Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today? Growing up in a small rural town in southern Missouri, I didn’t have access to a broad range of art influences, but I did have access to a drug store and at an early age I discovered the comic book rack in it. I immediately got hooked on Marvel Comics and Mad Magazines. I bought them, read them, and then drew the characters in them. A skilled eye can still spot the influence of artists like John Buscema, Neil Adams, Mort Drucker and Jack Davis in my work today. I attended Southwest Missouri State University and got an art degree of some sort, but I think I learned more about draftsmanship from the hours I spent redrawing the pictures from those comics and magazines.
How do you go about designing a character, and what goes through your mind, from start to end? Hmm… This is probably not what you are going to want to hear, but as an illustrator I don’t have the luxury of time so I don’t spend a lot of time designing characters. I usually have jobs piled up back to back and no time to put a lot of thought into designing characters. If I get an art assignment that calls for two kids and an adult, I draw two kids and an adult (whatever pops out of my pencil). I draw it, paint it, digitize it, slap it in the mail and move on to the next job.
What do you think really helps you out in designing a character? I am very comfortable with the way that I draw. I draw a lot. I draw during the commercials when I am watching TV. I draw at church while the pastor is speaking. I draw at the dentist’s office while waiting to to get my teeth worked on. Drawing is second nature to me. For that reason, when I have to sit down and crank out a character on the spot it is not a problem. I just start drawing. As the character develops on paper the sketch itself gives me ideas for what I should add, change, or delete.
From your own experience and maybe from some people that you know, what should we put in our portfolio and what should we not? I had an interesting experience when I first started out in this business. I had a pretty strong portfolio with a broad range of work. I had humorous illustration, cartoons, serious illustration, and even some dimensional work. I thought with such a diverse range of work I would certainly impress any potential employer and would have something that would fit any clients need. I always had a positive experience when showing this portfolio, but it did not translate into very much work.
I started to hear a common comment from many of my prospective clients… “I had a job that you WOULD HAVE been perfect for, but I didn’t remember you.” The reason they didn’t remember me was because no one knew exactly what I was. Was Dennis a cartoonist, a serious illustrator, or some kind of three dimensional artist? When they had a serious art assignment they didn’t think of me, and when they had a humorous art assignment they didn’t think of me.
I was at one of those “fork in the road” places in life. What was I going to be …a serious artist or a humorous artist? I took the humorous illustration path because that’s what I enjoyed doing the most and from that point on, when clients had a need for humorous artwork, they thought of me… “I need some humorous artwork… who can I send this to… Dennis Jones does humorous artwork… maybe I’ll send it to him.”
My experience has been that a focused portfolio helps prospective clients identify who you are, what you do and where they can plug you into their system.
What are some of the things that you have worked on? I have done 30 or 40 books for Concordia over the years, several Bibles for Zondervan, designed one of those animated hydraulic character pizza places for some place out in California, done assorted toys, games and activity books, cd covers, cereal boxes, ad agency work, a couple of comics, a ton of magazine art and a whole lot of miscellaneous stuff that I have long since forgotten.
Is there a character design you have done that you are most proud of? My most recent work is the “See With Me” Bible… approximately 350 pages of art that I did in ten months. I designed hundreds of characters for this project. Once again, I did not have the luxury of time on this project so I am proud of the shear bulk of work that I was able to crank out in such a short amount of time .
What are you working on now? (If you can tell us) Having just come off the “See With Me” I am pretty much just doing magazine illustration at this time. When the larger jobs roll in (every two or three years), I shut down all the other stuff and focus exclusively on them.When the big job is done, I move back into magazine work.
Where is the place you would like to work if you had a choice? I have always worked in a studio inside my house. I like that.
Who do you think are the top character designers out there? Since I work in a studio inside my house I don’t get out much. I really don’t know who anyone is. My brother Doug will occasionally tell me to go look at someone’s work on the internet, but I don’t remember anyone’s name. There are a lot of good ones out there.
How do you go about coloring the character, what type of tools or media do you use? I am an old school painter. I use an opaque watercolor called gouache. When I am through painting my picture I scan the artwork into my G5 and then import it into Photoshop, make some adjustments, burn it onto a CD and mail it to my client.
What part of designing a character is most fun and easy, and what is most hard? Probably getting the face right is the hardest part. You can add so much expression with how you handle the hands, feet and body, but if you miss on the face everything else seems to come up short.
What are some of your favorite character designs and least favorite, which you have seen? I like the current trend toward the retro cartoon look. I hate badly drawn “realistic” comic book art.
What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why? I love to draw football and hockey players because I love football and hockey. Animals are fun. I also like to do characters from history in period clothing.
