Russ Cox was raised by a pack of crazed hillbillies in the back woods of Tennessee. Without much in the way of modern conveniences, like a television set or running water, he spent his time drawing and whittling away the hours, often dreaming of the joys of a shower. Having been born into a family with a flair for racing, Russ hoped to be the next Bobby Allison or Richard Petty. After dismantling his grandfather’s lawn mower engine, and without a clue on how to get it back together, he soon realized that he did not have an automotive bone in his body. Back to the drawing board he went with his pencil and paper (and sometimes the barn wall).
After spending much of his childhood roaming the South with his mom and sister, they moseyed to Pennsylvania. While in high school, Russ developed an interest in design and a passion for music. His automotive shop teacher was relieved.
Once out of high school he got his education at a local art school. With a portfolio in his hand, he ventured into the world of design and illustration. Good ole Russ worked for various design and advertising agencies until coming to his senses. With his wife giving him a swift kick-start in the rump, he opened his own studio, Smiling Otis Studio, where he presently specializes in illustration, Flash animation and logo design. Russ also found time to teach various classes at PCA&D for several years. Recently he and ma packed up the wagon and headed to the wilderness of Maine where they have setup a homestead in Pittsfield. When not drawing, running amok in the snow, or training their four cats to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody’, Russ enjoys some quiet time with his banjo while also taking in the beauty of Maine. His wife would prefer him to play the triangle or build a sound proof room.
Here’s Russ talking about his process:
This was the final drawing that I scanned into Photoshop which became the base for the painting. For the color palette, I wanted to keep the colors toned down and warmer to emphasize the friendship between the two characters. Usually my colors are very vibrant, this was something different for me.
Just like working traditionally, I did a gray underpainting to establish my light direction. I was happy with my first attempt and decided that the values would work. Oh, I made it a ”multiply” layer some that the pencil work would show through.
I copied my gray underpainting and added a deep brown tint to the copy. Again, the ”multiply” was turned on for that layer. This made the underpainting very dark which is what I wanted to build the colors upon.
The sky was painting first which keeps the traditional way of thinking of working from back to front. It was hard not to put a bright sky in but I wanted to stay try to the color palette that I wanted to use. I built each component in layers with the “normal” setting on since I wanted to paint over my base painting. This allows me to tweak or redo something as I progress.
Once the sky was completed, the grass was next to be added. The colors are flat except for the bright yellow and a few highlights. This was intentional to help draw the eye up towards the figure.
The next step was to paint the oafish, troll-like giant. Having again to fight the urge to use bright colors, the bulk of his vest is an olive green and his pants a maroon red. The skin tones where built up in many separate layers which were flattened once I got them to my liking. I feel that I still need some work in the color theory for skin tones but it is getting there. Practice, practice, practice!
His vest seemed to missing something so I laid in a burlap texture from an old scan I had. It worked really well. The layer is set on ”multiply” and the opacity was set to around 35%. The tree branch and bird was also painted in at this time.
The next step was to paint the girl. With the muted colors being a backdrop for her, I focused on brightening up the colors for her. I wanted to her to airy and very lively looking. Lots of purples and pinks were used in her clothing and a base of orange for her hair helped me achieve the look I was after.
The final touches like highlights, some lines, and a few dollops of color were added to bring the final piece to life. I was very happy on how the final turned out. Seeing the textures of the brushes helped make this look less digital and more traditional.
Teaching myself Painter. Here is my first attempt. First the sketch., then scanning it in to get started. After adjusting the layers so that the white background of the sketch disappears, I began blocking in colors. Since I liked painting with gouache back in the day, I used the brush setting for it plus the gradients tool. That took some getting use to but I figured out how it works.
I blocked in some basic colors on the gator and then added textures to the background. For that effect, I used the sponge brush on separate layer and then ten adjusted the transparency so the blue showed through. Each part of the illustration was built in a separate layer.
