How did you start illustrating for Redwall?
Like all Redwall illustrators, I first wrested an ancient sword from the clutches of an evil serpent. Immediately afterward, I was thirteen years old and showed Brian Jacques some of my artwork at a book signing. He surprised me by asking if I would create illustrations for his website. I worked on Redwall.org for a couple of years before illustrating the “covers” for the Redwall Recorded Book series. Sometime in 2008, I was asked to illustrate the interior of THE SABLE QUEAN. I finished illustrating THE ROUGE CREW, the final Redwall novel, before Brian passed away in 2011. I wish I could have illustrated more of Brian’s books, but I’m thankful for the two we worked on together.
Did you know Brian Jacques?
Yes. Brian was a great friend, and he is sorely missed. Rumors that we named my second child after him are likely true. He wasn’t much for putting magic in his stories, but he worked magic in my life and in the lives of many others.
Did you work on the Redwall video game?
I (and my good friend, binomial wunderkind Alex Kain) informally consulted for some of the people involved; however, we chose not to contribute in any official capacity. The details are boring, but if you'd like to read my summary of this caper, with its many twists and turns and what-have-yous, click here.
Isn't Redwall racist?
I don't think it is, and here are a few of the reasons why not.
Why are weasels, stoats, and ferrets considered "vermin" in Redwall ? Why these species names? What's a stoat, anyway?
Believe it or not, I get asked these questions at almost every school or library workshop I do. I think I have the answer(s).
Weasels, stoats, and ferrets were and are considered vermin by British farmers; these species prey on chickens, amongst other things.
Brian probably picked up this animal grouping, and naming idiosyncrasy, from Kenneth Graham's WIND IN THE WILLOWS. In his book, Graham refers to three kinds of animals--"weasels, stoats and ferrets"-- as the antagonists who capture Toad Hall. WILLOWS was one of Brian's favorite books (mine, too) and a spiritual ancestor to the Redwall series. I regret that I never asked Brian to confirm this.
A stoat is kind of like a weasel (actually, they're often called short-tailed weasels). When they have their bright, white, winter coat, you may know them as ermine.
Will the Redwall series continue?
Suffice it to say, anything is possible.
When will BOLIVAR be released?
2013, if you believe the press. Of course now it's 2016, so clearly something is up.
I started illustrating BOLIVAR in 2011, thinking it would take two years to complete. Instead, It's taken about six years. It's also over 200 pages long. It grew in the telling, as they say. My publisher, and my editors, have been incredibly committed, understanding, and supportive.
The current publishing target is late 2017, hopefully in time for New York Comic Con.
Wasn't BOLIVAR being made into a movie?
It still might! Signing a pre-publication agreement was exciting--I ate out for free for about a week after it was announced, so no complaining there--however, our friends in the business tell us having an actual book may finally jump-start development.
Everyone says this, but the important thing is not to make any movie, but the right movie. The right movie requires the right studio, the right director, and the right vision for the project. We're willing to wait for that, because making the right movie is totally possible.
Are you still publishing with Archaia?
Yes. Archaia merged with Boom! Studios, where it is now an imprint. BOLIVAR will be published under that imprint.
Why is BOLIVAR being published by BOOM!/Archaia and not a traditional picture book publisher?
You'd think that there's a simple answer to this question, but it's a little complicated. I also think the answer provides an interesting snapshot of current publishing industry.
BOLIVAR was originally shopped as a traditional picture book of about 1200 words. This provided a challenge for the big publishers who, at least at the time, preferred manuscripts of 1000 words or less. BOLIVAR also had a number of other potential marketing issues, including specifically taking place in New York City (non-negotiable) and starring a girl in a story not typical for girls (even less negotiable). While the people I spoke to loved the idea and the story, the response was clear: "We do not know how to sell this book."
In revisiting the manuscript, I counterintuitively began expanding the story until it formed a 32-page treatment for a graphic novel. Importantly, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and THE RETURN OF THE DAPPER MEN were still recent publications, and they represented a kind of experimental book I always wanted BOLIVAR to be and never thought anyone would actually publish. DAPPER MEN was published at Archaia, and I had made some friends there after contributing to the MOUSE GUARD: LEGENDS OF THE GUARD anthology. Archaia seemed like a good place to send a revised manuscript, and they pretty much accepted it based on the pitch.
BOLIVAR never fit into neat genres, so it was harder for a big publisher to make a financial committment to print and market it. Archaia was willing to take a chance for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is probably just that they could. They wanted new titles, and their Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Christy, was very interested in publishing graphic, folio-style all-ages books that bent or even broke categories.
Craft and Work:
Where do you work?
Right now, I work from our home in Charlottesville, Virginia. My studio is a room with windows on three sides and a view of the forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The one piece of original, framed art on my studio wall is actually calligraphy, a commission by local artist Abby Pratt. The quote is from the book of Ephesians: "Redeeming the time because the days are evil." It hangs between two clocks, one set to local time in Minnesota (where my company, MNY Group/Life Floor, is located) and one set to local time in California (where Boom! Studios is headquartered).
Who are your biggest influences?
My influences can change depending on which project I'm working on. That being said, there are a few constants. When I’m illustrating, I’m often inspired by E. H. Shepard, Bill Watterson, the Wyeths, and Alan Lee. Going further back, I love Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, and the greatest world-beater in the history of art, Michelangelo.
What inspires you?
