Illustrator Saturday – Laurie Smollett Kutscera
Laurie Smollett Kutscera’s passion for children’s book illustration and writing began at an early age. Childhood memories of The Little Prince, the Peter Rabbit series, and Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s intricate pen work in Snow White, transported her to another world. Today, Laurie continues to work towards creating that magic and spirit in her own work.
She lives on the north shore of Long Island with her husband and very loyal rescue doggie, Cody. She is a member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge and The Children’s Book Academy, and continues to attend workshops and conferences for both writing and illustration.
HERE’S LAURIE DISCUSSING HER PROCESS:
After working up several sketches, I select one that best suits the format. For this project, I was asked to illustrate the cover of a newsletter that included a masthead and text in a box on the left side of the illustration. I scan the drawing into Photoshop, clean it up and print it on the backside of Canson Mi-Teintes Steel Gray charcoal paper. The tooth is not as pronounced on the backside so the color lays better.
I begin by scumbling color into specific areas of the drawing then paint over it with turpenoid. This melts the pastel into the paper — when it dries you have an interesting underpainting to work with.
I begin building color relationships and highlights throughout the illustration.
If I find areas where the color relationships aren’t working, I can repaint in turpenoid and start again once it has dried. This prevents reworked areas from getting muddy.
I add finer details with pastel pencils.
The finished pastel is scanned into Photoshop where I add a few additional details, highlights and a touch of brightness.
Interview with Laurie Smollett Kutscera
How long have you been illustrating?
For about 35 years. Somewhere in the middle I stopped for a while to launch a new business with my husband.
What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
In the mid 1980’s, I designed and illustrated a poster for The Children’s Free Opera of NY. The production was designed for a younger audience and was based on Commedia dell’arte (17th century Italian comedic theatre). After researching Scaramouche and Punchinello, I decided on a traditional yet whimsical approach that would appeal to kids, a brightly colored linoleum cut of the main character dressed in 17th century attire, perched on a skateboard.
Did you choose to attend Queens College.
I did- but for all the wrong reasons! I wanted to attend a university close to home. I knew Queens College had an excellent Fine Arts Department—what I didn’t know was how this decision would profoundly affect my life.
What type of classes were your favorites?
Calligraphy was one of my favorites. I studied illuminated manuscripts and practiced alphabets ranging from Italic and Copperplate to Gothic to Uncial. The classes were taught by Don Kunz, an outstanding calligrapher, painter and Zen Buddhist, who stressed the importance of proper posture and breathing while writing. I also had the great fortune of mentoring with Professor Marvin Bileck, Caldicott recipient of Rain Makes Applesauce. He taught drawing, children’s book illustration, printmaking, and a marvelous course called The Art of the Book, where I learned to hand-bind books. My final project in college was a French fold, hand-bound book of calligraphy and linoleum prints of Aesop’s Fables.
Did art school help you get illustrating work when you graduated?
Queens College did not have a placement program, however, my calligraphy classes played a huge role in getting my foot in the door of many companies. I would do certificates and awards for organizations such as the New York Philharmonic and the Modern Language Association. Once I established myself, I was introduced to other areas within the company that needed illustration and graphic work. My career took off when I began designing posters, brochures and book jackets.
What type of illustrating did you do when you were first starting out?
I did spot illustrations for several publishing and theatre companies in pen and ink, watercolor, linoleum cuts and scratchboard.
What type of products did you design for the toy industry?
Oh gosh, I designed several doll collections and a variety of stuffed animals. My illustrations were sent to China where all the prototypes and final products were made. They were sold at Macy’s and various gift shops throughout the US. It was quite a thrill to see all my furry friends and dolls dressed in their nautical outfits and ballerina skirts come to life!
When did you decide to illustrate children’s books?
I entered college with visions of being a fashion illustrator. But when I meet Professor Bileck, I began to appreciate the art of children’s book illustration. The endless possibilities of how illustration and text can work together opened up a whole new world for me.
Was Ravita and the Land of Unknown Shadows your first picture book?
How did you get that job?
My dear friends Marietta Abrams Brill, a brilliant writer, and her husband Peter, a talented artist and curator at the Museum of the American Indian in NYC, spent their honeymoon camping out in the southwest. Sitting around a fire, they wove this beautiful tale about a young, fearless girl and the strange shadows that haunted her cliff dwelling tribe. Marietta and Peter returned from their trip and handed me their story. I started working on sketches in a variety of mediums, colored pencil, linoleum, pastel. Eventually we all agreed the earthy, textural qualities of the medium fit the story best. I had never worked in pastel, so I did a lot of playing before I actually started the illustrations.
Once the dummy was completed, we snail mailed 5 or 6 off to a variety of publishers we thought were a good fit. Soon after, Rizolli Books in NY offered us a contract. (This was back in 1993 when you could not only collaborate, but easily send your project off to an editor, unsolicited!)
What inspired you to write MISADVENTURES OF A MAGICIAN’S SON by Blue Whale Press
I was sitting in a movie theatre watching the first 007 with Daniel Craig— Casino Royale. As the opening credits appeared, these large playing cards jumped on the screen. There was something very appealing about their graphic nature. I kept staring at them, asking myself, what if they were real people? What kind of personalities would they have? What type of adventures might they have encountered? The next morning, I jumped out of bed and began writing about a cast of unusual characters that would find their way into Alexander Finn’s heart!
I know it is a middle grade book, but did you add illustrations, since you are an illustrator?
Actually, I began illustrating MISADVENTURES while I worked on the manuscript. In a sense, it was a collaboration—working back and forth, fine tuning the illustrations while I wrote, adding details to the story while I drew.
