Illustrator Spotlight: Russ Cox


© Russ Cox


March 20, 2015

Today KidLit411 is very excited to welcome the talented illustrator, Russ Cox


Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

I started as a graphic design at a Pennsylvania design studio. I worked as an art/creative director there for 13 years before deciding to go out on my own as an illustrator. My intentions were to get into editorial illustration, which I did at the beginning but through some twist and turns, I found myself working in the children’s market. Not sure how it happened but it just did and I am so happy for it. After working in the commercial end of the children’s market for a number of years, I’ve switched my focus to children’s books. I want to help tell a story and get a child to read more so than selling a product.



© Russ Cox

What books do you have out and what are you working on now? 

At first I worked on a few self published books and a couple with smaller houses but have moved more into the traditional publishing side. I currently work on the FREDDY THE FROGCASTER series written by Janice Dean and published by Regency Kids. MERRY MOOSEY CHRISTMAS is a book I did last Christmas with the amazing and oh so fun Lynn Plourde and Islandport Press. 


I am working on a chapter book series called PUPPY PIRATES (Penguin Random House) written by Erin Soderberg Downing. The first two books are released this summer. Some sneak peak sketches from PUPPY PIRATES:



© Russ Cox
© Russ Cox
© Russ Cox

FARAWAY FRIENDS, my first book that I wrote and illustrated, comes out in May and is being published by Sky Pony Press. That is very exciting and a tad surreal to have your own book out there. 

Here are a few spreads from that book:


© Russ Cox
© Russ Cox
© Russ Cox


What were the one or two things you did that most helped your career, and helped land a picture book contract for illustration? 

I really think social media and the internet played a big part in my career. It allowed me to connect with people and was a nice visual platform to share my work. It is easy to see many of the negatives with Facebook, Twitter, etc. but it can really give your career a boost. You just have to manage your time on it and be selective in your posts. 



© Russ Cox

Joining SCBWI and attending national/regional conferences was a great place to learn about the industry and meet those who have traveled that road. It can be intimidating at your first conference but you soon learn that most of the people there are willing to share and offer guidance. It is like one big family. 

I would say mailing out postcards was another important cog in helping me get some book work. They are easy to send out and the editors, art directors, designers, etc. can see your work and style right away. Many hold onto the postcards for years while they look for the right fit for a book project. I had one editor contact me two years after receiving my postcard.



I first met you through the Twitter chat, #kidlitart. Can you tell us what that is about? 


Kidlitart chat is hosted by Diandra Mae, Renee Kurilla Zulawnik, and myself. It is a weekly (Thursday, 9 pm EST) gathering of kid lit artists, and those hoping to get into the kid lit world, who talk about a topic that is posted the day before. 



© Russ Cox



We chat about everything from promotions to techniques to the business side to agents. It covers the gamut. Many well known artist, editors, and art directors pop in from time-to-time. Twice a year we try to have a guest to take Q&As from the attendees. We recommend that people use TweetDeck or Tweet chat to keep track of the conversation because it can zoom by.


Can you take us through your illustration process?

Here is my illustration process that I did for MERRY MOOSEY CHRISTMAS. It is pretty much the same process I use for my books although the final art technique may be different depending on the book.

I like to start with head studies of the main characters. In this case, it was a moose. My first drawing I do when it involves animals, is to do a somewhat realistic sketch. It helps me get the feel of the overall look and characters of the animal. From there, I start exaggerating features. The publisher did not want me to go too cartoony so I had to stay in the middle of a realistic/cartoon look:



© Russ Cox

After the head is worked out, I add a body. Again, the publisher wanted to stay on the realistic side and not to go anthropomorphic:


© Russ Cox

Once the character studies are approved, the next step is to storyboard. I break down the pages according to the notes from the publisher. Many times I am given freedom to experiment and try some different looks. The key is to leave space for the designer to insert the copy. I scan the storyboard sketches at a high resolution so the designer can enlarge them and drop the sketches into a rough layout to see how the copy will work with the positioning of the elements on the page.
© Russ Cox

I enlarge my rough storyboard pages to actual size so I can do a tight sketch.
© Russ Cox

This page is a full spread. I send the tight drawings to the designer so they can begin tightening up the type layout. Any changes to the illustrations are made at this stage and resent.

© Russ Cox

All of the artwork was painted digitally in Photoshop. I would in layers so I can adjust things such as color, tone, lights and darks. Since this is a night scene in the middle of winter, I used a cool, dark blue as my base color. I lay it my pencil drawing over top and set the layer to “multiply” so the color shows through. Sometimes I will do a gray tonal study to help me identify the values.

