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Interview with Children’s illustrator/designer Merrill Rainey

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I recently had the opportunity to interview the wonderfully talented Merrill Rainey (www.littlerainey.com). Merrill has been working as a professional illustrator and graphic designer for over 10 years. He has a very unique graphic look to his work, and I wanted to find out how he got into children’s illustration and how he developed his unique style, so let’s dive right in…

You are a graphic designer and illustrator – Can you tell us how you started out and how you ended up working in both illustration and design?

During spring semester of my senior year in high school, I headed to Kent State University in Ohio to meet with an advisor to schedule for fall classes. At that time, I was asked whether or not I wanted to be a painting or an illustration major. Not knowing what the real difference was, the advisor sent me down to the art building to look at the senior art show being displayed at the art building. While perusing the student work, I came across a series of of books with a familiar title; “Super Fudge”. I took note that this series of books had been redesigned and illustrated by a graduating student for their senior thesis. I was in awe of the work, and at that moment, I decided that illustration is what I wanted to do. I eagerly headed back to my advisor to tell her my decision. She then proceeded to enroll me into the illustration program. What I didn’t know until the following Fall, was that the program was actually called Visual Communications Design (aka VCD). Over the summer, my college class schedule showed up with a course called Basic Studio Skills. I couldn’t wait to start this class, and started thinking about what skills I would be learning. Would it be figure drawing, water colors, pen & ink…? The list of possibilities just went on and on, and I couldn’t wait to start.

Fast forward a few months, just after the first few week of classes; I felt like I had been tricked! It seemed the projects I was assigned to create had nothing to do with illustration work! I was given tasks such as drawing donuts and circles (check out thedonutproject.com) and creating paste ups using only a grid and various sizes of squares and circles. These projects where so tedious and intense, it made me question what the heck was I getting myself into! All I kept thinking about was when I would be able to start drawing pictures!! Then finally, the last project of freshman year shed a little light on the situation. We where asked to create a page design paste up based on any subject matter of our choice (I choose a Fender Guitar). We had to design the layout based on all of the knowledge we learned over the last few months. So I set to work, slowly and precisely cutting out my xeroxed copies of guitars and guitar picks. As I began working on my first creative project, everything suddenly just clicked. I finally understood why we had been assigned such tedious work in the beginning. I now knew exactly what I was getting myself into, and enjoyed every moment of it! After receiving my first “B” on the project I was ecstatic! (You see, “A’s” and “B’s” weren’t given out very often in this program!) Who would have thought using an X-acto blade, rubber cement, tracing paper, and rub-off lettering would have been so exciting! For the next few years my classmates and I went through some pretty grueling projects and critiques. We were taught both illustration and design principals and techniques, which in the end made our body of work well rounded for future employment after graduation. In the Spring of 2003, I was finally able to break free from the rules of academia. I spent numerous hours creating and sending out sample packets and resumes, building my illustration portfolio, and trying to stand out amongst my competitors. I also took on a few different jobs during this time. I worked for McDonalds (for 1 day), Walmart (for 4 weeks), a flexography plate maker (for 2 months), and was finally hired at a company in Sylvania, OH called Applied Learning. Applied Learning created large training visuals called Knowledge Maps™ for Fortune 500 businesses. After a long 3 months and various interviews with this company, I was finally hired. I worked for 10 years in various position such as; graphic designer, flash animator, illustrator, and studio manager at both Applied Learning and it’s sister company, Healthy Interactions. Then, in that 10th year, I felt it was time to put the cowboy boots on and set off walking down the road to start the next chapter of my story.

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How did you get your start in children’s illustration? And, what was it that drew you to this area of illustration in particular?

I’ve always been attracted to children’s art. I think a lot of it had to do with being a child of the 1980s, where comics, toys, and Saturday morning cartoons were just booming and were a major part of my day. I can remember rushing home from school just so I could catch the next episode of “Dennis the Menace”, “Animaniacs”, “Duck Tales”, or “TMNT”. And while I soaked in the latest episodes, I was always creating something, whether it was drawing monsters and super heroes, creating paper cut outs of animals for various holidays, or just building with legos. I was never bored as a kid since there was always so much to do. I also enjoyed my frequent trips to the public library with my mom where I spent a lot of time just hanging out in the children’s section soaking up all of the great books. And I can’t forget the weekly trips to the school library where I couldn’t wait to read “The Bernstein Bears” and “The Spooky Old Tree” or have a story read to us by our school librarian Mrs. Connor. These trips to the school library also exposed me to great shows like “Reading Rainbow”, “Mr. Rogers”, and “Sesame Street”. I got my initial start in the children’s industry back in 2005 when I reached out to my artist representative Nicole Tugeau of Tugeau2.com. I sent her an email asking what she looked for in the artists she represented. Her response was not what I was expecting. I figured she would come back with the usual cookie cutter response, but instead, she asked if I would be interested in working with her on a black line project for Houghton Mifflin; of course I said yes! Over the next few years we worked together on and off for awhile. During this time, I was going though a personal creative renaissance where I really started to focus on developing an illustration style that I could call my own. At this time, Illustration Friday had just launched, and since I did not have many clients yet, I had time to use it to experiment with a lot of techniques and styles until I settled on an elementary version of how I create my work today. Shortly after this, my freelance clientele started to build. I was working full-time as a designer during the day, and burning a lot of midnight oil doing illustration work at night. I had quite a few late nights/weeks creating assets and online worlds for “Littlest Petshop” and “My Little Pony”, as well as the start of a long running relationship with US Kids doing interior spreads for Jack & Jill magazine. Then in 2010 I had an offer from Tugeau 2 to be represented by them full-time. In 2012, after 10 years working as a full-time graphic designer, I was finally able to jump ship to work as a freelance Illustrator full-time.

