Gideon Kendall was born in Austin, Texas and spent his childhood on a commune deep in the backwoods of West Virginia. He attended high school in Philadelphia, PA and moved to New York City to attend art school. Since receiving his BFA from The Cooper Union in New York City (1989) he has been working as an illustrator, animation, designer, and musician in Brooklyn, NY.
Gideon was the production designer (backgrounds) on “Pepper Ann”, a Saturday morning cartoon show on ABC. For five years (the duration of the series), he was the production designer (backgrounds) on “CODENAME: Kids Next Door” on the Cartoon Network. He has also designed backgrounds, props and characters for many other television shows, including Robotomy, Stroker & Hoop, Chuggington and Word World.
Gideon has illustrated articles and record covers for companies such as The New York Times, Puma, Children’s Television Workshop, Scholastic, Geffen, and College Music Journal. He has exhibited his artwork at a variety of galleries including Ethan Cohen Fine Arts and PS122 in New York City.
Gideon has been involved in many musical/performance art projects, and has toured the country with his band, Fake Brain. The band also wrote and performed the theme song for “The Kids Next Door” on Cartoon Network. Most recently he wrote, performed in, and created sets and animation for a multimedia comedic performance entitled “Dr. Wei-Wei & The Fake Brain” which was performed at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York City in 2006. His current project, The Ditty Committee, performs regulary in and around New York City.
Here is Gideon showing and discussing his process on his book cover, ELLIOTT and the LAST UNDERWORLD WAR:
The image is entirely digital. It took probably about 3 days total, but of course it was spread out over weeks of approvals, edits, etc.
This is the rough, obviously. Just trying to sell the editor on the basic idea and work out for myself the composition and lighting. I always use tone on my sketches because I need to get a sense of the lighting. Light and shadow are essential for both clarity, focus, and drama. In the story, Elliot, the main character uses a magic glowing broom at a crucial point in the story. This was a great device for lighting this scene.
Here is where I set aside the lighting for the most part and focus on delineating the image. Although I love getting carried away with details and hidden jokes I try not to loose focus on the characters. Sometimes this comes easy. Other times not so much. The peripheral characters fell into place with little effort but I really struggled with aspects of Elliot. Finding that sweet spot of anger and determination while still keeping him cute was a challenge and I also had a hard time with getting his hands and arms right. I had my wife take pictures of me in the pose to help get it right and I still struggled.
Now I introduce the lighting. This layer may or may not be used in the final art, but either way it helps me to finalize the composition.
At this point I change the line drawing into a multiply layer and put it on top. I hide the tone layer and work up the color to a near-final state.
Then I add a layer of highlights on top of the line layer.
I kept the image of the pixie as its own element so that I could control her luminosity separately. I do her line work, color, and rendering and then balance her against the glow of the broom.
I wasn’t pleased with the way the broom was looking so I made a new drawing of it and colored it in a way to give it bit more 3-dimensionality. I refined the highlights and played around with the luminosity of the broom, and then I was done.
Early on in the process I played around with having the demon’s claws in the picture, thinking it might heighten the sense of confrontation. The editor thought it complicated things unnecessarily and I don’t disagree.
Just for kicks, an earlier cover sketch. This snow monster was removed from the story so I had to start over. Probably for the best.
Here’s a detail shot just for the hell of it.
My favorite illustration in this book.
When did you first know that you were good at art and wanted that for your future?
My mom says that she put pens in my crib when I was a baby and I drew cars and cities all over my sheets. so I guess it was decided pretty early on. My early loves were Dr. Seuss and Marvel Comics.
Did you study art at The Cooper Union in New York City?
Yes. I have a BFA from Cooper.
What made you think of putting little Goblins in the big Goblin?
I was just trying to think of how to make him as creepy as possible. It’s an idea similar to themes in some of my “grown up” art.
What were you favorite classes?
Painting and drawing. I also enjoyed printmaking, particularly intaglio etching.
What was the first thing you illustrated and got paid for doing?
I got hired by a local paper in high school to do some courtroom illustration. First and last time I ever did that kind of work. Judging from your next question I think you mean post-collegiate…Hmm. The thing is I went to a strictly “fine art” school. They frowned on illustration, so I had to bury my love of such things.
What was your main painting technique back then?
Oils. I did a semester abroad in Italy my junior year and learned the basics of old-fashioned glaze techniques. I’ve loosened up a little since then but my painting technique has always been pretty formal.
Have the materials you used changed over the years?
Completely. I work almost entirely digitally now. Oil painting is reserved for my personal enjoyment or for the rare occasion when budgets and schedules are generous.
Has the style of your illustration change or evolved into a new style?
