Jesse Graber is a freelance illustrator working in Kansas City, Kansas. When he’s not drawing I play a lot of music on the fiddle and banjo. He attended Bethel College in North Newton, KS and The American Academy of Art in Chicago. He illustrate books, magazines and educational materials for clients such as McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, Oxford University Press, and Highlights for Children, and he is represented in the children’s market by Cornell & Company.
The image I’m working towards is an image of three kids looking at a passed-out bigfoot in a passenger train with passengers freaking out.
Character sketches usually happen in my sketchbook. For whatever reason, it’s still easier for me to write in my sketchbook than on a tablet. Nothing got really nailed down here, but I have a basic idea of what I want the kids to look like.
I have a file called NEW in my current projects folder. It is a large PS document that opens to this page of 9 small thumbnails. The rule is that I can’t zoom in to work on detail, which defeats the purpose of thumbnails, which is to design your overall image and see what works without falling in love with anything you draw. It’s really really hard not to zoom in.
I usually have an idea for an image before I start, and generally it turns out to be the least interesting one. For me, thumbnails let me play around in the space of the picture quickly to get acquainted with the shapes and the environment. I drew an arrow at the one I went with. It seemed to be both dynamic (lots of vertical lines) and best at showing everything I need to show.
First pass= super boring. The actual perspective really seems to kill the vibe, but I didn’t realize that yet. I do have things kinda spaced out where I want them and I can see how this is going for the first time.
Another pass. A real problem through this entire piece is that there’s a lot going on around the main subjects, so I really need to make them stand out. Here they’re too big. Bigfoot is too small.
I finally wise up and give the perspective some flair. It looks weird, but it’ll get better. I remember a breakthrough moment in school was learning to draw the whole background first, and fitting my characters within the space, rather than drawing the background around my characters. It makes everything easier.
At each new pass of a drawing I lower a layer’s opacity and draw on a new layer over it. I might do that 20 times to get everything right. PS is particularly great at this part of the process. I can resize and move things on the fly. I also looked at a bunch of pictures of passenger train interiors, to figure out what a convincing chair might look like. I always figured illustrating was just drawing people, but it turns out there’s a lot of drawing couches and shoes and refrigerators and clothes and doors and windows and cars and everything else you can imagine. My style is pretty loose, but I still try to make sure things are reasonably structural. Good enough to not distract by how poorly it’s drawn, but not too realistic where the viewer thinks “Hey! That’s a really good dishwasher back there!”
Here’s my first legit pencil. I’m part of a great critique group online. The comments I got about this were: the big kid grabs everyone’s attention first, BF’s feet are too small, the hand in the lower left is distracting, and the space seems too tall. Critique has taught me more about illustration than anything, and accepting critique of my own work is the only way I can make a piece better. “The first thing I notice is…” is a good way to start a critique. It’s honest, and it usually leads to figuring out some big problems.
I start by “inking” everything in a neutral color. As I’m painting I’ll place an opacity lock on the line layer and color or erase the lines as I go.
As with the pencils I paint the entire background so I can tell how my character’s colors will interact with it. The only colors I know for sure at this point is that bigfoot is brown, and The main character’s jacket clothes are blue, so I base all the other colors around that, hoping the cool will pop against a warm background.
Here’s a closeup of everything. My brushes are a combination of my own and Kyle Webster’s sets. I totally recommend checking his brushes out. Probably the best deal ever. This is a watercolor style piece, and you can see how I build colors. You can also see the white mask I’ve got on the layer above the background. I have all my character’s paints on a locked layer, paint on a new layer, click the visibility on and off to see if I like what I did, and if I do like it, I’ll collapse it down and start a new layer. When I first started I had a new layer for practically every stroke. I was pretty organized but it was still too much for me to deal with. This way I’ve only ever got 4 or 5 layers at a time for a project, though I go through dozens and dozens.
Final paint. Here’s how it looks just with painting
How long have you been illustrating?
