Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shirley Ng-Benitez: A Yearning to Start Again

"Draw, draw, draw, and draw some more..."
Amy June Bates, SCBWI Illustrators' Day, 2009

This was the advice that I took to heart one sunny September day after attending a SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in San Francisco. I recently had discovered Ms. Bate's wonderful work, and I have drawn or sketched each day since...and it is now a part of who I am.

Since I graduated with a BS in Graphic Design and a concentration in Illustration, I had focused on my computer skills, handlettering skills, and layout and design. I would begin a project by sketching with pencil on bond paper, creating quick thumbnail ideas until a composition or solution would present itself. From there I would keep going. I worked at various design firms, but one experience in particular moved me to sketch and create faster and faster - with pencil thumbs at first and then color marker comps. To this day, this is how I think when it comes to problem solving whether it's for a logo, a book spread idea, or an illustration.

For many, many years, I had not painted a picture, nor sketched an illustration. I was afraid. It had been so long sine I had tried to sketch or illustrate anything that my confidence was very low. I felt that "putting my heart on my sleeve" by painting or creating an image was the most difficult thing I could do...and so I stayed clear of it.

After many years designing and producing work that did not require me to use pencil and paper, I had a yearning to start again. I took a much needed vacation with my husband and decided I would bring my field watercolor box to sketch some of the locations we'd be at. When a beautiful scene appeared, I took the time to paint it, and by the end of the trip, I had 6 or 7 sketches!

This encouraged me...and then one day, I came upon a site called Illustration Friday. After clicking around and discovering that anyone could contribute - novice to professional - I decided to start my blog and participate, for having a blog was the only way you could enter your work each week.

This opened up a whole new world for me, and it has been through the Internet, the blogging community, the artist community through social networks, and organizations such as SCBWI and JacketFlap, that I have gained more confidence as an illustrator and more importantly, a sense of camaraderie.

Here are my tools: a bunch of sharpened #2 Ticonderoga pencils, and a clipboard with plain white bond paper. Each night I sketch something, anything...words, a letterform, a face...anything. Every so often, I manage to sketch a whole sheet or two, depending on how tired I am. I sketch every night before I go to bed, and sometimes when I'm in crunch mode, I work with the same tools at my desk, sketching and refining throughout the day.

I keep my clipboard and the stack o'pencils on my nightstand, along with lots of children's books below. I really must get better organized, but with my kids who also enjoy reaidng, I find that piles right by my bed are quite handy for all of us. Here are many sheets of many nights' worth of sketching. Some of these became final watercolor illustrations.

Last year I participated in The Sketchbook Project - which I loved! We paid for a sketchbook which was sent to us to fill by a certain deadline, and it was then catalogued and went "on tour" throughout many major cities within the US. I had never worked within the size of a sketchbook before, and I found it challenging but then enjoyable. The sheets were thin, so I used pencil on all of the pages and really got into the swing of things over the few months that I had the sketchbook on hand.

Here are images of the sketchbook which is now housed at the Brooklyn Art Library. I had a lot of fun filling the book, and I would highly recommend the challenge as it is a community truly based in creativity and good will.

Here's to drawing and sketching!

Many thanks to Amy for this great concept of sharing notebooks, and for allowing me to contribute!

Shirley Ng-Benitez is an illustrator, graphic designer, and handlettering artist working in the Bay Area, California. She has worked for American Greetings, Inc., as a professional lettering artist, and for various design firms throughout the Bay Area before starting her design firm, Gabby & Company. She primarily works in watercolors for the children's illustration market. Her recent books include THE MAGIC BEHIND THE SCREEN, authored by Charles Ghigna as well as two digital books via the iTunes uTales application, LAUNCH! written and illustrated by Shirley, and THE GINGERBREAD MAN, illustrated by Shirley. To see what She's recently been up to, visit Shirley's blog, where she still participates in Illustration Friday.


  1. Hi Amy and Shirley! Thanks so much for this! Shirley, you already know how much I love the illustrations you created for our MAGIC BEHIND THE SCREEN. It was an unexpected treat for me to discover and read (and see!) these behind-the-scenes glimpses of your process. Magic, indeed!

  2. Thank you Charles! What a treat it is to be here on Amy's wonderful blog.

    Thank you so much Amy for this kind opportunity to share my process here!

  3. Great interview. Shirley's illustrations brings out the joy within. Her watercolors are so classic, elegant and full of mirth. They make me remember my happy childhood. Shirley also happens to be a fabulous lady, terrific human being!!!

  4. Aaaah! How wonderful! The secret to your success. :) You inspire me, Shirley. I love your whimsical and tender illustrations. They evoke the joys of childhood days and innocence. I think I will start keeping paper and Ticonderogas next to my bed as well. And a huge eraser!


  5. Thank you dear Ces! Oh, those are wonderful words..I am so touched that my watercolors send you to your happy childhood!

    Thank you dear Bella! YES, I've got a huge kneaded eraser (a few of them) in my top drawer..can't live without them! : ) You are much too generous..thank you!

  6. Good stuff! Love the drawings. I live in awe of illustrators and Shirley is no exception1

  7. Thank you for such kind words Charles!

  8. Ah Shirley you are a ripper artist! I am so happy to have 'met' you and just as happy to have met your art. Your work always makes me smile - which is saying something as I am cranky sod normally :)

    You capture the fun and beauty of childhood fantasy for me.

    thank you!

  9. Shirley! What a great interview. It's so interesting to read your process--something to aspire to. You definitely know how to do it! :) Inspiring!

  10. Thank you dear Andrew, your words mean so much to me.

    Thank you SO very much, Elizabeth!


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