Results of “First Day of School” Art Challenge!

Brennan’s favorite school activity is RECESS! And who doesn’t love recess?!


Trinity drew her WHOLE school! Looks like a fun place to be–can cats go to this school?

Paxton’s favorite school activity is ART. And what a good artist he is!


Look’s like Toby’s favorite school activity is RECESS as well! He has the whole playground scoped out to maximum detail!

  And Josi’s favorite school activity is *drumroll*……RECESS! Sounds like a popular activity! (And she’s really good at signing her name, too!)


And on top of that, we have a couple BONUS pictures!


Check out this lovely portrait of Kitty and Coco by Trinity! Thanks, Trinity! We really like our leaf hats. 🙂


And look at this AMAZINGLY DETAILED and COLORFUL picture by Toby of us swimming by the coral reef!! WOW! Thanks, Toby!


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First Day of School!

Friends! Kids! And those who are still kids at heart!

Summer has blown by faster than a velociraptor on a skateboard, and you know what that means—FALL! And SCHOOL! Well, for some that is. And if you’re one of the lucky kids (or grown ups) who’s embarking on a new academic adventure, you very well know a bit of the excitement, chaos, and anticipation of that first day of school. But what you probably didn’t know is that while you were unboxing that new set of crayons, somewhere past the fields and beyond the woods, the cats of Cat County have also been going back to school. And to celebrate a promising new school year, they asked if I could document their big day when all the school cats scamper back to their studies. And let me tell you–it was quite the hubbub of activity!

For you kids and kids at heart, I have a couple challenges for you. First off, can you find the following things in this picture?

  • A fresh apple
  • A pet lizard
  • A pink skirt
  • A teddy bear
  • A cat reading a book
  • A butterfly

And for extra brownie points, can you find Kitty and Coco?

My second challenge is an art challenge: draw a picture of your favorite school activity. If you send a picture of your drawing to me, I’ll feature it on my blog! Just make sure to send it to vanderjess10 (at) by September 30th. Have fun with it, and be creative!

I’m looking forward to seeing your drawings—enjoy the rest of September!

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Inktober 2017: Returning to the Heart of Art

During the month of October, I participated in “Inktober”—a challenged to create 31 inked drawings and post them on social media. This year I finally decided to participate in full, and so every draw I put my pen down to paper and rendered something new for each day in October (sometimes even more than 1 drawing per day). The challenge was designed by illustrator Jake Parker, who wanted to better his inking skills. And now—8 years later—thousands of artists worldwide have joined in the challenge.

And boy, it was a challenge.

There were several reasons why I wanted to do Inktober, but the main reason was because I wanted to fight through an artist block that I have been battling for the last two years.

Ever since I got back to the states, I placed heavy expectations on myself and my artwork, mentally telling myself that “playtime was over, and now it was time to get work done.” But things rarely turn out the way we plan, and before I knew it, my own expectations and false images of what a successful artist looked like started to crush my creative spirit. I was creating artwork that I believed would please people, rather than creating what truly pleased myself. The results were suffocating and demoralizing, and I never felt as though I could satisfy the critic in my head. Even before my pencil could hit the paper, the critic in my head would say it’s gonna suck, or my skills are not good enough, or so-and-so would think it’s weird, terrible, unoriginal, blah blah blah.

Through this long slog of artist block, I’m coming to realize that I’m missing the heart of my work. And the heart of my art is to play, to explore, and to revel in the beauty of being alive. It’s not about money, or recognition. And as trite as that sounds, it’s such a common and subtle pitfall that I believe most people get stuck in it at some point of their life. Because we want to be recognized and praised, and who doesn’t want to make money off of doing what they love?

And I really do believe my troubles started when I placed these objectives before the heart of my work. I’ve put a false image of success before me like a carrot on a string, and have been chasing it around in circles ever since.

