Sarah Dvojack comes from the wilds of Washington, where she spent her formative years digging for gnomes on the school playground, pretending to be Cornflower Fieldmouse and running internal monologues in the voice of Anne Shirley. She spent high school immersed in Harry Potter. She likes to think that all these things combined nicely into the fantastically historical girl-driven story world she inhabit as a grown up.
Sarah is a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program. In 2012, she graduated with honors from Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts with a BFA in Graphic Design.
She has an unnatural obsession with circus history and am highly defensive of clowns. She also enjoys 20th century history (in particular), vernacular jazz dance and jazz music history. She’s sold her soul to Irish dance and will probably never get it back.
Her last name is Americanized Polish. If you’re a Dvojack, a Dwojacki or a Dvojacki, we are related.
Here is Sarah discussing her process:
Of course, the real first step is drawing the lines and some values on a piece of bistrol board. I don’t know what got me started on using bristol, but I’ve been doing it off and on for about six years.
I’m not much of a thumbnail sketcher. If I do anything they’re very scratchy and small and difficult to decipher. I usually jump right into the final.
Upon scanning, which I always have to do in multiple pieces because I work fairly large, I take the pieces into Photoshop and lay them out. I do a little bit of erasing to blend the pieces, and use Levels to adjust the values.
So here we have the final version of the linework, with contrast all fixed and the edges cropped.
Next, I bring it into Paint Tool SAI and lay down the colors. This is the color layers without the lineart on top, just to show you how messy it can look.
Because this piece was so heavy on values when I scanned it, I didn’t have to do much with the colors. I also wasn’t envisioning a very bright piece, so I kept the palette limited.
I’ve now brought the image back into Photoshop and locked the transparency of the color layer, in order to add a little bit of pink. I don’t always use Photoshop to add color, but in this instance I did.
I adjusted the colors of the linework ever so slightly, to a more brown hue, using the Hue/Saturation menu. I tend to always adjust the color of my lines, as it adds a nice dimension. In this piece the difference is pretty minimal.
The kind of fun part! Putting in the layers of texture. I’ve chosen to show the layers menu in my Photoshop file so you can see where I’m placing textures. Sometimes I’ll erase or target certain areas and adjust textures more specifically, but in this case I kept them pretty simple.
I also tend to constantly adjust the opacity and layer effects over and over and over, trying to decide what I like the best.
And here we have the finished piece, with an added little swash texture at the bottom and my signature.
Everything I make tends to follow a similar pattern: draw the lines in graphite, scan them, adjust them, bring them into Paint Tool SAI to be colored, bring the colored layer back into Photoshop and adjust the colors of the lines, add texture, sit on it for a few minutes, and finish!
Above Illustration: Tomie dePaola Award runner-up. 2013.
Below Illustration: Winner of the Unpublished Illustrator Award in the NJSCBWI Art Show
How long have you been illustrating?
Since I could push a crayon around on paper! I suspect that’s not an uncommon starting point. My parents aren’t artistic, but they were always encouraging and let me dream big. It took much longer to fully understand that fine art and illustration are considered two different sides of the same coin, even though I declared that I would be an author/illustrator when I was still the target audience for picture books.
Where do you live?
I currently live in New York City, on the Lower East Side. I moved here for grad school, but I am a Washington (state) native.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
Harry Potter fanart, actually! I had an abundance of work that I wanted to cull, so I held an auction on my LiveJournal (am I showing my Internet age here?) and people bought everything. This was during high school.
The first non-fanart I was ever paid for was a painting I did my senior year of high school. My dad bought it.
What made you attend Cornish College of the Arts to get your BFA?
Being a Washington native, Cornish is the most prestigious and best known art school in the state, and I wasn’t really interested in moving too far away from home. I had first become aware of it at age eight, while attending a family wedding in a building across from the school. It became my goal to attend, because I’d never heard of art school before!
Cornish is unique in that it is one of few schools to have both visual and performing art majors, so I got to be around dancers, musicians, and theatre students all day, every day. Nothing was ever boring! And as performing arts wind their way into my work, it was also inspiring.
Why did you study Graphic Design?
Cornish had recently dissolved its illustration department and incorporated it into the design major. In many art departments and art schools, illustration and design are inextricably linked. They are both commercial, usually narrative or requiring a clear vision. ‘Story’ is a term used by designers, even if the end product is a logo. You are telling the story of your client’s brand, or you’re telling the story of a character on a page. And good illustrators are always a wonderful boon to a designer.
