Tracy Nishimura Bishop is a children’s book illustrator working in San Jose, CA. She grew up in a U.S. Army base in Japan from the age of 5 through 13 and got hooked on drawing when she won an art contest in Kindergarten.
As a kid, she LOVED reading lots of Japanese manga instead of English books. This became a problem at school when my Japanese became better than my English.
She attended San Jose State University and enrolled in the animation/illustration program because she wanted to become a Disney animator. She quickly discovered that she didn’t like doing animation at all but loved telling stories with illustrations instead. After graduating, Tracy worked as a designer for ten years at places like Gymboree and the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose.
These days you can find her working at home drawing and painting away. Her daily inspirations are my son, husband, and a hairy dog named Harry.
Here is Tracy explaining her process:
I’ve included process files for a promo illustration I did for my artists’ rep. The first file is a video of how I did the sketching, inking, and color blocking on the iPad Pro. The color blocking is done in wacky colors because once I move that file into the computer, I use those blocks to make layer masks. It helps separate the different parts of the illustration into separate layers.
The second process photo shows how things are in layers and the program I use. The finished painting is done in Clip Studio Paint on my Cintiq.
Here is the finished illustration.
Here is a view of my work space.
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been illustrating professionally for 5 years. But I’ve been drawing since I was little and majored in Illustration at college.
What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
Hmmm… This question is a little difficult since I worked as a graphic designer for many years and always tried to incorporate my illustrations in projects. But my first illustration for a children’s publication that I was paid to do was for High Five Magazine in 2012.
What made you choose to attend San Jose State University?
All of my reasons were very boring and practical. SJSU was close to my home, affordable, and gave me lots of options if I wanted to change my major. At that time SJSU was one of the few places that had both graphic design AND illustration programs so I felt like I had room to explore.
Why did you choose to study animation there?
When I entered the illustration program, the department just transitioned from teaching only illustration to becoming more of a hybrid program with a heavier emphasis on animation. I loved the idea of going into animation but I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me.
Do you think art school influenced your style?
Even though I didn’t like doing animation, I LOVED that my school drilled figure drawing and animal drawings skills into us. Having the years of anatomy knowledge and being able to draw quickly are skills I depend on for my career.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
I was a web designer for a Silicon Valley tech startup when I just graduated. After that I worked as a print graphic designer for various companies.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
During my elementary school years I lived in Japan. So instead of reading picture books, I was immersed in Japanese manga and anime. I wanted to draw like the manga artists that I was reading. It wasn’t until college that I rediscovered picture books and fell in love with them.
Do you have an Artist Rep. to represent you? How did you meet and how long have they represented you?
Yes. I’m represented by Mela Bolinao of MB Artists. I’ve admired a lot of the illustrators that she represented for a long time. When I finally had a children’s illustration portfolio website up, I sent a postcard to Mela. She responded to the postcard and signed me on. I’ve been part of MB Artists for almost 5 years now.
Was NOT THE QUITTING KIND your first illustrated picture book?
Yes, it was! This picture book came at a perfect time for me. My son was going through a phase of quitting all sorts of activities when he couldn’t do it perfectly the first time. I was talking about this subject a lot so the manuscript felt very close to home for me.
How did that opportunity come your way?
Through my artist rep.
It looks like you have done a few Critter Club book with Little Simon. How many have you illustrated?
I have illustrated five Critter Club books so far. I really enjoy drawing the characters for this book. It feels very close to how I used to draw manga as a kid. The Little Simon team are fantastic to work with as well.
How did that job come your way?
The team at Little Simon reached out to my artist rep. I did some character design tests and found that I was a good fit. The tricky thing about working on a series with an already established art style was to come up with characters that still look like I drew them while not looking totally different from the previous style.
Then you have another series Dance Divas with Bloomsbury. Do these book also have B&W interior art?
No, Dance Divas only had tiny chapter opener illustrations in the interior and that was it. I mainly did the cover art for that series. It was really fun to come up with the character design with the art director. I watched a lot of YouTube and Instagram videos of dancers to try to incorporate a sense of motion to those illustrations. I became a fan of various ballet companies because of the research and still follow a lot of the dancers on Instagram.
Then on top of working on Critters and Divas you have illustrated a number of Meri’s Mirror chapter books written by Jan Fields during the same time. Can you tell us a little bit about these three series? How long does it take to illustrated them?
Meri’s Mirror is the first project where I got to illustrate b & w interiors for a series. There were 4 books in this series with about 10 illustrations per book. It was a great learning experience in terms of keeping characters consistent yet varied in every book.
Dance Divas was very different in that it only involved covers. The first two covers took the longest because the art director and I worked a lot on establishing how the characters looked. After that the sketch stage for the covers became easier since a lot of the look was already established.
Critter Club came a couple of years after Meri’s Mirror and Dance Divas. It was also the first time that I’ve worked on a book that already had a well established look. The challenge was to have the drawings look like my style but not drastically different than the previous style. Unlike the other chapter books I’ve worked on Critter Club is very labor intensive. Each book has about 90-95 illustrations so it takes a lot longer to finish each book.
You had three picture books come out in 2016. Was it hard to get those done with your other projects?
