Monthly Archives: August 2009

Circus posters

Pete & Fremont and Pete’s Disappearing Act are circus yarns spun by the incomparable Jenny Tripp.  Both stories are narrated by Pete the poodle and seen from the point of view of the animals in Circus Martinez.

To promote these two titles, Jenny and I thought it would be fun to produce a few circus posters on a small scale—circus stickers.   I love old circus posters—who doesn’t?—and kids love stickers. Here’s a sample of some vintage circus posters:




You get the idea.  Since the focus of the stories is on the animals, each poster would feature one of the animal acts.  I worked up some rough thumbnail sketches.





Jenny wrote some better copy to replace the dummy copy shown in the rough sketches.

We were bankrolling the production of these stickers ourselves, so I needed to come up with an inexpensive way to print them.  You can get self-adhesive label stock in 8 1/2 x 11″ sheets.  I fit all the sticker designs into an 8 1/2 x 11″ format, so the printer could print 10 stickers as one piece of art—then guillotine them as individual stickers.  Here’s the layout with tight sketches:

sticker layout_Page 1

I painted all the stickers as one piece of art (one scan instead of 10 saves bucks) around 125% of the printed size.  I wanted to work a little bit bigger so my lettering would tighten up when it got reduced.  I’m showing you 2 different pieces of the finished art here, because I can’t fit the whole thing onto my Playskool scanner:



From the archives—Señor Don Gato

Here’s a book I did a while ago—Señor Don Gato. Due to a copyright dispute, it’s no longer in print.  This project was a turning-point in my style.  I closely studied the work of Diego Velasquez: his palette, composition and lighting.  By limiting my range of color and paying attention to how a subject is lighted, my illustrations became less cartoony and more painterly.

Here’s a sketch.  Don Gato receives a letter from his lady-love and reads it on a high red roof:


And the final painting:

This painting below was never part of the book. I did it to get a feel for Velasquez’ painting technique.

Here is the portrait by Velasquez that inspired my painting of el Don.


If you’d like a copy of Señor Don Gato, shoot me an e-mail at  I have a small stash of mint-condition copies and I’ll be happy to autograph them for you.  I’m charging $40 per copy.  Half of that will go to the Venango County Humane Society.  I promise to do some kind of big cardboard check photo op so you know I didn’t keep all the cash for myself.  The offer’s good til I run out of books.

Asterix le Gaulois is 50 years old!

Nous sommes en 50 avant Jèsus-Christ.  Toute la Gaule est occupèe par les Romains…Toute?  Non!  Un village peuple d’irrèductibles Gaulois rèsiste encore et toujours à l’envahisseur.  Et la vie n’est pas facile pour les garnisons de lègionnaires romains des camps retranchès de Babaorum, Aquarium, Laudanum et Petitbonum…

50 B.C.  All Gaul is occupied by the Romans.  All?  No!…One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.  And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium…


Asterix, a Gaulish warrior and his pal, Obelix are the two main characters in this little village.  Written by the late Rene Goscinny and drawn by Albert Uderzo, Asterix and Obelix’ adventures take them all over the Classical world—and even into the New one.  I discovered these French comic books in the 70’s when Asterix was already 15 years old.  In a used bookstore I found a catalogue from an exhibit of comic strip art shown in the Louvre.  In it were a few of Uderzo’s drawings—and I knew I had to see more.  With lots of help from my high school French teacher, I wrote a letter to Asterix’ publisher, Dargaud, asking how I could get my hands on those comic books.  Before long, I owned the first in the series ($2.95, not bad) and would accumulate more.


Looking at Albert Uderzo’s style it’s immediately obvious what an influence his drawings had on me—let’s face it, they still do.  As a kid wanting to be a comic artist I consciously mimicked his style. Uderzo is a master of perspective and camera angles and sight gags.


The stories are ostensibly for kids, but full of puns and current event gags and spoofs of Latin.  French celebrities made cameo appearances (not that I’d know who they were).  But here’s what’s important: Goscinny and Uderzo paid their audience the compliment of assuming we had enough knowledge of Classical history to get the jokes.

Asterix captured a sense of French national pride and cultural identity.  But not only for the French; as Asterix and Obelix traveled the Classiical world, the authors poked gentle fun at the peoples who would one day be Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Danes, &c., &c.  Apparently everybody likes getting the Gosciny/Uderzo treatment—Asterix is the most translated of French literature.


