Thursday, October 25, 2012

Russ Cox on illustrating NITE NITE SOLDIER, process & advice for aspiring illustrators - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

As some of you already know, our own Russ Cox illustrated the recently published Major Manners Presents: NITE NITE SOLDER, written by Michael and Beth Hofer and published by Outhouse Ink Publishing.

Russ's bright, fun illustrations really make this entertaining how-to story a great bedtime reading choice. It also comes with a CD with narration (fun military-style with a kid chorus) from Major Manners. I can SO see children and parents having fun with this just before going to bed.

One of my favorite lines: "Wiggle, jiggle, jump, and dry those toes..." (like many of the other lines in NITE NITE SOLDIER, it's just so fun to say out loud).

I've hung out with Russ at SCBWI events; he's knowledgeable, supportive of other children's book writer/illustrators and one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. Plus he plays banjo!

Where to find Russ online:
Smiling Otis Studio - Blog -  Facebook - Twitter - Google+ - Flickr

Russ kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the Pixel Shavings blog:
How did you become illustrator of NITE NITE SOLDIER?
The publisher, Outhouse Ink Publishing, found me through an online portfolio site and contacted me. I sent them some newer pieces and decided to use me. They are a great group to work with on the book.
Which portfolio site?
They found me through, which is where I get a lot of leads and contacts.
What was the illustration process like?
The illustration process began with reviewing the manuscript with the publisher. We chatted about ideas for the pages but they pretty much left it in my hands.

What tools/materials did you use?
Everything was sketched out using traditional pencil and paper. The final art was created with Adobe Illustrator but I still used the scans as a template and built everything in layers.
Did you chat on the phone, online or in person?
We chatted on the phone once or twice but mostly through email.

After initial contact, what happened next?
I did character studies of the Major character (every pun intended).

Once they selected a character, I did various facial expression to make sure he would be able to show different emotions.

I did a storyboard with basic elements in places to get or thoughts onto paper. Plus, it allowed us to check for flow, movement, and to make sure each page was interesting but lead to a page turn.
How many times did you revise the character sketches and storyboard before they were approved?
There were no changes to the character, which a rarity. I guess since I did several different head studies to find a direction, it saved some time in the long run. I did some quick basic storyboards to show them my thoughts which they tweaked and sent me their notes. From there, I did tight drawings for final approval. I think there were only a few minor changes.

After approval of the storyboard, I then worked up tight sketches which we sent to the designer to make sure the type would work with the layouts.
From there, I did the final art in Adobe Illustrator since they liked that look from my samples. There were a few slight adjustments but everything was worked out ahead of time.

How long did the entire process take?
From the initial contact to delivery of the final art, we spent around 6 months working on the illustrations. As you know, that is still not a lot of time for a book to be illustrated.

In retrospect, was there anything that surprised you about the process?
There were no real surprises with this book. I am working on a book with a different publisher and the approval process is taking longer than I expected. With the larger houses, I think this is the norm since the artwork has to go through several approval processes.
If you could go back in time and give your younger illustrator self some advice, what would it be?
Good question. I would have told myself to read more in my younger days. Especially more of the classics instead of so many comic books. Even though comics really helped me with composition and storytelling.
I think reading helps expand your inner vision and creative process, You, the reader, are painting the imagery in your head. I told my students to read any and everything. It will fill that inner illustrator morgue that they may withdraw from.

What do you mean by "inner illustrator morgue"?
An "illustrators's morgue" is a file that we use to keep things that are inspirational, reference (hands, feet, facial expressions, etc.), color schemes, compositions we like, and other things that we might fin useful down the road. 

Having an "inner illustration morgue" means keeping images in your head that are created from stories, articles, and conversations. A line from a poem can conjure up a beautiful image that you may want to use elements from in a future pieces. 

Sometimes sketching or writing things in a journal and sketchbook is very helpful to remember those moments.

Would you like to share anything about your current/upcoming projects?
Sure, I am working on a new book for the same publisher. It is a different story but is very amusing. I also have a second book from a different publisher that is in the beginning stages.
These projects sound exciting! Do you have any release dates for either of your new books?
They are very exciting! I hope they are stepping stones for working with larger publishers but I am really enjoying working with everyone in the smaller houses. As far as I know, they are hoping to get the books out my early summer of next year so my deadlines are very tight.

Plus I am trying to get my own story into the hands of a publisher or agent. I need to find some time to spend with my banjo. Oh, and my wife!

During this craziness, I am also working on a board game for Gamewright.
 What stage are you at now with the board game? How does the process of creating illustrations for a board game compare to that of illustrating a picture book? And how did you start working with Gamewright?
We have moved into final art with the game. It has now turned more into a card game but it still a fun game. I think kids and families are going to love it.

With anything in the commercial market, the deadline is much tighter. I am looking at less than two weeks to deliver the final art. I think the artwork has to go through more channels before being okayed. You also have more precise dimensions and size requirements to meet or the deadline for printing can be missed. Not a lot of room for trial and error.

