Monday, October 24, 2016

Woodland Wonder Shirley Ng-Benitez

There are some artists that create characters so distinct and so wonderful that you can't imagine that you've never seen that character before. That's what I feel like when I see Shirley Ng-Benitez's illustrations. I know that her characters aren't characters I've seen before, but I can't imagine the world without Shirley's wonderful characters.


Dani: You have a distinct style in your artwork. How did you arrive at this style?

Shirley: In my illustration courses in college, I was able to try different mediums: watercolor, charcoal, colored pencil, gouache, oil, pen and ink, etc. I remember distinctly feeling overwhelmed in my bedroom/studio while painting with oils because of the smell of the turpentine. I thought, wow, I don’t think I can do this much without endangering my health! This was many, many years ago, and I suppose that really pushed me to find a medium that I could add color to my pencil drawings. Watercolor fit the bill and I would say about five years ago, I’ve been experimenting with different approaches with my watercolor work, i.e. starting with waterproof inks, using digital layering, and various papers and mixes of watercolor and gouache. It’s still definitely a work-in-progress, and I’m now tempted to try oils again!

Dani: What is the worst/hardest part of starting on a new project?

Shirley: If it’s for a client, I’m actually really excited about starting the new project as usually there is a manuscript that I’ll read that just starts generating images in my head. I really love to sketch, so things pop in and I jot them down..sometimes words, sometimes sketches. If it’s for a personal project though, the hard part for me is coming up with something truly interesting and compositionally interesting. I have been trying very hard to focus on the narrative of the illustration and so telling that specific story in one image is really challenging. It’s exciting when it starts coming together but it sure is hard sometimes at the start.

Dani: How does your Agent help you in your career?

Shirley: My agent has helped move my work to focus on picture book work. I’ve loved how she (Nicole Tugeau continues to ask her artists to produce new pieces throughout the year so that she has fresh work to show. She also produces promos for the group as well as shows our work at different events throughout the year. She’s been great to discuss contract issues with; work-progress issues that might come up with specific clients; and she’s a great sounding board for all kinds of issues that come up regarding my artwork and writing.

Dani: What's your favorite part of illustration? 

Shirley: My favorite part is also the hardest part for me, which is coming up with a narrative for the piece. I find works that draw me in emotionally and pique my curiosity are so amazing and I shoot for that when sketching. It’s a big, wonderful journey. I also do very much love being in the “play” zone when creating personal pieces..trying new mediums and how they work with one another, as well as messing around on the computer and playing with layers and transparencies is always fun.

Dani: Any words of wisdom you can give for people finishing up their dummies?

Shirley: Enjoy the process. I think we so often hope for this ultra-great, awesome, perfect end point, and that blocks you from enjoying the work you’re doing. I had a BIG birthday this year and so I’ve been reflecting a lot about this career and what I’ve gone through and the things I’d go back and re-do. I must say that with a lot of confidence, that it’s truly wonderful when you hit that sweet spot of moving a piece of art in a direction that delights you, and that doesn’t happen as easily if you’re too worried about the end result. It’s not easy for me too, as I am completely a planner and an end-result kind of gal, but I’m more conscious of making sure that I open myself up to “play” when creating (getting messy, trying new things, focusing on something else vs. worrying about the perfection of a piece) while working on any project. If you can build in some time to play during the work needed for a dummy to be completed, I highly recommend it. Best to everyone!


Illustration site:
Graphic Design site:

Twitter: @shirleysillos
Instagram: @shirleysillos

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lauren Gallegos Champion of Hope

Sometimes it's not just artwork that grabs me about an artist. Sure, I'll see pretty artwork and do more research based on that, but this isn't the whole of what makes me fall for an artist. With Lauren it was her story about how she gained her agent that made me want her to come to Smart Dummies (link to story below). Her story is important because it shows how important it is to have hope and stay the course as a picture book creator. If you work hard that agent could just be right around the corner!


Dani: What is the hardest part about your job as an illustrator?

Lauren: For me, the hardest thing is not knowing when, and from where, my next job will come. In fact, this is practically impossible, which is difficult for me as someone who likes to have things planned out and organized. Unfortunately, this is the curse of the freelance artist. The best you can do is consistently put your work out there (whether on social media, through postcard mailings, attending conferences, etc.) and hope that it catches someone’s attention enough to hire you. This situation has occasionally caused some times of stress, but I have been fortunate enough so far to stay pretty busy.

Dani: How did you break into illustration?

