‘Finding Milo’ Illustrator Josie Toney on Art Inspiration and Insecurities

Hi y’all! I’m Josie Toney, illustrator for the Finding Milo alphabet picture book series. I’m so excited about the release of the second book, California ABC’s: A Finding Milo Book!

Milo, the curious dog who loves to sightsee, is based on a real dog, a very pampered canine pet of the author, Chris Jespersen, who is also the Dean of UNG’s College of Arts & Letters. Milo is an all-black dog with very pointy ears, a tail that always seems to be up and wagging.

I had so much fun working on this project!! My favorite part of the brainstorming stage was personifying Milo in a variety of ways – traveling by hot air balloon, hang-gliding, sailing, surfing, snorkeling, and of course, often hiding! I think readers will enjoy following the state’s animals as they sightsee famous landmarks in alphabetical order. We know from the debut book, Georgia ABC’s, readers of all ages really get a kick out of discovering Milo in some not-so-sneaky hideouts.

I am grateful to the UNG Press for their dedication and extremely hard work on this project. I am especially thankful to the director of the university press, Dr. BJ Robinson, who gave me my first children’s book illustration opportunity, and to the author who continues to believe I am good at this! Corey Parson, managing editor, has incredible patience and digital talent. Laying out a book is no easy feat, and it takes a great team to collaborate, communicate and creatively solve the puzzle of putting together a children’s book from idea to tangible final product. To say I have learned a lot would be a major understatement – every piece of this project has been a learning experience, and it has truly been a passion project.

To share a bit of my artistic background, I inherited my drawing ability from my architect father, who would casually sketch out brilliant building plans on a restaurant paper placemat while waiting for his meal. A fear of math and geometry dissuaded me from pursuing a similar career, and the stereotypical starving artist persona terrified me.

By the end of high school, my self-consciousness and insecurity clouded my vision so that I couldn’t see a clear career path to becoming a professional artist, and I was pretty much set on the idea of being financially secure as an adult. How I would get there, well – I would aim to be a big business executive one day! What does that even mean?! I received my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the College of Charleston, with a French studies abroad program under my belt for a minor in International Business (en francais). After landing a job with a footwear design company, I desperately wanted to work with the designers, line builders, and product developers, rather than in sales support. After some of my designer friends discovered that I had a hidden talent in my ability to sketch, I was encouraged to pursue further training. I decided to do this abroad, since I was in love with Europe from undergrad and had the world-is-my-oyster, adventuresome mindset of a twenty something. I lucked out getting into a one-year Master degree program in Design and Manufacture from De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.

My masters program was amazing – and I graduated with distinction, and I thought this degree gave me the validation I needed to make up for my insecurity. But my insecurity followed me right back to the States to a group of all-male footwear designers who I knew had way more technical training than me, and who were all also my friends anxious to see all the new skills I had learned.I was terrified to show my work – fearful that I would be discovered as a fraud, that others would see that my work didn’t actually live up to real “designer” standards. My sketching was “sketchy” and I had tons of ideas, but I was somehow too scared to speak up – I lacked the confidence in myself to show my talent. If you have ever worked with a group of designers, you may have stumbled across some big authorities on the subject of design, maybe some even bigger egos and ultimately a whole lot of insecurities. In my humble opinion, there are no real authorities on design – it’s really all subjective and just comes down to a matter of opinion. In the end, most designers and artists are very sensitive to criticism and are already very hard on themselves. So many of us are perfectionists.

My insecurity was big, but I became bigger than it. I eventually learned to embrace my artistic “style” through the encouragement and friendship of a mentor and talented artist, whose work I deeply admire. She taught me to realize I have a “style” that is truly unique to me. Once I accepted that about myself, it boosted my confidence and helped me to really be myself in my art. I learned that uniqueness in art is essential to being successful as an artist. Trying to “fit in” like people tend to do in society isn’t the thing to do if you want to get “noticed” for your unique style.

