Born in Hong Kong, Donald Wu grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area after moving there as a child. Years of drawing doodles in school along with a love of comic books led him to study illustration at the California College of the Arts. While at school, Donald was introduced to many different mediums ranging from watercolors to acrylics. Although Donald started his career using traditional mediums, Donald has since made the transition to digital medium. Donald continues to reside and “doodle” in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Client list: Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Random House, Sleeping Bear Press, Amazon Children’s Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish), Clarion Books, Picture Window Books, Reading A-Z, Standard Publishing.
Here is Donald explaining his illustrating process:
Here are some sketches of a robot dinosaur character I did for an illustration idea. Here I’m playing with ideas and different looks for this character. I have yet to really settle on a specific look. I think I like pieces here and there from several, so perhaps the final rendition will be an amalgam of sorts. Though, I typically don’t go to these lengths with all my illustrations (especially for just a single illustration), whenever I can, I’ll make every effort to try and do so, cause I’m quickly realizing the benefit of it. Since my goal is to push my character designing, I see it as a very necessary step in the process.
I have another character in need of designing, which means more sketches…
a couple more sketches. This time, with the other component of my illustration. He will obviously be the main character of the piece. With his treatment, I kept going back and forth with the amount of fantasy I wanted to incorporate into his design. Part of me really wanted to go over the top with it and give him a steampunk edge, but with the illustration I have in mind, I thought better of it, and decided to root him more in reality. Next stage will be to put everything together and actually start on the sketch itself.
Next comes the fun part, and that is designing the actual illustration. For me, it starts with jotting down some quick thumbnails… For me, there’s no real set number of thumbnails I must do before moving on to the final sketch, I just keep at it until something jumps out at me, but on average, I tend to do about 5-6. With these, all I’m doing is working out possible compositions. These should be quick and loose, and I’m sure they look like nothing more than mere scribbles, but that’s kind of the point. The last thing I want to get hung up on at this phase are the details. The main focus is to explore different perspectives and points of views until I get something I feel will make for an interesting composition. Once I make my choice, I can then start on my final sketch. .
This is where I start adding in all the details, and make things look “pretty”. Next comes the color… Overall, I’m pretty happy with how everything came together. There is a lot of fun stuff going on, but for me, I especially enjoyed rendering the robo-dino. It’s not too often I get to embrace my inner geek, so whenever the opportunity presents itself, I try to make the most of it.
And here’s the process I took to get there…
First, I always start with the most general, I blocked in all my major shapes with color. Here I am simply establishing the basic color scheme of the illustration. In the past, when I was still working with acrylics, this step would be a lot more difficult. I’d always have to worry about losing my drawing underneath layers of paint or simply having it washed away from the water in my brush. However, with Photoshop, this problem is no longer an issue. By keeping the colors in a separate multiply layer(Photoshop speak btw.), the lines would not be effected whatsoever, which gave me the freedom to throw color around with abandon. This freed me up to play and explore different palettes without worrying about getting my colors muddy since I could always edit if needed. Definitely a true plus in working digitally. Once I settled on something I liked, I could move onto the next phase.
This meant a quick pass on the main characters and elements of the illustration. I established a bit more of the form and detail to each of the characters, but my main priority was the boy’s face. With any illustration I work on, the face is the most important thing, and a major hurdle, so I try to nail those down as quickly as I can. In many ways, this can be the most crucial stage in my working process, cause it can very well set the table on how the rest of the illustration will go. Usually, if I can’t get a face to look right, it meant I’d be fighting the piece the whole time, cause I’d have to go back over and over again trying to rework it. Luckily, in this case, the boy’s face didn’t give me too much trouble, and I was able to get him looking pretty decent at this stage. And having cleared this major obstacle, I was able to relax a bit moving forward.
Next I gave the background and ground a pass. At this point, my brain is on auto-pilot. There’s not much thinking involved here, I simply wanted to fill the back area with “junk”. This part took a bit of time, and was a bit tedious, but I felt it was necessary. Obviously, the quickest and easiest solution would have been to put in a blank wall there, but it also wouldn’t have added anything to the illustration either. All the stuff back there helped to establish more of the story, mood and interest to the piece, so it was time well spent.
After that, I went back to the main elements in the foreground and gave them a second pass. I focused on the smaller details this time. I cleaned up all the edges and gave it a more polished look. At this point, all my major elements were in place and I had pretty much worked everything out. This is probably my favorite part working on an illustration, once I can visualize the final illustration, I can just zone out and make things look pretty.
And finally, here’s the finished illustration. After taking a step back, I realized I needed to rework the boy’s face and expression. Along with that. I added a couple finishing touches. The lighting effects here and there, as well the random materials on the floor. All these helped to tie everything together.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been doing this fulltime for about 6 years.
How did you decide to attend California College of the Arts?
