Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 28, 2018

Illustrator Saturday – John Seckman

John Seckman was born in Nashville, Tennessee and grew up in a crowded house along with his seven siblings and two parents who encouraged creative activities to all of their kids. Perhaps this was a ploy to hide the fact that the television was usually broken. This led to a career in advertising and graphic design before becoming a faculty member at City College of San Francisco where he encourages creative activities to all of his students.

John enjoys illustrating with both traditional and digital tools—often combining the two. His interest is in creating unique characters to tell stories to kids of all ages.


Example of my process for the picture book, Jurassic Rat written by Eleanor Ann Peterson.

The manuscript did not contain page breaks so my first step was to figure out how to break up the story across the pages of the book. I use a thumbnail template to do this because it is easier for me to visualize the solution.

Once I have the page breaks figured out, I do very rough thumbnails on a blank template. It is probably impossible for anyone but me to understand these sketches, but that’s fine because they are intended for my eyes only. For me they are more about the action on each page rather than the composition.

Those first thumbnails are then used as reference for producing tighter digital thumbnails. This is when I start thinking about composition. The thumbnails are drawn in Photoshop and placed into an Illustrator template for sending to my client. I roughly place the text on each thumbnail.

After thumbnails are approved, I move on to full-size digital sketches. These sketches are produced with layers to make it easier for me to use them in producing final art. I can utilize most of the layers in these sketches, and it also makes revisions easier. I use separate layers for line art and “fill” colors. All of the elements are isolated on their own layers.

Final art is, in most cases, created by modifying the previous full-size sketch. Grays are converted to color, textures are added, and of course revisions are made.


How long have you been illustrating?

I began illustrating around 1989—mostly for advertising and marketing. I also did some editorial stuff. I am currently focusing my energies on breaking into picture books.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

I think my first paid illustration was a brochure cover for a conference in San Francisco. It was a conference for attorneys specializing in something or other. I remember it included a cable car—pretty cliché stuff.

Did you attend college to study art? If so, where and what was your major?

Yes, I went to several colleges before finally earning my degree. I began at a community college before transferring to the Atlanta College of Art, but I earned my BFA in Graphic Design/Illustration from Florida State University. After a long break, I returned to school and earned an MFA in Illustration from the University of Hartford five years ago.

What helped you develop you style?

It’s funny to talk about my style, because I don’t believe my work falls into a single definable style—it is something that is still evolving. Much of my work is line art and may be considered to be “cartoony”. This is because of my influences when I was young. I honed my skills by copying comics such as Peanuts or Mad magazine. I also follow many contemporary Illustrators from different genres and find inspiration in their work. The more we look, the more we absorb, and our work reflects that—even if we are not aware of it.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

It is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I was always preoccupied by other things. About two and a half years ago, I decided to get serious about it and joined the SCBWI, and also took a course from the Children’s Book Academy.

Do you live in the San Francisco area? When did you move there?

Yes, I moved to San Francisco over thirty years ago. It’s a great city.

How did you become a faculty member at the City College of San Francisco?

Interestingly, it was supposed to be a short-term gig. I substituted for a friend for a semester. I had never really considered teaching as a career path, but I found myself enjoying the classroom experience. A full-time position came open at the end of the semester. I applied and the rest is history.

Have you taken any classes to hone your children’s illustrating skills?

Yes, I took a course in graduate school—taught by Ted and Betsy Lewin. I also took the Children’s Book Academy’s Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books.

Which course has been most helpful in getting published and why?

The Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books course was most helpful. It was more in-depth and I learned a lot about how to approach stories, and illustrating for a younger audience. Since taking the course,I look at picture books with a more critical eye.

I hear you plan to give back to Children’s Book Academy students. Can you speak a little about that?

I have recorded a series of videos to teach students about Adobe Illustrator—from the basics to more advanced features of the software. I am I the final stages of editing these videos.

What types of things are you doing to get your children’s illustrations noticed?

I have a portfolio web site and post my work on various social media outlets. I also attend SCBWI events and participate in illustrator showcases.

Have you made a picture book dummy to show art directors?

Apart from the dummy that I created of Jurassic Rat for Mira Reisberg at Spork, no, I haven’t. So far, I have only shown a portfolio of my illustrations but after this book comes out I will have a book to show.

Do you have an artist rep. to represent your illustrations? If so, who and how long. If not, would you like to find one?

I do not currently have a rep. nor have I actively pursued any agents. I have shown my portfolio in several SCBWI showcases, and it would be great if an agent shows interest in representing me. I like to think that with this new book coming out, that it’s only a matter of time.

Have you done any book covers?

No, I haven’t. I am working on the cover for the book I am currently illustrating, but nothing else.

Do you have a daytime job or are you a full-time freelance illustrator?

I teach full-time. My illustration work is done after-hours.

Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

This is an interesting question. I have thought about this. I don’t really know much about self-publishing, but there do seem to be certain challenges such as marketing and distribution. It takes a lot of time to illustrate a book so it is important to me that any book I work on has a chance of being successful. I believe publishers, on average, are going to be much more successful marketing books than self-published authors, and that as an illustrator I will benefit more from working with a publishing company.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate you own book?

Yes, but I haven’t yet completed a manuscript that I’m ready to send out. I do enjoy working with a story written by someone else, but it piques my interest to explore what I can do as a writer/illustrator.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

No, I haven’t

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? Which ones?

Not yet. To be honest, I am not real familiar with the magazine publishers. I know of Highlights, Cricket and Ladybug, but haven’t read them (except for Highlights when I was a kid).

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

Yes, I have. I think it would be a fun challenge, and I am really impressed when I see it done well like The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee, or Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Oh boy, that is something I am still working on as an illustrator.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I prefer to work digitally, but I often use a hybrid technique where the line art is done with brush and ink and the color is added digitally. Depending upon the style, I may choose to work in either Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or both.

Has that changed over time?

I originally did most of my work in pen and ink, sometimes with watercolor added. So, the biggest change is the addition of a digital workflow which I went to fairly quickly after graduating from college. In the past couple of years, I have been migrating from a hybrid (ink + digital) to all digital.

Can you tell us a little about where you create your art?

My studio is in my house—it is in the back so I can be isolated from the rest of the activities going on. Of course, it is usually very messy. I have an area dedicated to digital work. I use a Wacom Cintiq connected to an iMac. The Cintiq is a display that I can draw directly onto. This allows for more natural drawing on the computer.

I also have an old-school drafting table for working with traditional mediums, and space for an easel for when I feel the urge to work with oils or acrylics.


Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

That would be a great luxury. My schedule changes several times throughout the year. There are periods when I can dedicate a lot of time to my art, but much of the year I have to shoehorn creative time into my routine.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Yes, reference is important. For my current project, Jurassic Rat, I spent time researching dinosaurs and plants from the era. Research can be interesting—it’s an opportunity to learn new things.

Sometimes I take photos of specific poses for reference. This can be particularly helpful when trying to get a hand right. Students are often surprised how easy it is to resolve a drawing issue by asking a friend to do a quick pose. After all, most of us have a camera on us all the time. Because of this, I will shoot potential reference when I am out and about. If I see an interesting person, pet, house, etc., I will take a photo to use as inspiration at a later time.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes, I think it has opened doors for many illustrators and other creatives. It is so much easier now to get work in front of an audience. There is very little cost—if any—associated with promoting oneself. Social media and personal websites are great ways to get your work online and to build a base of followers.

Additionally, there are so many resources available on the internet for learning new skills. YouTube has so many video tutorials for almost any topic that it can be overwhelming at times. There are many good videos, but I’ve also encountered some bad information. There are also interactive experiences such at the Children’s Book Academy,which has a systematic approach to teaching art and business skills along with conceptual ideas that also allows for lots of feedback.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop quite a bit. I have used Painter, but it has been many years since I’ve touched it.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

As mentioned previously, I regularly work on a Cintiq, but I do use a graphic tablet in the classroom. It is an Intuos Pro, medium size. I also travel with the tablet because the Cintiq is not portable. That being said, with my current project, Jurassic Rat written by Eleanor Ann Peterson, I have begun using my iPad Pro as a drawing tablet. There are a couple of software options that allow users to connect the iPad Pro as a graphics tablet. I use one called Duet.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

I probably have the same career dream as anyone else interested in children’s books—to win a Caldecott. When I start getting letters from kids who enjoy the books I work on, I’ll consider myself a success.

What are you working on now?

My current project is called Jurassic Rat. It’s a story about a prehistoric rat and his adventures as he forages for food to feed his family.

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.

Since I work mostly with digital tools, I don’t really have a lot of favorite materials. My favorite brush pen is a Kuretake No. 40 Fountain Brush Pen. I use various inks and watercolors to make texture for scanning and utilizing in my digital illustrations. Interestingly, the cheapest materials often yield the most interesting result. I sometimes work with paper scraps or found objects.


Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Be patient, persevere, study your craft, and network. It can take a while to find the right project, or collaborator. Not everyone is going to respond to your work, but if it’s good, there is an agent or publisher who will like it. I remember hearing Bryan Collier talk about how it took him seven years of persistence before he got a book deal. That’s a long time, but it paid off.

Thank you John for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. Let us know when your book comes out. To see more of John’s work, you can visit him at:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for John. I am sure she’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too.


Talk tomorrow,




  1. Reblogged this on Eleanor Ann Peterson and commented:
    Thanks to John Seckman my little Jurassic Rat came to life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: