Here is Colleen explaining her process:
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been illustrating on and off for 30 years. My first illustrating job was right out of high school for a local band that needed a new logo. I’m still very interested in typography.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
I was a senior in high school and our teacher organized an auction for anyone that wanted to sell their work. At the time I was into large abstract acrylic landscapes. I submitted three paintings. The auction was held in the atrium of a local mall and all three of my paintings were purchased by complete strangers (at the time I thought that was odd). One of my paintings went for the highest price of the night at $150, which was a lot of money in 1984! I even was commissioned for another painting by a gentleman who didn’t win the high bid. I charged him $175. I thought a career as a fine artist was going to be a piece of cake!
Did you study art in college? If so, where did you attend and what did you study.
Since I don’t seem to do anything the normal way, the answer is yes and no. I was accepted into the Commercial Art program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. It was a two year program and only took new students every other year. Needless to say, I had a year to kill. I decided to go to Israel and visit some family friends and ended up staying for 6 months. It was amazing! I was a camel driver, a manager of a hostel and even managed to land an illustrating job. I blew off art school, came back to the U.S., fell in love, got married (29 ½ years so far) and had two beautiful girls.
Since then I have been taking art and writing classes whenever possible. I found if you take classes for no credit, although you aren’t working toward a degree, you are getting the same education for a lot less money. I also like being able to take the classes I want, at my pace and sometimes more than once just because I loved the class so much. I have studied at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis Community College, The Loft Literary Center and Hamline University. I still take classes all the time and start a picture book revision class at The Loft on September 15th with Molly Beth Griffin, who is an awesome writer and teacher.
How did you develop your style?
Trick question. My style is always developing and evolving. I love to try new techniques but my goal is to make sure you can always tell it came from me. When I write, I have a writing voice and when I illustrate, I like to think I have an illustration voice.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
Anything and everything. I’ve been an elementary school secretary, a coordinator in an ICU and currently I manage a group of physicians at a hospital. I’ve always been lucky enough to have a job to pay the bills and still have time to work on my art. My current job has been awesome and they don’t get offended when I say my goal is to quit! They support my art career, with flexible hours to meet illustration deadlines, the ability to work from home and they even hire me for illustration work. Plus, I’m always taking classes, so I’m never really out of school.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
In 2006 when my oldest daughter was heading to college, I thought I was going to buckle down and really work on my fine art. My husband saw a news report about a children’s illustrator and said “Hey, you could do that!” It’s a good thing I didn’t know it was Jan Brett or I would have never started. A year or so later I took a children’s illustration class at MCAD and I knew I had found my calling.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I have illustrated three books.
What is the title of your first picture book? What year was that?
My first book was Nan’s Donut Dilemma. It was published in 2011.
How did that contract come your way?
My first instructor at MCAD, Carrie Hartman recommended me. I admire her artwork and illustration style, so I was happy she thought of me. The publisher had three illustrators submit a rough sketch of the main character and I got the job. It was all very exciting.
Who is Ann K. Ryan? I noticed that she is mentioned as editor on all three picture books on Amazon.
Ann owns a local independent publishing company called Keen Editions. I liked her business model and the opportunity she was developing for authors and illustrators. She has really great taste and is an excellent editor. Ann also has some traditionally published writing of her own, so she had a good sense of how the market works.
What has been your biggest success?
So far, nothing beats that first book deal, but I’m hoping bigger things have yet to come.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?
Yes! I have written several manuscripts and I have a couple of dummy books. I am trying to find the perfect home for them, which is a full time job in it’s self.
Have you ever thought about a wordless picture book?
Yes! I tend to write spare manuscripts of 300-400 words. As I write, I can visualize what will be covered by the illustration and can leave out a lot of words. A wordless book would be difficult but I would love the challenge.
Do you have an artist rep?
I don’t have an artist rep. I would like to find a literary agent to cover both my writing and illustration. Currently I am working on making connections. I am trying to find the right agent and not just any agent. I do a lot of research and submit one at time. It sounds corny, but I really want someone who believes in me and my work. My writing and artwork is very personal, I put my heart and soul into everything I do and I work really hard. I’m hoping to find the right match someday. Also, they must LOVE quiet books! Good grief, that answer sounds like a singles ad.
What type of things do you do to get work?
I wish I had more time to dedicate to this area. I do postcard mailings, conferences, blind submissions, and contests. I have a website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. We have a really special local children’s literature community and my personal goal for 2015 was to get more involved in my local kid lit community. So far I’ve been doing pretty good at getting out and making connections. Ultimately a successful career depends on great working relationships.
Were the books you illustrated for a self-published author? Are you still open to working with a self-published author?
Keen Editions was more of an independent publishing house. Ann was very selective about her projects and she offered a full service publishing experience. The author would have to cover some costs, but Keen Editions would also take on some of the publishing responsibilities. I did get to work directly with the authors, which I really liked. Ann was great at explaining how things worked to new writers and I would do it again. I have found with self-publishing companies, they ask that the illustrator give up rights to their artwork. I never had to do that with Ann.
Do you do any other type of illustration other than for children’s books?
I do many other types of illustration. I have done several greeting cards, logo’s, spot illustrations, etc. When I have time, I love to check out 99 Designs for interesting projects. I can get paid and also create new artwork for my portfolio. I am really interested in developing a portfolio for beer and wine labels. They have such cool names, plus I like beer and wine. My daughters are both very create and have degrees in art so we keep talking about opening an Etsy store. It would be fun to do something creative together. Also I love drawing maps.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Right now my favorite medium is colored inks and watercolor.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Occasionally I take research pictures, especially if I have a specific building in mind. I like to pull images from magazines and online if I am looking for something specific, a sofa or chair, etc. I use images mostly to get a feel for the space I am trying to create (inside or outside). If I reference pictures or images too much, it stiffens up my work. Sometimes when I can’t get a pose just right, my husband can double as a small child so I can take reference pictures.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
For the most part I paint traditionally. I use Photoshop to scan my drawings, move things around and get the composition just right before I paint. There are always little touch ups on the final product and most clients want things submitted digitally, so Photoshop is a necessary part of illustrating, even for traditional artists. In the sample piece I submitted, I did decide to add a digital background when I wasn’t happy with my watercolor version. I also used it to resize and reposition the kite. Once in a while I do all digital illustrations, or a graphite drawing with digital color, but mainly for editorial work.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I have a Wacom Bamboo tablet and use it frequently. I hope to get a Cintiq someday…it’s just so darn expensive!
Do you have a studio in your house?
My husband converted an extra bedroom into my studio. He is amazing and builds me anything I ask for. I draw rough sketches of furniture and he goes in his workshop and makes it. I am a very lucky girl!
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I create almost every day. Even after getting home from my day job, I put in at least 2-4 hours (usually more) in my studio, seven days a week. I write and draw on vacation. I write and draw on my lunch break. I write and draw while waiting in line. It’s what I love to do and rarely feels like work.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Recently I’ve been taking time to work on a picture book I wrote and illustrated. My next project is to find it the perfect home. I’d rather be drawing or writing, but the business side of being a writer/illustrator is a necessary evil.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
YES! I wouldn’t be on this blog without it! It’s how I work with E.B. Lewis for my mentorship. My critique group is completely online, since we all live in different states. It is so much easier to make connections and submit work via the Internet.
How did you end up studying with E.B. Lewis?
Two of my critique group members (Carolyn Dee Flores and Akiko White) were students of E.B.; he was looking to take on more students and I was more than happy to be recommended by Carolyn. E.B. has elevated my work by leaps and bounds. I put so much more thought into what I’m doing than I did before I worked with him. He is always challenging me and pushing me to do better.
What are your career goals?
My goal is to be able to work enough to quit my day job. I just want to be a working artist and writer.
Are there any painting tips that work well for you?
Working in watercolor good brushes are a must…and good paper (I prefer Arches).
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
A good critique group can make or break you. My group’s members are Carolyn Dee Flores, Akiko White, Laura-Susan Thomas, Eileen Ryan Ewen and Bradley Cooper. We rely on each other for honest advice and you always need someone to call at 2am when your deadline is in a few hours and you are too tired to remember how to draw a frog.
Work hard because there is always someone else working harder. Be patient. I have to remind myself of this one all the time! It stinks, but its true…DONT’ GIVE UP! Also join SCBWI immediately and attend local functions.
Thank you Colleen for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.
To see more of Colleen’s work, you can visit her website: http://www.colleenmuske.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Colleen. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!