Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 18, 2018

Illustrator Saturday – Greta Songe

I was born and raised in the bayou country of South Louisiana. After landing in Iowa for graduate school, I fell in love with the landscape, the sense of community, and the people. I currently live in Iowa with my husband and son.

I create artwork for surface design, home decor, editorial illustration, and children’s literature. My artwork is influenced by my experience as a printmaker and my love of texture and pattern. While I enjoy the flexibility inherent to digital processes, for me, it is essential to stay grounded in traditional studio practice and hands-on creating. Designs typically begin in the realm of drawing, painting, paper-cutting, or printmaking. Most designs are finished digitally, using it as an opportunity to fine tune compositions and color.

PROCESS INFO:

I will typically just doodle one particular creature, trying to work with different proportions and features each time I draw it just to play around. In the image below you can see all the various states of the lion I created. I finally landed on something I liked in the bottom right-hand corner of the first image below. Ultimately that’s the one that I based my final character on.

I often work with papercuts as a way to gather the basic shapes of my illustration. I find that the precision I get in doing that digitally is just too clean for me. I like the awkardness of hand-cutting the shapes and need a little grittiness in my process! Plus, it is a welcome break from working on the computer.  It can be a bit tedious and I don’t do it 100% of the time, but I really it.

I have plenty of textures and marks that I create by hand. I have a stockpile of these that I work with all the time once I get to the digital phase. There are so many digital tools now that mimic these, but I like the handmade quality of them and the uniqueness of creating my own textures. I layer them on top of the shapes I create or turn them into brushes in Photoshop. The bottom texture eventually became a tumbleweed in one of the Lion illustrations. And, who doesn’t love a good spatter?! That shows up all over the place in my work.

I scan everything in and usually compose digitally. I add color and texture. I play with proportion and add details to the illustrations.

After much editing, fine-tuning, and plenty of layers in Photoshop later, I arrive at my final design.

INTERVIEW WITH GRETA SONGE:

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been doing artwork in the illustration realm since about 2008. It started out as mostly work geared towards surface and print design and has evolved since then. In May of 2015, I went to my first SCBWI regional conference. So, in the six months prior to that I worked on getting together a cohesive portfolio that focused more on character design and illustrations that seemed fitting for the kid lit world. Lots of my pattern designs had characters in them, so it felt like a very natural next step and one I was excited to explore.

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

The first paintings I sold were when during my time as an Artist In Residence at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee. We had regular weekly open studios and a lot of people who were there attending the classes would come through. I sold small still life paintings. Before then, I was immersed in school and didn’t really sell my work. So, I was always super excited to have the work leave my studio and go into someone’s home. The first illustration job I got since beginning to work within this particular industry was with Faces Magazine. I met the fantastic Art Director, John Sandford, at a conference and he later offered me the opportunity to do an illustration for them in 2016.

Why did you choose to get your BFA Painting/Drawing Louisiana State University?

I was born and raised in South Louisiana, and  LSU was a short drive from home. It was just the right distance for me at that age. I could go home on the weekends if I was home sick, but still feel a sense of independence. I actually started school determined to be a Physical Therapist, but I sort of accidentally took a Printmaking class. (Thank goodness!)  It was then that I realized I needed to pursue Art instead. It just clicked as the right place for me. I took lots of Art classes there, including some with professor named Michael Crespo who ultimately became a really important mentor to me. He really helped guide me as a young artist, which was really fantastic especially since I didn’t come from a family where anyone else was an artist.

Suffragette Emily Davison

What made you decide to get an MFA in Painting with a minor in Printmaking from the University of Iowa? 

Actually, that same mentor from undergrad put the University of Iowa on my radar. When I graduated with my BFA, I was dead set on moving to the East Coast to go to graduate school. He suggested that I consider Iowa because it was a fantastic place for Painting and Drawing. I decided to visit and check it out. Much to my surprise, I instantly fell in love with Iowa City. It was new and different, but it also seemed very welcoming. I decided to move soon after and I began graduate school at the University of Iowa in the spring of 2001.

Did any of the schools help find illustration work for you?

No. Illustration wasn’t really my focus when I was in school. I did lots of oil painting and focused on observational painting, usually still life. I was always doing playful doodles and designs, and drawing characters during that time, but they never really had a home in the body of work I was making as a student. So, it wasn’t until many years after school that I became interested in illustration.

Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?

I definitely feel like the work that I made during that period and the range of classes that I took have led to my personal style. The still life paintings that I made as a student always contained lots of patterned fabrics and surfaces. I reached a point where I stopped painting those from life and just started making up my own patterns. So, that was a really direct path to how I became interested in surface and pattern design. Now, I find in my illustration work I am often trying to mimic a lot of the aesthetics that I love in printmaking or traditional painting even if I am working digitally. Also, I think the observational drawing and figure drawing classes I took,  play a big part in my ability to draw the things that are in my head. It’s also just given me a better understanding of creating form, understanding light, and creating space. I think that stuff all comes in when I’m creating illustrations.

When did you decide to use your illustrations for fabric, wallpaper, mugs, etc.?

