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


  1. Thank you so much Debbie for taking the time to do the interview.

  2. Great interview. I loved seeing the process. Great and fun work.

  3. Thanks - it's always great to be able to see early sketches and their initial energy!

  4. Great interview Debbie! Nice to see the process of the book Russ.

  5. Great interview! Thanks for sharing the process involved! Enjoyed going through it!

  6. I am glad you enjoyed Debbie's interview and my process.

  7. Lots of little nuggets here, thanks Debbie and Ross!