Illustrator Spotlight: Megan Higgins
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Today we have a fantastic Illustrator Spotlight with Megan Higgins. If you've spent any time on Twitter you've probably seen her stunning art pop up on your feed. Every time she posts something I think, "I WANT ALL THE ART." It's truly phenom.
Megan is doing a giveaway with her post so check out what's up for grabs at the end of the interview. But don't just scroll to the giveaway info like some sort of common cave or bridge troll. It's not about the giveaway, people...it's about the interview! Megan and I get into some deep questions here, so dive in and enjoy!
Enough sleep- if I’m too tired, I really can’t work or else I work really slowly.
Tablet without a cat on it- it’s very hard to get much done when the cat’s napping on the tablet and I’m usually too nice to make her move.
Inspiration- it’s hard to do much if there’s no inspiration to get started.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Yellow Mustard. I love yellow mustard. I used to bring it with me in my luggage from the US when I visited. Now, there’s one shop that carries it and every time I go there I pretty much buy out their entire stock. It’s a little embarrassing, but each time I go, I’m afraid it’ll be the last time they’ve got it in stock. So, I’m a mustard prepper. I also need hummus, coffee and a good selection of different fruits.
Outside. Usually, it’s enjoying nature, but going to a new city or location can also help get some new ideas going.
A lot of my best inspiration comes when I’m running. It gives my body something to do while my brain gets a chance to take in the sights and wander a bit.
Give us a little about your background. How did you get into kidlit, and why picture books?
This is a tricky question since picture books and kidlit were not something on my radar before. I had gotten my first tablet and was starting to figure it all out after years of telling myself creating art wasn’t really something I was all that interested in doing. I started sharing my art online on Tumblr when I started to stumble across other artists who were making picture book illustrations. I looked at their work and my own and it just kind of clicked for me that what I was making was very picture book like. I think once I realized where my artwork could fit, I started thinking in a picture book way. I’d look at what other artists in the field were doing and started taking some of those types of ideas and using them in my own work.
Stumbling across #colour_collective on Twitter was perfect since it introduced me to an even larger group of picture book illustrators. The more I started running in these online picture book circles, seeing all of the different styles and art that existed in the kidlit world, the more experience I gathered about what things made good illustrations for picture books and started bringing that into my own work.
Well, I’ll start out with what I dislike most about living in Austria and that’s missing my family and my friends. I’ve been in Austria nearly 10 years now and even though it’s been a long time, I’m still really close with my family and I’ve kept very close ties to my best friends at home. It’s excellent being abroad and experiencing other perspectives, but I think it’s good to admit that it’s difficult sometimes too. However, on the positive side, Austria is beautiful.
I’m lucky to live in a part of Austria in the Alps and I love the mountains. I’m sure this shows in many of my illustrations. I’m located in Villach, which is only about 10 minutes from either Slovenia or Italy so I’m well placed to visit other countries. I enjoy how clean Austria is and how much they value nature. They are very proud here in my area that every lake has drinking quality water.
I also appreciate the Austrian lifestyle because you have to slow down. As an Ohioan, it was an adjustment to come to a place where shops are closed by 6 and nothing is open on Sundays. At first, I found it annoying, but now I enjoy that I have to slow down.
I also enjoy the challenge of being abroad. It’s not always easy to communicate, even with the ability to speak German, there are still so many dialects that not everyone is clear and understandable. I like that I have to work a little harder sometimes. It feels good to overcome little challenges. When it comes to bigger challenges, I love that Austria has a good healthcare system. It’s a relief to know that I have access to healthcare if I need it. Lastly, living in Austria has been great for keeping me open minded. It’s been good for me to get a different perspective from living outside of my comfort zone.
My first books were actually three at once. I took on all of the Baby’s First books at one time and the deadline was pretty tight. It taught me a lot about balancing illustration work and teaching work.
I began work in January and they were all three finished by the start of April. The original illustrator wasn’t able to finish all of the books in the series so I got the chance to do three of them, but that also meant they needed to be finished quickly to keep up with the original timeline as much as possible. I was very excited since they were going to be available at Barnes and Noble and my best friend and myself have a very special relationship with the book store so it felt really right and exciting to get to illustrate books that would be sold there exclusively.
Working with an agent, all of my projects pretty much start the same way. I get an email from my agent asking if I would have an interest in doing the project. There are usually some details there about what the project is, but the initial email is usually pretty vague. I think because they don’t want to give out too many details if you aren’t going to take the project on. I confirm if I’ll take the project and then dates and details are firmed up and the work begins. In this case, they sent me templates and spreads to work from that had the text on each page along with a list of which animals they wanted.