Inspiration can come from anywhere, so I always try to be anywhere just in case. When I lived in New York, going on walks and looking around the city always provided inspiration. I’ve arrived at more important ideas by seeing signs, posters, or graffiti on the streets of New York than I'd care to admit. I suspect that a lot of the people walking around my neighborhood were up to the same thing.
When that doesn’t work, or if it’s raining, I’m inspired by other artists, music, sermons, magazine articles, and especially conversations with friends.
How do you create your illustrations?
Very carefully, like a porcupine... nevermind.
I usually begin by doodling a few ideas on sketching paper. When my editors and I decide on the basic composition for a piece or a page, I then redraw the outline onto illustration paper, freehand.
Yes, I redraw the entire, finished illustration freehand. After more than a decade of copying sketches over light-boxes, I finally stopped tracing when I realized it was killing the spontaneity of my line.
For final art, I use 0.3 mm graphite on Strathmore 400 paper. I either use white bristol or Strathmore "drawing" paper, which I like because it scans with a nice, creamy color. I draw object or character outlines first, and I shade them by crosshatching. Sometimes I will batch a set of illustrations by doing all the outline work, before going back and filling in the texture, shading, and crosshatching on each drawing.
Crosshatching is extremely time-consuming and relatively easy to mess up (at least it is for me), but I love the look it gives you. I've tried other techniques and I always come back to it.
Scanned drawings are colored in Photoshop, using semi-transparent layers to tint the pencil lines and provide fill.
I have a very research-heavy process. I also have a library filled with art reference books, painting catalogs, and those awesome DK visual dictionaries to guide it along. I shoot reference photography and draw places and people from life whenever I can. On occasion, I even use Google image search.
What's this MNY Group/Life Floor dealie?
In 2011, my best friend from college, Jon Keller, asked me to co-found company that would manufacture and market safety surfacing for wet areas around pools, splash pads, and other aquatic environments. Basically, we make wet ares safer, beautiful, and more comfortable, especially for kids. For those who like titles, I'm the Chief Creative Officer. No one else is allowed to be creative without my approval, see.
Life Floor has become an incredible educational experience, both personally and professionally. We started a manufacturing line in South Dakota in 2015, "onshoring" our factory operations, so Life Floor is now made in the USA. Our company has been pivotal in employing a number of people and supporting a number of families. Our need for contract work has enabled an ever-growing list of freelance vendors to get their own agencies off the ground, something the old freelancer in me is especially proud of.
And, of course, I work remotely, so I can still illustrate.
How do you stay on task working from home all the time?
Frankly, I'm not sure how anyone stays on task while working in an office. I have a very basic routine and schedule that centers around daily and weekly meetings, although I also enjoy ducking out of my studio to eat lunch with my family, grab coffee with a friend, or put one of my kids down for a nap.
Probably my biggest help in this area is my assistant, Heather Simone, who keeps track of my schedule and tasks, and provides, er, gentle reminders to get things done within the decade that they were promised.
How do you split your time between illustrating and non-illustrating work?
I find the best way to explain this is that I've learned to split my brain, not my time. I work remotely, and, for better or worse, many of my responsibilities with Life Floor include meetings and having conversations with colleagues over the phone. After nearly 30 years drawing, I can have those conversations and draw at the same time. In other words, much of my work day is spent in my studio, drawing and talking on the phone simultaneously. My wife thinks this is pretty funny.
What does your wife do?
Lucy is a forensic psychologist. The people that would know say she's pretty good.
Questions I’m usually asked at book signings and conventions:
When did you move from traditional book illustration to comics and graphic novels?
I didn't! Rather, I'm still doing both kinds of books. The boundaries between these categories have become much more fluid since I started out, and I've tried to take advantage of that.
How can I get my book published?
Search me. Seriously, though, the above story about BOLIVAR's publication illustrates another important point, which is that publishing runs on relationships. The best place to create relationships in the comic book industry is to attend comic conventions, a million of which are probably taking place this weekend.
Basically, in order to get anything published, a few stars have to align. Someone in a publishing house has to personally like a project or idea and advocate for it within their organization, the publisher has to feel confident that they know how to market your book and that their customers will buy it, and the publisher also needs to have budget to afford the project you're pitching. The best way to avoid rejection is to figure out who is likely to publish your book (usually based on other books they've printed) and limit your submissions and pitch conversations to people from those houses.
Should I go to art school?
The first time I was asked this question, I realized I was getting old. The short answer is, “If you want to.”
The long answer is longer. When I applied to art schools, professors offered to have me admitted, but almost all of them said that I didn’t really have an art school personality. While I do tend to wear button-down shirts, more significantly, those professors thought my interests were too diverse for me to be a happy conservatory student. My work tends to be a response to my interests, and college gave me an opportunity to broaden and deepen these interests. In the end, I think those professors gave me good advice.
Some people don’t think formal education is necessary for artists, but I don’t agree with that. The deeper the well you have to draw from, the better your work will be. Education is important way to deepen that well. A liberal arts education will expose you to a broad spectrum of ideas, and that might make you a more interesting artist, but a conservatory education will hone your craft, and might make you a technically better and more focused artist. The world needs both kinds of artists, and both kinds of artists need to learn from each other. The decision should be based in your individual priorities.
Will you sign this Mouse Guard book that you didn't actually contribute to?
Yes, but as David Petersen would no doubt tell you, you're likely to get it signed "Roger Moore."