I’ve been illustrating for about 10(!) years now. It doesn’t seem like that’s possible, and I feel like a newbie. There’s a lot of things I want to do.
Where do you live?
Three years ago my wife and I moved to Kansas City, Kansas. We both grew up in central Kansas, went to school in and lived in Chicago for awhile, and find KC to be a happy medium between Newton, KS and Chicago, IL. There’s a lot of great kid lit authors and illustrators in the city and some neat projects like http://www.rabbitholekc.org
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
When I was in high school the owner of a local hardware store wanted someone to draw portraits of him and four other executives. I was a pretty good artist for a 17 year old, but I’d never done anything like this where likeness, a professional look, and finishing in a timely matter was expected. I can’t imagine they looked great, and I had a heck of a time trying to figure out how much to charge, but I loved it, and the owner was kind.
What made you chose The American Academy of Art in Chicago to study art?
I’d earned BA in Art and Education at Bethel College, in North Newton, KS, and while I received a great education there, I was not very receptive to it. In fact, throughout high school and college, I felt that one didn’t learn art, there was just natural talent and practice made you better. It’s a poor outlook to have as an Art and Education major. During my student teaching, a high school student came up to me and asked how to draw a nose. “What do you mean? You just draw it” was my first thought, and I realized I didn’t know how I did what I did.
After a few years of various uninspiring jobs, I realized I wanted to learn art, and learn how I do what I do, and how I could do it better. We were living in Elkhart, Indiana at the time, so Chicago was right there. I visited the school and I remember walking down a hall with Alex Ross art up and down both sides and just being speechless. I’m sure my admissions guide thought I was having some sort of episode or something, but seeing Jill Thompson, Gil Elvgren and Joyce Ballantyne work up on the walls, I knew I was right were I needed to be.
What did you study there?
At the American Academy of Art in Chicago I studied illustration. To me, putting a box around ART and giving it some objectives and boundaries really gave me a focus that I didn’t have just studying art. I’d always worked on the technical side of art, the how, but at AAA I learned a lot about the conceptual side, the why, and using both to tell stories and being able to asses how successful I was by showing it to strangers to see if they could tell what was going on really delighted me.
Did getting your MFA helped develop your style?
I didn’t enter the masters program at AAA. I went back and got a BFA in illustration. It was pretty clear to me that I wanted to start from the beginning rather than building on what I could already do in an MFA program. I’m the guy who likes to read the instructions before I do things, and this made a lot of sense to my brain. I’m happy I did what I did.
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
Right out of school I got a job illustrating a series of self published books written by someone who owned and ran a marketing agency where I interned. It was steady work for 3 or 4 years, and having that opportunity to earn a living working on my craft was the greatest gift I’ve ever had. The agency itself was in a Chicago suburb about 8 miles away, we didn’t have a car, and there wasn’t a great public transit option, so I biked. Everyday. Rain or shine. I’m not a biker, but it was such a great opportunity I became one. I also did some freelancing on the side.
Did the school help you get work after you graduated?
One of my instructors, whose husband worked at the marketing agency I ended up at, recommended me for the job.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Every year I look back at old work and wince. I guess that’s good, and it does seem to be slowing down, but I’m not sure what it means if I ever stop. Style wise, in school I developed a style using heavy outlines and feathering to blend solid colors together. I was never completely satisfied with it, but I made it work.
After working on three books, I was sick of it. I initially started using photoshop because I’m partially colorblind, and the color wheel in PS lets me know exactly what color I’m working with. If I had to guess, I’d say I developed a style feathering colors together so that the viewer would blend the colors in their mind, and I wouldn’t have to. Painting, even with the aid of the color picker, scared me. I’d had enough weird experiences with traditional media. And yet. (cont.)
So I learned about color and I made it work. I think I made it a much bigger obstacle in my head than it turned out to be. On the other hand, I didn’t know anyone who was doing what I was doing colorblind. I don’t even know how much help that could have been. It all boiled down to showing pieces to my wife saying “this doesn’t look weird, does it?” and her smiling and helping me along. That’s how I learned my color system. (Cont.)
