Mentorship with Michael Austin: Launch

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity of completing a mentorship under illustrator Michael Austin. In advance of the recent SCBWI Southern Breeze Illustrators Day, I was given the challenge to create an image based on the theme, “Launch”. Throughout the illustration process, we were encouraged to communicate with Michael to discuss our concepts, sketches, execution and presentation. The advice he offered was very helpful and I expect that I will apply a lot of what I learned to future work. 

Upon hearing the theme, I began brainstorming concepts. Several of my ideas included images of food fights, rockets, etc. As I was sketching, my son Collin was playing in the living room. His new favorite game is to build towers and knock them down… he gets a thrill out of making a mess. Watching him led to the idea of a boy “launching” himself into a block tower. 

After thinking about the concept for a day or so, a scene of sibling rivalry between a young girl and her brother began to emerge. I decided that the girl had meticulously built a tower out of blocks and her brother has decided to “launch” himself into it… sending blocks flying in all directions.

Here are a couple of the initial sketches I sent to Michael:



Michael’s initial advice was to continually focus on three elements which lead to a successful children’s book illustration… EMOTION, ACTION and CONNECTEDNESS. I asked him to clarify his definition of connectedness and he described it as finding ways to “tie your characters, objects and setting together so everything relates and works as one.”  I posted these three words in my studio and I’ve tried to continually think about them as I work.  

Michael also encouraged me to give some thought to the “what happens next” factor… or COMMUNICATION. He explained that it is important to know what just happened in the scene… as well as what is about to happen next. Successfully telling this story will make your reader want to continue turning the pages.

After considering his advice I began to develop the characters in my scene…



At this point, we talked a bit more and he offered several points to consider: 

His first thought was that the girl may look a bit older than a child of a “block-playing” age… and explained that my choices with her pose and clothing could help with this.  He recommended enlarging her forehead, as that area is proportionately larger in small children than it is in adults.   He also suggested that I play around with softening the lines of her nose a bit, in an effort to make her appear younger.

Next, he shared that while he loved the choice of clothing and expression in the boy, he felt that I might be missing a tie in with the “monster theme”. Upon seeing my initial sketches, he had thought about the old Superman line, “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”  He advised me to carefully consider my concept as I developed my setting in an effort to explain the boy’s motivation. Is he emulating his hero… or just tormenting his sister? Or both?

To furthur develop the story, Michael suggested that I also give some thought to the girl’s movement and emotion. Is she afraid?  Is she fighting mad?  Is she playing along as the superhero’s nemesis?  Michael explained that the information read from her should work to add to the story.

Finally, he encouraged me to consider other factors like setting, unique lighting effects, secondary characters (like pets or parents), color palette and the perspective by which the scene is being viewed.

After making many tough decisions, I completed my final sketch…



Our discussions led to many options for development and he emphasized that the decisions were mine to make. This conversation really opened my mind to the idea that concept development is truly a journey taken by the artist. I am definately looking forward to taking this thought process forward into future illustrations.

One Response to Mentorship with Michael Austin: Launch
  1. Stephanie
    January 3, 2012 | 10:38 am

    Hi, Andi!

    I just thought I’d take a peek at your blog, since it’s been a while since we met at the MO SCBWI meeting. Hope your new year has gotten off to a great start!

    Thanks so much for sharing the process of your critique. I’ve had some friends comment similar things on my blog about my pieces, suggesting to fully imagine the story behind the illustration to help make it a more complete and compelling scene. The words are helpful–I think I’ll post them too!

    Happy creating!

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