That actually came first, even before kid lit illustrations. As I mentioned, I was creating patterns for my still life paintings and then realized—“Oh, this is a thing!” I hadn’t really been aware of that realm of art-making before then. Around 2010, I began entering weekly contests on Spoonflower as a way to get involved, stay motivated, challenge myself, and gauge how people responded to my designs. I didn’t know anything about creating repeats. So, I dove into that process and learned a lot from resources that I could find online and the community on Spoonflower. Currently, I am trying to carry more designs through print-on-demand services like Society6, although I would definitely like to license more of them for things like home décor, children’s décor and clothing, etc. on a larger scale. I really love seeing my patterns on actual products and I want them to live out there in the world with other people. It’s a good process for me as a designer too. It helps me be more considerate at times when I am designing. Whether it’s thinking about how a design would work in a book, on a mug, a shower curtain, a shirt, or a backpack, it provides an extra level of awareness that is helpful if one wants to create marketable work. Context can be super important.


Do you design greeting cards?

I haven’t made designs specifically for greeting cards lately. It’s just not something I am focusing on currently.

How did you get the job as Assistant Professor of Art at Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa?

From 2007-2010, I was teaching full time in Florida and left that job to be with my partner, John Martinek, who is also an artist. It was my first full-time teaching job, so it was a risk to resign from there. However, I was very lucky that a job opened up in the area and I applied. I was teaching as an adjunct already, so I had experience at the school. I went through the interview process, and I was offered the job. I am about to begin my 7th year of teaching there.

When did you decide that you wanted to illustrate for children?

It was something I always wanted to do from a pretty young age. I put it aside as a goal as I was going to school for Painting and Drawing and really up until 2014 when I had my son, Emmett. After having him, I was suddenly immersed in that world of children’s books, reading book after book after book. It reignited that passion and reminded me of why I love illustration so much.

In 2013,I had the pleasure of meeting illustrator, Jennifer Black Reinhardt when we both had booths at a local artisans fair. She told me about SCBWI. It was in the back of my head for a while, and after having Emmett, I signed up for our regional conference. I signed up for a portfolio review at the conference too. I learned so much at that meet-up and it really helped me realize that this was the right home for some of my work. It was seriously, pretty magical to realize this was the perfect home for a lot of the characters I would compulsively doodle in my sketchbooks. Drawing characters and scenes for this realm of illustration just made me so happy.

Have you made a book dummy to help sell a book idea?

I have not. I have a couple of ideas rolling around, but have really just remained focused on illustration as of late.

Have you illustrated a picture book? If so, how did that book come your way?

I have not, but I would love to.

Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how long have you been with them. If not, would you be interested in having one?

I do not. I would definitely be interested. I think having a an artist rep is the logical next step for me.  I love illustration and want to do more of it. I do a lot of direct emails, and have sent a few rounds of postcards. I really feel that having a rep would be a good step at this juncture to help me navigate the business side of this process more effectively. Their ability to promote my work in new ways and open the door to more opportunities would be a welcome addition. I think having a rep who has an eye for connecting the work I make to the right projects would be really fantastic and helpful.

Have you done any book covers?

I have not.

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

I would consider it.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

I have not.

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

Yes, I have a had the pleasure of working with Faces magazine.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own children’s book?

Absolutely. It is not something I am intensely focused on currently, but there are seeds there that I hope to grow eventually.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

Yes. I really love the storytelling potential of illustrations alone.  

What is your favorite medium to use?

I love to draw. My favorite pens are a Papermate Flair felt tip pen and a Pentel brush pen. Lately, I’ve been really into Caran d’Ache Classic Neocolor crayons. They feel like crayons for adults. 🙂 I love the grainy texture and high pigmentation of those.

Has that changed over time?

Yes, definitely. I change up what I use in my processes regularly. I used to do mostly papercuts to establish forms and figures in the illustrations. I use more variety now. I also use digital processes a fair amount. I work in bits and pieces, creating the original sketches and layouts by hand, as well as shapes and textures, knowing the final composition will happen digitally. This gives me some flexibility and leaves space in creative process for surprises when I put it all together in Photoshop or Illustrator. I love the happy accidents that can happen in both realms. That is an important part of my process.

Can you tell us a little bit about your studio?

My partner, John,  and I both have studios at our house. Both are repurposed bedrooms in the basement. My space is a mess most of the time. I fluctuate between painting, drawing, printing, digital, and I also like to sew. So, all of those things coexist in that space—sort of. I often work at the kitchen table when I am home alone because the lighting is much better. In the winter I retreat to the studio more often.

Are you active in your SCBWI Chapter? If so, have they helped open any doors for you?

I am. I would like to be more active. I haven’t been able to attend meet-ups as I’d like. I’m about an hour and a half away from where they usually happen which is often tricky for me.  They are really the reason I am pursuing this. Jennifer Black Reinhardt’s initial suggestion to look into SCBWI, our local conferences, and just the support and advice they have offered so freely anytime I have reached out is fantastic. They are a super talented group, and inspire me to push myself in the field.

