Name: Ryan O’Rourke
1. Tell us about yourself / What makes you tick?
I received my BFA and MFA from the University of Hartford in Illustration. I taught at The Hartford Art School for seven years before I moved to New Hampshire in August to teach illustration full-time at The New Hampshire Institute of Art. I started my career doing editorial work then gradually moved into other markets. Over the last four years most of my work has been for children’s books. However, I still do a fair amount of editorial illustration.
I love the mix of teaching and doing illustration. I go a little stir-crazy if I spend too much time in the studio. I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to share my knowledge of the field with my students. Teaching core concepts about working with different medias and how to build effective narratives with an image or series of images has helped me improve my own work. I feel that since I’ve started teaching illustration consistently I’ve made some giant leaps and bounds in my own work. I have to give a fair amount of credit to my students and co-workers for the amount of progress I’ve made. I feel blessed to be a part of an amazing illustration community.
2. How did you get your start in illustrating for children?
I credit my start in children’s illustration to luck, timing, and hard work. Between 2006 and 2008 I had a great opportunity doing a weekly spot illustration for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. The exposure my work received during my time with The Globe proved to be invaluable, leading to a number of different projects outside of editorial illustration.
Susan Sherman, an art director at Charlesbridge Publishing saw my work and approached me about illustrating a book of poems about rain. A year later, the book, One Big Rain, was released. Since then, I’ve been consistently working with different publishers on a wide variety of projects.
3. You illustrated Lisa Loeb’s Songs for Movin’ and Shakin‘ released by Sterling Publishing. Can you tell us about this project? What was your creative vision for it?
First of all, I can’t say how great it’s been to work with Lisa and the good people at Sterling Publishing on Songs for Movin’ and Shakin’ and the predecessor to this book, The Disappointing Pancake and Other Zany Songs. When we started the project, my wife and I had just gotten married. We created a wedding cookbook full of recipes from our family and friends. We laid out text and I created lots of little drawings, hand-lettered text and design motifs in the negative space. I sent the cookbook out to clients for promotions. My first art director at Sterling, Merideth Harte, thought it would be fun to approach the Lisa Loeb books in the same manner. She created a smart, clean design, then I created my illustrations around the text. I was able to bring all of the elements from the cookbook to Lisa’s terrific, catchy songs. I had Songs For Movin’ and Shakin’ playing on repeat while I was working on the book. I walked around for three weeks whistling the tune of “Going Away” and some of the other songs.
4. Can you tell us about your creative process, mediums, etc?
My process has changed a lot over the past few years and it’s still evolving. I do all of the hand-lettered text, design motifs, and patterns in pen and ink. I paint all of the figures and other objects in oils. Then I use acrylics, oils, or a mixture of the two mediums to create my backgrounds. Last, I merge everything together digitally. Before I start sketching for each book I do a lot of research. I print out reference material and post the images on my bulletin board to use as inspiration.
5. Do you ever get stuck on how to illustrate a particular scene or character? How do you move past that?
I think every illustrator occasionally gets stuck. When I feel blocked, I try to step away and do something that doesn’t involve too much brain power like cleaning my studio or doing laundry. It gives me some time to think about the problem without trying to force a solution. Eventually, I look through books and images I’ve saved on my computer for inspiration. When I go back to the problem, I do lots of thumbnail sketches and try to explore every option.
6. What were your favorite children’s books when you were little? Why?
I remember loving Harold and The Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, Shel Silverstein’s book were also a big part of my childhood. I still remember laughing hysterically when my first grade teacher would read his books to the class. I loved to draw when I was a kid which is why I think I loved Harold and The Purple Crayon. I loved the idea of creating a new, imaginative world with my own drawings.
7. What is a typical work day for you?
One reason why I love being an illustrator is that no day is really typical. I love having a new, different challenge every day. I often stick to a similar routine but the work I do varies depending on the projects I have on my plate. One good thing about teaching is that it offers a little bit of stability to my schedule. I wake up early, prepare for class, teach all morning, grade or handle administrative duties, then paint or draw the rest of the day. My wife is good about getting me to stop to take breaks. I usually try to relax around 8 or 9 at night.
8. Best / most fun part of illustrating for children:
The rewards of illustrating for children are many. However, there are two that automatically stick out in my mind. First, I love being able to create something that people will remember as part of their childhood. I have two nieces and two nephews, they have all of the books I’ve illustrated. I love seeing them interact with the books, especially the Lisa Loeb sing-along books due to the songs and activities throughout the books.
The second reward is seeing all of the images come together in one cohesive package. Compared to editorial illustration, children’s books are more of a marathon than a sprint. I get a lot of pride out of seeing months of hard work come together. I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with art directors and editors who have helped me create books I feel proud to show off.
9. Worst / most difficult part:
For me, the hardest part is the waiting game. After I finish each project I’m excited to share it but I usually have to wait a few months until it hits the shelves.
10. Are you working on any new projects?
I have a number of projects coming out soon. Along with Songs for Movin’ and Shakin’, I have another book, Alphabet Trucks, written by Samantha Vamos that will be coming out in August. I also just finished the final art for Bella: Lost and Found, the first book I’ve written and illustrated for HarperCollins. The pictures provided are progress shots of art from the book. It’s the first book of a two part series. I’m currently writing the second book. I’ve also been hard at work on a series of hand-drawn patterns that I plan on marketing for licensing. Along with editorial, it’s been a nice break from working on books.
5 things inspiring you/your work right now:
-Edward Hopper Landscape paintings
-Charley Harper animals
-Tad Carpenter’s amazing work
3 constants in your day:
-Catching up on the Red Sox
-Chai Tea Lattes
Your #1 art tip or words of wisdom:
In my experience I have found that faith in your vision, a willingness to learn, hard work, persistence, and a little bit of luck are the keys to success in this business.
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