Do you feel studying Graphic Design helped develop your style?
I think that having a design background is a great asset for any illustrator, and not just because it can help you get a stable desk job ;). I wouldn’t say it influenced my style directly, but it made me very aware of a good layout and good use of text. Though I often gain inspiration from certain periods in design history, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Did you go directly from there to the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program?
Almost directly. I had a year off between undergrad and grad school. I wasn’t entirely sure I would even pursue grad school at all, but Cornish had done a poster collaboration with SVA, and I was aware that SVA’s MFA Illustration program was the best in the world.
Since I knew I wanted to be an author/illustrator first and designer second, getting a degree in illustration, in New York, seemed like a good decision.
What types of things did you study in that program?
SVA’s MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program forces you to live and breathe illustration all day every day for two straight years. Among its alumni it counts Brian Floca, Lauren Castillo, Anna Raff, Stephen Savage, Brian Pinkney, Yuko Shimizu—I could go on and on, and the list is always growing! And these people often return as advisors or guest critics, and they’re always willing to talk to an SVA MFAI grad! It makes you feel like you’re a part of the publishing world before you ever get a job, which is unbelievably special.
One of the most influential and well-loved classes is called Drawing on Location, taught by Carol Fabricatore but originally conceived and taught by the late, great Robert Weaver. As the title says, you draw on location! From Chinatown to the Met Opera’s backstage tour, from live musicians to the subway. It forces you to think quickly and to shut out all outside influences and live in the moment.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
If I had seriously pursued design upon graduating with my BFA, I have no doubt I would be employed right now. Every single one of my closest friends from undergrad have jobs in their chosen fields. Every single one! But though I do want to return to design, preferably within the publishing industry, it’s author career I want to get started. And my MFA thesis project was the thing that landed me a literary agent. More on that soon!
Fellow students and alumni have introduced me to their published friends, agents, editors, and given great editorial advice. Not to mention encouragement to attend the NJ SCBWI Conference. I’ve also had some job referrals from faculty. I feel like I’m in safe hands, even in these really choppy waters.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
After undergrad, I got a few licensing jobs with previous illustrations, but soon my focus was on updating my portfolio to apply for grad school. I’ve also provided illustrations to designer friends of mine, and accumulated more licensing deals.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
I’m not sure that my work has changed very dramatically, but I’m trying to be a little more ambitious and varied with my subject matter. I’ve also gone back to shading and adding values to my linework before scanning, which I haven’t done in quite a few years. But most of the last year has been consumed by writing!
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
Since I was a child myself! We had school contests for most Caldecott books read, long after the usual age when kids are supposedly no longer interested in picture books. This meant I was going through picture books while simultaneously reading things like Redwall, and I wanted to be Jerry Pinkney. Or maybe Norman Rockwell. But with a lot more words on my pages, too. Brian Selznick hadn’t arrived yet.
Tell us about your MFA Thesis? The Tragical History of the Jackson Sisters and the Extraordinary Now! Did you write the text to go with the illustrations? Were you involved in making the cover for that book? How did it all work? Was it published?
My MFA thesis was a middle grade novel, written and illustrated by me—cover design, binding, and all! Although my best friend and fellow SVA MFAI alum and illustrator, Michael Lauritano, did the physical act of screenprinting it.
The Tragical History came about in a very backwards way. Kind of literally. I have been working on an unrelated novel for the past six or so years, and the aforementioned Jackson sisters happened to be secondary characters that interested me. I decided to go back and explore their rather unusual upbringing by their grandparents on the Upper West Side.
I wrote the first draft in August 2014, before my last year of grad school began, and focused on illustrating it. I had no intention of querying yet, because it was not ready, but we had a visiting art director come to our thesis class and she expressed interest and asked me to submit it. Knowing I wanted an agent, I cleaned up the draft and dove into the query trenches almost immediately.
From there, I got my agent—the fabulous Linda Camacho of Prospect Agency—and together we went through three or four rounds of edits to make it a much, much better novel now.
I will be re-illustrating it, as many of the scenes I chose for my thesis presentation have been removed or changed, but I want it to be as dependent on visuals as it is on words. I firmly believe that no one grows out of loving pictures in their books.