After I started painting in photoshop, and by that I mean mixing colors, using under coats and over coats and different opacity brushes, I started really eschewing lines, with the mindset that they were amateurish and something I should strive to overcome. And I did, and I don’t think it did my work any favors. Line work is one of my strengths, one of my loves, so they’re back.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
It was less a decision and more the natural progression of what I was doing and the opportunities that opened up to me. It wasn’t obvious to me right out of school, but in hindsight it seems staggeringly inevitable that I would end up doing ridiculous illustrations that make kids laugh.
What was your first book?
My first book was for a self published author. It was called Treasure Hunt, and told a story of kids playing the game and gave rules so you could play it yourself. I was pretty green. But the author was patient and I learned so much while working on that book. Like how to draw kids the don’t just look like weird short adults. How to work on more than one illo at a time. How to add to the story with the pictures. And, of course, how to draw characters that look the same from page to page. (Answer- draw them a lot!)
How did that contract come about?
One of my teachers realized I had some capacity to draw and (just as important) I could finish things on time and not flake out. Just the ability to meet deadlines really is a big up.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Yes. I keep coming up with ideas that I wish someone would write already. Pretty soon I’m going to realize how unlikely that would be and just take care of it myself.
What do you think is your biggest success?
Funny enough, one that’s never been seen. I’ve never followed sports, but the last two years I’ve been swept up in the excitement around a local professional sports team. The whole town went crazy. The only way I know how to express appreciation of pop culture is to draw interpretations of it, so I drew a few images of popular players as animals. This is the weird nexus where my abilities and sports overlap. I shared these on social media and the right people saw them. The next year I was hired to draw their whole lineup as animals which would be animated and played during the games. At one point I was trying to figure out if the dolphin player should be wearing pants or not, and I realized this was the best job ever. I got paid, but the animations were never used. Once we get the rights back to the animations we’ll see what can be done with them. I’m sad it didn’t get used, but it was still a great job.
I see you’re represented at Cornell and Company. How did you connect with them? How long have you been with them?
I’ve been with Cornell & Co for maybe 5 or 6 years now. I researched a bunch of agencies and picked several that seemed to have work similar to mine. I sent out tear sheets to several and got a few responses and narrowed it down from there. I’m not good at negotiating, asking for a fair price for my work, reading contracts, financial do dads and what nots, but I can draw an owl that will make you sad. It seemed like a beneficial thing for me, and I’m eternally grateful that Merial saw something in my work that made her think I had a future.
Do you illustrate full time?
Yes. I do an odd graphic design job from time to time, but I’m either working on work, or working on my portfolio.
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I primarily use Photoshop in my professional work, but I love ink. I’m still amazed how black lines on white paper can trick the mind into seeing dimension and depth. Or Charles Shultz’s other side of the coin, a flat world that was totally believable.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
The best class I ever took was Life Drawing for Illustrators, which was all about drawing the human body from your mind. I still take pictures of hands, or the whole body if a character is in a strange pose or if the pose is so specific to the action that not getting it exactly would diminish the final image. And I always look at google images to see what the particularities of what I’m drawing are. Not to copy, but to see what the little things are that makes a thing look like itself. At Bethel, I painted kid’s faces at the Fall Fest, mostly hearts and flowers and stars, and one time two SUPER EXCITED little girls came up. They were twins and had just gotten a Dalmatian puppy. Could I paint a Dalmatian on their faces? Dalmatians had four legs and spots and a head and probably a tail. No problem, I thought. After I started I quickly realized my painting was missing certain subtleties to the form, and also that it looked like a cow. The second twin’s excitement and smile quickly faded and after I was done she politely told me maybe she didn’t want her face painted after all and she heard her mother calling. That’s when I realized the value of looking at references.
Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?
