Monday, December 8, 2008

My 2 Cents to Aspiring Illustrators

I have been getting a lot of questions lately about "how do you become a freelance children's book illustrator." Specifically, college students tend to contact me regularly to interview me as a "professional artist in your field of interest" for their class projects. I can't guarantee that the road that I followed will work out for everyone, but I do think that many illustrators got where they are today by taking a similar course. Since many aspiring illustrators have similar questions, I thought I would post the questions from these students and my responses. This is by no means a "don't contact me with any more questions" post! I love being able to share my experiences with others to help them get where they want to be with their career, just as other experienced illustrators did for me when I was a college graduate. I just figured that I might as well post some of this information on my little corner of the internet, and if anyone has any specific or further questions, feel free to contact me! Hope this helps as a good starting point to help new illustrators start off in the right direction:

Letter to Student:

I am happy to help you with your interview project, and am glad that you enjoyed my work for the Pirate School series. Please see my answers to your questions below.

1) Have you always wanted to pursue visual design as a career, or did you think you would be doing something else with your life?

Well, when I was 5 I wanted to be a paleontologist, but after that, yes, I have always wanted to be in an artistic career. During junior high and high school I spent many hours practicing in my sketchbook, and researching animation (mostly Disney), since I wanted to become an animator. In college, I majored in graphic design and virtual reality. Through this process I realized that while I still wanted to unite imagery and storytelling, I did not feel like a career in animation was right for me. I became a graphic designer, then a creative director for a multimedia marketing agency. Today, I have a fulfilling career as a children's book illustrator, and feel that this meets my goals.

2) How does a visual design career compare to what you imagined it would be?

I think many people have two misconceptions: 1- They don't realize how broad the artistic field is and 2 - they don't realize how hard one must work to realize specific goals. While graphic design and creative direction were not my end-goals, they provided business experience and much practical knowledge that was important for me to have as an illustrator. They also provided a steady income and health benefits while I worked towards my illustrator goal. This means that for 3 years, I worked about 75 hours a week (40 + at my full time job, and every night, holiday and weekend illustrating to build up a portfolio and client base). To become a successful illustrator, one must have a good deal of discipline and business sense, which I learned while on staff at my previous jobs. Few people just graduate and then jump into a successful illustration career. For many, it takes years, and you have to eat and pay bills in the meantime.

3) Where do you get your creativity and inspiration from?

Everywhere. I carry a sketchbook everywhere and doodle constantly. These often serve as inspirations for projects. I almost always draw or paint to music as well.

4) What do you feel is the best way to get your artwork noticed for the purpose of working steadily?

There is no guarantee that any method will work. However, here is a good course of action.

1 - First become so good at your craft that you stand out amidst your competition. Have a distinct style, and be able to execute this style quickly and consistently, with enough variety that each project looks like a unique project.

2 - Have a budget of about $3000.00 per year. Use this to buy a domain and website for yourself, get promotional postcards printed (which you then sent to art directors at publishing houses that you are interested in. Do this 4 times a year). Buy spots in online and printed directories (such as directory of illustration, Ispot and Picturebook - whichever are most applicable to your art). With research, targeted marketing, consistency and luck, your artwork should get noticed eventually.

Basically, there is no one avenue to promoting yourself. Successful artists use as many avenues and mediums as possible for promotion until they are known in the industry.

5) What other crucial advice would you give to an aspiring artist like me who would love to follow in footsteps very similar to your own?

Join SCBWI ( They have resources such as publishing house contacts, lists of agents, etc for illustrators and writers. Also, read everything you can in the discussion forums, since you will find answers to questions you did not even know to ask!

Get a full time job as a graphic designer, or some other regular paying job. You must invest a lot of your own money into this illustration business before it pays off, and you will need money to help fund that.

Understand that many of people who want to be in the business of children's book illustration will fail, because they will quit before they succeed. Before many illustrators can afford to leave their full time job, they have to put in long nights, have no weekends, no holidays, no personal time, and sacrifice financially. Some will simply burn out or decide that this just isn't worth it. That is fine. There is nothing wrong with deciding that freelance is not right for you, and being happy in a job with health benefits is not wrong!

