Monday, April 23, 2012

A Family Design Story: Cathy Heck Studio


Surtex is now is less than a month away. I fell in love with it last year when I walked the floor for the first time so I decided to exhibit in 2012. I recently signed up with Montage Licensing for representation and couldn’t be more happy - I'm very excited about my debut, but most of all I am thrilled to be working and sharing ideas with such a creative and ever-growing community of inspiring artists and professional manufacturers from around the world!

And speaking of professional artists, I am happy to introduce the first of many upcoming inspiring posts with Surtex exhibitors. I briefly met Cathy and Ellen Heck last year at Surtext - a fantastic mother-daughter design duo based in Austin, Texas. Although, they enjoy creating artwork for all product categories, they are most known for their successful juvenile collections. In fact, over two million babies own a Cathy Heck baby book. Now, Cathy works alongside her own child, Ellen, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a talented artist, who has literally grown up in the business of Cathy Heck Studio.

TMFMA:  Please introduce yourself with a short bio. We are Cathy and Ellen Heck. We work from our two studios: Cathy in Austin, Texas and Ellen near Berkeley, California. We create our work with pencil, pen, brush and mouse. We are connected seamlessly by the big computer in the sky.

CATHY: Although Ellen officially started working with me several years ago, she has actually always been by my side, working from her own little drawing table in the studio.

ELLEN: It was great to grow up in a house in which the art supply drawer was right next to the silverware drawer.  We were making art all the time.



TMFMA: How did you find your way to design licensing? CATHY: I was lucky to begin my career as an art director at Young & Rubicam, a large advertising agency in New York City. As an art director, I hired illustrators through their agents to create illustrations from my layouts. One of those agents, Jane Lander, asked if I would like to try my hand as a free-lance illustrator. So I began ... learning each new medium on the job ... a little scary, but it worked. I created illustrations for a wide variety of clients from Woman's Day to Jell-O. At that time, design licensing was a very new way of commissioning work, but Lynda Sylvester, who worked with Jane, took my portfolio to a gift company and my first licensed collection was born: Share-A-Hug, a group of characters that centered around a big polar bear named Bahama Bear and a reindeer, named J.Randolph Reindeer, V.P. of Marketing of S. Claus, Inc. (our characters have shorter names these days - for example, meet Baby Bot and Gif.)


ELLEN: I first squeezed my way into licensing when I was 13. Cathy had been creating hundreds of stickers which she licensed to Frances Meyer Inc. during the early scrapbooking "sticker boom." I asked if I could present some ideas for stickers too, and as the very encouraging mom that she has always been, Cathy said that I could present a group of ideas for the next presentation. I sent 6 ideas and, happily, they chose two: puppies and kitties. I still remember seeing my very own puppies in Michael's for the first time. It was a thrill!

TMFMA:  What's exciting about your creative work? CATHY:  Starting a new project, trying a new medium, receiving an email from a new mom who loves one of our collections. With art licensing, I get to know people all over the world.

ELLEN: I love holding the real thing in my hands. After first working on the computer files and then being separated from the project while in production, it is always a fun surprise to receive a box of samples.


© Cathy Heck Studio from the Little Pond collection
TMFMA:  Who/what has inspired you in your art? CATHY: I adore children's books, almost to the point of needing some intervention. Two of my favorite contemporary illustrators are Lisbeth Zwerger and Helen Oxenbury. I have also been inspired by the strong conceptual work of Milton Glaser and the wise instruction from my college professor, Dr. Leonard Ruben. I am energized by daily life with my funny family. I am even moved to draw by our rescue dog, Neville, whose lineage is definitely unclear, but whose personality is kind and good. (Plus, he's a blog hog). Whether the characters in my illustrations are from a tropical rainforest or a quiet little pond, they carry traits and expressions that are found in the children I have known and loved.

ELLEN: Cathy's children's book fanaticism - as you might imagine - has resulted in the creation of the best children's book library I know. We were so lucky to grow up surrounded by such a well-curated collection of inspirational pieces. Also, always the art-director, Cathy encouraged my sisters and me from a very early age to try to approach school and art projects (and Christmas cards, and everything really...) from different angles. Thinking outside the box and striving for clever concept implementation became goals very early in our lives. Cathy's encouragement, expertise, and generous teaching have been, without a doubt, my greatest inspiration.

CATHY:  Oh gosh.


© Cathy Heck Studio from the Zoophabet® collection
TMFMA:  What's your favorite medium or tool/s you create with? CATHY: A pencil, Sennelier watercolors, jars of Prismacolor pencils, a fresh new Rapidograph, a fat Staedtler eraser, Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes, Photoshop, and my Epson printer (love that guy).

ELLEN: Photoshop is magic, I love the smell of watercolors, and there is nothing more beautiful than a full-size etching press.

TMFMA:  Can you share a favorite technique you routinely use in your artwork? CATHY and ELLEN: Our new favorite technique is called mother-daughter-collaboration surprise. This technique was discovered under a string of tight deadlines, during which we discovered that we could literally work on the same art and the collaborative result was even more interesting than the original idea. One of us will draw a sketch with pencil. One will tidy the sketch with ink. One will color the art with paint. One will put the art into a repeat pattern with Illustrator. One will blend the pattern with other patterns in Photoshop. One will mock up a product. One will call the other one and say, "That's not what I had planned ... it's so much better!"  The other one will say, "I agree. We are amazing." You can read Ellen's post about the birth of a pattern here.


© Cathy Heck Studio from the Emma collection
TMFMA:  Please give us your analysis of the market based on your own experience and contacts. CATHY: Because I have been in the licensing business for over 25 years, I'm going to answer this one. We have seen up and down cycles throughout our experience. Following the last downturn, however, we have seen a different kind of recovery in the way this business works. I believe it is not solely because of the recent drop in economy, but rather the combination of that economic decline with the rise in computer-based design and social media all at the same time. Although the economy is becoming stronger (cautiously), I believe that a designer has to examine new methods of creating and selling work, as well as marketing via social networking in order to decide which methods work best for his or her styles and product categories. The way people buy is changing every day, and since our art adorns those things that people buy, we must adjust to those new buying styles.

TMFMA: What advice would you give other artists who are considering the art licensing field and that maybe want to exhibit in a show like Surtex? CATHY: Visit Surtex. Walk the aisles. See the booths (have a nice dinner; you are in New York, after all!). Go back to your studio, and make lots of art. Take an inspiration break to see new trends. Go back to your studio and make more art. If you have children, watch their soccer games. It's good for you, and good for them. After you have made a lot of art, exhibit at Surtex.  You will then know if this is the business for you. Surtex will help you discover the best way for you to make art and make enough money to keep making art.

ELLEN: Hug your boss (if she's your mom). Or, hug your mom, even if she's not your boss.

CATHY:  :-)  

And if you haven't read it yet, don't forget to check out Cathy and Ellen's fun and informative Surtex After Hours Guest blog post!  

Cathy Heck Studio

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