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5 ways to get inspired by children’s artwork

Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

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Guest Post by Greg Lewis.

5 ways to get inspired by children’s artwork << Illustration Friday

Anyone who’s spent time around kids knows that they’re natural artists. Crayons and little hands go together like peanut butter and jelly! And while kids of all ages love to create, and they naturally learn important skills like language and fine motor skills along the way, there’s no rule saying we as adults can’t benefit too. Here are some easy ways to let a little of that creative energy rub off on you.

1. Speak universally Kids do this automatically; for us it may take a bit of relearning. Since children create art long before they can write or otherwise communicate with adults, their artwork tells a story with pictures instead of words. We can do this too.(Fundamentally, this is how communication began — as pictures serving as a universal language. A horse is a horse, visually of course, in any language.) Watch how kids use art to present what’s on their minds, and take the hint: Try drawing instead of writing, and tell your stories with your pictures.

2. Notice the details – Have you ever seen a kid’s drawing that *didn’t* have some unexpected little detail? Kids see things differently, and their artwork reflects that — in part through all the little “extra” stuff we adults tend to miss. Since kids use their art to examine people, places and things, learning about them and interpreting their place in the world, their attention to the seemingly unimportant can teach us a lesson about all that we may be overlooking in everyday life. An experiment in kid-like close examination of the world around us can give you a surge of creativity.

5 ways to get inspired by children’s artwork << Illustration Friday

3. Focus – Walk into any preschool classroom during arts and crafts time and you’ll see a room full of kids with more concentration than many of us adults can muster. Little tongues sticking out the sides of mouths, bright eyes laser-locked on the task at hand… that is some intense focus. Society puts a preference on multi-tasking, but in getting more done, we are focusing less on each task, leading to subpar work. Learn from children’s focus on their artwork and try your hand a one-task-at-a-time mentality. Tongue placement is optional.

4. Build self-esteem – “LOOK! I drew it myself!!!” That’s the rallying cry of a child who’s proud of her artwork. No matter how scribbled, messy or unusual the artwork looks, the budding artist will be beaming as she holds that construction-paper canvas aloft. And it’s only natural for us as adults to receive the art with the same gusto, building up and praising the child for whatever she’s created. “That’s awesome, kiddo!” The lesson here? Self-esteem matters, whether you’re growing up or not. Praise for others goes a long way, so make sure you acknowledge when others do a great job, and help to build them up when they fall short. Be confident in yourself, too, and be proud of your accomplishments, small and large. Your successes are important to you, and what’s important to you will be important to others.

5. Have fun and be free – You might say creating art is the “happy place” for many youngsters. There’s something about a fresh set of crayons or bright, colorful markers or messy finger paint that deeply appeals to children. Arts and crafts time for children tends to turn into a wonderful mess, often without the kids even realizing it. That white canvas or blank coloring book is a place where they can be free to create whatever they want. We should look forward to each artwork — and each day, really — with this same approach. The brevity of childhood is a daily reminder that life’s too short to not have fun. So channel your inner little person, learn all you can from any kids you’re lucky enough to spend time with, and grab your camera or sketchpad for an enjoyable and important trip to your “happy place.”

:: Greg Lewis has been writing about children’s artwork as well as visual arts education for kids for more than a decade. When not writing, you can find Greg volunteering with one of Chicago’s many non-profit organizations.

Posted by Thomas James on 02/13/13 under children's art,creativity,guest post
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The Sketchbook Project

Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Latest posts by Thomas James (see all)

The Sketchbook Project, in case you haven’t heard of this ingenious and inspiring undertaking, is a collection of creative works in the form of art contributed by people from around the world. (Kind of like Illustration Friday, come to think of it…) In this case, the art is in the form of sketchbooks – more than 22,000 of them and counting – created by some 70,000 artists in more than 130 countries. Wow! The really cool thing is that since its inception 6 years ago, the project has shared the wealth by sending the art around (more than 40,000 miles so far), spreading inspiration and creative collaboration all over. And, just this month, they launched a brand new, reinvented Sketchbook Project, with the goal of making participation easier and more engaging.

Co-Founder Steven Peterman summed it up thusly: “We knew it was time to evolve. The idea of a yearly, traveling project was just not sustainable. We wanted something that would be more accessible to our participants and easier for us to visit more cities and reach more people.

