Jennifer Ball is an illustrator based in New York. The first book she illustrated, Cleo’s Big Ideas: One Thing Leads to Another, was published by Eifrig Publishing https://www.eifrigpublishing.com/in 2016. She has gone on to publish her second book about Cleo with Eifrig this year.
You did a fantastic job creating the characters and art for Cleo’s Big Ideas. Would you share your process?
Whenever I’m creating a character, I think about the characters’ personality and how that type of person/animal/object would probably choose to wear his/her/it’s hair and what type of clothing they would choose to wear, etc. For Cleo, since she was named after Cleopatra, I definitely wanted to incorporate some form of the choppy bob of the Egyptian queen. I then researched famous female scientists, and found many had some form of curly, slightly unkempt hair, like they were focusing more of their energy on their work then their outward appearance, hence this is how Cleo’s messy bob was born. Since she came from a more urban environment, I decided to have a slightly more eclectic, fashion forward style with the thigh high chucks (I LOVE Converse sneakers!) and blue cat eye glasses. The denim vest was my version of a modern/hip lab coat. The tie was to offset the fedora and a more “stereotypically male” clothing item. Funny note: the plus and division signs in her glasses came from the King of the Nerds reality competition show. One of the contestants had them and I thought that would be amazing for a STEM character like Cleo. For Albert, his look was based on a good friend from elementary school who always wore sneakers that seemed too big for his body and a messy bowl/crop cut. Ms Mason was based off this bitter art teacher I had in elementary school that always scowled which was emphasized by her bright red lipstick. Her only redeeming quality was her awesome chunky dangling earrings, all which was incorporated into Ms. Mason’s image. Winston II is inspired by metal trash cans, you know the kind that Oscar the Grouch lived in. Everyone else are composites of people I’ve either seen on the street, in the doctor’s office, supermarket, etc…have a photographic memory for faces.
What inspired you to seek a degree in art?
I’ve had a love of art since a very young age, probably because my dad went to school for art as well and I used to love going into his office and going through his library of art books and comic books looking at all the pictures. First I wanted to be a creature creator for Jim Henson, then an animator for Disney and finally landed on Graphic Design because my practical high school self knew that if I wanted to peruse either fine art or illustration professionally that I needed stellar marketing materials and if I could do my own, I’d save on overhead costs.
Where did you go for your degree(s)?
I earned my BFA in Visual Communication Design from the Hartford Art School in Connecticut.
What type of work did you do after college?
I was one of the lucky few to get work almost right out of college, worked at a department store for literally like 2 or 3 weeks before I got the call to design marketing materials for a fashion eyewear company. It was a good thing too, because I was horrible at the cash register – literally pretended every day was my first day because I was that bad! After the eyewear company, I worked for a food company for several years on all different things like logo design, menu design, event graphics, vehicle graphics, packaging, outdoor signage, food packaging…basically if it could be designed I did it lol. All this time I was working on my art every evening, every lunch break, basically any free time I had I was creating. I’ve since left that food company and have been freelancing and focusing even more intently on my art.
Did you take any children’s illustration courses?
I did take an intro to illustration course, but I kept getting really vague comments from the professor on my work like “cute” and “fun”. I was like “what does that even mean????!!!!” so after that I didn’t take another illustration course, but I did take a ton of painting courses on top of my design courses and most of my friends/roommates were illustration majors and I gleaned a ton of tips and tricks from them.
What would you say is your style?
That’s always tough, but I guess I’d say comic book quirk with a tinge of texture and sarcasm.
What and when was the first piece of art you created for money?
The first time I created a piece of art for money was in 8th grade. I painted rocks like animals and sold them to my friends and classmates for money. I think the first rock was either painted like a panda or a tortoise, can’t remember which.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?
I had always wavered back and forth between wanting to create fine art or illustrating. It was finally one day in May of either 2009 or 2010 that I was at this crossroads trying to decide weather I should keep perusing selling my paintings or go in a different direction. So I went to an artist networking event at the Art League of Long Island and met my illustration mentor Deborah Cuneo who said I should “try children’s book illustration, you should come check out this professional group I’m a member of” and the rest is history…turned to illustration and never looked back.
What was the first book you illustrated?
The first book I illustrated professionally for an actual publisher was the first book in the Cleo’s Big Ideas series – “Cleo’s Big Ideas: One Thing Leads to Another”
How did that project come about?
Well, I’m not sure if you remember this, but you had done a reading of the first chapter in a Long Island Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators editor’s critique meeting and I fell in love with the character and I came over to you (I think I may have given you my card) and let you know that if the book ever went into publication that I’d love to be suggested by you to illustrate, the book got picked up by Eifrig, you suggested me as the illustrator and the rest is history.
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been illustrating for approximately 10 years
Do you have a special space where you work?
I have a desk in a corner of my basement that looks out through a huge egress window. It’s nice because since it’s the size of a normal window I get tons of natural light and a window out into the “wild kingdom’ of our backyard…I’ve seen cardinals take worms right out of the ground, moles trying to dig tunnels through the snow during a snowstorm and even a black cat stealing a pork chop right out of our garbage pail at night.
What is your favorite medium?
I love the digital media because of the freedom to move and edit things a little more than traditional media…sometimes I’d be working on a drawing and see that something was a little off and wished I could change it’s scale, angle etc. using my hands, with my iPad, I can do just that.
What materials or tools do you use to create your work?
I have a completely digital workspace. I’m constantly toggling back and forth between Procreate and Adobe draw on my iPad for my linework, texture and shading and then assembling and finishing the piece off in Adobe Photoshop and illustrator on my Mac. I’m constantly changing back and forth between the apple pencil and my Wacom tablet, so much so that I literally loose both every day.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I had a painting professor in college who said that you should “try to do a little creating each day and that if you stop for a day or two and don’t have an itch/longing to create then being a professional artist isn’t for you”. So I try to stick to that mantra. Being an artist and a mother of two, I have to stay disciplined in carving out time for myself to create. Right now, I’ve been planning my work schedule around when both girls are sleeping or at daycare. So I do an hour or two in the morning before they get up, an hour or two while the baby is sleeping if my daughter is at daycare/school and then several hours at night.
What are some of your career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I would love to write and illustrate my own children’s book. I’m currently working on several manuscripts that I’m hoping to start submitting soon. I’d also love to create my own stationary or fabric collections…been building a portfolio to sell art in those markets as well.
What are you working on now?
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic several of the projects I was slotted to work on were scrapped, so I’ve been using this down time to focus on honing my craft, updating my portfolio and polishing my manuscripts for submission.
Thank you Jen, for sharing your creative journey with us and for making Cleo and her cast of characters come to life via your artwork! I’m so glad we met that day!
To see more of Jen’s work, you can visit her at: