Illustrator Spotlight: Karen Ritz

© Karen Ritz

August 1, 2019


On the first of each month in 2019, we feature an illustrator who won or placed in our Kidlit411 Banner Contest, and we switch our website banner and Facebook page cover image. Today we present Karen Ritz and her work.

Enter to win a giveaway of her book, SADIE BRAVES THE WILDERNESS by Yvonne Pearson (Minnesota Historical Society Press 2017) about a child’s first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.




Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

My kindergarten teacher said that I was going to be an artist when I grew up, but it wasn’t until I connected my drawing with the written word that I knew she was right! I grew up with four brothers outside of Albany, New York. It was quite rural at the time and we didn’t have many close neighbors, so I had lots of time to read and practice drawing. I took extra classes for technique, portraiture and perspective, even in grade school, and attended Rhode Island School of Design a few summers during high school. I learned a pencil technique there that I still use today (those first graphite pencils are still in my drawer). 


© Karen Ritz



When I was fourteen, a family friend wrote a bunny alphabet book and asked me to illustrate it. She sent it to Random House and they liked the illustrations but not the concept - I was hooked! I decided not to go to art school as I was still interested in academic subjects, and attended Kirkland (now Hamilton College) in Clinton, New York. By chance, the president’s wife was Natalie Babbitt of Tuck Everlasting fame! I showed her my work and she generously set up an independent study with me, teaching me a history of children’s literature and giving me a sentence to illustrate every week. Natalie also taught me pen & ink, using a fine crow quill point, and after two years, urged me to study children’s literature with Dr. Norine Odland at the University of Minnesota. I graduated with a degree in children’s literature, not art. My first book, Cornstalks and Cannonballs, illustrated in pen & ink, came out in 1980. I worked part time at what is now the Red Balloon Bookshop until I could support myself as an illustrator.


© Karen Ritz


I illustrated for children's books and the Cricket magazine group, and taught courses for teachers and librarians on visual language and the art of children’s books, until a divorce and an unstable publishing market sent me back into full-time employment in 2007. Windows With Birds, the first book I both wrote and illustrated came out in 2010. Some of my original work is housed in the Children’s Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota and Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express appeared as an animated feature on public television’s “Reading Rainbow.” My 46th book, Sadie Braves the Wilderness, written by Yvonne Pearson, was published in the spring of 2017.

Congrats on your banner design for Kidlit411. Tell us about how you approached the assignment.

Illustration is all about story and engaging your audience. KIDLIT411 readers are my target audience – fellow travelers dedicated to fine children’s literature! We are all book lovers in this group, and many can relate to a cat trying to disturb our deep dives into reading. I love playing with perspective and have an embarrassing number of fonts on my computer. 


© Karen Ritz


You have been published as an illustrator for a long time. How has the field of children's books changed over the years, from your perspective?  

This question made me laugh out loud – yes, when I started we were still hand-separating color in children’s books! There was a black and white “key” drawing, and a separate overlay for every other color used, also done in black and white. The trick was knowing in your head which shade of gray would produce a certain shade of yellow, and how it would mix with a similar version of blue to make green. Imagine that over 32 pages!


© Karen Ritz


I recently sorted boxes of my children’s literature collection and had forgotten how much text was in picture books in those days. Today’s picture books are much more spare, poetic even, and explore so much more lively, fun, and quirky subject matter. And the art, no longer restricted by print capability, can be beyond imaginings. Academics still argue about Newbery and Caldecott winners like they always did! And kids still love being read to like they always did!

What is your preferred medium and illustration process? 

I am probably best at pencil, love the precision of pen & ink (now with magnifiers!), but had to learn watercolor for children’s books. I do miles of research, whether it is a historical subject or just to create an environment, and feel more sure of art if I have a real child in mind while painting to get true expressions. I always try interesting perspectives and use them to give some surprise when you turn the page. I appreciate editorial, as I tend to over-illustrate! My dummy sketches are terrible compared to the final – I am not a line person at all!


© Karen Ritz


What projects are you working on now?

I am trying to find projects that will support and sustain my spirit in my 60s and beyond. I left full-time work three years ago when my second grandchild was born, care for the kids four days a week, and do art or writing every minute of the other three. I have a book-themed card website and manuscripts in the drawer, but am mostly doing journalistic writing at the moment for income purposes. I have commissioned pencil portrait work through a Minneapolis gallery. This summer I am painting my first formal oil portrait for a new hotel lobby and am totally in love with the translucency possible in oil, and the fact that the medium requires intense work and then a drying “step away” before the next layer. This is the first time in my life I’ve had an opportunity to “play” with art – perhaps it will lead to a new book!


© Karen Ritz


What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Even with a family and a full-time job, you can be at the drawing table with a full spectrum light at 6 a.m. Even a commitment to an hour a day will get the job done over time. Use the hour to go deeper than something to post on social media. Illustration is a specific discipline, with a visual story unfolding like a play, with dramatic and quiet detail. But you can also tell a story on a card or t-shirt – diversify. Try challenges and competitions, upload your art to websites like Society6 (you need a book-themed book bag, right?!) and Redbubble. Take online courses to build yourself a fab website, and listen to podcasts for new marketing ideas and practices.


© Karen Ritz


What is one thing most people don't know about you? 

I like to write, bake, sew, kind of all the stuff, as much as draw, and the drawing still amazes me as it unfolds, as I imagine happens with a writer. I am also quite tech savvy, and built a website for active, creative, grandparenting with easy ways to share books, adventures, and creativity with the next generation.

Where can people find you online?

www.Karenritzcards.com
www.grandycamp.info
www.etsy.com/karenritzcreations
www.society6.com/karenritz
© Tracy Walsh

I have a degree in Children's Literature, am a long-time children's book illustrator (46 books), and more recently, author. Spending four days a week with my 3 & 5-yr-old grandkids definitely keeps me creating and in the loop for what kids are into. I try to make something and learn something every day.


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18 comments:

  1. Wonderful interview and lovely illustrations! Your passion for art is very much evident! Congrats and enjoy those grands.

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  2. What a great interview and absolutely stunning art work!!! I am so inspired by your beautiful work!!

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  3. Karen, I loved, loved your illustrations and the comments that went with them. The children were so real, and the comments below fit perfectly.

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  4. Your artwork is brilliant and so diverse. Yo have so much talent in so many media.

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  5. Your illustrations are beautiful! Thank you for sharing with us!

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  6. Thank you for sharing Karen's work today. Her work is stunning and beautiful.
    Rosie

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  7. Can't wait to take a look at your website, Karen. Your work is beautiful.

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  8. Karen - you are an inspiration and I am an author only! Thank you.

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  9. Thanks for the beautiful post. I really enjoyed it!

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  10. I absolutely love her art. It draws you in!!

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  11. I love your illustrations Karen!

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  12. Thanks for sharing your journey. Gorgeous work!

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  13. Love your art and the combos with the quotations.
    You've had an amazing career. Appreciate your advice to diversify and challenge yourself.

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  14. Sadie sounds like a winner and so does her book. Congrats Karen on your lovely banner. Thanks for the chance to win a copy of this inspiring book.

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  15. I enjoyed reading the interview and love the illustrations!

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  16. I love Sadie's "strong girl" pose on the cover.

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  17. A great interview, Karen. Very informative, and I love the heron.

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  18. Wow! Those pen & ink drawings are spectacular!

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