With that in mind, The Sketchbook Project staff created The Mobile Library — a custom-built 16-foot trailer that will travel the country, year-round, reaching as many as 45 cities a year. (It already has a schedule of 20 cities for 2013.) Here’s how they describe the new process: creative-minded people can head over to the website and order an official Sketchbook Project sketchbook. Once you get your sketchbook, you can register your book for one of six tours.

We wanted to allow our participants more options and a chance to ‘curate’ their own tour in some way,” said Peterman.

With each tour, you not only get to select a theme for your book, but you get to select the 3 to 4 city tour your book will go on. Pick a city near you, or pick a whole different part of the country! It’s all up to you. Once your book goes on it’s tour, it will be come part of the permanent collection at The Brooklyn Art Library in Brooklyn, NY. There, visitors can search and look through all 22,000 books in the collection. Want your book to be seen even more? Select the digitizing option when getting your book. The Sketchbook Project digital library has had over 1.3 million books viewed and more than half the books have had over 100 different views.

As Peterman explains, “By selecting the digitizing option, you will open your book to a whole new audience. The digital library receives over 1,700 views a day from people all over the world. It will also allow us to select your book for curated and alternative exhibitions.

Not only will The Mobile Library take the sketchbooks on tour, contributed art will also be used for curated exhibitions using the Project’s past sketchbooks. Just this past month, The Mobile Library brought 1,100 books from the collection to Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor and Cleveland on its inaugural 3-city tour curated by Christopher Jobson from

Final words from the founders: “It’s never been easier to join The Sketchbook Project, and we want the Illustration Friday community to get involved! Collaboration, participation and creativity are what The Sketchbook Project and Illustration Friday are all about. Put it down in drawing, painting or any medium. Fill a sketchbook and send it out on the road.


For more information, or to participate in The Sketchbook Project, go to
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Posted by Thomas James on 11/28/12 under books,contests/projects,creativity,guest post,public art
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Rock on! (A rock painting project!)

Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

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Guest Post by Karla from, a global art and collaborative storytelling project.

This is Penelope:

She began her life in an elementary school in Missouri, but soon found herself on a cruise to the sunny Bahamas!

This is Mahatma Ghandi:

He is part of the Social Justice Project — one of twelve key social justice leaders honored by the students that painted and showcased them in a local art gallery.

These are two of over 1,300 characters that have been created by children (and adults) around the world in connection with a global art and collaborative storytelling initiative, Rock Thoughts.

The Rock Thoughts project empowers children to connect with others in meaningful ways through creativity. These connections span across countries, races, age, language, religion and even physical location. The process is simple and we’d love to get you involved! It’s easy! Here’s how:

1. Find a rock (or rocks – you can do as many as you’d like).
The rock should be about the size of your palm and preferably smooth. Look for rocks that are interesting and have unusual shapes.

2. Paint your rock.
You can paint your rock to resemble anything you’d like! We are particularly fond of monsters, but we’ve also seen some amazing rock people, animals and even art scenes!

3. Send us a picture of your painted rock.
Place your rock against a white background, making sure it has enough light shining on it (natural light from a window works great!). Snap a picture and send it to hello [at] rockthoughts [dot] com. Include your rock’s location — city/state/country. We’ll use this information to come up with a short, unique code for your rock that you can write on the underside with a permanent marker, along with the phrase: “Please visit”

4. Write a story for your rock.
Once you have finished your rock and penned the code, you get to write the first part of your character’s story! The story can be about anything you’d like (appropriate for children, of course). Then submit the story directly on the Rock Thoughts site. (We also love getting pictures or videos of your rock “in action” — so go nuts and have fun!)

5. Hide your rock.
After you’ve submitted your photo and story, your rock will be posted on the Rock Thoughts site for everyone to see! Anyone can then jump in to comment or continue your rock’s story — Viola, collaboration! You can then hide your rock in a public space for someone else to find. Be creative in your hiding spot (a tree? under a park bench?) and send photos of your rocks in hiding!

Super easy and fun!

Here are a few more characters to inspire you:

Ida Jr. started off in Wisconsin and found her way to a picnic bench in Iowa.

Munch began in a school in Illinois and found himself in the capital of Brazil.

Ssslithers went into hiding in Illinois and showed up on a mailbox in South Korea.

