Ep.23: How to succeed in the world of children’s books with Gene Barretta

By Iva Mikles •  Updated: Oct 05, 2017 •  Interviews

Gene is a highly accomplished and awarded children’s book author and illustrator, animator and character designer. He graduated from New York University: Tisch School of Arts with a BFA in film studies.

Gene is also the older brother of Muppet performer, writer, and director, Bill Barretta.

“What are they doing now?” That was the popular question around my house and neighborhood. It was not unusual to see my brother Billy and me dressed up in homemade costumes – filming Super 8mm dramas – attempting risky stunts in the ravine – animating GI Joes and weird-looking clay figures – building and performing clunky puppets – drawing offbeat comics and imitating The Beatles.

Gene began illustrating mass-market and novelty books in 2000 and eventually transitioned to picture books into 2003. He has also contributed to children’s magazines such as Cobblestone, Odyssey, Faces, and Appleseeds.

Get in touch with Gene

Key Takeaways

“Don’t limit yourself. Stay connected. Get out to as many events as possible. Try to work every day, keep your imagination and skills fresh. Stay optimistic, develop a tough skin and be prepared for rejection”

Resources mentioned

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Special thanks to Gene for joining me today. See you next time!

All artworks by Gene Barretta, used with permission

Episode Transcript

Announcer  

Creative, artistic, happy! That’s you. There are endless possibilities for living a creative life. So let’s inspire each other. Art Side of Life interviews with Iva.

Iva Mikles  

Hello, everyone and welcome to the next episode of Art Side of Life where it’s all about how you can turn your creative patient into a profession. My name is Iva, and my guest today is highly accomplished and awarded children’s book author, illustrator and character designer from Pennsylvania is an illustrator and writer. He published almost 40 books, among which are critically acclaimed titles like now and Ben, Neo Lea and timeless Thomas. He has written an animated several films versus a mystery and design characters for Jim Henson Company, he always tries to make learning enjoyable and entertaining for kids. And his works often focus on inspiring figures. So please welcome Jean Beretta. So welcome to the next episode of Art Side of Life. And I’m super happy with my guest today. amazing, talented Gene Barretta. So please, welcome.

Gene Barretta  

Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me to talk with you,

Iva Mikles  

Sophie, that he took the time from your busy schedule. And I would like to start maybe with your background, and if you always knew that you wanted to be an artist.

Gene Barretta  

Well, my mom told me that when I was three years old, I drew a big purple elephant on the wall next to my crib. So okay, I know I was drawing from the beginning. And I one of my earliest aspirations was to be an animator for Walt Disney, you know, I wanted before I was even 10, I wanted to do that. And had, at one point, I wanted to work with Jim Henson and make muppets and things like that. And I actually have a letter he wrote me when I was 14, giving the instructions, which is pretty cool. And my brother has gone on to work with the Jim Henson Company, and he’s one of the Muppet performers. And then Then I took a side turn, which is not a dramatic side turn. But then I went to school for filmmaking. And I’ve, you know, I’ve always I’ve continued to draw, but then I wanted to be a film director and studied film, went to NYU film school, University of Bridgeport film school. And eventually, because of all sorts of reasons we can talk about later, I ended up exploring the publishing world, and found out that it could be a career, because it wasn’t until I was in my late 30s, that I had ever considered it as a career. I just didn’t think people, it just never occurred to me. And it seems like the ideal job for me now, it seems so odd, but it would never come to my come to mind before that.

Iva Mikles  

So we try to like kind of the biggest decisions you had to do in order to follow your passion.

Gene Barretta  

Let’s see the biggest decision, you know, I was I was living out in LA and I was working in the film industry. And I left there for a number of reasons. And I was pretty lost for a while just trying to figure out what was next. So that move was a big deal. I had also tried playing in a band at one point in my late 20s, early 30s. And I realized, well, this, I love playing music. But the lifestyle is important too. And I don’t want to I don’t like I don’t like the idea of being on the road all the time and playing, you know, smoking nightclubs and things for the rest of my life. So the lifestyle was a big decision and factor there. Plus, it’s just, it’s just a really difficult business. So those were some big decisions where I just had to say, All right, I put a lot into this. But it’s time to jump off this track and try another one. And so once I started when I when I moved back to this area, outside of Philadelphia, I started meeting friends who were making careers as illustrators, because I started as an illustrator before I was an author. And I said, I saw what they did, and they worked as mentors for me. And, you know, and it was and then I made the conscious decision to start putting portfolio pieces together and sending them out to publishers and giving that my best shot.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And so before you moved, or kind of like after you move basically, did you have a job or are you just moved and then is like Okay, I will go for it.

