Illustration Wonders: Wearing Two Hats Conference

Topics: Art
Image of octopus writing and drawing

“My hand hurts looking at this!” said Mike Curato, author and illustrator of The Little Elliot series.

Random House Art Director April Ward and he had just put an image on screen from a Portland area artist and I had to agree.

The amount of detail in that artwork with trees, foxes, and geese was staggering. Again, I sat back in amazement and wondered at all I could learn from looking at the work of the artists at the Wearing Two Hats conference put on by the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators in Oregon. The author/illustrators who bravely submitted their artwork for public critique had much to offer.

I was relieved that I didn’t submit my own work. I don’t feel ready for that kind of scrutiny even though the two of them did so well finding the good in the work along with the ways we could all improve.

Still, I learned so much from their courage. Here’s the summary of the reminders Curato and Ward gave all of us. I’m sorry that I don’t have the images to go with it! You would really be amazed, too, if I did.

Words and images from conference


Be sure you make each of your characters distinctive. For example, Curato gave his Mouse a notch in the ear so we could easily identify Little Elliot’s sweet friend.

Values and Lighting

Again and again, Curato advised us to make models of what we wanted to draw so we could get the lighting and shadow feeling like real life. Ward reminded us to choose a color of clothing that was not the same as a character’s skin tone.

Composition (Rule of Thirds)

Many of the artists’ images had fantastic composition and followed that Rule of Thirds I once learned from Brandon Henrie in a photography workshop. The work felt so much stronger with this design layout.

Emotion and Movement 

Strong and varied character expression and movement made a fantastic impression. One image had the characters falling back with even their shoelaces fluttering to show that action.

Curato advised again and again to be sure the action moves from left to right to draw the viewer eye in the same direction as the page turns.

Consider the Gutter

Ward commented frequently about the concern of the gutter–that fold in the middle of the book. Many of the artists came out strong by leaving this space free of the main focus of the image and putting the characters in the right or left third.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten so much more but these were the repeated themes I sketched into my own book.

Sometimes, my mouth dropped open and I flirted with despair over how good these people were, especially Curato with his impressive digital skills. But then I reminded myself how fantastic it is to have something I love to reach towards and people to teach me. The experience was absolutely worth the 3 hour drives between snowstorms and I’d do it all again.

May you alway have something that lights you up like Little Elliot has cupcakes-

image of small elephant in historic New York City


About the author: Karrie Zylstra Myton is a blogger, essayist, and aspiring author who writes for the wild joy it brings on the best days and the hard lessons she learns about life on the worst. After crafting stories in the ridiculously early morning hours, she chases her two sons, cuddles with cats, and laughs with her husband about how crazy life can get in middle age.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cara Scriven February 11, 2019, 10:20 AM

    Sounds like it was a well worth it. So glad you braved the storm and went!

    • Karrie Zylstra February 11, 2019, 12:24 PM

      So am I! ?

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