You never know where your rocks might end up or how their story will develop! What you do know is that you will have participated in a global adventure, collaborating with people from all over in the world to create something new and wonderful.

We are happy to help along the way so please don’t hesitate to contact us at hello [at] rockthoughts [dot] com. Have fun!

:: Karla Valenti is the founder of NiSoSa, an enterprise that designs resources promoting the development of children’s creativity. Rock Thoughts, a global art and collaborative storytelling initiative, is one of NiSoSa’s most recent projects. You can learn about other projects at Karla can be reached at

Posted by Thomas James on 10/02/12 under guest post,IF Kids,Projects
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5 Ways to Dig Deep and Create Unique Work

Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Latest posts by Thomas James (see all)


Illustration is a difficult game! There seem to be so many illustrators out there today and everything seems to be derivative of something else. In my opinion that is actually true, something cannot come from nothing. But on the other hand you are unique, and you have a unique voice that can come through in your work.

Here are five ways to dig deeper and unearth this uniqueness:

1. What Response Are You Hoping For?
When you create an illustration it helps to understand what response you are hoping for from your audience. Surprise, joy, confusion, empathy, sadness, laughter…

Obviously not all of your illustration is going to have the same purpose, so you won’t be hoping for the same response every time, however I do believe it’s a good step to decide what you feel the ultimate response would be to your work. When you have landed on a certain response and you head that direction, your work starts to develop a tone; this tone will be unique to you. Also it helps you decide what type of illustration to pursue (editorial, books, etc).

A good way to decide on the type of response you are looking for is asking yourself this: what response have I had to art in the past that I hope to evoke with my own art? Try to think of the most impactful or memorable response you have ever had to any form of art. The good news is it probably won’t be from illustration, which leads to point number 2…

2. Find Influence Outside Illustration
It’s tough to be influenced by something very different from what you do, but a good place to start is getting inspired by disciplines outside your own. Take note of when you feel the most inspired, and return to those things before or while you create illustration.

This could be music, film, novels, etc. This is more likely to lead you to more unique outcomes in your work than just taking influence from other illustrators.

3. Trace Back Your Influence’s Influence’s Influence
It is good to take influence outside illustration, but there is nothing wrong with having illustration influence too; actually, it’s essential. I think it’s important, early in your journey to become an illustrator, to surround yourself in what’s happening today in illustration, understand it, and be influenced by it.

As you develop, though, I think it’s vital to step away from feasting your eyes too regularly on today’s illustration offerings. This poses a problem: You still need to be inspired and influenced to continue to grow and get better at what you do. One solution to developing more unique work is researching who influenced your modern-day influences, and then even take it another step further to who influenced the person who influenced your influence! Getting back to the roots of your niche can be a super-valuable and inspiring process.

4. Tackle New Subject Matter
Something that will force you to create unique work is tackling subject matter that you have never seen tackled before visually. This can be a difficult process, and it may not create portfolio pieces, but it can be very valuable to your development.

Think of objects, animals, and places you can’t remember seeing drawn before, then try to draw them with your style. This will force you to make original decisions in how to approach representing this image. These discoveries can transfer to the rest of your work.

5. Understand What Makes You You
The most important part of crafting unique work is understanding why you are different. Have you ever encountered someone eerily similar to you? Even those people are dramatically different to you.

The first step to this process is to get to know yourself as well as you can. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you love? How do you learn? What makes you most sad? What gets you most excited? What were the most formative occurrences in your past? How do you deal with stress? When do you feel most energized?

Understanding these sorts of things will help you understand how your work should appear, and how it should differ from other illustrators’ work.

It’s only logical
With all the work being created today, it can feel overwhelming to try and add something completely unique to this conversation, but it is possible. Although it may sound cliché and cheesy, remember that no one is exactly like you, or has the same experiences you have had, so logically creating unique work is possible! Good luck and keep working hard!

These are some of the ways I have tried to make my work more unique, but I’m interested: What has been most helpful to you?


:: Andy J. Miller was born in the midwest USA but went to college in the UK. Andy stole a British wife from across the pond and brought her back home. They now have two rascals and live in the great Columbus, Indiana. Andy draws for a living. His drawings naturally look like they came from a guy who grew up in suburbia watching Fraggle Rock and Ninja Turtles, and then developed his craft in Europe surrounded by modern design.

Posted by Thomas James on 08/30/12 under creativity,guest post
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