I found that getting an agent (after I was published - most agencies to not accept non-published illustrators, and getting a good agent can be as hard as getting a publisher), was a good career move for me. My agent negotiates my contracts now and handles my marketing, as well as helps me to improve as an artist so that my work is more marketable.

Research, research, research before you do anything! Purchase the Graphic Artists Guild handbook (on Amazon for about $35.00) to understand pricing, rights, contracts, and everything. Know about business tax deductions, and keep detailed records of your expenses so that you can make appropriate deductions on your taxes. Research publishers before you send samples of you work (understand what type of work they publish, and tailor your samples to their interests). Talk to other illustrators. Remember, you are a business owner. You are your own secretary, lawyer, accountant, project manager, etc. It is your job to know industry standard practices, fees, etc. so that you can negotiate contracts accordingly.
Many clients will want artwork delivered digitally. Buy a nice scanner, set up an FTP site, and learn Photoshop (if you have not done so already).

Hope this helps! Good luck on your project and your career!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Seasons Greetings

Hi everyone! I don't know about you, but I always forget about sending out my Christmas cards until the very last minute. I can never find time to just sit down and write them. So this year, I have resolved to finish my Christmas cards over Thanksgiving, so that they can be mailed on December first! But actually, I've been working on Christmas cards since October, because this year, I am sending out cards with my own illustrations on the front. I've been wanting to do that for years! I've been really inspired by porcupines lately, and so I came up with this image of brother and sister porcupines building their version of a snowman. If you like the image and would like to get a head start on your holiday mail as well, my holiday greeting cards are available through my online store with DeviantArt. The cards are blank inside, so you can write whatever message you want, for whichever holiday you celebrate this season! The image is also available as a postcard through the same online store. Good luck with your holiday shopping, everyone! (As for me....I am not brave enough to face the crowds at the stores.....I'm ordering my family's gifts online.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New York Trip

I just got back from a whirlwind business trip to Manhattan! MB Artists had it's annual party (which was actually a series of several parties). I had never been to New York before, and was really glad that my husband and our friend Eric came along for moral support (and to help me navigate the subways....and to carry my bags).

On Wednesday night, we had cocktail party #1 at Moore Brothers wine shop. This was a meet and greet for the artists. I was amazed at how diverse the represented talent was! I met artists who had flow in from England, Mexico, and Argentina, as well as people from all over the United States!

The next day, I met with Mela to talk shop and go over my portfolio. We had talked a lot over email the phone, but it was great to meet her and the rest of the MB Artists crew in person. Also, her apartment is in an amazing location overlooking downtown Manhattan, so before our meeting, Jon (her assistant) took Rome, Eric and me up to the roof to enjoy the amazing view! Later, we ran through Central Park, had a few minutes in the Met (we'll have to come back to enjoy it properly), ate NY hot dogs for lunch, and then I went to my group appointment with HarperCollins. Over the course of the next 24 hours, the MB Artists group had appointments with several other large publishers as well! It was kind of surreal to present my portfolio to so many people from these houses, and obviously a wonderful opportunity. I was really proud and humbled (if that makes sense), to be able to show my work next to the other talented artists in the agency, many of whom are very well published and experienced. Thursday night we had cocktail party #2 at the Spice Market. Wow! All I can say is Wow! Lots of clients and publishers came for drinks, hors d'oeuvres and little desserts. You had to be there. It was an incredible event, but a little intimidating. Fellow artist Tammie Lyon was kind enough to let me hang out with her, meet her clients and eat pineapple wontons with her most of the evening.

Friday was packed with appointments (I was really glad I had postcard give-aways and business cards printed!). After all of the appointments were over (it was a great but intense day), Rome, Eric and I went to Bubba Gump Shrimp for dinner in Times Square, and then went to see The Lion King on Broadway. What an amazing show! I had not seen it before, and was very very impressed by the music and the costumes especially. It was a great way to end the trip!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gossip in the Locker Room

Ah, middle school.... Not always the most enjoyable period in a kid's life. Honestly, I would have to say that most kids in middle school find that the experience ranges from "confusing" to "cruel." Plus, that's when your body typically starts to rebel. Zits, deodorant, weird vocal intonations, braces.... It's as if in order to make the transition from "cute kid" to "sophisticated adult," we must first sped a few years in an awkward stage. What single scene can embody all of the insecurities of this life stage more than the locker room? Frankly, being the artsy-non-athletic type myself, the locker room was an especially unfriendly place. So for all of you nerds, fear not! I am living proof that middle school DOES end; math WILL come in handy, and you CAN get contact lenses. And for you few who are at the top of your game in 7th grade, be careful. Someday someone might paint an illustration about you.

