Author Illustrator Blog Tour

Greetings! If we haven’t met before, my name is Matthew. I make art.

My good friend Lindsey Yankey asked me to be a part of this children’s book author and illustrator blog tour by answering these four questions:

What am I currently working on?

I’ve just begun working on a new skill building project for myself. I’m very interested in the animation industry and in the early visual development part of the process in particular. If you’re not familiar with the term, visual development artists create the look and feel of the characters, environments, and objects that will appear in a cartoon or movie. They work at the very initial stages of a new film, often before the script is even finished. These artists work on a variety of topics but the area that really gets me excited is prop design.

I like this part of the industry in particular because it’s all about creative problem solving. I’ve had the opportunity to do a little of this work in the past and I’d like to do more, so I’ve been researching other artists who work in the field and some of the techniques they use.

I spent last weekend paring down all the material I’m collecting into a few research pages.

MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_1 MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_2 MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_3 MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_4

I would love to do this kind of skill building all day, but I also have a fantastic day job. I work for a company that makes stickers and paper crafting products called EK. I’ve been working there for about a year and a half now, and I couldn’t ask for a more friendly and creative place to work. It’s also a great feeling to be designing something that other people can use to be creative themselves.

A lot of the stickers I’ve made are still hush hush, but a few things are starting to find their way into stores. Here is an example, one of my favorite projects from last year. These are boxes of goggly eyes I helped to designed. If you’re in the US, you can find them in the craft section at your local Target store.

matthewcook_chipboxes

Once in a while I also get the chance to do freelance work. I recently worked with Beat By Beat Press to design some title graphics for one of their new children’s musicals. Beat by Beat has a library of original musicals that they sell as kits for schools,  church groups, or any sort of youth organization that wants to put on a show. They provide all the scripts and music, but also promotional materials. This is title artwork I made for The Most Epic Birthday Party Ever:

MatthewCook_Epic Birthday_title artwork

Beat by Beat  provides everything you need to put the show on, but they also encourage people to make each performance their own. I love that! As part of that philosophy Beat by Beat asked me to design the graphics so that they can be broken down into pieces. This way the kids can mix and match the elements to make each poster or sign fit the needs of their show.

MatthewCook_Epic Birthday_breakdown artwork

Aside from my artistic pursuits, I’m spend a lot of time thinking about how to make myself a better, more productive, and more creative person. I’ve been reading a lot lately about positive psychology, which studies people who are happy and successful and tries to learn what attitudes and behaviors those people have that make them that way. I’ve found a lot of help in dealing with stress and learning new skills more quickly from what I’ve read about.

If you would like a good introduction to the topic, let me recommend a good video to you. This is a recording of the first lecture of Harvard’s positive psychology class which someone has kindly posted on youtube.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. That’s quite a question. I’m not sure how to answer it directly, but let me tell you how I think. Maybe that will help.

I’ve talked with a lot of my fellow artists about how they think and I’ve noticed that some artists like to think in lines, lets call them drawers, and some artists like to think in shapes, and I’ll call them painters. Drawers can paint, and painters can draw, the only difference I think is where they feel most comfortable starting from.

I’m a drawer. I think it’s because that’s what I did when I was younger: doodle on my homework, scribble in my sketchbooks, draw in the end papers of my books, etc etc etc. I think drawers have the advantage that they can work almost anywhere with very simple tools, and lines can also be very expressive. However, lines tend to flatten an image, they usually don’t address color, and they tend to look less finished and refined. I feel very comfortable drawing and sketching out my work, but choosing colors and making rendered paintings is much more of a challenge for me.

If you’re an artist, ask yourself which one you think you are.

This is something that I’ve only realized recently and it’s given me impetus to try and approach some of my newer work from the opposite point of view, starting with shapes and colors from the beginning. That approach lends itself to the way I design stickers for work because most of our designs start their life as vector shapes in illustrator. This approach doesn’t feel as comfortable to me at the moment, but I can tell I’m gaining new skills by trying it.

I think in general I like to analyze what I’m doing. It’s a problem solving habit that comes from my background as an engineer, and it’s the way I like to approach almost everything I do.

Why do I illustrate what I illustrate?

I like to feel amazed and surprised, I like to learn something new, I like to find a new way to look at life, and I draw the things that make me think that way. I hope my art does that for other people sometimes too.

How does my individual writing/illustrating process work?