Having grown up in the Bay Area, I wanted to stay local, so I was deciding between CCA or San Jose State. In the end, I decided to attend CCA because I could make that drive every day. However, it turns out going to an art school really was a better fit for me over going the liberal arts route. There was a special kind of energy that can only come from being surrounded by others who were as passionate about art as you were.
Can you tell us a little bit about that school?
It was an interesting experience. The school was comprised of two campuses, one in San Francisco and one in Oakland. The curriculum was pretty intense. Having previously taken classes at a local junior college, I had most of my general art classes out of the way by the time I got to CCA,. So I hit the ground running and focused most of my studio time to illustration classes. Most studio classes were 6 hours a week and there were a lot of late nights and all nighters.
What types of classes did you take at CCA?
Along with my Illustration classes, I took a lot of Anatomy classes, and a couple painting classes.
What classes were your favorites?
I consider many of my studio classes amongst my favorites, think a lot of it had to do with the instructor. My favorite though, was a class called Drawing for Illustration. It was taught by a terrific instructor named Vince Perez, and for me, it was as much a history of illustration as it was about drawing and painting. It was my first semester and I was pretty naive, so being introduced to all the many genres of illustration as well as many wonderful illustrators was truly enlightening. Vince became a mentor to me and I went on to take several of his anatomy classes that he also taught. I eventually became a TA for him and my very last year, I took his Drawing for Illustration course again for fun, just to see how far I had come…I dedicated my first book to Vince.
Did the School help you get work?
Not directly, it did help give me the tools and a good foundation to prepare me to find work.
What type of job did you get after graduation?
I did several odd jobs here and there to pay the bills, but I made sure I also gave myself enough time on the side to devote to my craft.
Do you feel that the classes you took in college have influenced you style?
Not really, though my classes have influenced the technique I used to illustrate back when I was working traditionally.
It sounds like you have lived San Francisco since you moved to the US as a small child. Does the Bay Area have a robust art community?
I think so, there always seems to be something art related going on. And there are no shortages of art schools nearby, I can think of 4-5 off the top of my head.
What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
My first “real” assignment was for Steven Heller at the New York Times. I planned a trip to New York City and I was fortunate enough to have met with him and showed him my portfolio. I got two assignments from the meeting,
What was the first illustration work you did for children?
It was for a educational assignment for Harcourt.
How did that come about?
I had just signed with my agent. Right away she got me an assignment about a story of kids playing baseball. It was a pretty big project, I believe there were 7-8 illustrations total and one illustration required a big bleacher full of spectators.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?
I suppose I’ve always wanted to. It might have been more of a romanticized notion when I was younger and in school, I think it was always more about taking the steps to making it a reality.
How and when did you connect with your art rep. Mela Bolinao at MB Artist?
Back in 2006, when I decided to pursue children’s illustration, I built a portfolio and sent out a postcard. From that, I got some good responses and one of which was from Mela. What convinced me she was the right fit for me was when she showed me the work of illustrator Macky Pamintuan that she represented. She thought we shared a similar style. The funny thing was, I had just returned from Barnes and Noble that day and I had seen one of his books and I was really impressed with his work. I even recall saying to myself that this is the kind of work I want to be doing. So I guess it was meant to be.
Was Dogerella your first picture book that you illustrated? Yes, Dogerella was an leveled reader published by Random House.
How did you get Random House interested in your illustrations?
I got the book through my rep, but I’m sure having sample work to show to clients was essential.
It looks like you have done a few books with Marshall Cavendish and then Amazon Children’s Publishing. Can you tell us about how you built on that relationship to get more work?
I worked on the books for Marshall Cavendish (which was later acquired by Amazon Children’s Publishing and eventually renamed Two Lions) were all done with the same art director. So building a good relationship and a solid rapport with the people you work with was important in this instance. In any job, it’s always a good idea to be reliable and professional.
Can you tell us a little bit about Picture Window Books?
I illustrated two books for them, one was called You’re Toast and Other Metaphors We Adore and She Sells Seashells and Other Tricky Tongue Twisters. They were nice to work with.
Did you do anything specific to get the contract to illustrate the picture books at Standard Publishing?
That’s Mela’s game, I general let her do her thing and I stick to my art. But having a variety of pieces in my portfolio definitely helps to make you more appealing to a variety of publishers and art directors; animals, children, different pieces appeal to different people. So even when I’m not “working”, I create pieces to beef up my portfolio; because you never know when you’ll need it.
Do you think you will ever try writing and illustrating your own book?
Yes, I have recently dabbled with the idea of doing both. I have even managed to create several dummy books. It’s something I do when I get some free time in between deadlines to better my craft.
How did you get the opportunity illustrate Change-up Baseball Poems with Clarion Books?
Again Mela. Fortunately, having already done a story about baseball, I had some samples that were more specific for this book and so the publishers had a better idea of what how the illustrations would look like. That helped me land this job.
Do publishers tell you specifically want they want, down to the colors?
When it comes to educational publishers they can be more specific about what they want. Not so much in regards to colors, generally it’s more about the children they want illustrated. Most will add a note specifying each kid’s age and race and a general idea of what is happening in the illustration.
Have you done any work for children’s magazines?
Yes, I’ve done some work for Scholastic and I just finished an illustration for Clubhouse JR.
Have you worked for educational publishers?
Yes, I have worked with Scholastic, Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, as well as many others.
How did you like working with Sleeping Bear Press on J is for Jack –O- Lantern?
They were great to work with. I remember having a phone conference with the art director and the author of the book. Typically, I rarely have any contact with the authors until after the books are released, so it was a treat to chat with the other people involved with the book.
Which book do you think was the most successful?
The next one. Dogerella did pretty well and I’ve been very please with Dog’s life so far. The illustrations in that book are based on our Chesapeake Bay Retriever Chip. The story reminds me a lot of him too. So it really was a labor of love. I dedicated the book to him. However, I’m always hoping the next one will be the BIG one.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I do several things to promote my work. Along with my personal website, I have a portfolio on my agency’s site, as well as on PictureBook. I have done postcards as well in the past. In this last couple years, my agency has done something really cool, we put out our own quarterly promotional catalog and send those out to publishers. My wife has also named herself my unofficial “publicist” and is always pushing me to do book signings and school visits.
Do you ever use paint as a medium anymore?
Not for illustration work anymore, but on a rare occasion, I’ve might break out my watercolors and paint a portrait for someone. But these are generally for gifts.
Not counting your computer, what is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
As much as my time allows. When I’m not actively drawing or painting, I also try to find time to research other illustrators. I also find illustration material online, whether it’s youtube or just the internet in general, I’m constantly looking for new things to inspire me. For me, illustration is not merely a job, I’m also one of its biggest fan, so I like to surround myself in it.
Have you ever won an award for your writing or illustrating?
Nothing of note unfortunately, though I generally don’t enter contests.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I am always using google images to find reference before I start a sketch. I also use myself or bother other people to do a quick pose for me if I need it.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Yes, I think in this day and age, having some internet presence is vital in staying relevant. Most of my conversations with my clients are done via emails, including my rep, so the internet helps me connect with other people faster and more easily. It’s also a very powerful learning tool to help me continue to grow and improve my craft.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
Nowadays, I use Photoshop almost exclusively to create my illustrations.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet to illustrate?
I own several wacom intuos tablets that I use to create my work.
Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your materials changed?
As far as style goes, my overall style has remained the same, I think it has just matured and been refined over the years through practice. For sure my materials have changed though, when I first started, I worked traditionally, in a combination of acrylics and colored pencils. About three years ago, I made the switch to digital, and now all my illustrations are done on the computer in Photoshop.
Most illustrators struggle to get their first big break. It looks to me as though you were successful getting illustrating projects. What things did you do to attribute to this success?
For me, having an agent has been vital to my success. While she focuses on the business and promotional side of things, I can focus on the art. So while she plays her part, my role is to make sure I continue to improve and make myself more appealing to clients. But whether you have an agent or not, as an illustrator, I think it all starts with having a solid portfolio.
What do you feel is the biggest advantage to working digitally?
It goes without saying that one of the big pluses of working digitally is the ability to make changes cleanly and quickly. Above is a great example of this in action; I created this illustration and showed it to my agent, and she suggested that I try and change things up and work with a new palette. And so, with just a couple simple hue/saturation layers, I was able to rework the colors and change the overall mood of the piece. The best part is that it only took about 10 minutes.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I would like to someday both write and illustrate a story and get that published.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a leveled reader for an Australian client called Engage Literacy. Also I am working on a book with Pearson.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
I recently discovered that the IPad can be a pretty nifty sketching tool. I like to sketch with it when I find myself outside and in need something mobile.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Constantly move forward, being productive and persistent is key. Whether you are just starting out or a seasoned veteran, in this business, you need to prepare yourself for setbacks and disappointments…you are not going to land every job you want, but that’s okay. Be your own worst critic, be humble, and it will force you to be better than you were the day before. Being stagnant is your worst enemy.
Thank you Donald for sharing you fascinating illustrations and journey with us. We will be looking for many more wonderful artwork from you in the future. Please let us know about all your additional successes. We’d love to hear them.
You can find Donald Wu at: www.donaldwu.com/ I am sure he would love if you left a comment for him. Thanks!
Filed under: authors and illustrators, Illustrator's Saturday, inspiration, Process, Uncategorized Tagged: Amazon Children's Publishing, California College of the Arts, Donald Wu, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Random House, Scholastic