So there is the inspiration for this piece. Otherwise, I had fun playing with the camera angles. Originally, I had placed the camera in a more typical position, showing the locker room scene as one would see it in real life. However, by adjusting the composition so that the camera is inside the locker, the illustration tells more of a story. We get to see the personal items that give us more insight to the main character's personality. Plus, this arrangement allows for the gossiping girls to be placed directly behind the main character, really giving that "talking behind someone's back" feeling. With all of these elements, we can begin to infer "story." They are in gym class, and the main character obviously feels awkward. What are those two girls planning? There is a note with a heart on it in the locker. Could those girls be spreading a rumor about our main character's love life? I found that as I worked on this piece, I started feeling a sense of "story" develop, and chose to add or take away details to allow that emerging scenario space to breathe.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pirate School 7 Released

Just a short announcement that Pirate School 7 has been released today! This book is the Christmas story of the series, and tells the adventures of Pete and his friends as they sail to the North Pole....and get stuck there! This project afforded me many opportunities to draw my favorite character Inna in her new holiday outfit. The most challenging image, though, was a small spot image of the ship mast decorated like a Christmas tree. Well, the mechanics of that required a bit of creativity. How do you make a long wooden pole look like a Christmas tree....and using only supplies found on a pirate ship? Luckily, I live in Indiana, and every Christmas, Indianapolis lights its "Christmas tree"....the huge monument in circle in downtown Indianapolis. Really, they just string Christmas lights from the top of the monument downward in the shape of a cone. This served as inspiration for the mast-christmas-tree, only instead of creating a cone of electric lights, I used fish netting a roping from which the pirate kids could then hang ornaments. You'll have to look for this little spot art in the book! As for my favorite image in the book, that would have to be the one of Vicky and Aaron swashbuckling in their PJs on Christmas morning. If you would like to purchase your own copy of Pirate School 7, please visit my store, and scroll down to the Pirate School 7 purchase link.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

New Moon Magazine Release

Hi everyone! Just an announcement that my artwork is appearing in the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of New Moon. The magazine is available for purchase through New Moon's online store. The theme of this issue is "Things that go Bump in the Night." I had a whole lot of fun concepting for this cover. When I was little, I used to be afraid of the dark, and especially the strange shadows that you tend to see at night. For this artwork, I thought of those shadows coming to life on Halloween, dressing up in masks, and collecting dreams from sleeping children. Suddenly, those nighttime shadows don't seems so scary anymore....

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Memory of Katie

On July 21st this year, Katie McGee passed away at the age of 9. She was the daughter of our friend Bonnie, and the flower girl in our wedding. Shortly after the wedding, Katie was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. She had a very rough 3 years of treatment. Although she was positive and brave during this time, Katie lost her battle just before what would have been her final treatment, and passed away. It was Katie's desire to be cremated, and I was honored when her mother asked me to produce a piece of artwork to be engraved onto the urn's lid. Bonnie wanted a picture of an angel holding Katie's favorite bear. The line work had to be simple so that the wood carver could easily reproduce the drawing in wood. I was very glad when I showed Bonnie the artwork yesterday, and it was exactly what she wanted. There isn't much you can say when a child dies, but I am very glad to have been able to do this for Katie and her family.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

End of the Hedge Maze

I work part time in the Young Adult Department of my local library, and am constantly surrounded by inspiration. These past few months, I've been reading "boy adventure" novels, such as "Airborne" and the "Pendragon" series, so that I can help those reluctant readers find books that might interest them. In doing so, I've really been inspired by steam punk and alternate/other worlds. So, I decided to incorporate those elements into my new piece. I wanted to capture feelings of discovery, challenge and even a little confusion. Setting the children in a hedge maze seemed like the perfect combination of quest and play. I also wanted to accomplish some portfolio-rounding-out with this piece by experiementing with different angles and colors. It was a bit of a challenge to set the piece at sunset and to keep control of what that would mean for the colors, but I am happy with the result. Overall, I am most pleased with the sense of "story" in this piece. Now if only someone would write the rest of the chapter so I can find out what happens to those two kids.....