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, for you know, I stayed. When I moved back East. I stayed with my parents for a while, until I figured it out. I even moved down to Virginia for a while and live near my stepsister and I worked with him at a video Company production house that did all industrial videos and stuff. It was kind At biding time, I was working a little bit, I started working, I did some animation for Sesame Street at the time, which was all freelance and I was able to work from Virginia and I worked with a show called between the lions, which is also was on PBS, and some of the same people were involved. But those jobs, they weren’t career focused. I didn’t really think I knew that they were freelance and temporary jobs. Can I answer your question? I think I got off track a little bit didn’t

Iva Mikles  

know, I think it’s, oh,

Gene Barretta  

yeah, well, I was work, you know, What, did I have a job? No, not a steady job.

Iva Mikles  

And do you remember, like the first conversation, when you talk either with your parents or your partner at the time, where kind of you decided, Okay, I will go for this full time. And I will make a career out of this.

Gene Barretta  

Well, I think my mom was just happy to see that I that I was going to do something that involved the arts, because she knew that since I was like I said, since I was three, that, you know, she was always a good motivator, she wanted me to pursue those passions and dreams. And, and so she had no problem with so good, he’s found something he’s found a track to follow. And, and then, and then I got married around that time. And we made a conscious effort, because my wife was working. And I was doing, I was bringing in some money, doing some school visits and things like that, but we made a conscious effort for me to just spend a little time putting the portfolio together while she was supporting us, for the most part. And, you know, we made a strategy and and it panned out, because then as I was doing it, when I was picking up little illustration, jobs here and there, I was then off able to offer them watercolor work and things that were better suited for picture books. And then it kept, you know, I kept making more and more connections based on the work that I did in that concentrated period. So there was a strong concentrated effort to go full blast into it.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And so what would be like the best advice you ever received?

Gene Barretta  

This advice ever received? You in a general sense, I always think back to my uncle, my, my grandmother’s brother, who wants to sit at the dinner table, when he go through this life, make a wide path, let them know you’ve been here. That’s always stuck in my brain. Specific to the career. It’s I don’t remember getting getting this advice from any specific person. But it’s keep your tentacles out in all directions, you know, don’t know don’t get don’t get your heart set on one path. Because it’s such a competitive field, that it’s likely that that path, at least at the start may not show itself to you. And so I started as an illustrator and, and the strategy was to get my name in front of all the publishers first as an illustrator. So when I was ready to start handing in manuscripts, I wouldn’t be just some anonymous name and a pile of manuscripts. And, and I got my agent who I still work with in 2003. And that was our, you know, that was part of our strategy too. And now I and it worked, because I built relationships that way through the jobs I was already doing, and then then just expanded on and say, hey, you know, I write to do you want to say something? And we’re gonna went from there. So it’s just don’t limit yourself and don’t box yourself in thinking, I have to be, for example, I have to be an illustrator who just does this style of work, or just does this type books on just this type of subject, or I won’t take illustration jobs that are you know, that I consider a below, you know, my talent, range and things like that, because it’s all part of it. It’s all part of learning how to work in the field as a professional to sometimes the jobs aren’t nearly as important as spending that time building those professional relationships and learning how to be diplomatic and how to collaborate in a positive way. Things like that.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And so and when you decided you want to have a agent or, or kind of how did you find the agent? Did you have a mentor who kind of advised you to do this or someone who inspired you?

Gene Barretta  

No, not really. I wasn’t looking for an agent at all. It’s a lot tougher to you know, it was a little easier to Get your work seen without one when I started but, and so I wasn’t looking seriously for one. But then I belong to this organization, which I recommend to anybody starting. It’s called the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. And there’s a website, SCB wi.org. It’s an international organization. And I belong to it. When I was starting, I’ve done some, you know, I presented at some of their conferences, and they’re international, you can always find local conferences in your area. And it’s all you learn all about the trade, and you meet editors and art directors. And one year, they were holding a conference in New York at the Society of Illustrators. And they were planning to have about 30 agents there. And you could pay to sit down with as many agents as you wanted. So my wife then, and I said, it’s worth it. So let’s invest, you know, I paid to sit down with, I think five agents that day, and didn’t hear anything right away. But then about two months later, one of the agents gave me a call. And that’s, that’s the agent I’ve been working with now. Lorinda, wicky, painted words is the organization and we’ve had a great relationship and continue to,

Iva Mikles  

oh, that’s really good to hear. Because you need to kind of find this good dynamic between your agent and you. So you understand each other. And yeah, so that’s quite

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, well, I mean, we know each other well enough, where she knows what’s happening in my personal life, and I do hers. And, and that helps, too, because she gets a sense of the rhythm of how I’m working at home, and what other things fall into my life at the time. And it all it all helps.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And when you think about like, all your artwork, because it created so much already, is there a brand in mind or a vision, you’re communicating through all of your artworks and stories?

