I’m back with another Wednesday series of interviews with published and unpublished illustrators whose work I admire. So prepare to be wowed by the skill and fascinated by their process and passions as we get a glimpse into their lives and art.
Today I am kicking off with a fellow 12×12 member and someone whose career I have been following for a while – Kathryn Ault Noble.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[KAN] Pictures. I start the morning with scribbles and doodles. Words when I am ready to develop a potential character from my morning scribblings. I am hopefully moving towards illustrator/author and have written out a couple of manuscripts. I did a pitch to one of the mentors at LA and got a thumbs up so am working out the dummy book now.
[JM] Big congratulations on being a winner of an SCBWI illustrator mentorship. What will this involve? And good luck with the dummy you are working on!
[KAN] Thank you! I am so grateful to be included in such a powerhouse of mentees, both current and previous. I am still in disbelief and wonderment! You can probably tell from this photo I was one happy camper.
As to what it will involve, the Mentorship happens at the conference. They pulled us out of the conference on Sunday morning and spent time discussing our portfolios. Each one of us received a fifteen minute critique from each of the six mentors! That evening we gathered again for a debriefing to see if we needed clarification from anyone, as sometimes there is contradictory information. But this year we all agreed that we were given basically the same information from each mentor! That in itself is a relief. Our directives were very clear at LA and I know exactly what to do as I march forth. The mentoring is officially over at the end of the conference, however we are supposed to feel free to contact the mentors at least through the full year, if not “forever”. You can’t pay for that! This Fall the “Mentee Tribe” as hosted so generously by David Diaz will be gathering in the Northeast for a tour of the Eric Carle museum and other exciting opportunities.
What did I learn? During the timed mentor round tables, or speed dating as I call it, Cecelia Yung, AD, Penguin rightly said I still have too many styles in my portfolio. I was afraid of that, so I was hoping someone would throw a dart and say, “this, do this one right here, Kathryn”. Fortunately David Diaz told me I could have two styles. Yay! I have such a hard time picking just one style, like children I love them all, but I don’t have any trouble maintaining one once I start with it. One mentor had suggested I could drop the backgrounds out for a look more appropriate to picture books. So I’ll have one style that has full backgrounds with more detail, and another that is “fresher” with just characters. Did I mention what a relief it is to have such clear direction. . . it’s like permission to raise anchor and move out of the harbor, full steam ahead! I sketched out the following of a shy child today just for your interview. . . I don’t normally illustrate my inner child!
[JM] It’s exciting for me to read what clear direction this mentorship is giving you already, Kathryn! Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[KAN] When I first started doing illustrations back in the late 80s/early 90s, I was using watercolor/gouache and color pencils on 300lb Lanaquarelle HP. At that time I was being represented by Susan Trimpe in Seattle (who also repped Nina Laden, so we were stable mates but did not meet until my first SCBWI conference). Susan was bringing me educational illustrations for MacMillan/Houghton Mifflin/McGraw Hill. I also did some “ghost” illustrating for one of Susan’s illustrators when he became too busy. One project was for Scholastic, all I had to do was match his style, and I think we got away with it. shhh! However when the Art Institute of Seattle called and asked me to teach an Intro to Advertising class, I ended up teaching full-time and was unable to maintain my freelance. I switched to all digital in 1995 using Photoshop 2.5 (no undo and no layers) and FreeHand mostly for the Typography and Design classes I taught. But I heard something about using a stylus and tablet, so I bought a Wacom tablet and started teaching myself how to paint with Photoshop and later Painter. I ended up teaching digital painting in the animation/game arts program for many years at the school until I retired in 2009.
I joined SCBWI about five years ago. I have been slowly pulling out the traditional materials and at least starting with them before transferring to digital. I love graphite pencils so part of finding my “style” involved realizing I missed just good old fashioned pencil sketching. Shaun Tan of course is one of my heroes. To add color without going too far back into real watercolor (a demanding lover), I filled a bunch of empty waterbrushes with inks in my favorite color palette. This allows me to put down color quickly as I test out an image without seizing up over my brain whining “watercolor is very special and requires much mastery to use”. Let’s just say I have put the fun back in my art. Not that I haven’t been using Photoshop heavily for final illustrations, but I was recently encouraged by E.B. Lewis during the mentoring round table to move all the way back to all traditional. He said I will someday have done 25 books and won’t have any originals to put in museums or sell to collectors. I know he said that, but I think he told all the mentees the same thing like a good grandmother. However I did write it on a slip of paper and tucked it under my pillow like a kid with a new birthday toy.