© Russ Cox

I like to work from back to front so that my foreground colors work with the background elements.
© Russ Cox

I begin laying in the snow using a textured brush. Again, everything is in layers.
© Russ Cox

The foreground pieces are roughed in. I am not focused on too many details, just the overall tone and how the colors are working together.
© Russ Cox

Since the reindeer are the main focus with Moosey being the dominant image in the illustration, I keep Santa and his sleigh dark.
© Russ Cox

The reindeer are slowly added. Now I concentrate on my light direction which will come from Moosey’s rocket and headlamp.
© Russ Cox

Moosey and the chimney are now added.
© Russ Cox

The glow from the rocket is added to the elements around it. It helps create depth and having the elements outside of the glow to recede.
© Russ Cox

This is the final piece. I’ve added highlights and dark tones where needed. Also areas of the reindeer are lightened to emphasize the glow from the rocket flame. 

© Russ Cox


What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators? 

Read, read, and read some more. Read anything and every thing. Take it all in and put the words into your mental Rolodex. I also think illustrators should draw every day. Keep a sketchbook with you at all times. 

You cannot paint unless you can get the basics of drawing down. It is the foundation for what we do. Join a figure drawing group. I get together with a group of fine artist every Friday evening for some figure drawing and it has help improve not only my basic anatomy knowledge, but my overall drawing as well.

What is something most people don't know about you? 

I am really tall, 6’ 5”. Many people do not realize it until I meet them face-to-face. They always tell me that I should post how tall I am so they can be prepared. Prepared for what, a basketball game? I would probably lose.

Where can we find you on the internet?

You can find me at the following locations near you:
Twitter: @smilingotis
Agent: Danielle Smith at Red Fox Literary


Russ was raised by a pack of crazed hillbillies in the back woods of Tennessee. Without much in the way of modern conveniences, like a television set or running water, he spent his time drawing, whittling, and throwing dirt clods at his cousins. Having been born into a family with a flair for racing, he had hoped to be the next Bobby Allison or Richard Petty. But after dismantling his grandfather's lawn mower engine, and without a clue on how to get it back together, he soon realized that he did not have an automotive bone in his body. 

Back to the drawing board he went with his pencil and paper (and sometimes the barn wall), drawing for hours. When not drawing, he would watch endless hours of monster movies, Warner Brothers cartoons, and reading comic books. Wyle E. Coyete and Daffy Duck provided him with new ways to torment his evil cousins. 

While in high school, he developed an interest in graphic design and a passion for music. Upon hearing this news, the school's automotive shop teacher threw a celebration party. After graduating high school, he got a degree at a local art school. 

With a portfolio in his hand, he ventured into the world of design and illustration where he worked for various design and advertising agencies until coming to his senses. With his wife giving me a swift kick-start in the rump, he opened his own studio, Smiling Otis Studio, where he presently specialize in illustration for the children's market and children's books. He also found time to teach various classes at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design for several years. Recently he and his wife packed up the wagon and headed to the wilderness of Maine where they have setup a homestead in Pittsfield. When not drawing, running amok in the snow, or training our four cats to yodel Slim Whitman's greatest hits, he enjoys some quiet time with his banjo while taking in the beauty of Maine. His poor wife would prefer for him to play the triangle or build a sound proof room.


14 comments:

  1. Thanks Sylvia for having me featured on your blog.

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    1. Thank you! I love all your illustrations and it was cool to see your process.

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  2. Great interview! I loved seeing how you work, Russ. I'll be showing this to my son. He really loves your work, too. Thanks!

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  3. Such a fan! Love to see the process and the inspiration. Thanks for sharing! :)

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  4. Great interview with this jolly giant! Thanks for sharing your process, Russ - totally cool!

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  5. Thanks Jilanne, Jodi, and Julie!

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  6. Wonderful interview, and I love that you take us through the process. Read it all through once, but I am bookmarking for going through the process more carefully. Thanks!

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  7. Thanks so much for giving us an insight into your step-by-step illustration process! Would love to stop by and check out #kidlitart.

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  8. Very cool! Thanks for sharing your process with us! I hope you don't mind two quick questions?

    Does your storyboard count as the dummy? There's been some discussion lately about size of dummy. I know some like thumbnails and some full size.

    Also, how do you get lighter and lighter colors with the "multiply" setting? Do you have to switch "ink" when you get into the lightest tones?

    Cheers!
    Mishka

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    Replies
    1. Hi Misha,

      Sometimes my storyboards count as the dummy. Other times I work up tighter sketches, full size, based on the storyboard. It really depends on what the publishers needs for their designers.

      I get my lighter colors two ways. One way it to set the layer as "Overlay" and use a white stroke. It will make a lighter version of the colors it overlaps. The second way is to start a new layer and keep the setting as "Normal". It makes the lighter color opaque/

      I hope that helps.
      Russ

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  9. Russ, you work is fantastic!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for the kind words.

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