Shirley Ng-Benitez is a children's book illustrator. Visit her webpage here.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
I can say that it’s taken me 20 years to truly say that I LOVE my art. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, but a sincerely heartfelt way..art and I go wayyyy back, and it’s not been an easy relationship for sure.
My earliest recollection of enjoying art and being “proud” enough to show it was back when I was in kindergarten and I traced pictures of Bambi from a coloring book, and then sold them door to door throughout the neighborhood. I remember receiving my first nickel for my art..what a feeling!
The years flew by and I had not stopped to consider art as a career until I was in Jr. College. It was 180 degrees from my path to become an Industrial Engineer, but my parents were supportive and I ended up studying at San Jose State University and received a BS in Graphic Design with a concentration in Illustration. Throughout school, I hesitantly and nervously worked on my painting and drawing skills, but never felt confident enough to show it as I still felt that I was learning and that I wasn’t ever going to make it in the field. There were too many other students and artists that were better than I, better composers, craftspersons, and idea-makers. I decided to focus on my design work instead, and thankfully I was able to enjoy my first job as a Professional Lettering artist for American Greetings, and I was then exposed to so many very talented and giving artists and friends.
Graphic design and lettering were wonderful artistic avenues for me while starting our family. After many years of owning my company and focusing on designwork, I finally came back to painting and illustrating about 2 years ago..and I can say that I am SO excited and happy to be creating my art each day.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
I have a few personal projects that keep me excited..the first being a monthly illustration of a fairy tale. The second project consists of a picture book concept that’s been written but I haven’t sketched or fleshed out yet (can’t wait to dig into that)..and an ongoing sequence of events of a team of bears who were caught on the sea floating adrift in a single innertube. Their journey continues…
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I had always known that I would be a mom. I have two brothers, and I’m the middle kid, so growing up with siblings is something I wanted for my kids. I always wanted at least two, and I am blessed with two wonderful girls. Our first daughter was born in 1999 and she absolutely changed our lives. I thankfully had a great pregnancy without morning sickness, and just a bit of back labor towards the end, but thankfully I didn’t have any complications or a difficult birth. My second pregnancy was very similar, with the exception of a much larger appetite! But thankfully my natural births went well and without complications. We were very, very blessed!
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
For me, each illustration starts with a sketch. I constantly sketch and this is something that I’ve taken from my graphic design experience at a design firm in the Bay Area. We created multiple (sheets) of thumbnails before coming up with the color compositions for an ad or sell sheet. When my babies were much younger, I would have to sketch late in the evenings, or very early in the morning…and then squeeze more time in between naps and feedings. Now that my girls are older, my mornings are freer, but I still enjoy sketching very late in the evenings just before bedtime.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
All of my work is critiqued by my two daughters, and every now and again, my husband is involved in helping to choose a composition, or a character in a piece. I almost always defer to my kids, though…for much of my work, even personal work, is for children.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
Besides raising educated, respectful, and happy people (my children), my goal for them is to love themselves and seek a career that will make them happy, something that they have a passion for, for I truly believe that if you find that passion, you will build a career from it and it won’t even feel like work (well at least most of the time!). I now can say that I embrace my work even more since having children for I find it magical and so rewarding to receive an “awww” or “that’s cool” from my children. It’s the best compliment ever.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
I’ve illustrated each of them perhaps once or twice. I’m not great at illustrating people accurately, so they become stylized. I suppose I don’t have the greatest confidence in doing this kind of work.
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
One of the instigators of my finding my love of watercolor was taking a field box of watercolors and a notebook with me on my first cruise with my husband to Mexico. I painted each port and came away with a booklet of memories. I loved it! I now bring my sketchbook and paints wherever I travel.
Recently, my family and I visited Kauai for the first time..and yes, the kids were there, and they painted as well! Traveling with kids is fabulous..it can be challenging with food and rest, and bathroom breaks (multiple when they’re really young) but now that they’re 10 and 12, it’s truly wonderful!
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
We have boxes of art supplies and my girls are always at my desk with me while I work. They draw, paint, sketch, fold and cut paper – origami and they’re own creations with paper, and in the summer we often swim and then dry off while drawing with chalk near the pool. We paint holiday cookies, the girls bake and decorate cakes and cupcakes, and they always create home-made cards for birthdays and celebrations or events, and placecards for special occasions.
How do you escape?
I sketch late at night..which is very relaxing, and during a busy day, I’ll pop in an old movie and listen to it while I work. Usually a Jane Austen-esque film of love. With my hot cup of Peet’s coffee, I am in the zone. : )
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Be good to yourself and get the rest that you need. Pace yourself and really try to set aside time for your husband and yourself as that is the relationship that suffers the most as we give so much to our children. I admit I am still learning how to do this and am grateful to have a patient husband! When my daughters were very young, I burned the candle at both ends and ended up at the age of 35 getting shingles. Shingles is one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had..as painful as childbirth and I was lucky in that I only had it on my torso. If your immune system gets that low, the varicella-zoster virus (the virus that causes chicken pox) will reactivate. Because it took 2 months to recover, I now know when my body is “at risk” and I force myself to rest and put work away. Deadlines will always be there, clients will always need work done swifter and “yesterday” but your health comes first. This is something I’m teaching myself and my children..to know your body, the warning signs and learn how to handle stress. I think it’s something we, as parents should give our children, with love and respect, a good toolbox of tools to help them move through life during stressful and difficult times.
And one last thing, always, always take breaks throughout the day..your children see you working hard sitting at your desk, but they also need to see that you take care to relate to your family, eat well, enjoy the sunshine, flowers and sunsets, …and especially them!