Alicia “Kat” Dillman – Illustrator and Author – Skinny Artist

Alicia “Kat” Dillman – Illustrator and Author

Quick Bio

Name: Alicia “Kat” Dillman

Location: Silicon Valley, California

Type of Artist: Digital illustrator

Genre of Work: Children’s and fantasy illustration

Specialization: Highly detailed whimsical scenes and cute jungle kitties



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Skinny Artist Q&A

Today we are talking with illustrator Alicia “Kat” Dillman of KatGirl Studio, a graduate from the Academy of Art University. Her first illustrated work “Lions in My Tummy” published by Viscus Vir Publishing came out earlier this year. Kat’s first author illustrated children’s book “Stalking the Elusive Quetzal” is currently being reviewed by publishing agents. She will also be hosting the DeviantART Meet-Up this year at Fanime 2010.   We were excited to have the opportunity to sit down and talk for a few minutes with our latest Featured Artist.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about your background and what drew you to becoming an illustrator?Stalking the Elusive Quetzal by Alicia Kat Dillman

As a child I would spend hours lying on the floor with books sprawled around me making up my own stories to go along with the pictures. You would think that in that moment I would have decided that what I wanted to do in life was become a writer and illustrator. This however was not the case. I was never the “art kid”. I literally only produced about 10 non-school drawings in all of high school.  Instead I spent 12 years in musical theater before switching to historical re-enactment which I still do today.

Because of my years in theater I was planning to become a production costumer and attend the Academy of Art University. But on Academy day I got on the wrong bus and ended up at the Illustration building by mistake. I walked through the halls with all the beautiful illustrations on the walls, and the years between that moment and when I was a child melted away. It felt like I could just turn a corner and see my younger self lying on the floor with story books all around.

I transferred into the Illustration department that day much to the surprise of my family and friends. You see at that point I had only ever taken one art class in my life. It was a huge gamble. Fortunately it worked out for the best.

You could say books drew me to become an illustrator, as we speak I currently have 7 overfull bookcases and stacks of books around the house.

I see that you do many of your preliminary sketches by hand.  What can you tell us about your typical work process and some of the tools that you are currently working with the most?

I actually do all my drawings by hand. Though I paint on the computer now I just don’t like the feel of drawing with it yet.

All pieces start of as a thumbnail in my sketch book or on a story board sheet if I’m working on a picture book or graphic novel. I then scan the thumbnail, tweak it and print it out to the correct size. I tape it to the table with removable tape and tape a piece of Canson tracing paper over it. I do all my illustration drawings in blue Uni Color lead with a mechanical pencil. It scans cleaner and smudges less than graphite, an important thing when you hold a pencil in the way I do. If I have time I trace a clean copy of the sketch onto Canson vellum in the same blue lead, similarly to how you would ink a drawing. The drawing is then scanned into Photoshop where it is cleaned up.

Next it is imported into Corel Painter where all the painting is done. I’m currently using Painter X with a 9×12 Wacom Intuos 3 tablet. I fill the canvas with a mid value colorful grey purple to get rid of the white. I then layout the rough color and lighting on a layer under the drawing, similar to how one would do an under painting in a traditional media.  Once every piece of the canvas is covered with color I then begin painting on top of the line layer. When everything is mostly done I go over the whole image with a fine detailed pass. And that’s how I do about 90% of my work. Unless an image has “special effects” like stars, magic, or scattered flowers in fields I stick to this three layer technique. Base under painting, line layer and opaque detail layer.

If you would like to see a visual walkthrough of this process with pictures you can here:

It seems that more and more illustrators are becoming 100% digital in their work. Do you think this is true and what does this trend mean for your industry? Is there is still a place or the demand in the marketplace for traditional media (watercolor, oil, ink, etc..)?

Yes I am seeing an increase in digital artists as more schools begin to teach it as a valid medium alongside oils and watercolor.

Digital is actually a double edged sword (or stylus). With digital art you don’t need to scan or ship it to the client. You just email or FTP it to them. You can get work done faster and get feedback more quickly. Also changes are easier to implement in an illustration. It’s also alot better for the environment since alot of art supplies are very toxic.

