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by Tannie Smith, Becky Porter, Julia Mann and Kristin Wauson, “The Big Dillustrators”

Hi everyone! We are a critique group of four female illustrators in Austin, Texas. The best thing about having a critique group with specific goals and purpose, is the power and support we give each other to generate and grow new ideas. When we met to discuss what we wanted to share with you all, we discovered each one of us comes up with ideas in completely unique ways, so we thought we would share with you, not just one, but four different tools to inspire your storytelling all year. Enjoy!


Tannie Smith

Each of us is amazingly unique, not just in how we look, but also how we process information. I’m a visual person by nature. Taking endless notes or listening to lengthy explanations has never clicked with me. Just ask my husband anytime he tries to teach me a new game! Show me, don’t tell me. For ideas to flow, I need to see and do. That’s why I rely heavily on what is called the creative bank account. Your creative bank account is that place in your mind where you store all the little tidbits throughout the day. That moment you stopped and observed the way light shines through trees, or that cute thing you heard a kid say, or a color you felt particularly drawn to in a museum.  All those little moments get stored away and allow your brain to start making connections in the background.

In order to keep my bank full, I have to be sure I’m getting out there and experiencing life! I love to look at “Art of” books, or read a book I wouldn’t normally read. I walk a lot and take the time to stop and notice little things. If I see a cool acorn, or leaf or even a small bird skeleton, I bring it home and put it in my curiosities cabinet. When I go out to eat, I look at the people interacting around me. What is their story? Why are they there? One of these actions alone might not generate an idea. But all of them together do! “But Tannie, it sounds like you just do normal things and then … ta-da … an idea …” Yes, its kind of like that, but really it has a lot to do with shifting your mindset. For example, I could go to the grocery story, buy my list, and come home. I would have filled my pantry, but not my creative bank. Instead, I go to the grocery store, and while buying my list, observe the way they display cereals boxes by texture. I take the time to notice the interesting pattern of the concrete floor. I tune-in to conversations around me. It’s all about putting my mind in a place to receive information. Then later, as I draw, my mind starts feeding it all back to me. It’s all about letting your creativity as an artist/writer seep into the rest of your life. You can hear more about this type of idea generating in a great podcast called Cultivating Creativity by 3 Point Perspective.

My challenge to you is to go on an ordinary errand. Maybe to the grocery store, or the gym, or a doctors visit—something you normally consider routine and boring. While doing this errand, I want you to observe three things you never noticed before. Was your doctor’s office always that yellow? Go to a flower shop or park and literally stop and smell the roses! What is the texture of the petals? What kind of bugs are hanging out there? Taste a new fruit you’ve never seen or tasted before. Take time to soak in your environment and see what inspires you. Perhaps you’ll see a face peeking out in the patterns of a wood floor. Why haven’t you seen that little person before? What is their story? What if there’s a whole world living between the grains of wood on that floor? Before you know it, you’ve got the beginnings of a story!


Becky Porter

I listened to a podcast a few years ago in which two great minds discussed what they thought makes an idea interesting. One argued that something is interesting when it defies our expectations. The other argued that a thing becomes increasingly interesting with increased specificity. I have thought back to that podcast often because it directly influenced my process for generating visual and textual narratives.

I have learned to never stop on the first iteration of an idea. My best ideas are usually buried under a boring one. I pick something that speaks to me in that moment (no matter how cliche or hum-drum) and start digging. For example, a few years ago, I created an illustration of a little girl walking into her vacation home to find bears inside. It was dull and lifeless, but I liked the bears and wanted to try to salvage it. How could I make it more interesting? An obvious response to finding bears in your house would be surprise or fear. Cross those off the list. Obvious = boring. What response would defy expectation? Delight? Maybe the bears are trying on her costume jewelry and makeup, and she knows she’s just found big, cuddly kindred spirits. How about aggravation? Maybe they’re watching TV and eating her beloved Cool Ranch Tortitos…for the third time this week. I liked that idea, so I kept digging. How might the bears respond? Growl and attack? Roll their eyes and change the channel? Blush and hide? Try to look innocent and blame the other? Next, my attention turned to their environment. It was nondescript and didn’t help tell the story. It needed specificity. It was a vacation home, but which vacation home? A swanky ski lodge? Memaw’s musty Appalachian lean-to? A cozy lake house cabin? You get the idea. By the time I was done with this illustration, it had a much more interesting visual narrative and I had some fun ideas for a story, as well as some great jumping off points for other narratives—visual and textual.

The next time you’re scraping the bottom of the idea barrel, crack open one of your old Storystorm notebooks, pick an idea that you wrote off as cliche, and start mining. Defy the obvious! Laugh in the face of your first 5 iterations! Go straight-up berserk with specificity! You might be surprised at the gems you dig up.


Julia Mann

Ideas for my illustrations come from so many places. In order for me to generate ideas, my creative bank account must also be full. I love being in nature, going hiking, observing wildlife and the colors in nature. I listen to podcasts, look at “Art of” books, watch favorite movies, and go to the zoo or museums. I also spend time looking through photos online and on Pinterest which is what sparked the idea for my sweater cat illustration.


