What’s in my Art Library (and how I found it)

Happy Spring! I’m so glad to have longer days filled with more sunshine.All the Vitamin D (plus the absence of my annual winter blues) is giving me a lot more energy to create.

Something else that I always find inspiring is my collection of art-related books. Looking at other artists’ work on Pinterest and Instagram is great, but enjoying art in a screen-free way really relaxes and rejuvenates me to create. I thought I’d use this space to share how I’ve put together my art library, and to give you ideas for starting your own collection of artistic books.

At first, the idea of starting your own art library can be daunting; full-price art books can be pricey. But there are several low-cost places to find good quality resources. You just have to know where to look.

Where to find great art books:

  • Used bookstores and thrift shops: Most used bookstores have an art section that is full of gently (or not-so-gently) used books. If, like me, you live in a town that doesn’t have a used bookstore, websites like Thriftbooks have a great selection and low shipping costs.
  • Library book sales: Another opportunity to shout out to public libraries! Most libraries will have periodic used book sales on their events calendar, and many have dedicated spaces for selling secondhand books year-round. A hot tip here is that sometimes libraries include art books in their coffee table book section: I recently scored a book of Pre-Raphaelite paintings for $2!
  • Garage/yard sales: Another great place to find art books that are in disguise as coffee table books!
  • Gifts: This last one is a bit shameless, but whenever someone asks what I’d like for my birthday or another gift-giving holiday, I always have my book wish list ready to share.

Which books to look for:

When I’m visiting different places on the hunt for new art books, I keep an eye out for things that are in decent condition (although I don’t mind a little secondhand schmutz), and relatively recent. Due to the high cost of printing full-color photos or illustrations, many older books only have black and white artwork. I think full-color, high quality artwork is really essential for understanding other people’s work, so the images in a book can be a dealbreaker for me.

My art library generally consists of books in a few distinct categories:

Scholarly Works: Art History Studies and Museum Guides

These can provide an in-depth look at historical heroes of art, or a snapshot of a museum exhibition that happened in the past. Copying the masters is a great way to understand their techniques and build foundational skills.

“Art Of” Books for Film and TV

If there’s a movie or TV show I love, I try to find an “art of” book that goes along with it. These are most frequent for animation, but many live-action productions will also collect their concept and costume sketches.

“How-To” or Instructional Books

I love books that introduce me to a new medium (like watercolor or collage), or a new way to practice my art (like sketchbook challenges or drawing new subjects). My favorite instructional books have step-by-step projects that allow you to practice a skill, but ultimately leave you with confidence to apply that skill on your own.

Illustrator Collections

There are so many great collections of artwork by great illustrators like my heroes Ezra Jack Keats, Gyo Fujikawa, and Quentin Blake. Many more modern illustration collections include valuable insight from the artists themselves.

Picture Books

This section of my collection has my heart: my favorite picture books. I’ve purchased a few of my childhood favorites, plus recent works from artists I admire. Reading a picture book is such a clear way to see how art tells a story.

Let’s brainstorm in the comments: What are some of your favorite art-related books? How have you scored a secondhand gem? Are there any book sources or categories that I should add to this list?

Things I’ve Made as a Children’s Library Staffer

You’ll already know this if you saw my Meet the Artist drawing that I posted on Instagram last week, but in addition to my art shenanigans, I work as a children’s library staffer (fun fact: there’s some debate over the qualifications one needs to earn the title “librarian”). It’s absolutely the perfect “day job” for me; I get to make relationships with amazing kids, read the latest and greatest books, and organize stuff to my heart’s content. I also get a constant diet of picture book illustrations, which has been a huge influence on my own artwork.

Another fun element of working in a library is that I get to be creative in some unexpected ways; we’re always learning new things with our kids, and sometimes library events call for a crazy craft project. Today I thought I’d share some of my favorite improvised creations from the supply closet.

This spider pal was actually a piñata that I made for a teen program themed around the Netflix show Wednesday. He’s made out of cardboard, cardstock, crepe paper streamers, and soooo much hot glue. Of course, the kids had fun beating him to pieces, because art is temporary. Rest in pieces, piñata spider.

For this past Christmas, I made an origami tree topper out of book pages (the book was already damaged, don’t worry!). We also did a book page garland, and printed out tiny book covers based on the staff’s favorite reads.

This treasure chest was for our our ocean-themed Summer Reading Program. Kids could pick a prize out of the treasure chest every time they completed a reading tracker. Essentially a dressed-up cardboard box, but we had fun with it!

My Halloween costume last year, because I love Eric Carle and I have a reputation for loving food. Guess who!

This one was so tricky, but also one of my favorites. During the ocean-themed Summer Reading Program, we symbolically “adopted” a Loggerhead Sea Turtle named Pop-Tart and tracked her location through the ocean. So many kids asked me why Pop-Tart wasn’t at the library if we had adopted her (because kids are the best), so I made a life-sized Pop-Tart out of construction paper and mounted her to the wall. The kids took photos with her and signed their names on her shell.

And last but not least, one of several chalk lettering projects!