My artistic style is whimsical and bright and usually comprises a mixture of media including, acrylic, watercolor, pastels, color pencil, marker and ink. Most of my paintings have 3D elements that add texture and are often items of sentiment. I usually never know what the final piece will look like until it’s finished. I get a very specific feeling in my gut when a piece is finished. Nothing else in life is quite as satisfying to me than this feeling of a finished piece – oftentimes I find the piece hard to part with, but at the same time I feel a sense of proud happiness. I make prints and notecards from most of my original paintings, since my time is limited and creating new pieces isn’t able to happen as much as I’d like.

As a child, I always loved books – I had every classic children’s book you can think of. I got a new book every time I visited my grandparents. My favorite spot in my childhood bedroom was a child-sized wooden red rocking chair nestled in a nook filled with books and stuffed animals. I read stories aloud to dolls, stuffed animals and imaginary tea party guests, and I loved coloring with my mother, drawing, watercolors and paper dolls.

My father once wrote an illustrated some children’s books for me – one was called Josie, Ralph and the Rocking Chair, about a little girl with an insatiable curiousity who traveled to far away places in a magic transporting red rocking chair with her pet dog. I always imagine that my father would be happy to know I was able to illustrate a children’s book series. Who knows – maybe one day, I will write a series of my own!

As a member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I am nearing completion of an illustrator mentorship program with Adela Pons, Art Director for Peachtree Publishing. This program so far has provided valuable insight into the illustration process working with an art director to produce a successful children’s picture book. My project is a picture book reimaged from the famous text of Eric Carle’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The ffinal art review will be presented at the Illustrator‘s Intensive conference in March.

My full-time day job is an executive administrative assistant at UNG (University of North Georgia) in University Relations, supporting the division’s VP and its units. While my current role is not creative in nature, I get to support and work with creative, hard-working and truly dedicated team members of the marketing and communications, and university events offices. I also get to work with a talented group of student assistants, who never cease to impress and amaze me as I watch them grow and mature with what seems like lightening speed; and then I get to feel proud when they graduate, get grown-up jobs in the real world and start making a difference out there! At the end of the day, that’s our common goal in higher education – to help mold kids into educated intellectual talented adult humans. That’s what I get out of bed for each morning during the work week.

When I am not working at UNG or creating, I am hanging out with my super smart, dry-humored, talented and creative soon-to-be nine-year-old son and his dad, my hubs. We enjoy getting outdoors, and when I say we, I don’t mean the kid – he would be on a video game 24/7 if he could. My husband and I lament about the days of our childhoods, pre-big-technology, and I notice we are beginning to sound like our own parents. Hiking, fly fishing, kayaking, and soaking in Mother Nature is how we like to spend our free time, and our son enjoys this too, though he might not be willing to admit it for now.

Becoming an “artist” is really an obscure idea, in my opinion, because I truly think that everyone deep down is an artist. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t draw, color, paint, mold clay and get creative in some fashion during childhood years. Children are all artists – they haven’t had the chance to overthink or critique themselves, and their creativity has yet to be stifled. When someone asks me when I became an artist, I think the question we should be thinking about instead is when did everyone else stop being artists?

What inspires me to create? So many happy and wonderful things – my family and Mother Nature are the top inspirations for me. There is just so much beauty in nature – I am obsessed with spring flowers and butterflies, I love watching our handsome black rooster with his beautiful iridescent feathers interact with our sweet and varied hens. Chickens are so fun to watch when they have free rein. We also have two dogs and two cats, in addition to our son’s yellow-bellied slider, American Toad, and two box turtles. On nice days, all animals (except for the tank dwellers) are outdoors, lounging on the property, sometimes interacting with the cows in the pasture next door. It is this scenery against the backdrop of a beautiful blueish mountainscape, including the magical Mount Yonah. The North Georgia scenery is really something to see – I remind myself daily how beautiful this place truly is. It is an artist’s dream – there is so much beauty.

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