Again, more details are added while using the sketch as a guide. I really like how authentic Painter feels while painting. Much better than Photoshop in my opinion but I do not use Photoshop enough to be an authority on it. The funny thing is, I did teach a class on it many years ago. I think I learned more from the students than they did from me.
Highlights and floor details are now added. I then exported the Painter file (riff) to a Phoshop file (psd) and imported the illustration into Photoshop. I tweaked the overall colors just a tad and added the spotlight effect.
Character Sketches and doodles
Bad Hair Day Sketch to Final Art
How long have you been doing illustration?
I have been a freelance illustrator for almost 16 years. I started out as a graphic designer will a small studio. There I became an in-house illustrator before going out on my own.
Do you think art school helped develop the style you have today?
Maybe a little but what art school did do was expose me to other artist, whether professionals or classmates. You ingest what you see from other artist so some of that does bubble up to the surface and into your work.
What was the first illustration you got paid to do?
My first job as a freelancer was doing 50 black & white marker renderings for a mattress company. My first published piece was when I was about 5 or 6. The town I lived in Tennessee has a local magazine that published children’s drawings and one of mine got in. I was hooked.
How did you learn Flash and Photoshop?
Photoshop, I basically taught myself with doing some online course with Will Terry to learn the painterly aspect of the software. As far as Flash, I did a month long workshop at the Maryland Institute of Art. I tried learning that on my own but it was a bit more complicated than I thought.
I noticed you have done traditional painting on your blog. Do you ever use watercolor, oil, or acrylic when illustrating now?
I still sketch with pencil but paint digitally. The thought of going back to traditional for children’s books has been creeping back into my head. I do miss the feel of a real brush so maybe it is time.
Do you have any favorite materials? Such as paper, paints, pens, etc.?
I love gouache and Dr. Martin’s Dyes with colored pencil on Arches hot press water color paper. I also love oil paint which I am getting back into with more fine art pieces.
Your sketches are very good and look like they could be sold on their own. Have you sold the black and whites to clients?
Thank you, that is very kind of you to say. I have not sold any of my sketches to clients. At least none that I can remember. I’ve had a few traditional pieces sell.
After looking on Amazon, I found two books, Molly Kite’s Big Dream and Major Manners Nite Nite Soldier. Are these your first published picture books?
They are my first books. I hope this is a start to the next phase of my career. I would love to do just books and maybe write a few along the way.
How did these self-published authors find you?
Most of them find me through childrensillustrators.com and my website. I have gotten a few inquiries through Jacketflap.com. Lately, Facebook has been a good source.
What is the story behind these books?
Molly Kite was from a first time self published author. She found me online and contacted me about the story. It is based on some actually people she knew and their spirituality. We worked on it for about 6 months. She recently had it picked up by a small publisher.
Major Manners came to me from a small publisher in Florida. The idea behind the story is that the Major helps the kids get ready for bed through a series of cadences. It comes with a cd that adds to the story and is very fun to hear. This is the first in the series of 3 books I believe.
Did you develop a contract to use when working with a client?
Yes, all of my book projects have contracts. It helps establish the responsibilities, schedules, payment, etc.
How do you figure out how much to charge for your work?
Sometimes a budget is presented to me so the client and I will discuss what can and cannot be done within the allotted budget. Other times, I will need to sit down and come up with an estimate based on time, material, deadlines, etc.
Does Enchanted Forest Press have illustrators they recommend to their clients?
That I do not know. Molly Kite was just recently picked up by them so I have not chatted with them directly.
Amazon states that Major Manners Nite, Nite Soldier was a USA Book News 2012 Best New Children’s Picture Book Finalist. Can you tell us a little bit about this contest?
The publisher, Outhouse Ink, submitted the book to various contest. It actually won a Pinnacle Award for Book Achievement. Both contest are for small, indie publishers but from what I gathered are a big deal. It is very cool to see both stickers on the book.
With your flare for music, were you involved in creating the CD that goes with this book?
