An interview from the Passionately project. Click here for the full text of the interview, as a PDF.
How long have you been a working artist?
I have been drawing since I was very young, but my first commissioned illustration was in 2001, for the Village Voice. Soon after, I did my first illustration for the New York Times, probably the publication I’ve done the most for over the years. I ended up working in the building as an art director for three years while I was building my career.
What media do you prefer?
Generally, I think of myself as a drawer… so pen and ink is really what I love. Most of my colors are done in fluid acrylics and occasionally gouache.
What is your educational background? What courses or training might be helpful in beginning a career in illustration?
I studied illustration in my undergraduate experience, and though that is really great training- illustrators have often come into the field from unusual backgrounds. The program I studied in was called "Visual Communication" and that an important distinction. We must remember, as illustrators, that our primary goal is not expression, but communication. That is why learning how to use 2-D design skills like hierarchy, scale-shift, figure/field relationships are really helpful to learn about communication. We have to strive for not just interest but clarity.
Did you go to art school? Do you have graduate degrees?
My undergraduate degree is from The University of Kansas, in Visual Communications, but I took a two track major, graduating with both Design and Illustration degrees. I did my MFA in New York, at The School of Visual Arts, MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Program.
When did you first become interested in art?
Well, ‘art’ is a bit of a loaded word. My first interest in drawings was Garfield comics, and early “Looney Tunes” cartoons. I drew characters all the time and even made 3-D dioramas of Wile E. Coyote set.
How do you show your work if you don’t have a gallery?
I don’t have a formal relationship with a gallery, and I only sell a handful of original works every year. If I do show my work, it is usually in a group show or a show that is oriented around a specific theme. When I hang illustrations, they are never advertised as ‘fine art,’ but an exhibition of illustrations. It is essential to understand that you have to acknowledge the purpose of what images were created for, whether for publication or personal viewing.
Where do you get your ideas for your art? Do you research, sketch from life or take photographs?
Many of my ideas are driven by a deadline. The act of coming up with an idea is much less of a mystical ceremony and more like a practiced craft. But I do work in a sketchbook very often, and many of my more personal images come from content that was first explored in my sketchbook.
What percentage of your income do you make from art?
I make about 70% of my income from my illustrations, selling rights and original works as well as prints. The rest comes from teaching, speaking fees and other work outside the studio, but still related to illustration.
How do you decide how much to charge for your art?
Most commercial budgets are determined by the publication. I can always ask for more or turn down work because their fees are not high enough, but generally, I enforce certain minimums so that I can make the best use of my time. Pricing of original art is much more difficult. Generally, illustrators price their work too high, because usage fees are much more that what an individual is willing to pay for a drawing.
Do you have any advice for someone in high school who is studying art?
Remember that for the moment you don’t have to worry about the following question: “How will I make a living?” Put that out of your mind. What is important right now is to do the stuff that you love doing. If you follow your desire, (and desire trumps talent any day of the week) then making a living will come naturally. Push yourself to try new things and most importantly, KEEP A SKETCHBOOK AND DRAW EVERY DAY! Don’t forget to have fun.
Where were you born? Where do you live now? Does the place you live influence your art?
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and now live in St. Louis, Missouri. Between then and now I lived in Kansas for seven years and also New York City for four years. Your physical surroundings always affect the kinds of images you make. If I had to give some additional advice (that I need to heed myself), travel as much as you can. I would never have been able to draw a brownstone cornice-piece if I hadn’t lived in New York so long. My friend Yuko Shimizu came to visit me in St. Louis and said that she could see my dimensional type in the prominent St. Louis signage all over town. I never would have seen that connection!
Speaking of hand-drawn type, a lot of your work uses drawn text. What inspires you to work with typography?
I love love love typography. I also studied and completed a degree in Graphic Design in undergrad and I've always been attracted to artist who use graphic space in their work (Al Parker, Josh Cochran, for example). But, the building blocks of illustration are words and images. Without text, there is no such thing as illustration. So why not have them in the same space and interacting in the same language. Also, as an artist who is writing his own books, I feel like I have to offer something that a writer alone or illustrator alone can't provide. So, the interaction with text inside the frame is a way to create a hybrid language in my work.
When you are commissioned by a client to make a piece, how are you able to express your own opinions while still creating the art your client wants?
Being asked to have an opinion as an illustrator is part of the job when you are given an editorial assignment. The trick is how you serve both the written text and also come up with a metaphor that also serves your own visual voice. Now, you can’t change the point of view of the writing, so it really is a fun game of balance, wit and clarity.
How did you develop your current line art style and why did you let go of your old style?
During my early college years I was working in a very tight painting style. It was something I had developed using dry-brush acrylic. When I got to graduate school, I began to look around my studio and realized the work I hung up in my space that I admired looked NOTHING like the stuff I made. Slowly I realized that I loved drawing way more than painting. My sketchbooks were key to unlocking the visual voice that is much more true to who I am.
You have done work with Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, and Nickelodeon among many others. What drew you to children's book illustration? How did your first book come to be published?
Children's books were the first illustration vehicles that I truly loved. It is the aspect of fantastical storytelling that drew me to visual stories. Of course, my editorial career took off and I love doing those images as well, but my heart has always leaned towards story in sequence. My first book I wrote, John Brown, ended up being my second book. As I was looking for a publisher for John Brown, I found several manuscripts that people wanted me to illustrate. Given my civil war interest, the story for "Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek" was a perfect fit.
What are some of your favorite books for children?
Where to start?
Who are your artistic influences?
I love love love the following artists: Winsor McCay, Barry Blitt, Arthur Rackham, Jack Unruh, Kadir Nelson, NC Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Joseph Cornell, Dean Cornwell, Robert Lawson... on and on!
John Brown is your second children's book and the first picture book you’ve written. Can you describe your creative process? And how you approached the challenges of this particular book?
It has been a long time coming as you know, but the process has been very rewarding. For me, all ideas start with visuals. I first fell in love with John Brown as a visual subject. When I started reading about him, I also loved who he was and what he believed in. So, I made a list of all the images I wanted to include in a story about his life, and wrote the book around those ideas. Even though I wrote this book, I would never start with words. I am not a 'writer's writer'... but an artist who uses words to frame and create my own visual content.
For almost as long as I have known you, you have been working on JOHN BROWN. Why John Brown? What is it about this historical figure that captures your attention?
To me, he is a true civil rights hero. And most people think he is a lunatic. We have this popular image of him as an insane loony who killed people with some flawed notion of his own importance who was punishing innocent civilians because of his religious beliefs. When you really read what he believed and why he was brought to his actions- you see just how unique he was in his own era. A true visionary, and he has been minimized because I think most people are uncomfortable with people who are strongly motivated by religious ideas. So, as a person who shares the faith of John Brown, I feel as though he deserves a more accurate account of his life.
What did you find to be the toughest and most rewarding aspects of your work on John Brown?
The challenges are easy to pick out. Though I really think there is value in talking to children about the nature of human conflict and the nature of evil, showing the events of his life (visually!) to an audience of young people was tough. You don't want to sugar coat his action and create some inadvertent propaganda. But you also need to be sensitive and protect young people from things that would negatively affect their minds. Generally I think that kids are pretty robust thinkers and can handle cognitive dissonance, as long as we present it in a manner that is clear.
Is there anything you have a hard time drawing?
Horses. Their legs work in funny ways that I still haven’t totally figured out.
What is your favorite thing to draw?
I get this question all the time, and I have no good answer for it- other than old steel bridges, robots, vines/squids, under appreciated civil rights heroes from the 1850’s, watch gears, dimensional bar signage, people with beards, foxes and all kinds of hats.