Photo of Joelle Steele, 1987

The Nature of Illustration:
California Artist Joelle Steele

by Merilee Kutchensen
Book Bag, 1987

[Note: When this article was written, Joelle Steele was known by another name. That name has been changed throughout this reprint to Joelle Steele.]

I am as comfortable doing photography and hand-tinting photos as I am drawing in pen and ink, charcoal or pencil, or painting in ink, watercolor, or acrylic. I've even done some collage when the project called for it. -- Joelle Steele

For the past ten years, Joelle Steele has been establishing her niche as a cover artist and as an illustrator specializing in plant and floral motifs. We talked about the creative process and her own experiences as a professional illustrator. Gardening is a big industry and it keeps her busy most of the time.

"I have a few regular publisher clients who frequently buy spots and page pieces for their gardening books and magazines," says Joelle. But at least half of her work is not specifically related to gardening. She also does covers for books, record albums, and magazines. "I like to remain as flexible about subject matter as possible. I do gravitate towards the plant and floral motifs, especially when there is even the most remote chance that a gardening theme will be appropriate. But a lot of my cover work is so abstract or impressionistic that you can't always tell that I'm in the gardening mode."

When she isn't in the gardening mode, Joelle also enjoys drawing animals, especially birds and fish, and she loves architectural illustration, especially old historic buildings with a lot of ornamentation. She doesn't have a favorite medium for her work. "I am as comfortable doing photography and hand-tinting photos as I am drawing in pen and ink, charcoal or pencil, or painting in ink, watercolor, or acrylic," says Joelle. "I've even done some collage when the project called for it."

Joelle finds most of her clients through postcard mailings that she sends to publishers throughout each year. Every year she gets some new clients, and some of the old ones fade away. "Some publishers are always looking for the next new thing, but what I really think happens most often is that a publisher either has the kind of project that is suited to your talents, or they don't," she says.

Interpreting what a client wants is always a challenge. How does Joelle manage it? "It all depends on the publisher," she says. "If they are very clear on what they want, it is usually pretty simple. If they are not all that clear and they just want you to 'come up with something,' it is much more difficult. I usually pass on jobs where the publisher is too vague — I find it's mainly a formula for failure."

When the publisher gives her the right direction, Joelle responds with a preliminary sketch or two, something to show them where she's going with whatever they have expressed to her. But coming up with the idea can take while. "I'm usually pretty easily inspired, so in general, it takes me a few minutes or a couple hours to come up with a viable idea," she says. "But there was one project where I labored over it for three weeks before I finally came up with something concrete. And then it only took me about two hours to put it on paper!"

Like most artists, Joelle produces lots of sketches before she settles on the ones she ultimately develops for her clients. "I often envision things in my mind's eye that I just can't seem to recreate on paper. So there is a process of trying this, then that, then something else, and sometimes going back to the very first sketch I did and developing it further," she says.

Her illustration projects are not without their challenges. When designing a cover for a science book, the author and publisher had very different ideas about what they wanted, and each sounded good in their own way. Joelle had to please both of them. "In the end," she says, "I kind of did my own thing, which was a collage using some old photos and then doing some ink enhancement. Fortunately, they both liked what I did, so there can be a happy medium if you just stretch your mind and look for it."

Before I left Joelle to finish her latest project, I asked if she had any words of encouragement for artists who want to break into the illustration market. Her response was, "Don't give up. It can be quite difficult to get established as an illustrator, and you really have to rely on clients from all over the country — all over the world. That takes time. Time means patience and patience is everything in art."