Color Me Happy

RonnieCoatRack-WEBAbout a year and a half ago I saw what was happening with adult coloring books. What?? Adults–coloring?

Yep, I get it. We’ve been through a few squirrely years with recessions and wars and who know what else coming down the pike. I understand why someone would look for a little respite by filling in spaces with color and the satisfaction of completing something. I mean, we as freelance illustrators and writers never quite feel like we can put something down and say, hey—look what I did, I’m finished! Because there is always another client to contact, or another idea to figure out and another concept to decide whether it has legs—or not.

So I published a coloring book about a year and a half ago. And then another one, and another—and to date I have 13 books on the market, both my own and books I have done with a publisher–plus a few other coordinating products. Yeah, it’s been a busy year and a half.

Funny, over the course of my career as an illustrator, I’ve had very little contact with the end consumer of my products. My day to day contact is usually an Art Director or Licensing Manager of a manufacturer of greeting cards, rugs, decorative flags and the like. If I ever see someone actually buy a product with my art on it, it would be a complete fluke—like running into my fifth grade teacher at the corner bar.

And seeing Sister Cornelius nursing a Tequila Sunrise is a bit more than I can take.

Once I was trolling the aisles of Michael’s Crafts and saw a woman pull one of my sticker sheets off a peg in the scrapbook section. I couldn’t decide if saying something to her would frighten her away or make her feel strange if she suddenly decided that she didn’t like those particular bunnies and there would be that awkward moment when she slipped it back on the peg. Plus I had a bad case of the “shy’s”. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but every once in a while I have one of those moments when I lose my confidence and want to hide behind the nearest coat rack. And frankly, there are not enough coat racks in the world. But I got over it and said, “I know this might sound weird, but I am the artist who designed those stickers and I am so please that you picked them out.” There was a momentary silence while I tried to conjure up a trap door to fall into (I watched a lot of Road Runner cartoons as a child) and then she looked at me and said, “Cute.” And tossed them into her cart.

Now I know how Jennifer Lopez feels when she goes out in public.

But the coloring books. Now that is different. I am talking every day with the actual people who buy them–not all of them, of course but our Coloring Café Facebook group is very active and we get emails all the time from customers who say the nicest things about my books and what they have meant to them and the people in their lives. I also hear what they would like to see.

“You seem to love cats, can you draw more dogs?”

“What about an all flowers (or campers, or girls, or cupcakes, or wildlife) book?”

“When are you coming to Australia?”

And it is awesome. Oh, sure, there are a few Amazon reviews that sting a bit. Like, for instance, the one that said, “That girl can’t draw” but for the most part it’s an amazing exchange of ideas and celebration and a shared passion that so far I have only had with my fellow artist friends—not with “strangers”. I provide the framework and they work their magic. With each stroke of the colored pencil or swipe of a marker, the page slowly transitions from my design to their amazing masterpiece. And I am happy to hand it over.

And if I ever see someone actually buy one of my coloring books in a store? I will probably run up and hug them—while they search for the nearest coat rack.

Yes, You might just be boring…

BoredGirlMy sister Sarah is my go-to gal when I am in the need of conversation that can be at any given time (and often in the same sentence) stimulating, heart wrenching but always downright hilarious. We have spent untold hours on the phone and in person cracking each other up over the irritating minutiae of life. No tidbit is considered too trivial or too far in our past for us to discuss and ruminate over.

But every once in a while one of us is yammering on about a subject even we recognize as over-analyzed and picked apart so far that even we can’t stand it. I think Sarah was the first to say,


“Holy Moley, I am boring myself to tears. I cannot imagine what I am doing to you.”

This occasionally repeated phrase is code for, “Fer cryin’ out loud,let’s move on! We we cannot possibly be this dull!” And we do and we find something waaay more interesting to talk about. Like what we’re making for dinner.

Well, that was an amusing little story*, but let’s get back to the art business, shall we?

Artists strive to develop a “style” –some recognizable element that makes them stand out in the crowd and makes a distinctive mark on the world. Of course an artist’s range can vary but once they hit their “sweet spot” they tend to stay in that place, varying their work through different subjects and new images. But eventually the well starts to run dry and our little artist keeps finding herself serving up designs that are sort of okaaaay but lacking that original zing and shiny luster of the initial concepts. And our little artist has become bored.