Not everything made it into the books, but I think overall most of them got included. I was definitely nervous about doing a good job since this was my first book project and there was some worry on my end that I might not be able to draw all of the things they wanted! A lot of effort went into the dinosaur book to make sure that the cover wasn’t too brown and that it caught people’s attention.
There was also quite a bit of discussion about getting it to be somewhat accurate. It’s hard to make an accurate book when you aren’t quite sure what a lot of these animals actually looked like. Though, it seems like we find out more and more about dinosaurs each year. Despite all the work, each book has little illustration mistakes that I spotted post publishing. If you ever get your hands on any of these books, see if you can spot them!
Your most recent book, My First Search and Find (March 2019), looks fantastic! I love search and find books. What did you enjoy most about creating the art for this book? Talk to us about your process to get it to its finished form.
I enjoyed working with the editor on this project quite a bit. It was fun since he was learning a bit of German so we’d chit chat about German alongside creating the project. It’s nice when you get to know the people you work with a bit since for the most part, I never meet anyone I work with so sometimes that personal touch is a lot of fun.
This project was also different because I created most of it using an iPad and Procreate. I was at home for the summer and my little laptop just couldn’t keep up with the amount of power I needed so I gave the iPad a chance and for the most part it was great. I felt like I learned a lot about working with some new technology because up to this point I wasn’t that excited about drawing on the iPad.
The things I enjoyed most about working on this project were the variety of scenes and things that I got to draw. I snuck a couple easter eggs into the book too. On one page, I drew all of my friends and on another page, I let my brother draw a hamburger and a corndog. I thought it would be fun to share some of the experience of having something you made published.
Every project starts out with a brief and every single one is different. Some are very broad, some are very narrow. There are pictures sometimes and other times only text. It very much depends on who you are working with what kind of brief you’ll get. The most important things to know though, at least for me, are the dimensions and of course what should be on each page.
Then you make your sketches based off of the information provided on the brief. This is the part where I need to pay the most attention to make sure I’ve gotten all of the details right especially on a search and find where incorrect art will end up not matching with the instructions for the activity. Here are a few of my sketches for this project.
Once the sketches are approved, you can go to color. There’s usually a few feedback rounds before you get to take it to color. Usually, I like to add a lot of textures to my drawings when they are colored, but for this book, they wanted more of a flat look so there’s very little texture on my art.
There was also another illustrator on this project so it was important our art had a similar look. I enjoyed doing the backpack spread a lot.
I had so much fun coming up with different types of backpacks I would like to have. That was one thing that was both fun and frustrating. There has to be a lot of the same objects just done slightly differently. This allows for a lot of creativity to come up with fun and detailed designs, but at the same time it gets a little frustrating because you’re essentially drawing the same thing again and again. It at least made me be more creative so that I kept the project and art fun for myself. I like to think, if it’s fun for me to make, it’s going to be fun for kids to look at as well.
Your website is great! I’ve enjoyed reading your Art Advice blog.
One that stood out to me was your most recent post on whether or not people should pursue art school. I’m really passionate about taking individual ownership of your artistic education and that sometimes that might mean being a bit, well, creative. I can see how a lot of artists might feel divided in opinion here. How can you encourage artists looking to enhance their skills and who might not have the resources or circumstances to pursue traditional art education?
I don’t think a traditional art education is needed, I’m doing alright without one and many other artists are too. It’s tricky because I really appreciate education, I’m a teacher so obviously I think and know that it’s valuable, but it’s become such a business in the US that you really need to be careful in picking out what it is you need from your education and what that degree from a traditional university is going to give you. The Internet is a beautiful thing nowadays. You can learn so much from it if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. I started watching YouTube videos and the amount of online tutorials is so much greater now than it was just a few short years ago. People have realized that there is a market offering art education at a much cheaper cost. There are sites like Skillshare and Schoolism that offer online art courses at a fraction of the price.
Individuals have also started sharing their own tutorials and processes through Patreon. You can also pick and choose which bits you want to learn unlike at a big university where your major is in the arts, but somehow you also need to take a whole slew of other unrelated classes. Even Adobe offers some nice courses for free. The cost is that you need to have access to the Adobe suite of programs. You can access these at Adobe Education Exchange. They’re more geared towards teachers, but they are great for explaining the basics of the different Adobe programs and you don’t have to be a teacher to take them. There are also all kinds of threads on Twitter (and I’m sure elsewhere) where people have compiled lists of free art programs or places where you can access free art training. It’s just a matter of doing some basic research and asking questions.