But the startup cost for a digital studio is far more expensive than a traditional studio. Because it’s digital some clients will keep changing their minds right up to the deadline. They will also expect the work to take far less time which really isn’t true. My digital and traditional paintings take me roughly the same among of time. There’s also file loss. Traditional media doesn’t crash or eat your files.

I chose to do my finished illustrations in digital media for the health and safety of me and my studio cats. Also because of the way I hold my drawing/painting instrument. Alot of people choose digital because they think it is faster, easier or will make up for their artistic shortcomings. As one of my academy instructors liked to say alot, ‘The computer does not make you good at art, it’s just a very expensive paintbrush.’

Actually most of my illustrator friends don’t work in digital at all. Also though painter is phenomenal there are just some things it can’t do as well as the original medium like water color for example. So until they can fabricate things like “happy accidents” I think traditional is here to stay.

As a writer, I am always interested in hearing about the working relationship an illustrator has with the author of a book.  What can you tell us about your experience working on your recently released children’s book “Lions in my tummy”?

Working with Katina and Viscus Vir Publishing was fantastic. They gave me a lot of creative freedom on the project which helped alot with the projects short deadline.  They provided me with reference photos of the boy, who is actually based on Katina’s son, but the rest was up to me. This is in sharp contrast to other projects I have worked on, where I was given pages of illustration descriptions telling me exactly what they wanted in each image.

‘The computer does not make you good at art, it’s just a very expensive paintbrush.’

When you’re trying to please a client too little image description is almost as hard to work with as too much. I would suggest writers give as much illustration description as their publisher will allow but also respect the illustrators skill in knowing what to put in and what to leave out in an illustration.

After going through this experience, do you have any interest in writing and illustrating your own children’s book someday?

Actually I have written three of my own picture books where I am also the illustrator. One, Stalking the Elusive Quetzal, is currently seeking a publishing house and the other two are being story boarded for book dummies as we speak. I am also in the middle of writing two young adult novels one of which is a four book saga.

I see that you are a member of the Children’s Illustrators site.   What are some of the benefits of joining a highly-specialized artist directory site like this?

Clients are going there for a very specific reason not just to browse. Unlike some other sites the rate of serious clients is higher. Also by being there it tells potential clients that I am serious about my work and profession. Most of my youth market client work has actually come from them seeing my portfolio on the CI site.

You are not only active on Twitter and Facebook but I see that you are also hosting a DeviantART Meet-Up at Fanime 2010.  How did you initially get involved in this and what other conventions do you like to attend?

Yes I do have a large web presence. You have to in this day in age especially with the decline of large illustration studios.

Last year at Fanime I noticed that there was no DeviantArt meet up. It struck me as odd since about 90% of the artists in Artist Alley are Deviants. When panel registration rolled around this year I suggested a DA Meet up and was put in charge of hosting it.

I have attended WonderCon, Fanime, APE and a few other Cons every year since 2005. Last year alone I exhibited at four conventions, three Art & Wine festivals and a four day industry conference to name a few.

Why do you think it’s a good idea for an artist to be involved in social media and also attend live events like this?

I think being involved in social Media is extremely important. The internet is so vast that just having your work online is no longer enough. You have to make it easier for people to find you and give them a reason to care when they do. And you have to keep up at it too.

Aside from Twitter and  Facebook I have three blogs, numerous online portfolios, listings in relevant directories, two stores and frequent a few industry forums. I participate in three live Tweetchats a week with others in my field as well. And I’m not just telling people to buy my things or look at my art, I post links to industry articles, WIP’s of my work for fans and aspiring illustrators and support others in my field. I am also more than willing to impart any knowledge I have to others in my field or looking to go into it. I have a Formspring set up where people can ask me anything.

Live events are equally as important. Not everyone frequents social media and actually 95% of the people who receive our Purr Post Newsletter each month signed up at events we exhibited at. Though conventions and shows cost money to attend and exhibit at don’t forget free ones like alumni meet-ups,  store events or art walks. You would not believe how many free events I get invited to set up a display at.

I also see that you do Web Design work including designing your own KatGirl Studio site.  What impressed me most was the fact that you did a lot of the HTML, Flash, PHP, and CSS coding as well.  As someone who is constantly fending off my own PHP demons, what made you decide to get into this technical [and often highly irritating at least for me ] area of design?