And dare I say it? She has become…bor-ING!

So what happened here? She’s had her head down churning out idea after idea in her attempt to serve her style, just like she is supposed to do. The problem is she keeps going back to the same well for her inspirations. And she keeps coming up with the same basic look just changed up with a new color scheme or a different season but it’s really more of the same. This girl needs to get out more.


It’s called “filling your cup”, people.

When you find yourself restless and bored with what you are doing or wondering what you should do next, it’s time to take yourself out of the studio. Go to a museum—natural history, art, your local historical society–heck, maybe even the Mustard Museum**—can you imagine the cool vintage labels they might have there? Go to the dustier parts of the library. A botanical garden or arboretum. Go walk in the woods. Take a class in a medium you don’t normally use. Stop using Google images and Instagram as your only reference source. Find new inspirations and perspectives to bring back with you to the studio. Do this often, pretend like it’s your job.

Oh, wait—it is your job!

Because if you find your work boring, you can only imagine what it’s doing to us.

Sarah said so.


*Hey, I have seven sisters, there are sure to be more of them.

**It’s a place, really. Here’s the link.

Am I Working on the Right Thing?

Maybe not.

I know. Those are simply fabulous answers! Here’s the thing—we don’t always know if the activities we are engaged in will come back to us in dollars, satisfaction or a “learning experience”.* Every freelance artist or writer I know ponders this very question—and that does not necessarily change with experience. We just do a bit less flailing about worrying and accept that it is part of the dance of freelance.

So here are my thoughts on the yes, you are, maybe you are and you are definitely not working on the right thing right now.

Yes, for sure:

  • Artwork you are doing under contract like an editorial illustration or licensing deal. These are the activities that rise to the top of the priority list.
  • Projects that you don’t necessarily love but will result in someone giving you money for the actual purchase of actual food for your actual family.
  • Promoting yourself strategically in social media, but without being a slave to every little thing that comes along—or making everyone wish you’d just go home and draw a picture already.

Maybe/Maybe not:

  • Developing artwork in anticipation of a trade show or meeting with potential clients—you are pretty sure you are hitting the mark on what makes you, you and you think you have a pretty good idea that the market will respond positively but there’s always the chance that, well—you didn’t. But by not doing anything, you for sure will not get a positive result. This is called risk. It’s what we entrepreneur types do.
  • Adding new work to your Etsy, Society 6, etc shops—it might sell, it might not, but it certainly won’t if no one sees it.
  • Experimentation, throwing paint around, feverishly sketching in your sketchbook. These activities don’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents but without them, there is not a chance you will stumble across something that will.

Probably not:

  • Trolling Zappos** for comfortable tradeshow shoes while partially finished potentially fabulous designs languish in your Photoshop files. Ahem—get to it, sister!
  • Mimicking other successful artists or staying in a lane that is too crowded. Be you, already!
  • Whining about your lack of success. Yeah, that never works.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

-Soren Kierkegaard

I know, that’s awfully deep for me and many, many people would find it hilarious that I am quoting Kierkegaard when I’m usually quoting people like Dolly Parton, Mr. and Mrs. Howell and Dr. Phil. But that’s the way it is, you know? And to answer that first question? It’s all in the looking back.

But I’d hedge my bets on doing your own thing with meaning, authenticity and really good technique.

So that would be a yes.


*Learning Experiences are great but they can’t make a car payment.
**This should only take place after 11 pm while drinking a glass of wine. It’s the rule.

Tell me the truth…maybe.

RonnieCheerleader-WebRecently someone in one of the art licensing Facebook groups asked where people go for critique of their work. And occasionally someone will post an image and ask people what they think of it and its viability in the marketplace. I have been known to have my fingers poised over the keyboard to compose a (brilliantly kind) critique from my perspective as a qualified fresh eye. But I stop myself. Why? Well, I don’t know this person and I don’t know if she really wants criticism or does she want someone to say “Good Job! You worked hard on that!” Does she want honest feedback or does she want a cheerleader? Two very different things, and I am not going to second guess that answer with a complete stranger on a public forum. Not my can o’ worms to open.