I have developed a few distinct styles for the different kinds of work that I enjoy doing. traditional children’s book illustration is at this point only a small part of what I do. among other things I also do black and white chapter book illustrations, puzzle pictures for highlight’s Magazine, maps and diagrams for books, posters, advertisements, etc. I also do “whiteboard” animations as well as graphic novels and comics. Unless you’re hugely successful at one thing, you gotta be a jack of all trades to survive. If one of the things I do really took off I’d be happy to focus more, but in the meantime I do enjoy the challenge.
Since you graduated right as the Internet and computers were taking hold. Did you jump into experimenting with digital art at that time?
No, the computer was primarily a word processor and mailing label machine for me for many years. It wasn’t until the late “90’s that I began doing some digital color on my drawings and then the big leap was when I got my first Cintiq in ’06.
Do you own and use graphic tablet? If so, which one?
A few months ago I got the Cintiq 24HD touch and I’m in love with it.
What was your first job after your graduated?
I tried to do the art gallery thing; working as an installer and packer/shipper. It was awful. The people were vain and pretentious and I felt alienated and bored. I got laid off. Freed from the shackles of fine art education/employment, I went back to my early loves: kids books and comics.
What kind of creature is Elliott going to fight?
Those guys are goblins. The big red/pink creature is the demon Kovol, Elliot’s main nemesis.
I see you do a lot of black and white illustration. Is that because there is more available work for that?
I wouldn’t say there’s more of it, its just that I’m well-suited for it and I’ve found that I like doing work for older kids (less cutesy stuff, more monsters and weird stuff) and I guess there is more B&W work in that market.
Have most of your comic book art been done for magazines?
No. I haven’t done much comics work for paying clients. I wouldn’t mind it, though. I’m having a great time working on my graphic novel and it would be fun if it led to other opportunities.
How did you hook up with Ronnie Herman Agency? How long has she represented you?
Way back in the early ’90’s my friend Ian Schoenherr set up a meeting for me with Ronnie when she was an editor at Penguin. At the time my “portfolio” was a mess, consisting of a hodgepodge of different styles, none of them particularly well-executed. Ronnie kept one sample from my portfolio: a painting of a daddy rabbit reading a bedtime story to a baby rabbit. I never got a call from Penguin, but several years later when Ronnie retired from Penguin and started her agency, she remembered that image and called me. She took me on and was very patient with me and helped me develop a cohesive portfolio.
How did you get your first book contract?
Ronnie showed my samples around for a couple years before she got anyone to give me a book project. Eventually Albert Whitman hired me to illustrate Littlebat’s Halloween Story. Not sure what samples got that gig. Interestingly, it was a little painting of a hamster driving a sportscar that got me the Dino Pets gig. That one’s a mystery to me but I’m glad it worked out.
Was Littlebat’s Halloween Story the only picture you have illustrated?
No, I’ve done three. Littlebat, Dino Pets, & Dino Pets Go To School.
I see you have two books published with Sterling. How did those contracts come about?
Charlie Nix, An old friend from college contacted me about doing the cartoons for those books. He designed the books.
Did you know that it was a two-book deal at the time?
We were pretty sure, but it wasn’t guaranteed.
How did you get to do The Seems series?
Oh boy that’s a long story! Here goes: I was introduced to the authors by a mutual friend who thought we’d make a good creative team. We discussed making a bedtime themed picture book and threw around ideas for a while. We eventually decided on a pillow fort theme and put together a pitch. No one bit on it and I forgot about it but Mike and John didn’t give up and over the next few years they expanded the idea into what eventually became The Seems. Bloomsbury bought it and the authors pushed hard to have me brought in as the artist. They eventually went with someone else for the covers which pissed me off, but I had a great time collaborating with Mike and John and making those pictures. I put a lot into those images. We actually got a movie deal out of it which was a nice windfall but as usual that never went anywhere.
Did you know it was going to be a series when you illustrated the first book?
The author’s plan was for it to be at least a 3-book series. Of course we all hoped it would go far beyond that….
Do you expect there will be more books to that series?
I doubt it. I think it would have had to sell much better for that to happen. The overall concept is certainly deep enough to warrant more stories though.
You illustrated four books that came out in 2007. Were you under a lot of pressure to get four books done during that time?
Yeah, but I was happy to have so much work.
How long do you normally have to work on the illustrations for a book? Shortest? Longest?
There’s no real “normal”. Every job is different. I’d say in general, schedules just get shorter and shorter as everyone expects work to be done digitally.
How many black and white illustrations are usually required for a middle grade book?
