Award-winning Children’s Book Illustrator LeUyen Pham shares her musings and advice to young artists.
“…you just have to listen to that inner voice, that inner compass that’s pointing you in the right direction.”
Although she never took an art class until college, children’s book illustrator LeUyen (la-win) Pham has illustrated over 80 published books in a variety of styles and genres over the past fifteen years (and has even written a few as well). A unique combination of talent, humility, intelligence, passion, and an infectious laugh have helped propel her career in the competitive world of illustration. She strongly encourages you to follow your own compass, and to always draw in ink.
This is the second half of Artzray’s interview with LeUyen Pham. Interested in the first half? Check it out at Want to be a Children’s Book Illustrator? Part I
I think the old school method of children’s book illustrators is that you find one editor who kind of nourishes your career and keeps you going. But I think in this environment nowadays that it’s just impossible to have one editor, because that one editor can only get you so much work. So you end up doing one book every one or two years for them. It’s not enough to sustain yourself. (Living) in San Francisco, that’s gonna barely pay for two or three months. So, for me it was just a matter of, “I’m gonna broaden my net as much as I can,” and I think one of the ways I was able to do that was that I developed multiple styles. Most illustrators will advise you against that. They’ll say find a single style and develop it and get good at that and be known for that, but I just didn’t have the patience for it and it’s not in my nature to do one single thing.
So each time I got offered a new book I would adamantly argue, and this was in the beginning, I don’t argue anymore, I’d argue with each editor, “Look, I don’t want to use the style you’re hiring me for. I’m going to do this other style, and you can reject me if you want—just don’t pay me. But this is what I’m gonna do.”
I’d do a sample piece for the first few books and I’d convince them, and in the end they would of course take the credit, “We’re the ones who helped Uyen develop this new style.” For the first three or four years I always had to prove myself. Now an editor calls me and it’s like, “Which style do you think you’re going to use? Are you gonna come up with a new one for this one? Let’s come up with something new!” But it was a little bit of a fight at first, sure.
It definitely worked in my favor. Rather than having a single career, I feel like I’ve had the career of multiple artists. I’ve been able to do graphic novels without any difficulty. I’ve been able to do young board books for kids with bright primary colors. I’m able to do sophisticated watercolors for more complicated books. And then I can switch over to chapter books easily, and I can just pen and ink stuff with them. In each case I’ve got samples of things that I’ve done in that particular style. So really what it’s done is that it’s just opened up everything to me.
I always have about three or four projects on my docket–it’s not a joke! And they’re usually very different things. Like at the moment I’m working on a teen graphic novel; I’m working on a young reader chapter book, but it’s like half pictures—a LOT of drawings in it; and then I’m working on my own picture book; and them I’m working on a non-fiction book on Frank Lloyd Wright. So it’s just like all these different directions, all these different ways to go, and it’s all fun! And I can draw in my pajamas at home (big laugh)!
UYEN BELIEVES IN HUMILITY
There are so many successful people that I know, but so few of them that I really really like. And the ones that I like—they got where they got almost despite of their humbleness. Their humility keeps them grounded as people, and that I completely appreciate.
At the beginning of my career, I think I turned down nothing. At one time I think I was making greeting cards for a golf company. I know nothing about golf, and I took it just to do it. I was doing homemade Christmas card designs for wealthy women. I think I painted cherries on somebody’s curtain windows before. I was commissioned to paint a kid’s room, and I think they wanted Elmo all over the place—nothing was below me. And to a certain extent I still feel that way. I’m sure if someone offered me an Elmo job now I’d probably say, “Well, let me see if I can fit that in.”
FIND VALUE IN WHAT YOU DO
You have to find some value in doing it. Whether or not it’s attached to a monetary value—it’s of little difference. I can say that now, nicely in my career because I do well enough. But I think that that’s a mandate that I’ve always had in things I’ve taken on. Even if I’m forced to take on a project, I’ve found a way to enjoy it. I’ve found a way to make it mine, give it some value in my life in some way, and I think that that’s probably an important thing.
I think most of the projects that I do I just completely love what it is, and my ego is not involved in any way—those are usually the projects that end up doing the best.
