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Viewing Blog: John Nez, Most Recent at Top
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Tidbits from the studio of a freelance children's book artist...
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1. Just sketching away...

Just sketching away on the next cover design... this one with a snowy wintertime setting.

I was spinning down the hill on my bike when it occurred to me that I should change a color from green to lilac. But the funny thing is when I got back home and tried it, it was exactly what it needed. I like when that happens.

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2. A Good Night's Sleep

One reason I liked this story so much was probably because I wished I could hibernate.

Counting sheep doesn't always work.

Tea with a friend is helpful.

But counting bears is a novel approach.  Anytime I have an illustration with bears, sheep and a tea party I'm happy to not be hibernating.

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3. Some things I saw in Denver...

Snow and lots of sunshine...

The view of the Rockies is always good...

A little history - one of the oldest houses in Denver. Molly Brown stayed there once.

Flying over the Tetons is always amazing.

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4. Autumnal Step by Step

Hooray for Fall!

My idiot's guide to making trees... I was riding my bike when an idea for painting leaves struck me - since what I had been doing wasn't working. So when I got home I tried it out and it worked.  That's why I find digital art to be so intriguing - science and art are combined.

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5. Autumn Colors...

Only God can make a tree... but photoshop works for fools like me.  I'm glad I didn't have to paint every leaf.

I like how the detail works even with closeups.

Sketching away... if at first you don't succeed - sketch, sketch, sketch again.

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6. I ink, therefore I am.

I ink, therefore I am.  

Inking is sort of like skiing - fun and a little dangerous with a sense of movement... or something like that. Descartes never did any skiing.

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7. Wow... a real bookstore!

Maybe you've listened to me complain how my neighborhood hasn't had a single bookstore in 5 years - even though it's named 'University Village'. Well things are changing... and today there's a new bookstore at last. I can scarcely wait to go in and look around. I even have a children's book that I did with Two Lions - so I wonder if it'll be on the shelves? Wow... having books on shelves... there's a novel concept!


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8. One Halloween's Night...

With a creak the barn doors open wide.
Scarecrow held up his lantern and cried

"This is our night of Jokes and Jitters!
Tonight’s the night to pretend ourselves silly...
Pigs can be pirates and hogs can be frilly"

The washboard started thumping loud.
The owls were hooting and cats meowed.
Bessie the cow got dressed in a gown
with fancy buttons up and down.

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9. Halloween is reinventing yourself...

It's almost Halloween... as seen in this old art file. Halloween is possibly every person's favorite holiday, because we get to reinvent ourselves for a day. I've been reinventing my Mac Pro so now, like Halloween, my computer gets to be something new. 

Having installed a new SSD boot drive, a 2 TB HDD and 12 G of memory it feels like something else entirely. I've been re-learning the basics of adding new disks and linking and disk managing.  Not too hard to do.

So happily Photoshop & the Creative Suite now have a whole new lease on life.  No more waiting 2 minutes for that Indesign file to finally open.  Now it's more like 8 seconds to start the program and open the file. That's more like it.

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10. It must be Fall!

It must be Fall! It's fun to be doing a book in tandem with the actual seasons - but then it's also fun thinking ahead to next Spring. I guess with children's publishing the seasons are often tied into the subject matter.  

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11. Life on the farm...

This was fun - I'd never painted a potato field before this.

 I did work on a Maryland tobacco farm once when I lived in Washington D.C.

  and in a bull barn and a dairy barn when I lived in Manhattan Kansas...

  which was unusual for a city mouse like me.

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12. Line, silhouette & a dash of bright color

I was pleased with how this piece came out - I managed to keep some of the spontaneity of the sketch in the finished color. It seems like I'm always struggling to choose a line for the finals - but in this one I combined several different solutions - colored line and silhouette shapes and a dash of bright colors.  Thanks to my pastel brush for the painting. 

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13. What have you published.... lately?

I guess one of the hazards of being a children's book maker is having to always answer questions from people who you haven't seen in a long while. "Are you still doing that children's book thing?".  To which I say Ah... why yes!  As a matter of fact that's been my chosen profession for many decades now and I still do, yes thank you very much.  The other dreaded question is "What have you published.... lately?"  With the emphasis being on the 'lately'.  That one can be a bit trickier.  

My feeling is like isn't it enough that one has published more than 50 books - but you have to answer to the 'lately' question also? 

Usually I just say 'Oh I'm working on some illustrations about a rabbit or a fox' - which applies to a large portion of my working life.  But really I mostly squirm at the question. Maybe I need a license plate that says 'CHLDNSBKART' or something.  Or a theme Tee shirt to the same effect. But alas, I have neither.

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14. Spontaneity of the sketch

Here's a fun new sketch to start the week. In my mind I imagined all kinds of different line qualities - pencil, pen, brushed pen - but when I started drawing the final, I stumbled on this digital brush that I tweaked and liked it just fine the first try.

Of course keeping the spontaneity of the sketch in the finish is always the challenge.

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15. It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon...

It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon... when the phone rang and it was my oldest son Arthur calling from Hawaii to say he and Ivy (his girlfriend of the last 5 years) were getting married in an hour! Whew! Congratulations Arthur & Ivy!.. they wanted to avoid all the complications of formality. And they just bought a house last month in West Seattle. Those two are way ahead of me... how wonderful for them! Golly... now I've got some new in-laws.

And they told us last Friday that they were going camping this weekend!

They are way smarter than me - they went into business and I.T. instead of drawing bunnies... 

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16. Try things out...

Digital layers makes it quick and painless to try things out. Here's a history of a two page spread that was a work in progress. Lots of changes in the layout, drawing and color.

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17. Digital art - before and after

Here's a before and after - I'll let you guess which is which. My feeling is that one advantage to digital art is I can revise any aspect of the art without having to tear it up and start over completely... and that saves time & stress!

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18. My New York Times editorial illustration...

And then there's my New York Times editorial illustration. 

There's a story behind that that I'll have to write someday. My first and last debut in the NY Times. But it was all fun.. .. it all started when I showed my portfolio to Steve Heller of the NYT. He seemed to appreciate my work, which was flattering since he's kind of legendary. 

Then one day the regular artist for Craig Claiborne's column was out, so I was invited to fill in. I had to rush it all in 2 days and take the art down by train & subway to drop off in person. It was fun going downtown like that. Those were the days.

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19. Part 6 - How to run away to NYC to become a children's book illustrator


Our trivial tale draws nearly to it's conclusion... as our footloose artiste finds his footing on the slippery slopes of publishing.

The real turning point and the place where I felt I was born as an illustrator was on a bone chilling February day.  It was one of those days when the mere word ‘cold’ is the palest distant echo of the reality of the bone jarring, nose freezing, wind whipping merciless sub-zero torturous COLD there could ever be. I had an appointment to show my portfolio at Holt, Reinhart & Winston on Madison Avenue, I think.

Inside it was warm... and wonderful... and seemed like magic. I was led back to the office of Miriam Chaikin, who seemed more like a fairy godmother than an art director to me. She appreciativley looked through my portfolio... carefully turning the pages and then paused and said. “Well, all we’d have for you now would be a little book. It only pays $800”.

More divine words have never into the porches of mine ears been poured. That offer, which I accepted on the spot, immediately tripled my bank account and made it possible to stay in Manhattan and try to become a freelance illustrator. Plan B was history. That job alone saved my career and changed my life... and I’ll be eternally grateful to Miriam Chaikin for her wonderfulness. She turned the course of my life then and there.

As it turned out, the book I did with Miriam Chaikin was fun. ‘School & Me’... featuring my totally cringeworthy artwork. I threw myself into doing it all. Color separations, designing the cover... things I’d never done before, but quickly learned. I did it all working in my tiny little studio room, delighted to be a real working artist. I remember the oddity of being woken up by a phone call from my ‘editor’ many a morning.

And as the Winter turned to Spring, my schedule of assignments snowballed. I had an A4 sized drawing sample printed up and mailed it out and dropped off samples at dozens of publishers. It was so exciting! It was living first and later on maybe I could think about anything to worry about... life is exciting when it’s lived out ahead of itself in the most wonderful way.

So I started working... freelancing. My tiny room became my studio. I made a lightbox out of a cardboard box with the bottom cut out and a lamp. I drew on translucent heavy vellum for the sketches and traced onto watercolor paper and painted. It all worked out great.

On a nice day I’d walk down to midtown though Central Park from West 78th Street... to drop off a sketch or finished art. I started doing lots of jobs for magazines... and little spots for educational publishing. And to my amazement, I started to get rich... it felt like I was rich at least. By June I had almost $5,000 in the bank! I’d never had more than $800 before... and that was after scrimping and saving for months. My dream was coming true... it was New York City... it was Springtime... it was wonderful.

And so my fledgling career began. I was now working for half a dozen clients. Travel & Leisure magazine, Scholastic, Games Magazine, Macmillan, ABC Publishing, Harcourt Brace.

I even got to work for 17 Magazine... which seemed like the swankiest, most glamorous place I’d ever been before.  I relished each trip to the art studio in back, where I’d discuss the sketch with the art director. My only disappointment was there wasn’t a single coed in a cardigan to be spied anywhere on the premises. But it was still thrilling to do an illustration and then see my work 2 months later in the magazines on the newsstands. It was all just too heady and exciting.

