Susan Swan was born and grew up in Lake Worth, FL. She attended and graduated with a BA and MFA, with Honors, from Florida State University.
She illustrates books using paper, color, and paint. She also, makes jewelry in very tiny Ovilla, TX with artist/woodworker/computer geek/husband Terry Rasberry.
She is a member of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, the Artist Guild, and picturebookartists.org.
Here is Susan Explaining her process:
I scan in the painted papers I love to make, and cut and paste on the computer and combine it all with painting done digitally and sometimes with real objects scanned in too like this wagon and wood textures. It’s a fascinating procedure and such fun.
Swatches of some of my painted papers and a wagon shot locally and used in this next spread.
I roughly sketch in objects and paint and cut and paste papers until I’ve got something close to what’s in my head. Each element is on a layer so that I can move things around, change colors and patterns, add shadows. whatever …
Some illustrations are not so obviously 3 dimensional. I paint on layers, add scanned papers, and play with the opacity to blend things together just as if I were layering translucent papers and paint on a surface by hand.
A few covers
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been drawing or doing various ‘crafty’ things since childhood but ‘officially’ started illustrating while working my way through college. I got some great experience in illustration and design working for the state of Florida Dept. of Tourism design department or what ever it was called then (that was a long time ago!), FSU university publications and TV station, and later an advertising firm off campus.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
I don’t really remember but I’m guessing it was probably spots for a brochure for FSU.
Did you go to school for art? If so where and why did you pick that school?
I applied only to Fla. State Univ. because their art department seemed better than the University of Florida’s. I had to stay in state where it was much less expensive and I knew I could get a scholarship.
What did you study there?
I wanted a good liberal arts background along with the art studies so I took both and graduated with a BA, with Honors, in advertising design. At that point I had discovered that I preferred illustration over design so I decided to continue for my Master’s of Fine Art degree in order to study illustration. Normally the school wouldn’t let you go directly from a BA to studying for a MFA as they wanted the student to have life experience before continuing on. Since I had worked my way through I already had plenty of life experience!
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
Not really, but it was where I learned all the basics and got the groundwork needed to grow further.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
I continued at the advertising agency for a short while and then moved to CT where I had a relative I could stay with while I job hunted. My plan was to find a job in NYC, but instead I got offered a wonderful job in Westport, CT for a small design firm doing mostly work for school book publishers. They also had a stable of artists they represented and they took me on. After a few years I was getting too much free lance work to be able to also do my day job so I became a full time free lance illustrator. I was very lucky being offered that job and that it was in Westport. It was a very artsy town with many famous magazine illustrators living there (the old Famous Artist’s School was there too). Lots of advertising agency people and artists lived there and worked in New York. I got to meet and get to know so many fabulous artists.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
No, but I never thought to ask.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
When did you start using cut paper and paint for you illustrations?
I have always liked experimenting and it was useful when I worked for the design firm in CT as we were always looking for different ways to handle a subject. I worked in line, scratch board, watercolor, gouache, cut paper, everything; I even designed and sewed hand puppets for a math book.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I can’t say I really decided, the studio I worked for dealt mainly in children’s art and those were the kind of assignments I was offered – later on I did many different kinds of things but gravitated mostly to the children’s market.
What was your first book you illustrated?
THE MOUSE’S WEDDING. In 1972! for Scholastic. It stayed in print until the last several years, but I haven’t gotten any royalties for a while. It did well and even sold out the first printing right away.
How did you get that contract?
Through my agent.
Have you done other types of illustrating outside the Children’s book industry?
Sure. Magazines, greeting cards, craft books, billboards, various college language books, I’m sure I’m forgetting things.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
Around 50+ and lots of school readers (mini picture books)
Was When Autumn Falls your first book with Albert Whitman & Company?
How did you get that contract?
I don’t remember – Either I sent them postcards or they saw my portfolio site (www.susanswan.com)
or my blog (www.paperswans.blogspot.com).
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Many years ago I tried to come up with some stories but couldn’t get any interest. My stories were too much like what was already out there.
What book do you think was your biggest success?
A couple of my favorite books haven’t sold all that much for some reason but I loved working on them and like the results so much that they are successful to me; and they led to other projects.