At first, I did all the illustrations in color, but after speaking with an editor at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in NYC, she explained most publishers preferred black and white illustrations for middle grade novels. So, I went back to my studio, took all the images into Photoshop and changed them to grayscale. To my surprise, removing the color gave them more of a mysterious, moody quality.
Once the manuscript was ready to submit, back in 2012, I planned to include the black and white illustrations, but then I kept hearing editors prefer to find their own illustrators. At that point I thought, OK, maybe it’s best to hold off on sending illustrations until I found a home for the manuscript. So, I tucked all the artwork away.
A few years later, editors and agents were requesting middle grade novels by author illustrators. So, I pulled all the illustrations back out and started subbing again. I guess the old adage is true— timing really is everything!
Would you like to write and illustrate a book?
That is my ultimate goal. I currently have a few projects I’m finishing up dummies for. I also have a few manuscripts I’m hoping will speak to me— so I know how to proceed with the illustrations!
Have you ever been published by a US publisher?
Yes, Ravita and the Land of Unknown Shadows was published by Rizolli’s Children’s Division and distributed by St. Martin’s Press in NY.
I don’t have an artist rep at the moment and yes, I would love to work with someone that feels strongly about my work.
Do you do freelance illustrating full time?
No. I divide my time between illustrating and writing and our seasonal business.
Have you done any book covers for novels?
I’ve designed several book covers for MacMillan and Simon and Schuster that were graphic in nature, not illustrated.
Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?
It would depend on the project. Time is so precious right now— especially because I’m trying to focus on getting both my writing and illustration work published.
What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?
While my work has evolved over the years and the medium has shifted, my influences (while a bit eclectic) have always remained constant. I love the primitive, earthy qualities of Gaugin’s paintings. I try to bring an earthy essence into all of my pastel work. I also love the lyrical intricacies of Persian Art. These detailed works have inspired the many patterns and textures I incorporate in my own illustrations.
Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?
I’ve designed for McGraw Hill and the Modern Language Association.
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? Which ones?
No. I haven’t approached them as of yet.
Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?
Now THAT would be fun! Thank you for planting the seed!
What do you think is your biggest success?
I’m hoping to update the answer to this question once MISADVENTURE’S OF A MAGICIAN’S SON, is released—but for now, I would say- when Ravita and the Land of Unknown Shadows was published––that was pretty huge. The book(s) were displayed in the windows of Barnes and Noble across NYC and Long Island. This was followed by an offer of representation by Marilyn Marlow at Curtis Brown. That was kind of amazing!
What is your favorite medium to use?
I love working in pastel. I’ve also been playing with watercolors and my new Ipad Pro, Apple Pencil and Procreate.
Has that changed over time?
Yes. Early on I worked in scratchboard, linoleum cuts and watercolors. As time went on, I shifted to colored pencil and Photoshop when an Art Director I workshopped with suggested I try another medium that gave me the outcome I was looking for without having to rework so heavily in Photoshop.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
When an idea hits, I make room in my schedule to work out the rough details. I keep weekends and evenings available for following through on ideas, writing and illustrating. In the winter months, I have more time to devote to my artwork and writing. This might be the reason I love snow so much!
Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?
Absolutely. For example, Alex, my main character in MISADVENTURES OF A MAGICIANS SON, does quite a number of card tricks. I knew very little about this form of magic and needed to find someone really adept in this area. While the internet offered helpful information—I felt strongly that I needed a one-on-one experience. When I discovered a dear friend’s son was quite the card trick aficionado, I met with him and picked his brain on numerous occasions. He performed shuffles and fans and cuts while I scribbled notes and took lots of photographs. I also shot video that I watched over and over —this really helped me translate the energy of each trick onto the written page.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Yes, absolutely! Online writing forums and contests have been invaluable tools. In fact, it was an online opportunity that led me to signing with Blue Whale Press. And just recently, an online contest provided several requests for my work from a number of agents and editors.
Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?
Yes. When I’m working in pastel, I often scan the finished piece into Photoshop to adjust highlights and shadows and maybe add a few finer details.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?
I have a tablet connected to my desktop computer- which I use mainly for end-of-illustration detail work, not really drawing. However, this past Christmas, I received the IPad Pro and Apple Pencil. I think I stopped breathing watching those first few You Tube Demos! The possibilities are endless!
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
My goal is to publish quality picture books that I’ve both written and illustrated. I’ve come across some exquisitely designed books, with gorgeous fonts and illustrated endpapers that make my heart skip a beat. That’s where I hope my work to ends up someday. And if by chance someone decides to make a musical out of Misadventures…well that would be just fine too!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects at the moment. One is a more painterly series of illustrations for a poem I wrote about a girl that paints her room in a southwestern landscape and ends up on an adventure through the Painted Desert. The other is more whimsical in nature about an anxious lizard whose favorite toy is stolen.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
For those who write: Read, read, read!
Become a part of the writing community: Join SCBWI, Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, #50 Precious Words Contest, Tara Lazar’s Story Storm, The Children’s Book Academy- these are all wonderful resources to help strengthen your writing skills.
Work on your craft (try not to focus on the goal of getting published.) In the end, your work will flourish and editors and agents will be more likely to take notice.
Create a great website with a range of work that includes color and black and white images. Instagram is also a great resource for getting your work out there. And yes, postcard mailings are still an excellent way to promote your work. (Tip: Try to send out mailings appropriately themed just before holidays and seasonal events such as Halloween, Ground Hog Day, Spring, Fall and Winter.)
Get involved in online contests. Don’t be afraid to take chances. Be inspired by other artists but don’t make the mistake of following trends too closely. Your work should be as individual as you are. Bring your spirit into everything you create and you will not only find success, but satisfaction too!
Thank you Laurie for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Laurie’s work, you can visit her at: Website: https://www.lskillustration.com/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Laurie. I am sure she’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too.