No, the publisher and their families put the cd together. They did a great job. It cracks me up every time I hear it. Maybe the next one, I can put a banjo tune on it. Lol!
Do you belong to any organizations like the SCBWI?
Yes, I belong to the SCBWI which is one of the best things I’ve done. I have met so many wonderful people who are willing to share their insight and information to help one advance in the industry. Many of them are not close friends and their careers are taking off.
Did working for advertising agencies help you make connections you use in your freelance Design and Illustrating business?
Yes they did. When I left the design studio after 13 years, many of the designers, photographers, and illustrators in the area knew I had gone out on my own so they were willing to send me projects in order to help me get off the ground. It pays to know a lot of people and equally important to have a easy going reputation. At least I think I have that reputation. Maybe we should ask around first.
How did you learn animation?
Self taught. Having been a big fan of Warner Brothers cartoons, I decided to learn how it was done. I bought several books on animation, not Flash, to learn some of the tricks.
How much of your work is done in animation?
For a while, I was doing quite a bit of animation, mostly for websites. I still do one or two a year but mainly focus on illustration.
Have you done any illustrating for magazines or newspapers?
I think my second client when I went solo, was for Central PA Magazine. They were a Harrisburg, PA magazine that had about 20,000 readers. So I did a lot of work for them. They helped me get my name out there. I’ve done some pieces for other magazines like Disney Travel.
Do you do illustrating for The Idea Works, Inc. the design and advertising company?
Yes. Ilene Block and I became really good friends while I freelanced at Word World. She was the art director there. When she left, she started The Idea Works. We did this really cool promo piece together which was a calendar called “Voltar”. It has moveable dials that you turn for the new date but it also gives you a fortune. We had so much doing that together. I love that piece.
Did you do Voltar for them?
Oh, here is a Voltar question. Yes I did. See above.
Was that illustration painted in Photoshop?
No, that was all Adobe Illustrator.
How do you find new clients?
I try to do 3 postcard mailings a year. They really help. Attending conferences is another good resource in finding possible clients. Posting on Facebook, Google +, Dribbble, Twitter, Flickr, my blog and website plus other portfolio sites like childrensillustrators.com are equally valuable . Also doing interviews has generated interested so thank you for offering to do an interview with me.
Do you own a graphic tablet?
Yes, I have a first generation Cintiq and just bought a Monoprice tablet as a backup in case the Cintiq calls it a day.
Do you find a strong opportunity for illustrators to design apps?
YES! That area is booming. Some of my illustrator buddies are extremely busy by doing apps. I am working on a few as well.
Do you have an agent? Would you like to find one?
I do not have one at the moment but would to find a literary agent to team up with and help me develop my story ideas. Hopefully this will happen this year. It is on my “to do” list for 2013.
Do you have a desire to write and illustrate your own book?
YES! I just wrote a story which I now have in a dummy form, ready to submit. It is going through a series of critiques. While this is happening, I have started writing a second story with several others roughly sketched out. This is all new to me so I am learning lots about the writing process. I tip my hat to anyone who writes.
What are you working on now?
I just finished up two picture books and have begun final art for a book with Capstone. Caterpillar Books and are chatting about doing a book together. Plus I have another book coming in, plus a couple of apps. With all of this, I am redoing my website, some new postcards, and writing.
How do you market yourself?
Postcards and the web are the biggest ways to get my name out there. I try to do a conference a year to make connections.
What future goals do you have for yourself and art career?
I would like to write and illustrate my own stories while continuing to work on books and apps for others.
Do you have any words of wisdom you can share with other illustrators?
I was at a conference in which R.L. Stine was a keynote. He said “Never say no. You never know where saying yes will take you.” He was hesitant on writing a scary book for kids but saying “yes” turned out well for him. I wanted to do editorial illustration but somehow with many “yeses” along the way, I got into children’s illustration and love every minute of it.
Thank you Russ for sharing your work and process with us. It was a lot of fun to read about how you create your illustrations. Please keep in touch and share your successes with us.