A dash of Kentucky, a splash of Montana, and a whole box of crayons. Jensen Collins is a children’s book illustrator whose work features bright colors and bold line work for illustrations that captivate a young audience. Jensen’s passion lies in creating whimsical characters that bring out the giggles. Jensen has illustrated more than 10 books for independent authors and has a wealth of knowledge.
By JEANNE BOWMAN, SCBWI Montana
Graphic Designer James Victore often says that what made us weird as a kid makes us great as an adult. What were you like as a kid and how does that affect your creative work today?
I had the privilege of growing up in my grandparents log cabin in Kentucky. To paint the picture; this place had no internet, the basic 5 TV channels and was kept warm by an old wood stove for most of those years. It was completely surrounded by the forest and as kids we spent every second there. My older sister is the adventurer at heart. I, on the other hand, was the hesitant kid who needed to completely understand things first. I became the observer. I could spend hours flipping rocks and looking under leaves. It’s where I grew my love for nature and animals. When we moved from that home to the next there was a lot less forest to explore. I ended up being the kid whose favorite shows were not cartoons but Animal Planet. I studied the animals in those shows just like I did at my grandparents house. From those years I’ve gained an ability to name a lot of unusual dog breeds and a love for anthropomorphic characters. I think sometimes the silliness of animal characters can help disarm the reader for a new perspective on stories. One of my favorite books to work on was Creaks, Squeaks and Beeps: Our Noisy Home by J. Scott. This story is told through the lovable eyes of Gary the Goldendoodle as he explains the sounds our homes can make at night. This is a great example of using an animal to help make something that can be quite scary for young readers into something more playful and exploratory.
I consider myself extremely lucky because I’ve got to live several of my dreams already, including being a children’s book illustrator. With that said, I think it’s hard for artists not to have their heads in the clouds when it comes to their goals. I find my art goals are getting loftier each year. Recently I have been digging up several old manuscripts to continue working on with the very dreamy goal of being a published author-illustrator in the future. Previously I wouldn’t have considered myself the writing type. However, I’m finding a few topics very near and dear to my heart lately that are worth honing those skills. It would be an absolute dream to share those with the world someday.
My advice for working for self publishing authors is much the same as the advice I would give to any illustrator making a business of their work in any field. A good process and an even better contract will do most of the work for you. A major defining factor of successful projects is that everyone has a clear picture of the expectations. Before a client even chooses me as their illustrator I sit down and talk them through the process. From that conversation, they understand my part, what’s needed from them and when they can expect everything to happen. My contract's job is not to introduce new information but to come in after to further solidify that process. The more detailed you can be in the beginning conversations will not only bring you less project hurdles but also build more trust between you and your clients. Remember that just like it’s not always easy to hand our art to a stranger, the same can be said for an author handing over their manuscript. They want to know that the team bringing their book to life is just as committed to it as they are. Building trust is essential to carrying that project to the finish line.
I think over my career there’s been a good balance of both. Getting through an entire 32 page picture book on time does require some structure and planning. Outside of work though it’s all compulsion. I do a lot of abstract acrylic work in my free time because that’s where I really got started. There’s been a few times where I tried to take a step back from creating but thankfully it never stuck. I’m always pulled back. Its something that helps me process my life and I can feel when it’s been “too long”. I start to miss my work like you would miss an old friend. Before you know it, I’ve been in my studio for hours without a word to anyone. My family just knows the drill now and waits to see what comes of it.
What is something you always notice in daily life, media, relationships or anywhere else that others around you never seem to notice?
I love very tiny details. In fact, I have a collection of tiny things called my wall of little wonders. We’re talking details down to the knit of a sweater to the little bugs that walk through the grass to the way the edges of clouds are moving. I get really caught up in the little details. I think it’s something that really goes back to me being a little kid exploring the world. In fact, I think it’s something pretty inherent to all little kids. I’ve never witnessed a child observe the world with less than their whole body. I think it’s a super power to be able to slow down enough and see the world for all of its parts.
At our retreat this fall, The Wild Wonder Illustration Camp, you will be teaching us how to build a great portfolio and how to make our marketing work! Can you give us one small tip as a sneak peek of what we can expect from your presentation?
One of my favorite portfolio tips I’ve ever received came from Chad Beckerman last year. He said that your portfolio should be filled with the things YOU love to work on. It was so incredibly simple and yet it really gave perspective to building YOUR portfolio. I think a lot of the times we go into these portfolio building workshops and we hear all the things we “should” have in our collection. I know this was especially true my first year. We can end up chasing a portfolio that we the artist don’t actually get joy from creating. Not only is this a great way to burn yourself out, but it will inevitably create lesser quality work. When our work lacks a passionate driver, we tend to get lazy and cut corners. We just want to finish the project as quickly as possible so we can start something more interesting. Unfortunately for us, humans come with an innate ability to pick up on things that don’t feel right. You can bet that even your smallest audience member will pick up your disdain for the subject. It makes sense then that a high quality portfolio is filled with the subjects you love to create.
By JEANNE BOWMAN, SCBWI Montana Aug 10, 2023
Jeanne is the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI Montana and a published illustrator. Recent works include The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde for Familius Publishing as well as Charlie Russell and the Gnomes of Bull Head Lodge by Emily Crawford Wilson for The South Dakota Historical Society Press.