Guess Who’s In the Desert? by Charline Profiri, put out by the small publisher Rico Chico and
Out On the Prairie by Donna Bateman, published by Charlesbridge.
Maybe the Season series for Albert Whitman. AW are terrific as they tend to keep books in print so that the artist has a chance to make royalties. I have high hopes for my latest series for them too. Very nice reviews and lovely letters from parent’s of kid fans. I just had a father write and ask me to sign a birthday card for his 4 yr. old daughter. SUN ABOVE AND BLOOMS BELOW is one of her favorite bed time stories.
Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how did the two of you connect? If not, would you like to try one?
No, but used to. I have had 3 over the years but much prefer being on my own now.
Do you illustrate full time?
Yes, although … I have not been promoting my work much in the last year and work has slowed down. Since I finished SUN ABOVE, BLOOMS BELOW I thought I needed a rest after doing so many books in a row along with other illustrations projects. I was exhausted. I have been concentrating on my jewelry making business lately (RocksandPaperSwans.etsy.com) and have become a little obsessed with it. All the things I love about illustration are involved, designing and experimenting and putting together beautiful colors and textures, making things that make people happy … and doing it all by hand, which I miss a little in my illustration since I now do my book art primarily on the computer.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Photoshop. These days I do digital collage and I can scan in the painted papers I love to make, and cut and paste on the computer and combine it all with painting done digitally. It’s a fascinating procedure and such fun.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Sometimes, depends on the assignment.
Have you worked with any educational publishers?
Many. I’ve done tons of school readers, and textbooks from kindergarten through college level.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes. I switched from totally working by hand to computer about 10-15 years ago. Trying to meet deadlines when I had to factor in time to get my work photographed and the film processed was becoming a struggle; and back then I saw a trend for clients preferring digital files starting.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
Yes. Love my Wacom! But I would love a Cintiq.
Do you do exhibits to show off your art?
Not lately. A few years ago I even tore up stacks of old 3-d cut paper illustrations I had been holding on to. I kept thinking I would try to sell originals but having shadow boxes made would have been so expensive and finally I decided there wouldn’t be enough of a demand. I did save a few small boxes of elements (bugs, animals, flowers, Roman soldiers) from some of the art just in case I had a brilliant idea one day of a way to use them.
Would you be willing to work with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?
I’d rather work directly with a publisher and so far have turned down all requests. There are just so many things that can go wrong. I have heard however, that many people have worked successfully with self-publishers.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Yes. It’s been a while – trying to remember names … a spot in Time mag a long time ago, medical mags., specialty mags, Good Housekeeping, inflight airline mag …. can’t remember names. In the last several years it has only been children’s magazines: Highlights, Ladybug, Babybug, Storyworks, etc.
Do you studio a studio in your house?
The studio is a separate building behind our house.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
Mac, paint, inks, paper, clay, beads, jewelry tools, ipad, camera, all the folk art I’ve collected over the years.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I get up and work everyday.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
I was asked by Belle Armoire Jewelry to showcase my polymer clay/mixed media jewelry. I’m not sure when the article will appear, in the Fall I think. Nothing for books at the moment.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Absolutely! I remember the old days, when I lived in Westport, dragging my very heavy portfolio around NYC in the scorching summer. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that anymore.
It is so much easier to have someone see your portfolio on your website or blog, email to see if you are available for a project, email signed contracts, send sketches and final art, and sometimes even get payments direct deposited into your checking account.
On the downside it is easier for the other millions of artists all over the world to get found and compete.
What are your career goals?
I would like to continue to create more picture books in my digital collage style (and grow my jewelry business too).
What are you working on now?
I have just finished a couple of illustrations for Scholastic’s ‘Storyworks Magazine’ and Cricket Media’s ‘Ladybug Magazine’. Now I need to spend time updating my SusanSwan.com portfolio site which hasn’t been changed for far too long. (My http://www.childrensillustrators.com/SusanSwan portfolio is fairly up to date)
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Just keep on keeping on. Persevere. Keep growing, trying new things, experimenting – find the style and methods that work for you. Keep developing your portfolio. Have an online presence, send out postcards showing your work to art buyers. Don’t give up. Join the Graphic Artist’s Guild; they have a ton of information and advise that you need.
Thank you Susan 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 Susan’s work, you can visit her at website at: http://www.susanswan.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Susan. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!