Lauren: It has been a very slow breakthrough. There hasn’t ever been “that one moment” where all of a sudden everything fell into place for me. It has been a lot of hard work and persevering through the bad drawings and few opportunities. When I finished school with a degree in Illustration I jumped in and took almost any project I could get. Even if it was low pay or something I didn’t really want to work on. I did it because it was practice and experience. And when I was working on something I wasn’t all that interested in, I would work on personal projects on the side. Slowly I built up my portfolio, worked on my drawing skills and technique, and slowly, new and better working opportunities would come up. I attended conferences and took all the advice I got. I sent out postcards regularly and got active on social media. Sometimes the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it” really rings true. If you treat yourself as a professional then eventually you will learn to be one. I never presented myself as an “aspiring” illustrator or an amateur. If you don’t believe you are a professional, no one else will either.

Dani: What do you wish you had known about the Picture Book industry before you got started in this field?

Lauren: Something I wish I had known about was the “Slush Pile”. I was aware of what it was, but I didn’t realize how BIG it could be! As I attended conferences and read blogs about it, I saw pictures and read about how Publishers literally get mountains of submissions. This Slush Pile exists in email form too. I’ve heard people talk about getting over 1,000 submissions every day! Of course knowing this wouldn’t have changed much on my end, but knowing about it now gives me a better idea of what I am up against when submitting. It shows how many people are out there doing exactly what I am doing. If you want to rise to the top of that pile you really need to have work that shines!

One other thing I have recently become more aware of as I start my writing journey is what is expected from an author (or author/illustrator) when it comes to promoting your own book. Doing book launches parties, school visits and all of those things is something I know nothing about. To be completely honest it is a bit terrifying to me as a quiet, shy person to think about getting up in front of people (even kids!) because I have never been that great at verbalizing my thoughts, and especially not doing that in front of a crowd of people. What I love so much about art is being able to express myself with an image instead of having to put it into words. I suppose when the time comes it will just be another learning experience!

Dani: I loved the post on your blog about how you got your agent. What are some of the things you learned from that journey?

Lauren: For anyone who doesn’t know my journey of getting an agent, you can read about it here.

I really learned so much! I learned that you need to take every small victory that you can, and sometimes a victory comes in the form of a rejection. Some agents were very kind and even though they weren’t interested in my work, they were generous enough to offer their thoughts as to WHY they weren’t interested, which was invaluable to me! Those moments were great opportunities to know where to improve my work for the next agent I submitted to. I also learned to not get too excited too quickly. I had a few instances where an agent showed some interest and I got really excited. Those connections ended up going nowhere and that made the rejection sting even more because I worked myself up beforehand. Even when I got some interest from the agent I ended up with, it took a year and a half of conversations, working on my technique, and building up my portfolio before finally signing with her. So just be aware of how much time it could take.

Dani: Do you have any words of inspiration for those working to complete their dummy?

Lauren: Don’t give up! It can be daunting to create a full picture book dummy, but it is worth the experience at least once. I have made 2 dummies so far and each one has helped me grow in huge ways! And even if you get to the end and it ends up not getting much response, that’s ok. This might not sound very inspiring, but the reality is that if this is your first dummy, it might not be your best. Of course it could also be incredible and get you an agent and a book deal right away! I unfortunately wasn’t that lucky. My first dummy was (and still is) very special to me, but I see where the problems are. I don’t know if it is worth revisiting (maybe in the future), but I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything! I needed to try my hand at it and see what it was like. And in my case, I will probably need to do it a few more times to get something that I think is really, really great. Just like when you are sketching in your sketchbook. The first drawing you do is usually pretty awful. It looks all wrong and the idea behind it is weak. So you try it again, or try something else and it’s a little better. And you do it again, and again, and again, and eventually you have a great idea and a great drawing! You really need to get the bad drawings and ideas out of your systems to get to the good stuff. Same thing goes for PB dummies. So keep going! – not just with this one dummy, but with more and more afterward!

Follow Lauren:


Twitter: @laurengallegos

Facebook: Facebook Page

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Work Smarter With Amanda Erb

Amanda Erb excels at creating wonderful children in her illustrations. Her characters are expressive and act like real children (even if they are in fantasy situations). Amanda's use of color is beautiful. It was fun finding out all the things she learned in the illustration industry.


Dani: What do you hate most about illustration (or the illustration industry)?