As many of you know (because I keep talking about it), I have been writing for the past few years and have published a couple of books. What? You didn’t know that? Well, click here to learn more about that! In this process of figuring out how to craft stories out of thin air, I have become more connected to other writers through blogs, books and actual human connection. Critique partners and groups are much more common in the writing world and have helped lots of writers improve their craft by hearing the input of others who are qualified to give it. Or it’s caused a few writers to curl up into a tiny ball of angst after hearing that their dialog is stilted and the plot needs a complete overhaul. It is not for the faint of heart to listen to comments about the work you have wrestled from each fiber of your being and spewed onto a perfectly good sheet of paper. I once made the mistake of reading an early excerpt from a story I was writing that was not the typical subject for my writing group. I will not forget the sting of criticism from someone who clearly had no affinity-or respect- for the genre itself, much less my writing of it. I realized that I was reading up the wrong tree.

So if you are going after the hunt for honest critique of your work (and you should at some point), there are people who are qualified to critique your work as to its viability in the art licensing arena and there are some (ok, most) who are not.

Qualified to critique your portfolio:

  • Seasoned professionals that understand the business like:
  • Most Art Licensing Agents
  • Other artists who have successful licensing careers over a decent chunk of time who are not threatened by other artists
  • Consultants to the industry as long as they are up on current trends and market
  • People you trust and respect.

Not qualified to critique your portfolio:

  • Artists who want to be licensed. As much as we love them, if they haven’t figured it out for themselves, do you want to take advice from them?
  • Artists who have a bad attitude and do not have your best interests at heart
  • Your Mom. (sorry, she fits into another category…or two)

I am a huge advocate for artists supporting each other and I don’t know what I would do without my own posse of fellow creatives who get what this world is like to live in. And although we sometimes give each other honest feedback (when asked) we are really cheerleaders for each other. (“You can do this! I know you can! And if you can or can’t, I don’t care! Now have some wine…”) So who should be in your Cheerleader camp?

  • Artists who are on a similar path to yours and are not threatened by your work.
  • Your friends who just want to see you succeed already!
  • Your significant other
  • Your Mom–See? Here she is!

But if you want to develop an ongoing cast of comrades to act as fellow critique-ers, remember that selecting critique partners or groups is a delicate process. Trust, respect and a healthy sense of humor are essential qualities to set the stage for everyone’s growth. To prevent anyone from feeling hurt, embarrassed or just plain ticked off, snide comments, rolled eyes or anything resembling sarcasm should be left at the door–but they are mandatory while watching The Bachelor with your girlfriends. It will also help to learn the fine art of critique which in writing circles is called the Critique Sandwich. It works like this:

  • Lay down a base of positivity. “Your color palette is incredible; love that you used the aqua and orange-y red as accent colors!”
  • Spread a layer of criticism. “But I’m a little concerned about who your audience is. The sentiment seems like it’s for adult women but the art style feels juvenile to me.”
  • Top it off with a big old dollop of positivity! “Your style is really beginning to emerge and your message is spot on! I think with a few tweaks this will be a great collection!”

There! Now, wasn’t that easy?

Using phrases like these can help your partners come to their own answers:

  • Have you considered_____________?
  • Tell me about why you ___________.
  • Maybe____________might be a stronger approach.

Instead of:

  • What were you thinking?
  • It’ll never sell.
  • Well, that sucks.

And here’s another thing. Remember everybody comes to the table with their own viewpoints and sensibilities. So thank them, don’t argue and consider whether what they said gave you more insight into where you want to go with your work. A good critique will open up more questions, leading you to find the right answer for yourself. And the other kind is just…someone else’s opinion. But you can tell the difference, can’t you?

And when it’s your turn, be kind, be clear and don’t forget the sandwich.

Finally, be very careful when asking anonymous forums for a critique of your work—you can open yourself up for all kinds of grief when faceless, possibly heartless people have a place to voice their opinion. Or worse, all you’ll hear is, “great work!”

I have worked in the illustration biz since Hello Kitty was a wee kitten, including time spent as an art director, illustrator, agent and consultant, so I have a pretty good eye for evaluating an artist’s portfolio’s potential for art licensing. I can usually spot the pieces that rise to the surface and which ones should either be reworked or retired. I love this process and the clarity it can give an artist—I also know the feeling of staring at something for so long you can’t tell of its good, bad or boring. But you see—I’m qualified. And I am also seasoned enough to first ask the question—are you looking for a critique or a cheerleader?

Because I’m pretty good at that too—except for the cartwheels.