Katy Betz grew up in Southern California where she learned how to sit patiently in freeway traffic, ride out earthquakes, surf cold waves, and paint awesome pictures.
Katy works with both traditional and digital media and is active in the fields of children’s literature, gallery and editorial illustration. She also is a Professor and Interim Co-Department Head of Illustration at Ringling College of Art & Design.
Her work focuses on visual narratives inspired by fantasy, philosophy, and nature. She imagines stories, worlds and characters to express ideas with the intention of making an emotional and intellectual connection with her audience.
When not working in the studio or classroom, you can find Katy playing outdoors in the Florida swamps or hiking the California Sierras with a sketchbook in hand.
Here is Katy discussing her process:
This is what a typical page in my sketchbook looks like. This was for a promotional postcard design themed “Dragons and Unicorns”.
I find it really helpful to start with a mind map and describe what mood and feel I want a painting to have before I begin thumbnailing.
Once I have some rough ideas down, I go on the hunt for reference and inspiration. I found this painting that really captures a lovely mood. I was inspired by the palette, details and sense of movement in the composition.
I scanned in the rough drawing from my sketchbook and did a digital value study in Photoshop to help me start visualizing the painting.
Next was a digital color study. I originally wanted to make this a saturated, high-contrast image. But as I continued to work on it, I felt it needed to be more muted to capture a medieval sensibility.
After doing the two studies, I sat back to analyze and didn’t quite like where it was going. Then it dawned on me that my original sketch was pretty static. Looking back at my inspiration reference image, I realized that I needed some diagonals in the composition. So I stopped and re-sketched the idea. I also played around with a slight shape variety for the characters.
Now with a more dynamic composition, I felt ready to draw up a refined line drawing.
I printed the line drawing onto Bristol paper and mounted it on illustration board. I then laid down an gouache wash of burnt sienna + sap green to create a warm golden underpainting. Once that was dry, I started to block in back to front, dark to light.
I was still painting the colors a little too bright here, and had to layer over them to get the right level of saturation I was going for. I usually make a total of 4 passes over every painting – the initial block in, refining, refining, and then final details.
The completed painting. I like to let the painting speak to me as I go, making adjustments as needed. And I also like to get critique because sometimes I can’t see what is needed. Once major adjustment was darkening the background behind the girl’s head to make sure she stood out as the focal point.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years (ever since I graduated from Laguna College of Art & Design in 2006.)
Where do you live?
I live in Sarasota, Florida.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
Hmmm it’s hard to recall…I think it was a family member paying me to do a dog portrait when I was in high school.
Did you go to school for art?
If so where and why did you pick that school? Yes I did. I went to Laguna College of Art & Design for my undergraduate degree, and Cal State Fullerton for my graduate degree. I chose Laguna because it was by the beach (for inspiration of course…) and had a great reputation and a small, nurturing environment. Cal State Fullerton also had a great reputation for it’s Illustration program and was close to home, and relatively affordable.
What did you study there?
I majored in Illustration at both colleges.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
Definitely. Having the feedback and time to explore led me to where I’m at now. Traveling also helped me to find my visual voice. I went on several study-abroad programs that exposed me to new ways of thinking and processing the visual world.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
Yes, I think so. It definitely gave me more confidence to approach clients.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Oh yes! I feel like I’m always experimenting, which I find to be kind of frustrating but ultimately a good thing. My style changes when I use different media. During college I was painting in oil and had a tendency to render everything too tightly. So I jumped to pastel for a while, but ran into too many limitations. I finally feel like I’ve happily landed somewhere in the middle with acrylic gouache. I love it because It’s fast-drying, can be blended but also works great for flat design work. The colors are vivid and reproduce well. I can use it for both light-to-dark or dark-to-light methods. It makes painting fun!
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
After graduating from Laguna College of Art & Design. I originally wanted to be a gallery painter, and the work I was creating for shows was very whimsical and narrative. Several people suggested I should illustrate children’s books, which I thought was a great idea since I love to read, so I went back to grad school to study how to do that and tailor my portfolio.
What was your first book you illustrated?
The Lost Ones: Ghosts of Paris, by Christie Franke. It is a middle grade novel published by Zittaw Press.
How did you get that contract?
Through the network at Laguna College.
Did you do other types of illustrating before you got that book contract?
Yes, I did magazine covers for a local company, a few murals, a few logo deisgns, and apprenticed as a stained-glass mosaicist.
How did you get the position of Professor and Interim Co-Department Head of Illustration at Ringling College of Art & Design?
When I graduated from Cal State Fullerton, there was a visiting full-time position open at Ringling. My grad professors encouraged me to apply, so I did, and lo and behold I got the job! I moved to Florida and have been teaching a variety of courses for the Illustration Department since 2011. About a year and a half ago, the college was undergoing some transitions and experiencing growth, and as a result I was asked to step up as interim co-head while new changes got sorted out. We just hired a new department head, so I will be back to full-time teaching in the Fall.
