Busy Trucks on the Go, D is for Dump Truck, Dan The Taxi Man, Eric Ode, illustrating, illustrator tips, Kent Culotta, picture books, SCBWI members, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Kentucky, Too Many Tomatoes
Some of professional illustrator Kent Culotta’s most recent projects include illustrations for D is for Dump Truck, published by Sleeping Bear Press, and The Twelve Days of Christmas in Kentucky, published by Sterling Children’s Books. He’s also collaborated with author Eric Ode and publisher Kane Miller on three books, Dan, The Taxi Man, Busy Trucks on the Go, and the recently released Too Many Tomatoes. Kent lives in Southern California, but grew up in a small town in Michigan. When he was five, he covered an entire wall of his parents’ living room with his own gallery, each drawing taped lovingly in place. No blank piece of paper, used envelope, or post-it note have ever been safe from his pencil. And today Kent, a fellow SCBWI member, shares with us his experience along with some tips and tools for leveling-up your own skills.
SARAH PARKER-LEE: You’ve worked as an artist in newspapers and on film, including several years in the animation industry working on some pretty memorable Walt Disney movies. How, and why, did you make the transition to children’s book illustrator? Did SCBWI play a role?
KENT CULOTTA: Being a children’s book illustrator was always in the back of my mind when I was working at the big animation studios, and I took a couple of book illustration classes back then at Otis Parsons. I think that I first learned about SCBWI from one of those classes. At the time I was a bit discouraged because publishers then were less open to illustrators whose work showed an animation influence. That has changed a lot. The big transition I went through was when animation rather quickly went from hand-drawn to CG. I worked hard to update my skills and did pretty well, but I soon realized what I really missed was drawing by hand. I joined a group called Drawergeeks that my co-workers participated in. Each week a new subject was set and we all would do an illustration piece on that subject. It helped motivate me and also helped me get out of my own head a little and tackle subjects that I wouldn’t normally think of, a good skill when you’re illustrating other people’s stories. I ended up getting a pretty nice first illustration portfolio from those Drawergeeks illustrations. It was at that point I started regularly attending SCBWI schmoozes/mingles and conferences, which were great motivators as well.
SPL: As an illustrator, you’re tasked with interpreting someone else’s story while still being true to your artistic identity. Do you have any advice on how to maintain that balance for those just starting out or perhaps feeling a little lost?
KC: This is an interesting question. In the case of my general style, I’ve only been hired based on a postcard or previous book that the publisher/art director has seen, so they are asking me to use my style in service to their book. I have ended up doing three books, however, that heavily featured motor vehicles, which is pretty hilarious considering that I grew up in the Detroit area and yet had almost zero interest or knowledge of cars and trucks. I had to do a lot of research for those projects. It’s in doing the research that I often find my way into connecting with subjects I don’t know much about and figuring out how I want to illustrate them in a way that makes sense for me.
SPL: Your work has a lot of wonderful depth, shading, and texture. I particularly love the one of Paul Bunyan and Babe. Do you have any favorite tools or techniques you use to accomplish these things?
KC: Thank you! The Paul Bunyan piece was one of those illustrations I did originally for Drawergeeks and it was also the first postcard that I sent out to art directors and publishers. It’s been a lot of experimenting for me. Like I said, most of my art early on was just line drawings, so I had to figure out what medium would feel most natural to me. I started out being heavily influenced by the early Golden Book artists that I grew up with and tried to capture that sensibility in my pieces. I like how those Golden Book illustrations tend to emphasize simple shapes and shading and then add a spot of texture for emphasis and interest. It just feels fun. Their work was most commonly done in gouache, so I tried that a little. Then I found I could get the gouache feel using acrylics, which are a bit easier and more forgiving to use. I am now trying to capture that same feel working in PhotoShop, which has taken some more experimenting, but it makes it much easier and quicker to do major corrections and adjustments.
SPL: In case any of our readers are looking to level-up their illustration skills, can you recommend some inspiring art, books, classes, or illustrators we need to check out?
KC: I think the most valuable way to improve your illustration skills is to draw, draw, draw. A lot. I remember when I first started working in animation, I was an “inbetweener,” the person who drew the intermediate poses between the animator’s main poses. I would do practically the same drawing over and over again, eight hours a day, five days a week, and my drawing ability improved exponentially the first year of doing that. Illustrators who inspire me include the Golden Book artists Gustav Tenngren, J. P. Miller, Mary Blair, Garth Williams, and Richard Scarry. I also love the early 20th century magazine illustrators such as J. C. Leyedecker, Dean Cornwell, Mead Schaeffer, and Norman Rockwell, to name a few. I would also highly recommend going to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts if you ever get the chance. Their shows are always inspiring and it’s very instructive to see the actual original artwork up close.
SPL: Cartoons were a big influence on your childhood. Mine too! Has that informed your personal artistic style at all? How does animation technique differ from illustration?
KC: Cartoons have very much informed my personal artistic style. I started out as a kid copying the artwork of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Richard Scarry, and Disney characters. Working in animation we were always told to strive for silhouettes that “read,” meaning that you get a clear sense of the character’s action and emotion even before you add facial expressions and other details. Another thing that animation has helped me with is being able to draw characters from any angle and in any pose. The biggest difference is that my animation work consisted mainly in line drawings of the characters. I had to figure out my own sense of setting and color. When I started off illustrating I already had a pretty good sense of what appealed to me with my color palette, but I was very intimidated about drawing anything but the simplest background.
SPL: Do you have any drawing warm-up exercises or challenges you’d like to pose to our readers?
KC: I don’t have any specific warm-up exercises I do, but then I am an inveterate doodler, so if there is a piece of paper and drawing utensil nearby, then I am probably scribbling away. I do like doing those internet drawing prompts, such as Illustration Friday, which gives you a one word prompt each Friday for you to interpret and illustrate. I did love doing Drawergeeks, as I mentioned. Their prompts were usually characters from comic books, movies or kids’ books. Sadly, they are no longer around, but I am sure there are many other drawing challenges out there to join. I also enjoy participating in “Inktober,” which is where you do one ink drawing a day for the month of October.
SPL: Finally, care to plug any of your upcoming projects or appearances?
KC: I don’t have anything definite that I can mention at the moment, but I do have a few ideas that I’m working on that I would both write and illustrate.
Kent, thanks so much for being with us and sharing your experience!
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Images provided by Kent Culotta.