VAN ALSTYNE — Imagine a room set apart from the rest of the world. A bright, airy space with blank canvases, worn brushes, colorful posters and books filled with familiar characters. To many creative minds, this space would be paradise. To Van Alstyne artist Ron Head, this is simply his studio.

VAN ALSTYNE — Imagine a room set apart from the rest of the world. A bright, airy space with blank canvases, worn brushes, colorful posters and books filled with familiar characters. To many creative minds, this space would be paradise. To Van Alstyne artist Ron Head, this is simply his studio.


Head’s home studio is where he gets most of his work done. It’s located up a small staircase in his garage, where he doesn’t need to be disturbed, and represents the different elements that come together to keep an artist relevant in the modern world.


"The studio dynamics have changed a lot because of that machine right there," he said, gesturing to his computer. "It used to be I did a lot of conventional illustrations, more of the mixed media where you utilize a lot of the watercolor and acrylics. … But honestly with technology where it is today … you can pretty much achieve the same effect and look and feel of many conventional style of illustrations."


Like most artists, Head’s journey began when he was young, and with an artist uncle who graduated from the University of Texas with a fine arts degree, there was a strong familial influence and example. Head, however, took a twist into the world of advertising and marketing, graduating from Sam Houston State University with a degree in graphic design/advertising. He calls himself a generalist.


"The two (illustrating and advertising) have kind of always been interspersed for me," he said. "I’ve never really put out a shingle saying ‘I’m an illustrator.’ I’ve always been able to dabble in a lot of things."


Head and his wife planned to stay in Houston after graduation, but with the economic troubles the city faced in the ‘80s, the Heads decided to move to North Texas.


"I’ve always had aspirations to be up in the Dallas area," he said. "In my mind it was kind of the Mecca for design, and a lot of the big-time designers, the Woody Pirtles and the Stan Richards and all of those guys were up here in this market, so I thought to go up there and see if I could get on board with a design firm."


He worked at ad agencies and newspapers, carving up a reputation for himself and ever keeping projects on the back burner.


"In this business you’re kind of like a gypsy," he said with a laugh. "You’re just moving from one agency to the other, and that’s kind of the way you work your way up the food chain. I’ve had a colorful past in terms of agencies and firms that I’ve worked with."


In his case, it’s taken him down the path of illustrating children’s books. His first project as an artist for literature was in the late ’80s through a family friend, who wrote a book about an ant family.


"We worked on that little project together, and I created a whole series of illustrations around this little ant family, and it was kind of an opportunity for me to get a feel for how to create a series of illustrations," he said. "At that time, most of my work was just doing large projects for like a poster or a big in-store point of sale piece of sorts, so it wasn’t so much thinking about art in terms of a storyline."


It took several years, but eventually the family friend decided to publish her story. In the meantime, Head was faced with more opportunities to illustrate.


"I get a lot of requests to do certain types of projects, and what I’ve run into … is you kind of find yourself having to pick and choose,’" he said. "… Knowing that it’s going to happen, versus somebody that’s just a recreational type who thinks, ‘Oh that would be neat to do.’ So after a certain period of time in the business I think you get a gut feel for what things are good to invest your time in, and things that are probably not so good."


That’s what happened with Howe author Debbie Reece. Reece said Head was suggested to her by her husband, who noticed Head’s style and thought he would be a good fit as her illustrator. Although she had specific ideas in mind, she found that he was capable of meeting her ideas.


"Anything has to be born of good, solid strategy," Head said. "… (I have) a list of seven questions that I work through with the client, and kind of go through some of these core mandatories that are important to them. … We come to an agreement on that before I pick up a pencil and start anything. That way we’re both locked in and we both share kind of a common strategy in terms of what we’re going to be doing."


Although he’s skilled at watercolor, sculpting and sketching, he does a lot of his work on the computer now using a Wacom pad. With this pad and with a handy knowledge of PhotoShop, Head said he’s able to add detail and better drawings in a shorter amount of time.


He zoomed in on the computer screen of a picture of a cheerleader at a basketball game.


"I did this all on PhotoShop," he said, taking the picture to the blurred faces of the mass fans crowding the game. "… This one was pretty complex because there’s a lot of people and there’s a lot of things that I had to kind of bring in and work it out."


It’s easy for an outsider to make out the arms and basic forms of the cheering crowd, and moving the picture over even more, Head showed the texture of the cheerleader’s hair, with the myriad of colors visible in it.


It would only take him about a week and a half to finish a painting like this. With all the other projects he has simultaneously in the works, however, Head said he’d usually like about a month to finish a project for a client. When it comes to children’s book illustrations, that time is spent familiarizing himself with the story and the characters to establish a competitive art piece, starting with the cover. According to Head, this part really can be what people judge a book by.


"What image is going to convey the strongest message to support the story and is going to be the most impactful on a shelf?" he said. "If you’ve been in a Barnes and Noble, you know how busy and how competitive it is. Everything is pushing for first place, so I think it’s real important that you create an impactful cover design."


Head explained he’ll start the process with some preliminary, traditional sketching, using a pencil and drawing pad to work out thumbnails. These rough style renderings usually help him and the author get a feel for the direction they’d like to move, and after a round or two of revisions, both the author and the artist have a concept of what they’re vision for the book is.


Most of his clients list was established through his reputation, and although he has something of a laundry list of awards and certificates he’s earned throughout his career, you won’t find any of these items hanging around his studio.


"Over the years my philosophy has kind of changed a lot," he explained. "It’s less about the awards and more about a reward in knowing your work was effective and it accomplished what the client’s goals were."


He added that it’s hard to put as much stock in certificates on the wall, and that any person in this business should have their goal be that their reputation serve as the credentials of their abilities.


"With all the luxuries we have today, such as LinkedIn to have associates, it’s rewarding to me to have people that I highly respect that endorse you and think really highly of your abilities and your work," he said. "That to me is enough of a reward."


For new artists looking to start out in the world, Head had some advice.


"Keep a sketchbook," he said.


By sketching, a person is able to free themselves up a bit, allowing them to create away from a computer space.


"Just draw constantly and constantly be aware of everything that’s going on around you and be imaginative, and to this day I keep a sketchbook and I try to keep up with things that are happening to me because you never outgrow that."


He added a challenge young artists face is the ability to create original ideas and make an impression with something besides clip art and stock images.


"Part of the challenge that I think they face is really being able to develop the conceptual side, because they often find themselves jumping right into using the tools before you really are working out the conceptual aspect of what you’re doing," he said. "… I think it’s really important that you temper that balance of being able to do the traditional thinking and brainstorming and thumbnail sketches (with the newer tools)."


Art, he said, is never going away. All an artist needs to do is learn to adapt.