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


I love it when a group of artists are given a broad theme and then have to each interpret that theme according to his or her own style. It is fascinating to see what each artist comes up with! This year, MB Artists is having their annual fall party for artists and art directors. The agency wanted each illustrator to create 2 small (printed at 1 inch x 1 inch!) pieces of line art based on the theme of transportation to be used on the invitation and other promotional give-away items. Working so small can be a challenge, because there is only so much detail that can be successfully included without cluttering up the work.

For my first piece, I wanted to highlight my favorite subject matter to draw - children. I did not want to picture any traditional form of transportation, and tried to think of something unusual, but recognizable. In the end, I decided on the segue, since kids are so embracing of new technology and the future. Plus, it's a really cool machine! For my second piece, I wanted to show that I can draw animals. Here, I wanted to get a little more playful. Because I love the porcupine from one of my portfolio pieces, I decided to experiment with his character a bit more in this assignment.

I wish I could see what all of the other artists created for their "transportation" line art. I am sure there are some really clever illustrations in the mix! I guess I'll just have to wait until September to see them all!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Expanding the Porfolio

Ah, freelance. You're either working until the wee hours of the night, or not at all! I'm in a bit of a lull right now, and while I am looking hopefully towards the horizon for the next project, I'm also enjoying the opportunity to build my portfolio with some personal pieces. Sometimes, it is more of a challenge to create concepts and illustrations out of thin air than to illustrate with a manuscript! So, I have been drawing inspiration from my own childhood memories and fantasies.

One of my favorite memories was of growing up in Boston. My brother, sister and I would spend so many weekends at the beach, perfecting the art of sand castle building, and digging deep moats to protect our creations from the tide. (The ocean always won out, by the way). One particular sand castle stood out. It was as tall as me (well, the 6 year old me), and we decorated it with all the shells we could find. It was magnificent. Looking back at photos, our castle was really just a very very large embellished pile of sand, but that does not seem to taint the vision that I still have in my mind. So, I painted "The Grand Castle" in honor of our childhood architectural achievement.

Like most kids, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I loved to explore the field across the street, and imagine that all of the rocks I collected were fossils. Of course, no 4 year old palentologist should exlore alone, so Dad would take me "trail blazing" across the uncharted territory of the field behind the middle school. I never did find a real dinosaur back there, but you never know where they could have been hiding. Perhaps during my next trip out to Boston, I'll stop by my field and take a look, just in case. Until then, my new "Trail Blazing" piece will keep the fantasy alive.

For my next trick, I will be working on some pieces with more unusual perspectives. I just need to play with some concepts and thumbnails. Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pirate School Series Concludes

Well, I just got the news that the adventures of Pete and his Pirate School friends will be coming to an end in the 8th and last book of the series. The final art for this title has been completed, and thus ends my 2 year relationship with those characters. It makes me sad. The whole experience of illustrating the books and working with the team at Grosset & Dunlap was wonderful. It is kind of strange to think that I won't be spending the next few nights drawing or painting "Pirate School" art. Since I have been working on the series since 2006, it just sort of became ingrained into my daily routine!

However, isn't there a song somewhere that says "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end"? "Pirate School" may be ending, but I am eager to see what new beginnings come of this. I am looking forward to new projects with new characters to bring to life! Right now I have about 3 possibilities in the works, and hopefully some of those will pan out into illustration opportunities.

In the meanwhile, I have taken this time to experiment and paint a new piece just for me and my portfolio. "The Grand Castle" is inspired by a childhood memory of building a sand castle with my siblings. It was really just a huge mound of sand decorated with shells and driftwood, but we thought it was magnificent. So, I have painted a piece to remember that moment of childhood imaginings and creativity.