Amanda: There are aspects of the illustration industry and illustration in general that I dislike, but I don't think any of my emotions reach as strong as 'hate'. It is extremely frustrating to get emails from potential clients that just want to be a 'published author' and think they should be able to hire an Illustrator for free or extremely cheap. I dislike getting those types of emails the most.

One of my biggest illustration-related frustrations is dealing with color and color schemes. I have learned so much since my college years about getting the most out of color for print, yet I still feel like I wrestle with my color choices daily. Working with green seems to give me the most trouble.

Dani: What was the most important part of your education?

Amanda: Having professors and classmates that pushed me to do better. I seriously grew so much from having professors in college that were upfront about the parts of my work that needed improvement.

Dani: How did you get started in book illustration?

Amanda: I got started in book illustration by sending out mailers and links to my portfolio to different companies. Eventually, I got some replies and offers to work on various projects.

Dani: Do you have any special time saving techniques?

Amanda: I use Actions in Photoshop to save time when I know there's something I have to change on multiple pages. I also use the hotkeys on my Cintiq – just knowing hotkeys in general when working digitally is a great time saver.

To manage my time I use a Pomodoro timer app. “Work smarter, not harder” is still something I struggle with, but it's a good phrase I like to keep in the back of my mind when I work.

Dani: What do you do if you have a tight deadline?

Amanda: Take deep breaths and try not to freak out, haha. I make a list and plan out what I need to get done on each day and work to complete my daily goals or get close to completion every day before the deadline.


Follow Amanda: 

You can find my portfolio of work online at

I am also on Twitter at:



Friday, October 21, 2016

Carter Higgins, Picture Book Guru

If you have not read Carter Higgin's blog Design of the Picture Book then go and read it (AFTER you read this post). In her blog Carter talks about all the wonderful visual aspects of the picture book. Carter lovingly dissects what makes each book great. If you study her blog you will find out what to do to make your picture books fantastic.

Carter is here to bring a taste of the genius she is to my blog. If it's not obvious, I am just in awe with everything Carter writes. So much so that I can't even make up a story where Carter saves the world through her blog. I can't, because any story I made up would be completely non fiction. Carter Higgins just gurus picture books.


You’re obviously here, you Smart Dummy, because you love how unique the picture book’s form is. And one of the best things you can do for your own picture book making is understand the nitty gritty of how things work. The more sense you can make of the form, the more you can squeeze the very best storytelling into it.

While you are making your dummies this month, keep this design feature in mind—because it’s a part of every single book, no matter the genre or medium or size of the book. It’s the gutter, the place in the center of a book where the edges are bound. It’s something that sets the picture book apart from storytelling on the screen, and savvy creators will use this to their advantage.

There’s the gutter as a plot point:

Here, the book literally swallows up a character. His little leash dangles behind. Can you shake him out of the gutter? How did he get down there? And how will he get out?

Now you’ve seen a book hide its main character, but what if that main character doesn’t want to come out? That’s at play here in Deborah Freedman’s stunning new book Shy. Shy loves the sweetly singing birds that flit about the pages, except he’s too bashful to come out and sing. You’ll turn a lot of pages before this gentle main character emerges from the gutter, but you’ll be glad you waited for him.

The gutter as a place to pause:

A general commands a guard to not anyone cross the line in this book. The line here is the gutter, and that missive leaves a blank right side of the page and an increasingly cluttered left hand side. The gutter is the physical spot that serves as a set piece to the story, and thanks to that, the book becomes a thoughtful look at injustice.

Suzy Lee’s picture books are perfectly crafted around the gutter. I adore Shadow for the way a girl’s playful antics line up on one side of the gutter, and their almost-matching shadow splotches are on the other. Be sure to turn this one ninety degrees so the the gutter runs horizontal. Simple and mesmerizing, as is this post on her process.

And the gutter that paces the action:

This is a book about the divide between our digital lives and the wide open outdoors. As a girl approaches each screen-faced family member, they are separated by the gutter. And as she ventures out to follow a leaf, she crosses over the gutter, embracing the wildness of the world. See more from Matthew Cordell on this here.

This is a majestic little book with lift-the-flaps and a Caldecott honor, and it’s a beautiful example of subtle gutter use. Flora and her bird friend dance on either side of the page, on either side of their stage. Once their nerves and awkward smiles fizzle, they jaunt to the same side of the spread together and that’s where their dance (and the music!) soars.

No place but the picture book can do this. Do you have other favorite gutter moments in picture books? Let me know in the comments!

