Christopher Lyles is a professional illustrator who spends much of his time working in a variety of media and exploring new fields. Since graduating with my MFA in Illustration, he has contributed to children’s publications, greeting cards, editorial illustrations, and gallery installations.
His illustrations have been recognized by The Society of Illustrators LA, 3×3 and American Illustration.
He also has exhibited his work on the East coast and in LA.
He lives in the small town of Simsbury, Connecticut with his wife, two wonderful children, and their loving dog, Riley.
Here is Chris sharing his process:
My Process for creating my illustrations varies from project to project, but there are a few constants that remain the same. The first and foremost would be reading the manuscript over and over if pertaining to a children’s picture book. It is important for the story to sink in and this is where I will begin taking notes and doodling. At first these scribbles may seem irrelevant, but I have found that my initial markings have always served me well when looking back. I enjoy using different colored highlighters to outline setting, characters, and mood descriptions. This allows me to stay organized and to help me weed out what is most significant on each page.
Step 1 : Thumbnails
First I will have to create dozens of thumbnail sketches (Fig.34). This process was drilled into me in grad school and I have fully embraced the challenge of working out compositions on a small-scale basis. Often times I will use ˆPost-It Notes to sketch out my initial ideas. They are easy to move around and I feel less attachment to these drawings than if I was to work on good drawing paper. Sometimes I can go through stacks of these sticky papers until arriving upon a single solution. Later I will recycle these papers as part of a collage background or some other type of decorative element. It is the best way to recycle!
Below is the first sketch I created of my penguin character.
Below are some of the thumbnail sketches I created while working on my wordless picture book.
Step 2: Experimentation
After exploring different thumbnails, I will apply gesso to some of the Post-it Notes and begin painting on top of them. It is an exciting process and allows me to start thinking about color schemes. Even though most of my finished pieces will be created in collage, I still value the process of painting and establishing a solid structure.
I feel that it is important to allow yourself time to experiment and play around in the beginning of any job. It is a great way to get rid of the jitters and to work out the kinks!
Step 3: The Collage Papers
One of the things I enjoy most about collage is getting to work with a wide variety of patterned and textured papers. I have collected these papers for several years and have organized by color, texture, and weight. Some papers were store-bought, while others were hand-painted by me. In addition, I collect ephemera and have a wide array of old letters, stamps, vintage photos and hand-written letters. Illustrations begin by arranging collage fragments into an interesting composition before any paint is applied. At this preliminary stage, messages, if any, are conveyed in abstract fashion. Throughout the painting process, I allow collage pieces to peek through to entice the viewer. Often, sufficient text will remain visible to help communicate underlying theme or issue.
It is noteworthy that Henri Matisse (b.1869-1954) has been a great influence inspired by his cut paper collages. In particular, Matisse’s Snail (Fig. 30) is an excellent example of the way in which he tore shapes from paper and arranged them to form beautiful compositions. Matisse coined the term “drawing with scissors”. I cannot think of a better way to describe the method I use to begin an illustration. In fact, this go-with-the-flow approach is liberating. Envisioning how a child would work helps to relieve unnecessary pressure or anxiety. The images below illustrate the way I prepared my surfaces for An Arctic Journey (Fig. 31-32).
Fig. 32 Christopher Lyles, Collaged Gessobord with Thin Paint Application, 2014, collage and acrylic on gessobord, unpublished.
I decided to use gessobord (Fig. 33) as the surface for my final illustrations. Over the years, I have tried a variety of supports and none have been as strong or reliable. The ready to paint boards have been coated with an acid-free acrylic gesso.
After my surfaces have been collaged, a final coat of matte medium was applied over the entire board to ensure proper adhesion. At this stage, texture can be added by scraping the surface with various tools such as forks, palette knives and old brushes. Marking was random to achieve a more spontaneous look to the finished art. Finally, a thick layer of masking tape was applied around surfaces to prevent smudges and smears.
