In the effort to introduce the wonderful artist behind the great MG covers, Brian Biggs took the time to answer a few of our questions. You may have seen Brian’s amazing work on such MG books as the ROSCOE RILEY RULES series and the FRANK EINSTEIN books (you’re actually getting a sneak peek of the new book cover prior to its release!). Now to the questions…
Middle Grade Mafia: When you get hired to illustrate cover and/or interior art, do you read the book or skim to get an idea?
Brian Biggs: Depends on the book. For covers, without interior art, sometimes the publisher or art director already has a concept that they’re looking for. Or sometimes the text isn’t even complete yet so a synopsis or outline is all I have to go on.
If I’m illustrating a full book, covers and interiors, then I definitely read the whole book, making notes and high-lighting passages that might be good scenes to illustrate.
MGM: How much direction do you get from the art director or editor?
BB: Again, that depends on the book and on the publisher. I find that the pattern is, seemingly counter-intuitively, quickie, lower-paying illustration jobs are usually much more directed and controlled, while the bigger projects depend on me more to figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. Once the first thumbnails or sketches are done, there is often a lot of back-and-forth. However, now that I’ve been doing this for a number of years, art directors know what I do and I know what they want and it’s easier than it used to be.
MGM: Have you also illustrated picture books and if so, how is that different from mid-grade novels?
BB: Yes, quite different. With picture books, I usually just get a short email with the text (32-page picture books don’t often have a lot of text) and a date that they want to see sketches. That freedom can often be daunting. Although, typically, once I read the text for the book, everything falls into place and makes sense. The book controls itself to a large extent.
The illustrations are pulling a much larger weight with a picture book as well, so it’s a very different process of thinking about what to draw. With a chapter or YA book, I’m often illustrating scenes described by the author. I pick interesting scenes that are cool to draw, or I pick scenes that maybe the author didn’t explicitly describe or that are kind of difficult to describe or imagine, but it’s rare that my drawings are furthering the story on their own. On the other hand, pictures in picture books can do many other things that the text cannot, and that in a novel, pictures cannot. They can subvert the text in an interesting way. Or they can just push the text further.
MGM: Do you have an agent or art rep? If so, where and how did you meet or did you connect online?
BB: My agent is Steven Malk, and he’s with Writers House. After I’d done Sheredderman back in 2004-2005, my first children’s book project, Steve called me out of the blue one day. I had sent work to a few agents and either received no reply or a polite no thanks. Steve was enthusiastic about the work I made and the work I wanted to make. It’s been great.
MGM: How would you describe your style?
BB: Oh I don’t know. I draw how I draw. I’m always looking for ways to add new words and phrases to my visual vocabulary, so to say, and I like to explore new methods and techniques. But no matter what I do, somehow it always ends up looking like I made it. Reviews of my books usually use the phrase “digital cartoons” to describe my artwork, but I pretty much thoroughly hate that and it makes me want to make stuff that doesn’t look digital and doesn’t look like a cartoon.
MGM: Where did you get your artistic training?
BB: There’s a part of me that knows that had I grown up in a tree in the woods, I’d still be doing what I do. I’ve drawn pictures since day one and it’s just all I did. However, I had really good art teachers in school who in various ways introduced me to new ideas and materials. I had aunts and uncles who bought me books about modern art when I was busy staring at Norman Rockwell (not that staring at Rockwell is a bad thing!). I have a dad who taught me to draw helicopters and airplanes and showed me Calvin & Hobbes books when I was a kid. I have a mom who never said no to taking weekend art lessons at the local museums and community colleges and thought going to college in New York City sounded pretty cool. Formally, I went to college at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, but I was a graphic design major. The idea of Illustration as a career came later when I realized I didn’t want to be a graphic designer any more.
MGM: How do you keep your illustrations fresh?
BB: Getting angry at the phrase “digital cartoons” is one way. But I’m anxious and get bored easily. I’m also jealous of other successful illustrators and I want to be better than them. But honestly, it’s just from being curious. “What happens if I do this?”
MGM: What is your favorite media to use?
BB: I love a nice brush loaded with India Ink. But Kyle Websters brushes in Photoshop are a close second.
MGM: Please share a little about your process with us?
BB: Normally, it goes like this: Sketching is done with a pencil on tracing paper. I draw small thumbnails that seem impossible to make any sense of, which is usually for composition. A person might be represented by a black egg-shape, and a line might be a tree. But I get it and I can tell if it works.
Then, again with tracing paper, I draw the thing again, cleaning the sketch up, so that regular people can understand it, and then scan it. This puts it in Photoshop where I often cut it up some and rearrange parts or resize things until it works. That gets laser-printed and a nice tight sketch is made. By now, the client has seen at least one of these iterations and commented on it. If the client is okay with all this, I take that tight sketch and attach it to the underside of a piece of Strathmore 500 Bristol. On a light box, I ink the line art from this sketch. The next step is my favorite, which is taking white gouache and — I don’t know how to describe this — erasing out sections and creating negative space. It’s kind of like what a printmaker does with linoleum or wood. It’s when the real personality of a drawing comes out and the details are created. Plus the white gouache gets all over my hands.
This line art is scanned into Photoshop, any final errors are fixed and changes are made to the black-and-white line art, and then color is put onto the file. I use a Wacom tablet for this. I usually have a dozen or more layers in Photoshop, and then a final file is flattened and sent to the publisher.
MGM: Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?
BB: I used to work out of a bedroom in my house, and I called it my “studio.” But really, it was a bedroom in my house. Dishes were downstairs; laundry was in the hallway, the cats walked around like they ran the show. So I got a studio in a building full of other studios and shared the room with another artist. We had a great time, but it was a 30-minute commute and commutes are something I don’t deal with very well. I’d get there and realize I left my laptop charger at home and there goes the morning. Then I found an old garage near my house for rent. And I’ve been here for five years. It’s four blocks from my house so I walk and bike here often. It’s near my daughter’s school so she can come and do her homework in the afternoon. It’s big so I can set up some screen-printing stuff and host musical acts (which I’ve done three times, each with an audience of 40 people). It’s a garage so I can open the big door up on nice days and the neighbors wonder what goes on in here. I love it. I wish it had more windows is all. But otherwise it’s just great.
The sad part is that I’ve realized I like working alone. I don’t want to chit-chat with other artists. I don’t want to share a laser-printer. I don’t want to discuss last night’s episode of Game of Thrones while I’m trying to draw. I’m becoming a hermit and I guess I’m okay with that. I have lots of friends and two teenagers and my wife and when I’m not here working and making things, I enjoy all of their company very much. But while I am here making stuff, everyone just leave me alone! (That sounds grumpier than it’s meant to)
MGM: Fun Question: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?
BB: No. When I take a lunch break, I quit drawing. I read the internet for that half-hour. I drink tea here in the afternoons often. But no, I don’t snack. Maybe I should.