Can you tell us about the college? Does it have any connection to the circus or the museum in Sarasota?
Ringling is an incredible college! Students are mega-talented, the creative energy is on full blast all the time, and everyone is passionate about what they do which makes it a really rewarding place to be. John Ringling, founder of the circus, also founded the art college in 1931. There are about 1,300 students and 13 majors all in the visual arts (Illustration being the largest major). There are no performing arts, and it’s not affiliated with the circus in any way nowadays.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I’ve illustrated 10 books so far.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Yes, I have several ideas that have been brewing in my head for a while. I would really like to write chapter books and illustrate the cover and interiors. I find myself drawn to the middle grade genre because of the adventure and mystery.
How did you get to the do the cover for Just A Drop of Water?
I met the author, Kerry O’Malley Cerra, at the Miami SCBWI conference a few years ago and we became fast friends. Kerry liked my work and mentioned it to her editor at Sky Pony, who also like my work and assigned me the project! I have had several opportunities come from my author friends, such as Nicole Lataif (author of I Forgive You) and Jodi Kendall (author of Some Pig in the City). I met each of them at SCBWI conferences and have stayed in touch over the years, and they have been gracious to recommend me to their editors!
What do you think is your biggest success?
Probably just the fact that I’ve been able to work in the arts and continually make artwork and live a creative lifestyle.
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
No I haven’t but I think it would be a really fun challenge.
I see you are represented by Christy Ewers at CATugeau. How did the two of you connect and when was that?
Yes, Christy and Chris are both amazing!! I had the good fortune of meeting Chris at a special SCBWI event in Florida over a year ago, where she gave a presentation about her agency and what to put in a portfolio. She connected with my work and shared it with her daughter, Christy, who also connected with it and they decided to offer representation.
Do you illustrate full time?
No, I teach full-time and illustrate part-time.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Yes, gouache! I love it. I use acrylic gouache for illustration projects because I don’t have to worry about it accidently reactivating while on a deadline. However, I like to use regular gouache for plein-air painting for the simple fact that it does reactivate and I can experiment and re-use the palette later.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Yes and no. At the very beginning, I like to just sketch without looking at anything. Then once I have an idea, I’ll ask friends to model for me and try to find objects from life if possible. I also do a lot of online research. Sometimes I get ideas for characters by going through my friends list on Facebook!
Have you worked with any educational publishers?
If yes, are there any differences working with them? Yes, I’ve done a few educational picture book projects. They main difference I’ve noticed is that the book is already laid out with lots of illustrator notes and the deadlines are usually much tighter.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes, I use it to refine my sketches, create value and color studies, and do final color/value corrections on the final digital file. Depending on the assignment, I sometimes work entirely digital, sometimes “tradigital”, and other times entirely traditional. I recently made it a goal to paint the entire project traditionally if possible so that I have finished work to put in gallery shows.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I do, I have a Wacom 22HD Cintiq and also a Wacom Intuos 5 tablet. I find both really helpful and easy to use. I work on the Cintiq when I’m at home, and if I go out to a coffee shop or traveling, I take the tablet with me.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
I have illustrated for a few magazines – Spider, Cobblestone, and Highlights.
Do you have a studio in your house or do you do everything at the college?
Yes, I have a studio in my house where I do all my freelance work and an office on campus where I do all my grading.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
Hmmm, let’s see. My cat Dinah, who keeps me company. My twinkle lights and inspiration wall covered in favorite quotes and pictures, and a window with good lighting and a view.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
Yes, I would say a big component for helping me stay focused (in terms of career and life overall) is daily prayer and journaling. I also regularly attend SCBWI conferences and events to meet people and keep an eye out for opportunities.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes, I just finished illustrating a picture book and right now I have a few weeks to create a few personal pieces, which I find to be really important in maintaining creativity.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Yes, I’ve been able to get a lot of assignments through people finding me on the web.
What are your career goals?
I’d like to continue building my client list and get into illustrating more middle grade covers.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up a painting I started a while ago for a book idea called “June Gloom”.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you?
Technique tips? Hmmm, I’ve found that I can easily print my line/value drawing directly onto bristol paper and then mount it to illustration board and work directly with gouache on top. It’s made my process a lot smoother and quicker. I find that the Masterson’s sta-wet palette is a must when it comes to keeping acrylic gouache fresh for a few days. I recently made a magnetic wall (using galvanized metal roofing sheets) which allows me to hang process work and see how a project is unfolding more easily that using a cork board.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
From my experience…It pays to show up! Attend as many events and meet as many people as you can. Schedule time for practice and experimentation.
Thank you Katy 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 Katy’s work, you can visit her at website at: http://www.Katybetz.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Katy. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!