Jeffrey Ebbeler has been creating award winning art for children for over a decade. He has illustrated more than 40 picture books.
He worked as an Art Director for the children’s book department of Publication’s International in Chicago for 6 years. He writes and illustrates the monthly comic series Nestor’s Dock for Ask magazine. He has also done paper engineering for pop-up books, created large scale murals for schools and churches, and sculpted puppets and preformed for several marionette theaters.
Jeffrey gives many lectures and demonstrations in grade-schools, colleges, and museums about the process of bringing words to life through pictures. He and his wife Eileen both attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati. They currently live in Cincinnati with their twin daughters Olivia and Isabel.
Here’s Jeff discussing his process:
This illustration is for my upcoming picture book Scout Moore: Junior Ranger Extraordinaire written by Theresa Howell for the Grand Canyon Association. In the story, Scout is pretending to be a park ranger. The text says; At night, I sleep under the stars, surrounded by lots of wild animals. I think it’s important that the illustration expand on the text and also add some humor or emotion. I drew Scout sleeping in her room surrounded by all of her stuffed animals. A nightlight is projecting stars all around her.
I do lots of research and character development before I start on sketches. I want to make all of the elements in the picture important to building a world for the characters. I spent a lot of time on sites like Etsy and Pinterest getting ideas for stuffed animals, bedroom decorations, and furniture. I usually do some small scribbled out ideas for the composition and then I draw out my sketch. I try to have the sketches that I’m going to send to the publisher be pretty tight and finished looking. If it is a nighttime scene or if the lighting is important to the piece, I will rough in some shading in Photoshop.
There is often several months of revisions for sketches. This sketch didn’t need any revising so I got to work painting it. I cut my hot press watercolor paper to size, and scale the sketch to size (with bleed) in Photoshop. I have a 12×17 printer that I use to print the sketch onto the paper. I try to work on all of the paintings for a book at the same time to keep the painting style, pallet and characters consistent.
I tape all of the printed out sketches to individual boards. I brush on a layer of gel medium with an old, rough bristle brush. This seals in the sketch, and adds texture to the painting. I don’t like to start painting on a white surface, so I do a wash of yellow ochre and red oxide. I usually rough in some of the shadows with these colors. The yellow ocher gives a nice orangey glow to the edges between colors.
Next, I block in color. I usually start with the background first. I paint near my computer, and I always fill up my computer screen with references for whatever I’m painting. I also layout out picture books from other illustrators or art books to give me ideas for fresh ideas on how to approach the painting. For this piece I also went to my daughters’ room to observer the lighting on their stuffed animals.
As I develop the painting I’m figuring out what colors I want everything to be, and I’m also focusing on the lighting. I use Golden Open acrylics which stay wet longer that normal acrylics. They allow me some time to blend colors. I want to focus attention on Scout with the lighting. All of the characters are very colorful, but since this is a nighttime scene I can tie them all together with the blues of the shadows.
After I’ve blocked in all of the colors, it’s all about refining and sharpening the details. I use a #0 liner brush to do all of the sharp detail. I tried to make the elements that are furthest away from the light have a limited blue or grey pallet. I added blue shadows and highlights to the edge of all the objects that facing away from the light source.
The last few images were shots that I took with my phone while I was working. This image is a scan of the painting after I have taken it off of the board. I like how the scanner picks up the texture and brush strokes of the thicker areas of paint.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
I have been making a living in one way or another as an artist since I was in high school. My first job was drawing caricatures at Kings Island amusement park. I worked there all through high school and college. It was a great lesson in how to draw quickly, all day, under the scrutiny of many eyes looking over your shoulder.
What made you decide to attend the Art Academy of Cincinnati?
I knew pretty early on that I wanted to go to art school. My mom is a sculptor. She created a larger than life size bronze crucifix for the college of Mount St. Joseph, and she did clay portraits busts of many years. She was also the art teacher at my grade school. My older brother is a very talent artist, and I always aspired to draw as well as he could. My brother attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and he was a senior there when I was a freshman.
I was conflicted, at first, because I really wanted to go to school in New York. I received a full scholarship to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, so that made my choice a lot easier. In the end I am really grateful for the way things worked out. The friends I met at school were a big influence on the career I chose, and I also met my wife there.
Did you meet your wife at AA of C?