It almost seemed like as soon as I’d return home from dropping off an assignment, there’d be a new job waiting... for some fabulous fee like $375 for just one spot drawing! I used to have to push a broom for two weeks to make that much. This was the career for me!


I guess it was sort of a ‘La Boehm’ existence... only I felt rich. Did I mention there was no kitchen and only a shared bathroom down the hall? Amazing what one can adapt to... piling up dishes on the edge of a bathroom sink to wash them somehow under the bathroom faucet. The best technique was to use a frying pan cover as a tray, turned upside down, so it could balance on the flat top of it’s handle. Then all the plates and cups and glasses and pans and silverware all sort of balanced on top of that.

Manhattan had it’s charms. The Museums... the Met, the Whitney, the MOMA, the Frick, the Morgan Library and the Museum of Natural History. We’d go to the Museum of Natural History on cold winter nights just to have a place to walk around... stretching our legs through all the fabulous wings of dioramas. There was Central Park and the Lake. We’d sit on one particular rock that was like a peninsula stretching far into the water and just admire the beautiful view of Nature and the City. Those Olmstead Brothers did a bang up job of crafting Central Park. It’s hard to imagine New York without Central Park. I remember our mailman, who looked like a character right out of Stuart Little used to always sniff up his nose and say ‘Mmmm.... smell that wonderful fresh air coming from Central Park. It’s the trees that makes the air so fresh’. He was right.

Shakespeare in the Park... Concerts on the great lawn. Lots of walks past the lake to the Met. We went to the Met and the Museum of Natural History so many times that we strung together Christmas tree garlands out of all the museum buttons. Life on West 78th Street was wonderful... especially viewed through the lens of nostalgia. But would it last? Could it last?

Just one final wrap-up episode left, faithful readers! Hang in there... Read the rest of this post

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20. Part 7 - How to run away to NYC to become a children's book illustrator


At last, the long winding tale exhausts itself... leaving the theatre empty and the lights gone dim. To those valiant readers who wintered over and endured the endless gales of verbiage, I offer my gratitude.
Life on West 78th Street was sketched neatly along the lines of Stuart Little or some old Jack Lemmon movie. I remember watching all the people bustling off to work in the mornings... through the dappled morning sunlight of the trees. You could smell the perfume of the secretaries and hear the click of their high heels on the pavement. There was the Dublin Harp bar on 81st street in the evenings... quiet, tasteful... full of opera buffs.

And never a dull minute in New York City. New York always steals the show.

Like the night at 3 am to be awoken by jackhammering in the street directly outside the window. JACKHAMMERING at 3 am??? And then, when dawn finally broke, the guy in a hardhat poked up in his hole in the middle of the street... sipping his morning coffee and looking as much like a groundhog as a person!

Or the time in the middle of one of those monster snowstorms, when the city was buried under a mountain of impossible snow. Only in New York would you see the traffic cop struggling on foot from car to car, digging holes down into each mound of snow to find the windshield to put on a ticket for an ‘opposite side of the street parking’ violation!

The three strangest sights I ever saw in Manhattan:

1) Early one morning, I came climbing up the stairs from a subway to encounter a surreal street full of dusty elephants silently shuffling along down 34th street on their way to the circus. Never seen anything like that before or since!

2) One bright spring day around 57th street and Lexington I came across a city street gushing deep with crystal clear water. Instead of the usual asphalt there was a sparkling, foot deep fountain of clear water filling the entire street. It looked exactly like an alpine river from the Rockies had issued forth... unreal. The sunlight reflecting through the water was entrancing.

3) One day in Central Park I saw the only smoking jogger I’ve ever encountered. An elegant old queen with an ash tray in one hand was shuffling along in a purple velour jumpsuit. All the while with the most wicked sort of grin... he probably enjoyed being the only smoking jogger on planet earth. Only in New York.

Of course New York City had it's dark side...

I mean Manhattan is an exciting, but it’s tough to live there. New York was a world behind glass.  You could look at treasures behind glass, but you can't touch them. The lure of the West Coast was calling. I suppose I needed a trip out of Manhattan by then anyhow, call it a vacation or whatever - but just staying there seemed too hard.

I guess I'm really a Westerner at heart. I have to have snow capped mountains in view.

We’d spend hours in the Museum of Natural History sitting in front of this one particular diorama with elk in the Flat Top Mountains in White River National Forest in Colorado. It almost hurt sometimes to sit there and just wish I could hear the river rustling and smell the sage and the campfire smoke. So we packed up and headed west. On the way we stopped for a much needed two week camping trip in the Rockies.

It was exactly what we needed to unwind and relax in the sun. Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument... Rocky Mountain National Park... and we even made a point of searching out the exact spot of that museum diorama in the Flat Top Mountains in White River National Forest. We came close to the exact spot... but I think the artist must have fudged a few details, since we couldn’t get it to line up exactly.

