Jim Harris Talks About ...
A Day in the Life of an Illustrator
If you’ve thought about becoming an illustrator, you might have wondered what day-to-day life would be like, and what skills you’d need for the job.
Well, no two days are the same.
And some of the tasks are pretty mundane.
The other day I had to put up an extra blind on one of my studio windows because the summer light was angling in and hitting my computer screen just wrong. So it helps to know how to use a screwdriver.
Sometimes I have to cut plywood to the right size as backing for watercolor paper. At which point it helps to know how to use a circular saw.
Every so often I’ll go out to get reference photos. I might run out to a pig farm to take pictures of little piggies… for a Three-Little-Pigs book. In this case it helps to know how to use a camera (and own a pair of good rubber boots).
If I’m looking for a model for a book, I’ll have to write some ad copy describing the look I’m after (say, “seven years old with red hair and freckles, preferably missing a tooth”). And then interview people who are interested in the job. Unfortunately a lot of people who know very well they aren’t seven-with-freckles apply… just hoping to get a chance to model for SOMETHING!
There are times I’ll spend a few hours at the library checking out books… to get a little background info for paintings about, say, dinosaurs or princess costumes. It helps to know how to find books at the library and not be shy around librarians— they know where ALL the books with dino pictures are.
Sometimes I take a day and work on finding props for my illustrations. Right now I’m searching for a fuzzy striped sock and an old-timey red-and-blue quilt for a book cover I’m designing. Once I find them I’ll get them draped and folded for the best effect and take photos to work from.
And then there are the “real art” parts of the job:
Developing the characters for a new book is one of my favorite parts. I sit around with my forehead screwed up trying to think of a whole bunch of expressions and body shapes and clothing styles for each character and sketching out possibilities and showing them to my family to see if any of them produce the right reaction. Mostly I’m looking for “WOW DAD, that’s fabulous.”
And then I scan the sketches and send them off to the publisher… hoping again to get the same reaction. (Well, not the DAD bit… )
Another fun part is working out the page designs. I have to choose what parts of the text to focus on in each illustration… and then use my imagination to add details and scenery. So it helps to be good at daydreaming.
I work especially hard on giving the spreads a lot of variety. I might do a page with a character close up “in your face” and then one with the characters fairly small compared to their surroundings. Then a page that has color bleeding off all four edges followed by one that has just a spot illustration surrounded by oodles of white space. Then those sketches get emailed to the publisher. At this point it helps to have a fast internet connection... and a good scanner.
Usually the publisher asks for some changes to the page sketches… Stuff like: “Could we see more of Jack’s face on page 3?” (Yep.) “Does the wolf look too scary on spread 8?” (Well, I thought that was how he was supposed to look! But I can tone it down if you think it will scare people.) “Did you really mean for the librarian to be bald on the title page? (Um, no, let me look at that… oh, sorry, I forgot to sketch that in… trust me, she’ll have hair in the final.) That kind of stuff. It helps not to be too touchy about people criticizing your masterpieces.
It can take a few days (or weeks) for a publisher to get around to commenting on your sketches, so that gives me a few free days to tend to other business.
Essentials like… ordering paper and paint and brushes and ink and pencils and erasers… and making sure we aren’t running low on chocolate chip cookies. It would help to be a detail person in this department… but I’ve never fully developed that skill.
Every once in a while I check out what’s available in new equipment: everything from computer screens to the latest in fountain pens and watercolor paint. That could mean a trip to a big city for a look around, so it’s good to know your way around airports.
(Need to know that for school visits and publishing conventions, too.)
I might receive a manuscript from a publisher to look over and see if I’m interested in illustrating it. Mostly, I am!
Then, at the top of the list for a day of excitement, there are school visits. At schools I like to teach perspective drawing, and talk about how to combine paint colors to get the color you want, show how I do airbrushing, and answer questions about books I have illustrated and about life as an illustrator.
Also great fun is location research. That’s a fancy name for hopping on a plane and zooming over to some place you’ve never been and photographing everything in sight—just because it’s where your next book “happens.” (OK, OK, it’s really researching the book’s setting. I hope all you English teachers are happy now that I used one of your favorite words.)
And last but not least… there’s painting the final illustrations. Hours and hours and hours of painting. As you’ve probably guessed… I LOVE IT!!!
Images and Text © 2009 Jim Harris. All Rights Reserved