Turbocharging Your Creativity

Since mid-January I have been taking an SVS Learn “live” course* called Turbocharging Your Creativity. It teaches new tools for generating creative illustrations. The course certainly has taught me some new ideation techniques, but it has also been useful in forcing me to drop my perfectionism and finish drawings relatively quickly. I am also spurred on by knowing that other artists will be evaluating what I post.

The Turbocharging course starts of with quick, limited assignments and then progressively builds on them, so by the end of the ten weeks, the final project makes use of many if not all of the steps learned previously. For that reason, each assignment is more difficult than the ones before.

Today I am finishing the last project for the class, but won’t post it here yet because I want to wait for feedback and make revisions first. I will, however, post two previous assignments below. Both are in black and white, because color is the last step to be added.

The first illustration is from a project in which we researched a celebrity and then created a portrait illustrating something we found out about him or her.  Being a glutton for punishment, I chose someone I didn’t know much about and for whom most of the information available was in Italian: Anna Magnani (Mahn-YAN-ee). I’ve found this star of Neo-realist Italian cinema to be fascinating ever since I saw her in Rome, Città Aperta, a post-war anti-fascist film. She is best known in the US for her Oscar-winning role in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo.

What is so striking about Magnani is that she is the anti-starlet. She has an earthy personal presence that is immediately recognizable and consistent throughout her roles, as well as in her personal life. Magnani was a passionate lover, a heavy smoker and coffee drinker, and not surprisingly considering the preceding, she was also an insomniac. Later in life she took to wandering the streets of Rome at night, talking to prostitutes and feeding stray cats.  So my portrait combined and illustrated those traits:

This is a digital portrait, but since I am used to doing portraits in oils, I used a similar technique, using Kyle Oil mixer brushes (now part of Photoshop CC) in temp layers in order to work “wet into wet” without the whole painting turning to mush. (If you want to learn more about temp layers, you can have a look at Ctrl + Paint’s free video library, which is where I learned about them.) The result is much like one of my oil portraits in its early stages. (I wanted to leave it a bit rough to emphasize Magnani’s character.) But I found the same limitation with the digital oil technique that I had begun to find with my traditional oil portraits: It relies heavily on reference, and in this case I couldn’t find consistent, good quality reference, nor could I take my own.

So for the next project, which involved picking a narrative moment from one of three given podcast episodes, I determined to try something new. After generating a lot of before, during and after ideas from my chosen podcast and narrowing down the choices with the help of my teachers Lee White and David Hohn, I came up with this toned sketch, using a digital technique similar to pastel:

I like to show the sketch to friends before I explain what it is about, but people usually get it right away: The story, from the Lore podcast, is about a 17th c. witch trial. Christian Shaw, an eleven-year-old Scottish laird’s daughter, accused several family servants and itinerants of having bewitched her. In the end, six people were hung. We don’t know exactly what her motive was or how real her symptoms were, but we do know that many years later visitors found a hole in the wall beside her bed, suggesting that someone was feeding her the nails, rocks and feathers she dry-vomited as the main “proof” that she was bewitched. It horrifies the modern mind to think about the people she accused finding themselves caught up in an a vortex of accusation and hysteria in which anything they said or did would be used against them. I have chosen to portray Christian after the executions, looking up at one of her victims and perhaps facing a moment of self-reckoning.

And then, just for dramatic effect, I created a version in which Christian is fully aware of her actions and unrepentant:

And now I’m off to finish my final project and proceed to Bologna, where I will attend my first Bologna Book Children’s Book Fair. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the largest children’s book fair in the world with plenty of opportunity for illustrators, but more about that later. First I have to experience it for myself!

Meanwhile, in case I don’t get to post again before next weekend, Happy Passover and Happy Easter!


*SVS Learn includes a free forum, a subscription video library, and individual, classes with feedback, sold separately. The individual classes are conducted through a private bulletin board and videos posted once a week, so people who live in different time zones can all upload their work and get feedback.


Illustration resources

This is the post I was going to write before I got sidetracked with Thanksgiving. Though Two Years in Torino is primarily about life as an American in Italy, I think it’s only natural that as I live in Torino longer and longer (way beyond two years, it looks like), not all of my life will be consciously expat. As such, most of these illustration resources are American, but if you’re just itching for some bureaucratic irony and humor from the bel paese, I have one more Accademia Albertina update to publish soon. Also, some day, I hope that my illustration interest and my interest in things Italian will truly intersect.

But for now I have a lot of technical information about art to digest, quickly, and so this year I am taking the efficient, if somewhat lonely route of art self-study online. Online schools seem to be a pronounced trend in the US, and while I might not recommend online study for an 18-year-old getting his or her first degree, as a middle-aged expat self-study has a lot to offer: for starters, convenience of time and place, choice of specialized syllabi, and prices that allow for experimentation. (Note: the link, which actually argues that not even young people should go to art school, leads to yet more online resources.)

I’m not even sure how I first found all these schools and resources that I am about to list (I think I may have begun with Will Terry’s channel on YouTube), but I will say that once you discover a couple of these artists, they tend to lead to one another in a serendipitous rabbit trail. Most of these artists are entrepreneurial in outlook, and therefore they are open to other streams of income than book illustration. For instance, Will has branched out from children’s book illustration to Comi-cons (comics conventions), and has just published a book of his own fan art.

