We first interviewed children’s illustrator Karien Naude of South Africa back in May 2009. Back then she was just starting, completely self-taught as an artist and working as a paralegal at a law firm in downtown Johannesburg.
She was among the first students to sign up for Make Your Splashes Make Your Marks. Somehow we were friends from the start — because Karien is — well — that sort of person. Even my mother wants to adopt her. (Unofficially she has, with Karien’s bemused consent — though I should say Karien has loving parents and family in South Africa.) Still, she’s h a citizen of the world, with a network of artist friends that extends to the Austin, Texas SCBWI illustrators’ community, New York, the UK and New Zealand.
A lot has happened since 2009. She’s gone full time as a freelancer. She’s learned — taught herself, tons about the craft and business of illustration. So it really is time for another visit.
She’s a huge Tolkien and Terry Pratchett fan. She’s been on safaris. She loves to cook and loves music so much so that you’ll rarely catch her drawing or painting without her earphones on.
Remember as you read her responses to my interrogation that English is not her first language. Her native language is the Afrikaans of her ancestors, Dutch Protestants who settled in southwestern South Africa in the 17thcentury.
In 1979 she agreed to serve as a bit of a guinea pig for the ongoing experiment of my online course. She’s actually been ready for us to check in with her.
Mark: Karien, when we last talked with you in 2009, you were working with South African comics group Comicworx Studios and you worked full-time for a Johannesburg law firm. You had not published yet, not yet hooked up with the South African SCBWI chapter. All you knew was that you wanted to try to illustrate some children’s books. Can you bring us up to date on yourself since then?
Karien: Since I started your course in 2009, my life changed dramatically. I’ve switched my mind from comics to children’s books and I know more about what children like and in the process I’ve rediscovered my inner child again.
Now I hang out more in the children’s section at the book stores or at the library than in the fiction and comics department. I’ve also done a lot of research and now I know more about the market and have a good understanding of how publishers work. My dream was always to do illustrations full time. It was very hard work, but this year it came true.
I’m now a full-time freelancer doing work for four major publishers in South Africa. I also joined SCBWI in South Africa and I’m learning so much from the other members. I’m always inspired after meetings.
Can you tell us about some of these assignments, how you got them, what it’s been like doing them and how you met those deadlines?
Karien: I’m part of a professional webpage for South African illustrators and we usually get work through them. They sent out an email one day stating that Macmillan Educational needed an illustrator and that if anyone was interested, they should forward their portfolios directly to the art director.
I never worked for publishers, but I took the chance and forwarded my portfolio. I was leaving for the UK the next day for a holiday and that afternoon the art director, Mandi Laign phoned me and gave me my first brief.
I had to do 30 illustrations in 2 weeks! I never had a holiday as planned. I was working 24/7 on the illustrations. But it was my big break. Since then a lot of publishers have seen my work on my blog and online portfolio and have contacted me directly.
Educational illustrations are very hard work and the deadlines are very tight, so I actually go into my “Zombie” mode where I don’t sleep and sometimes don’t even eat, cause time is so precious.
In the beginning, it was very hard because I was working full time at the law firm. I worked until 5 and when I got home I started working on the illustrations. I got used to sleeping for three or four hours a night. A lot of illustrators don’t want to do education because it’s very hectic. But I learned to draw faster and to trust in my ability to push and work hard. At the end, this gave me the chance to become a full-time illustrator.
Can you talk about the transition you’ve made in the last couple of years from doing pencil sketches and some airbrushing to experimenting with watercolor and digital paint programs? Which mediums have served you the best and do you prefer? How do you teach yourself to use these new art techniques and tools?
Watercolor was hard in the beginning because I didn’t use to it.
It was messy. My colors didn’t come out right and they looked muddy. The paint ran over my lines and I was feeling like crying.
But I took out some library books and learned the tricks and tips working with watercolor and now it’s the medium I prefer above the others. I got Corel Painter and I played around with it. With my first brief with Macmillan Education, I used Corel Painter because I didn’t have time to wait for the paint to dry and it was easier to make changes they needed.
