Molly Idle has been drawing ever since she could wield a pencil. But while she started scribbling before she could walk, her professional career as an artist began slightly later…
It was upon her graduation from Arizona State University, with a BFA in Drawing, that Molly accepted an offer to work for DreamWorks Feature Animation Studios. After five years, a number of film credits, and an incredibly good time, she left the studio and leapt with gusto into the world of children’s book illustration!
Molly now lives in Arizona with her brilliant husband, two wonderfully mischievous sons, and two snugly cats. When not making mischief with her boys or watching old Technicolor musicals, she can be found at her desk scribbling away, with a pencil in one hand and a cup of espresso in the other- creating a plethora of profoundly whimsical picture books!
Here’s Molly discussing her process:
This is the scribble I made in the car (stopped at a red light) immediately after my son John asked, “Mom, do T-Rexes like crumpets?” T- Rex? I thought… TEA Rex?! This…is a story.
When I got into the studio I worked up this sketch in my sketchbook- scanned it- and placed the text in Photoshop.
Then, I created a cleaned-up line drawing from the original sketch on Canson vellum fish Bristol. Then I scanned the line drawing and printed multiple, miniature copies so I could start testing colors… I work solely with Prismacolor pencil, and so, as I test color palettes I write down the names of the pencils as well as the order in which I layer the them, so I can recreate the same palette on every spread in the book. Rex’s green skin, for example, is made up of layers of 11 different pencils: Black Grape, Black Raspberry, Indigo, Green Ochre, Artichoke, Limepeel, Chartreuse, Yellow-Chartreuse, Yello-Ochre, Goldenrod, and Sand.
… and ended up with this. For the REX books I work at 120% of the print size. This helps to tighten up the look of the work when it is reproduced.
Once the book had been acquired by Viking Children’s Books, my fabulous editor Tracy Gates, suggested that we add a little brother into the mix. So I went back to my sketchbook…
I drew George… and George proceeded to make mischief.
Everyone at Viking liked the idea of using my initial concept sketch as the cover- so we added in George and…
… my art director, the lovely and talented Nancy Brennan, added in this terrific title treatment.
How long have you been illustrating?
Wow- now that I’m doing the math… I can’t believe it. I was twenty-three when I started working on my first book, and now I’m 37. That means I’ve been illustrating for aaaaalmost 15 years.
How did you decide to attend Arizona State University?
Well, it was a pretty straight forward decision really… they were the only school I applied to that offered me a full scholarship!
Can you tell us a little bit about that school?
For all intents and purposes- it’s a pretty standard state university. It was just complete luck for me that Jerry Schutte, one of the most amazing American figurative painters, happened to teach there at the time.
Were there things you could have studied other than Drawing to get your BFA degree?
Gosh- I’m sure there were loads of other things! Painting, ceramics, printmaking, or the more generic route of “studio arts”… But as I was intent on becoming an animator at the time, I chose drawing.
Did you take painting classes? What classes were your favorites?
I took exactly 3 painting classes. The minimum requirement to get my degree… Most of the teachers in the painting program at ASU were abstract artists, and they discouraged figurative and representational work in class. So, what I was interested in was the antithesis of what they were interested in…. My favorite classes were the figure drawing classes I took with Jerry Schutte. He also taught an awesome class called Art Anatomy. We would sit in a lecture hall and take notes for an hour while Jerry showed slides of human cadavers. The muscles, the tendons etc… and then we’d go into the studio for another three hours and draw from a live model focusing on poses which accentuated the muscles and tendons we’d just studied in the lecture hall. I learned SO much in that class. (Did you know the muscle in the human body with the longest name is the sternocleidomastoideus ?)
Did the School help you get work?
Yes and no. That is to say, no recruiters came to the school looking for artistic talent. Nor was animation seen by the fine art department as a worthy artistic goal. Jerry and I are still friends- and we laugh now about how he used to tease me- “Why would you want to draw cartoons when you can make real art?!” But really, what got me a job was my ability to draw well… and that ability came from all the time and effort I spent in my studio classes at school.
Did you have to move to Glendale California to work for DreamWorks?
Yes, and quickly too! My portfolio and demo reel made the rounds the semester before I graduated, and every response had been the same: “You can really draw but you have no experience. Please reapply when you have some…” It was a terrible catch 22. How could I get experience when nobody would hire me without experience?! Then, a couple of months after I graduated, I got a call from DreamWorks. They remembered my portfolio and were starting a new training program. If I was interested, I’d have to move out to California the next week. I didn’t even hesitate. I started packing that night!
What type of artwork did you do for DreamWorks? TV, Movies, Apps, Animation, Storyboarding?
I was working in the “Final Line” Department for DreamWorks Feature Animation…. at every other studio it’s called the “Clean Up” Department… but I think the folks at DreamWorks felt that “Final Line” had a greater sense of panache. Over the five years I was there I worked on the films: The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Sinbad.
Do you feel that the classes you took in college have influenced you style? Or do you think your time at DreamWorks influenced it more?
I think that my work is very much an amalgamation of my fine art and animation upbringings. What I know about color theory and composition I owe largely to my school days- spent drawing from life and studying past masters. But what I know about story telling and character development (and working to a deadline)… I learned from my time in animation.
What caused you to leave DreamWorks and move back to Arizona?
The work stopped being fun. When the studio decided to transition from traditional (hand drawn) animation to CGI- they offered all the traditional artists and animators the chance to train in the new technology. I dove in- started learning the software- and after spending 6 months in a computer lab… I was miserable. I loved making movies so much, but I missed drawing even more.
Have you done any work for children’s magazines?
Just once that I can remember. A piece for Ladybug Magazine about a little princess who liked “unprincessy” things.
Have you worked for educational publishers?
I have done a bit of work for educational publishers in the past. But it’s a tricky business for me to pull off, as I work in colored pencils. Often, because of changing textbook specifications, educational publishers need to request changes after the delivery of final art. Changes to color, or layout, or adding and subtracting characters, etc… and that sort of tweaking is much easier to accommodate if you work digitally.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I’ve put out postcards and subscribed to a number of online portfolio sites in the past… and those did bring in some illustration work. But I think that the best way to find work is to make your own! Seriously- life can be really hard for an illustrator who doesn’t write. You’re in the position of waiting for the right manuscript to cross the right editor or art director’s desk at the right time- and then- for that editor or art director to think of you as a good match for it! If you create your own manuscript to illustrate- you can take some of the variables out of the equation!
What is your favorite medium to use?
Prismacolor Pencils! I could go on and on about them…
Not counting your paint and brushes, what is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Well, as I don’t paint, I think I could forgo even the paints and brushes in my studio but what I couldn’t do without is my spiffy little espresso machine. True story.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I try to keep a pretty set schedule in the studio from day to day. But I don’t think the number of hours spent at my desk necessarily equates to a guaranteed quality or quantity of work. There have been times I’ve sat at my desk working all day and ended up with a drawing that was truly terrible, and there have been times I’ve been at my desk for 5 minutes and turned out a sketch that was spot on- and I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee! The important thing is just to keep at it! If you show up day after day after day, through good days and rotten days… you get better.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
I use Photoshop to assemble my book dummies. I’ll create a template- scan and import my sketches- assemble a PDF… but that’s about it.
Have you ever won an award for your writing or illustrating?
Let’s see… when I was in 4th grade I believe I won an award for a poem I wrote about a black cat at midnight. Very dramatic.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I don’t work from photo reference- but if there is something I want to study I will make observational sketches. Like… go to the zoo and sketch real flamingos- then go home and draw more flamingos- using my sketches for reference.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
That’s a really interesting question! My first inclination is to say yes- I mean- you and I connected through the internet didn’t we? That’s an open door! The internet really does allow my work to be accessible to many more people than would be the case without it. But the internet is also bursting at its virtual seams with other a zillion other folks putting their work out there! So, in a way, the internet can also make it more challenging to get your work seen too… so many doors.
Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your materials changed?
I don’t really think of keeping to a particular “style”… I just draw. That said- I hope my work has improved over the years! As to materials- aside from my first book which was painted in watercolor, (because I was smitten with Holly Hobbie’s work on TOOT & PUDDLE), I’ve always worked in pencil.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
I don’t. I know, I know… everyone tells me they are the cat’s pajamas!
Most illustrator struggle to get their first big break. It looks to me as though you were successful getting your writing and illustrating picture books right from the start. What things do you attributed to this success?
Oh, wow. That is really kind of you to say. I wish I knew why or how it all worked out… I often feel like Fanny Bryce in Funny Girl, when she crashes into her stage manager during a roller-skating song and dance number…
“I thought you said you could roller-skate!” the stage manager says.
“I didn’t know I couldn’t!” she replies.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I want to keep making better and better work. I’m not sure that’s the sort of dream that is ever fulfilled… but it sure is fulfilling.
What are you working on now?
I just wrapped up the artwork for FLORA and the PENGUIN (Chronicle Books), and now I’m working on a fabulous picture book by debut author Maripat Mohr, titled RODEO RED (Peachtree Publishers). I’m also sketching out SEA REX, the third book in the REX series with Viking Children’s Books (the second- CAMP REX- comes out April 2014). And there are a few other projects that I can’t talk about yet- and it’s killing me to keep them secret!! I feel like my 7 year old who came home from shopping with my husband the other day- hands behind his back- and said “Mom we did NOT just buy you a present!” (And winked.)
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
I think that what works for me may not work for other people… not everyone is a colored pencil nut like I am. But I will say that- whatever medium you use- make sure you enjoy using it! There is no ONE right way. If you love pencils- use pencils! If acrylics make you acrimonious… don’t use them. Fancy mixed media? Go for it! You should love what you do… and how you do it too.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Whenever I feel anxious surveying a mountain of work that awaits- or when I have an idea that seems wonderfully tantalizing, but incredibly difficult to pull off- I look at this quote scrawled on a piece of paper, that I keep taped to my desk:
“It is not because it is difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that it is difficult”–Senecca
Next to that, is a fortune cookie fortune that reads: “Action is worry’s worst enemy.”
And then I get to work.
Thank you Molly for sharing your technique and journey with us. Please let us know when more success stories come your way.
You can site Molly at: http://idleillustration.com/
It would be great if you would take a minute and leave Molly a comment below. Thanks!