I love any excuse to raid the craft supply closet, so I’m sure I’ll have more wacky projects to share soon. 🙂

Frost Light!

Hey, it’s my first blog post of 2023! Looking back on my 2022 art projects, the shining star of the year was definitely illustrating my first book cover! Frost Light by my dear friend Danielle Bullen released on December 15th, culminating almost a full year of research, collaboration, and drawing.

Working on this book taught me so much, and as we start a new year I’m documenting the process so I can use my new skills to move forward and make more books (hooray)!

Last week Danielle and I had a wonderful book discussion about Frost Light, our friendship, and the story of how I got to come along on this wonderful book adventure. The recording is here; for this post, I’m going to focus on the more technical aspects of making the artwork.

Inspiration and Research

Left cover art by Charlie Bowater. Right cover art by Anna and Elena Balbusso.

Danielle and I looked at a LOT of YA novel covers to try and identify publishing trends that we liked and disliked. The two cover illustrations that we really enjoyed were An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson (left, illustration by Charlie Bowater) and The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott (right, illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso).

In the early research stage, I also got to raid Danielle’s extensive Pinterest boards, and my feed was full of sheep, redheads, and snowy landscapes.

Early concept ilustrations by Danielle Bullen.

I had the blessing of working with an author who is herself a visual artist; these concept pieces by Danielle were hugely helpful inspiration.

Sketches

Initial thumbnail sketches and meeting notes from my sketchbook.

I did 15-20 thumbnail sketches for my initial concept meeting with Danielle. We chatted about our favorites and listed our “must-haves”: design elements that were absolutely essential to have on the cover. These included Oanéka (our heroine)’s hair, a stag, snow, and flowers.

The official concept sketches, which I drew in pencil and cleaned up in Photoshop.

After the concept meeting, I took our three favorite thumbnails and developed them into concept sketches. We honed in on a dreamy, folk-art style, and tried three different views of Oanéka. Danielle and I both loved the center concept, which gave us a great side-view of the character and plenty of opportunity for Easter eggs in the design of her shawl.

Production

Once we had a final concept, it was time to move forward with creating the full illustration!

I started with collecting a “palette” of colors and textures for the illustration. I scanned washi paper (left, a thin, semi-transparent paper with dried leaves and other plant matter pressed into it), watercolor swatches (center), and acrylic paint on tissue paper (right).

Then began my delightful marathon in Adobe Photoshop. This was actually my last project in Photoshop before I switched to an iPad and Procreate, and although I’m LOVING my new setup, the Frost Light artwork was a very nice final lap with Adobe.

I brought the concept sketch into Photoshop and traced over it with flat, digital colors. Then I layered my handmade textures over those drawings to create a digital collage look. Finally, I drew over my “paper” shapes with digital pencils and paintbrushes to add details like hair, freckles, and extra decor on the shawl.

Then came ALL of the color variations! We tweaked the cloak several times and couldn’t land on a color combination we liked, until Danielle suggested a lighter, more teal background color. As soon as we tried it, we knew that was the missing magic to tie the whole thing together.

We used the same process to make bookmarks as pre-order rewards for the book launch. It was a great opportunity to draw some supporting characters.

So then we had a cover! And six months later, we had a printed book!

And amazingly, a LOT of people ordered it. It still feels so surreal that Danielle’s story and my artwork have gone into the homes of people I’ve never met. Frost Light is such a special book, and it was so cool to have a hand in sending it out into the world.

Working on Frost Light was such a joy, and I’m so excited to see what Danielle writes next (she’s already announced a Frost Light sequel in the works)! Visit Danielle’s website to learn more about the book and to order your copy!

Foodtober 2022 (the sequel)!

Happy Official Christmas season! I had a wonderful Thanksgiving break eating delicious food, watching old episodes of David Suchet’s Poirot, and playing Pokémon Scarlet.

Before the calendar changes to December, I wanted to bid a final farewell to Foodtober 2022 with a quick retrospective of some things I loved and learned last month.

During this 31-day food illustration challenge, I discovered that I have a lot more time and opportunity to draw than I think I do. I’ve started carrying a sketchbook and a few pens with me everywhere I go, and it’s surprising how much drawing I can do in 10 minutes on my lunch break or in a waiting room.

I so loved meeting artists from around the world who participated in Foodtober 2022. We had illustrators from China, Japan, Finland, Jamaica, England, Ireland, France, the United States, and many other countries who joined in the fun, and it was so cool to see different cultural takes on each daily prompt.

One of my big goals for Foodtober was making new patterns and getting more comfortable with Procreate. I made seven patterns during the challenge; almost two a week, which is much faster than I was working before! The challenge helped me to make a fast, easy routine for patterns that prevents me from overthinking my designs. Now I have a new portfolio of cute foodie patterns, and a great workflow to use moving forward.

Making an illustration or pattern every day encouraged me toward consistency. Showing up to my daily drawing routine became more important than hitting a “home run” every day. That mindset is something I want to carry with me into 2023: consistent, unglamorous effort and celebrating the small steps of my art practice.

Foodtober, it’s been wonderful. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Foodtober 2022!