You have such a strong sense of setting. I think that’s what I love most about the art that you’ve shared. I always think, I want to go there in real life! Also, I need that for my son’s nursery! In your Art Advice blog (Change it up) you talked about your battle with landscapes and if you were doing too many of them. I think there is real value in knowing your “brand” so to speak and digging in to make it really stand out. Yet, I also understand the need to mix it up and not feel boxed in by that which is familiar. I feel that tension with my own work. Sometimes...it can be...boring. How can we continually make our work fresh to ourselves and push against our tendencies for repetition?
I think the best thing to do is to take a break. If you’re in one thing for too long you’re going to get bored. Getting outside, looking at new things, talking to new people, getting a new perspective on your existing ideas. These are all ways that you can refresh yourself and I find that if I give myself the time to refresh, it also refreshes my outlook on my own work. There’s a tendency to want to keep pushing through on the same things and sometimes it’s really valuable to stop yourself and just leave it. Most of the pieces where I kept pushing even though I wasn’t enjoying it or having fun are pieces that didn’t turn out all that well. You can usually tell when it’s time to change up the actual art itself as well. If I’ve done a lot of deep forest scenes, I’ll pull back and do something from a more distant perspective. If I’ve been in the mountains a lot, I’ll try to pick a different type of landscape. Maybe some canyons or the desert.
Here’s a few different images where I distinctly remember needing to change up whatever I was doing. Mostly, to leave the forest and mountains behind.This one was just me thinking about what it might be like inside some of the rocky places and mountains I liked to create. I also wanted to explore ice. I had been playing a lot with water, but wanted to see what I could do with ice for a change.
This one is really wanting something a little more extreme and a little foreboding. Mountains in storms can be dangerous and scary places. I wanted to leave behind some of the bright colors that I’d usually use and explore the tops of mountains when they’re a little less pleasant.
With this one, I had been doing a lot of snowy and winter illustrations, I realized I wanted to take the opportunity to explore some greenery, flowers and a flatter landscape without snow capped mountains.
I really loved what you had to say about the need to live in and experience the real world to prevent burnout. I think that is so refreshing to hear. I know I sometimes feel guilty about not writing enough, but maybe I should take it easy on myself. Tell us more about why a healthy work/life balance is key to artistic flourishing.
I mean at the most basic level, if you aren’t taking care of yourself, everything else is going to suffer for it. I keep hearing a lot about the guilt of not being active with your work, but you really have to check yourself and ask why? Shouldn’t you also feel guilty for working yourself to death? For running yourself into the ground? For killing your creativity? Of course there are deadlines and sometimes things just have to get done, but I believe it’s extremely important to cut out time for yourself every day even if it’s only time for a quick run, a walk, reading before bed, calling a friend.
If you don’t do something for yourself, you lose yourself very quickly and then even something like art, which I enjoy can make me miserable. If I’m not happy, my art isn’t happy either. It’s like I mentioned before, if I’m forcing art to happen, it’s never going to be my best piece.
This is one of my more recent forced pieces and I think it’s terrible, but I was tired and was bound and determined to make something. I’d have been better off using that time to relax so I could start better and stronger the next day.
Tell us about the Megan Higgins method. What is your favorite and most frequent medium you use? Any that you are experimenting with?
I guess my most favorite medium has to be digital since everything I make is 100% digital. I have a major gap in knowledge when it comes to creating something on paper and then scanning it in or just working traditionally. I have no idea what to do with actual paints and pencils. I’ve bought myself quite a few different inks, papers, paints and so on in hopes that I might get more into some traditional forms of media, but I just don’t want to. I love that with digital I have everything I need right on the computer. I also love that I have the ability to undo mistakes.
I have most recently bought myself some actual gouache paints and someday I’d like to give it a try, but for the moment I don’t really have the time. I do like to make crafts from time to time and for that I’ll use traditional materials, mostly acrylics, but it’s a completely different kind of thing crafting compared to painting a picture. Digitally, I’m working more with the iPad so have been experimenting with different brush sets. I really enjoy the Procreate sets created by Marco Guadalupi and Max Ulichney’s Max Packs for Procreate.
The next big thing for iPad that I am looking forward to is Adobe’s newly minted Fresco, which I’m hoping will be released this fall along with Photoshop for iPad. I think that will really change the digital game once those two programs are available. I’m looking forward to what I will create and also seeing what other people come up with. All that aside, I’m working at being rougher and looser. I really appreciate that scratchy pastel type feel in art and I’m working on bringing more of that into my own stuff.