So I’ve been having some hard talks with myself lately, really asking what is most important about making art. And it really comes down to because I love to create. Just as my heavenly Father creates, so I too, love to create. I desire to add beauty and truth to my world and the world around me. And maybe that means I won’t get published. And it probably means I won’t make much money off of it. That’s alright for me. It won’t mean that I stop trying to get published—and sure it’d be great to make some money on the side—but first and foremost I will follow my heart’s calling.

And so, for that reason, creating a drawing every day for Inktober was very challenging, because I knew that I was putting my artwork out there to be praised or criticized. I had to constantly remind myself that first and foremost I was creating art for myself, and not because other people thought it was or wasn’t cool. And through the challenge I learned a lot of things about myself and why I make art, and it really helped me to recognize my trouble spots and areas I wanted to improve—both skillwise and in practice. Here are some of my major takeaways:

  • Knowing when a drawing is good, or when it needs more work.
  • Careful planning is good, but there’s a difference between that and over-analyzing something. Don’t be wishy-washy—make a decision and go with it!
  • Oftentimes, simple is best.
  • Making sure your drawing is clear and easy to read.
  • Making art is first and foremost for myself, but it’s good to keep in mind relatability with the audience.
  • When inking, things will not turn out exactly as you intend them to (there will be variation with this)–and that is okay.
  • Mistakes will happen. Deal with them.
  • Don’t Rush.

I’ve learned so much from this challenge, and I’m grateful for all the positive feedback and affirmation from friends and family alike–and especially grateful for my loving and wonderful husband, who constantly encouraged me and put up with all my late night Inktober drawings. Thanks, babe. 😉
My journey is far from over, but I’m excited to see where it takes me. And to wrap up this post, I hope you’ll enjoy some of my favorites from Inktober 2017! Onwards and Upwards! 🙂

Posted in Art, Artist Confessions, Children's Illustrations, Fantasy, Inktober, Life, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Nancy Drew and the Mystery at Lilac Inn

Note: This post contains minor spoilers to Nancy Drew and the Mystery at Lilac Inn. Not that’s it’s probably at the top of your “No-Spoilers-Please” list, but you’ve been warned regardless. 😉


Growing up, some of my favorite books were the Nancy Drew Mystery stories—specifically the original editions printed in the thirties or fourties, with dilapidated covers and thick, yellowing pages.  Unlike the newer publications, these old editions transported me back into a by-gone era where one would “motor over” to have luncheon with a friend, or “telephone” a local business. And in the center of it was Nancy herself, who was an amalgamation of all things a young girl dreams to be: clever and caring, daring yet classy. Basically perfect. (And sometimes a little too nauseatingly perfect.) But hey—when you’re eleven, you tend to overlook those things. After all, it wasn’t Nancy who was solving those mysteries, it was you in her shoes, working out the clues and tracking down the suspects.

1930s and 1940s Covers

So every now and then when I need a fun diversion and quick read, I’ll pick up an old Nancy Drew book and remember what it was like to be eleven again, brimming with limitless possibilities and a carefree naiveté. And as a homage to the stories that shaped my youth, I’ll occasionally do a vintage illustration to accompany that story. It’s my way of re-imagining what an alternate cover or frontispiece would look like in my style, and serves as a fun challenge to create antiquated illustrations.

Classic Nancy Drew Frontispiece

When choosing a scene to illustrate, I like to select a scene that has not been previously illustrated by other artists. This challenges me to try something different than what’s already out there, and—I feel—helps broaden the pool of imagery associated with Nancy Drew. For Nancy Drew and The Mystery At Lilac Inn, I chose a scene near the end of the story where Nancy furtively enters a house of several known suspects to an effort to spy on their conversation. Yet upon entering the storeroom through a window, she hears one of the suspects approaching her location, and so conceals herself in a crate to evade detection. The scene goes as follows:

   Tom made a response which Nancy did not catch, but the next moment she was startled to hear Mary say:

   “Oh! What a vivid flash of lightning! That must have come close. I wonder if all the windows are down?”

   Nancy glanced guiltily toward the storeroom window. In the excitement of entering the house she had forgotten to close it. Before she could make a move she heard Mary say:

   “I can hear water dripping somewhere. I think the storeroom window must be open. Wait a minute and I’ll shut it.”

   Desperately, Nancy glanced about for a hiding place. She was convinced that her own carelessness had trapped her. Had there been time she would have vaulted out the window, but it was too late for that. Her only hope was an empty packing case. Hastily climbing into it, she flattened herself against the bottom just as Mary Mason opened the door.

   Carrying an oil lamp, Mary Mason entered the storeroom and with only a casual glance about went directly to the window. As she passed the packing box, Nancy held her breath, fearful lest she be discovered.

   “I don’t remember leaving a window open,” the girl muttered to herself. “Why, the floor is sopping wet.”

I wanted to capture the dark, looming tension of being on the brink of discovery, and focused on emphasizing the values to do the storytelling. Below, you can see a snapshots of my process.


Basic Values

Advanced Values

Since I wanted to capture how Nancy may have been uncomfortably seated in the packing box, I snapped some reference shots to give me a better visual on how that would look.

Quick reference snapshot.

Reference merged with value study.

I drew the lines digitally, since it made it easier to rework any trouble areas.

Digital Lines


Lines merged with value study.

Since I had planned the finished piece to be inked, I needed to transfer the drawing to my inking board. I printed out a copy of the lines, and carbon-transferred them onto my paper.

After transferred, I went over them again to reinstate the final lines into a tight pencil drawing.

Tight Pencil Drawing

Getting ready to ink.

I used a combination of croquil pen and brush to ink the final drawing. I also used white acrylic and white colored pencil to help punch up any highlights that got lost in the inking process. I liked how the final illustration turned out, and I hope you enjoy it as well! 🙂








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InktoberHey folks!

Today is the first day of Inktober, something I’ve been wanting to do for a couple years now. Inktober is a drawing challenge to create one ink drawing a day throughout the month of October. It was started in 2009 by Jake Parker, an artist whom I admire and respect.

My current challenge to myself is to hone my inking skills while drawing more frequently and embracing the position of “Finished, not Perfect”. I need more finished drawings in my life, and less perfection.

I will be posting an inked drawing every day this month. I do not promise perfection. In fact, I know some of these drawings may be downright crappy. But I promise to show up. And if you’re an artist (or an aspiring artist), I encourage you to show up to. Just click on the Inktober logo above to learn how.

With that, I’m grabbing my sketchbook and uncapping my inking pens. Inktober, here I come!

Inktober Squirrel

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War Flute

Presenting your daily dose of ridiculous silliness!

War FluteDefinitely dreamed I was a commanding officer in a future sci-fi space army. My weapon of choice? A flute. Did we win? Not so much… 😛


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Oil Painting Study at IMC

A Moment to Remember: Working between illustration masters Dan Dos Santos and Scott Fischer (Photo credit Joseph Weinreb)

While I was at the Illustration Master Class in Boston, I picked up oil painting again. (Well, I actually oil painted in college, but let’s just say that oil paint and I parted on bad terms). Yet after studying fantastic artists like Rebecca Leveille Guay and Dan Dos Santos, it began to dawn on me that there were more than one way to use oil paints (shocker! I know…)

So before the week at IMC was out, I was determined to crack open my tubes of oil and get some paint on my hands. After all, I was surrounded by oil painters—was this not the best place to give oils a second chance?

After watching Dan Dos Santos’ painting demo, I asked him for some pointers and suggestions for an oil study I had started. I showed him the simple sketch I did, loosely based off of a bad reference photo I found online.SketchHalf-expecting the “just keep trying” speech that some people give, I was surprised when Dan kindly offered to help walk me through the steps. But first he reminded me that if I’m painting realistically, I’ll have to have proper lighting for accurate referencing. (By the way, did I mention that I’m terribly lazy at acquiring good reference shots? “I can just figure it out in my head…” always seems to be my lame excuse.) But I was there to learn, so I grabbed a couple friends to help take a photo of my face with better lighting. Using the lighting reference shot, I shaded my sketch and showed it to Dan.Value SketchHe gave a couple suggestions (move the eye back a bit and broaden the neck slightly—it’s amazing what other people see in your drawing that you don’t), then instructed the next step of spray fixing the pencil sketch, and then toning it with a couple light layers of burnt sienna acrylic washes.ToningNext, Dan showed how to seal the acrylics and create a matte base for the oil paints by covering the piece with a couple light coats of matte medium mixed with molding paste (spelled like “molding”, yet pronounced like “modeling” pasted. Why? One of the mysteries that the world will never know…)

After the matte medium/modeling meddling molding paste mixture dried, it was time for the main stage production: oil paint! I felt my heart beating fast as I hefted my box of archived oil paints to the table where Dan was sitting, nervous of totally botching up this beautiful medium in the presence of so many professional oil painters. But Dan was ever gracious and helpful as he arranged a basic limited palette with which I could start, and showed how to lay down the first base layers.

Base LayersNext, Dan had me mix three different swatches of skin tone, and lay them in while heavily referencing my lighting photograph, all the while being careful to not muddy the shadows that I had previously put down.

Blended Skin Tones

Overseeing the WorkThings started to blend together as I continued to paint, and Dan demonstrated a few handy tricks when it came to facial features.

More Blending & Details

Face DetailsAlso, it is essential to maintain proper nutrition throughout long bouts of painting…

Hamming It Up“The Passing of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup”
Recreated in the style of the Sistine Chapel
(Courtesy of Christine Rhee)

But eventually after all the focusing, hard work, (and peanut butter cups), it all was worth it. I was pleased with my first oil study that I had done in over seven years.

Oil Study

I still have a lot of practice to do, but it’s a start. Thanks Dan for the crash course!

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We Walk Amongst Wizards — IMC 2016

As a graduate fresh out of college, what are you expected to do? Get a job. Harder said than done, right? And what’s even harder—a grad art student holding her diploma and wondering what the heck she was supposed to do next in life.

Thus how I found myself the summer of 2011—living in a new state with my husband and somehow expected to do something with my degree. I knew that by glancing at my portfolio I was nowhere near “making a living” off of art. So for the next several years (and by the grace of my benevolent husband—incredible art supporter and breadwinner of the family), I built my portfolio one image at a time. The conversations with people would typically go:
Friend: “Oh, you’re an artist? What do you do?”
Me: “Well, I’m currently building my portfolio…”
…is what I said for at least 4 years. Riveting, right? Practice makes perfection. A looooooooot of practice.

As much as I worked on my portfolio, I knew I was still missing out on critical knowledge that I had been unable to cull from undergrad. Basic knowledge like functioning as a working artist in the professional world, or advanced techniques in the mediums like oil and watercolors. (I kid you not…taught myself watercolors through trial and error. I scare myself thinking of all the terrible habits I’ve formed without proper training.) Not to fault undergrad—there is only so much time in college to teach the everything, and some things just get missed. As a fantasy illustrator, I wasn’t sure what to pursue next. I knew I wasn’t at the level to illustrate professionally, and I wasn’t sure if grad school was worth the money, (plus at the time we were moving so frequently that I couldn’t settle on a program before we’d move again.) I was very much on my own. The little art community I had tended to be a few friends who dabbled in art, but most of whom were not pursuing it professionally. I worked alone mostly—practicing and teaching myself–half of the time not knowing what I was doing.IMC

It wasn’t until sometime around 2013 that I discovered the Illustration Master Course. I had never heard of anything like it. One hundred aspiring and professional illustrators convene at Amherst College for one week of guidance and tutelage by some of the top world-renowned fantasy artists. One week to work in-studio with these professional artists; to watch them paint and pepper them with all the questions you’ve ever had about technique, application, and life as a working artist, and then directly apply what you’ve learned to your own painting right there in the studio. The best way to learn is to observe another artist directly—something I didn’t have since undergrad. I knew that this was one program I had to do, and registered for the program in Fall 2015.

Eight months later, on the eve of my departure for IMC, I found myself stuffing art supplies into my suitcase and figuring out how to fit three large artboards in a protective portfolio case. All those years of waiting led up to this week, and suddenly I realized how I didn’t know jack squat about what I was doing. Were my skills good enough? Am I artistically ready for the information that will be thrown my way, or will it be wasted? The last several years I spent running on artistic fumes, and I was scraping the bottom of my creative well. And if I wasn’t already feeling nervous enough, I was conveniently experiencing one of the biggest art blocks I’ve had. Perfect. Just in time for my blank sheet of paper to be critiqued by Boris Vallejo. Those nightmares of standing naked in front of a crowd never felt any realer than that moment. But at the same time, I felt a kind of wonder—a kind of magic beginning to brew in the air. The excited chatter from other students online spun wonderful tales of IMCs long past. Of glorious memories and of fabled artists to tread those sacred halls. As I hefted my luggage to the airport, I felt much like Mister Potter as he embarked to Hogwarts for the first time.

Mister PotterWhen I greeted my peers on the beautiful grounds of Amherst College, a certain magic began to fill the air. Artists—like me—interested in the subjects I’m interested. Griping about the struggles of watercolors, and squealing over the latest and greatest pen tablets. For the first time, I could talk with a fellow artist about the best way to paint a dragon, or the pros and cons of pursuing web comics. And that wasn’t even the first day! I went to bed feeling excited, though experience has taught be to be wary and still remained doubtful that things could get much better than that.

I’ve never been more wrong in my life.

Fayerweather Hall

Fayerweather Hall (aka: Hogwarts for Artists)

IMC completely took me by storm. From the moment I stepped into Fayerweather Hall, I was swept up into a world that I never knew existed. All kinds of artists and illustrators working on their projects–oil painters, Photoshop wizards, gauche gurus–with a diversity of inspirations and stories in their heads. All with different but relatable artistic journeys.


And then of course there was the faculty (or should I say Headmasters?) People whom you’ve read about, awed over, and whose art you’ve totally fangirled over—right THERE. In the flesh! Actual people who you come to find out are also humans too who joke, smile, and enjoy a meal with you in the dining area. Real people who also possess the impossible magic of raising up imaginative worlds from a humble sheet of hotpress watercolor paper. Truly, these people are wizards in their own right.


Sam Weber and Donato Giancola during a critique.

Dan DosSantos painting demo

Dan DosSantos painting demo

Donato Painting

Donato Giancola at his easel

Every day was a force of nature. The amount of information and inspiration was so overwhelming—like going to take a sip from a water fountain and getting a firehose in the face instead. Value, composition, color, movement, mediums, lighting, reference, and all kinds of valuable artistic knowledge kept coursing our way. We’d bounce from lectures on value and composition, to an oil painting demo by the talented Greg Manchess.

Greg Manchess Demo

Greg Manchess demo

Greg Manchess talks oil painting

Greg Manchess talks oil painting

And somewhere in the midst of it, we found time to apply some of our newfound knowledge to our own masterpieces…



Let’s just say it’s a work in progress…

Before we knew it, Sunday was upon us. Time to pack up, sign sketch books, and get one last hug in before saying sayonara.

Signing Sketchbooks

Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood–dragon master extraordinaire.


Mike Mignola

Mike Mignola–the original creator of Hellboy comics (and very nice guy).


Greg Manches--gracing my sketchbook with a ninja polar bear.

Greg Manchess–gracing my sketchbook with a ninja polar bear.


I can say in full confidence that this was one of the most memorable weeks of my life. It exceeded my expectations in every way, and I can’t say that about everything. There was a mixture of sadness and excitement as we all parted ways—partly wishing to remain in the creative environment forever, but also looking forward to returning to our own studios to make spread some magic into our own corners of the world. I leave feeling refreshed, inspired, and at home in my new-found art family. Once a part of IMC, always a part of IMC. And you know, there’s always ‘next year’…. 😉

See you next time!

