Illustrator Spotlight: Kathryn Ault Noble

© 2014 Kathryn Ault Noble

Today we have a real treat: children's illustrator Kathryn Ault Noble. She shares fascinating insights about the illustration process gained from many years in graphic design and 14 years of teaching animation concept art and digital painting.


1. Tell us about yourself and how you came to children's illustration.

My first job after graduating from high school was typesetting on a magnetic tape recorder and Verityper Headliner, all of which is in museums now. After graduating from college with a focus on graphic design, I went to work for a boutique design firm that was known for award winning logotype design. After seven years, I left to develop my own freelance business, which allowed me to work from home and be with my young sons. There were only a handful of illustrators in town, so I did not even consider illustration until after moving to the Pacific Northwest.

The Seattle area had a thriving illustration market so I began to teach myself the illustration techniques I missed in college due to my singular focus on graphic design. I began to look through children's books and was immediately drawn to the somewhat flat, highly structured illustrations of Tomie dePaolo. So I carefully copied pages and pages of his work, analyzing his tools and techniques. After a few months, I landed a line of greeting cards for Lucy Rigg, the teddy bear lady. These illustrations caught the eye of Susan Trimpe who represented me for several years until The Art Institute of Seattle called me to teach an Advertising Design course:


© Kathryn Ault Noble

© Kathryn Ault Noble


I responded with a clear NO because teaching had never been on my radar. But after hanging up, I got the distinct sense that I had answered wrongly. So I called back and ended up going full-time after several years, which was a tough decision because I knew I would not be able to handle the work Susan sent me along with intensive class development and grading. However, teaching for 14 years was absolutely the best career move for me. I absolutely loved teaching and there is no better way to truly understand something than being assigned to teach it! After a time, I began to miss illustrating more and more, so I made another hard decision and left to start illustrating again. 

2. How has your background in graphic design and your years of teaching concept art influenced your illustrations?

Influenced or perhaps hijacked! I have struggled mightily against my propensity to sketch everything in a flat style, more akin to graphic design than illustration. I was heavily influenced by my attraction to Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints of the late Edo period. 


 "Sketched the other night and realized later that the men's faces seemed very much like the ones I've seen in Japanese Woodblock prints over the years. I'd say that look is fairly well ingrained in my brain and finds it's way out from time to time." © Kathryn Ault Noble

Part of my lectures in animation history went through the introduction of Japanese prints after 1853 when the Japanese were "encouraged" by Commodore Perry to open their borders to trade. The woodblock prints that found their way to Paris rocked the artists whose eyes were accustomed to the contrivance of Western Linear Perspective. The following Japan mania that swept through the art community in France and England, set the stage for graphic posters and the children's books of Walter Crane.

I cannot pinpoint my own introduction to Japanimania, but over the years I have collected red and white transferware from the Aesthetic movement and generally have been smitten by the use of atmosphere and overlapping shapes to create the sense of perspective used by the 19th century Japanese artists. I am positive that my love of Japanese woodblock prints has trained my sensibilities to work in a flat, graphic style, which I struggle to break forth from on a daily basis.

One of my warm-up exercises is sitting down with a Wallace Tripp book to do copy work of his very dimensional characters, built heavily from foreshortened body parts. This forces me into a more dimensional approach than I normally would left to my own devices. 

As to teaching concept art, as well as digital painting for animation and game design, it took a while to shift my style to something more favorable to the children's illustration market. When I showed a portfolio at my first SCBWI conference in Seattle, the comments during crits generally focused on not having the appropriate "trade" style for children. 


© Kathryn Ault Noble

© Kathryn Ault Noble



So I dumped that portfolio and began to research like to crazy to understand where I needed to go with my style. I have shown and dumped four different portfolios since then and am currently building yet another completely different one. I had no idea that understanding the children's book industry would prove to be such a challenge! 


A piece from my first SCBWI portfolio © Kathryn Ault Noble


3. Having taught so many years, what are common rookie mistakes you see and what advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Stopping too soon. Not thoroughly exploring potential designs through copious amounts of thumbnails. Students invariably wanted to produce the first idea that popped into their head. I commented that standing behind that first idea was a long line of potentially better ones that they were not allowing to live. One thing I enjoyed hearing in the "making of" sections of animation/video game DVDs was the comment "We explored hundreds, if not thousands, of character designs before we found the right one for this story". I would always stop the video and use it as a teaching moment in the classroom. Having the students hear these comments from so many lead artists paved the way for my assignments, which were often process heavy. 75 to 200 variations was not an uncommon number of thumbnails required to be considered for an A. 


© Kathryn Ault Noble

4. That is such a good reminder that I need to remember. What are some projects you are working on now?

Over the last month or so, I've been using an ink wash in a waterbrush to quickly capture the "faces" I see in the carpet, tiles, or rugs. I think this to be an entertaining way of tapping into what is happening in my brain. For some reason all I see now is dogs. I haven't been owned by a dog as an adult, and am a cat person, so somebody wants to be in a story! 


© Kathryn Ault Noble

Currently I am working on a set of illustrations that are created more heavily from traditional media such as graphite, conté, pastels, and inks instead of digital. While I have no trouble in creating fairly realistic looking natural media brushes with digital software, over the last three years I have been increasingly pulled back to the good old-fashioned pencil and brush. I find I am much more likely to move an illustration through a complete exploration process than I am if I start digitally. It is just so easy to start adding color and getting too detailed too quickly. Digital painting is also much less tactile, although not needing to clean brushes is a plus. 