Colour Collective was massive for me. I can’t speak to why everyone should do it, but from my own experience, it was and still is a really important part of my artistic development. What colour collective did for me was to expose me to a lot of artists I probably wouldn’t know otherwise. It also forced me to constantly want to up my game. It has a competitive element to it for me. Not because I want to “beat” the other artists, but because I want to show all of the other artists participating my best stuff. It gave me a goal to work towards each week. On top of it making me want to be better, it showed me such a variety of different styles.
There’s plenty of good art to look at and then you can take some of those ideas and use it to make your own stuff. The best thing though is that the members of the group are so supportive. There’s a lot of talk about how the Internet is such a negative place, but with colour collective it’s such a positive experience. Everyone is there to pull you up. It feels good to share art and to be part of a larger group. It’s gotten pretty big now, but it’s definitely still a community. Most of the artists who I speak to now, I’ve met through participating in this group. It’s done a lot for helping me to build a bit of an art community. I think that’s a benefit that a lot of artists are looking for. It can get a little lonely sometimes. It’s nice having a social group even if it is online.
I love working with Bright. Many of the artists I admired when I was getting started had signed on with Bright, so it was always a goal to get to work with them. I’m not sure what made them take me on, when I look back at my old portfolio that I submitted to them, it’s a bit cringe, but I am so happy they took the chance with me. They’re a very supportive bunch and they’ve been able to offer me a lot of opportunities I doubt I would have gotten if I were working on my own. I appreciate that they can offer short term and long term projects so I’ve always got a nice mix of projects going and I’m always busy. I also like that they’ve got different areas under the Bright umbrella so there’s lots of different directions you can take your art while working with them if you want to. Overall, it’s been a really positive experience working with Bright.
You’re a full time teacher and have to do your illustration and artwork “on the side.” I imagine a majority of people working in kidlit have a “bread and butter job” and then squeeze in their writing and illustrating when they can (that’s me!). How do you believe this structure adds value to your art career? Do you foresee this situation changing for you, or are you content to keep it this way?
I feel that I am in a very lucky spot at the moment because I can go full time with my illustration. I’m actually working towards full time at the moment, picking up more projects and committing to less at work. I like to play everything very safe so I’m leaping into illustration, but at a very slow motion type hop rather than a full on leap. Also, quitting teaching midyear isn’t really possible. I mean yes, you could, but it’d put everyone in a bind. I’m actually a bit nervous about leaving teaching behind because I do like the structure that having a job offers. It’s 7 hours of time each day that forces me to not think about art.
Teaching is a job where you are on all the time. There’s very little down time so most of my day, I’m really immersed in being with students and teaching and so my brain isn’t daydreaming about art or thinking about art, it’s doing something completely different. I think there’s something good about being removed from art for a while and really being focused on something else. It also helps me appreciate that time I do get with my art. It’s not guaranteed that I’ll always have the time to work on things so it feels nice to be able to enjoy time working on art projects. At the same time, sometimes I get a little stressed because I have too many commitments falling all at once and I’m like oh no I’ve made a terrible mistake, but that’s usually short lived. Thankfully. :)
It’s also really good for my mental health that I have to leave the house 5 days a week and talk to a lot of other people. I’m very much an introvert and I’m content to be alone at home a lot, but that doesn’t mean that’s necessarily good for me. Getting out and being with my students helps a lot with keeping me balanced and I know that when the time comes that I’m not teaching, I’m really going to miss them. Even when I’m finally a full time illustrator, I’m pretty sure I’ll be substitute teaching on the side or looking for a part time job at a community college or something like it. I think realistically, I’d just flip flop to a full time illustrator with some teaching on the side.
I’m always leary of saying too much, but I can say that I’ve got a lot going on so there will be plenty of projects to be looking out for over the course of the next year. I’m working on 7 different books at the moment in different stages of completeness, which will start appearing over the course of the next year or so. I created the cover and a few interior illustrations for My First Book of Princess Stories with Miles Kelly. I recently finished a unicorn storybook with them as well, but it’s not due out until 2020. I’ve got a little lift the flap bedtime board book coming out as well that I very much enjoyed making. I’ve also taken my first stab at writing and illustrating together for a couple books of fables. I don’t think I’ll become a writer any time soon, but it was fun to give it a try! I’m also working on quite a few different fairy tale stories so there’s a lot on and a lot to look forward to!
Who are some kidlit artists that you absolutely admire? Any picture book recommendations?
I’m Karl James Mountford’s number 1 fan. He just doesn’t know it. :) I love all of his picture books and can highly recommend any of them. His art style is so unique. Many of his children’s books have cutouts or flaps on the pages that add so much to the story and are just cool to look at. I especially loved this about Last Stop on the Reindeer express.