Carter Higgins is a librarian at an independent school in Los Angeles. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH, February 28, 2017) and two forthcoming picture books from Chronicle Books, This is Not a Valentine (Fall 2017) and Everything You Need For a Treehouse (2018). She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book, and is a team member of All the Wonders, a home for readers to experience the stories they love in wondrous ways. Connect with her on Twitter and Goodreads.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Toni Yuly Tears a Tale and a Prize!

I love the adorable animals in Toni Yuly's books. As cute as they are I love her torn tissue images even more! It is wonderful to see how Toni's style has changed. It's even more amazing to see it happen over a period of just a few years! Toni talks about the changes she's gone through as an illustrator!

Be sure to check out the Prize after the post!


Dani: I know that you have just started in torn tissue paper. Could you tell us a bit more about that and the previous art styles you tried?

Toni: The torn tissue began while I was playing around one day...I really wanted to re-connect with that totally free, non-goal oriented creative activity I had had in abundance before I became an "official" author with book contracts. I have always been attracted to collage and had some tissue paper laying around so I started tearing it up... It was fun! I love to randomly tear paper and see what shapes jump out at me. After I see a shape I like I add some details with pen and ink. I have always loved working fast, also making many "bad" things or mistakes doesn't bother me. I like the quickness of ink and watercolor...I kind of like not planning things out...I am process oriented, which to me means, I like to work on something over and over again until I get it right or it turns into something else that I like. The process of doing something over and over quickly but maybe getting to the end goal slowly works for me most of the time. I have tried oil painting but it drives me crazy. I love working with pieces of cardboard and making wall sculptures with a glue gun.

Dani: How did being a librarian influence your career now as a writer and illustrator?

Toni: It helped me to stay alive! It also gave me close access to tons of books! I would get to see new picture books before they were in the stores and the Children's Librarians in particular were my sounding boards. I pestered those folks constantly and they never tired of being happy to help me. I spent many, many years bouncing my ideas off of so many helpful Children's Librarians. I was not a Children's Librarian but worked in General Reference. I also think helping people and being in a big public library was so different from being alone creating stuff that it was a really great balance, and kept me sane.

Dani: What are some of the things you've always wanted to do?

Toni: Design images for everything! I love fashion, textiles, etc. and would love to design theater sets too. Finish all of my writing projects! Take a long road trip to the Southwest. Get a piano. Get a dog. Meditate every single day...

Dani: What is your favorite thing about Picture Book Illustration?

Toni: Everything! It is like a dream come true to be able to make a book for children using words and pictures! I don't think of my self as an illustrator because I wasn't trained as an illustrator but I think that is part of my strength. I love making visual images and I try not to limit myself in any way....I love the design process...of course actually making a picture book is hard work, but so satisfying when you are finished!

Dani: Could you give some advice to those of us finding our place in the Picture Book Industry?

Toni: Don't give up. Keep going. Pester people (in a nice way of course.) Try to connect with the KidLit Community as much as possible. Let your heart lead you in your work.

Dani: Any last bits of advice you'd like to share?

Toni: If you just keep working inch by inch you will get there.


Follow Toni:

My website:

Follow my Torn Tissue Tuesday posts every Tuesday on my facebook page.


I have 2 new books being published in 2017! THE JELLY BEAN TREE, June 2017, (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan) and THANK YOU, BEES, Fall 2017, (Candlewick)



One lucky winner will win a torn tissue illustration created by Toni Yuly! This prize can only be shipped to the US or Canada.

You MUST comment on this post to be considered for this prize!
It would be great if you could share this post with your friends.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Gingerbread Sweetheart Grace Sandford Plus a Sweet Deal!

Grace Sandford's illustration work is like a visual candyland. I'm not just saying that because she has some beautiful pictures of a candy world (though that may have influenced my word choice). All of her work is pretty enough to eat. If I did eat her work I would probably eat the pictures of gingerbread characters first. Unfortunately, Grace isn't here to talk about us eating her work. Excuse me, I'm going to go get some candy while you read this post.

Grace Sandford has so graciously offered a discount in her Etsy shop now through November 1st. The code is: SMARTDUMMIES16 

Grace's Etsy shop:

The Author/Illustrator Collaboration

It’s been nearly a year since publication and my first ever picture book was a collaboration with Children’s and YA Author Kate Louise/Ormand called Tough Cookie. Tough Cookie is about a gingerbread man who was accidentally baked without ginger and causes lots of trouble in the bakery because of this.

