Hi everyone! For this month’s Featured Alumni, we caught up with the very talented
Every month we’ll be featuring SVSLearn “alumni” who have either gone on to get repped by an agent or do professional work. They are a little farther along in their illustration journeys and can share some insights on what has helped them get to where they are. We think they are inspiring!
For August, meet:
Below is a Q&A that Austin Shurtliff (@AWSHURTLIFF) conducted with Nat. They discussed Nat’s path into the publishing world and the process of illustrating a children’s book.
Could you share a little bit about your journey towards illustration and what stage you are at now in your career?
I’ve been working primarily as a full-time artist in the video game industry for about 13 years now, although along the way I’ve done many different types of projects across different industries, including illustration. In 2012 I left my job at a small game developer and was left with a choice about whether to get another studio job or do something different. I decided to go freelance and soon after ran my first of 8 successful Kickstarter campaigns. The first one was for a children’s book, which was ultimately picked up by a traditional publisher, and the other 7 were for illustrated playing card decks.
That period of time really kicked things off for me. The card decks were vehicles for illustration work, allowed me to do something that was fully mine for the first time, get paid for it and build a kind of following online. I seriously began pursuing work as a children’s book illustrator in 2016. I dove in headfirst, signed up for SVS Learn, joined SCBWI, put up an illustration portfolio, listened to a ton of podcasts and of course watched Will Terry on youtube.
Later that year I began querying literary agents and was eventually offered representation by my current agent, the fabulous Jennifer March Soloway with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Since then it’s been a journey, we’ve gone out with a couple of my original stories, which haven’t made it to publication, and I’ve illustrated 2 other books. Sumo Joe, written by the children’s book blogger Mia Wenjen, just came out in May, the other will come out later this year.
What are some things that help inspire the art you like to create?
I live in The Netherlands, so I cycle everywhere, and I’ve found this to be a wonderful time to do some creative thinking. When I get bouts of lasting/productive inspiration, it usually comes from a story. I run through story ideas, look around my surroundings, listen to soundtracks, let my imagination wander. When I find a compelling story to visually tell, whether my own or someone else’s, it can carry me a long way and result in a lot of new art.
I also find inspiration in looking at the work of others, whether that’s online, in books or social media. That, of course, can be a mixed bag of inspiration and the self-criticism that can arise when comparing myself to where other people are at.
Could you share a little about the recent book you illustrated, Sumo Joe?
I found out about Sumo Joe from my agent, but before I was offered the book, she mentioned that the publisher might be looking for someone to illustrate a sumo themed book. I didn’t know anything else about the project, but in my free time I created a couple of sumo illustrations, both of which I later learned, the author came across on Instagram and caused her to look me up. I think those helped and ultimately I was offered the job.
It was a long process, about a year and a half and it came in waves of work then periods of waiting. I worked on the sketches for about 80% of the time, starting with character design, then thumbnails, sketches, refined sketches, sample pages, etc., responding to a lot of feedback, some of which was very specific and I would wait as long as 6 weeks to receive. There were a lot of voices to consider (the editor, art director, marketing team, etc.), which then needed to get condensed into meaningful action points for me, so I know it was a lot of work on their end. There were times when the long waits, followed by several pages of feedback felt a little overwhelming, but ultimately we arrived at a book I think everyone is very proud of.
Some of the working challenges revolved around finding compositions that worked well for 4 characters, maintaining likeness, lighting and environment consistency that was realistic yet left room for changes and flexibility.
Do you have any personal projects that you want to work on?
I always have personal projects in the works. Right now, I’m working on a fictitious graphic novel based on some of the adventures my twin brother and I had growing up running around the local woods. Sequential art has fascinated me for a long time, but I’ve been hesitant to dive into it because I suspected it was a ton of work to do. I was right.
What are some of the struggles that you have had to face with building your career as an illustrator?
Like most illustrators in the publishing industry, I’ve had to deal with my share of rejection, or “passes” to use a gentler term. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing a book to go out on submission, the dummy, sample illustrations, editing rounds with my agent. Then there’s the anxiety once you’ve submitted it to editors and have to just wait, sometimes for a couple of months, to hear back. That’s been the hardest for me, especially since I’ve yet to get a bite on my own work.
On the illustration side, I’ve had my challenges, but I feel that the more I’ve done it the easier it has become. The guesswork gets taken out of the process part once you establish a style and working method that works for you, and you’re left with the creative challenges, storytelling, and communication. It’s a learning curve I’m still on, and will be for the rest of my career.
What are some things you are doing now to keep progressing with your art skills/career?
I’m married with 3 children and have a full-time day job at a studio in Amsterdam, so I have to deliberately make time for illustration on evenings and weekends. I draw often and am constantly working on new story ideas, pitching to my agent, and revising existing work.
Do you have any suggestions for newer illustrators on how to pursue their art goals and use the tools on SVSLearn?
SVSLearn played a big role in my growth as an illustrator. There really isn’t anything quite like it out there, with such a focus on illustration, both the creative and business side of it. I’d highly recommend people watch, and rewatch the video lessons! I found Will’s “Illustrating Children’s Books” classes invaluable.
In addition to the classes, I’d encourage people to get involved in the SVSLearn forums. It is such an encouraging community of people to learn with. Getting feedback on your illustrations will help you grow, and giving feedback to others will do the same. Share your work, listen, learn, be open and you’ll grow! Oh, and draw/paint/sketch/art all the time!
Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview!