After completing her BFA at Art Center College of Design, Susan Gal began her illustration career as a poster and calendar artist. The call of animation beckoned her to Florida where she became an “actor with a pencil” for Disney Animation. But the lure of the silver screen was not to last. Returning to her native California, Susan continues to create fun and whimsical illustrations while attempting to live a caffeine and nuclear-free life in Berkeley.
Here’s how Susan created the artwork for Bella’s Fall Coat…
I began visualizing Bella’s personality as I read the manuscript. Because the author carefully selected such words as “whizz” and “zoom”, “flapped” and “flew”, I knew that Miss Bella had to be a vibrant, energetic little girl. I visualized her with unkempt hair and a ruddy complexion from spending alot of time playing outdoors. Although she could be considered a tomboy she also had a soft, sensitive side to her. Bella would like wearing dresses and her beloved coat. I began playing around with her body language and the look of her clothing. At this stage I’m working with charcoal pencil and a brush pen on newsprint and doing a lot of loose gesture drawing out of my head. This may sound silly, but as I work, the drawings start to “talk” to me and take on their own personality. Perhaps its my animation training, but the characters must feel real to me before I can bring them to life. I like the look and feel of a hand-drawn line on paper and draw much more intuitively with traditional materials.
I researched clothing to help inspire me, that was fun to illustrate, and reflected Bella’s exuberant style. I’m still working in black and white because I don’t yet want to be burdened with color.
As Bella began taking shape it was time to design Grandma. I imagined Bella to a young version of her Grandmother so I tried to make Grandma somewhat modern and vibrant–not a traditional white-haired elderly woman with glasses. Grandma felt like a cat person so I sketched her a kitty too. Bella’s author lives in Maine so a Maine coon cat felt like a fun choice. This is an example of the characters starting to come to life!
Once I’ve decided on the look of the characters I scan my sketches and place them in a layout in Photoshop. Working digitally allows me the freedom to move the sketches around and play with the composition. Working with scans of my original sketches helps me to keep the artwork fresh. This is the stage where I really try to push the limits of my imagination and experiment with composition. I also make sure to include the text in my composition and be thoughtful of the gutter. The spreads are still loose enough so I can rework them if necessary.
Bella and her coat needed to stand out among the fall palette and so I went with a blue coat. I digitally collage texture and pattern into the painting too.
Once approved, then I begin to draw and paint in layers in Photoshop. I approach each spread as if it were a painting, adding layers of color like paint on canvas.
Bella and her coat needed to stand out among the fall palette and so I went with a blue coat. I digitally collage texture and pattern into the painting too.
The art director and I agreed that the endpaper art should be rich and lush with fall color too.
Bella’s Book Cover – Stop Back on October 11th for Book Giveaway.
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Interview Questions for Susan Gal
How long have you been illustrating?
Yikes! I’ve been illustrating professionally for 30 years, drawing since I could hold a pencil.
Have you always lived in California?
Yes, except for the year and a half that I lived in Orlando, Florida while working for Disney Animation. I was born and raised in San Diego and currently live in the Bay Area.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
Ah, that’s a good question! When I was growing up people frequently asked me to draw or design something for them. No one thought to pay me because making art is “fun”. At the time I assumed being chosen to create a logo, or t-shirt design, painting, etc., was an honor. I won a lot of art contests in school but usually there was no compensation. The work was either displayed or printed and that was supposed to be the reward. Sadly, I honestly can’t remember being paid for my work until I graduated from art school.
What made you choose to attend Art Center College of Design?
While I was enrolled in an AP Studio Art class in high school I told my teacher that I wanted to become a professional illustrator and attend the best art school in the country. He said that in his opinion ArtCenter was the best school. I told my parents that I wanted to apply to ArtCenter and my father sent away for the catalog and application information and helped me put together my portfolio. My parents were very supportive and encouraged me to become a professional artist.
What did you study there?
I majored in illustration and graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
I don’t feel as though I developed a set style as a student. We were encouraged to explore, experiment, and to conceptualize by thinking outside the box. My teachers believed, as do I, that a style develops with time and dedication to the work. When I’m asked by students how to develop a style I tell them to be patient and with time and practice they will develop their own style. To this day I still use the skills taught to me at ArtCenter. With each assignment I strive to not think literally and to explore the most interesting ways to problem solve.
Did art school help you get work when you graduated?
