Illustrator Spotlight: Cortney Benvenuto
Happy Monday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight! Thank you to everyone who participated in our Dana Wulfekotte giveaway! Congrats to Ashley Congdon and Kaylen Wade on winning signed copies of Rabbit & Possum.
Today, we are so excited to feature author-illustrator, Cortney Benvenuto! Let us make like dolphins and dive right in...
If you had only one tool or medium to use for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Watercolor! It’s my favorite-you can do so much with it.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
TIME, inspiration, and materials.
What is something you must have in the pantry or refrigerator?
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you get into kid lit? Why picture books?
When I was young, I kept a sketchbook and loved any opportunity to be creative! This paved the way to getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Oregon State University. I spent a lot of time in the sculpture lab and fell in love with watercolor. During this time I began a series of watercolor animal paintings, and a teacher friend of mine suggested I make an ABC book out of the paintings. This is when the seed was planted. It wasn’t until several years later I dug into the kid lit world-and fell completely in love.
What’s your favorite thing about working as a kid lit author-illustrator?
There's SO MUCH to love! It’s fun! Illustrating is my favorite aspect, but I also love spending time in the library reading picture books! :)
Your debut picture book, Animal Alliterations Around the World from A-Z is coming out this fall. Congratulations! What is the genesis of this project?
Thank you! I’m really excited Animal Alliterations is my debut PB. It’s been a work in progress for many years. Like I said above, it all began when I started the animal watercolor series, and a friend suggested making an ABC book. It’s truly been a work in progress for ten plus years! The concept has morphed, and I’ve rewritten the manuscript MANY times, but I’m incredibly happy with it. : )
What does it mean to you that your debut picture book is just around the corner?
As we all know, the kid lit industry is highly competitive, filled with MANY talented authors and illustrators, so I feel very fortunate and proud.
What can you tell us about this book?
As the title suggests, it’s a nonfiction picture book about animals from around the world, highlighting their habitat in which they live, using alliterative language. I've included a mix of well-known animals, such as an elephant and tiger, to lesser-known animals like a sloth bear and quokka.
What are some of the things you are currently doing to help market and promote your book?
Social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) is an incredibly helpful tool. I'm in the early stages of promoting, so I will learn more closer to the launch date.
Your website really showcases your portfolio well. Talk to us about your path to publication and how you got your portfolio out into the world initially.
Thank you! As my work has evolved so has my portfolio/website. I first showcased my portfolio at an Oregon SCBWI conference in 2016. I was pretty nervous and didn’t really know what I was doing. When I saw the other illustrators portfolios, I walked around hoping no one would connect my name to my portfolio. Haha! I was embarrassed of my work but glad I had the experience. It’s important to take risks, challenge yourself, and keep trying. Two years later I won first place in the Oregon SCBWI illustrator showcase! It was an awesome moment!
Your website mentions that you used to be a fourth grade teacher. Are you a full-time author-illustrator now? What was that like to make the decision to leave teaching to pursue your passion?
I left my teaching position because I got promoted to becoming a mom! I had my daughter in 2013 and then my son in 2015. I wanted to stay at home with my babies. During this time, I dedicated my “free time” diving into the kid lit world. It was very challenging with two babies, but I became obsessed. I read as much as I could, took classes, joined SCBWI, went to workshops/conferences, etc.…
Walk us through a typical day for you and some of the challenges you face as an author-illustrator and mom. What are some daily disciplines that are built into the rhythm of your work-life?
This is the first year both of my kids are in school all day, which has been vital to helping me meet my deadlines! When the kids are at school, I work on: revising the manuscript, LOTS of research, sketching and painting. When the kids are home, it's family time, cooking and cleaning. When they go to bed, I get back to work. Usually, final line work--adding ink. It’s challenging getting my work done with a four and five-year-old, but I’m incredibly lucky. In terms of daily disciplines-at the very least I sketch, but I love painting, and if I go more than one day with picking up my paintbrush, I get this frustrated creative energy.
I’m super jealous that you live in Oregon. I think the Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. A lot of your work is nature inspired. Do you find you get a lot of inspiration from the surroundings where you live? Do you have a favorite spot or place to visit that you find more inspirational than others?