Another thing these artists seem to have in common is an acquaintance with animated film studios. They may not all have worked for one, but the style of modern animation has at the very least contributed to their visual vocabulary. I say this because digital animation is more of a recent discovery for me, and it wasn’t until I saw such films as Up!, Brave and Big Hero Six that I was truly convinced of the potential of digital animation, particularly the lighting. (I watch a lot of animated films during those long flights to the US.)

When I got interested in children’s book illustration again, Comic-cons and Disney films were not exactly what I had in mind, and yet I do think it’s important to understand the trends. I can take in bits of this knowledge and inform my own art.

And lastly, I appreciate that all of these artists have been willing to share some of what they have learned. They do not operate under a scarcity mentality. Instead they assume that the more knowledge is available, the more new opportunities for artists will open up. More art for everyone, more jobs for artists!

So, here’s my list of resources:

First of all, Photoshop is the industry standard software for illustrators. (Ironically, Adobe Illustrator is more for logo design and other projects that require a vector format.) I found a Photoshop offer that allowed me to get just Photoshop and Lightroom (English version) for about $10/month. I don’t know how long it will be available, but even if you are the most traditional of artists, your illustration work has to be camera ready, and Photoshop offers editing tools. How far you take your editing, and their painting tools, is up to you.

Also, although for now I work on a small Wacom Intuos tablet, I want to eventually buy a Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to draw directly on the screen. Both of these devices plug into a regular computer and use a stylus, but since the Intuos requires you to look at a screen while drawing on a separate tablet, it produces certain hand/eye coordination problems that, although they do improve with practice, never quite go away. I spent 50 years developing my drawing hand, and a Cintiq would allow me to fully preserve it in digital form. One reason for my delay in buying a Cintiq, by the way, is that I am waiting to see if an updated version of the 22″ model is released soon.

Now that I’ve listed the materials needed, there is the matter of developing the specialized skills required to use them well. Though I only discovered it somewhat recently, there is at least one excellent, free site that will walk you through the basics of digital painting in Photoshop as well as the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Let’s face it, Photoshop is an overwhelming program when you first encounter it, and you can waste hours trying to resolve seemingly minuscule problems. Matt Kohr’s Ctrl + Paint is clear, concise, and while he doesn’t always still have the practice downloads mentioned in his videos (some videos are several years old and have been moved to the site from elsewhere), you can usually take a screenshot (cmd + shift + 3 on a Mac) and make one yourself. Ctrl + Paint is a great first stop. He also offers paid content, which I haven’t tried yet. And just a note: I usually use Safari, but I find his site works better on Firefox.

My paid instruction source of the moment is SVS Learn.com. The classes seem to be available every so often as real time courses with instructor feedback, and thereafter are preserved for download or streaming. The main instructors are Will Terry and Jake Parker (founder of Inktober). Will and Jake give digital instruction, but never emphasize digital tricks over fundamentals. In fact, most of their courses are just as helpful for traditional media. Their specialty is children’s books, and to some degree, comics and graphic novels. They and other artists present courses on such topics as Painting Color and Light, Developing Interesting Character Designs, Perspective, How to Make Money in Illustration, and many others. I currently have a streaming subscription for $15/month that allows me to watch anything on the site and download the workbooks and other digital aids that accompany the courses. I really have learned a lot. And another nice thing about their site is that they allow you to leave and come back with no hassle (haven’t tried it yet, but that’s what it says on the site). They seem to understand that artists are struggling enough just to stay afloat, so they let you pick and choose what you need.

Branching out from SVS, I have also discovered such sites as Noah Bradley’s Art Camp and Chris Oatley’s Oatley Academy. Yet another paid online art education site is Schoolism. I haven’t joined any of those yet, but they do look like they might be promising. If anyone has experience that they would like to share, or knows other sites of similar quality, I would love to hear from you.

And what 21st century artist’s resource list would be complete without Pinterest? Artists use all the social media sites–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr being some of the more common ones–but the lure of Pinterest is the ability to make your own collections of other artists’ work and reference material, not just your own. When you’re starting out, Pinterest can be a helpful way to organize all the different sources of inspiration you want to keep track of. My account goes through periodic growth spurts and has now exploded to over 1000 pins. Oops!

For inspiration and general knowledge about the industry, I have enjoyed not only Will’s and Jake’s YouTube channels, but also Chris Oatley’s Artcast. Now that I am home alone a lot, I often listen to You Tube or podcasts while I do housework. Some of them are art-related and some have nothing to do with art, but that’s another blog post.

And finally, I have found some rather fun animation resources on TED and even Khan Academy.


My illustration adventure has only just started, and yet I’m really itching to get to the point where I can produce something that reflects not just technical art skills, but a mature vision. I think this may be a typical problem with starting a career in midlife. When you’re young, you have tons of energy and learn easily, but little life experience. At my age, you know your own interests and you have tons of experience you want to get out on paper or screen, but need to get your skills caught up quickly. I think a combination of humble and agile mind, and yet confidence about what you are trying to do, are optimal. But most of all, this job requires practice. So that’s what I am going to do now. Hope this helps someone, and thanks for reading!