Illustration West 58 Judges’ Interviews: Next is Hala Swearingen
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself or how you got started?
When I began my college education, I thought graphic design was my thing. However, after seeing the work of Kay Nielsen, I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. So, I worked as a designer to help pay for my illustration degree. As I was finishing my senior year, I started illustrating in-house at a children’s educational software company. Even though I had a day job doing illustration, I worked evenings and weekends on my portfolio to pursue my dream of full-time free-lance. After 4 years illustrating in-house, I signed with
Shannon Associates, left my day job, and worked in multiple freelance markets. Over time, I missed daily interaction with other artists and pursued teaching. I completed my MFA from the Art Institute of Boston in 2009 and immediately after was offered a faculty position at California State University Fullerton. I taught undergraduate and graduate level illustration there for six years and then chose to relocate to Southern Utah University to be closer to family.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by the beauty in nature. The drawings and paintings I love usually incorporate nature. My favorite parts of the natural world are the smaller things—the birds, bugs, plants, and mushrooms. Observing the mystery of tiny, hidden places is most intriguing to me and I am working on a body of paintings along this line. I have had several very inspiring mentors—William Whitaker and Koo Shadler specifically. Their artistic philosophies and the fine quality of their work influences my art practice daily. I am also incredibly inspired by other art forms such as music and dance. Beautiful classical music transports me to all kinds of magical places when I paint and the flowing movement of dance gets into my compositions.
What are some favorite projects that you’ve had the opportunity to work on?
I’ve really enjoyed illustrating book covers for stories that were my childhood favorites. Charlotte’s Web and Wind in the Willows were dream jobs. My favorite projects usually include children, nature, or animals. My cover for Julie Andrew’s book Mandy had all three: a little girl, a forest, and little animals. Thinking of animals, Somerset House Publishing commissioned me to create my version of “Noah’s Ark.” There was no specific art direction other than: “Paint Noah’s ark, without Noah.” So I painted the scene as if Noah were sleeping below deck and the animals were getting into mischief. I had fun incorporating humor into the many narratives throughout the piece. It was a complex project, but 100 drawing hours and 400 painting hours later, I was happy with the results.
What advice do you have for illustrators, beginning and pro?
For beginners I would emphasize that drawing is your most important skill. Develop it to the highest level and never stop practicing. And while you are practicing, don’t give up on traditional materials so soon! I see so many of my students trying to paint a couple times, and then giving up and setting it aside for digital tools. I can’t stress enough how important it is to first learn to use real materials well before you jump on a computer. Only then will your digital work be truly unique and beautiful.
To professional illustrators I would say: build good ergonomic habits now so that you can make your art for a very long time. It is devastating to develop physical limitations that keep you from your passion. On the artistic side, if you get in a rut…experiment! Play with real materials! You will discover very exciting things.
What do you love about your job and what do you find challenging about your profession?
As a full-time freelance illustrator, I worked in a specific style. I enjoyed the style and my skills became more and more refined. I put in lots of hours, and became quite well-read with all the books I listened to! However, I got a bit lonely painting in my studio all day by myself, and I wished I had the freedom to explore other styles.
Now as an educator/ illustrator I am energized daily by other artists and I have the luxury of experimentation. I’m constantly exposed to new work and fresh ideas and my students challenge me to push my artistic boundaries. I get to explore all kinds of things! For example, because I wanted to include “paper sculpture” in a course, I had to teach myself how to do it. The process was a combination of exciting and terrifying. One drop of glue in the wrong place and it was all over! In the end, I completed two paper sculptures which were recognized with Hiii International Illustration Awards. Sometimes pushing yourself to try a different media can yield unexpectedly wonderful results.
Another perk of being an illustration professor is getting to invite professional artists out to share their work with students. It is so inspiring to meet the artists I love in person! There are so many inspiring learning opportunities in being an educator/illustrator. . . the challenge is finding the time to fit them all in!
As you look to the future, what are you excited to explore, create, etc.?
I’m looking forward to exploring new acrylic-based mixed-media techniques. I’m also excited to experiment with combining abstraction and realism. Currently, I’m working on a series of magical miniature landscapes inspired by my explorations of local hiking trails and national parks. I’m also in the process of creating a gallery space for my students. Right now our art department lacks adequate space for student shows, and I am so excited about what will happen in this new space when it is finished!
What is your favorite medium to work in? Why?
I need to reword this question: “What is your favorite thing about each medium you work in?”
Oils feel luxurious on the brush—like painting with butter. I love how easily oils blend and how deeply rich they look on the wall. Acrylics are so great for layering—their quick drying time makes them perfect for creating all kinds of faux textures. I enjoy the graphic positive and negative shape emphasis in paper sculpture. Sculpting with paper is all about craftsmanship and I love how finished pieces appear to defy gravity. I love the lyrical thicks and thins of pen & ink. I get a thrill when a realistic pencil rendering starts to jump off the page. I can go on, but for me, each medium has something really special about it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to be exclusive, but I do keep coming back to acrylic. I often layer acrylics under oils, using the advantages of acrylics for making faux textures and the advantages of oils for smooth blends. Acrylics can also be used like watercolors; the watered down washes work well with pen & ink line work. Acrylics are fantastic for mixed media techniques of all kinds—it is definitely my “go to” medium.