Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Invest in your dream. It's way more efficient than playing it safe for decades. –By Barbara DiLorenzo

This is going to be a very odd year.

My first two picture books are coming out–one in June 2017, and the other in February 2018.
And any day now, my baby girl will be born. If I wasn't writing this blog post, I'd find this amount of good fortune completely obnoxious. And I'd stop reading.

But that's why I'm writing this post–to let folks know that what appears to be stupid good luck, is really the cumulation of decades of struggle. I wrote my first picture book dummy in 8th grade. I'm 41 now.

I focused on illustration at art school, excited to take classes specifically geared to writing and illustrating picture books. This was going to be my launching pad to a great career in making books, starting at the age of 21. The only problem… as skilled as I was at rendering realistic drawings and paintings, I had absolutely no skill with visual or literary storytelling. My teachers graded me mostly on my efforts, but deep down I knew I was no good at crafting a story. I watched as some of my peers secured book deals within the first year after graduation. They came by storytelling more easily. Their illustrations were hilarious or poignant, and their final projects clearly professional. My collection of words and pictures, in contrast, still resembled a brainstorming session.

What I wish I could have known back then is that it's ok not to have all the answers. If I was still in the brainstorming phase, then ok. The only key is to not give up–which I did a few times over the years.

When I graduated from college, I decided to earn money as a graphic/web designer. While some of my friends were investing in themselves, choosing part-time work so they could have time to make books, I slowly became used to the comforts of a full-time job. I learned skills in working with clients, taking art direction, and meeting tough deadlines. I told myself that these were all good things to learn, and that I'd figure out a way to make books in my spare time. But all I had time for was an occasional painting or illustration. I moved so slowly that looking back, there are only tiny moments of growth–truly the base line of an asymptote curve.

In 2001 I had a portfolio review with an art director, who seemed unmoved by my work. Yet, a few weeks later, she asked if I'd submit a sample in a bid for a project. I did, and somehow I won the job. It was to illustrate a Dutch folk tale. Although I was over the moon, it felt like this good fortune came out of the blue, and a little too suddenly. Still, I worked diligently, all while pregnant and planning a wedding. (Another year of stupid good luck.)

Yet the luck ran out, as both the editor and the art director left the publisher, and my book project was orphaned. I turned in the final artwork, had the baby, and then learned that the book needed a major overhaul. For six more months I jumped through every hoop, bleary-eyed with sleep-deprivation from a newborn. Yet in the end, they killed the project. They paid me the kill fee. But I was devastated. After that blow, I sort of quit for a few years. I still painted on the weekends here and there, and convinced myself that storytelling wasn't my thing. But I pined for this dream to come true. Every children's book store I visited was both an exciting and bittersweet experience. Reading books to my son was the same. I cherish books. But I couldn't figure out how to make them myself.

After my family and I moved to New York City, I finally stopped working as a graphic designer. To brush up on my skills, I attended the Art Students League 5 days a week. After a full year of taking classes, I realized that I was on a track–but it was in the world of fine art, not illustration.

During a conversation with my dad after Thanksgiving, I finally articulated that I needed to switch gears. Trying to be kind and supportive, he suggested that I self-publish. But I said out loud to him, and to myself, that I was ready to climb the mountain to trade publication. He offered several other ideas to give me the satisfaction of seeing my work in book form. But I realized that what had been bothering me for years is that I was trying to casually sidle up to this career–instead of looking at the looming mountain of work ahead–and facing it directly.

I was still terrible at storytelling, but my artistic skills had developed over time. I wasn't bound to realism any longer. Funny or sweet characters started to emerge in my sketchbooks, and I crafted mini-stories around them. I started teaching art classes, switching from graphic design. I think working in this field allows me to grow in skill with traditional media.

This transition took place in 2012. I locked onto my goal, drew and painted with passion, entered contests, went to conferences, talked to people I didn't know despite not being an extrovert. I made a ton of mistakes in the process. But–by the end of 2014–I sold my first book! It's only coming out now, in 2017–the timeline became short once I took my career seriously. Everyone's timeline is different of course. Many are a lot shorter than mine.

Even if your timeline is longer than mine, take a look at the structure of your life, and evaluate whether or not you are dedicating yourself to your dream. Invest in yourself. It's so much more efficient than playing it safe for decades.

Illustration Blog: Paint & Paper
Twitter: @wavepaint

Represented by Rachel Orr of the Prospect Agency

Written and illustrated by Barbara DiLorenzo
Published by Viking Children's Books 
Release date: June 20, 2017

Written and illustrated by Barbara DiLorenzo
Published by Little Bee Books 
Release date: February 8, 2018


  1. They say a pregnant woman glows, but you got so much going on we're talking shining like a SPARKLER! The heat is amazing, and all the more valuable knowing how it came about!

    1. Aw, I love you Pat! I'm proud to be making books along side you! LIZZIE AND LOU SEAL captured my heart when it was just in pencil. You are such a great artist–always experimenting with new techniques and expanding your visual vocabulary. Three cheers for your book release!!!!

  2. Barbara, I really enjoyed reading this simply because it's a perfect example of how each of our journeys differs. For me, I've been at this in VERY big ways, in long spurts, since the mid-90s and I still haven't hit that sweet spot. The past few years I've very seriously considered tossing in the palette and pen and the jury's still out on that, but there's the passion for all of it that doesn't just disappear, and for me, hope doesn't die too easily, if at all. We'll see! So glad it worked out for you and while you're still young :)

    1. I forgot to mention... write/illustrate what entertains you. Another illustrator mentioned that in an intensive, and I think it's really valuable advice. Just make art that does something for you. I swear that's a great formula because other people will fall in love with your work if you already believe in it. I believe in you!

    2. Barbara, thank you :D And that's good advice. I agree! If I worked on things that I didn't find at least entertaining, I'd go mad lol I have to feel passionate about it to put that kind of work in :)

  3. This post was a very good reminder for me. I recently went from part time to full time and have been really struggling trying to still write and create art. I think I am going to take the title of your post and make a sign for my studio. I look forward to seeing your book when it comes out!

    1. I truly hope that you find space and time to create your work! It's so easy to get swept up in other obligations–remember to invest in yourself first.

  4. Thank you for this! What a wonderfully, encouraging post.

  5. I was laid off from my job of 15 years as a programmer and only doing illustrations(my background was in Fine Arts: Visual Communication/Advertising). I went back to my roots. I felt a sense of a clean slate, I can really start on working in trying to illustrate children's books. But it isn't easy, even if I have time now, I do not have as much resources. There are no constant gigs. It seems that I took a really giant pay cut to do what I love. I am hoping it will work out. I have to constantly remind myself that this is what I need to do. Thanks for sharing your journey.