Well one of the four majors I had in college was New Media (though it wasn’t called that at the time). Because of this KatGirl Studio has had a digital home since 2003 when I hand coded it in html for a class project using a basic editor. Furthermore the Academy requires all Illustration majors to take a Flash class to learn how to make their own portfolio sites. So in 2007 KatGirl Studio got a flash make over. The most recent versions of the flash site can be viewed in the web design section of my portfolio.

This past winter after speaking with a fellow writer (and doing a lot of research) I decided to switch from flash to WordPress for the KatGirl Studio site.  Since I wear alot of hats here at the studio I needed something I could update faster and more frequently. As an added benefit you can now view the KatGirl Studio site from most smart phones.

The frame work for the most current site was created by WordPress and a template service I subscribe to. Unlike my other sites where I made everything from scratch myself, this time I was starting with someone else’s base. In order to have the studio’s site the way I wanted it to be I had to teach myself to understand CSS and PHP. I can’t code those from scratch but I can understand most of what they say to be able to hard code in the changes I want. For example last night I decided to add a resources section to my site and in less than an hour I modified the CSS style code to incorporate the new section and uploaded the first of the content. Because of these new skills I am now the graphic designer and web admin for two client sites.

I really like how you have created several tutorial-types of posts (ex. How to make your own Favicon) on your blog/website. It seems to me that far too many artists just use their website as an online gallery but they don’t really give their visitors a real incentive to visit their site.  What gave you the idea to do these kinds of helpful tutorial posts?

Thank you. Yes some people do think of their websites as simply a portfolio. I know I used to. Then I began to notice that a few of my peers offered resources on their sites along with their portfolios. And I thought why don’t I do the same. I’m like that in real life, I’ll impart my knowledge to anyone who asks. I have a nearly eidetic memory and can easily recall alot of information. Because of this my friends jokingly call me the Encyclopedia Kattica.

But to answer your question more clearly I’m one of those people who likes to learn new things. And when I do I like to share that knowledge with others. So when I learn something new I think others in my field may want to know I post a walk through on my site blog. Or links to helpful articles in the resource section of my site.

Like several other artists I’ve spoken with, you have multiple marketplaces for selling your work including Etsy as well as your own shop on the KatGirl Studio site.  Why do you think it’s important to have several different marketplaces to sell your work?

The internet is like a sea full of fish, you want to cast the largest net you can. Your net will be filled with fish of many kinds; the true fans, the art lovers, the impulse internet buyers, and the random surfers who accidently ended up in your net. So you see, the larger your net the more of those fish will be your true fans.

I know there is a lot of interest in the Etsy marketplace out there for many artists who may be thinking of opening their first online marketplace.  What has your experience been with them? What are some of the positives and negatives that you have noticed with a marketplace like Etsy?

For the most part I love Etsy. The interface is really nice, the cost to operate a store really can’t be beat. The whole community is very supportive. The only real problem I see is the same throughout the internet; getting noticed in the sea of other creatives.

It seems today that everyone and their brother is opening up an online gallery/store for artists to display and sell their work.  What kind advice could you offer someone who might be interested in opening up their first online shop but didn’t know where to start?

Start small, do a lot of research. If I had to recommend one portfolio site to be on for new artists it would be DeviantArt and Etsy for a shop. DeviantArt is free and having an Etsy store is free since there is no set up cost just a small list fee per item. If you understand a bit of HTML you can just add PayPal buttons or carts to your website or blog.

If you decide to put your portfolio on a site that makes their own products, order one of those products for yourself to see what it is your customers will be getting. I myself don’t have my products created though any of the sites I display my work on. Because I want to assure my customers get the best in quality and color accuracy, 90% of the products KatGirl Studio offers are made here in the studio. The rest of the items are either illegal for me to produce here (due to health codes) or are outside my skill set (ie. screen printing, UV coating etc.).

Before we go, is there anything else you would like to share with us?

If any of you readers out there have any questions feel free to stop by my formspring and ask away. If I don’t have the answer I will try to find it for you. Also you can  stay up to date on what we do at KatGirl Studio by subscribing to the Purr Post.

Lastly if you live in northern California come visit us in the Artist Alley at Fanime on Memorial weekend where I will be sharing a table with my studio mate, cartoonist Scott Aleric creator of Hell Has Found Me.

Thanks again Kat for talking the time to talk with us today.