Gene Barretta  

And brand? Well, it’s funny, because people see my style easier than I do. They say, yeah, you definitely have a style, and I don’t necessarily see it, you know, I kind of do what I know how to do. And even when I’ll have conversations with my agent about that, and she’ll say, try a little something like this, or whatever. And it’s not always easy for me to see, because I just kind of maybe because I wasn’t trained, formally trained, that I don’t know what to compare it to easily. I mean, in the broader sense, I can compare it to styles. But I think my approach though, which is consistent is I’ve I’ve worked in a lot of non, I’ve made a lot of nonfiction books, and one of the things that I’ve enjoyed is to find a way to, to teach, a lot of mine are also historically based. And I’ve always looked for a way to, to get this core information across to kids in a in an enjoyable, fun, entertaining way. And sometimes, and since my illustration, style is more on the lighthearted side, I think that’s been a good balance, because sometimes the material can be a little more on the serious side. But it’s more accessible to the these young Elementary School readers. If if the illustrations have that lighthearted touch, and I can always put just even if the subjects themselves aren’t doing something humorous or lighthearted, the background can be filled with something that makes you smile, or at least, you know, gives you that spirit.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, I mean, that definitely helped for young kids. They’re just more excited about the topic. So there’s

Gene Barretta  

a you know, you’re right, I think, I think at that, at that this age level, for me, it feels like the books I’m doing even though there’s lots of information and and adults learn from them, too. It feels like it’s still an introduction for kids. And if I can get them excited about Thomas Edison, or Ben Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci. In that fun experience, they’re more likely to then go pick up another book on those subjects and continue that that interest.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And so do you have a like a favorite project you’ve worked on?

Gene Barretta  

That I’ve worked on? Mm hmm. Favorite project? Well, you know, it’s hard, you know, kids will ask me what my favorite book is. And it’s, I always say, you know, it’s like having to pick your favorite child, right? Because they all have something that is important to you. Because most of the time, I’m the one developing these treatments to present to the publisher. So it’s my idea to begin with. And I’m always learning a lot more about these subjects as I go. And so that’s as much that’s a big part of my passion for it is to keep learning about the things that I’m interested in. So I thought if I had to choose one, I would just say, you know, maybe my first book as a writer and illustrator, which was now in Bend the modern inventions of Benjamin Franklin, because that was The first one that I did as a writer and I lived near Philadelphia, and it was, it was great to research him in this area, because there were lots of local historians like walk in where he walked. I lived in the city itself during the 80s. And that’s what part of the thing that inspired me because people always say, hey, you know, Ben Franklin invented that, hey, he helped develop that. And you know, and so it made that city more alive for me. And, and then it was, and then it did really well. It’s, it’s still one of my best selling books. And so it really helped to launch my career. So it still it still remains one of my favorite experiences as a writer. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. Because also we the memories your head around. So I think that’s super cool. And then let’s talk about some upcoming projects. Do you have something which do you want to share, and it’s super exciting right now?

Gene Barretta  

Well, my next book that comes out is in next February 2018. And it’s called the bat combat a book of true homonyms. And I’ve done a book on homophones and homographs. And we’re rounding off the trilogy, with homonyms. And that’s, that’s fun. Those Those grammar books have always been made, I guess I could say more fun, in a different way. Because the the other nonfiction books required a lot, a lot more research. And it was a lot harder to get all that information, boiled down into picture book size, and making it something that you could share with kids that age, with these grammar books. You know, I basically went online found a list of homonyms, for example. And then the challenge was to find a way to put a little narrative thread to it and find a theme that made it fun. And so it was fun in that sense, where you could just it would just a lot of silly, fun, playfulness, a lot of times and the word plays were were always fun to create. Yeah, so that’s coming up. And then I can’t say, I don’t want to say, you know, I don’t want to say anything about the ones I’m developing now, because two of them. I’m sure other authors and illustrators have this experience where they come up with an idea. And they say to themselves, if anybody else does this, before I do it, I’m going to jump off a ledge, you know, because I just need, it’s just that strong of desire to get it out there and not, you know, and if I saw somebody else did it, you know, I’d be a big disappointment. So I don’t want to say anything about those. Yeah. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

That makes sense. Yeah, but there are two other books in making so people can looking for look forward to something new as well afterwards, as

Gene Barretta  

well. There’s another one that’s also in the making that I can talk about what I did, my last book that came out was called Muhammad Ali, a champion was born. And it was actually it was fun, because it was the first book I did just as an author, which was the first time and the illustrator was Frank Morrison, who I admired. And, and it was interesting, because I always wondered, and sometimes felt sorry for authors who have this vision, and then had to hand over their manuscript. And, you know, and then it could become anything else, something completely different than how they envisioned it. Depending on the the illustrator, it could be a better experience. Sometimes it could be worse. So I was nervous about that. But I liked Frank’s work. So I was confident that it would turn out well, which I did. And we’re doing a second book on George Washington Carver, and, and I’m writing in New Zealand. There comes one of my cats.