Anywhere from 8-30. The Elliot books had lots of illustrations, some full page, some spot. Those books were so much fun to illustrate.
Do you ever see yourself writing one of your own books? Oh yes, believe me! I have numerous unpublished book projects on file, and they’re all awesome, so all you editors and publishers out there, give me or Ronnie a call.
Have you done illustrations for any children’s magazines?
As mentioned, Highlights. They are keeping me very busy these days. I do a monthly hidden picture for one of their magazines and I’m also doing several of the books for their Which Way USA series.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Yes. It’s also wasted a lot of my time.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I don’t really seek it out anymore. It comes in through Ronnie or from previous clients or referrals.
Have worked with any educational publishers?
Yeah, these days that’s where a lot of my work comes from. The money is almost always terrible and of course there are no royalties but its the kind of work you can feel good about doing.
This group of illustrations were done for an educational publisher.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
Every job is a chance to improve some aspect of my skill set. I just did a story for an educational publisher in which the main character was a 10-year old Asian boy. I took the job mostly because I’m not very good at drawing Asian kids. I just finished the job today and I think I got a little better at it…
What do you feel was your greatest success?
I don’t think I’ve had it yet. I’m proud of the painting in “Dino Pets Go To School” but that book is going out of print I think. I’m also proud of the work I did on the Elliot series and the Seems but neither of those series sold well. Sigh. I’m still waiting I guess.
How did you get involved in TV cartoons, backgrounds, production design, and props.?
In ’94 I was broke and my attempts at being an illustrator were mostly failing. A friend introduced me to J.J. Sedelmier (of Beavis and Butthead & SNL TV Funhouse fame) and he took me on as an intern. I knew nothing about animation but I could draw and paint so I found a role as a background painter (this was pre-digital). I made a short film with Tom Warburton which was seen by some folks at Disney and they hired us to be the designers of a new show for ABC called Pepper Ann. We worked together on that for several years and then Tom created Codename: Kids Next Door for Cartoon Network and I served as his background designer on that show too (a guy named Mo Willems just so happened to be the head writer on the show. Ever heard of him? Even if I never have a hit children’s book I can say that I have played touch football with Mo Willems). After that the bottom fell out of the NYC series animation industry. Most of my colleagues in the industry moved to California. I decided to stay on the east coast and recommit to illustration.
Do you have a studio? What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
I work in the upstairs back room of my house. I’ve got a nice sliding glass door leading out onto a deck with a view of some ugly apartment buildings. I love my Cintiq, and all of my reference books, but the thing I really couldn’t live without is the espresso machine in the kitchen.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
Yes, I do take reference photos when possible. I ask my wife or friends to pose for me often, and I live next to a neighborhood of old victorian houses, which is very useful for reference (particularly in the Dino Pets books).
Are you open to doing any illustrations for a writer who wants to self-publish?
If they can pay me and I like the project.
Have you ever thought of self-publishing a book of your own?
Sure. It’s getting easier and more practical to do so. I am self-publishing my graphic novel and selling it and my other comics and prints at various events such as MOCCAfest (happening this weekend in NYC).
Do you use Photoshop or Corel Painter with your illustrations?
I keep meaning to learn Painter at this point I’m strictly a Photoshop guy.
Have you used or plan to use your comic illustrations in a graphic novel?
Yes, I’m working on a graphic novel now. It is definitely not for kids, however. It’s called WHATZIT and you can buy it, along with a lot of my other not-for-kids stuff at http://www.WHATZITCOMIC.COM
It sounds like you are not only a talented illustrator, but an accomplished musician. Could you tell us a little bit about that side of your life, and how you got interested in music?
Acccomplished??? Ha! No, I just love writing songs. I am not particularly skilled as a musician but I enjoy performing and writing, as well as the collaborative nature of music. ITs a nice antidote to sitting alone in my underwear all day drawing pictures.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I want to get some of my own children’s books published.
What are you working on now?
Issue #2 of WHATZIT, some whiteboard projects for Idea Rocket, the next issue of Which Way USA for Hightlights, a serious of fine art prints depicting surreal animals and plants in various states of decay, a revision of one my book pitches (it’s called “The Last Story”. Its awesome. Somebody publish it for god’s sake!). I’m busy.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
Work your ass of and then get very lucky? I dunno, let me call Mo Willems and get back to you. I do however have some advice on how to function and survive as an unsuccessful illustrator: Love your work. Never be satisfied. Get some exercise. Punk rock and espresso are great for tight deadlines.
Gideon thank you for sharing your wonderful illustrations, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please keep in touch and let us know of all your future successes. We would love to hear about them.
Please take a minute and leave Gideon a comment. It is always appreciated. Thanks!