I try to always find an intrinsic value that means something to me, and my job at that point is to make that value evident to other people. I think as a visual artist, more than as a writer, it’s an easier thing to do—to make something visually attractive to someone. For me writing is such a difficult thing, because I think it’s harder to portray that love, to get other people to love it in the same way that I do because it takes a certain investment on their part to read a couple of pages to decide whether or not they want to continue –I have SUCH admiration for people who can pull it off.
I’ve only written like four books now. And I’m doing a lot more. I’m definitely doing a lot more. But it’s not an area that I feel that I can say that I’m very well versed at. I’m constantly intimidated by writers, and making friends with them, saying, “I don’t know how you do this!” It’s humbling. And I actually like that feeling of not knowing exactly what I’m doing, and still constantly learning. I think one of the nicest things about the field that I’m in is that it allows me to constantly grow and change and develop and learn.
LISTEN TO YOUR OWN VOICE AND FOLLOW YOUR OWN COMPASS
Also, don’t listen to anybody. I’m sure if I’d listened to (her children’s book teacher at Art Center) I wouldn’t have done it.
You’ve gotta try on skin, like certain skins, and you’ll know which one is the right skin once you’re in there. It’s like me with art school (Art Center). If you slide in and you just feel like it’s submerging into water that’s like body temperature, then you’re there. That’s it. And you’ll figure out a way to stay there if that’s what makes you feel comfortable, if that’s what makes you feel good.
I feel like I know a lot of people who had these career trajectories where they wanted the end result but not the means to get there. They wanted to be in that nice house with the nice things. They wanted to be a partner in a law firm or whatever, but the work and the sacrifice that’s involved to get there, it didn’t matter if they didn’t fit, so long as they got the end. And for me, I don’t see the end in the same way, like I don’t actually see an end, I see this part of my life continuing and continuing and developing and developing and changing, and I think that’s why I haven’t experienced a mid-life crisis or anything (big laugh) or huge regrets. And I get excited about all the things that I do, and I get tired of course just being a person, but I never get tired of what it is that I do. And I feel like that’s only because it’s so clearly what I need to do with my life. I think the scariest thing about that is just acknowledging that you’ve found it, and that you just have to not listen to other people, and that you just have to listen to that inner voice, that inner compass that’s pointing you in the right direction.
Being an artist these days, it’s almost a weird thing to say that you’re an artist, but how I feel is that it’s an opportunity for you to express to the world your opinion, your feelings, what’s literally in your brain, in a way a lot of people can’t do. They can’t communicate it. And what it means is that you have to understand what it is that you are trying to communicate, it’s that voice, in order to do it. To find that voice early on and to be true to it and not sway from it –it’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and it’s an incredibly hard thing to get the world to recognize the voice as being valid in some way–but once you get there, once you’re there, once you’ve been made heard it’s so much easier. It justifies why it is that you became the artist in the first place.
TRY TO GET AN AGENT
When I first started, I didn’t have an agent. I did everything on my own, and to be honest, in my case, I only got an agent because at one point the work started to get overwhelming and I was very very bad at negotiating. I didn’t understand what contracts I was signing and what rights I was giving away. So an agent is helpful for all those kinds of things.
To most people who are getting started though, I would recommend an agent before you even get your first contract. And the reason why is because it’s a tough field to get into at the moment. Publishers are sort of hesitant to give work to new illustrators unless they’re powerhouses—unless CLEARLY there’s something that really stands out in their work. An agent is kind of a business partner that will not only help you get your foot in the door, get you in front of the right people, but will give you the right suggestions as to how to channel your manuscript (or illustrations) into something an editor would like. An agent is just really someone who understands the game plan—knows the map—and can lead you through the forest a lot faster, so I would recommend that for new people.
JOIN A WRITERS OR ILLUSTRATORS GROUP
That being said, however, an agent is almost as hard to get as an editor used to be. It’s really tough to get seen, and your work picked up by an agent, so in that case a lot of the time you join writers’ workshops you join illustrators’ workshops. There’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It’s great. There are local chapters where people get together. You pay a small fee. You get together a couple of times a year, you show each other your work, and then you’re given access to all these mailing lists with them. And you get to meet editors one-on-one, and for me, that’s really the best way to get to know somebody—to get to know them one-on-one and just speaking to them—that’s the best may to make an impression.