Working with Kate is still one of my favourite jobs to date and I wanted to talk about the differences between illustrating other people’s work than your own.

Personally, I prefer illustrating other people’s work to my own stories. It feels like a challenge interpreting an author’s work with your own unique style. You can choose certain themes or imagery to pick up on that they might not have even considered themselves and you can really play with the relationship between pictures and words. When two people collaborate on a story it seems to evolve it to another level. For example, I deliberately made sure to hide most of the baker including his face to emphasise that the story is about the gingerbread man so the reader is to see the story through his smaller perspective. This was something I learned from TV shows when growing up such as ‘Cow and Chicken’ and ‘Mrs Bellum’ from the ‘Powerpuff Girls’ in which children were often at adult’s leg or waist height and therefore at a lower plane of sight.

When working on Tough Cookie, I showed my roughs to not only our editor but to Kate as well so she had an idea as to how her story was looking. I personally would be going crazy if I couldn’t see those things so I wanted to show her! Not only that, it developed a discussion between us about small details we could add or change or things that we wanted to see more of.

Another positive aspect of working as a collaboration, especially with Kate is how fun it is to promote the book together. Kate is very good at promoting her own work on Social Media anyways and so it worked really well between us, giving several interviews and creating work sheets that can be taken from both of our websites for children to use. Beforehand I thought it was publishers that were largely in charge of promoting books but the longer i’ve spent working as an illustrator i’ve learnt how many hats you have to wear! The more you do to promote your work, the more chances people will see it and therefore might read it/buy it.

The best part of working with another author is that you have someone else to enjoy the moments with. You can both smile when you see that children are reading your book and reading the reviews together. Sometimes working as an illustrator can feel quite lonely, so its certainly more fun working with other people!

Tough Cookie is published by Sky Pony Press and is available on Amazon:

Grace Sandford is a freelance children’s illustrator and author from England. She graduated with a degree in illustration from the University of Lincoln in 2013 and has worked for publishers globally ever since. Grace has worked on colouring books, picture books, chapter books and children’s magazines for various publishers. Her first author/illustrator book ‘The Egg’ was published earlier this year in the UK.

When not working, you can find Grace listening to Bowie and hugging cats.

Follow Grace:





Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Parental Powerhouse, Christina Forshay

It's not easy being an illustrator. It's even harder being an illustrator when add a kid (or several kids) to the mix. Christina Forshay has worked as both an illustrator and a mom of two small kids for 10 years. Christina must have known that many of you are struggling to finish this challenge with children. She has some great tips to get your dummy done!


How to be a Parent who Freelance Illustrates in One Easy Step

Step One: Understand that there is no such thing as balance and go with it.

This December my oldest child will turn ten. TEN. Wow, I have been a mom and an illustrator for ten years now. This September marked the first time both my kids attended school full time. As a stay at home/work-from-home illustrating mama, it is a moment I have been guiltily waiting for. I now have a solid six hours of (mostly) uninterrupted work time!

I know a lot of readers might be interested in all the ways I worked through my book deadlines with two small kids at home. Here is an abbreviated list:

-Disney movies on repeat

-A plethora of snacks always available

-An arsenal of kids crafts available

-Enlisting grandparents for baby duty

-Having husband be Mr. Mom

-Late, late nights

-A lot of (sometimes too much) coffee

-Lots of guilt, some tears (mine)

Most of those things are a given for any parent trying to get stuff done. But trying to break into the children's book world takes a lot of time devoted to craft. Like, A LOT of time. And for me, spending a lot of time on my craft made me feel guilty about the days my kids watched Frozen on repeat. I also felt guilty about my kitchen being a mess the night before a deadline. And there was also guilt about the piles of laundry I tried to ignore while I sketched the night away.

I spent a good portion of the past ten years agonizing about when I would find the right balance between my family/home and work. I actually kind of paralyzed myself with guilt. I constantly felt that there was some trick I hadn't yet discovered to feeling like a legit SuperMom and a legit illustrator.

Well, something over the past year or two has finally clicked with me. I learned (am still learning) that there won't ever be a proper balance in a freelance illustrator's life. And that there are no trophies for SuperMoms. Some days I have to let my kids zone out on tv so I can paint--I shouldn't feel guilty about that.

What I'm basically saying is it's ok to let the laundry go a few days and work on your craft. Don't beat yourself up over wanting (and needing) to spend time on your art. That time is absolutely necessary to become a successful illustrator. You already know you are a great parent, give yourself permission to be a great artist too.


Follow Christina: