Shawna JC Tenney, Illustrator and Author

Shawna is a great illustrator and the host of the Stories Unbound Podcast.

I was able to ask her some questions about illustrating and her creative process. Enjoy.

1. Could you tell me what was the first spark of idea you got for “Brunhilda’s Backward Day”?

I got the idea from a childhood game I used to play with my best friend Lara. The game was called “The Opposite Witches.” We pretended to be witches that did everything backwards. We flew our brooms backwards, our spells always went backwards, and we even tried to speak backwards. It was so funny to us that we mostly ended up laughing the whole time.

2. And how did it change as you started to work on it?

When I first wrote the story, it was about a couple of kids who went to a witch’s house and what happened to them when the witch’s spells went backwards. But the story just wasn’t working, so I decided to make the story about the witch and what happened to her when her spells went backwards. After that, the story began to work.

Brunhilda’s Backward Day by Shawna Tenney
The cover of Shawna’s Book.

3. Did the illustrations come easy for the book?

No, it really took a lot of effort and deliberation. I started with a lot of planning- planning character design and environment design. Then I did lots of thumbnailing- working and reworking- until the book started to flow. Then I had to work and rework many of the sketches. I was very deliberate and careful about the colors I used. Finishing all the illustrations was a learning process. But I’m really glad I took the time to make an effort to make the best quality artwork that I could.


4. Did you have any setbacks in creating the book and what did you do to overcome the problem?

I can’t think of any specific huge set backs that happened during the creation of this book, but I had many story and design problems I had to work through. I revised my story many times with the help of other writers. I showed my sketches and color studies to my illustrator friends, and they helped me solve the visual problems I was dealing with. Critique groups and trusted art friends are so important to have if you’re going to work in this industry.

Storyboard for Shawna Tenneys’s Brunhilda Book
Part of the story board.


5. What has been one of the most useful bits of information you have received at the illustration conference?

There have been so many good and inspiring things I have learned through each speaker we have had at the conference. It is hard to choose just one thing. But I really enjoyed hearing from Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director at Penguin Random House. He was very personable and I enjoyed talking with him. I really liked what he had to say in his presentation. Here are a few gold nuggets of information I got from his talk:

He talked about the 3 keys to being an affective artist: Personality, Prowess, and Presentation.

He also talked about marketing your artwork. When you are marketing your artwork on your website, what matters most is your art- not your web address, font, sketches, logo, background etc.

We also heard first hand about how he finds artist for his projects. He doesn’t find artists through artist reps anymore. But he usually finds work through postcards, emails, social media and friend referrals.

Illustration by Shawna Tenney
Illustration by Shawna Tenney


6. Has the portfolio display been helpful for you as far as getting an illustration job?

Yes! Local art directors come to visit the portfolio display every year.

Last year a designer for the Friend Magazine, came to look at the portfolio display. We talked briefly after he looked at my portfolio. A week later, I received an email asking if I was available to create a cover for The Friend Magazine. Yes, of course!


7. Why would you recommend the conference to other illustrators?

It’s a wonderful place to mingle with other illustrators, network with industry professionals, get your work in front of art directors, and learn a ton about working in the children’s book industry. Plus it’s the only opportunity like this locally for illustrators, and at a great price!


8. Do you have any ideas on how an illustrator should prepare for the conference?

Prepare your portfolio with your best work for the portfolio display. Have some art friends give you feedback on what if your best work, and listen to what they have to say. Prepare an illustration for the First Look Critique. It’s an invaluable experience to get a first hand critique from an art director and professional illustrators.

July 2017 cover of the FRIEND
Shawna’s cover for the July 2017 issue of the Friend.


9. What advice would you have for a beginning illustrator?

Go to this conference! And go to as many conferences as you can.

Also, don’t be nervous! Don’t worry if you’re just beginning on the journey. Everyone is at different places in the journey, but everyone was a beginner at one time. Go prepared to talk with everyone and learn from everyone. We are all there to help each other!


10. What advice would you have for a continuing illustrator?

Go to this conference!

It’s so important to keep networking and find your circle of trust and support for your journey. Some of the things taught at the conference, you probably already know. But you never know what new things you will learn. And never underestimate what you can teach to others!

Also, you never know what new work opportunities could come out of showing your portfolio at this conference. It’s such a great opportunity to connect directly with art directors and other professional illustrators.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s