ArtCenter prepared me to hit the ground running with the confidence and portfolio to start working professionally. At that time there was no internet and the only way to show your work was to make appointments with art directors and hope for an interview. It was grueling work driving around Southern California, meeting with art directors, chatting with them as they flipped through my portfolio, and then be told they might give me a call for a job if something came along that suited my style. ArtCenter’s well-earned reputation enabled me to obtain those interviews so I could show my work and start building my career. My first professional job was a full-color illustration for the San Diego Union Tribune.
How did you end up going to Florida and doing animation for Disney?
That’s a good story. I was freelancing and working part-time in-house in Los Angeles for a poster company designing and illustrating posters and calendars. That company spun-off into a smaller studio and my new boss was a horrible guy that liked to hire talent fresh out of art school and not pay them! The company also was busted for printing fake pink slips for stolen cars but that’s another story. Anyway, when I notified ArtCenter to blacklist this unscrupulous employer, the woman in the placement office remembered me and told me that Disney was looking for new talent to train and send to Florida to open the new Disney MGM Studio in Orlando. I was excited to have the opportunity to live in another part of the country and submitted a portfolio to Disney. I was stunned and thrilled to be one of 20 people selected from across the country to intern and work for Disney Animation Florida. It was even more of a surprise to learn that I was the only woman selected in the group.
What made you decide to give that up and head back to California? Did you have another job waiting?
I loved my experience working at Disney and still cherish the people that I was fortunate enough to work with at the Florida Studio. I had the honor of meeting the surviving Nine Old Men that had worked with Walt Disney and truly enjoyed working with the best and the brightest in animation. I still believe to this day that the most talented artists work for Disney and I’m humbled to have had the opportunity to work with them. (cont.)
In my personal life I met my husband-to-be soon after I was selected by Disney and we dated cross-country from California to Florida for over a year. As much as I enjoyed working in animation, I missed working for myself as an illustrator. I realized that my dream was illustration, especially illustration for children, and working in animation was not as fulfilling for me. I also missed living in California and each time I visited my future husband it was becoming more difficult to return to Orlando. I terminated my contract with Disney in good standing with the promise of not working in animation for the remainder of my contract. That was fair to me; after all, Disney had trained me and it would not have been ethical to work for another animation studio. At that time there was a renaissance in animation and a lot of work was available. I did not have another job waiting for me in California, but I had a new fiancé, a burning desire to freelance, and I was very excited and eager to begin a new chapter in my life.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
In second grade the author Al Perkins visited my school. I remember watching his presentation and realizing that writing and illustrating picture books was a real job. As a child I spent all of my free time either reading, drawing, or painting. Any allowance or money I received from gifts was spent on books. My parents read to me every night before I learned to read on my own and encouraged me to make art. My favorite way to spend the day was to copy the drawings from my picture books and create my own illustrations for stories. My favorite books were the Little House on the Prairie series and any book illustrated by Garth Williams. I dreamed of being able to draw as beautifully as he drew.
Did you use any of your connections from Disney to get the contract to illustrate Lynn Plourde’s book, Bella’s Fall Coat with Disney-Hyperion? If not, how did that job come your way?
No, an editor at Disney-Hyperion contacted my agent for the job. I was asked to create a couple of samples from the manuscript and then secured the contract.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Yes, very much. My time with Disney really helped hone my drawing skills. Along with drawing every day we were fortunate enough to study with the late animator Walt Stanchfield. He was a gifted artist that passionately taught his students how to see and bring a drawing to life.
I think I’m a painter at heart and bring that passion to each job. I approach each project with the desire to push the limits of my imagination and pay special attention to the use of color, light, and composition. I’m constantly looking at all types of art for inspiration so I can continue to grow as an artist.
You wrote and illustrated Night Lights and Knopf published it in 2009. Was that your first book?
Yes, Night Lights was my first published picture book. Actually, at the same time I wrote Night Lights I created a dummy for Please Take Me for a Walk. I did not have my illustration agent at the time so I sent the Please Take Me for a Walk dummy to a couple of publishers. A few weeks after mailing it, one publisher expressed an interest in it. I was elated to think I was going to be published! Sadly, although the dummy made its way up the chain it was eventually turned down. Another publisher was interested in my dummy if I made some changes to it. I did, then that publisher turned it down as well. When I signed with my agent she presented both the Night Lights and Please Take Me for a Walk dummies to Nancy Siscoe at Knopf and Nancy offered me a two-book contract. (cont.)
While I was creating the dummies I was working very hard to update and refresh my illustration portfolio. Our young daughter had started school and I wanted to work with an agent to reinvigorate my career. I was thrilled when my first choice of an agent contacted me to sign with them. Although it was difficult, I’m glad that I had started my career without representation because it taught me how to promote myself, secure and deliver a job on my own, and collect payment for it. It made me a stronger and more confident professional artist. However, I wanted to devote more time to making art. I knew that a good agent that believed in my work would work hard to find great jobs, and secure the best contracts, freeing me up for more time in my studio.
How did that story idea come to you? Were you inspired by a real dog?
The inspiration for Night Lights came while lying in bed at night and noticing the different lights outside my window. I began to wonder about the other types of lights that could be seen at night. I’ve always been fascinated with light and shadow and strive to capture it in my work.
Please Take Me for a Walk was inspired by my beloved Boston Terrier Wanda. She has recently passed and was my devoted studio companion for 15 years. I miss her terribly and am thankful she lives on in her book.
What did you do to get that book in the right publishing hands?
I had been working on a few book dummies when I got an agent. She presented it to Nancy Siscoe at Knopf and Nancy offered me a two-book contract.
Did you do other types of illustrating other than the animation, before you got that first book contract?
Yes, for several years I’ve illustrated for newspapers, magazines, posters, greeting cards, brochures, logo design, etc.
Lynn Plourde mentions that Bella’s Fall Coat uses collage. How did you get involved using collage in your illustrations?
As my work has evolved over the years I started adding cut paper, bits of epherma, fabric—anything with an interesting texture or pattern. Prior to working digitally I had tried collaging with my gouache paintings and found it difficult to keep the work flat enough to scan for reproduction. Artwork can be photographed and then reproduced but it was yet another generation away from my original art. (cont.)
While on a trip to New York City I visited a show at the Society of Illustrators and was blown away by artwork that was beautifully rendered and created digitally. That changed the way I worked. I had never liked art that looked like it was done on a computer and I shied away from using a computer. That show opened my eyes to the possibilities of using a computer as a tool to make art. I began experimenting and taught myself how to use Photoshop. Instead of cutting and pasting by hand I began to collage elements in my artwork digitally.
It looks like you have two books published with Harry N Abrams this year – Abracadabra, It’s Spring! Hocus Pocus, It’s Fall! So it has been a busy year for you illustrating these books and Bella’s Fall Coat with Disney-Hyperion. Did you have time to eat this year?
Good question! I’m thrilled to have projects that I truly love and inspire me. I’ve worked a lot of years in this business and am very thankful to have such great work at this point in my career. Some years it can be exhausting having to work six, sometimes seven days a week but I will never complain. Illustration can be a tough business and I know I’m blessed to be able to make a living doing what I love to do. My husband is also self-employed so he understands the commitment it takes to succeed. Our daughter is away in college so I consider this period of my life to be a time to relish in my career.
Do you think you will write and illustrate more books?
I will continue to write and illustrate books until I’m unable to do so. I wake up every morning excited to enter my studio and make art!
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I’ve currently written and illustrated four books and illustrated another four books by other authors.
Have your books won any awards?
I’ve been very fortunate that some of my books have been selected for several ‘best of’ lists: a School Library Journal Best Books of the Year, a Texas 2×2 Reading List, an Outstanding Merit star for Banks Street School, a Banks Street College of Education Best Books of the Year, a Kirkus Reviews Best of Children’s Books, and a Northern California Book Award nomination.
Three of my books were also selected for the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show.
What do you think is your biggest success?
Raising our daughter to be a good and thoughtful young woman is the first thing that comes to mind. As for my career—being able to make a living with a career that I dreamed of as a young girl—it doesn’t get much better that that. School visits also bring me joy. I love seeing the faces of young students when I tell them that, with lots of hard work and little bit of luck, they can grow up and live their dreams. I show them a photo of my 2nd grade classmates and I in the local newspaper with the late author Al Perkins and let them know that if that little girl can grow up and live her dreams, they can too.
I see you are represented by Morgan Gaynin Inc. How did you two connect?
