Those who know me best as a person and as a writer, are also aware of my very late arrival to the remarkable world of words. As a boy, movies were my sanctuary.
They were a thing my dad and I shared a love for, over which we spent hours bonding. I didn’t have the patience to read, so movies were also the only real infusion of storytelling into my daily life, my only external immersion into other worlds and other lives.
I found visual storytelling so profoundly impactful that when I decided to become a writer, I moved to Los Angeles simply because I visualize all my stories as movies (my poetry, my fiction, everything).
Even as an adult, even after becoming indelibly changed by words and by literary stories, movies continue to play a significant role in my life, though books and words certainly occupy much more of my time these days.
To encounter a visual artist who has a place in both worlds – that of movies and TV as well as that of books – I find that to be both humbling and inspiring. Like Claire Keane who works on the Tangled TV series, who worked on the movie Frozen, and who illustrated “Love Is” by my friend Diane Adams.
Well, let me tell you, Betsy Bauer is one such artist!
I digress momentarily, but I used to tell people that I was shy, but no one ever accepted that as a possibility given my equally gregarious nature. Several years back someone responded that I was actually an “outgoing introvert,” a juxtaposition I had never even considered, but one that seemed to capture the ongoing battle between my passion for being with other people and my profound need for solitude.
My constant interaction with the world around me through observation of the darkness and the inexplicable from the periphery, as well as through my insatiable need to turn inward to explore and attempt to understand my own life and my place in that world through my imagination. Hence my becoming a poet and a writer of stories for children and young adults.
I mention this simply because, every now and then I need to step back from the world, to decompress. Movies continue to be my outlet for this, a creative oasis that sparks ideas for my own stories while also allowing me to unplug from my own life and recharge emotionally and intellectually. Visual art also does this. Maybe that’s why I was compelled to create Other Cool Birds.
As I mentioned, coming across an artist who has worked (and who works) for TV and movies, whose “day job” is at Dreamworks of all places (talk about cool), and who also works for New Leaf Literary, whose own passion for creating art and stories ties into both my passion for books, and for visual storytelling, well, I am forced to pause and to appreciate just how much of an impact her art can have on such a wide range of people, on so many lives. And that fills me with a different sort of reverence. Not just for the beauty, tenderness, humor and quality of her illustrations, which is something special, but for the ways she is able to touch the lives of others (something I aspire to do myself).
I’ll admit it, when Betsy agreed to be part of Other Cool Birds, I jumped in place and kicked my heels together. Okay, maybe my vertical is a bit less high-flying than it used to be, but I did metaphorically kick my heels because her work has already touched the lives of so many people, most of whom (like me) probably have no idea who she is and, well, quite frankly, I think you should. Spend a little time with her art and you’ll understand why.
Below is an email interview I had with Betsy as well as some of her awesome illustrations.
I’m especially drawn to the personalities of the characters she’s created and the stories that come to mind the moment I see the illustrations.
Other Cool Birds: Young Adult author, Jacqueline Woodson says that writers tend to focus on the time in our lives we’re still working through. Is there an element of truth to Woodson’s claim as it relates to you/your work? If so, how?
Betsy Bauer: That’s a great question and honestly something that I haven’t thought too much about. I suppose that’s probably true for a lot of narrative content that I have spinning around in my head in my post-college years, though I have yet to commit any of those projects to paper.
OCB: How long have you been interested in art?
Betsy Bauer: The boring answer is for about as long as I can remember! But I do specifically remember seeing the “Making of the Lion King” special put on by Disney and realizing that there were people out there who got paid to draw. I was convinced that I would be one of them.
OCB: I see you attended Ringling College of Art and Design. That seems to be a very good program. What led you to go there?
Betsy Bauer: I did go to Ringling, that is correct. I had always dreamed of growing up to work as a 2D animator, but just before I went off to college it looked as though the only way to really get a job in animation was to work in 3D. At the time (and I think still) Ringling had the best program in the country for 3D animation. After about a year and a half into the 3D animation major, I realized that it really wasn’t for me and that I really just wanted to draw, but switching to another major would have been pricey considering I would have to take an extra year of school.
Ultimately I tried to supplement my education as much as possible with extra illustration classes, workshops, and self study. I eventually found out that there were actually still people in animation who got to draw for a living, and learned even more about this part of the pipeline during an internship in the art department at Sony Pictures Animation in 2010. Now, I find that I learn the most from my coworkers. The longer I work, the less I feel like I know.
OCB: What are you illustrating/creating art for (this it not so much an it’s my job sort of question as it is a what is the deep-down driving force behind your choice to illustrate in the first place)? Is there something about the act of illustrating/being creative that speaks to you/resonates with you most?