Once all of the surfaces were properly prepared, sketches were enlarged for transfer onto the supports. However, the images were not simply traced onto the boards. Printouts would be placed over the collage papers for cutout guides. This practice allowed greater liberty with work and embraced all “happy accidents”. The most important aspect of my work was the composition. Once laid down, each new piece will determine the course of action. Because of this flexible approach, I am always surprised with my final product (Fig. 40) and I look forward to working on the next. In this vein, I approached my thesis working one illustration a time. Although other illustrators may consider this wasted time, I wanted to learn as much as possible about every new piece before moving to the next. Each finished painting set the bar higher for the subsequent one and I enjoyed the challenge of keeping that standard. As a consequence, there are images more successful than others. A great deal, however, can be learned from this evolution. To capture findings, a written journal is maintained to critique color mixtures, character designs and compositional issues.
The Squint Test
Mr. Murray Tinkelman (b.1933) once stated, “Squinting can replace art school.” After spending the last two years under his guidance, I can fully appreciate this statement. Ironically, squinting allows the illustrator to see their work with clearer vision. This process breaks down an image into its essential components and allows you to see what is working and what is not. Each of my illustrations for An Arctic Journey was put through the “squint test.” After completing each illustration, I would step back and squint. If the main subject of my illustration became lost or blurry, more contrast or value was required. Despite its simplicity, squinting has changed my life. I now encourage my elementary students to squint at their artwork before asking questions. Often, they are able to resolve their own problems and as such gain more confidence in their ability.
Finally, I decided to share my thesis work with my students. Being an elementary art schoolteacher provides me with the rare opportunity to interact with my target audience. I explained to them that this was a wordless book and wanted them to tell me the story. There was no right or wrong interpretation. I was absolutely amazed by their enthusiasm and they were able to tell me so much more about my story than I ever could have imagined. In fact, some students questioned why I made certain decisions. With all of their responses and feedback, I was able to make adjustments necessary to make this story a success. Children are the greatest teachers and I am fortunate to have a bunch!
Interview Questions for Christopher Lyles
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been illustrating professionally for over 15 years. I received my first gig right after graduating art school. I was very interested in designing and illustrating greeting cards, so I developed a portfolio of various samples and sent them out to dozens of stationary companies. I was fortunate enough to catch the attention of Recycled Paper Greetings/ American Greetings and I have been working with them ever since.
Where do you live?
I live in Simsbury, Connecticut with my wife and two kids. I am surrounded by wilderness and lots of ferns!! I’m sure they will be appearing in my work soon.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
I’m pretty sure I spent a lot of time creating personalized greeting cards, stationary, and gifts for friends and colleagues. This was before I graduated art school and the best part about it was that I was able to be my own art director! I still enjoy creating personalized works of art for people when I have the opportunity.
Where did you go for your MFA? What made you chose that school?
I attended the Low Residency in Illustration program at The University of Hartford. I chose this school because it was the only Low Residency MFA in the country that was dedicated exclusively to Illustration. Not to mention the celebrity cast of faculty which included names such as Betsy and Ted Lewin, Gary Kelley, C.F. Payne, and many more!!
What did you study there?
Did getting your MFA helped develop your style?
Absolutely. This program was akin to boot camp for illustrators. I was fortunate enough to hear and see well-known illustrators share their processes and offer great advice and insight. I was also pushed to develop a thesis based on a wordless book that I had developed while attending Betsy and Ted Lewin’s class on creating a picture book. It was a mind- blowing experience!
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
After completing my undergrad program at Paier College of Art, I was mostly illustrating and writing creating cards for various companies. These were mostly royalty-based contracts (which I highly recommend) and I was able to learn a lot about meeting deadlines, making changes, and growing as an artist. I had a great art director named Gretchen who knew exactly how to push me to produce my best work.
Did they help you get work after you graduated?
Not really. It isn’t a criticism of the school. But rather I was already getting work by sending out my own promotional material.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Most definitely! I have kept countless sketchbooks over the years and all the evidence lies within them. I think it is fascinating to see where you have come from and all the things that have influenced your personal vision and style.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
Probably since I was a child myself. I was always telling stories with my work and entertaining my classmates. I always thought I would become a Disney animator (typical) but it wasn’t until I attended art school that I had different thoughts. Aside from illustrating, I also work as an elementary school art and gym instructor. It is honestly the greatest experience in the world. I get to relive my childhood years and my target audience is staring at me everyday!
Was Lucy and Lila your first book?