Alas, the world has changed in 50 years.  Europe is become the European Union, and national pride—French or otherwise—is not to be encouraged.  A couple of years back according to Charles Bremner of the Times, Albert Uderzo was asked by Dominique Versini, the EU Children’s Defender to let Asterix and Obelix be the official ambassadors to the United Nations convention on the Rights of Children.  Not so fast, said the higher-ups at Defence for Children International:

‘… Astérix conveys an “archaic…hierarchical” world at odds with the revolutionary” values of the 1989 convention…said Jean-Pierre Rosenczveig, a senior juvenile judge who heads the French DCI.

Astérix also projects “a Gaulish vision which ignores the intercultural reality of French society,” they say. His constant resistance against the Romans and other foreign invaders sends altogether the wrong message in the peace-loving European Union.’

Vercingetorix may be laying down his arms at Caesar’s feet once again.  Asterix is “a eulogy to tribal, hierarchical, society with frequent references to a chief.”  And that’s no good, mes enfants.

Alors.  Once upon a time, with the help of their druid’s magic potion, a tiny village of plucky Gauls could snap their fingers at the mighty Roman Empire.  And the Romans never were able to discover the potion’s recipe.

Asterix’ website


Leda writes:  “I’m curious, John, just how detailed your story boards are. Can you post a portion of one?”

Here’s a complete storyboard for a coloring book idea I had to promote Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies.  This is only 12 pages; a typical picture book is 32 pages.  Even so, this will give you a pretty good idea of what my storyboards look like: very rough thumbnail sketches with text indications.  This storyboard is around 8 ½ x 11”.  Each little page is 1 3/4” tall.


There are several advantages to creating a rough storyboard before diving into tight sketches.  1) I can draw these fairly quickly.  If the AD doesn’t like any of the images, I can redraw them without having lost much time. I’d rather redraw a thumbnail sketch than a tight sketch.    2) You can see the entire story at once—how the action is paced, is there enough buildup to a dramatic payoff—which is harder to see with the larger tight sketches.  3) Once I get approval for the thumbnail sketches, approval for the tight sketches usually follows without major redrawing, because the art director and editor have been included in my process early on.

Model sheets

Before I start a new project, I read through the manuscript a few times.  My first step is to doodle some aimless drawings—to warm up, I guess—then I begin the serious business of drawing thumbnail sketches in the form of a storyboard.  As I’m doing that, I stop every so often to work on model sheets of the characters.  The first ones are just like this sketch of Barnacle Bleackear, from Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies and Henry & the Crazed Chicken Pirates.


To really get into a character, though, you need to draw the heck out of it.  Here is a model sheet of the duck from The Perfect Nest.  Drawing the character in a bunch of poses helps me to understand how it looks from different angles.  After drawing the same character many times, it’s a whole lot easier to incorporate into a page sketch.



Here are the goose and hen from The Perfect Nest.





And here’s Jack the cat from the same book.  I design each character before I begin the tight page sketches.  It’s crucial that these characters look consistent throughout the book.  My audience is 5-8 years old, and many of them are just learning to read.  They need to be able to identify a character every time it appears.  You can see that these sheets help me work out and understand each character’s proportions—and also allow me to develop the expressions, gestures and poses that establish its personality.


How To Become An Illustrator, Canto IV

Step Four.  Promote.

Once you’ve got your portfolio together, you want people to see it—specifically people who can hire you.

Let’s make this an assault on multiple fronts.  You young illustrators have many media available for self-promotion.

The world-wide web. Get yourself a website.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a place to put up some samples of your work and your contact information.  Nowadays everybody expects to be able to find you on the web, so make sure you’re there.  Because we live in an age of technological marvels, you can build a website yourself, for free:  Here’s a review.

I’ve noticed illustrators have been posting their samples on flickr, which doesn’t cost you anything, either.  Same with Facebook.

Print media. Even though I have a web presence, I rely on print media to let potential clients know I’m there.  I strongly recommend that you consider a postcard mailing campaign.  This will cost you a few skins, but I’ve found the return on investment to be worthwhile.  I go to Modern Postcard to print my postcards.  They’re in California and all they do is print postcards.  A batch of 500 will set you back around $120.00.  Once you go to their website, they really take care of you.  There are downloadable templates so you may design your postcard to fit US postal requirements.  You may submit everything to them electronically.  They’ll turn your job around in less than 2 weeks.

Put a show-stopping four-color image on the front of your postcard, and tell everyone how to find you on the back.  If you can afford it, consider sending a series of postcards that tell a story. I did this and I got a great response from art directors—and a couple of jobs.  I told a story in four images, and mailed my postcards every Monday for 4 weeks.  By the time the fourth postcard was mailed, the ADs were waiting for it.

You’ll need a mailing list of people who might hire you. When I began, I wanted to break into children’s publishing, so I needed a list of art directors who work for children’s magazine and book publishers.  I transcribed my list from Children’s Artists’ & Writers’ Market.  If kids’ illustration isn’t your bag, a more general list can be gleaned from the 2009 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market Of course you can buy mailing lists, but I prefer to build and maintain my own.  Don’t forget to send a postcard to every member of your family and everyone you’ve ever met.  You never know who may turn out to be an important contact.

Creative directories. These are catalogues of illustrators—you buy a page, put your images on it and the directory is sent out to zillions of art directors.  This can get pricey.  I stick with Picture Book only. I’ve tried some of the others, and I’d never been able to establish that I got a return on my investment; that is, the page didn’t generate more fees than I paid for it.  Picture Book is a small slice of the illustration market—children’s only—which is the more effective way for me to promote myself.

Competitions. Don’t necessarily generate sales.

All your promotion should be run at a profit.  If you spend a dollar on promotion and don’t get more than a dollar back, stop doing that kind of promotion and try something else.

Get this book and read it: Your Marketing Sucks.

DON’T e-mail art directors with unsolicited samples.

Pierre le chien



Besides picture books, I’ve done a couple of chapter books that were lots of fun for me.  Chapter books are for an older audience (9-12) and the ratio of words to pictures is very different!  There is typically one black & white image per chapter, plus a color image for the cover.

Pete and Fremont and Pete’s Disappearing Act, are both circus yarns starring Pete the poodle (or Pierre le chien, as he’s billed on the posters).  Both are written by Jenny Tripp.  Jenny is a fantastically good author and it was a treat to work on her stories.  She creates engaging characters and writes dialogue that perfectly expresses those characters—which shouldn’t be a surprise since she’s a screenwriter.

Here are some sketches and final images from Pete’s Disappearing Act.


Rough sketch of Pete—who finds himself far from the circus— dancing on a barrel in a barn.  To the left are the lady who owns the farm and her menacing dog, Buck.


Samantha McFerrin, my art director, decided the image was too crowded.  Here’s a revise:


Yes, this works better.  That’s Quackers the duck on the left.  Now I do the finished drawing, which is linework in black Prismacolor pencil and tones done with brush and India ink washes.


Here is one of Pete’s new friends he meets while trying to get back to the circus—El Jefe, the one-eyed military macaw who is slightly dotty from having spent too much time with ‘humming beans.’  He suffers delusions of revolución.




Welcome, Drawn! readers!

I guess I better change my shirt and sweep up around here.  Please make yourselves at home.

Prepare to repel boarders!


A pox on’t! Henry & the Crazed Chicken Pirates is finally here!  Just click on the title to get a copy of your own.

As Drake said to his men before Nombre de Dios in 1572, ‘Blame nobody but yourselves if you go away empty!’


How To Become An Illustrator, Canto III

Anyone left in the room?  If you read Steps One and Two and you’re still here, you must really want to be an illustrator.

Okay.  You have a day job, you’ve begun the process of organizing your business—now let’s move on to

Step Three.  Build a portfolio.

Who is your market?  Figure out who your potential customers are.  Take a hard look at the work you like to do and honestly determine where it would fit—editorial, children’s publishing, game animation, corporate, advertising, greeting card (just naming these off the top of my head).

The Society of Illustrators publishes a catalogue of their annual competition.  It’s divided into sections: advertising, corporate, publishing, editorial.  Looking at the different styles of work in those categories may help you choose your market.

Do the research.  For instance, if you want to do kids’ books, go to a bookstore and see how compatible your illustrations are with what you find in the kids’ section.

Now comes the tough love.  If you want to sell illustration you’ll need to stick with one style and market that style exclusively.  Don’t make your portfolio a mixed bag of styles.  It’s really difficult to sell a portfolio like that, simply because an art director wouldn’t be sure what you’d deliver if he gave you an assignment.  You may have to choose between two favorite styles—and say good-bye to one of them.

Put together a portfolio of 6—8 samples of your very best work.  They don’t need to have been published.  Get your samples scanned.

Invest in a professional-looking portfolio case.  Put into it prints of your work—not originals!  They should be in poly sleeves, or get them laminated. Every sample should have your contact information on it somewhere. Get extras printed as leave-behinds.  On the handle, put one of those name-tag thingies with your business card—because sometimes art directors ask that you drop off your portfolio.

I was tempted to suggest burning a cd of your samples, but I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of making your images as accessible as clip art.  And even in this digital age, ADs like to see printed samples they can hold.  When I visit clients I take a portfolio with printed samples because often the meeting is in a conference room with no computer handy.

All this is just one guy’s opinion; these suggestions have worked for me.  I’d be interested to hear if any ADs or illustrators want to weigh in.