Juggling multiple projects is always a challenge. I try to manage it by only combining smaller projects with larger projects with the deadlines spread apart. Sometimes, it doesn’t quite work so perfectly and that’s when late nights come in. I think I did a lot of late nights that year 🙂
What is your latest picture book? – title, publisher, etc.
I have two picture books coming out this year. Pipsie, Nature Detective: Turtle Trouble, written by Rick DeDonato and published by Two Lions, is coming out late September. Snowball Moon, written by Fran Cannon Slayton and published by Little Bee Books, is coming out early November.
How many books have you illustrated?
I think I’ve illustrated 24 books so far. There is probably a couple more since I’ve done a few early reader booklets for educational publishers.
Have you illustrated any book covers for novels?
No, I haven’t. It would be great to do that one of these days.
Would you like to write and illustrate a children’s book?
Would you be open to illustrating a book for an author who wants to self-publish?
Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?
What educational publishers have you worked with?
Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Heinemann, Scholastic, McGraw Hill, Learning A-Z, ABC Mouse. I’m probably missing a few. I really enjoy illustrating for education clients. I like the idea that my illustrations might be helping kids in classrooms enjoy reading more. My son had a rough start learning how to read in kindergarten so I really appreciated the early reader resources.
Have you ever illustrated something for a children’s magazine?
Yes. I’ve illustrated for Highlights, High Five, Highlights Hello!, and The Friend.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I create promo illustrations four times a year for my art rep. She creates catalogs to send to editors and art directors containing samples from all of her artists. I also try to be active on social media, although I’ve been bad that lately. When work gets busy, the first thing I drop is postings on social media…
What is your favorite medium to use?
I paint digitally for all of my professional work. I like playing with watercolor and gouache in my sketchbook.
Has that changed over time?
I used to paint with watercolor more. But once my son was born, the studio became his bedroom. I live in a small townhouse so having a watercolor setup that I had to constantly pack and unpack became impractical. During that time I started experimenting more and more with a digital process since it was easier to paint in little bits of time while taking care of my family.
Do you have a studio set up in your home?
Yes. I have a computer desk next to our dining table.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Can my computer and Cintiq count as one thing? I can’t work without both of them 😉
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I don’t have a strict schedule for working on my craft. I seem to do a lot of it while taking little breaks during projects. When I’m on a deadline I’d procrastinate and do little sketches for about 5 minutes before getting back to work. Doing the little procrasti-sketching breaks seems to helps me try new things like new digital brushes or character designs. Sometimes it’s good that playing with traditional tools gives me eyes a break from the screen.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I do a lot of research while sketching projects. I have Pinterest Boards set up for all of my books. It’s a good place where I can gather research I find online or from books I check out at the library.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Yes! In 2010 I joined Twitter and found a whole group of children’s book illustrators. They were so welcoming and I learned so much about the business through them. In the beginning, I had so many questions about publishers, marketing, computer stuff. Everyone has been so generous with their time and patience. It’s been so wonderful to be part of the online kidlitart community.
Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?
I use a program called Clip Studio Paint. http://www.clipstudio.net/en
Clip Studio Paint works a lot like Photoshop but it’s made only for digital artists. I know people can be intimidated by this program because it’s heavily marketed as a manga creation tool but most of the features are for digital painting. All of my books are made using this program. I like that you can deal with very large files and there is no lag at all. The brush engine is really powerful so it’s easy to customize your brushes. You can import and export Photoshop (PSD) files so creating final art for clients is not a problem.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
Yes, I can’t live without my Cintiq. Once I started doing all of the phases of my illustrations digitally I felt like I needed to invest in a tablet monitor. I also got an iPad Pro a year ago to be able to do work away from the computer desk. One of the bad things about being at the desk so much is you get easily get stress injuries. If I’m not careful my I lower back, neck, or arm starts hurting. Having an iPad helps me vary how I work so it helps with keeping the pain away. The iPad Pro also helps me work a bit while I’m waiting around to pick my son up from school.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I eventually want to be an author/illustrator. I’m really intimidated by the writing part but I’m finally trying it this year. I also want to keep on improving as an artist. I always feel like I have so much more to learn and improve as an illustrator.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working illustrations for a new chapter book series and an app.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
I’ve done a couple of demo videos of how I illustrate digitally here: https://vimeo.com/user5492964. They are a couple of years old but I still paint the same way.
I’ve also been practicing inking with a nib and fountain pens on this printer paper: https://www.amazon.com/HP-Premium-Choice-Laserjet-Letter/dp/B000099O2W/ref=pd_nav_hcs_bia_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=V5SX0B973WR2HS3BQ41G. I was so thrilled to find a printer paper that takes inks really well without bleeding or feathering.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
I know this sounds so trivial but you need to keep on exercising and stretching. You spend very long hours sitting in one spot and moving your arms while drawing an paining. I’ve developed problems with lower back pain, wrist pain, and eye strain. The good thing is once I started exercising and taking regular breaks, these problems went away. I also have a sit/stand desk to help with my back. Most of the professional illustrators I know have experienced similar work injuries. There are a lot of artists who’ve had cases bad enough where it has interfered with work. If you want a successful career, you have to take care of your body first.
Thank you Tracy 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 Tracy’s work, you can visit her at her website: http://www.tracybishop.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Tracy. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!