MAKE A PERSONAL IMPRESSION AND BE A NICE PERSON
When I was promoting myself all over again, what I did to make sure that I stayed relevant in the minds of all those people that I went to visit, was that when I’d get in front of them, I’d not only show them my portfolio, but I would follow it up with my sketchbooks. The sketchbooks are full of personal stories and anecdotes and so each time they’d see an interesting sketch, they’d ask about it. The conversation switched from a very impersonal, “What kind of books are you looking for?” to “Oh! When did you spend time riding on the back of an elephant? What was it like in Asia eating those cockroaches?” Because you suddenly implant these small little stories in their heads, they remember you as a person as opposed to an artist. That is probably the golden ticket. That is the thing you want –to be remembered as person, because they’re more likely to call you up because they like working with you.
A big part of the industry is attitude. If you can do a job really well and you’re a great person to work with, you’re going to get the job as opposed to someone who is an AMAZING artist but is a pain to work with. They’re going to hire the one they have an easier time working with and enjoy and are just nicer to work with. Be a nice person. My career has been because I’m nice. It’s like, “Oh, give it Uyen! She’s so easy to work with—she’s nice.” You may find clever ways of getting it done your way, but in a nice way. Always sugar over anything else.
FAILURE ISN’T FAILURE
I don’t think of failure as failure. When I sketch in my sketchbook, I always draw in ink. I never use a pencil, and the reason why is because the very first drawing has to be your worst, has to be filled will mistakes—it is a drawing you expect to be filled with mistakes. It is in pen. You can not erase it. It’s there. It is evident. The next drawing you do, you learn from that previous drawing and it’s a little better. You never erase. You never throw away. You get to see the culmination of your growth during the period of that sketchbook–from beginning to end you can actually see your growth as an artist. I always tell students, “If you show me your sketchbook and the first drawing and your last drawing are amazing, I’m not going to be interested in that sketchbook, because I’m going to be looking at the same thing over and over and over again. There’s no growth there. And if there’s no growth there, then you’re stagnant as an artist, and if you’re stagnant as an artist, you might as well get another job, because you’ve reached the culmination of what you can do.
I see everything as a stepping stone to the next level. And if you’re afraid of making it, then you’re afraid of getting to the next level, and then you will never advance, and you will get very bored with your job very quickly. So I absolutely don’t believe in mistakes. Or failures.
BIO AND CONTACT INFO FOR UYEN
LeUyen Pham is a New York Times bestselling author/illustrator who has created over 80 books for children. Among her many titles are “Freckleface Strawberry” written by Julianne Moore, “The Princess in Black” written by Shannon and Dean Hale (optioned by Universal for feature development), the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, “God’s Dream” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Bo of Ballard Creek” by Kirkpatrick Hill, “The Boy Who Loved Math” by Deborah Heiligman, “Mama Seeton’s Whistle” by Jerry Spinelli, “Shoe-La-La” by Karen Beaumont, “Templar” by Jordan Mechner (co-illustrated by Alex Puvilland), and “Bedtime for Mommy” by Amy Kraus Rosenthal. Her own books include “Big Sister, Little Sister,” “There’s No Such Thing As Little,” “All The Things I Love About You,” and “A Piece of Cake.” She lives in California with her husband and two boys. You can visit her online at
LEUYEN PHAM ILLUSTRATION
How Do You Pronounce LeUyen Pham?!? at Facebook
LOOK FOR UYEN’S NEWEST BOOKS COMING SOON
“The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party” by Shannon and Dean Hale (Fall 2015)
“Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead” by Michelle Markel (Winter 2016)
“The Bear Who Wasn’t There” self-authored (Spring 2016)
OTHER WEBSITES UYEN RECOMMENDS
HELPFUL BOOKS TO CHECK OUT
Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market 2015
Graphic Artists Guild Handbook
UYEN LOVES THE WORK OF MANY ARTISTS. A FEW INCLUDE:
Edmund Dulac, Ernest Shepard, N.C. Wyeth,Oliver Jeffers, Peter Brown, Jillian Tamaki, Emily Carroll, Benjamin Chaud