Thanks for reading!



Hungry for more info on IMC? Check out their website at

Also, be sure to watch this awesome video about our week at IMC! (featuring IMC 2016 special guest Marc Scheff and IMC 2016 attendees Priscilla Kim and Tawny Fritz),


Posted in Art, Fantasy, Illustration Master Class, Life, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Here, There, and Everywhere!

Hey friends! I’m finally grabbing a second to upload photos from the amazing Tidewater Comic Con! This was my first year participating, and I had a blast! I sold a good number of prints and received a lot of positive response.

Tidewater Comicon Booth

Note to Self: buy some banners to cover up the back side of other’s booths. Wheeeeee cardboard!


Tidewater Comicon Booth

I’m starting to run out of space to put prints…

Hero of Time (Tidewater Comicon)

“Hero of Time” (original watercolor)

We saw R2D2…

…and a crazy-amazing Decepticon!

Our good friend Kat happened to also be visiting us that day, so we had the privilege of showing her around her first comic con! (Note our awesome matching Star Wars shirts!)
Kat and I
Cody, Kat, Jessica

And of course, my husband Cody is always incredibly supportive of all my crazy artistic endeavors. 🙂

Cody and Myself

And there were these two really fun and silly girls that kept me company throughout the con. They even gave me an adorable crochet Baby Groot!

Baby Groot!

I had a fantastic time—thank you for all my friends who came out to see me! 🙂

Alright. As if this spring hasn’t been insanely busy already, I have ONE LAST thing on my docket before I get a bit of a break. This “thing” is something I’ve been waiting to do for about three years now. It’s called the Illustration Master Class, and it’s a week-long intensive art course in Massachusetts. This is something I am SUPER EXCITED for. Because this course is unlike any other: a bunch of artists get together for a week of fantasy and sci-fi illustration mayhem. We will have the unique opportunity to socialize with professional illustrators in this field, watch them as they paint, ask questions, receive mentorship, explore new mediums and techniques, network with other artists, and generally be on an incredible creative high (or so I’m told). As I’ve been prepping for this trip, I feel a little like Mister Potter here as he’s ready to embark to Hogwarts.

Hogwarts Bound!
Except we’ll have oil paint instead of owls, and paintbrushes instead of wands. But with our imagination, we can go anywhere we want. Even to Hogwarts. 😉

All I know is that it’s going to be a magical experience, and I’m looking forward to meeting my peers and seeing where my artistic journey will take me next. See you guys on the flip side!

Check out a glimpse of what we’ll be doing!:

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RavenCon Wrapup & Upcoming Tidewater Comic Con

Hey friends!

Just dropping in for a quick update to say I had a really amazing time at RavenCon last weekend! Met a lot of cool people and made new friends and contacts. This was my first time hosting a booth at an artist alley and felt that it went very well. My booth received a positive response and sold lots of cats, dragons, and turtles.

My Table

My table! 🙂

Lots of cats and dragons...

Lots of cats and dragons…


Cool swag!

It's not every day you get photobombed by a man in a kilt. :P

It’s not every day you get photobombed by a man in a kilt. 😛

The best part was being able to share my love of illustration to others and seeing people getting excited about my art. Hours and hours of working alone in my studio is totally worth it to see a little girl’s face light up with delight at the sight of a dragon. 🙂

Thank you for those of you who came out to see me! And a huge thanks to my amazing hubby for supporting me in my art endeavors. Love you babe! 🙂

Tidewater Comicon Floor Map
And be sure to stop by Tidewater Comic Con coming up May 21-22, where I will be hosting another table. My table will be A409, and I will be selling my usual wares. Come by and say hi!

That about wraps it up for now. Time for me to hit the studio and start drawing–see you at the Tidewater Comic Con! 🙂

TWCC2016-icon-webMay 21-22
Virginia Beach Conference Center

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