How long have you been with her. As I mentioned earlier, I took some time to streamline my portfolio and then began the search for a good agent. I narrowed my choices down to five agents. Morgan Gaynin was my first choice and I sent a letter along with some samples and a link to my website. They called me, liking what they saw in my work, and I’ve been with them for several successful years.
Do you illustrate full time?
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
No, not really. I love experimenting with all different mediums. I do a lot of work on newsprint because its inexpensive and I don’t have to worry about making mistakes or messing up. I can still recall the days of being a frugal art student and being too intimidated to paint on an expensive sheet of rag paper. Newsprint allows me to let loose and have fun. With each new book I try to challenge myself and experiment with something new. I try to keep my work fun and fresh.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I don’t shoot reference photos to work from. Instead, I photograph and collect things that I find interesting and might be of use in my work. For example, a photograph that I took of some rust on a car became a great texture for the fall leaves in Bella’s Fall Coat and Hocus Pocus, It’s Fall! I do a lot of research when I begin a project and tape up images around my studio to inspire me. Design inspiration for Bella came from some vintage photos I found of immigrant children in old coats and used them along with old photos of my great-aunt and grandmothers to trigger my memories of the relationship I had with these loving women from my childhood. I wanted to capture that delightful bond between a grandparent and child and express it in my work.
Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?
Before creating picture books I did several jobs for educational publishers. I liked the challenge of solving problems within the parameters of educational text but I really enjoy the freedom of writing and illustrating my own work. It’s way more difficult creating my own books but when it works its very satisfying. Then it’s on to the next challenge—trying to make it happen again.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Yes, I scan my drawings, design the page, then color and collage the image in Photoshop. I like the freedom that the digital medium gives me, allowing me to change and refine my work. My greatest challenge is to make my work look and feel like it was done traditionally.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
Yes, I use a very out-of-date Wacom tablet. I really need to upgrade, so I’m told.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Yes, several over the years.
Do you have a studio in your house?
My studio is a cheerful room in our home with high ceilings and lots of northern light. I delight in entering my studio in the morning, mug of coffee in hand, and begin my work day with the studio filling with morning sunlight.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
Music and podcasts! When I’m writing a book I like to work in silence, but once the story is written and its time to lay out the illustrations, then music gets my creativity flowing. As I’m rendering final artwork podcasts help keep me engaged and energized as I work.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
Sometimes it’s a struggle to maintain a balance between life and work when I have back-to-back deadlines. I make sure to spend time outside everyday for exercise and to take a break. Walking my dog Wanda was the perfect way for me step away from my work but now that she has passed I have to make it a point to walk on my own. Walking outside helps inspire me and where most of my ideas originate. Its also important for me to stay in shape to be able to do my favorite activities—hiking and backpacking.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Absolutely, especially when it comes to research for an assignment. Before the internet, I would have to travel to the library and spend countless hours researching reference for an assignment. It still amazes me that I can search for anything, at any time, while sitting at my keyboard in my studio. Working digitally also allows me to upload my work and not have to manically rush to the nearest Fed Ex location in time to ship my artwork to a client!
What are your career goals?
I would love to continue doing what I’m currently doing—writing and illustrating picture books and working on other assignments from my agent. I’m very grateful to be doing what I’ve always wanted to do.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up illustrations for a 48 page picture book about Santa Claus and Christmas cookies.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
Never be afraid to experiment. If a blank piece of paper intimidates you, then make a mark on it. Voilà! Now its no longer a blank piece of paper. As a teacher once told me, it takes hundreds of bad drawings to make a good drawing. If you make a bad drawing then you are one drawing closer to making a good one. I like drawing on newsprint paper. It can be recycled, and if you should create something wonderful worth saving, then scan it and archive it. I use technology as a tool and not let it dictate the way I work. I have yet to discover a keyboard with a magic key or a tablet with a magic stylus that allows you to click and make a great piece of art.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
My favorite painting teacher at ArtCenter, Dan McCaw, told us students that “the beauty is in the journey”. As a student I didn’t know what the heck that meant, and I thought it was a silly comment. At that time my ‘journey’ was to make a great pieces of art, of course! Now I understand what he meant by that remark; revel in the process and the exploration. Be open to new ideas and experiences and learn to take the time to really look and listen. Stay true to yourself and your own unique stlye will blossum. Believe in your work, work hard, if something isn’t working be willing to find another solution– and you will succeed.
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.galgirlstudio.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!