I’ve done a lot of work for textbooks and workbooks. There is little room for interpretation of the assignment. It needs to be done effectively so the student knows exactly how it relates to the lesson. My first big job, finishing 60 images in a few weeks, really drove home the difference between an Artiste and a commercial artist.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Almost everything I do, from pencils to finished piece, is in PS. I love it. And that’s coming from someone who really cringed at computer art in the 90’s. I never thought I would be drawn to it, but as I mentioned before, it seemed to be a way around colorblind issues, and in the early 2000’s I was starting to see digital work that didn’t look digital. It just looked good.
Nevertheless, I grew up drawing, and any success I have in PS is because of that. Like a typewriter won’t make you a better writer, PS won’t make you a better artist. Besides that, one of my teachers at AAA always said the idea is 90% of an illustration. Photoshop doesn’t have a button for that yet.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I started on a tablet, but in 2006 or so I got a Wacom Cintiq. It’s my favorite thing ever. Drawing right on the screen is a game changer. Now when I go back to a tablet, I feel dumb and clumsy. The Cintiq is just like drawing on paper. In fact for the first year I had it, every time I would use the other end of the stylus to erase something, I’d brush away the eraser dust, because that’s what I’d been doing my entire life, and this didn’t feel any different.
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Soon after I graduated from AAA I did some work for Highlights. It was a big thrill to go to the dentist’s office and see that issue sitting there.
Do you studio a studio in your house?
Luckily two of the upstairs bedrooms had large closets, so I’m in one of them. I fantasize about having a little cabin studio in the woods or something, but I think I’d miss being close to my work. It did take awhile to get the hang of working from home, though. I learned that wearing shoes and clothes like a working adult (ie not sweats) put me in the right mindset to actually work. I learned to not get distracted by everything there is to do around the house. And I learned, reading a New Yorker article about the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and feeling some of the symptoms seemed a little too familiar, that I need to have real life social interactions with real live humans now and then.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
Every morning I start by taking a walk. At some point in the day I go on a little run (and I do mean little). I draw in my sketchbook everyday, and every week I try to spend a bit of time working in a different medium than I’m used to, or picking a tool in PS I’ve never used and seeing what it does. I don’t know that these habits focus specifically on career goals, but I think they put me in a good spot to accomplish them.
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Oh yeah. I talked earlier about a job that led from the right people seeing my work on social media. Besides that, being exposed to current illustrators and editors and designers current thoughts and works is incredibly valuable. Though it can also be a time suck and ego destroyer if you let it get out of control.
What are your career goals?
I’d like a mini fridge up here at some point.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
One of most amazing things I learned recently is that in PS you can set your brush’s mode to clear, which essentially acts as an eraser, but gives you the same texture your brush has. I’ve been working in PS for so long and I’m still surprised by things.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
I just talked to a local middle school art club. Towards the end they showed me and everyone else their work. There were some good pieces, and while I heard a lot of compliments to the obvious talents in the room, I also heard a lot of kids say some variation of “If she can draw that good, I might as well give up.” Ben Franklin said “Comparison is the thief of joy”, and it’s so easy these days to see so much absolutely wonderful work that I almost call it quits myself every other day. I knew where they were coming from. And if it were just about being technically proficient we probably should give up. (Cont.)
I really do believe, however, that technical ability can make you a good drawer, but not necessarily a good illustrator. The biggest part of an illustration is the idea and the manner by which you present it to the viewer and how they connect with it, and that all comes from your experiences, your history, the books you read and the movies you’ve seen, your weird brain chemistry (is that a thing?) and your unique physiology. Your style (as John Hartford said) is based on your limitations, and not in a bad way. We all have a unique voice and making something that connects with people is more important than drawing realistically. I said something like that to everyone in the class, and even the really talented kids looked relieved. Pretty pictures don’t solve problems.
Thank you Jesse 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 Jesse’s work, you can visit him at website at: http://www.jessegraber.com
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Jesse. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!