Iva Mikles  

I see her,

Gene Barretta  

she’ll show up. Eventually, there’s two of them here. What she’ll show up, I don’t want her to step on this stuff, though.

Iva Mikles  

So now, when you’re writing the books, you don’t probably have time to illustrate it as well. That’s why you choose different illustrators, or what is the process like thinking behind this?

Gene Barretta  

Well, I don’t I don’t generally make that decision. This was a matter of, because I would always like to illustrate them unless, you know, there there cases where I would see how my style might not fit the tone of the book. And I would be happy to have another illustrator in a case like that. But the illustrator and I share an agent. And initially, they came to me with the idea because he wanted to do a book on George Washington Carver. And they she teamed us up and we worked on that first but then when we got this two book deal, they wanted to do Muhammad Ali first and so we just put Carver aside and we’d started there and now we’re getting back to Carver. So, yeah, so I didn’t consciously say I’m going to just write something for another illustrator. But I’m always I like the idea of continuing that because it just it just broadens the kind of work I can do you And somehow, I will still illustrate for other authors. And then I’ll do some that are both and, and write for other illustrators.

Iva Mikles  

So they usually kind of also suggest for you who would be like a good fit like author and illustrator, or you kind of choose yourself or

Gene Barretta  

No, I don’t choose myself only in a case like that, we were able to present the idea as a team. But it wasn’t guarantee they were going to accept us as a team. Now, it’s always it’s always the and here’s advice I could give to any aspiring authors or illustrators out there. Many who have not done it yet think that if they’re submitting something like a manuscript, that needs to be illustrated first to submit it. But the opposite is true editors and art directors do not want to see an edited manuscript, unless you’re already a working professional, and they know your work. And you’re, of course, you’re presenting more of what you do. But they want to be the ones to, they’ll have a vision of how they want to see the manuscript illustrated and put you together with with that, with an illustrator works.

Iva Mikles  

Okay, that makes sense. Yeah. And so now, when you have so many different projects, and you have to decide sometimes to say no to things, what is your self talk, you know, like, when you have to decide yes or no. And include your kids in the project as well?

Gene Barretta  

Well, I always consult my cat. Wait a minute, I lost my headset. This is clover, say hi. Clover leaves around here somewhere. You can’t stay here right now I’m being interviewed. Unless you have something to say.

Iva Mikles  

I love the pattern on the face.

Gene Barretta  

That’s one of the reasons I picked her because she likes to do Phantom of the Opera for me. And when I’m bored, yeah, she just puts the mask on and sings a little bit for me.

Iva Mikles  

It’ll be fun. I would love to see that animation.

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, I shouldn’t, you know, I should actually just videotape her. I can manipulate the mouth and just put the soundtrack on Phantom of the Opera. That’s true. Yeah. So the other one, I’m sure will show up at some point, when you

Iva Mikles  

will be like interviewing again. Yeah. So what we were talking about, I forgot.

Gene Barretta  

We’re talking about the collaboration and the author and the illustrator. Yes. And

Iva Mikles  

then deciding Yes. And no, when you had to kind of choose the project, maybe what is the self talk?

Gene Barretta  

Oh, you mean, just aside from it being author or illustrator, just jobs that I’m going to choose to do?

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, basically, like, how do you decide what to do with your time? Because it’s only limited, right?

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, well, yeah, it’s part of the art of doing this is the art of juggling. Because I get very, I’m very organized, fortunately. And if you give, I can’t turn the camera. But I have, you know, if you look on my website, you’ll see my boards, my dry erase boards that have everything up there. And so you’re always juggling things and planning ahead, you’re thinking, Okay, I’m going to send the manuscript in. And when, you know, while I’m waiting to hear back from them with notes, I can start sketches for this other book that I have. And while that’s being approved, I can develop some new ideas, because I’m always trying to, excuse me, have something that my agent is shopping around while I’m working on the books that are already contracted. There was only one time really where I ran into a little problem. And we worked it out. I was just I was illustrating a book for joy Bay har, who’s in America, she’s on a show called the view. And I did two of her children’s books. But the second one, we ran into scheduling problems, because I was doing about to start my Neo Leo book, the one on the angels ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. And so what I had to do, which I don’t want to, I don’t necessarily want to repeat, but it was, but it’s, it’s still turned out fine. But I was able to do for her book, all of the layouts, and sketches and character designs and things. And then we had somebody else do the coloring and the painting. And then they sent it back to me a few weeks before it was due. And I did any extra touch ups and things that I thought I needed to do. And he got credit, of course on with with that on the book. But it’s not something I would want to repeat, but it was it was a scheduling conflict. And so we worked it out that way. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

And so what did you kind of learn from some of these experiences? Or maybe what was the most difficult moment of your career? Maybe what would be your takeaway?

Gene Barretta  

difficult moment in my career. I don’t know if there’s an isolated one. You know, there’s like any free he’ll answer that it’s always it’s there’s always the challenge of creating more contracts, and keeping the cash flow going. Because this is, I don’t have a second job, this is everything that I do. And it’s not just the book work I’ll do occasionally I’ll do some character design work or some other illustration work. It’s the challenge of keeping keep, it’s the challenge of generating more work, and, and then getting things sent back to you that are rejected and need to be revised. And there were a couple of frustration when I was doing their, their illustration jobs, I’ll do say for the books that will go straight into schools, educational books, school publishing books. And, and there occasionally jobs where there are too many cooks in the kitchen. And you get back lots of notes, and some of them contradict each other. And it becomes a matter of, I mean, that’s a real lesson in, you know, diplomacy, and how do I, you know, how do I sort this out? without coming off as, like some temperamental artists who won’t, who refuses to collaborate? Or, you know, there have been a couple cases like that, where you just have no idea what they want from you. And so you just keep hoping that what you send back in, will work. And you usually find the answer. But those are the big frustrations. The big, the biggest nightmare and the embarrassment of any career I’ve had was when I was working, like I mentioned back in Virginia at this video production house. And we were sometimes we would videotape surgery. Okay, and what yeah, for their for the, for the University of Virginia Hospital. Yeah, no, it’s actually I was a little nervous. But it was pretty fascinating, too. I was right in there watching looking at the insides of bodies. And, but once we had to take video of a procedure where they gave new infants IV needles, but at that age, they put it in the, in a vein in their head. Right. And so I had to camera up overhead to do this. And I said, Okay, we’re gonna do this, right. So I reached up, turn the camera on, they did the procedure. And I went to turn it off and wait a minute. And I realized my finger never turned it on. So it’s not something you can repeat. Right? So it was just, I just, you know, all the blood drained out of my face. And I had to tell them, my didn’t get it, you know, so we had to come back, you know, another day to do it. But that was that was stands out as my biggest embarrassing moment in.

Iva Mikles  

Okay, we are okay, yeah, we are recording

Gene Barretta  

you better. You better repeat the check. But yeah, but because now I’m about to give myself an intravenous venous needle in the pharmacy.

Iva Mikles  

I think I would fail I will be just on the floor. Because it’s fascinating. But for me, I if I see something that I’ve all blue, and I have on the floor, so

Gene Barretta  

yeah, I was known for that growing up, my brother would always get hurt. And I would be the one to faint because of like seeing a little bit of blood or something. But I got I got better with that. Especially watching surgery. Oh, yeah.

Iva Mikles  

Okay. Yeah. So that’s good, congrats on that, I

Gene Barretta  

cannot do that. Well, thank you.

Iva Mikles  

And so when we are talking about these different projects, as well and kind of learning moments, how do you keep yourself motivated?

Gene Barretta  

motivated, it’s, it’s not always, you know, it’s kind of you have to, I have no choice. And you know, when you become a parent and and all of that, when you just you can’t you know, I have artists who have friends who were they have the luxury of creating art for themselves and, you know, gallery work and things, which is great. And they sometimes they just wait for the inspiration to hit them and then go to work. But this is this this is different. So I just, if I if I’m not motivated, it doesn’t matter. I just have to keep I just have to do it. It’s like the was that quote? You know, it’s the was it an edit Thomas Edison quote, it was 1% inspiration. 99% perspiration. Because you’re, you know, your cause you just, you’ll eventually you’ll get there. Yeah, and you just have to keep working it and you’ll get there and you’ll and you’ll get something that you like, but if I’m just blocked, you know, I might decide to change my work location. If I’m writing. I don’t always stay here. I’ll go out and sit in a coffee shop or library and look for things that you know, talk to people to get my energy back up to something to move on. Yeah, I have to just change my location. Or I’ll just I’ll go online and, you know, watch a video of something that moves me or inspires me. Makes me laugh just to change the mode. Yeah, you have to do something like that.

Iva Mikles  

And just to mention for the audience, you are in the studio, right, and your studio is in your house.

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, so I spend a lot of my time alone, aside from the cat

Iva Mikles  

running around.

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, I thought I heard the other one come up. But today.

Iva Mikles  

No, no, I was like, I don’t know. No.

Gene Barretta  

No, cats. No, no, no. It’s like a word. Aldo thing. You know? Like, I don’t see them. You know, where’s Waldo? So everyone’s you have Where’s Waldo over there. Do you know that expression? I know. Yes. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

Okay. But then she needs to have the shirt now.

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, the red striped shirt.

Iva Mikles  

But I think it was actually translated to every language. Yeah, at least I saw it on the airport. So that’s okay. Quiet. That you meant like, you can get it anywhere. Nice to

Gene Barretta  

have a book like that. I’ve had my books translated. Not in your language, but in Chinese, and little in Spanish and Braille, which was really cool. Surprise. Let me see. I’ll show you an example of that. They don’t. So where is it? Yeah, here we go. You can’t. They don’t reprint the whole book. But what they’ll do is they put an overlay of Braille, we see if I tilt it.