Yes, Eileen and I were in several classes together and we ran around with the same group of friends.
What did you study at the Art Academy of Cincinnati?
My first 3 years I was a majoring as a fine art painter. I’m happy that I started out that way because I think it gave me a solid grounding in painting techniques. Around junior year I started dabbling in illustration. I had the opportunity to take a semester at Parson’s New York studio program where I shared a large warehouse studio with art students from around the country.
I had been painting an idea for a children’s book on some on plywood panels. I went to a book stores and looked up the names of publishers on the back of books that I liked. While I was in New York I started calling some of those publishers, and I was surprise at how many were willing to meet with me. I hauled my stack of wood panels, that must have weighed 50 pounds, all around New York.
After college I went back to New York several times to show my work around. I received a lot of really important advice that helped me refine my portfolio.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
Absolutely. Art school was a unique time were I could try things out and experiment without any of the strictures or expectations of paid projects. Even in the Art Academy’s design department they took a very “fine art” approach to making work. Most of the work I did in art school was pretty awful, but it was a great chance to try out different thing to see what I liked. Even though all of the work I do now is for paid projects, I try to keep some of that spirit of experimentation to each new project.
The other invaluable aspect to art school is all of the talented people I met. Just being around a bunch of talent people, both teachers and other students, exposed me to many different influences and pushed me to try harder.
Did the college help you get work when you graduated?
If you’re not a designer looking for an internship, it’s kind of tricky for an art school to help find work for their students. I have to say though, for the first few years out of school I was almost always busy. The Art Academy had a bulletin board of local people seeking random art relate jobs, and I took on as many as I could.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
I painted some massive murals in a few schools and churches. I had to assemble a 30 foot scaffolding on my own in a church lobby, and I’m not very good with hights. I often plunged into jobs having no idea how to do them, and I learned as I went. It’s been the case throughout my career that work springs from other work. Painting my sisters nursery lead to many larger mural projects. A puppet performance that I did my senior year led to projects carving marionettes for several theaters. It also led to a commission to design and sew large animal costumes for the Central Park Zoo, as well as paper mache package design for Bed Bath and Beyond.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
I sure hope so. I tend to be pretty critical of my own work. When a new book comes out, I spend a lot of time going through it, looking for things I wish I would have done differently. The kind of characters and subject matter that I like to draw hasn’t change a whole lot over the years. The biggest changes are in the way I render and paint the art. Over the coarse of many books I’ve tried painting in looser and tighter techniques. Painting in a thicker more painterly style, or in washy water colors. Painting with or without black ink out lines, and also working in other media like pastels and colored pencils. It’s also been a learning curve seeing how these techniques stand up to scanning and how they look as a printed book.
Did you take any classes to learn how to paper engineer pop-up books?
After I graduated from the Art Academy, my wife and I moved to Chicago, so she could attend grad school. I responded to a want ad at Publications International. They were looking for art assistants. I had no experience in design at all, and only a very limited knowledge of Photoshop. I ended up getting hired as an assistant art director based on my illustration portfolio. I spent the next few months asking the designers in the cubicles next to me questions until I had Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop figured out. I eventually worked my way up to an art director position.
The books I was designing were mostly with licensed characters like Sesame Street and Disney and occasionally 400 page fairy tail treasuries. The publisher was interested in producing some pop-up books and my boss asked me if I could try to figure out how to design one. It was a lot of trial and error. I bought a bunch of Robert Sabuda books and took them apart to see how they worked. My office was filled with scraps of paper folded and taped together. The added challenge was then to take apart a pop-up that I had created and turn it into a flat illustrator file with die cuts and fold lines that the printer in China could use to produce the books. It took several prototypes before everything was worked out. We had a pretty small budget, but I tried to add in as many interesting, complicated pops as I could. I left that job about 10 years ago to freelance full time. I’ve had a few small pop-up projects since them, but I would love to do a whole book again. It was a great challenge.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
When I was in 5th or 6th grade I was obsessed with comic strips. I was a huge fan of Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes. I also collected comic books. That was right around the time that some of the really painterly graphic novels were starting to be made by artists like Kent Williams and Jon J Muth. I was always writing stories and making my own comic strips throughout grade school and high school.
I didn’t really pay attention to children’s books until college. Several friends introduced me to books by illustrious like William Joyce, Lane Smith, Lisbeth Zwerger, and Stephen Gammell. Most of the picture books I had when I was a kid were from the 60’s and 70’s. They were printed on cheap paper in 2 or 3 color. I remember seeing these new books in college and being blown away by the variety lushly painted illustrations. It married my interests in fine art painting, story telling and cartoony whimsy.
What was the title of the first book you illustrated?
My first book was called Punxatawney Phyllis. It was written by Susanna Leonard Hill.
How did that contract come about?
I was struggling for about 4 years after college to get a good portfolio together. I got to occasionally contribute illustrations to projects at my publishing job. I also started getting work form Ladybug and Cricket magazine, but getting picture book work proved to be elusive for quite a while.
I had some random character ideas that I had come up with and I decided to team up with a friend who was an aspiring writer. We wrote a story around the characters and I put together a book dummy. I sent that book dummy and some other samples around, and that landed me my first few book contracts. The book dummy was unfortunately never picked up, but it ended up being a good portfolio piece.
Not really. I think doing editorial or ad work would be fun but would involve putting together a whole different portfolio. I have been gradually getting work for a little older audience, and it’s been a nice change of pace. Some of my recent projects have been for middle grade and chapter books.
How did you get involve in sculpting puppets?
When I was in college I was a big fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Brothers Quay. Dave McKean had also just published his comic book Mr. Punch which was illustrated with photographs of Punch and Judy puppets that he made. I was sharing a studio with Chris Sickles who has made an amazing career of creating illustrations with puppets for his Red Nose Studio. I teamed up with Chris and our friend Steve for our senior thesis project. We put together a performance of carved wooden puppets on a stage made from old cabinets and a grandfather clock. The show was called Wart Man Eats Gold Stew.
One of the people attending the show was Kevin Frisch. He runs a theatre company Frisch Marionettes and produces stage performances and occasionally puppets for movies like Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Kevin hired me on, and I spent a year or so performing shows with him and learning woodcarving and sculpting. Just like pop-up books, building puppets was a great experience that I hope I get to do again someday.
What is the title of your latest book? How did you get the contract to illustrate that book?
Making a living as a freelance artists is constant juggling act. Since all of my projects take several months, to a year to complete, I need to have a bunch of projects going at the same time. Right now I am painting the illustrations for a book called Scout Moore: Junior Ranger Extraordinaire written by Theresa Howell for the National Park Service. I am also sketching an ebook for Reading A-Z called Sir Suffix written by Karen Mocker, and I am sketching a sequel to Camp Nana Papa by Donnie Cranfill. I am editing a picture book that I wrote and will be illustrating for Two Lions publishers. It is tentatively called George the Dog Saves the Day. And I just sent out my monthly comic series Nestor’s Dock that write and illustrate for Ask Magazine. I am also putting together sample art for several up coming projects.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I have illustrated about 50 picture books, as well as whole bunch of ebooks and leveled readers.
Do you plan to writing and illustrating one of your own books?
I have wanted to be writer about as long as I have wanted to be an illustrator. Over the past 10 years I’ve put together many book dummies. Going to SCBWI critique groups has helped me get better. Also writing my monthly comic series has been an excellent challenge in creative writing. The comic has to be about the magazines monthly science topic, which often isn’t a very funny topic. We do a monthly brainstorming phone meeting where I try to pitch them some concepts and punchlines, and I can usually tell when an idea is dying. Coming up with humorous and age appropriate stories based on sometimes dry and esoteric topics has been a surprising source of inspiration.
The first picture book that wrote and illustrated was called Click! It came out last March, published by Holiday House. My next book published by Two Lions is due out in 2017.
Have you and your wife worked on any books together?
We’ve worked on many art projects together through out our relationship. We have pretty different styles, so we’ve never done a project were our illustrations are side by side. It has always been one of us helping out the other. Eileen illustrated a book for the Life Line Children’s Theater in Chicago and I did the design work. Sometimes when I am especially busy she will help me prep paintings or do under painting for my illustrations.
What book do you think was your biggest success?
I was pretty lucky from the start. My first book Punxatawney Phyllis did well. I have had 6 books including all of the Mouse books that I did with Judy Cox picked up by Scholastic book club. Many of my books have won various awards and been selected for State reading programs. I think Tiger In My Soup written by Kashmira Sheth has been my best success recently. It’s probably my favorite book so far that I have worked on. It was recently featured on the WWE Wrestle Mania Reading Challenge which I thought was pretty cool.