When looking for ideas, think about what comes easiest to you. What do you naturally love to draw or write about? Animals? People? Trucks, robots or aliens? I love drawing animals, and animals in silly situations—especially cats. So I began looking through pictures of animals I had saved and came across a photo of a cat in a sweater that made me laugh. It sparked my imagination and the idea for the illustration. I started asking myself all kinds of questions: Why is he in that sweater? Does his owner do this to him often? Does he like dressing up? Surely, he can’t be happy in that thing. What is he thinking? “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to sit here for another picture in this dumb, ugly, itchy sweater.”

Then, I asked myself more questions: What could be going on behind the scenes that we don’t see? What is hidden? What else could be making him mad? Maybe the mouse has seen him and is laughing at him too. And that was it! From there, I can start sketching out thumbnails to create the illustration.

So next time you see a photo that inspires you or grabs your attention, notice what ideas it sparks. Figure out what could be going on behind the scenes. It could be the beginning of an idea for an illustration or story!


Kristin Wauson

Illustrators who write say it’s hard to switch off their “drawing brain” and turn on their “writing brain.” But what if we actually didn’t need to flip any switches? At the end of the day, we’re all just storytellers who want to make our audiences feel something.

Since 2017 I have been approaching Storystorm with my “writing brain” using lists and words, because that’s what writers do. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, an idea from my 2018 list is now out on submission. But, orderly lists don’t always encourage me to expand on my ideas, and unintentionally I’ve been switching off my drawing brain, which is more visual. What if I used both sides together to develop my Storystorm ideas the same way I develop illustration ideas—with visualization and mind maps?

Start with a place. Imagine a place that makes you feel something—a place you love, that inspires you. Maybe it feels nostalgic, or evokes sadness, or scares you. It can be a place you remember from childhood, or one you’ve visited as an adult, or one you’ve only dreamed up. Think of places where something funny or embarrassing happened (like the children’s museum where I laughed until I peed all over the floor. That’s one of the made up ones. Sort of.)

Write it down. Then start branching off to explore the scene. Who is there and what do they look like? What are they doing and why? What are they feeling? What do they want? What is the time period or the time of day? What happened in the moment before or after?

Fill in details until you have explored every nook and cranny of your idea.

Even if you are not an illustrator, consider things that might seem purely visual because these can inform the mood. Consider: color palettes, lighting, objects in the scene, perspectives.

And you don’t even have to start with a place. Maybe you just have a character, or a feeling and you go from there. An idea can grow out of anything, so go forth and get those two brains working together!

Thank you so much for joining us and we hope you’ll use these tips long after Storystorm is over. The Big Dillustrators wish you a prolific 2020!

Tannie M. Smith is an illustrator and author by day, and a Jedi by Knight. Her mission is to defeat the dark side by creating stories and art that are a force of light in the galaxy. She loves to collaborate on picture books, middle grade projects, and editorial illustrations. Tannie has a BFA from Texas State University in Communication Design. She currently lives in Lago Vista, Texas, where she fervently fosters her love for Star Wars, Korean dramas, yoga and tacos. But the thing she loves most is spending time with her ultra-running husband, 2 entrepreneurial teenage boys, 1 energetic pupper, and 2 cats that fiercely work to support whatever stereotype you may have about cats.

Visit her at and on Instagram @createdby_tanniesmith.

Becky Porter is an illustrator living in Round Rock, TX. She’s been drawing, painting, and writing for as long as she can remember. It’s the only ambition she’s ever had besides being a mom–and singing and dancing on broadway (a dream unrealized due to an inability to sing or dance.) When she’s not drawing or writing, Becky spends her time running, reading, book-clubbing, and retiring early to the Nerdery with her husband and three nerdlings for games or movie night. She loves anything that makes her laugh hard, think hard, or both. Anything else puts her to sleep, which is something else she loves to do and is, therefore, a net gain. 

You’ll find her at and on Instagram @beckyporterillustrates.

Julia Mann’s favorite thing about being an illustrator is getting to inspire others with her art.  She loves colored pencils, and the challenge to keep improving as an artist.  Since moving to Austin in 2014, she spends most nights drawing after her kids go to bed.  When not drawing, she is either homeschooling her two boys, going to the gym, hiking, listening to an art podcast, or exploring the Texas hill country with her family.  Julia has a B.A. in studio art with a biology minor from Virginia Tech.

Visit her at and on Instagram @juliamannart.

Kristin Wauson is a children’s book author/illustrator from Austin, Texas. She has a degree in Advertising from The University of Texas at Austin and for 10 years worked as a graphic designer and yoga instructor. Today she is a stay at home mom and a proud member of several amazing kidlit groups, including the Puddle Jump Collective, and The Big Dillustrators. When she’s not drawing, painting, dreaming up story ideas, or taking an online class, you’ll find her perfecting her handstand, helping with her family’s home building business, trying new recipes, and spending time with her husband, their boys and their big brown ‘Hank the Cowdog.’ She is represented by Adria Goetz of Martin Literary Management.

You’ll find her at and at Instagram @kristinwauson.

The Big Dillustrators are giving away a Pickle Pack to one lucky winner! This is a collection of four 5×7 prints. These prints are made using high end archival ink and top quality paper stock to ensure they will stand the test of time. Each artist will chose one of her favorite illustrations to donate.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

Good luck!


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