Iva Mikles  

Can you see you can see it a bit. Oh, wow. Okay,

Gene Barretta  

yeah, it’s got the Braille over the page. That’s amazing. Where is it? On the cover here? Right here? Yeah, it was pretty cool. So a few of them have been put into Braille National Braille. National Braille association or something like something like I think Sorry, sorry, I forget your name. Yeah. Because I

Iva Mikles  

haven’t seen the the book like with the Braille writing it or maybe I just haven’t picked it up. So I didn’t notice because I wasn’t searching in that section, maybe of the bookstore. So. But yeah, so it’s usually like you have one book, which is created, and then it can be translated to different languages or Braille.

Gene Barretta  

Yeah, you know, some go digital. Some show up and anthologies, you know, which was was, which was a cool thing, because, you know, I also part of my income or royalty checks. And so, so you have nothing to do no more work to do, but it ends up in an anthology, more royalty checks, you know, wonderful. Yeah. Other languages looking. Sometimes they’re made into small little board books. Looking at the difference sometimes, and of course, paperback, sometimes after a while after they’ve sold well as hard backs. So they show up in all sorts of formats.

Iva Mikles  

So how many books did you have so far? Like you worked on and you created? Do you remember that

Gene Barretta  

kind of see, can you see my fingers? Can you see these little frames? It’s a little, you know, it goes back into that dormer window, but it’s my little gallery. Once I finish a book, I put the cover and a little frame and put it in there. But as an illustrator, it’s illustrated about 30 or so books. Summer, like I mentioned, some of those school publishing books that go right into schools, some are regular picture books and things. As a, as a writer. As a writer and illustrator. I’ve done eight, eight or nine, one of which isn’t out yet. And then, as a writer I’m working on my second is just a writer.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. Wow. Super cool. And you also had so many awards? I mean, amazing. Thank you. And so is there something you wish you knew before you started?

Gene Barretta  

I don’t know. I you know, I’ve always kind of, and not intentionally, but I’ve always been somebody who just kind of jumps in. If, if, you know, if I have some confidence in what I can do in a certain field or area. I’ll jump in and end up learning a lot. Why as I’m doing it. I’ll know enough of course to get hired and to do what I think is everything I need to know. And I have a sense that I’ll be able to handle it. But there are always things that come up, whether it’s technical stuff or not, that you learn as you go. And same with the publishing world. I had no clue that were in my books might show up or even You know, festivals or awards are things that they could be, they could qualify for the different formats I mentioned, all that stuff, hat can only really happen. Or you can only really learn that stuff when you’re already involved in doing it. And sometimes I, you know, sometimes I find myself in a place where I’m clueless. And I’ll fortunately have friends I can call to, like, one of my first illustration Jobs was for a tiny little board book I have, I have a, I don’t have these at the ready, but I have all my books on a shelf here, but a little board book called bugs, you know, and had little bug toys in it. And they wanted, they wanted it to be colored digitally. And I had never really worked digitally before. So I said, Yeah, of course, I can work digitally, you know, I called my friend up. As soon as I got off the phone and said, Get over here, you have to teach me how to do this, right. And at that time, I was just, you know, using a mouse to work. So but now I have, I have a Cintiq tablet, which is allows you to draw right on the screen and things like that. And I’ve been incorporated that into my work. Not for not for final pieces. I’ve done a few there have been digital pieces that have been requested. But I can do a lot of the work layouts and some sketching on that. And then I have a large size printer here. And I can print the work right onto watercolor paper. And that’s how I finish it on that bed. table over there. It’s my point. Yeah, yeah, it’s on the other side of the room there. It’s like, you see if I can. It’s right over on the other side of the room there. And you can see where my paints are and things like that. No,

Iva Mikles  

so the creature was cool. Was that it was a creature in a camera. There was a white boy, or I haven’t noticed, what was it? You had some toy in the camera?

Gene Barretta  

Oh, I didn’t see that. Yeah. That was cool. Okay, if you say so.

Iva Mikles  

And so the, for the printer, do you have a favorite brand or, like any,

Gene Barretta  

I’ve always used Epson. I don’t know the other models well enough to compare and contrast, but it always used

Iva Mikles  

what is the biggest size you can print with that one

Gene Barretta  

I can put in Sorry to keep switching but I you can load in the back. Usually the watercolor paper I load is it’s, it’s it, I usually will paint on sheets that come as 24 wide. And I think they go 18 high, but I cut them down. So they fit into that at about 13 inches. And I you know if I fit in a 13 by 24 piece of paper okay? Is pretty sighs it’s it was a career saver. Because before that, and before the Cintiq I would have to and I did a few books this way where I would put it work everything in Photoshop, print it out in in segments on a regular sized printer, then I would tape it all together, put it on a light table, which is over there, and then trace it all onto the watercolor paper, you know, sometimes really detailed images. And if I messed up the painting, then the whole thing has to be retraced you know, and I could spend hours wasted doing that. And you don’t you know, when when you’re tracing, you’re losing some of the life that the original has. It doesn’t quite ever match up. So this has been a blessing to just as a time saver. And as a way to get a more accurate sketch in front of me before I paint.

Iva Mikles  

Do you have some other like tools or mediums you would like to recommend to young artists?

Gene Barretta  

I always just use the two I mentioned I always I generally finished my work in watercolor and and work you know, digitally occasionally for a lot of the early part of the process for

Iva Mikles  

watercolors. Do you have a favorite brand? Maybe people should try at least one or something?

Gene Barretta  

I always use Windsor Newton. Okay. Yeah, I’m not you know, I’ve not one like I said I’m not formally trained. So I never experimented too much with it. I just You know, Friends, I have friends who I asked friends, you know, what do you use? What do you like? And I kind of started with whatever they recommended and I just kind of stuck in it. i It was a frustrating thing about my career, but knock wood it’s because I stay busy. But I’m always saying okay, when I finished this I’m going to spend a couple of weeks just painting just experimenting, so that my craft can maybe evolve or you know, but I rarely find that time, which is frustrating, because I would like to spend more time painting. One of my, one of my favorite parts of the week now, and I’ve been doing it for last 10 weeks or so, is I have a group of friends who have a Wednesday night sketch group. And we sketch a live model. And I get to do life model work. And it’s very different from what I do here. And so that’s at least a way of experimenting, experimenting, and expanding. And I can bring lessons from that brought back to what I do here.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, and also some networking as well. And yeah,

Gene Barretta  

not so much there. Because we’re all doing the same thing. Yeah, so it’s just, it’s just friends. Actually, this week, I’m the model, we take turns, we either have friends who come in to model and we all have to pay our dues by sitting in the chair, not naked, by the way. I’ve never, I’ve never gone that far with it. But who knows.

Iva Mikles  

Maybe you can do some cosplay, you know, some wigs and scarves or whatever

Gene Barretta  

I could do. Or I could just sit my cat in my lap and cover all the parts that

Iva Mikles  

you know, I don’t know if the kid would sit still, you

Gene Barretta  

know, might be actually might be dangerous. Exactly.

Iva Mikles  

I was like, Okay, I’m done with this. And then the kid

Gene Barretta  

might get scared and damage me for life.

Iva Mikles  

Okay, maybe don’t do that. Yeah. Ignore it know when, like we were talking about, like, friends and books and stuff. So do you have like a favorite book, maybe you give as a gift to friends or family?

Gene Barretta  

Books of mine that are favorite,

Iva Mikles  

or just general, like the books you would recommend? Like, everyone.

Gene Barretta  

It’s I don’t know, that’s always been a tough one. I you know, it depends on what they’re interested in. I always have always happy to give out my children’s books to friends for their kids. But there hasn’t been a particular book that I’ve said to people, you’ve got to read this changed my life. It’s, that’s been a little bit of a frustration too, with a job one that you know, I can’t complain too much about. But I don’t get to read too much. Because I’m already reading a lot for the research I do for my books. So a lot, I have a stack of books that I want to read for pleasure, that wait sit there waiting for me. So I get to read short things. But there are a lot that I would like to try. But it’s always a time thing because I’m a dad too. So, you know, in two hours, I have to go pick them up from camp and then take them to some other activities and stuff like that. So it’s all that’s a big part of my life, too. It’s a

Iva Mikles  

very, like limited time.

Gene Barretta  

Another part of the juggling. Yeah, the juggling just doesn’t happen with career work. It’s it’s fatherhood. And I try to sneak in a little bit of a social life when I can, you know,

Iva Mikles  

yeah. So how do you do the planning then? Exactly. Is it on the board, as you said? Or how do you design your day? Or do you plan like one week in advance? Or how does it work?

Gene Barretta  

There’s, there’s some things I can plan far in advance, you know, like, come on. Now, the cat’s back. Taylor was almost going for the camera. Some things like if school visits and things can be booked far ahead. And I know I can plan for those. Some other jobs. You know, I can plot out, I want to have the outline done by this date, I want to have the sketches done by this date and all that. And other things just happen that day or a few days in advance, I’ll get an email about something that has to be addressed. Or something that gets sent back that I’m not expecting that needs to be revised. So there’s so you’re always adapting and you’re always trying to make room for keep room at least four things that just show up that morning in your email. First hour or two is sometimes just doing all the administrative work and getting back to people and planning. But even you know, and but before that, I’m taking my son to drop him off at camp or getting on the bus and stuff. Yeah, so it’s all there’s something there’s some routine and then there’s which I like there’s some routine that set and then there’s things that are fresh that keep your day interesting. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

And so when you think about the future, like where do you want to be in five to 10 years? What would be like your dream scenario, you know?