I built a new portfolio this year for the LA conference which was filled with traditional pencil and primarily digital color. The pencil work was mostly cross-hatch, but I knew I was working too tightly so did the final piece in a looser manner. Sure enough that last illustration received the most mentor fingers tapping on it.
I cannot tell you how much it has meant to me to have a direction affirmed by industry pros I admire so much. When Laurent Linn commented during my paid crit “you have a unique voice and a strong portfolio”, I almost fainted with joy! I actually did a happy dance out in the hall afterwards. And that was before hearing my name called during the illustration awards presentation. Laurent felt the gorilla and dog illustration had resolved many of the issues he could see I was struggling with in other portfolio pieces. So getting back into the studio after LA, I have been loosening up by holding the pencils differently and scribbling more with blunt pencil tips. It’s hard to cross-hatch with a worn down 8B pencil! I’ve also been amping up the black to increase the contrast that Paul O. Zelinsky said was missing in several of my pieces. Always, it’s always missing. Even my father told me back in the 80s that my new illustration work was too low contrast. I think it feels more comforting to me, which is funny for a graphic designer who did all of those high contrast black and white logos. Maybe having low contrast illustrations was my respite.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[KAN] As far as I know, drawing was just a normal part of my life from day one. My father was a science teacher and had ideas ahead of his time. He did not allow my brother and I to have coloring books so I was forced to do my own drawings. At the time I thought it was mean, but I eventually came to realize what a gift he had given me! After the second grade when my art was voted by the other kids to be the winner of an art contest, I was hooked for life on art! Being a terribly shy kid at a new school, that vote of confidence was huge. After winning another art contest in a later grade, a savvy librarian had me pegged and handed me A Wrinkle in Time. This sent me off on an adventure of reading every bit of science fiction I could find in the school library. I continued to bury myself in art and won the art award in high school so ended up heading into graphic design. I was an art director in a design firm, later freelancing while my sons were young. After moving to Seattle and realizing there was a strong market for illustration, I begin to teach myself by doing copy work of children’s books, especially those of Tomie dePaola. This would lead to landing a line of greeting cards with Lucy Rigg the famed teddy bear lady. Eventually I had enough of a portfolio to be represented by Susan Trimpe. So when the Art Institute of Seattle called and asked me to teach an advertising design class, I initially turned them down, but changed my mind and am glad I did! I loved teaching and remained at the school for 14 years. Now I am on the next leg of my adventures into the exciting world of children’s book illustration. Hopefully!
[JM] Cats or Dogs?
[KAN] Goats! Actually last Summer at this time I was finding new humans for my cat, goats, chickens, and rabbits as I prepared for moving across the country to be closer to my mother, my greatest fan and cheerleader. The only animals I have now are the crickets outside!
I miss them all very much, but I have easily doubled my art time which has it’s own rewards. The photos I took over the last seven years are not only fun trips down memory lane, they are great reference! When I was growing my own food, I kept pulling up mutant carrots and the temptation was just too great, so I created a variety of silly vegetable characters. But I’ve noticed carrots in the grocery store here only have one leg!
[JM] Wow, what a big change of location, but so often these huge upheavals bring so many unexpected blessings! I know what it is to leave garden and animals for a big move. I loves these photos! So, tell us about your old and new work spaces.
[KAN] Until recently I was living in the Pacific Northwest. After living on Bainbridge Island for 22 years, I had moved into a 3,300 sq foot barn with great views out over my organic gardens, a creek, in an historic Scandinavian farming valley. It was a great place to have a studio! I could see several barns from my windows along with my rascally goats and odd ball chickens, and it was so quiet! The loudest sounds were birds and bees. Oh, and a few cows and one horse. When I was outside if the horse whinnied, I whinnied right back. That was fun.
My new studio is the bare minimum of what I was willing to move cross country, but of course my bowl of rocks came with me! The walls are begging to have the cork board hung so I can pin my inspirations back up.
The computer station is in another room. I intentionally keep it out of my studio to minimize time spent dropping into the blue hole. But I use the wifi to keep a phone active in the studio if I need to do image research on an animal or answer a quick email.
I sold most of my books at my big auction, but fortunately I stumbled across a giant sale of former library books right after I moved. There was a treasure trove of children’s books from the 50s, with many Caldecott winners and honors. I have been filling pages of copywork from Bill Peet, Wallace Tripp, Robert McCloskey, Roger Duvoisin, Evaline Ness, Miriam Schlein, Felix Hoffman. . . and so many more!
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[KAN] After creating an initial sketch I lay a sheet of sheer tracing paper over the top. Using a folding bone (even a fingernail will do) I press back and forth on the tracing paper which transfers the graphite to the back of the sheet. I then place the tracing paper over a clean piece of illustration board or HP watercolor paper and press the graphite from the back of the sheet. After the image is transferred, first I flatten the end of a piece of kneaded rubber eraser and gentle tap out any areas where the graphite is too heavy. With this clean sketch I work into it with 2B lead in a mechanical pencil. After that I work heavier black in with a Faber Castel Design Ebony Jet Back Extra Smooth 6325. Once I have the basic image sketched in, I use ink washes loaded into a waterbrush, however if I plan to use pastels for texture, I rub those in first. At this point I can lay tracing paper over the top and repeat the transfer process. Within a short time I can produce a series of similar images with variations in color or texture, while correcting the image as I go along.
Once I have the design worked out, I use the same process to create the final art. The extras go into plastic sheets that I store in binders. I generally fill one binder per month and often flip through them looking for ideas that I might want to revive. The stack of leather binders in this photo have been filled this year.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[KAN] Animals are a mainstay, although not always “normal”. I like to play with Odd balls. Mutants. The Disenfranchised. Usually dressed in 19th Century or early 20th Century Clothing. And hats! I love hats. When I grew up children wore hats on holidays, along with white gloves so that tends to come out in my illustrations. However over the last year I have been working on bringing normal human children into my portfolio, well mostly normal. Only recently have I been exploring my own childhood for characters which is somewhat risky but the results are emotionally rich.
Most mornings I start the day by filling a page of oddball animals I “see” in my shaggy ‘magic rug’. Over the years I have done massive amounts of copywork to teach myself various illustration techniques so of course all of that information is stored in my head and comes out in odd combinations.
From time to time a character jumps out as something I want to explore further. These explorations go into the binders for visiting at another time as potential characters in stories I am working on. Generally they are mutant animals with a nod towards one particular species. If I decide to pursue one, I generally do image searches for similar animals in the real world, although I try to retain the quirkiness of the original sketches. I love this type of freeform brainstorming and often get tickled at some of the silly creatures I see in textures and clouds. Such an endless source of inspiration!
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[KAN] Most of my acquired art over the years was removed from frames and wrapped up between sheets of illustration board when I moved. I may not reframe them for a while only because I love seeing new work on the walls. My most recent studio hanging was an original by the delightful Lucy Ruth Cummins, AD at Simon Schuster. I had the pleasure of meeting Lucy in a SCBWI Master Class on year. I need to pick up two more pieces from the frame shop by Nina Laden and Judy Schachner. Nina gave me a wonderful pie illustration as a going away present when I left Seattle, heading for Bloomington/Normal, Illinois. Bloomington is “close to normal.” We had a few laughs over that one! Judy gave me a sketch she was doodling while waiting her turn to speak at the LA SCBWI conference. With the exception of being awarded a mentee position, meeting Judy was definitely a highlight for me. There is something about having an original illustration, you can see the actual strokes, and of course there just has to be a smidgeon of DNA somewhere on there. These ladies inspire and keep me company while I work.
Fun Ones to Finish?
JM: Name the first thing that comes to mind:
Park– Green (at least the ones in the Great Pacific NorthWet)
Grandma– True Soul Food
Holy Grail– The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (and yes, I have the slippers)
Blue– Something I did not get enough of for almost 30 years in the Great Pacific NorthWet!
Soccer– Something healthy people do who aren’t cave trolls
Ally– McBealisms “Remember, when you’re with me, it’s the only time you’re not the strangest person in the room.”
I am ramping back up on social media now that I am back from LA, so keep an eye out for new blog posts, follow me, message me, and friend me!
Mentee Blog: http://kidlitartists.blogspot.ca/p/2014-mentees.html
Kathryn, you have set the bar very high with this terrific first interview of the season. Thank you so much for the time you invested in the answers and accompanying illustrations and photos. You have given us a wonderful glimpse into your life and work and I wish you all success in the future, especially in this mentor year!