We returned to New York the following September... but this time to Dobbs Ferry, in Westchester. It was quiet and leafy and much more live-able than Manhattan. That's where I put down roots as an illustrator, living in a wonderful old house built in 1840 overlooking the Hudson, with the most wonderful and eccentric landlord... a sculptor and art history professor and his wife, a photographer. But that's another story. It was the land of Sleepy Hollow, winding roads through the trees, historic estates of the robber barons, the Hudson River line to Grand Central.


But after four years in Dobbs Ferry, the West kept calling. I was homesick for snow capped peaks, rain forests, desert canyons, sagebrush, the cool green Pacific... for wild places without hardly any people. I dreamed of Seattle, the proletariat paradise... or so it seemed... sailboats, coffee shops, mossy sidewalks and ferns. I subscribed to a neighborhood Seattle paper, which is the worst possible thing to do when you're homesick.

Anyhow, by now I had an agent... and FedEx made it possible to live anywhere. So my New York days were over.

All in all I got to be all misty eyed and choked up when I think about New York City and how it makes the All American dream come true for ragged immigrants who arrive on her shores with no more than a dream. All those cliches about ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’ and ‘Welcome your homeless, your destitute and all that’-  I loved every minute of it. I arrived destitute with my own little dream and some talent... and it all came true for me. Thanks Manhattan!

I'd been a New Yorker for 5 years... it was everything I'd hoped it would be. But things move on. Amazingly I haven’t been back once ever since, even though I left decades ago. I never seem to go back to places. Life got in the way. And, after 10 years I began to realize that they NEVER send illustrators on business trips. Never, Ever, Never.  Did I mention they never send illustrators on business trips?

I've always envied people who get to go out in the world and travel as part of their work.  I just stay at home and the work comes to me and I make my own little worlds. Of course since the internet arrived, it's all kind of one big electronic village.

I've heard people tell me that my editors and art directors will be glad to see me - but somehow I can only remember how when I was in NYC everyone was always too busy to see me or even remember who I was.  So I've never gone back. I send postcards instead.

Anyhow, that was my tiny tale of triumph & tribulation... I'm sure everyone's got one that's just about the same, so thanks for reading mine!

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21. A little studio painting...

 A little studio painting...

I liked how stacking 3 or 4 similar paintings together creates a 3D effect with the landscape.

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22. Newsflash! Rain in Seattle!

Newsflash! Rain in Seattle! Yes, you heard that right - for the first time since last April (5 months ago) there was actually a gush of rain sloshing down along with lots of thunder.

Thunder is a rarity here - it was so loud and close I even unplugged my computer. So that made my day...

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23. Jury duty & the end of our drought

I've spent the last week with 2 days of jury duty in downtown Seattle - and then catching the 'jury duty cold' and spending the next 4 days recovering from it.

All in all it's more fun going to the dentist, where at least you feel like you've accomplished something. Hours of stressful boredom... thank gosh they allow iPads so I could stay in touch with my little online world.

I had to go in front of 2 judges and plea for my 'hardship' - which is namely two illustration projects due on deadline (38 pages of artwork). Many of the other jurors had employers who actually pay for the time they spend doing jury duty.  It was very stressful trying to explain to the judge the odd nature of my employment. The first time I was a rambling mess - but by the second time I wrote down the key points of my defense, so I was more focused.

Anyhow - the whole thing creeped me out - especially spending days with so many homeless people downtown who everyone just walks past on their cellphones laughing on their way to a $100 lunch. I had two sandwiches so I offered one to 2 different homeless guys - but all they wanted was drugs or money.

I'm glad to be back in my cozy studio - listening to the radio and painting. And it FINALLY rained in Seattle! Our 5 month drought broke at last in a dramatic fashion - with inches of gushing rain and thunder. All it needed was a Beethoven soundtrack it so dramatic - and SUCH a relief to find the world once more cool, dark and dripping wet with water.

How amusing to see Donald Trump is going to jury duty this morning - but he's been summoned 5 times before and never once showed up.

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24. Sometimes an artist forgets the most basic things...

First there was the amusing sketch - which if you examine it in detail it is apparent that one leg has gone missing!  Sometimes an artist forgets the most basic things.

But in the final color version everything came out exactly as planned. 

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25. Variations on a theme...

I decided, quite by accident one day, that this ought to be a style I should try to stick with.  It's funny, since I'd deleted the original file already, but just stumbled upon an older jpeg version.

One of the things I struggle with forever is how to define figures - either with line or with just shape.  And if it's line, then what kind of line.  In a complicated way this piece answers a lot of those questions for me.

Here are some of the variations on the theme that I tried before deciding on this:

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