Gamewright found me through my website via the portfolio site I am listed with. It might have been but I'm not sure.

Any advice for aspiring children's book illustrators?
I am fairly new to the children's book world, and learning something new with each project or conversations with established illustrators and writers like my fellow Pixel Shavers.

I would say that joining SCBWI is a great start and a good way to begin learning how the children's publishing world works. Also attend the regional and national conferences so you can network and meet people face-to-face.

I would recommend going to library and reading through as many children's books as possible to see what's out there and being published. The final thing to do is read Uri Shulevitz's Writing With Pictures. It is packed with lots of valuable information.

Where to find Russ online:
Smiling Otis Studio - Blog -  Facebook - Twitter - Google+ - Flickr

Also see:
Joanna Marple's interview with Russ Cox

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Exploring Memory by Hazel Mitchell

Lately I've been actively working on remembering my childhood. My main motivation for this (as my career in children's illustrations goes along and I find myself illustrating characters in different situations) is I that find myself thinking - 'what would I have done or felt in that scenario?'

I've never been a diarist. And especially not as a child. Life for me was somewhat topsy turvy and I never felt the need to write it down! When I learned to draw and record what I saw ... that was a kind of diary. But so few of those drawings remain. The memories, the places, the people, I am sure they were all there in the lines and marks I made. Just as they are now ... when I look at a drawing in a sketch pad it brings back  what I was thinking or feeling and hearing and smelling. It's like a little memory capsule.

Then I read Linda Barry's books 'Picture This ' and 'What it is'. Both a kind of stream of consciousness laid down in what at first seems a random way, and then, you begin to see into Lynda's mind. In the repetition of the characters, the marks, the train of thought. I was hooked!

Writer's, of course, often use exercises to jog memories, to reconnect with childhood thoughts and feelings. But, as I rooted around on line to find similar ways of jogging the mind, I found not so many ideas for illustrators.

I began my own experiment and I call it 'Look Back in Candour'. It's more like 'snapshots' than a diary, and sometimes the snapshots lead me somewhere I wasn't expecting to go. At times the memories are hard to recall, occasionally sad, but more often happy. There is so much hidden there, in my own story, it's like dipping into a fathomless reservoir. And it's bringing new significance to my other projects. Alongside the drawings, I have begun to make some abstract notes to noodle into my 'rememberings' so I don't forget again.

And the best thing? I am finding there are story ideas in there a-plenty!

You can find it online at


Monday, October 8, 2012

Visual Voice by Fred Koehler

I'm fairly certain that I am the least qualified illustrator on this blog in many of the technical areas of illustration. I could start to list my deficits, but I think you'd get bored and I'd get depressed. Instead, let's talk about something that seems to have carried over successfully from my career in advertising, and that's the concept of Voice.

Silly Fred, Voice is a writers' thing, isn't it? Yes it is. But it also has major implications for the marriage of words and pictures in the creation of successful storytelling. It's why the illustrator's name goes on the cover of the book. Because illustrators lend their Visual Voice to a project just as much as the author brings a Narrative Voice.

Here's an example from a follow-up book I'm working on to Dad's Bad Day (Penguin 2014).

"Little Gray helped his dad with the dishes." 

If you gave this line to a hundred different illustrators, you'd get back a hundred completely different illustrations. And here's where illustrators with practiced Visual Voice can differentiate themselves as storytellers.

Sketch 1 - Little Gray is an elephant, his dad is an elephant, and the little guy is helping the big guy do the dishes. TA DA!!! Here's a sketch.

The Visual Voice of this image is sweet. It's cheerful and it's a great moment between father and son. But is it the right Voice for the illustration? See, I happen to know Little Gray pretty well, and I know he's quite a cantankerous little elephant. The scene pictured above is much less likely to happen than the following sketch.

Visual Voice. Get it? Same words + different images = completely different stories. Pretty cool, huh? Here's another example from the same story.

"Little Gray got extra-special dressed up for the occasion."

Sketch 1 - I go with the words of the story.
Sketch 2 - I get inside the character's brain and draw what I think he might actually do.

  Same words, completely different stories.

There are bunches of illustrators who do this really really well. Here are three for you to check out–all brilliant, all with compelling Visual Voice, and all with books on the shelf of your local bookstore.

Dan Santat
In "Oh No," Dan takes a very short text and invents a gorgeous world to propel a fantastic concept into a really fun and adventurous final storytelling product. The nuance that he adds to his work is phenomenal.
Molly Idle
In "Flora and the Flamingo," we don't even need words to hear (and see) an amazing Voice. The story is told in simple expression and interaction between unlikely friends who make for great characters. Love it!
Jon Klassen
If you read "I Want My Hat Back" without the illustrations it might make sense, but it would be a completely different story. Jon uses visual nuance to imply a much funnier tale than the words themselves actually communicate.

That's all for today. Thanks for reading. Fred out!!