Oh my goodness yes! I am so blessed to live in Oregon! It’s tough for me to pick a favorite. I LOVE the mountains and desert, LOVE them, but if I HAD to choose; I'm probably most inspired by Oregon’s rugged coastline and ocean. But again, it’s tough to pick. ;)
Tell us about your work-space.
Haha…work-space! My dining room has more or less become my studio. My large dining table has become the home for my work and random supplies.
I illustrate at a high top table in which I move into the kitchen because it has the best lighting in the house. I’d love to have an actual studio space someday and the dining room back!
You work with only traditional mediums and use a limited color palette. I really love your aesthetic! There’s a strength and simplicity in it that seems perfect for kid lit. Have you always used this style? Have you dabbled in any digital mediums?
Thank you! It's pretty accurate to say I’ve mostly painted in limited color palettes. My style has evolved a bit, as I’m illustrating more kid lit friendly subject matter. I have never used digital medium. I don’t even know the basics of Photoshop! Two years ago I won 2nd place in a poster contest, and I received Wacom Intuos Pro Pad as a prize—I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it’s still in the box! It would be helpful to know digital—the color options are fantastic and it would be excellent for correcting mistakes, but I LOVE using watercolor, brush, and ink and take pride in using only traditional media.
What is something that you are currently working on that you can tell us about? Any teasers for future projects?
I’m really close to finishing final art for Animal Alliterations. When I finish, I’m making myself dedicate time to querying and finding an agent! I will also continue working on a story about the little girl in the garden you will find on my website.
I love the hashtag #Colour_Collective on twitter! It’s always a feast of inspiring images and mini stories that make me want to know and see more. Why is something like #colour_collective and other online illustration opportunities important to participate in?
I love #colour_collective too! There are many reasons to participate in online opportunities! A big one for me is accountability—I’ve used #colour_collective as a goal to make at least one finished illo each week. It's also fun to be part of a community of illustrators and you “meet” other artists. Lastly, exposure—#colour_collective is where my publisher first saw my work, and I’ve heard other industry professionals say they look on social media for illustrators.
As a fellow member of SCBWI, why do you recommend joining this organization for someone who hasn’t taken that step yet?
I can’t recommend SCBWI enough! It's an incredible resource, especially when first starting. Other reasons, workshops, and conferences are amazing, networking, submission opportunities, exposure (participating in illustrator showcases), critique groups, and on and on!
What advice do you have for those just starting out in kid lit illustration? Any practical resources that are particularly helpful?
I joined Twitter when first starting out and didn’t expect it being such a helpful tool. Following agents, editors, publishers is helpful and informative. You learn a lot from other kid lit people. Participating in pitch parties is good exposure and fun. Be patient, persistent, take risks, put yourself out there, believe in yourself! An essential piece of advice I heard from Lin Oliver (founder of SCBWI) "Define yourself as a professional and demand friends and family to treat like one."
What is something upcoming that you would like to celebrate or promote?
Thank you so much, Cortney. I can't wait to see Animal Alliterations on the shelves!
And thank YOU kid lit fam for stopping by to support fellow authors and artists like Cortney! If you enjoyed today's interview and would like to receive email notifications when a new post drops, subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight. All the cool kids are doing it.
About Cortney Benvenuto
Cortney Benvenuto is an illustrator and writer living in Milwaukie, Oregon. Using only traditional mediums; pencil, watercolor, and ink, she loves illustrating the natural world and children. Cortney often paints in a minimal color palette and is captivated with intricate patterning.
Cortney graduated from Oregon State University with a Bachelors of Fine Arts and before becoming an author-illustrator she taught third and fourth grade. When she’s not illustrating or writing, Cortney is off on a family adventure with her husband, daughter, and son.
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is represented by Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading this sentence. He thanks you for being human. Unless you're not. Like maybe you're some kind of robot or something. If this is the case, I have a message for the Robot Overlords: WE WILL NEVER GIVE UP. WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER. WE WILL FIGHT TO THE VERY LAST OF US! YOU AND YOUR KIND ARE NOTHING MORE THAN BUCKETS OF RUST!! Also, 0010101010101010101011010100101!! Yeah, I said it. Humanity rules!