5. What are some ways you research the pacing and layout of picture books?



When I moved from the farm in 2013 I promised my goats I would make a story about them. Of course the chickens, rabbits, and cats will be major players.

© Kathryn Ault Noble


Lately I have been working on sketching out thumbnails for a picture book each day. I dig through my books and pick one that has a journey and uses the hero quest as the basic structure of the book. I noodle out the basic darks and lights, adding notes on where the "hero" is positioned on the page as well as use of color change, size of illustration, and use of bleeds, etc. 

What I find most interesting is that while I taught the basic three part story template in my Introduction to Animation classes, there are devices I've seen children's books illustrators using that are a particularly unique way to layout the story. For instance, the use of page bleeds which does not come into play with an animation. Some illustrators use bleeds only on pages that need extra emphasis, such a peak in the story. 


© Kathryn Ault Noble


Author/Illustrator Uri Shulivetz used particularly interesting page graphics to enhance the visual pacing in his books ONE MONDAY MORNING and THE TREASURE. I would love to think that I could simply read through a book and pick up on the graphic devices he used, but I find that actually sketching out the book quickens my eye to what should be obvious page gestalt.


This I'm guessing is similar to what Jane Yolen suggested to me during a Skype event. She said that along with reading the picture book out loud, I might find typing it out to be informative as well. Her comment was that typing it will allow me to feel the rhythm with my fingers. I realized that it was similar to my insistence that the students draw out everything in their books, for instance Bridgman and Preston Blair. While a certain amount of learning can be achieved by reading the explanations and studying the illustrations, the deeper knowledge can only be learned through copywork. I trust art schools are still requiring students to fill stacks of sketchbooks with copies of master works. They will whine until they see the benefit for themselves. 

I've heard of typing out picture books you admire, and never thought about thumb nailing the art. What a great idea.  Thank you for stopping by and sharing your process.



You can check out more of Kathryn's work at her website. Over the next few days/weeks, Kathryn will expand on these answers on her blog, Noble Illustrations Process and Musing. The first installment is here:

22 comments:

  1. Thank you, 411, for this fascinating interview. Kathryn's journey so far has been filled with glorious art and illustration. I'm inspired by her work (every style and medium!) Thank you, Kathryn!

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    1. Thanks, Gayle! So glad to have inspired you!

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  2. Thanks for asking Kathryn to take center stage and talk about her process and teaching insights. Fantastic! I always come back to find that more can be merrier in the development process, and thank my lucky stars for teachers who pushed like you did, Kathryn.

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    1. So true, Julie, and I am glad I had mentors who pushed me. Now I have to remember to push myself!

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  3. What a wonderful article! It was so insightful to read through Katherine's journey and creative process. Very inspiring and thank you for posting. T

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    1. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed it, Tanja!

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  4. I've been wanting pick Kathryn's brain since seeing her work on Doodle Day, so thank you, Sylvia, for doing it for me! I learned the "copywork" advice a long, long time ago, but never did it myself *hanging head in shame*. Will make an effort to start doing that. It's never too late, I hope. :} Thanks to Kathryn for the inspiration!

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    1. Thank you, Teresa, and never hesitate to ask!

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  5. Thank you Kathryn! I'm not quite self taught but I've never gone through a rigorous art program, so it's great to get your advice. I will definitely try thumb nailing my favorite picture books. You are very inspiring.

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    1. Sylvia, I've been pushing myself as if I were taking an MFA on children's books. I don't just read a how-to book, I break it down into chunks and create assignments for myself. We can make our own rigorous art programs!

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  6. Thank you Kathryn and Sylvia for a fabulous interview! I LOVE Kathryn's art, it's so beautiful! Thanks for sharing it with us, Kathryn!

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    1. Thank you, Elaine, it was my pleasure!

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  7. thank you for sharing your process Kathryn :)
    thank you 411 !!!

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    1. Thanks, Nata! I love seeing other people's process, too.

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  8. What an amazing interview! I always love your art on Doodle Day, and it was a pleasure learning more about you! And thank you for the valuable lessons in this interview!

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    1. Thank you, Yvonne! I've enjoyed getting to know you, too.

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  9. Wow! I got a lot out of this interview. Thank you, Kathryn!

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  10. I have typed out picture books that I love and the opening chapter in chapter books targeting the same audience that I want to reach but have never thumbnailed the illos. Brilliant. Thanks for the great suggestion, Kathryn. Your work (all of the different styles that you have explored) is beautiful.

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  11. Thanks! What a great and informative interview. I appreciate seeing the process and hard work that lies behind what looks so effortless.

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  12. Great details. Thanks for offering us such a useful details. Keep up the great work and continue offering us more quality details every now and then.Great information. Thanks for providing us such a useful information. Keep up the good work and continue providing us more quality information from time to time. Graphic Designing Firms

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  13. Thank you for sharing your past art life. You have a great ability to 'chuck it' and move on, when you feel the need. If you ever feel the need to teach a class in Photoshop, I'd like to sign up. I've got CS3 and 6, but have never been in a class to learn - and you'd teach it from an illustrators viewpoint. So, please....consider..

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  14. Very nice interview, Kathryn! Your work is wonderful, and it is fun to read about how you evolved in art.

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