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
Kind of. My book Click! is sort of a wordless picture book. It’s a bed time story. A boy is trying to fall asleep in a noisy house. His bed side lamp, that is shaped like a bird, comes to life to tries to make everything from a dripping faucet to a creaking chair be quite. The only words in the book are occasional sound effects. This was the first book I’d ever written, so it was nice that I could craft a story, mostly with the pictures. All of the noisy objects in the house are anthropomorphic. One of my favorite things is giving faces and personalities to inanimate objects.
Do you have an artist rep? If so, who and how did you connect?
I have been with Mela Bolinao of MB Artists for about 4 years now. She not only keeps me consistently busy with projects, but she is also great at giving me client feedback and suggesting things that I can improve and new samples that I should be doing to get the kind of work that I want. I’d wanted to work with Mela for years. I was a fan of the artists she represents. The first time I contacted her, she didn’t think I was ready yet, but she spent about an hour on the phone going through my portfolio and suggesting things I should work on. It was the most constructive rejection I’ve ever had. About 5 years later I contact her and she told me she had been following my work. Having a rep has opened all kinds of doors, and brought me to projects that I couldn’t have gotten on my own.
Do you illustrate full time? Do you spend a certain amount of time illustrating?
I have been illustrating full time for about 8 years. Before that I was working full time as a designer and illustrating on evenings and weekends. There was a point where I was getting enough freelance projects that I couldn’t do both. I start working at 8:30 after my kids go to school. I usually stop at 5:30 for dinner. My kids go to bed at 8:00 and I usually set a card table in our living room and paint until 11 or midnight while we watch tv. I do work on weekends when I’m busy but I try to keep that under control. It’s sometimes a challenge balancing work and life when you work at home, but I’m grateful that I got to be at home to help out when my twin daughters were little. I set up a table in our living room and put a baby gate around it so they couldn’t reach my art supplies. We called it the daddy cage.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Almost everything I do is in acrylic paint. I’ve been using Golden Open Acrylic because they stay wet on my pallet all day. I’ve tried different surfaces over the years from wood panels, to illustration board and watercolor paper. I like to see the texture of the surface show through, and I also like to have areas that are thick and painterly. I have a printer that can print on heavy paper that is 12 inches wide. I generally scan in my sketches and format them to the size I want. Then I print the sketch on the paper. Lately I’ve been using Fabriano Artistic hot press paper. I tape the paper to a board, and put a thick coat gel medium over the sketch with an old heavy bristle brush. This seals in the sketch and gives the paper a rough brushy texture. I’ve been really happy with the how well my scanner picks up this texture. I think it adds a lot of depth to the final illustration.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Yes. That’s one of my favorite stages. When I’m starting a new book, I try to find something to get me excited about the project. It might be a specific style or era of furniture or architecture for the house they live in. If the story isn’t specific about location, I try to put them in a unique or interesting setting or season of year. I spend lots of time on websites like pinterest and etsy looking for interesting patterns for clothing or wallpaper. Lots of little details to make the look of the book and the world that character lives in unique.
I’ve worked on a bunch of books about different cultures, religions and or eras in history that was unfamiliar with. Some of those included a book on Vikings, ancient Egypt, Cinco de Mayo and 2 books on Jewish holidays. The author Tiger In My Soup is from India, and my editor asked me to include some elements of Indian art. There is a book that the sister reads in the story and I made the illustrations for that book look like animal paintings of Indian artists that I found online. I had a similar experience with Cinco De Mouse-O where I got to add lots of Mexican folk art in the background. I really enjoy opportunities where I’m pushed to work in a different style.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
All of my trade books are traditional paintings. In recent years I’ve been asked to do my own scanning more often, so I occasionally do a little bit of touch ups in Photoshop. I always scan my paintings before I send them out anyway, because it gives me a better idea of how it will look when they’re printed.