So it is with eyes on the horizon that I say, "Arrgh, farewell! It's been swell, matey," to "Pirate School." Hopefully I will have a new post soon to let you know what new beginnings emerge from the end of this chapter! Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New Projects and Pieces

This past month has been full of great projects, both for clients and for the portfolio. In addition to my continuing work on the Pirate School series, I have also had the chance to work on a magazine cover for New Moon and an illustration for an ad agency. I can't wait to see the pieces in print! Plus (speaking of seeing your work in print), I was thrilled to receive my advance copies of Pirate School Book 6 today. The books are actually being released in May 1, 2008. I really like how the illustrations printed in this book. I feel like the contrast and subtlety that was in the original black & white art was reproduced well. Also, this particular story had great opportunities for letting the illustrated characters "ham it up", so it was great to flip through the book and remember how fun it was to envision the scenes during the sketch stage so many months ago!

I have also enjoyed having more time to create new pieces for my portfolio. Particularly I have been experimenting with anthropomorphic subject matter and contemporary children's scene. Right now, I am working on a slumber party piece, which I hope will make a fun addition to my portfolio! My husband also surprised me with a new set of paints. I love them! The colors are so vibrant, and the pieces are really enhanced by this new variety of color choices. The cover for the New Moon Sept/Oct magazine, the cover for Pirate School 8 and my Porcupine at Summer Camp portfolio piece were all painted with these new watercolors.

I hope you are all enjoying a wonderful start to spring! I'm off to go start some new sketches....while sitting outside on my porch - so wonderful after spending so many winter months inside!

For anyone wishing to purchase Pirate School 6, you can do so via the purchase section of my website. Thank you!

Monday, March 24, 2008

A New Chapter

For the past few years, I have been existing in two worlds. By day, I was a creative director for a multi-media marketing company. By night (and weekends), I was a children’s book illustrator. I enjoyed wonderful successes in both arenas, but eventually, my part time illustrating grew into a full time commitment. So, this past month it was time to officially make the long-awaited transition out of a full time staff position and into full time freelance illustration.

I am very pleased that what began as a part time fulfillment of a dream has evolved into a full time career in which I can find fulfillment and use my talents. I believe that this opportunity to devote my energies more completely to my craft will afford me the time to explore techniques and perfect my craft – ultimately benefiting my clients.

I have also been able to take a part time job for enjoyment. I now work a few hours a week at my local library. This is such an excellent fit, as it allows me to stay in touch with the children of the community, and have access to hundreds of children’s books, both classic and newly released. Being surrounded by the works of such excellent writers and illustrators is encouraging and inspiring.

Currently, I am enjoying being able to take on more projects at a time. At this time, I am working on a magazine cover, Pirate School Book 8 artwork and an illustration for a medical advertisement, as well as some new promotional pieces!

Many thanks to everyone who has helped me reach this new chapter in life, especially to my ever-patient husband, who cooked and cleaned the house so that I could spend nights and weekends illustrating and pursuing my dream!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Dino Day at the Fun Park

I had no idea I could paint so fast! This past weekend brought a new challenge. My agent has been helping me to flesh out my portfolio, and fill gaps in subject matter, particularly with animals and contemporary subject matter. As she continues to show my art to editors, it is becoming increasingly important for those gaps to get filled.....quickly. So this past weekend, I turned around this piece: Dino Day at the Fun Park.

It was challenging to get the piece (from concept to completion) done in just one weekend, but the tight timeline also forced me to get a bit innovative, and to make some departures from my usually style. I really wanted to use bright color, and to focus on getting greater contrast than in my past 4-color pieces. So I applied the paint more thickly than I normally would start off with, and began building up shadows aggressively. Normally, I will paint a piece, and then add some finishing touches in colored pencil. This time, to define forms more quickly and to add texture, I integrated the colored pencil as I painting - going back and forth until the colors were what I wanted. The result is a brighter, more textured look that I am pleased with overall. I also enjoyed the freedom to experiment with paint-pencil color combinations, and plan to continue to explore this technique in future pieces. I also enjoyed being forced to use animal subject matter, and the playfulness that those characters add to the piece.

Hope you all had a fun and creative weekend as well!

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Jennifer Zivoin", presented by....