Gene Barretta  

Five Year Plan you know, it’d be nice to I’ve always wanted to have to create a character or a series of characters that I could expand into a series, not just books, but you know, do the next Charlie Brown thing. You know where it becomes multimedia and be because I’ve done a lot of nonfiction, I’ve always had a hunger to do something. I’ve only done one fictional book Jack, the tripper, which is all about the dangers of telling lies and things. And I’ve always wanted to, I’m envious of some of my friends who have created a character that allows them to just, you know, start the day by saying, Where can I take my imagination? What can this character do today? And have that freedom. So I’ve always looked forward to that day when I and of course, I’ve got a few ideas on the board, but haven’t had time to really flesh it out yet. So yeah, I guess to do something like that series

Iva Mikles  

like that. That sounds good. I’m looking forward to see that.

Gene Barretta  

Fingers crossed. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

And so the last question I would like to ask you is about like, far, far future. And what would you like to be remembered for in 100 years?

Gene Barretta  

That’s hard. I don’t know if I, I don’t think I’ll be remembered in 100 years. You know, who how many people are? I guess? I don’t know. But it would be cool from my like, distant grandkid, great grandkids and things to just look through the family tree and say, oh, cool, liquid, you know, liquid, our uncle Jean did. Yeah. You know, he was making books, and they go look and explore and see what I did. I guess, you know, I hope there’s some longevity with my books that go on, you know, at least for a while. And knock wood again, you know, all the one upstate imprint so far. And so that’s, that’s hope for I guess, just, you know, it sounds corny, but of course, you know, I’ve helped people tell stories about me being a good person. And, you know, you know, have good stories about nice things I’ve done for people, family and friends. But nothing earth shaking beyond that. No, but it sounds great. I think I’m gonna invent, you know, a new form of energy or, you know, a cure to cancer or anything like that. So I’ll just stick with my books and family memories. legacies. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

That’s really great. So I really liked it. And so thank you so much for being here. And maybe if you have last piece of advice for young artists, what would we be before we say goodbye.

Gene Barretta  

Advice for artists, some I mentioned where it’s just don’t limit yourself in the art world, you know, stay connected. Go out to lots of events. I, you know, my career, like I said, it started because I went out to some author illustrator events, and met friends who were still friends who mentored me along and made me realize, oh, there’s a career here to explore. Know, that SC bwi.org is a great organization, which to belong. There’s the chill, there’s a book that everybody can look into. This probably just applies. I don’t know if it’s international or not. But there’s the children’s Writers and Illustrators market, which is a book that comes out every year, which tells you, all the publishers, what they publish, what they look for, for submissions, and all of that. That’s a good thing. But, you know, try to try to work every day. Keep your imagination fresh, and your, you know, your skills fresh. Yeah, that’s, I think that’s it. Keep stay optimistic. Develop a tough skin. Be prepared for rejection. Because you’re gonna get a lot of it. Even when you’re even when you’re established, you’re gonna get it. And don’t take it personally. Just remember, there’s a lot of people out there as talented as you more talented than you less talented. A lot of times, it’s just who, who sees your stuff that day? And does it work for a project I’m doing? You know, it’s it can be that subjective with editors and art directors. So stay optimistic, you know, and you can keep going with it.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, that’s perfect way to end the interview. I really love it. And thank you so much for being here and for everyone joining.

Gene Barretta  

Thank you, everybody, for listening. There’s staying with this for so long. I hope I hope I wasn’t boring. No.

Iva Mikles  

I’m really grateful that you took the time from your busy schedule and thanks again.

Gene Barretta  

Thank you, and it was a pleasure.

Iva Mikles  

Hope you guys enjoyed this interview. You can find all the resources mentioned in this episode at artsideoflife.com. Just type The guest name in the search bar. There is also a little freebie waiting for you so go check it out. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review on iTunes, hopefully five stars so I can read and inspire more people like you. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to Art Side of Life podcast, because I post new interview every single workday. If you want to watch the interviews, head over to artsideoflife.com/youtube. Thank you so much for listening. Don’t forget to inspire each other. And I will talk to you guys in the next episode. Bye.

Announcer  

Thanks for listening to the Art Side of Life podcast at www.artsideoflife.com

Hi, I am Iva (rhymes with “viva”). I am an artist, illustrator, founder of Art Side of Life®, and Top Teacher on Skillshare. Since 2009 I've worked as an illustrator, character designer, art director, and branding specialist focusing on illustration, storytelling, concepts, and animation. I believe that we are all creative in infinite numbers of ways, so I've made it my mission to teach you everything I know and help either wake up or develop your creative genius. Learn more about me.

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