Betsy Bauer: I don’t know that I have a deep answer here other than that I always enjoyed doing it while I was growing up and just always assumed it’s what I would do! I think in any profession where you use your hands both the process and the final body of work are rewarding. As I get older I find myself more and more drawn to the narrative potential in sequential artwork.
OCB: What is your process (i.e. with each scene, do you start with a character, a color, an action, a feeling . . . or does it vary)?
Betsy Bauer: It certainly depends on the style and scope of the piece. In a general sense I always start with a thumbnail and work rough until I have approval to move forward. I try to waste as little effort as possible by avoiding going down fruitless rabbit trails.
OCB: What is it about the process that you like most? Least?
Betsy Bauer: Early sketches are always hardest! Once the idea is solid it’s just execution. I also maybe enjoy the planning stage the most, even though it’s the most challenging — I always feel like I accomplish a lot in this stage.
OCB: Aside from what might seem obvious, how does working on a prop design differ from working on character designs or illustrating a book (or your work for New Leaf Literary)?
Betsy Bauer: I mean, they are going to be serving very different purposes. At my day job at Dreamworks I am painting work that is almost photo realistic and it has to fit the style of the show. When I am doing my personal work I am doing things a lot more cartoony. If I have a freelance project, I have to hit whatever style my client is asking for. It really just depends on what the client wants in any of these situations. The difference is that when I am doing work for myself I am the only client I have to please.
OCB: What are some of the biggest challenges to being an illustrator?
Betsy Bauer: Work/life balance continues to be my biggest obstacle. If I come home from work after a full day and don’t muster up the energy to work on a side project in the evenings, I still feel like a failure.
OCB: What is one thing about art (your art or art in general) that you think people might not understand?
Betsy Bauer: I think unless you become strictly a gallery artist, you have to understand that mostly, your art is a skill that you have developed and you are being hired for that specific skill. If you are hired on as a illustrator or concept artist at a major studio, you are being hired for your ideas and perspective, but only to an extent.
Ultimately, you will need to make artwork that pleases whoever it was that hired you even if you disagree with their taste. The art that will be most filling to you will always be your personal work, and it’s important to nurture that relationship to make it over the long haul.
OCB: What are some of the biggest challenges to being an illustrator? Oops. For some reason I asked this one twice. But I like both of your answers, so I’ll keep it here, too.
Betsy Bauer: Building off of what I said in the last question, I would say that it’s almost like being in a long term relationship or marriage. If you don’t invest time into your personal relationship with art, you will fizzle out. You have to occasionally have fun with it and do things that make you happy, even if those things are not for money.
OCB: If you could work on any art project (illustrating a book, developing a personal idea, doing some time-travel and working on an historical piece with an artist you admire or a contemporary collaboration) what might it be and why?
Betsy Bauer: I really want to work on my own graphic novel.
OCB: How does your art reflect your personality?
Betsy Bauer: People tell me my characters kind of look like me!
OCB: Did you have a favorite illustration or illustrator when you were young (or now)? If so, why?
Betsy Bauer: I think I remember really liking Jan Brett’s The Mitten when i was young. My favorite contemporary illustrator is probably Annette Marnat. I wish I drew like her and I wish that I could steal her style without anyone noticing! Alas, she thought of it first.
OCB: It’s very refreshing and inspiring to think someone as talented and accomplished as you, feels that way about another artist.
What is or was it like creating art for such giants as Google, Paramount, Sony Pictures Animation, Nickelodeon, Disney TV, and Dreamworks?
Betsy Bauer: It was cool and I certainly feel lucky to have had such great opportunities, but I think it’s again important to remember that no matter whose name is on your paycheck, making art for someone else will never feel the same as when you make artwork for yourself.
I still want to come home at night and work on my own stuff.
OCB: Do you have a favorite project from your various assignments so far?
Betsy Bauer: I made a short film for July 4th in 2014 for Google. It still holds a special place in my heart.
OCB: What is it like to have had a piece of your art purchased by Guillermo del Toro (and what led you to create the piece in the first place)?
Betsy Bauer: The piece was for a group tribute show to all of Del Toro’s films, and the gallery invited me to participate. It was definitely a nice surprise to see that email the morning after the opening!
OCB: Any exciting projects coming up for which we should keep on the lookout?
Betsy Bauer: I’m working on a new TV show at Dreamworks, but it unfortunately isn’t announced yet so I can’t say much!
OCB: Aside from your main website, are there any specific websites with your work that you’d like me to link back to?
I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and visit her sites, spend some time with her art, and keep a watch. Chances are you’ll enjoy her work for Dreamworks or some other media powerhouse and won’t even realize it’s her behind the art, behind the wonder.