No. Since being represented by Tugeau 2 (for a long time), I have been fortunate enough to have illustrated many books. However, Lucy and Lila holds a very special place in my heart. This was the first book that was based on my own original character.
How did that contract come about?
I had created a small watercolor sketch of an elephant for my niece and I sent it to Nicole just to acquire her feedback. I had no idea that she would share it with the industry and soon after I would be contacted by Little Bee Books to illustrate a story based on that character!! However, I never had been challenged to create a picture book based off of a single sketch, but I accepted the challenge with excitement and I was very pleased with the finished book.
How many books have you illustrated?
At least 10 books.
What was the title of your first book?
I know this sounds bad, but I can’t honestly remember. It was a seasonal book that was published as an oversized book for young readers. It was very early in my career.
Do you have a favorite book that you illustrated?
Probably “Meg Goldberg on Parade” (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2015). It is a book which illustrates New York City’s Israel Day Parade. It involves a sweet, young girl named Meg who has a wild imagination which leads her to experience this festival up close. This book involved lots of illustrating famous landmarks in New York City and I had a lot of fun visiting the city for reference and inspiration. The entire book was created with collage fragments, many which I found while visiting there. I always love an opportunity to depict famous landmarks using a highly stylized approach. The important part is to make sure that the locations being depicted are still accurate and recognizable. That is a lot harder than it sounds.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Yes! I am planning to work on a wordless book I illustrated for my thesis a few years back. It’s based on a story of a little penguin who gets separated from his colony during the night and is taken on an adventure through the cold dark night.
What do you think is your biggest success?
Probably being able to balance a career as an illustrator, educator, father, and husband. It is the most challenging thing in the world, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are certainly times where I feel as if I’m hanging on by a thread!
Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?
Yes. I am very excited to be working on one now, but there are many challenges with creating a wordless picture book. Each page has to communicate clearly and the story arc has to be dynamic. I plan on sharing my sketches with my students to see what stories they can come up with. It is so inspiring to see their eyes light up when they have an idea. They are always happy to share and they have an abundance of creativity and imagination.
I see you’re represented at Tugeau2. How did you connect with Nicole and when was that?
Nicole is the greatest agent in the world! She has represented me for the past 13 years? It’s been a long time now. I can remember picking up a copy of “The Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market book during my last year of art school. I read the entire book in a few days and highlighted the agencies that were seeking the kind of work that I was creating. Soon after, I received a call from Tugeau 2 and the rest was history. Over the years, she has helped me to develop a signature style and she has acquired me commissions from leading publishers in both the trade and educational markets. I am very grateful for all the support she has provided me along the way.
Do you illustrate full time?
50/50. I work as an educator from 9-3pm and as an illustrator from 5-?? It’s so hard to describe because I always feel that I am working as an illustrator no matter what I am doing. I am making mental notes, dooddling in my sketchbook, and thinking of new stories and characters. I am fortunate enough to work in a school who values having an artist –in-residence. If it were not for the school, I would truly be lost.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
Yes. It would have to be collage. Scissors, crayons, glue, Xacto knife, and an assortment of papers. I guess that isn’t one medium.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
Sometimes. There is always the risk of relying too heavily on reference, which can hinder imagination and working stylistically. However, I know many illustrators who do incredible work and use many of their own reference pictures. I suppose it is a personal preference that less is more.
Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?
Yes. Over the years I have worked with many educational publishers. I would say that the biggest difference working with working with educational publishers is that you have to be crystal clear with content. I spend a lot of time working stylistically, but sometimes it can be too much of a distraction for young readers who are relying on the picture to communicate clearly. Also, deadlines tend to be a little more rushed, but it is good practice. Because I work in a school and my wife is a school psychologist, it gives me great pleasure to see what a wonderful teaching tool these books can be for children.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
I do use Photoshop in my work. Mostly for scanning collage pieces and cleaning up finished pieces. I am very old-fashioned and I still prefer working traditionally. I am still trying to combine the two methods seamlessly and this is an on-going process. There is no greater feeling than cutting with scissors and gluing down pieces of paper with real glue. This process is very time consuming and tedious, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! The computer is just another tool for me.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I have a Wacom tablet and use it on occasion for touching up elements of my work in Photoshop. I still rely on a good old-fashioned 2b pencil to produce sketches in my sketchbook.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Not really (at least not traditional editorial illustration). Occasionally I will take on editorial work for newspapers. My work doesn’t really lend itself to the editorial market. Having said that, I have illustrated for clients such as Cricket and Babybug magazine. They have been great clients and I would love to collaborate more with them in the future.