I am happy to announce that I am now exclusively represented by MB Arists.

For a while now, I have been investigating getting an agent. I first needed to decide "Is representation right for me?" For some artists, signing on with an agency might not be best for them. After talking to many artists, some represented and some not, I decided that an experienced agent would be better at expanding my client and project base than I would be on my own.

And so, I began the search for an agency that would be a good fit for me. I knew I wanted representation in New York, the major publishing center of the US. After searching through various promotional directories, agent listings, etc, I finally narrowed the search down to 4 agencies that I thought would be appropriate. I sent samples and letters of inquiry. It is a two way street. Agents don't have to take you on board, so I expected some rejections. MB Artists showed the most interest, and we began dialog right away. After talking to Mela, going through the legal particulars, and talking with some of her represented talent, I became convinced that this agency was right for me. It was especially exciting to hear from the artists themselves, and to learn about their experiences and how MB Artists has played a role in their career developments. I was very glad that Mela also felt I would be a good addition to her talent base, and it is with great excitement that I now join the MB Artist family.

I am looking forward to meeting new clients, taking on unique projects, diversifying my portfolio and continuing to grow as an illustrator. I am also looking forward to focusing more attention on my artwork, and stepping back from the marketing side of the illustration business. I feel that this more concentrated focus on creating art will ultimately benefit my clients, both current and future, as well as provide me with a deeper satisfaction in my work.

Plus, now that I'll be making some trips to New York to connect with MB Artists & clients personally, I have an excuse to plan an exciting working-vacation in NYC!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Scene or Story?

I had some free time over the holidays to work on a personal piece. I have always wanted to illustrate a scene from my childhood. My family is Italian, so I have many memories of making meatballs on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Well, the artistic side of my emerged early when, as a child, I thought to myself, “Why make meat BALLS when you could make a meat DINOSAUR!?”

I actually did two versions of this piece. In the first, I was very focused on the scene and capturing the memory. However, when the piece was complete, I felt dissatisfied with the result. It was missing something. I posted the piece on the SCBWI critique forum, with the intention to gain feedback, and rework the piece. Thanks to the members who replied, I realized that I was holding the SCENE so near and dear to my heart that I had forgotten to make the piece tell a STORY – which is the essence of illustration.

So, back to the drawing board. This time, I approached the piece as I would an assignment – a concept to be illustrated. I moved the camera angle to create more visual depth, and to focus on the girl making the meat dinosaur. This also created a visual hierarchy, which helps to make the mind read the elements of the composition in a particular sequence – creating story. I also tried to envision what led the girl to begin sculpting with the meat. I imagined her lining up the meatballs, and suddenly realizing that she was making a caterpillar. From there, she got the idea to make additional animals. By putting in these details, we can infer a sequence of events leading up to the moment pictured.

From a technical standpoint, I pushed the background back into the background by non underpainting the “far away” elements. This kept the colors more washed out. In the foreground, I underpainted the characters and objects, to give brighter, richer color. This helped the main actions pop visually.

I am much happier with how this second version turned out. It was great to have a reminder that drawing from experience is excellent inspiration and makes for unique concepts, but that those concepts must be woven into a story. Now I have a fun promotional piece, as well as a beautiful illustrated memory from my childhood. As for the first draft? My mom loved the scene, and has the piece hanging in her kitchen so that she can look at it while she rolls meatballs.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Pirate School Book 5 Released!

Pirate School Book 5: Treasure Trouble has been released and is now available in stores or online at!

This was such a great book to work on, mostly because by this point in the series, the characters' personalities had become well developed. This allowed me to take artistic liberties with the illustrations. It was fun to think about the characters in each scene, and imagine little details or expressions that may not have been described in the text, but were part of that character. For me, creating the illustrations was like hiding little inside jokes for the author, the art director, and readers who have followed the series.

My favorite drawing from the book is Gary sneaking into the pirates' bunks. For some reason, I just love imagining what pirate pajamas might look like. I especially like the skull & crossbones hanging off of one of the sleeping pirate's polka-dotted night cap!

I hope you enjoy the latest Pirate School adventure with Pete, Inna, Gary, Vicky and Aaron! Yo, ho, ho!