Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Concept is King and the rest of us are Jokers by Fred Koehler

For this week's post I thought I'd use a recent piece that was entered in the SCBWI Tomie DePaola contest based on the classic tale of Chicken Licken. (The sky is falling! The sky is falling!) You can see everybody's entries here.
My entry did receive a good number of comments, and a lot of them talked about an appreciation of the "concept" or "idea." So I thought I'd try and share a little bit as to where and how I find concepts and ideas for illustrations.

To be honest it all starts in a text document before I even pick up a pencil. I ask myself the question "What would make this funny? Or different? Or cool?" That list of answers might hit 30 or 40 before I'm start to go back through and decide which one(s) to research further. A lot of times I try to take what's expected and do the exact opposite. (Instead of "eating pancakes for breakfast," try "pancakes eating their breakfast.")

For the Chicken Licken story, my list included "looking through a hole in the sky" and "24 [the tv show] cut-scenes." Those two stood out and I sketched them, but wasn't thrilled with the results. But here's the cool part. In doing the sketches and researching the characters, I kept my eyes open for other concepts to add to the list. I talked through the sketches with friends and colleagues and my list of concepts grew even bigger.

During this process, lo and behold I encountered a vision of the holy grail of comic iconography – a rubber chicken. And where do rubber chickens live? In a toy box. From there I started wondering if there was an iconic toy counterpart to all of the other characters. Lo and behold there was! As I finished my research I never even ended up using the rubber chicken, but that's where it all started.

Then, after all that, I did sketches. I decided on a vintage palette and a toy shelf instead of a toy box (so it would be easier for the "sky" to be falling). The result, I thought, was successful.

I titled this blog "Concept is King" because I honestly believe that the work we do before ever setting pencil to paper is the most important. The magic of our character interactions, the reaction we hope to get from our viewer – we can document those intentions and work till we achieve them.

Best of luck to all of ya, and keep up the good work!



  1. Great post! I've never thought of starting with a list for the concept. I make plenty of lists, but not that kind. That is such a great tip. Doh! Thanks for sharing.

  2. It was successful, it was spectacular! There were many fabulous entries in the competition but a handful, including yours, really stood out in both concept and execution. Thank you for this post, it's a fabulous insight into your 'idea process'.

  3. Fabulous post Fred! Thanks for sharing your tricks for coming up with great ideas! (And I must say, I did think you piece was one of the best out there!)

  4. Fabulous post Fred! I will definitely try this method of brainstorming before I put pencil to paper next time! Thanks for sharing. Your TdP submission was one of my favorites!

  5. Excellent post, Fred! Studying and working in the design field, concept is king, it is so true. I was very drawn to your fabulous entry...great palette and execution but above all, you had a fantastic concept. Great work!

    1. Hi Shirley. I totally work in the design field, too. It gives you a little bit of a different perspective as you approach these projects. :-)

  6. Beautiful! Those toys are awesome aren't they? And what a way to immortalize them. Thanks so much for the "rest of the story"!

  7. Fantastic post, Fred. Also really really really love your Chicken Licken illustration.

  8. Thanks for the insight to your thinking process! I love your illustration!

  9. Fred you are brilliant. What more is there to say? This is such an incredible illustration. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it! Truly insightful. Big smile. Thanks!