Do you studio a studio in your house?
Yes. Recently I purchased a new home with a studio on the first floor. I have two big windows looking out to rows of green ferns and many tall pine trees. I love nature and I am so lucky to have this resource in such close proximity. My studio is very simple and I have even made a section for my two sons to work alongside me (on special occasions).
Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?
I would have to say it would be my xacto knife.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I always follow my gut and make plenty of time to experiment and explore new ideas and techniques. I have found that making time for my personal work has led to greater opportunities within the field of illustration. I rely on many sticky notes to help keep me organized and to stay on track. I think it is important to set achievable goals for yourself too. As an artist, my mind tends to get ahead of itself and I can become overwhelmed with the desire to do EVERYTHING. I have learned over the years that patience is a virtue. Hard work and dedication to your craft is key!
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes. I am currently illustrating my second book for Magination Press (American Psychology Asociation) and I am having a blast! I am working with some of the greatest art directors and editors and they have allowed me much freedom and flexibility. Many of the topics I am illustrating are focused on helping children understand their feelings and developing coping strategies. These are critical isues and I am so happy to be involved with such a vital organization.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Absolutley. My work can reach a much broader audience and it has made deivering artwork ontime so much easier! I also consider the internet a great vehicle for self-promotion. However, it is very important to stay vigilant and to always copyright your work! As great as the internet has become, there are also many drawbacks.
What are your career goals?
I have so many. I would say that my biggest career goal would be to create and publish a wordless book. I feel that I am very close to achieving this goal and hopefully it will come to fruition soon. I’m also pursuing the liscensing industry and I have been developing a brand identity that I would like to incorporate as wall décor, bedding, toys, etc.. Having children has made my desire for product design increase significantly. It also allows me to test my designs in my children’s rooms to see what works and what doesn’t.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I am starting my second book for Magination Press and I am also working on redesigning my website. My to-do lists are growing each day.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
I have found a few tips that have served me well over the years. Because I am a collage artist. I tend to collect lots of papers and materials. I would invest in a good filing system so that it is easy to find what you are looking for when working on a particular project. I have found Ikea to be a great place to fulfill my needs and budget. I also like to pre-cut different shapes and textures of paper to be used at a later time. I am obsesed with circles and triangles , so I have filled many bins with those. (cont.)
Also, don’t waste your time on cheap supplies. I have come to appreciate the value of a good pair of scissors, glue, and working surface surface. Some of my favorite items are : PVA acid-free glue, Xacto blades in various sizes, a burnisher, Raphael Kolinsky Sable #2 brush, Turner Acryl Gouache, Golden Matte Medium, an ebony pencil, and stonehenge paper. (cont.)
Some of the greatest supplies I have purchased have come from antique stores and flea markets. I scour these places until the right item speaks to me. For eample, if I am working on a book about gardening, I might search for vintage plant diagrams and handwritten ledgers. I try to imagine the look and fele of the story and seek out appropriate textures and surfaces. I adore old schoolbooks and maps. I have many conatiners filled with this stuff in my studio.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
I can offer some of my own advice and that of others who have walked a mile in my shoes.
- Do what you love and love what you do. -everyone
- The personal work is where you learn everything. –Marshall Arisman
- If you truly follow your passion, others will pick up on it. – Joe Ciardello
- Don’t wait for a market to come to you. Create it. – Burt Silverman
- Draw everyday
- Paint your soul not your style. If you deal with style or technique alone you cut yourself off. – Burt Silverman
Perhaps the greatest advice I can give would be , “Be kind to yourself.” This is a very competitive business and you will face a lot of rejection along the way. Instead of becoming discouraged, get excited about growing and creating new work! Artists can steal your style, but they can never take your voice.
Thank you Chris 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 Chris’ work, you can visit him at website at: http://www.christopherlyles.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Chris. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!