Happy Fall! Even though the season has only just officially changed , I’ve been ready for cooler, cozier weather since August. In a few days we’ll start one of my favorite Fall traditions- Foodtober!

Foodtober is an October art challenge that I started back in 2019 with a really simple premise: drawing food illustrations every day in October. I love cooking and eating, so I guess it’s logical that I also love illustrating food. Over the years several of my awesome artist friends have joined in (including the wonderful Amita, who hosted the 2021 challenge), and it has become a really fun visual feast!

After a few years of doing the Foodtober challenge (and definitely a couple of times when I haven’t met my goals), I’ve learned a few things that I’m taking with me into this October. Here’s what I’m doing to set myself up for Foodtober success this year:

Taking it Easy: A 31-day art challenge is a marathon, so it helps to strategize how you’ll tackle each day. As for me, I know I don’t have the time or energy to push my creative limits every single day of the challenge, so I’m trying to keep each illustration fairly simple so that I can stay consistent . There are plenty of ways you can make Foodtober easier on yourself, too: I hereby give you permission to skip days or take shortcuts if you need it!

Setting Personal Goals: Foodtober is a great time to learn new skills or hone old ones, but the numerous possibilities can also be overwhelming. This year, I’m setting two personal goals for Foodtober to help me narrow my focus: I want to make as many patterns as I can (to help me learn surface design on the iPad, a new tool for me!), and to vary up my media (watercolor, digital, collage, etc.) to keep things fresh.

Working Ahead: Maybe this is a drawing challenge faux pas, but I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I’ve already started creating my Foodtober artwork. I love creating art every day, but I also know that weird days, unexpected life things, and burnout all happen. Working ahead gives me an opportunity to share artwork every day while also creating at a pace that is gentle and fun for me.

If you’re drawing along with us this year, you can use the hashtags #foodtober and #foodtober2022, and tag me as @anniedrawsthings on Facebook and Instagram!

Red Winged Blackbirds

This week I’ve entered my first Spoonflower design challenge in over a year!

Earlier this year, my family installed a bird feeder in our backyard. We’ve had a great time watching the birds that visit and identifying the various species. When Spoonflower announced the Birding theme for this week’s challenge, I knew I wanted to jump in.

A watercolor sketch of our bird feeder from February.

I chose Red Winged Blackbirds as the subject of my pattern because they have a striking appearance with the flash of bright red and yellow on their otherwise all-black bodies. They also have a ton of confidence, and frankly they can be quite mean to other birds!

One of my favorite things I found while researching the species was the story of a Red Winged Blackbird attacking a Bald Eagle in a territory dispute. I wanted to try to capture that fierce, fiery personality in my artwork.

Photo credit: Jason McCarty

I painted my blackbirds by hand, starting with watercolor for the vibrant red and yellow wings. Then I filled in the rest of my sketch with black gouache, to get a thick, dark contrast to the bright colors. After the gouache was fully dry. I used a tiny brush to add some details in white ink, so we could see the definition of the feathers. It was fun to use three different paint media on one project!

Next I scanned my painted blackbirds and brought them into Procreate, where I arranged them into a pattern on a digital sky background. This was only the second pattern I’ve ever created in Procreate, so it was good surface design practice! Mel Armstrong’s classes on Skillshare have been a huge help in adjusting to this new software.

Voting on the Spoonflower challenge is still open until Tuesday, September 6th! I had a great time creating this pattern, and I’m excited to bring it to my Spoonflower shop soon.

My Bullet Journal made me better at hand lettering

Here’s a confession: hand lettering used to terrify me. For a long time, the internal editor that I’ve pretty much learned to silence when I’m drawing ran wild when I made anything with words on it. All of my lettering work looked shaky, forced, and wrong, especially when I compared it to the smooth, pristine lettering I saw on Pinterest and Instagram.

Of course, as I realize now with perfect hindsight, I just needed to practice. But at the time, I chose avoidance, my discouragement masquerading itself as disinterest.

At the beginning of 2021, I began my first Bullet Journal. Weirdly, I wasn’t even thinking about lettering when I started; I just wanted a creative way to manage my time and meet my goals. But obviously, Bullet Journaling required me to write, and not just journal entries in my regular handwriting. Each journal spread allowed me to play with different themes, different layouts, and different ways of writing while I was planning my schedule.

My journaling was very much focused on time management (with cute drawings thrown in), but accidentally, I had also created a sort of “writing sketchbook.” My Bullet Journal became a private, pressure-free space to experiment with lettering. Only I saw the outcome of each page, so it was easier to accept the occasional weird, wobbly letter. I didn’t set out with the intention of practicing hand lettering every day, but in a pleasantly stealthy way, that’s what was happening.

Eventually, my confidence grew to the point that I was ready to start making actual lettering pieces again. I felt much more knowledgeable about drawing words, and much less stressed. My lettering still has a long way to go, but through journaling I’ve learned to embrace mistakes and enjoy my practice.

Do you keep a journal, or make hand-lettered art? How does one impact the other? I’d love to hear your experience!

P.S. This post marks the launch of my new website and blog! I’m excited to be updating this space and writing about art, faith, and life. Welcome aboard!