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?
Hmmm… 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.