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Today I am so proud to have Illustrator Caryn Schafer as our Illustrator Spotlight. Caryn is the very talented illustrator of Not-So-Scary Jerry (Spork, September 2017). If you haven't discovered Jerry yet, now is a good time. January 21st is National Hugging Day. Jerry always loves a good hug!
Tell me about yourself?
Hi, I’m Caryn Schafer. My quick intro answer is that I’m a wife, a mom, a book addict, a blogger, an Instagram overloader, and an illustrator. I grew up in the Midwest, went to school and started married life in the South and I currently live in NYC with my husband and two small daughters. I worked as a graphic designer for five years and have been focusing full-time on illustration for six years with the very singular goal of making picture books. Books are my Kryptonite, possessing way more than a person should in a small apartment, and I have an unhealthy obsession with stripes and the color green.
What were some things you did to make Jerry your own?
I have never drawn so many monsters in my life as I did trying to find Jerry. It sounds so cheesy, but it really is true that a character turns up at some point. I have sketchbook pages full of awful versions of monsters. I was so nervous during those early sketching days, afraid that I wouldn’t find the right Jerry. I had two monsters that I thought might possibly be him, but they didn’t quite feel right. Then the real Jerry showed up and I never looked back.
One of the first things I did to make Jerry my own, though I haven’t thought of it that way – I was really just making Jerry—Jerry, is that I made him green. I tried several color options on Jerry—oranges, browns, blues—but that lime green was a clear winner. The spots were a necessity for interest and I remember being really excited when I realized his nails had to be hot pink, his horns needed hot pink stripes, and then… Jerry wanted a hot pink watch. A lot of these decisions never felt determined or forced as I made them. I played a lot and things just looked right. As I figured out Jerry’s color palette, I also had an idea in mind about the background color palette I wanted around him. I made a secret Pinterest board for inspirational backgrounds and one in particular had this pop of hot pink on a little boy’s hat that I just adored. In a way it makes total sense that I was drawn to that hot pink as my husband’s favorite color since childhood has been hot pink. It’s his accent color which he uses fairly sparingly. He wears a hot pink watch and somehow that fit Jerry just right too.
Another addition that made the story of Not So Scary Jerry more of mine too is the addition of the pug, whom Shelley and I affectionately and secretly named Burrito. I’m a major picture book nerd and I’ve attended more workshops, conferences, talks, and picture book themed anything than I can name. Not to mention I own probably over a thousand picture books (but I stopped trying to keep count after 800). In my growing and accumulating knowledge of picture books, I know that a sidekick character is always a hit and enjoyable addition. A lot of illustrators add dogs, or mice, a cat, and even in Mercer Mayer’s case – a spider. Kids notice those details especially and that little side-character, while usually overlooked in the text itself, becomes really important to the storyline, emotions, and actions. I knew from the start that the child character needed a dog. As I tried to decide what breed of dog, I realized since the child wasn’t actually scared of Jerry, the dog’s job was to be terrified (at least in the beginning). Maybe I have too many friends with beloved pugs, but the pug just seemed like the perfect choice. They are small. They are lumps of skin and fur. They kind of look like little gremlins or monsters. And they have awesome eyes. Out came Burrito. His storyline isn’t too complicated, but it was pretty exciting to go back through the roughed out pages and decide what Burrito was doing and responding to. He added a deeper level of comedy, but also emotion. He is the perfect audience for Jerry, responding exactly as Jerry hopes kids will. And he is a lovely companion and odd little comfort for the child.
Why is Jerry not a good monster...or is he a good monster?
Jerry is a great monster! But he isn’t the stereotypical definition of a monster. Jerry breaks the norm and is exactly who he is supposed to be, regardless of labels. I hated scary things as a kid, so Jerry would have been the perfect monster for me. I mentioned something like this in my dedication of the book, but I think it is really important to constantly be reminded to redefine labels. Our culture is constantly boxing in people and ideas to only mean one thing. Marketing loves to do that. But nothing really ever fits a mold perfectly. And Jerry will always be a monster, but HIS version of monster.
But this isn’t true for me. Taking a picture helps me focus. I remember a lot more details when I’ve taken a picture. I’m pretty sure I have some form of a photographic mind, but it is getting old and tired and overwhelmed by the crazy pace of everyday life. When I take a picture, I stop and see the beauty in an easily overlooked moment or scene. I look back at old pictures and know exactly what I wanted to capture there – an outfit, a look, a color, light movement, or even something that I heard or was said at that moment. Pictures help me stop and remember. And when I’m feeling incapable of creativity, I browse my pictures and easily find myself off on another inspired adventure with my pens and brushes.
What mediums do you use?
I’ve used a variety of mediums over the years, but my current favorite style is some form of pen and ink and often watercolor. I use a lot more pen and ink with one color accent for my own personal, quickly done art and I use watercolor when I want to fret over and actually create a painting.
I print those out and take them to my light table where I can loosely trace the layout onto my painting paper. Then I take a long time using those loose traces and detail out the scenes. This can be quick or painful depending on how detailed out the scene is in my head. I frequently look up reference photos for a gesture or a position so that I can better express the characters. You may even catch me acting out a motion or action to try to figure out what the body does at that point.
Once all the final drawings are done, I often scan those in too, so they are saved if I totally screw up the painting and have to redraw using the light table. My next step is to draw the lines with waterproof ink and let it really, really dry. I follow that with a huge mess of erasing. This requires much vacuuming and sweeping of my work areas and I go through a lot of erasers. Around this time, I often use my digital scans to mock up my color palette and make sure I like how the flow of color looks. It takes a long time, but it makes me more confident once I reach the painting stage. I use those mockups to look at and remind me what color goes where, especially when backgrounds are being considered.
My next step is to paint. Since I use watercolor, I don’t have a lot of time to work on one painting. For Jerry, I did several paintings at once so that I could mix up a large amount of one color and then paint all the things on each painting in that color. Then those can dry and I can move to the next color. It made the process go much faster and kept my colors consistent.
Lastly, I scan all my paintings with a large-format, big hoss of a scanner. My painting skills are always a bit messy and not as OCD as I would like thanks to the quickness of watercolor, so I usually have to do some cleanup in PhotoShop – softening strokes in a background or bringing out the highlight in a white spot that leaked a little too much color. For Jerry, I had several vignette pages where more than one painting ended up on a page, so I spent time cutting those out and placing them together so that the backgrounds fit seamlessly.
What other projects are you working on?
I don’t currently have any big projects lined up, so I’m focusing my momentum built up from Not So Scary Jerry in refreshing my portfolio with some one-off illustrations, personal promotions, and a couple picture book ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for years.