Thursday, February 18, 2021

Interview with Jenin Mohammed about her wonderful #NY21SCBWI conference header art and winning the Summer Spec Portfolio Showcase

Jenin Mohammed
 (her first name is pronounced "Jeh-neen, like Janine) is the creator behind the beautiful art you see in the SCBWI Winter Conference header. Jenin won last year's 2020 Summer Spectacular Illustration Grand Prize; you can see the Portfolio Showcase Winner announcement here.

Jenin was raised in South Florida, and is of Caribbean and African American descent. She studied Character Animation at UCF even though her heart really belonged to writing and illustrating books for children. Jenin says her dream career came true when she signed with the CAT Agency in 2020. She is currently working on SONG IN THE CITY by Dan Bernstrom - HarperCollins (2022) and is illustrating picture books for Simon & Schuster, Abrams, and Worthykids/ Hachette whose titles haven’t been announced yet.

You can find out more about Jenin at her website, Instagram and on Twitter.

Q. Congrats on winning the 2020 Summer Spectacular Illustration Grand Prize! What was that like?

Jenin: Thank you! Learning I had won the Grand Prize was extremely overwhelming. I had to take an hour or two to get back to Sarah Baker because I was too busy squealing. I signed with my agent, Christy Ewers of the CAT Agency, a month before the summer conference. I really wanted to tell Christy, but I had to keep it a secret until the ceremony. We were waiting on an offer from HarperCollins for SONG IN THE CITY by the time the Showcase aired. The same night the awards were announced, Christy got an email back from HarperCollins on my offer. I don’t have definitive proof that winning the grand prize caused HC to offer such a generous advance, but you can’t deny that the timing was a bit suspicious. 

Q. Your art for the SCBWI Winter Conference header is wonderful! Could you please tell us your process for creating the header? 

Jenin: Thank you! First, Sarah Baker briefed me on the project. Since the conference typically takes place in New York City, the header needed to be New York-themed. I sketched some thumbnails in Procreate that help me figure out the composition of the painting. Those thumbnails eventually evolved into three fleshed out sketches. I emailed Sarah the sketches to see which one she liked the most. One sketch had the Statue of Liberty reading to her kids, another had a little girl dressed up as the Statue of Liberty reading under her blanket.

But Sarah and I agreed that we liked the Subway concept the best, especially since it gave us plenty of opportunity to show diversity amongst readers. Once given the thumbs up, I further refined the sketch.

Many illustrators jump straight into painting after completing a sketch. I, however, am not that brave. Once I have a composition finalized, I’ll shrink a sketch back to thumbnail size, lower the opacity so it’s barely visible, then start lightly layering color on top as if I’m creating a watercolor wash.

This is what I call a “color sketch” stage. This helps me choose the color palette and figure out the arrangement of the values. When I have figured out the composition of my colors, I save the color sketch.

Using the color sketch as reference, I begin my painting. I create “flats” which is the base color of the shapes that make up the painting.

Then after I am done creating separate flats for my character’s face, clothes, etc, I create clipping masks to layer and glaze on the color.

Final result:

Q. I see you're both a middle grade writer as well as a picture book illustrator. Are you working on writing your own picture book as well?

Jenin: I have a skeleton idea for a picture book, but I have pushed it away at the moment so I can finish my current middle grade manuscript and the other picture books I signed up to illustrate. I can only focus on so many ideas and projects at once.

Q. What are you working on now?

Jenin: I am currently writing a humorous middle grade novel that’s about the perils of being the eldest of many siblings. But when I’m not writing from first person perspective, I am illustrating SONG IN THE CITY by Dan Bernstrom or taking on side projects. I recently illustrated a promo card for Chrystal Giles’s new middle grade book TAKE BACK THE BLOCK. I also work with a local Orlando designer to create holiday gift wrap that’s decorated with children of color.

Q. What advice do you have for up-and-coming children's book writers and illustrators?

Jen: Join SCBWI! Although Christy “discovered” me through Instagram, I doubt I would’ve come into her orbit if I hadn’t attended the regional or international conferences. These conferences taught me what art directors are looking for in a portfolio and what editors are looking for in a manuscript. I also met other Florida CAT agency artists Gladys Jose and Vanessa Flores who pushed me to start illustrating. They posted my work in their stories where Christy and other industry insiders could see it.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Jenin: Don’t be afraid to post your work on social media, especially Instagram. I know a couple awesome artists that deleted their instas because they hate social media. Sure, it can be discouraging to see more established artists have thousands of followers while you may get only five “likes” on a sketch. And if you don’t limit how much time you spend on IG, you can get burnt out fast. HOWEVER, if you don’t post your art, it will be as if your work never existed. 

You don’t need hundreds of followers to get a book deal or an agent (I DEFINITELY did not have that many followers when Christy found me.) All you need is work that’s authentic. Social media’s also a great way to make friends with people you have never met in person. These will be the people who will give you advice, share your work, but most of all, support you from miles away.

Thanks, Jenin!

Related links and where you can find more info about Jenin Mohammed and her work: (where you can find Jen's agent)

Jenin on InstagramTwitter and Etsy site.

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