Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 11, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Robby Gilbert

Robby Gilbert began his career in illustration at a young age by doodling additional characters and scenes into the back pages of picture books. Though the practice is universally frowned upon by parents and librarians, Robby was undeterred. He continued drawing. Wisely, his parents sent him to art classes (both to hone his skills and save on library fees). Robby later earned a BFA in illustration and animation and then a M.Ed. He has worked extensively as an illustrator, animator, educator, and art director for such clients as Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, Disney Interactive, the National Wildlife Foundation, and Ranger Rick Magazine.

Robby is currently working on a film-noir inspired series of children’s detective stories. At present, Robby lives in the Pacific Northwest, where, when he isn’t drawing, he can be found teaching illustration and animation to the next generation of compulsive doodlers.

What school did you attend for your BFA?

I attended the School of Visual Arts, in New York and earned a BFA in Media Arts in 1989. Also received an M.Ed in 2006.

What was the most interesting class that you took?

History of Animation, taught by the late Charles Samu. Also, I loved Harvey Kurtzman’s cartooning classes.

How key were the animation classes you took in shaping your art?

Well, I think that Saturday morning cartoons and early Disney films shaped my art well before school. Animation classes did, however, help me develop drawing skills, speed, and perhaps some goofy acting.

How did you get the job to illustrate Ranger Rick Magazine?

They actually approached me after I animated Rick for a children’s web company.

There’s a full interview with me about just that topic at

Did the school help you get a job when you graduated?

No. I was hired by an animation company right out of school so I frankly never used the school’s placement services.

Here is Robby showing his process for the cover of the book dummy of Gumshu, Undercover Dragon.

I start with a very loose sketch in a small sketchbook.

Next, I did a larger sketch on D’Arches watercolor paper. I like the feel and the grain of the paper.

I did a quick watercolor wash using yellow ochre. This wash was scanned at 600 dpi and used as a basis for the digital coloring.

Next I began roughing in the sky using Photoshop.

Then, I began a series of layered “washes” to build the entire scene.

I colored Gumshu in a separate file and brought him in.

Continued to build up details.

Although this is the final I came up with, it really is still a sketch in my mind.  I think that sometimes when a work looks finished, there is a danger that people will assume that this is what the final product will look like. At this point, because Gumshu still is a work in progress, I’m experimenting with different ideas, palettes, and even styles.

Here are a few illustrations from Gumshu, Undercover Dragon’s dummy.  Here is the link to view the whole dummy.

What was the first illustrating job that you did for money?

I remember it well…a cartoon map of the Untied States for Pan Am Airlines. I was 19 and I earned a thousand dollars…and bought an old VW Bus.

I thought “Not a bad deal. Draw a picture…buy a car. I could get used to this….HA!”

How did you get your first book contract?

I was approached by good friend who was writing Nursery Rhymes who introduced me to Whispering Coyote Press. We did “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” which is still in print and I just learned has over a half a million copies in print!

It looks like you illustrated 4 picture books in the 90’s with Whispering Coyote Press. Can you tell us a little bit about this publisher?

Actually it was five, though one did rather poorly and so it’s been out of print for a long time.

WCP was wonderful!!! They were eventually purchased by Charlesbridge, who will be re-releaseing the titles beginning this Spring!

How key were the animation classes you took in shaping your art?

Well, I think that Saturday morning cartoons and early Disney films shaped my art well before school. Animation classes did, however, help me develop drawing skills, speed, and perhaps some goofy acting.

I like the dummy and story for Gumshu, Undercover Dragon. Are you planning on completing it in full color?

Thank you, “Yes!” Gumshu is a lot of fun I think. Many agents have expressed how much they like the idea. Unfortunately I haven’t found the right representation with Gumshu yet. I have several ideas for this as a series. Kids love it.

With your animation skills, do you think you will make a short film or video of Gumshu?

Oh- I think Gumshu has HUGE cross-platform potential…Games, animation, apps. I’ve considered making a short video but I think first I want to sketch out some more stories for the series.

Is the Noomblynauts going to be a wordless picture book?

I’m so glad you asked that!

I have often been held hostage by my own insecurities and perhaps a feeling that my finished work must look a certain way…and as a result, I almost always like my sketches way more than the final pieces. As an artist, I attribute this to the idea that the sketch phase is much looser…maybe a “truer” form of expression.

I’ve created NOOMBLYNAUTS purely as an exercise in non-self judgement…and because I think the name is funny…and they make me laugh. For me, the Noomblys have a life of their own and have simply asked me to make them into drawings. The rules I try to live by with them are:

1. I draw them in pen and don’t edit or erase or judge the lines. What comes out comes out!

2: They are always smiling and optimistic. No matter what.

3: They are not intended for any commercial purposes…and are never to be taken seriously by me.

What was the first job you got after college?

I worked as an assistant animator at Broadcast Arts in New York. It was a great experience and I learned a ton!

Do you use a graphic tablet?

I do. But I’m a pencil guy and probably always will be.

Do you have a daily routine to keep you focused?

Gosh! I’m stumped by this question for some reason. I think that I do many things and so I often feel less focused than I’d like. I live in a beautiful place and have a busy schedule, which helps.

Maybe the fact that I’m so busy has been sort of a key to my moments of extreme focus because trying to get an idea or project done while juggling leaves little time for anything but hyperfocus.

Plus, I do like my coffee.

Which story is your favorite?

I guess right now I secretly love the Noomblynauts. They are just for me I guess.

But GUMSHU is my favorite I suppose. He’s a goofball.

Do you have an agent? If so, who? If not, would you want one?

I would love to work with an agent! The RIGHT agent.

I am assuming that Teach Your Dog to Play the Banjo! Is a book that you wrote, illustrated and are now trying to sell. You do a very nice job with the dogs, making me think you must have a few dogs. How did this idea come to you?

Well, I love to play the banjo. I have a website dedicated to this… .

I also have had several hound dogs over the years (who, by the way, don’t like the sound of the banjo as much as one might think!) I just thought it would be fun to write and draw a book about two of my favorite things: Dogs and Banjos.  It sure was fun and yes…I’d love to see it published!

Why are your sketches for this dummy in Blue and Gumshu in Black?

I like to sketch in blue pencil and then I sometimes scan and convert to bw in photoshop.

What are you doing to increase your chances of getting the story published?

Well, as with anything I think it takes time and just getting it into the hands of the right agent or publisher.

Perseverance I guess. I may need to edit some more but I’m hopeful that the right agent or editor will see its potential.

People who read it…both kids and adults…seem to remember it and talk to me about it…adding their own ideas enthusiastically. I take this as a sign that it excites the imagination.

Have you tried your hand at making an App for one of these stories?

Working on it 🙂

It seems that many agents and publishers are afraid of this difficult economic market and as a result are scrambling to decipher the implications of e-publishing and at the same time trying to dig in on traditions that have worked in the past. Yet we are in a new paradigm. It’s exciting. I do think GUMSHU, and TEACH YOUR DOG BANJO are perfect for this new paradigm, but of course, I’m biased.

How hard is it to learn animation?

Wow. That’s interesting because I teach animation. I would say the answer is “Not hard at all!”

However, it’s a learning process that is never finished.

Can you tell us a little bit about the frog, birds, etc. talking using cans and string? Is that from a book?

I love animals! They are not from a book…yet:)

They are just some critters that make me smile. I’ve spent twenty five years as a commercial illustrator and have primarily drawn licensed characters or have had to conform my styles to art directors and clients. At this stage of my life, I want to explore my own characters and designs more. I think in an age of cell phones and technology (which I devour along with everyone else) I tend towards an appreciation of an early to mid 20th century aesthetic…hence the tin cans I guess.

Is there a specific software program that you use to do animation?

No…I see animation as an art form. Software is just a tool. Stories and ideas will never be well conceived by software.  Of course, I use Flash.Blah,

Is there a lot of work available for illustrator who can also do animation?

There’s an old saying. “Animation is a lot of hard work BUT……’s tedious.”

A career in animation takes a huge amount of time and commitment. It leaves little room for anything else. From a market perspective, the industry has changed quite a bit. Most animation work is now outsourced to other countries and on top of that, the huge explosion of schools offering degrees in animation has sort of created a flood of talent.

With that said, the new technologies may create excellent opportunities for illustrator/animators.

It seems you are a man of many talents. While looking over your website, I see besides being an illustrator, an animator, and a teacher, you are also a musician. Do you split you time equally between all your skills?

No. I work in “spurts” I guess…I teach Digital Game Design and Media at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and I love it!

I will get an idea “like Gumshu” and hyperfocus on that for a while.

The music is more of a meditative exercise these days. I don’t have time to perform much anymore…but it does help me relax.

It is also not an unrelated medium…there’s a lot of storytelling in music.

What types of things do you do to market yourself?

Not as much as I should, I guess:)

I do appearances, readings, mailers, and interviews like this one.

Do you have any words of wisdom you can share with us?

Enjoy what you do, be who you are and not what you think others think you should be…

Tell the ones you love how much you love them every day!

Oh, and…learn to play the banjo!

I guess you can see where Robby got his inspiration for the above illustration.

Rob, thank you for sharing your multiple talents with us.  I am sure one of the stories you shared with us will get picked up.  Looking forward to being able to go to a bookstore and pick up a copy.

You can visit Rob at:  I am sure Rob would love to get a comment from you if you have a minute to leave one.  Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great illustrations and such beautiful movement to his characters! The banjo learning dog is something else!!!!


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