What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen? I have a buddy named Gary Locke whose artwork is just fabulous. Early in my career when my main focus was on doing everything as quickly as possible so that I could make enough money to survive, Gary was cruising along churning out this really cool, funny artwork. You could tell his focus was more on having fun with the work because it showed in his art. He inspired me to settle down a bit and enjoy my work (no matter how unexciting it might be) and try to make the most out of each assignment.
What wisdom could you give us, about being a character designer? Do you have any tips you could give? The old masters taught painting classes by sitting a masterpiece in the middle of the room and having their students copy it, stroke for stroke. In doing this, the students learned the masters technique. I would suggest something similar. Find artists you admire and study their work, draw it, see how they build a character and learn from them. Incorporate those influences into your own work and let that help you in developing your own unique style.
Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it? I have a few things available for purchase on my web sites.
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When I visit someone’s art blog one of the things I always do is look at the links they have on their site as well because it always leads me to new and interesting artists I might never have found otherwise. Dennis Jones is probably one of those guys. An accomplished illustrator, Dennis has a flair for caricature and design. His stuff reminds me a bit of Mort Drucker. You can see more of Dennis’s work on his blog. Anyway, enjoy!
I.) Who are you and where are you from? My name is Dennis Jones and I’m an illustrator. I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Southwest Missouri State University and immediately began working freelance out of the artistic capital of the universe… the Missouri Ozarks. After several years there, I moved my family to Arlington, Texas where we spent most of the 90’s. We now live in another dream location for an illustrator… northeastern Indiana.
II.) What have you worked on? I’ve worked on all kinds of different things for all kinds of different people; animated pizza places, comic books, toys, games, magazines, books. My “Read With Me” Children’s Bible has currently sold almost three quarters of a million copies.
III.) How did you get into the business? When I was finishing my art degree I started wondering where I was going to get a job drawing pictures. I called my brother, (who was then a staff artist at a large company), and asked him if he had any idea where I might get a job doing art. He said, “I haven’t got a clue.” I didn’t have a clue, either. Being a college senior at the time with no money and absolutely no prospect for a job, I decided the smartest thing I could do in a situation like this was… get married. Which I did. Now when I failed miserably I could take someone down with me. I started scrambling to find work. I talked an amusement park into letting me draw caricatures. This was good pay at the time, it got me on my feet financially, and I was at least in the artist ball park… well, sorta. I met a veteran illustrator while there who took me under his wing and taught me the freelance art business. After working on a few projects with him, I gathered together my meager portfolio of work, got into my car, and drove all over the midwest showing my art to anyone that would look. Miraculously, people started sending me jobs, and I have been freelancing now for well over 25 years.
IV.) Do you have any personal projects your working on? I’m working on a graphic novel… that’s right, me and about a half a gazillion other artists…
V.) Why do you do what you do? Passion? Talent? I love to draw, I love to paint. I love the process that goes into creating art. I love the challenge of taking a clients idea and making it come to life. I love being able to pay my bills… art does all these things for me.
VI.) Where do you see the business in 10 years? Yourself? I’m not much of a visionary. Six years ago I told my oldest son that I could not foresee any reason in the world why I would EVER need a computer. Today, everything I do comes out of a Mac G5. I have an older PC hooked into it and use its 80 gig as an external hard drive. I have a G4 Powerbook so I can work down at the coffee shop. I have a large format scanner… the list of tech stuff I work with goes on and on… so… (keeping in mind six years ago I didn’t think I would ever even need a computer)… I’m not really the guy you want to ask to prognosticate the future of anything. I am currently trying to get my digital painting chops down in Photoshop and Painter because I have a feeling that somewhere down the line I’m going to need to know how to produce art in these programs.
VII.) What are your influences? My earliest influences were Mad Magazines and Marvel Comic Books. I was also very much influenced by the French comic, Asterix, during my college years.
BOOKS? I really enjoyed Homer Hickam’s biographies. Ken Follet, Vince Flynn, Michael Crichton… those kinda guys…
FILMS? The Royal Tenanbaums, Signs, A Mighty Wind, Band Of Brothers, That Thing You Do…
ART? I’m not very much into fine art. I mean, it’s good and all… I’m just not that interested in it.
VIII.) What kinds of tools do you use? Special Pencils? Paper? Computer? Brushes? Desk? My bread and butter is still traditional media illustration. I use Winsor-Newton 140lbs Hot-Press Watercolor Paper and Gouache. I use a synthetic golden taklon brush from Cheap Joe’s Art Supply called a Golden Fleece… and water. So while I am currently trying to learn how to paint digitally on a computer, at this point, I’m still pretty much just using sticks, water and mud to produce my art.
IX.) Any vents on the industry as a whole? Any praises? Hey, I’m just happy to still be working in the industry. In fact, if anyone in the industry is reading this, send me a job… woh, did this interview ever take a self serving turn at the end… 🙂