Jon Nez illustrated over 60 books of every sort, from toddler board books to historical non-fiction. He is now also writing and illustrating his own picture books and interactive e-book apps, which is fun.
John draws mostly in a whimsical style with the goal of conveying lots of feeling… happy, sad, sneaky, mad, hopeful, afraid… whatever. Most of his drawing is done on real paper and then processed in the computer. He works in Photoshop and Adobe CS, which he says has greatly expanded his artist’s toolbox. He fells the combination of traditional and digital mediums is very fun, the best of art and science, but he also use acrylics, watercolors, pencils, inks, scanned textures, photographs… whatever works.
Here is John discussing his process:
The following sequence shows a step by step of how I make an image.
It starts with a rough sketch with the wacom table in Photoshop.
Once the rough sketch is done I print it out on paper and redraw the finish lines.
Then I scan it back into photoshop where I add the color in various stages.
The separation of each element into layers is very helpful for getting the final design.
Finished illustration – And with photoshop I can try out all kinds of different colors and patterns.
How did your interest in children’s books begin?
My interest in children’s books began when I started working as a substitute teacher in college. I’d never seen children’s books in that light before – so it was a discovery and turning point. I tried and failed being an Art major in college. I used to do fine art sorts of creations – sculptures, mobiles and paintings. Basically children’s books gave me a clear direction compared to how I was flailing around before, searching for myself.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
My first freelance gig was for an educational publisher and I was thrilled to be making money with art. I felt like I was getting rich compared to my former life as a custodian and substitute teacher. And I’ve been at it ever since.
What made you decide to stop attending Parson’s School of Design?
I’d already been to college with a degree in English so I was impatient to get started working as an illustrator. I already had a portfolio, I had my own style and some techniques, I had lots of drive. The day I learned I didn’t need a degree to be an illustrator was a happy day for me. As a freelance illustrator your portfolio is your degree.
I was terrified of running up a student debt. I wasn’t really feeling like I was learning as much in school as I was from New York City. I hardly had to think twice about my choice. And with just $275 in the bank I just jumped in and started freelancing.
(my first New York City studio in Manhattan)
Tell us about your class with Maurice Sendak. Was he helpful in furthering you artistic skills?
I remember I was so nervous on the first day, waiting for the famous Mr. Sendak to appear. But really he was an unpretentious regular guy from Brooklyn. I told him I was nervous having him as a teacher because he was so famous. ‘I’m just an old man with a beard… get over it’, he said.
Maurice would wait until the class was all quietly hard at work and then ramble on with priceless philosophical insights. I thought it highly amusing one day to hear him declare the obvious, “Of course a degree in illustration is completely superfluous… it’s only one’s talent and portfolio that really counts”. Another time he said “It doesn’t matter how many brilliant talented people you hang out with, it won’t make you any more talented”.
What made you leave NYC to move to Seattle?
New York was exciting as could be, but after 5 years of it I was homesick for snow capped peaks, rain forests and the cool green Pacific… for wild places with hardly any people. I dreamed of Seattle, the proletariat paradise… or so it seemed… sailboats, coffee shops, mossy sidewalks and ferns. I subscribed to a neighborhood Seattle paper, which is the worst possible thing to do when you’re homesick.
Anyhow, by now I had an agent… and FedEx made it possible to live anywhere. So my New York days were over. And I still have never been back – life got in the way.
What type of work did you do after you left school?
I went directly from art school to freelancing – which I’ve kept at ever since. I am just a ‘working illustrator’. I envy those people who can afford to just do a single book a year and spend their days traveling to do book signings. But I’ve always wondered how they can pay the mortgage, orthodontist, college, property tax, insurance and car repairs? But mainly I love making art – so maybe I shouldn’t apologize for that. When my plumber comes to work for me he always envies how I get to sit at home in a lovely warm studio listening to Mozart and drawing pictures. So I’m lucky.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
When I was a substitute teacher. Before that I used to read Sam Beckett and Rilke – but after discovering children’s books I read Sendak and Lobel and Margaret Wise Brown. So that was a transformation. I guess the trick is to translate the vitality of Beckett and Rilke into picture books.
What types of things did you do to get illustrating work?
I would print and mail letter sized black & white art samples. This was before the internet and before instant printing and before all the things that make promotion so easy nowadays. I guess the big advantage to that time was that I think local artists had much more attention from publishers in NYC. Artists now are totally spoiled with digital and the internet. Now anyone can look up anything in about 5 clicks. It used to be you’d have to search the library for days to find things out
Have you seen your art change since you first started?
Everything’s changed a lot of. Sometimes it seems my art changes every 3 months, but thats because basically I get bored doing one style and long to do something different. I might have done a book in pencil with detailed line in a realistic drawing style like Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle – so for my next project I might want to do a bold brushed pen line with bright colors (like the Dancing Clock). I could never just do the same style forever.
Were the Board Books you did for Random House in 1996, your first children’s illustrating job?
No, those were years after my first illustration work, back in the 80’s. Once I was a ghost illustrator for Mercer Mayer for many years, which was really like an art school. It was a great apprenticeship and it helped me buy my first house too. I used to study Mercer’s drawing style when I was in college – so when I got the gig as his ghost illustrator it was oddly natural.
How did that contract come about?
That was all from my first agent who made it possible. I’d been living in Seattle for years by then and was 2,000 miles from any publisher in NYC.
Did those books help lead you to another illustrating job?
Naturally every new job leads to something else.
How many books have you illustrated?
I think it’s about 75 – lost count.
I see that you have written and illustrated a few picture books? What was the title of your first one and how did you sell the publisher on giving you the contract?
That was ‘One Smart Cookie’… a story about a dog who can read. I had to sell that book myself, since my agent at that time had given up on it completely. But I still thought it was a great story so I sent it around myself and it sold in 2 weeks to the 2nd place I sent it. I seem to have to sell all my books myself. My dream is to find an agent who sells my stories for me.
How many picture books have you written and illustrated?
I think about 5… but I have written at least 75. I have a dozens of new stories and dummies all done up just waiting to find a home with a publisher or agent. Just the other day I wrote two fun PB stories first thing in the morning at 6å am. The majority of the things I write have never been seen by anyone, which I think is slightly unfortunate.
What book do you think was your biggest success?
I think it might have been ‘Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle’ which was a critical success with all fabulous reviews… but that book had no promotion and didn’t even appear in bookstores. Barnes & Noble did not put it on their shelves. Too bad… I thought the world might be interested in the true story about America’s forgotten 13 year old boy genius aviator who built his own flying bicycle 100 years ago. But I guess not… sigh. Maybe I should have added in a vampire or something.
Have you ever thought about doing a wordless picture book?
For sure – and I did a number of interactive e-book apps – which are not to be confused with ebooks. An ebook app is interactive – so the characters move around and disappear and interact with sound, music, actions and all that. Lots of fun – no profit – the ‘publisher’ went bankrupt and still owes me money.
Do you have an artist rep? If so, who and how did you connect?
I am currently representing myself. I was trying to find a new agent and had started trying to build a relationship, but ironically I always get too busy working to follow through. Last month I had offers to do 8 picture books from 4 different publishers – 3 of them publishers I’d never worked with.
Do you illustrate full time? How long did it take you to be able to take the step to supporting yourself with your art?
I think doing freelance illustration is a full time job. If you’re not illustrating then you’re busy redoing your website or making up postcards or generally busy scheming away on what to do next.
I started supporting myself right away, albeit I was starting from nothing. I was always amazed at how I could get $350 for doing a single page of art when it used to take me 2 weeks to make that working as a janitor.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Photoshop and it’s companion software Indesign and Bridge are main book making tools – but I draw on real paper first and scan the finish lines. I like real paper best for the finish line but photoshop for doing the rough sketch layouts and coloring. And I still use real paints and paper for some things.
When did you start doing digital art?
