Talented. Creative. Overall good guy.The first time I met Russ was at a writers and illustrators conference in April where he won three awards for his poster depicting the conference theme. Impressive for someone who started out a shy boy drawing in the red clay of Tennessee. But Russ remains humble. Down-to-earth. The type of guy who says his two grown kids are his biggest accomplishment. And gives credit to his wife of twenty-four years for supporting his passions and making his dreams a reality.
Russ can be found on Facebook at Smiling Otis Studio, Twitter @smilingotis, his web site at www.smilingotis.com and his blog at www.smilingotis.blogspot.com.
My friend and fellow writer, Teri Ridlon, and I visited with Russ at his home in Pittsfield, Maine...
What’s your typical day look like?Some mornings I get up at five o’clock and go to the gym and then I come back and take a nap. (said with a laugh)
And then usually by eight o’clock I’m off and running in my workspace. That can go on until ten or eleven o’clock at night. I usually take an hour off to have lunch with my wife. She works second shift. So, we have lunch together because we’re not together at dinner time.
Do you have any interests and hobbies?I play the banjo. Played the bass in punk bands and instrumental bands. My love for music is right there with my love for art. So they kind of go hand in hand.
You went to the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design and minored in Illustration.Yes, that’s right and majored in Graphic Design. I always loved drawing, but I figured I wanted to make a living and at that time illustration wasn’t thought of as this major thing. Most people went into graphic design. I worked at a design studio for fourteen years.
So a lot of advertising sort of work?More like logos, brochures. We did some advertising and some marketing, but it was pretty much strict design. And then I became the in-house illustrator and I rediscovered my love for illustration.
Do you strictly illustrate now?I actually have a logo I’m working on right now and I have a web site that somebody wants me to design. I do that every now and then, but I don’t advertise that any more.
Anything else you’re working on?
Well, I have a new book project in from the same publisher as Major Manners. And I’m working on two apps and I may have two other books coming in.
Two apps?For Ipad. And I’m working on a game for Game Write. It’s a board game.
Can you talk about any of the specifics?No, I can’t.
Plus I’m working on getting my own book published. It’s called Faraway Friends.
How did you evolve into writing?I don’t know if I evolved into it, it’s something that scares the hell out of me because it’s out of my comfort zone. You have these words and you try to put a story together. I talked with people and they said, “You do the same thing visually, just put words to it. That’s all you’re doing.” So I don’t know if I’ve evolved into that just yet.
Teri asked, “I’m curious, do you create your pictures first or your words first?”I tried doing the words first with Faraway Friends and I just kept stumbling and stumbling. So I went back and started storyboarding it out and then the words started appearing. Then I kept going back and forth. I’d change the words and the pictures until I got it to the point where I sent it to some friends who are writers and they did some editing for me.
Where do you find your inspiration?
You know what? I really have no idea. Some subconscious stream of consciousness thing that happens.
Now there’s writer’s block. Is there such a thing as illustrator’s block?Oh, definitely. Usually, I go through it maybe once a year at least.
And how long does it usually last?I’ve had them last for a month or so. And then you watch a movie or go for a walk or something like that and you try to shake things loose – try to get away from it for a while. Sometimes if I get a major block, I just stop. I’ll take three or four days off.
Who are your favorite illustrators and/or artists? And why?There’s a lot. I love Mary Blair. She’s a well-known children’s book illustrator from the ‘40s through the ‘60s. She did work for Disney, too.
Do you remember Monster Magazine? I loved that magazine. They always had drawings and cartoons. Again, I think it shows in a lot of my sketches. There’s a lot of monsters.
Warner Brothers Cartoons… more so than Disney, because they were edgier. They threw caution to the wind. And old Tom and Jerry. So, you know, a lot of cartoons. Three Stooges. I think a lot of it’s the twisted humor that I really liked.
As far as other artists, one of my favorites is Bill Mayer. He’s down in Atlanta. Ever since I went to art school, I loved him. Gerry Gersten’s another one. He’s more of a caricaturist. John Singer Sargent as far as fine art. Love Sargent. LoveDali. All of these people, except for Sargent, there’s that twist to them and I’m drawn to that.
Mike Mulligan is your favorite children’s book, but what is it about that story that you like?It’s the mechanical thing. I really love robots and all stuff mechanical. It dawned on me a couple of days ago, that in a lot of my sketches, there’s something mechanical usually on each doodle page. And I don’t know why that is, but I like kids making things.
I used to make coasters. It’s a car that you put at the top of a hill and you coast down. We used to race them all the time. It’s like a poor man’s soap box derby.
How many books do you have published?I have two from self-publishers. The first one is Molly Kite’s Big Dream and the second one was The Very First Christmas Tree. It was a Christian Christmas story. And Major Manners is my first one with a (traditional) publisher.
Self-publishing. How does that work? And how’d it turn out?The self-publishing was really interesting. The first one was with a writer in the Portland area.
Someone already established?No, not really. They had this children’s story in their mind. She contacted me from a web site she saw me on called Jacket Flap – a great resource for writers and illustrators especially in the children’s market. And it’s free. It’s almost like a children’s writers/illustrators Facebook.
You seem to do a lot of networking.
Now you have to or you’re going to get left behind. Portfolio sites are great. Those directory books are done. Being on Facebook and Google Plus and Twitter and Dribble and all these places posting and posting and posting. That’s just the way it is.
That’s where the action is.It really is. You never know who you’re going to talk to, befriend on Facebook, and then you realize they’re an Art Director at Simon & Schuster. You just never know who’s going to see your post or share it.
Is there a networking site that you really like or seems to work better than the others?Facebook does work. And it is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family. I know some people who have gotten nice illustration projects from Facebook.
I actually like Twitter because you have a limit to what you say and it’s kind of a challenge. I use Tweet Deck. It’s a filter that funnels the tweets into the columns for you. Free software that allows you to set up columns and you can do your hash tags, like #freelancewritingjobs and anything under that hash tag will start listing.
I had read about some advice you had given to writers and/or illustrators. You told them not to give up, to keep reading. I wasn’t sure what kind of books.Anything and everything. I taught illustration students and they always asked, “What do you do to keep fueled?” And I said, “You need to read.” Even if it’s just a short little article once a day. To read is just as important as going to a museum, or watching a movie or listening to music because then your mind’s working, it’s not there in front of you. The words are putting everything together in your mind so you’re training your mind to start thinking in other ways.
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