The same type of questions as above for The Waves of Tory A picture book of a mother and daughter story. For the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Book Project class. 2014.
One of the yearly shows our MFA program has is the Book Show. The class is taught by the incomparable Marshall Arisman (the founder and chair of the program itself) and Carl Titolo. Students can illustrate pre-existing works, create their own, or use some other narrative combination that they wish, and in the autumn there is a show in the gallery to display all of the work.
Returning to the Six-Year Novel Project, I chose to write and illustrate a pivotal moment in the protagonist’s childhood—when she runs away to try and make a life of her own. It’s sort of a take on Irish folklore, but it’s mostly my own imagination running wild.
Right now it’s on the backburner, but one day I might clean up the text and the illustrations and my agent and I might take it out into the world.
Have you done other types of illustrating since you got your MFA?
I haven’t, actually. Though I would never turn away an editorial job, I’ve had my blinders up and my focus glued on my novels.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do!
What do you think was your biggest success?
Honestly, I do feel like writing and illustrating a book that caught the eye of an agent, a real agent! has felt like the biggest success. My writing was never something that went out into the world, so I didn’t have much of a gauge as to how I was doing in that regard. I was always in school for visual art, and the creative writing classes I took were either focused more on reading or were just unhelpful (one teacher in particular seemed to look down her nose at both children’s literature and genre fiction—the two things I do!).
Now, there’s still a really long road ahead of me, and a lot of waiting, and a lot of improving, but I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can focus on making those long-held dreams real, instead of thinking about how far away they seem.
Do you have any desire to try to create a wordless picture book?
If the right concept comes to me, I would certainly do it. Since I’m very much a writer and an illustrator in equal parts, I don’t always think of stories without words. But sometimes a story is better served through pictures and the words aren’t necessary.
How hard was it to create the pop-up book you made in college?
So hard! I am not mechanical at all and for the life of me I couldn’t find good instructions for what I wanted to do. Which is why I kept the pop-up part to the very last page. Thankfully that fulfilled the assignment’s requirement.
Do you have an artist rep. If so, who and how did you connect. If not, would you like to find one?
As I mentioned, I do have a literary agent! Her name is Linda Camacho, and she is with the fabulous Prospect Agency. She plucked me out of the slush pile, and after I kept her waiting forever on a revision request (no, seriously, she nudged me!), we have been together, contractually bound and all, since February of this year. I so recommend that your readers check her out. She’s a new agent with a long editorial background and great taste (and I don’t mean because she picked me…)!
Do you illustrate full time?
Technically, yes, though I can’t say I want to live a freelance life. I’m working on polishing up my design portfolio again so that I can get back into that world and stretch my brain.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I have always been devoted to my .3 mechanical pencils. All of my illustrations begin as graphite line work.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Sometimes I do! I open up Photobooth on my Mac and take awkward pictures of myself. I know a lot of people probably relate to that… There have been many times where I’ve gone through my old photos and been very confused about what I was doing.
Because a lot of my work is historical in nature, I have a lot (and I mean a lot) of visual reference books for clothes, objects, places, and assorted ephemera that I take out and use as needed.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
I do! I mostly use it to layer in textures, which I make using watercolor washes that I scan. I have never really done much coloring in Photoshop.
I color digitally using Paint Tool SAI. Before that, I used a very old version of OpenCanvas that I can’t find anymore, or I’d still be using it!
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
After twelve years, in 2015 I finally retired my quartz-colored Wacom Bamboo (they don’t even come in those colors anymore!) and upgraded to a Wacom Intuous. I swear by my tablets for coloring, but I don’t really draw digitally.
Do you do exhibits to show off your art?
Sometimes I do! Almost all of my recent shows have been the direct result of school. I have had some outliers, where someone found my work online and wanted me to be in a show, but it’s not something I am focused on yet.
I’ve never had a solo show.
Would you be willing to work with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?
I would, depending on the work. Of course, my price range is pretty high due to having an MFA and an agent, but if I liked the manuscript enough, I might consider it.
On a similar note, I would be very happy to illustrate other people’s manuscripts, or write a story as needed.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Nothing apart from school-related publications. I have done approximately no print editorial work. It’s all been for online articles or blogs.
Do you have a studio in your house?
Unfortunately, there’s just no room in this apartment! I work at my desk, usually in my lap, under my loft bed. Ah, New York.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
I hope no one will cringe when I say… my computer. And I mean my whopper of a 40 pound PC desktop. It’s where I write, where I color, where I research.