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Your illustrations have a fun graphic feel to them. Is your style influenced by your graphic design work?

My work is heavily influenced by my graphic design work and background. Ever since college, I’ve loved the graphic work of folks like Roy Lichtenstein, A. M. Cassandre, Joseph Binder, and Paul Rand. There is nothing better to look at then an awesome stylized illustration that has been inserted into a layout that has nice composition and typography. Knowing what good design is has definitely made a big impact on my work. I approach every illustration as I would a page layout. I use the design principals I have learned to help establish a visual that will keep my audience’s attention.

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Can you walk us through your illustration process? Where do you start?

I start off most projects (design or illustration) with thumbnails. The thumbnail gives me an opportunity to work out my composition of the image and establish hierarchy of the piece. (Note: I use a pen to do all thumbnail work. This helps to avoid the urge to erase and make things perfect.) When I have a thumbnail I like, I’ll take a snapshot with my phone, transfer it to my machine, open it up in Photoshop and size it to the correct physical size at 200DPI. Once the image is sized correctly, I will create a new layer in Photoshop, place it under the layer with the thumbnail sketch, and then set the thumbnail layer to multiply. With my layer structure set up, I grab the brush tool, set it to 75% transparency with a reddish brown color, and start detailing out my sketch as much as possible. I like to make sure my sketch is as refined and detailed as needed before placing it into Adobe Illustrator. With my sketch complete, I then pull that into Adobe Illustrator, where I will complete my final art by using the blob brush, two brush stroke effects (one which I created), a placed water color texture, and every once in awhile, I will take the final art back into Photoshop to distress the image a little. I view using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop as more of a painting and drawing medium. (Just without the mess!) There’s nothing at all automated with what I do, and I still consider my work to be hand drawn.

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What is your favorite part of the creative process?

I actually have 3 favorite parts:

1) The concept stage: There’s nothing more challenging then being handed an assignment and penciling your way through what the best solution will be.

2) Obtaining the illustrator’s high: You’ve heard of the runner’s high, well the illustrators high is exactly the same thing. It’s that moment while your working that you are enjoy what you are doing so much, time just flies, and before you know it, it’s 4am! :-)

3) Self-gratification: There’s nothing more creatively inspiring then having finished an illustration, or project that just looks  awesome!! That simple slap on your back can easily spur you to jump right into your next creative endeavor.

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You’ve done work in a lot of different areas (comics, logos, product design, paper toys, etc.) – What type of work do you find the most satisfying?

What I find the most satisfying and gratifying is not just what type of work I’m doing, but the challenge of finding the best  solution to tell the story of my client, and/or my client’s product. No matter what type of projects I am working on, I go about creating them all with the same process.

Whose work do you admire?

The biggest influence on my work (besides the designers mentioned throughout my responses above) has been the work of Rankin & Bass. Their style of story telling and their character development still influence my work today. I also, admire the work of other greats like Charles Schulz, Jim Henson, Hank Ketcham. As well as current illustrators like, Chris Van Allsburg, Bob Staake, Jim Paillot, Aaron Blecha, Tedd Arnold, Mercer Mayer, Lane Smith, and Steve Mack. Lastly, I have to give a shout-out to two good friends and past co-workers of mine; Scott McMahon of scootcomics.com and Corey Barba of softbrightengine.com. Over the years, both Corey and Scott have helped me to refine my illustration techniques and to hone my skills on how to tell a good story.

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Who or what inspires you from outside your own medium of work?

I am inspired by all the things around me. Being a visual person, I can gain inspiration from most anything! From things like watching a movie, to a walk in the park, or by just observing the people and the environment around me. The world is full of a lot of great characters, and it’s our job as illustrators to immortalize them on paper!!

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Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Keep drawing, never give up, learn how to present yourself and your work, and keep learning! The illustration industry is a difficult market to play in. But if you do good work, and work hard at what you do for yourself and clients, eventually things will start working in your favor. Learn how to present yourself and your work to potential clients or employers. And if your not sure how to do this, ask the pros for a little help. At my last full-time job, I was in the position to hire new artists/designers. It quickly became very apparent that there were a lot of places of higher education that never taught their students how to present themselves. This skill is Key to being successful in this business. Not a day goes by that I’m not continually thinking about current projects, personal projects, and how I am going to best represent myself to go after that next big project. Also, hone your craft skills; no one likes to look at sloppy work! Pay attention to the fine details; take the time needed to make sure you are representing yourself well. Learn new skills! Try taking a painting class, learn screen printing, dabble in letter press, experiment with whatever interests you, and then incorporate that into your work. Every new skill that you learn will better your final outcome.

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Where would you like your work to lead you? What are your plans for the future?

My future plans entail doing exactly what I am doing right now; creating and crafting stories for my clientele. I can honestly say I’m living my dream and I’m up for whatever challenges the future holds!

Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I always have projects in the works. When I don’t have client work, I’m either updating my portfolio sites, creating new promo work, working on my book ideas, crafting paper toys, or playing around with screen printing.

As for upcoming projects, the one I am most excited about is a top secret Halloween Puzzle Pages for both Humpty Dumpty and Jack & Jill magazine, but that’s all I can say for now. You’ll have to wait until Sept/Oct to find out more!

Big thanks to Merrill for taking time out of his busy schedule for this interview. You can see more of Merrill’s work at www.littlerainey.com and you can follow him on Twitter @LittleRainey

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