Lately I have been doing more digital work. I have been digitally coloring all of my ebook projects, and also my comic series Nestor’s Dock. I do all of the black line work with ink and a brush on paper. I painted some washes and big blocks of color on paper and scanned them in. I cut out brush strokes and color blocks in photoshop and use those to fill in the color under the line work. By using scanned brush strokes, the final piece still has the look of a hand done watercolor. I’m really starting to enjoy the freedom it provides in playing with color, because you can constantly tweet and change the colors. I’ve done some combinations I never would have thought of if I was painting it traditionally. Its still just collaging bits of hand painted elements. I haven’t found a way to create a painting in photoshop from scratch that looks like my traditional paintings.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I have a wacom tablet, but I hardly ever use it. I’m much more comfortable with a mouse. I know that’s ridiculous, but I’ve drawn and colored whole books with a mouse.
Do you do exhibits to show off your art?
Yes. I just sent 3 pieces to the Mazza Museum in Findley Ohio. I will be a speaker at their 2017 summer conference. I was a guest speaker at the OKI literacy conference a few months ago, and I had the opportunity to do a solo show in the gallery at Thomas Moore College for the conference. It was a great change of pace. I spent the whole summer going to flea markets buying big, ornate, gilded frames. Most of them I painted black. I built a large sculpture of my bird lamp character from Click! which gave me the chance to work with a welder and a glass artist. I also teamed up with a friend who is a composer for Chicago musical theater to create a song and video for Click! using all of the sound effects from the book. I added some hand drawn animation at the beginning and end.
Would you be willing to work with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?
I just had my first experience with a self-publishing author, and it has gone very well. I was approached by Donnie Cranfill to illustrate his book The Adventures of Camp Nana Papa. I think he might be unusual in the realm of self publishing in that he has started a whole company around his concept. It includes stuffed animals, backpacks, t-shirts etc., and he plans to do a whole series of these books. If you’re the kind of person that is willing to invest time and money into marketing the way he has, it seems like self publishing might be a viable option.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Yes. The Carus magazines were the first people that hired me to do children’s illustrations. I’ve been working with them ever since. My comic series Nestor’s Dock is for Ask magazine. I’ve done covers for Ladybug, Ask and Click, as well as lots of interior illustrations for Cricket and Babybug. I’ve also worked for Highlights and Clubhouse Jr.
Do you have a studio in your house?
I use one of our upstairs bedrooms as a studio.
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
My computer is essential for almost everything. Even when I’m sketching and painting. I have 2 large monitors that I fill with references or inspiration for color pallets or patterns while I’m sketching and painting.
The other thing is a pencil extender. I hate wasting short pencils, and the pencil extender lets me use a pencil all the way up without getting a hand cramp.
Have you won any awards for your art?
I haven’t won any awards specifically for my art. Many of my books have won awards. I’ve had some reviews that I’ve been really proud of. One of my favorites was a starred review from publishers weekly for Tiger in My Soup “Ebbeler truly knocks it out of the park, gleefully building on Sheth’s prose with dynamic perspectives, a realistically detailed (and menacing) tiger, abundant visual hyperbole, and unexpected delights on nearly every page.”
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
This is shaping up to be a really busy year. I’ve been really trying to focus on writing. My agent is shopping around several of my stories, and have 3 or 4 in progress.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Absolutely. It is a great tool for research and marketing your work.
Do you have any career goals still to accomplish?
I’m mostly focusing on becoming a better writer. I love author/illustrators like Dan Santat, Adam Rex, Peter Brown, William Joyce and Tony DiTerlizzi who have created their own quirky universe for their characters and stories to live in. I’m hoping to do that as I write more books.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
There is one thing that dramatically changed the look of my paintings. In the past I had always used small round brushed to detail work. About 5 years ago I discovered a liner brush that I thinks has the perfect length bristols to do the most intricate, sharp line work. I use it for all of my detail work in paintings. I’ve also switched from using micron pens to this brush for b & w line work. It’s the #0 Princeton Select Liner. They are very inexpensive and only last for a few paintings, but I hope the Princeton company never goes out of business. I’ve tried lots of other liner brushes and none of them work the same for me.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Join SCBWI. Go to critique groups and try to go to as many individual critiques with editors and art directors as you can. Regional and national SCBWI conference provide lots of opportunities to meet face to face with publishers and get honest opinions about your work. Also, really study the type of work you want to do. If you want to do picture books, you need to focus your portfolio on that. Find the artists in that genre that you love, and bring your work into that world. You need to have your own style and voice, but it also needs to makes sense for the age group and subject matter.
Thank you Jeff 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 Matt’s work, you can visit him at website at: http://www.jeffillustration.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Jeff. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!