Then again, I could also argue that my expanding book collection is even more necessary.
What are your career goals?
To be an author/illustrator of novels! MG, YA, Adult, doesn’t matter! I want to illustrate novels like Brian Selznick. (Well, you know, not like him.) I want to marry picture and word for older readers.
Of course, I also want to write and illustrate picture books.
Whatever the story calls for. Whatever the story wants to be. I want to make it happen.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
The consistent routine has been to write every day, read every day, and draw every day. I used to do National Novel Writing Month every year, and I always got the requisite 50k as quickly as I could. I wouldn’t rest until it was achieved. And illustrations from the messy manuscript would be sure to follow.
Now, grad school exists in a strange parallel universe where all schedules and routines are obliterated, so I’m still getting back into the swing of productivity. But this year alone I’ve read more than a few dozen MG and YA books, and I can’t stop buying picture books.
Is it routine, or is it obsession? Maybe it’s both.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
All I can say is that things are moving steadily forward with my former MFA thesis and I’m filled with excitement and fear and anxiety and, well, things that are probably not unfamilar to anyone trying to be published.
I’m also picking away at outlining the next couple of books, and returning to the Six Year Novel Project.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Oh, absolutely, if only because it expedited the learning process when it came time for me to research agents, querying, and the finer points of manuscript polishing. It also exposed me to far more illustration than I’d ever seen in my life, and I made friends with fellow aspiring writers and artists—some of whom are now published or full-time freelancers.
Now, I’m not exactly the best with social media anymore, so I don’t have a tightknit group of beta readers and I’ve never participated in Twitter pitches or contests and made friends that way (oh, such a loner!). I wish I was better at this! I’ve seen so many people gain a foothold through their online socializing. It’s a valuable resource.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
The secret to making digital painting look less “Photoshoppy” is to use texture layers. Once I started painting random watercolor washes and scanning them and using them over the top of my colors, the whole feel of my work changed. At least, to my own eyes it did. It adds something very tactile and imperfect and real to every piece.
I think the most common question I’ve been asked over time is how I learned to successfully wrangle human anatomy in my illustrations, and how you can do this, too.
I answer it the same way every time: I once spent the better part of a year almost exclusively drawing ballet dancers. Not live drawing, unfortunately (I’ve only drawn live ballet once, for a class in undergrad), but I buried myself in so many references photos and videos and attended ballets that I had it coming out my eyes. I was a woman obsessed! And once you’ve spent that long drawing people who can achieve physical feats that our bodies aren’t really even meant to do, anatomy becomes much breezier.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
My own career is fairly fledgling as it is, but I have a great number of successful friends and the thing that unites them is their ability to make friends. To meet people. To attend things like gallery openings or Society of Illustrator events, if only to see what the current crop of illustrators is doing, and also to schmooze. They submit their work to contests and illustrator journals, like 3×3, Spectrum, Communication Arts. They go to or try to table at conventions like MoCCA.
Remember that, while unsoliciated manuscripts to editors are usually frowned upon, Art Directors at most publishing houses, big and small, will accept artist postcards. Gone are the days of portfolio reviews, unfortunately, so make sure you have a stack of business and postcards ready to send a couple of times a year.
I am a terrible schmoozer. The very concept of it pains me. However, after attenting the NJ SCBWI Conference for the first time this year, I have to say… If you can go, do go! Everyone is unbelievably friendly, and you’re all here for the same reasons. Writing and visual art can be so solitary, and being around fellow creatives is great fuel.
Besides having a tremendous amount of talent, how did you win so many scholarships. Are there some tips you can share?
I wish I had a solid piece of advice to help get scholarships, but the truth is that, well, I don’t really know! Almost all of them came through college and grad school, so I’m sure there are behind-the-scenes machinations I will never understand.
I worked very hard, to begin with, and made sure that my presentations were clean and followed all of the requirements. But I also got lucky. Art is always subjective, and it’s important to remember that. Frustrating though it may be to see things you think are “worse” than you get picked, remember that it isn’t personal. Just be confident in yourself and willing to listen to critique at the same time. And never, ever give up, no matter how long the drought lasts. Nothing happens if you stop. Nothing.
Thank you Sarah 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.sarahdvojack.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Sarah. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!