SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Fall 2019 Faculty Spotlight: Katrina Damkoehler, Random House

  1. What brought you to this career path? Please share a little of your background and story with us!

When I was really little, there were things I wanted but couldn’t have—long hair, a Victorian dollhouse, a horse—so I started drawing pictures of myself with those things, which transitioned into inventing stories and drawings about anything that popped into my mind. I still delight in the fact that artists can imagine literally anything and make it ‘real’ through their art. Somewhere along the way I learned there was such a job as ‘children’s book illustrator’. I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to pursue children’s book illustration, but like many others, graduated with a TON of debt and needed to earn a steady income ASAP. I was lucky enough to land a job as assistant to the Art Director of G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Cecilia Yung) very soon after graduation. At the time, I thought it would be my day job and I would illustrate at night, but I really fell in love with the process of shaping a book from idea to bound copy. I loved having a window into the creative process of so many different artists, and being part of the big picture conversations. I shifted gears to focus more fully on design and art direction and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

  1. What kinds of illustration/art pique your interest? What styles are the most appealing?

I mainly work on middle grade covers these days, so I spend most of my time immersed in those art styles. The illustration styles I end up choosing for a book are primarily driven by the content: What genre is the book? What do other books in the genre look like? What is selling well right now? What art style can best express the most important qualities of the story (i.e. environment, action, emotion, humor, etc.)? There is no one style that I gravitate toward—there are broad stylistic categories that seem to work well for general categories of books (fantasy = painterly/highly rendered, humor & contemporary fiction = stylized/bold shapes & colors, literary fiction = quirky/textured/nuanced, etc.) Ultimately, I look for artists who can communicate the core qualities of a book through their art, and whose art style feels familiar enough to tell readers what kind of book they are picking up while also looking different enough from everything else out there. Easy, right!?

  1. What advice do you have for new children’s book illustrators?

From a creative/personal-fulfillment angle, don’t worry too much about what is popular right now. Keep drawing the things you gravitate toward and that feel authentic to your experience and emotional life. Put it online everywhere you can—twitter, Instagram, your portfolio website, a blog. Worry about being the absolute best in the business at what you are personally attracted to. When an Art Director needs your particular niche style or subject matter, they will seek out the best, and if you are discoverable, they will find you. From a practical/need-to-pay-the-bills angle, take whatever creative work you can get your hands on—graphic design, hand-lettering, spot art for your local car dealership—whatever. You don’t need to put your name on it if it isn’t what you want to be known for, but developing the ability to communicate effectively with clients, learning to revise work, and getting practice with negotiating is vital groundwork for a career as a freelance illustrator.

  1. Can you share some titles of children’s books whose illustrations you love? (Both recent and classic.)

Lately I’ve been personally interested in illustration styles that appear in graphic novels and film concept art. Those styles can feel reminiscent of classic art styles I’m drawn to as well (ink and wash styles from the 1920’s–1930’s, and flat textural styles from the 1960’s). But again, my personal taste doesn’t play a huge role in what illustration style ultimately ends up on the books I art direct.

  1. Are you actively seeking new illustrators? 

Always! I am constantly keeping an eye out for art styles that feel unique and interesting. I maintain an active “Illustrator Wish List” with links to the websites of every artist I’m interested in working with—years can pass before I find the right project for someone on that list, but I always start with it when I’m assigning artists to new books.

  1. What was/were your favorite book(s) as a young child? 

I was (and still am) a huge fan of the very detailed, magical Nordic settings that Jan Brett created in books like “The Wild Christmas Reindeer” and “Christmas Trolls”. I recognized many details that were part of my rural New England childhood environment (mossy trees, craggy rocks, snowy pine landscapes), but desperately wanted to see elves and trolls in real life, too!

  1. Can you share a funny childhood memory (or dream, or secret fear) with us? (Or any quirky fun fact about yourself–feel free to be creative here. :))

I was held back from going to recess in Kindergarten one time because I did a quick, messy job of coloring-in my coloring page. I had to redo it! Even then I knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort, so it was a bit traumatizing. If only that teacher knew I ended up going to art school and working in an arts career in New York City. Ha! The irony.


Katrina’s Bio: