I recently had a chance to interview the wonderful Courtney Autumn Martin – A full-time freelancer whose illustration work for the children’s market includes picture books, book covers, classroom readers, magazines, museum murals, and children’s painting kits. Courtney uses a combination of traditional drawing mediums and digital painting to produce her illustrations that have a great organic feel to them.
1. Have you always wanted to be an illustrator? How did you finally decide to make it your full time career?
Courtney Martin: Art, and drawing in particular, has been part of my life since childhood. In middle school I was teaching myself to draw photo-realistically and by the end of high school I was the “art kid” in my class. Upon entering Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2002 I considered either graphic design or illustration as a career path. Early into my freshman year I realized how much I enjoyed traditional drawing so I majored in illustration not really knowing where it might take me professionally. It wasn’t until my junior and senior year that children’s illustration became my primary interest, thanks entirely to the revelation that illustrated children’s books are undoubtedly my favorite art form. After college I focused on building my portfolio, gearing it to work in children’s publishing. Over time I received illustration work that allowed me to build my client list and published portfolio. It wasn’t so much a sudden declaration that I wanted to do this full time, but a slow build that allowed me to see it as a viable possibility. I was working full time as a designer for 2 years, illustrating here and there when freelance work came about. But my craving to do more drawing and less designing took over and I left my job to pursue illustration exclusively.
2. Do you find that having a design background helps you in your illustration work?
CM: To a point, yes. I think the foundation of useful design and successful illustration is clear communication of idea. These are both forms of art that serve a purpose, whether it’s spreading a message graphically or telling a story through images. With my illustration work and my design work, I’m pretty straight forward, keeping simplicity and readability in the forefront as I work. With illustration there are a number of external factors that often dictate how an image must be resolved, between gutters and text blocks and pagination, it’s important to be able to problem solve visually and that’s where design comes in. Understanding how to make an image readable while navigating the limitations of the page itself while creating an interesting, dynamic composition are things I consider while working. Whether I succeed at these points is another story…
3. Is your work all digital, or do you still do your initial drawings/sketches traditionally? If so, what materials do you use for your drawings?
CM: I always start by sketches with pencil in my sketchbook. Once I settle on the image, I scan the sketch, tweak it in Photoshop, and print it out. Then I use that to redraw the final pencil drawing by tracing it with pencil on tracing paper. Once the tracing paper drawing is finished I scan it and use it as the backbone for my final painting, which is done digitally.
4. When working on an illustration, what aspect do you find the most challenging? And which part of the process do you enjoy the most?
CM: The first scribblings of composition and layout are always the toughest for me. With seemingly endless options, it’s rather intimidating to have to pick just one way of depicting something. The feeling that there is only one answer to the problem is frustrating, because it’s not actually true. But once I settle on a direction and start to refine the drawing, the process becomes enjoyable as I try to capture the idea in my mind of what the image should be.
5. I understand that your husband Adam is an illustrator as well. Does this help to inspire or motivate you in your own work?
CM: Adam and I both went to RISD for illustration, and while it’s true that he has the envied ability to spontaneously pick up a pencil and create a fantastic illustration, he is not currently pursuing it as a career. Instead, he works as a full-time web/graphic/user-experience designer and has not really kept up with his illustration side. Knowing that I now have the equivalent of 5+ years of professional illustration experience over him, I am even more motivated to keep up with my own illustration development. I want to keep the momentum going that allows me to constantly improve. I don’t want to fall out of practice because (unlike him) I may not be able to maintain the skill if I don’t use it. The fact that I have the opportunity to illustrate full-time and he does not also makes me appreciate it even more, and makes me strive to make him proud of the work I do.
Adam is very supportive of my work and is a great resource for feedback when I need it. We hope to someday both be able to work for ourselves and collaborate as an illustration team, which considering our relatively similar styles and techniques could work out well for us both. Being married to a person who appreciates and is inspired by art as much as I am makes for a fantastic creative environment.
6. You are represented by Tugeau 2, Inc. – How did this come about? How has it helped your career as an illustrator?
CM: Nicole Tugeau contacted me in 2009 asking if I was interested in being represented. At the time I was working as a designer and getting freelance work on my own through online children’s illustrators websites. I was not actively seeking representation but it sounded like it might benefit me, as I wanted the work but not quite the trouble of hunting it down myself. Nicole had seen my illustrations in my online portfolios and seemed to have a need for my kind of style. Once I left my full-time design job a year later, I decided to get back in touch with her. We signed contracts and she took me on as one of her artists. Overall, it’s worked out quite nicely. The work I have gotten through her has been primarily educational—a.k.a. jobs I wouldn’t otherwise see if I didn’t have an agent. The work has kept me busy which means I stay in practice, which in turn means I have been improving the last two years. Ultimately educational work is a bit more mathematical than trade books. Generally there are a lot of creative limitations, not to mention time constraints, so it’s tough to feel satisfied with the work produced. For the most part though, any work is good work if it keeps illustration muscles in shape.
7. Whose work do you admire? Who or what inspires you from outside your own medium of work?
CM: I am inspired by countless contemporary children’s illustrators (Mary GrandPré, Tony DiTerlizzi, Brett Helquist, Brian Selzick, Linda Wingerter, the list goes on and on). Every illustrator is so unique in the way they see the world and the way they share their artistic vision. They remind me to push myself further to find my own artistic voice, while at the same time reassuring me that everyone is different so there is no benefit in self-consciously comparing myself to others. It may be a long journey before I make work that I truly connect with and that I feel proud of, but it’s exciting because I’m finding myself in the process. I’ve been illustrating for just a few years so who knows where I may end up after a decade (or two or three) of exploration and hard work. And while I may never be as skilled as the amazing artists I admire, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to be the best illustrator that I can be. I playfully remind myself that the world doesn’t need another Mary GrandPré or a Tony DiTerlizzi, because they’re doing it perfectly themselves!
Apart from illustration, I am inspired by other avenues of storytelling like film, music, and literature. I watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books, and listen to a lot of music. I enjoy being analytical of all the parts of each medium. That is to say when I watch a film, I’m constantly considering the shot compositions, color, mood, tone, music, editing, pacing, etc. because they all contribute to the effectiveness of the piece. The same is true for literature. Sentence structure, character, point of view, place, style, etc.— I like understanding how all the parts combine to create the whole narrative.
8. What advice would you give an aspiring illustrator? -In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
CM: My advice is: get out of your own way. Don’t let your fears, self-conscious inhibitions, and ideas of unworthiness stand between you and doing what you enjoy. It is better to do than not to do. You can only get better if you start somewhere. In hindsight, I’ve learned to cut myself some slack. I’m not the best illustrator in the world, and I never will be. But I can be me, and I can work at becoming the best version of myself if I keep at it.
9. Where would you like your work to lead you? Have you any aspirations or plans for the future?
CM: In the not too far off distance I see myself looking inward much more. Trying to understand myself better and what I want to say and how I want to say it as an artist. To me there are two sides to being an illustrator: the money-making side, and the labor of love side. I want to write and illustrate my own books. I want to express myself more rather than just problem solving for other people’s projects. I want to reconnect with what I loved about books and illustration when I finished school 6 years ago, and see if I can make a career out of that passion rather than always waiting for the paying gigs to come along.
Thanks so much for the great interview Courtney!