From Jigsaw puzzles to pop-up books, iPhone apps to toy design, Mike Boldt has been illustrating almost exclusively for children for the past 11 years. Last year he completed a lifelong dream and published his first picture book that he both wrote and illustrated (The Gophers in Farmer Burrows’ Field). Mike is now continuing his love for storytelling and children’s illustration in several other books and graphic novels that he is developing.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Mike a few questions about his work.
1. How did you get started as an illustrator?
Mike Boldt: I got started as an illustrator professionally just out of high school. I was about to go off to animation school when I was approached to work for a speech therapy company illustrating jigsaw puzzles and flash cards. It was a fantastic first gig, which I often call my “schooling”. My employer not only introduced me to digital art and a Wacom, paying me to learn, but also really mentored me about a solid work ethic and how to take critiques as a challenge to improve my work. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel for that opportunity.
2. You’ve illustrated quite a few children’s books, and recently authored and illustrated “The Gophers in Farmer Burrows’ Field”. Have you always wanted to write as well as illustrate? And, which do you find more difficult?
MB: My second “job” that kept me from animation school (again) was where I began my love of making picture books. The Gophers in Farmer Burrows’ Field is the first book I wrote, illustrated and published on my own after I went freelance. It was sort of a dream come true. For many years I wanted to be an animator, I wanted to storyboard, do character design, and finished artwork, telling my own stories. As it turns out, creating a picture book, I get to do ALL those things. It’s the best. This past year I wrote and illustrated my first book that will be with a major publisher (out next fall) as well as illustrating my first book written by a different author for a different major publisher. I can’t really say that I enjoyed one less than the other just because I didn’t write one of them, but I can say that it is definitely a different experience. I felt I approached the project differently as the story was something I no longer had to worry about, and yet, I still felt I could pour my own “story” even if just the illustration into it.
3. Can you describe the processes you go through when working on an illustration from start to finish?
MB: My illustration work these days is almost entirely digital and in most cases it IS entirely digital from sketch to final. I work mainly in Corel Painter and keep everything fairly basic without piles of layers or effects. I try to avoid that so my workflow can be easily replicated over and over again. I need my books and work to look consistent. So after I do a little research (if needed, just random inspiration surfing if I don’t), then I start sketching. I may struggle with this for a long time or just a few minutes. I can generally tell when I get it, and I don’t like to quit if I’m struggling, but rather power through it as an exercise to improve rather than avoid. After my sketch is to the point I want it I start to block in my colors. I place a toned background and then start filling the rest in starting from the background to the foreground, not really doing anything special except shadows, establishing my light source. I try to block in my colors using a larger brush. It forces me to sort of sculpt my work rather than just color in lines (which is another reason why I like to keep my sketches really rough). I can often push my work further this way as well. Then once my colors are laid in, I’ll start to polish it up. I don’t normally like to finish one part at a time, but rather the whole thing at once that way I keep the detail levels consistent. Also – I try not to zoom in much, but rather keep the entire image visible on my screen. That way my work won’t be out of focus. You can watch some process videos or see process shots on my blog here and there if you want a closer look.
4. What is a typical work day like?
MB: My typical work day is sitting down and drawing from around 8:00-9:00 am until 4:30 or 5:00 pm. Some days are more paperwork/email days, but mostly it’s drawing. Then often in the evening I’ll work until late as well after our kids go to bed. I take breaks of course, but I make sure, even when my deadlines are nuts, that I don’t work between 5:00-8:00 pm. That’s my family time and I can’t sacrifice that. I don’t work every evening, but on average a few times a week even when I’m not busy. If I’m not working on a job for a client, I work on developing new ideas for my own books. I try not to sweat when there’s not been a freelance gig for a while, but remember that as an author illustrator this is a great time to capitalize on time to sit an create. That’s valuable.
5. Whose work do you admire? who or what inspires you from outside your own medium of work?
MB: My inspiration list is far too long. Mainly it’s two Bills for me. Bill Watterson and Bill Peet. There are countless others as well, but I don’t even know where to start. The world is a pretty inspiring place filled with talented people who do all kinds of different work that I appreciate.
6. What advice would you give an aspiring illustrator/picture book author? -In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
MB: Advice? Draw a lot. Take feedback as a challenge to improve. Be prepared for the long haul because this is a tough gig, but we do it because we love it. Of course there are things I wished I had done differently, but at the same time we can’t view this as a race. Everyone is on their own journey, our careers are not meant to be compared just as our lives are different too. I don’t know if I would have learned what I did if I had done things differently and I may have missed out on other aspects of my life because of it. I’m extremely grateful for where I’m at and feel blessed beyond words. Making sure I do my best work and continue to pour my passion into my drawing and story telling is the best thing I can do to make sure those “mulligan moments” are minimized.
Well, actually there is one thing I should add in there. I can regret times I don’t save my files enough and I lose work because I crash. I don’t like to lose work…
7. Where would you like your work to lead you? What are your plans for the future?
MB: I want to get better. I want to continue to improve and continue to illustrate and write stories. Right now, I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing but more of that. So my amazing agent has a few of my ideas, and I plan to get her as many of my best ones as I can. She’ll take it from there haha.
8. Do you have any upcoming books or projects you can tell us about?
MB: Well, I already mentioned two books above. Specifically they are Little Jack Horner Live from the Corner out in January next year. It was written by the hilarious Helaine Becker and published by Scholastic Canada. Then next fall the first of two books with HarperCollins that I wrote and illustrated will be coming out. The first is called 123 versus ABC and is about numbers arguing with letters as to who the book is really about. I’m actually working on the sequel right now! It should be out sometime in 2014.
Thanks for the interview Mike!