked with a self-published author? Would you be open to that?
I’ve had quite a few offers over the years. I used to say no automatically, but publishing has changed. I’d be more open now, but it has to be the right project in order for me to take the risk.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I work in oil glazes for my illustration but have been teaching myself to paint in acrylics. I’m a huge fan of the new “open” acrylics that stay wet longer.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I do. My husband gave me an amazing digital SLR several years ago and I use it all the time. But the Internet has totally changed the game for illustrators. I spent hours and hours researching ballet for the Nutcracker book. I actually love that part of any job.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
I’m a traditional painter but use Photoshop to adjust my sketches and composition, to create color sketches and make adjustments and color corrections.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
Yes, I use it every day, but I don’t really draw with it.
Do you do exhibits to market your art?
Not necessarily to market my work, but I’ve always exhibited, although not regularly. I’ve begun to pursue that area more lately, maybe coming around full circle to my original passion.
Do you have a studio in your house?
I worked from a lower, walkout level in my house for many years. I now have the most incredible studio space. Working there has changed my life.
Is there anything in your studio, other than paint and brushes that you couldn’t live without?
Sharp Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and my glasses.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I work as hard as is humanly possible. It doesn’t always pay off financially, but I’m happy at the end of the day.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes. This past March I won a commission to paint two very large murals here in Ann Arbor. I’ve never worked in a large scale before and have been learning all I can about murals. Three of my former students at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit will paint with me. The imagery is based on some drawings I did for a potential children’s book.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Has it ever! With the internet, getting your name out is harder (because you have to do it yourself) and easier (because it works!). Additionally, illustrators have always used photo reference. I still have a file cabinet filled with magazine pages of every imaginable subject. My archive was indispensible for many years but now I seldom touch it. With some smart search terms, illustrator can visualize everything from an obscure species of insect to an arabesque ballet position.
What are your career goals?
I would love to illustrate more children’s books, keep my publishing contacts for book covers and pursue more gallery work.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing two commissions and working on sketches for another. One commission is an editorial piece for a story about the downturn in the oil and gas industry, the other is an acrylic painting of Pepe’s, a favorite haunt in downtown Key West. The sketches are for one of Penguin’s Prime Crime Mystery series covers.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
As I mentioned above, I’m getting hooked on the new “open” acrylics. Both Liquitex and Golden have developed a line of them. When I finally quit trying to make them work like oils, I began to appreciate their flexibility. They stay wet long enough for some controlled blending and if I need them to dry fast, a hair-dryer does the trick.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
The illustration field is so crowded, and the talent out there is mind-boggling. I am humbled almost every day but I try to stay focused on my own goals and passions.
I also think it’s so important to keep learning and sharpening your skills. At the College for Creative Studies, keeping a sketchbook is mandatory, but very few students take that requirement to heart and I often do not practice what I preach. I learned a lot from my first attempt at illustrating a children’s book. The project got a bit out of control and I wound up drawing and painting pretty much non-stop (9-12 hours every day) for the last two months before the deadline. Incredibly, I eventually found myself in a drawing “zone”, solving problems with much less effort. That was enlightening, and a lot of fun too.
Thank you Cathy for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.
To see more of Cathy’s work, visit her Web site, http://www.cathygendron.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Cathy. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!