These are the steps I take whenever I’m starting a new project:

Brain Dump:

I’m primarily an artist but I start every project by writing. I write out what I need to make, and then I start making lists of every word or phrase I can think of that has anything to do with my topic. I’ve tried doing mind maps which are helpful sometimes but most of the time just lists will do. I start with whatever I can think of on my own, and then occasionally I’ll use a thesaurus or an internet search. I particularly like the thesaurus at dict.org because for whatever reason it’s very loose about what it includes as a synonym so I get things other reference books leave out.

Often just making these lists begins to bring up concepts, but if I still need ideas, I’ll start picking out words in 2’s and 3’s to see if those connection brings up any ideas.

Research:

Next I start to do some visual research. Lately I’ve become a Pinterest junky. I keep a bunch of boards on useful topics so that I can save things I happen to come across, and can always have a storehouse of inspiration and reference when I start something new.

When I’m working on a specific project I make a folder on my computer and collect all the useful reference and inspiration pictures in there so they are all in one place. I also take written notes or little doodle sketches as I work, usually in a little notebook or in my sketchbook.

Exercises:

If I’m working realistically I can usually just draw and paint from my reference, but if I’m making something stylized or designing something that doesn’t exist then I need to think about what it should look like. This is one area where thinking like a painter rather than a drawer has been helpful because the shapes that make up an object give the object its personality.

If I just try and draw things out of my head, I notice that after a while I keep coming back to the same shapes over and over again and the designs look boring or ordinary. To get out of that rut, I’ve collected a number of fun little exercises that force you out of your comfort zone and give you more radical shapes to work with. Here are a few of my favorites:

- Silhouette Design
For this exercise, get yourself a few black markers. I like to use one with a calligraphy tip and a very fine point one but whatever you find most comfortable is fine. Think of whatever you are trying to design and begin drawing out thumbnails of what its silhouette looks like. That is: no lines, no internal details, no shading, no nothing. Just make the outside shape, and then fill everything else in with pure black. This forces you to think about the overall shape of the object without getting caught up in all the details. I usually try to fill a sketchbook page with these.

– Page Fill
In this exercise, open to a blank page of your sketchbook and make some random shapes scattered on the page. Then take each of those shapes and turn it into whatever you are trying to design. Then in whatever space is left over, make some new shapes, and again turn them into designs. Continue doing this until you have filled all of the empty areas on the page. The more stretched and twisted and oblong and sheared and distorted the shapes, the better. The idea here is to get you out of using ordinary forms and into using more unusual and extreme shapes.

– Alchemy: Visual Noise
There is a great drawing program called Alchemy which you can download for free on Mac or PC. Unlike a normal paint program, Alchemy takes your drawing input and then passes it through any number of distortion filters which you can choose and adjust. So as you draw, the program makes a sort of visual noise that you can sort of control, but not really. Instead of a clean drawing you end up with a lot of happy accidents. I use the program to make a bunch of semi-random thumbnails and then cut and paste them into Photoshop where I use them as inspiration for more refined drawings.

– Layer Collage
In this exercise I use some traditional medium to make a lot of abstract “stuff” on paper. Then I scan the “stuff” and bring it into photoshop where I layer it, one on top of the other, playing with all the different blending modes and opacity setting as I go until I have one big abstract blob of “stuff”. Then I zoom way in and look for interesting shapes where the layers of stuff have come together. This technique is particularly good for coming up with compositions.

As I do these exercises, I think about what I want the object to “feel” like, and based on that, I think of the sort of abstract shapes and colors that convey those feelings (is it pointy?, slick?, soft?, sticky?, etc.).

Refine

By this point I’m starting to get my designs together and begin to put them into a composition. I make lots of compositional thumbnails, again thinking about the shapes and what they convey.

If I’m working with a client this is also where I begin showing them what I’ve come up with, and begin to integrate their feedback into the design.

Final

Once I have a composition I like and all the pieces in place I make the final piece. This is the part that I find most frustrating, and the part that usually takes the longest.

I hope that some of the information about me was helpful and interesting to everyone. I want to thank Lindsey for asking me to participate in the blog tour.

Before I go, I want to hand you off to to a very talented writer and a good friend of mine, Jacqueline Resnick.

Jacqueline is the author of The Daring Escape of the Misfit Menagerie, which I had the pleasure of illustrating. She’s also written a fantastic sequel, and a series of YA novels. Please pay her a visit.

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