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

I don’t have a very strict schedule. I try to just be making work regularly even when I don’t have deadlines. I feel like I grow the most when I am working consistently.

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

I often will collect photos and read up on whatever the topic may be that I am illustrating. I take photos and do some really simple Google searches just to get familiar with the subject or topic. Even if I think I am really familiar with something I need to draw, I like to look at a few images anyway. There are so many little nuances and subtle characteristics I discover when I really look at something. That always adds character to my illustrations.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely. It has created a point of connection to like-minded folks. I have joined Facebook group and learned about various opportunities via online research. It is how I research publishers, utilize SCBWI resources, sift through Instagram to discover new artists, and how I am able to share my work with a larger audience.

What do you think is your biggest success?

I am really proud of my illustrations for Faces magazine. Since that was the first major opportunity I had in this field, it really stands out for me. I am most proud though of my growth as an illustrator. Looking back on the work I made just a few years ago, I can really see growth and improvement. I am soaking up all I can along the way, and it feel great to see my work improve over time. My goal is to always have that be the case. I always want to look back at my work from a year ago and be able to see that I have continued to grow.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop.

How often do you use your printmaking skills with your illustrating?

I feel like it is embedded in the work I make. The textural aspects, potential of layering, and my love of the look of a monotype or woodcut shows up in my work a lot.

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

I use a Wacom Intuos 4.

How do you find places to exhibit your art?

I have been lucky that over the last two years I have been invited to show my work. Most recently I had a show with the University of Iowa Museum of Art featuring my Accumulation drawings and prints. In the upcoming month, I will show my work at the college where I teach.

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

Yes, I want to illustrate children’s books, work with educational publishers, and do more work with magazines. I’d also love to see my patterns licensed for products for kids or home decor on a larger scale outside of the print on demand services.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I am preparing work to show at my upcoming exhibit at Kirkwood Community College. I’m also in the process of getting a round of postcards sent out to publishers. Other than that, I have a few more ideas for illustrations I would like to add to the Lion and Bird sequence, as well as another scene featuring Hippo and his little friend. 

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.

My favorite drawing tool is a Pentel Brush Pen. The fact that it’s a real brush and can be refilled is perfect. There is so much potential for line quality in one tool. I love that. Really dry scrubby marks or really thin fluid lines using just the very tip of the brush are both possible. It’s portable without having to carry around a container of ink too. Not that I’ve ever spilled ink in my bag or anything! 😉  

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

The advice that I follow is just to stick to it and keep a steady pace. I wouldn’t consider myself a “success”, but I have hit a few goals that I set out for myself. I really believe you have to be resilient and persistent. In other areas of my life, I have witnessed effort over time paying off. I hope that’s the case in this field too!  

Thank you Greta for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Greta’s work, you can visit her at: 

https://gretasonge.com/home.html
https://society6.com/gsonge
https://www.spoonflower.com/profiles/gsonge

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

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. what a wonderful and personal background story – what beautiful work

    Like

  2. Hi guys!
    I’m so excited to be featured here on the blog. Just a quick note, there are two images above that are not mine (the sea scene and the fox mother) One is by Jil McElmurry and the other by Charlie Harper. They are certainly inspirations but definitely not my work ! 🙂

    Like

    • This mistake was corrected.

      Like

      • Thanks Kathy!

        Like

  3. I could look at her work for hours! So playful and fun!

    Like

    • Thanks so much Sharann. I love that the playfulness comes through.

      Like

  4. Greta is one of my favorite artists! I adore her work and can not wait to see her books for children!

    Like

    • Right back at you Rahele! Thanks so much!

      Like

  5. What a lovely piece! We have so many of the same dreams and aspirations it’s wonderful to read all about yours and see your beautiful work.

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    • Thanks Mackinzie!

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  6. I enjoyed reading this article, Greta, and learning about the path you took after LSU! You are so talented! I also loved Michael Crespo- he was one of my advisors on my senior thesis for Interior Design (as I was designing an art gallery). I was so sad to hear when he passed. Anyway, I adore your work, and I’ll definitley keep an eye on what you’re developing for future work!
    XOXO,
    Chloe

    Like

  7. I like the playful way you blend letters, numbers and phrases into your art. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Fun illustrations, Greta! I’m a former Iowan; my parents live in Newton. Was just there during summer. There’s a wonderful SCBWI group in Des Moines. I met some of them.

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  9. I discovered your work in a SpoonFlower catalogue and am a big fan. I’m a graphic designer and we share many similar sensibilities and style (tho I prefer Illustrator over Photoshop 🙂 Your interview is fabulous… articulate, generous, and insightful. Here’s wishing you continued enjoyment and success.

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    • Wow! Thanks Carol. That’s so kind. I must have missed that Spoonflower feature. Do you recall which catalogue it was? I’d love to know!

      Like

  10. Reblogged this on sketchuniverse and commented:
    👧👦👶THANK YOU KATHY, THANK YOU GRETA, WITH THIS ART, I’M BACKING TO THE CHILDHOOD.

    Like


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