I think about 1995. My first computer had a 600 mgb hard drive. (now I have photoshop files bigger than that!) I hooked up my fax machine for a scanner and learned photoshop on a free demo version. So I took right to it like a duck to water. I have the digital gene which not all artists have. I can still remember the first time I scanned in an ink drawing and laid a transparent color layer over it… I was amazed. It seemed like magic.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Pencil and imagination are the basic main tools that no digital tools can replace. But digital art has an entirely new challenging dimension to it that combines art and science. I find the logical science part of working with layers and thinking up new techniques is fascinating in a way that real art can’t be. So it’s great to be able to do both of them together.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I don’t take photos, but I gather lots of things from online to sort of use as ‘scrap’. I know I used to have to go out and buy a few books as sort of a security blanket – but now I just gather those same things from online.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
Yes, a Wacom Intuos 2 tablet, but that doesn’t have a screen like the Cintiq. I’ve never had a Cintiq. Maybe someday I will… or that new iPad that has a an iPencil.
Would you be willing to work on a self-published picture book project?
Probably not – when I have free time I use it for my own projects.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
About a million of them it seems. I remember my very first magazine spots in Seventeen magazine. It was so fun to go to a small drugstore in the mountains of Colorado when I was on vacation and find them on the rack.
Tell us about the studio in your house?
Its a cozy L shaped upstairs room… with real and digital work spaces.
(photos of my studio with real and digital tools)
Is there anything in your studio that you couldn’t live without?
Photoshop and music would be the bare minimum. Since freelancing comes with such a burden of crushing isolation, it really helps to have music. And I keep in touch with 100’s of artist friends on social networks. I was a founding member of PBAA (Picture Book Artists Association). And then there’s Facebook – which kind of like the cyclone vortex that consumes all other social media. I used to be on lots of interesting other yahoo lists – but they’ve all been consumed by Facebook.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
My routine is boringly the same with everything arranged to accommodate work. I just keep plugging away at it trying to reinvent myself and find something new and fun and meaningful.
What books are you promoting at this time?
I’m usually way too busy making more illustrations to have any time for promoting books. My efforts at book promotion have generally felt like failures since it’s a whole second job that I don’t have time for. The exception to this was selling books at Costco. That was great because there were crowds of people going by and I got to sign book after book after book.
Once I was featured in a local bookstore. They did promotion for a month online and in their store. On the big day not one single person showed up. I think it’s probably a case of you have to invite a large circle of friends (which I don’t have) and have a party for yourself (which I couldn’t do).
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Digital and the internet are now just how I do my work – how I find my clients how I send my art around the world. I rarely talk to a real person much anymore I’m afraid. It’s like that tee shirt that says “I survived another meeting that would have been a better email”.
What are your career goals? Anything you haven’t done that you would like to do down the road?
Usually my goal is just to meet the next deadline. But that dovetails nicely with the bills coming due when the car needs a new transmission or the house needs new windows. In my dreams I’d do only my own books and I’d have an agent who was interested in selling the 25 picture book stories I have all written up.
What are you working on now?
Usually I feel underemployed unless I’m working for at least 2 or 3 art directors. So I’m currently doing a 4 book series and a magazine spread.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
Of course every artist needs to know the basics – drawing – perspective – color – scale – and all that. But learning digital is very important in this day and age.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
On my blog I wrote an insightful guide to the aspiring illustrator that tells the entire 7 part story of how I ran away to New York City to become a children’s book maker. You can read it here. (link) http://johnnez.blogspot.com/2015/07/arrival-in-gotham.html
Life as a freelancer is chaotic and unpredictable. So I decided if I ever gave a SCBWI talk on how to prepare for a career as a children’s book illustrator I would advise developing three basic skills.
1) Practice your expertise in Photoshop.
2) Practice your expertise at ‘Whack-a-Mole’
3) Practice your expertise at playing ‘Publisher Poker’ – which is the fine art of trying to juggle deadlines and art directors without losing your mind or going broke.
4) Also take a night class at ‘charm school’ – this is essential and maybe should be #1!
And maybe the most important thing is always keep the joy of making words and pictures alive.
Thank you John for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of John’s work, you can visit him at website at: www.johnnez.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for John. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!