I still learn a lot about Painter and I do enjoy doing digital illustrations, but you will always find me in the garden painting with watercolors.
What went into your decision to try free-lance illustration full time? What was it like for you prior to that, doing illustrations for clients on a part-time, moonlighting basis?
In the beginning, it was great working part-time for clients because I was still an amateur and the briefs or projects were little. So I worked at night and weekends.
But becoming professional it started to get harder to work at night. The briefs got bigger and I didn’t have enough time to finish things up. As I mentioned before I didn’t sleep much. I had to turn down a lot of work from publishers because I knew I couldn’t make the deadline and it was very hard on me. But all the payments I received for my work, I saved up and when I had enough, I made the decision to become a full-time illustrator.
What are you thinking about when you start an illustration? What about when you get to the middle of the process and what about when you decide your about to finish a picture? Can you walk us through your process a little?
Well, usually I start with “day-dreaming” about the picture. I draw and paint in my head so that when I actually start with the illustration I know exactly how it will look and what I must do.
When I start I usually put the radio on and then my thoughts are put in a cage and I work with a clear mind and in this state, I can work for hours and hours not realizing that I’ve worked the whole day.
I can’t work in silence. I was also told by a teacher that some students study with music on and they get great results.
Can you walk us through some of these images and share with us how you got the ideas, who were the pieces for and how you executed your final versions of them?
I usually get my ideas by what I’m doing at that moment. I get ideas from listening to music, watching movies or reading books. I was reading Alice in Wonderland when I did Alice and the White Rabbit. The mouse and the Lizard I did a few years ago as part of a commission to do pictures for a baby’s room and I fell in love with the characters and started playing around with them, adding a background or dressing them up.
Now that you’ve got some real experience as an illustrator for hire, what are your goals now as an illustrator for children’s books? Have your goals changed? What activities, education, training and/or networking do you see yourself doing in the next six months to a year to help you achieve some of your important held goals?
My first goal is to have my own picture book published in South Africa and the UK which I’m still working very hard on.
I always dream that I would walk into a bookstore and see my own picture book with my name on it on the shelf.
On the educational side, I want to try and do work for all the educational publishers in South Africa.
The next phase begins next month and I’ll be busy for 2 or 3 months again. In October, I will promote and sell my work at a very big convention in Johannesburg, called Rage. It’s a technology convention where they show the latest technology in the computer industry, as well as the latest games.
Our comics/illustrators/designer group have an “artists alley” every year and a lot of game developers walk around the alley seeking illustrators to do work for them.
Hopefully, I’ll learn more about ebooks and how they will change children’s books. I’m also busy putting up my work for online prints at RedBubble. By this, I’m hoping to get my illustrations to the public to enjoy and to get my name out in the world.
How is that Zulu folktale picture book you’ve been working on coming along?
It’s been two years since I started with the Tokoloshe but I can gladly say that I’m finished tweaking the writing. Going from 1000 words to 500 words is very had to do. But I’m happy with the final result. I’ve started thinking about the illustrations and it’s almost planned out in my head, but the next stage for me is actually doing the dummy book. This will hopefully be done before the end of the year.
Karien, what advice and practical tips would you give an aspiring illustrator, say someone who is in the shoes you were in two years ago?
Do lots of research, be passionate about what you do, and work hard. Don’t let your dream fade away.
Be annoying. I know it sounds funny, but send your portfolio out a hundred times to publishers. You’ll fade out of their minds if you don’t, but if you send them postcards, bookmarks or portfolios regularly, they will start remembering you and you will get work.
Don’t be upset if you get rejections. At first, it bothered me a lot. but it’s part of our illustration world. You get used to it and sometimes you see the funny side of it and will laugh out loud when you get them.
In the end, it’s worth it and you’ll be a happy illustrator living your dream. If you need help, I’m always there.