Chicago-area native Jean Ruth is an illustrator, teacher, and Skillshare student who has spent a lifetime pursuing her creative dreams. Interested in art from an early age, she’s crafted a successful career working in television, packaging design, and as a community college art instructor. In 2015, she authored, illustrated and animated the children’s book app All Different Colors. Now she’s using Skillshare to direct her artistic energies toward mastering surface pattern design and decorative illustration. We chatted with Jean about her early creative ambitions, her successful illustration career, and what makes her excited to go to work every day.
Let’s start with your early years. Your Skillshare student profile mentions that you “beautified” kitchen chairs with crayons as a kid. Did you always feel like a creative person? When did you first realize that art could be your life’s path?
As a young child I was forever drawing and crafting things out of bits of fabric, egg cartons, and old bags for family and friends. My elementary school didn’t offer formal art instruction, but the teachers would ask me to draw pictures for handouts and to decorate their bulletin boards. It was so much more fun than math class!
Taking actual art classes once I got to High School was absolutely heaven. Painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture was new and exciting territory, and I think I embroidered almost every piece of denim clothing I had. Album cover art was a big inspiration: Roger Dean and Storm Thorgerson’s surrealist art was mind-expanding. As a child, I always knew I would be an artist, but their album cover art helped me realize that illustration and design could be a career path.
Let’s talk a little bit about how your career developed. You’ve been a writer, an illustrator and a teacher at different points in your life, but how did you get your start?
After I studied graphic design as an undergraduate, I began working at a television station creating on-air graphics and courtroom drawings. From there, I transitioned into package design and spent years in the industry. My package designs were always very illustrative, and I branched further into illustration while I was in that field.
Later, when I became involved in my children’s school activities, I became inspired to teach. I went back to school for a degree in art education and then became an art and design instructor at a community college. It was that experience - seeing art, illustration and design through my student’s eyes - that inspired me to create my first children’s book. In 2015, I wrote, illustrated and animated a children’s book app, All Different Colors.
You’ve developed a wide set of skills to accommodate so many different types of projects. Just scanning your Skillshare student projects, I see surface and pattern design, animal portraiture, polymer clay, and paper illustrations. Do you have a favorite subject? Medium?
I think of myself as a generalist and like to use different media to convey an idea or mood. I have certain media I like, but it’s really more about the idea, atmosphere or feeling I want to express. I draw, paint, design, sculpt or create about the things I know. Most of my illustrations are inspired by people, animals, and things that are close to me - I like to create characters, scenarios, or patterns with someone or something familiar in mind. Even if they aren’t overtly evident in the piece, I know they’re there and it makes it meaningful, funny, or dear to me.
My more recent work has been described as “heart warming and whimsical,” and I’ve come to embrace these adjectives. I aim to create pieces that evoke feelings of warmth and lightness. Skillshare classes have really helped me as I transitioned from client-directed work to defining my own style and point of view. Having had client-directed work in the past, it’s been both a challenge and an adventure to uncover my own personal style. Skillshare is helping me get there.
Have there been classes that you particularly enjoy, or would recommend for someone interested in creating similar work?
The very first class I took was Sandra Bowers’ Transform Watercolor into Intricate Patterns. Her down-to-earth approach introduced me to the world of pattern design, a brand-new area of illustration for me. I find her class so energizing.
Romica Spiegl-Jones also has a wonderful class, Gouache for Illustrators: Create A Cute Animal Portrait that I would highly recommend. I’ve used gouache in the past for packaging illustration, but her class allowed me to reconnect with the medium from an entirely new perspective.
More recently I fell in love with Mel Armstrong’s Surface Pattern Design Fundamentals II: Design a Jungle Animal-Inspired Pattern Collection. It’s so comprehensive and helpful in creating and presenting surface pattern design to potential publishers.
I love Skillshare because it opens the door to new and different media, techniques and approaches that allow you to tell your story in different ways. Now that I’m pursuing surface pattern design, I also rely on Skillshare classes to help me sell my work in online shops, submit it to publishers and display pieces for purchase. Faye Brown’s Branding Your Creative Business: Designing Your Logo has really helped me define and convey my brand personality. Her step-by-step is invaluable!
I’m so glad! As you enter your next creative chapter, what are you most excited about?
The illustration projects I enjoy the most are the ones that bring joy and delight to people. That’s why I’m love creating my own characters and patterns for people’s everyday use. Enhancing someone’s everyday life, whether it’s through surface pattern for fabric, or products, greeting cards, or art prints, is my goal.
I never tire of new projects. When I’m inspired by a piece, I don’t use an alarm clock. I’m out of bed by 5:00 am and ready to go. The excitement and satisfaction I experience when I feel I’ve done good work is as fresh as it was thirty years ago. It never ever gets old!