David Zobel

David Zobel

David Zobel Interview

David Zobel

Children's Illustrator

Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?

I started out drawing as a kid. Copying anything that I could and loved every moment. I took art through high school until I had an art teacher tell me that I should not draw. SO, I listened and pursued communication in college and then graphic design in my masters. I worked in design for 10 years, decided I wanted to teach design. I started teaching design and was drawing with my then 5-year-old son and I was drawing his name in bubble letters. He looked over at me and said, “Daddy put eyes on it!” and that was it!!! I started drawing these letters as characters, then started drawing them as monsters, then I started drawing other monsters and that was it, I was an illustrator.

How and why did you decide to pursue illustration as your career?

I decided to pursue illustration because I had to. It was in me from the beginning and I did not even know it. Even as a graphic designer I was illustrating, it was with photographs, but it was still a form of illustration. As soon as I found monsters I decided I needed to do this.  

Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?

Yes, but it was for graphic design. I went received my Undergraduate in Communication and have a Masters in Graphic design. I had to get my illustration knowledge from just by doing it, creativity and lots of online classes. 

Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?

I live in Baltimore, MD and grew up in Gaithersburg, MD. 

Was creativity part of your childhood?

Yes. Creativity was a big part of my childhood. It did not also come in the form of drawing, but I was always being creative and always seeing things in a creative way. I would make up games and revise rules of games that made them more interesting. I would always draw and loved drawing cartoons and abstractions.

Have you always loved to draw?

YES!!! I was always drawing as a kid. My grandfather was big into drawing and I can remember watching him draw for inspiration and always trying to be good as grandpa. I always had a sketchbook with me and was always doodling and drawing something. TO this day I still carry one around with me no matter where I go.

Which books from your own childhood really stand out?

There are a couple for a different reason. I love Dr. Seuss, but for his writing then the drawings. The Mr. and Mrs. series. I had almost all of them, and I still have them to this day. But the ones that really got me into drawing were the Ed Emberly Thumbprint books. 

What was your first commission as a professional illustrator?

My first true commission as an illustrator was a monster name drawing. Since that first commision I have drawn over 200 names. 

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Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.

My working technique started off non digital and as I started to work with it and fine tune it became digital. I work primarily in Sketchbook Pro and then finish in Photoshop. I use a wacom cintique to draw and has definitely sped up my process. 

What piece of software or hardware could you not live without and why?

As far as digital drawing it is my wacom cintique. It has made my production 5 times faster. It is the best and most related to drawing on a piece of paper. As far as non-digital it has to be my brush pens. Love the feeling and pressure I can get with them. 

Do you keep a sketch book?

Yes!!! I have multiple. I have one for my sketches and thoughts per project. I also have one where I want to fill with a particular detail pen and ink drawings. 

Tell us about the creation of your favourite character from one of your books.

My favorite character in one of my books is MeMonster. He is supposed to repersent the kid in all of us. He is goofy, silly, funny, and I love drawing him. 

How many times do you tend to draw a character until you are happy with it?

It first starts in my sketchbook with a thought or idea. Then I redraw the "good" ideas then once I have the basic structure flushed out I take a picture of it and work with it digitally. Usually it only takes one or two more times drawing it before I am happy with the way that it looks. Then it is just fine tuning in. 

Which project has been most instrumental in developing your personal style?

Well my style has been developing ever since I have been illustrating. I was told in high school that I should not be doing art and I should do something else. So I did. I went to college and majored in communication then went on to get a masters in graphic design and worked in design for 15 years. When my son was about 5 I was drawing with him and drawing his name in bubble letters. He said to me "daddy put eyes on it" and from that moment I have been drawing monsters and fun things. But what that did was open up many different avenues for my creativity with illustration and art. 

Talk us through the process of creating one of your latest illustrations or books.

The process for my newest series of animals and monsters. It is a new style that I am working on. It is taking a flatter cut paper look and feel to my illustrations. And the process first starts with what makes this character interesting. Is it a piece of clothing, a certain facial feature, or something else? Then it is all about how do I emphasize it and make it interesting. 

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Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.

Yes. I have many different styles and it all depends on what the client wants. I have a flatter shape-based illustration, a more graphic or comic style, and a more photo illustration style. Each one depends on the audience and client needs. The flatter shaped illustration is newer for me, so it is more exciting because it is new. That being said I do love the black outline more graphic style. With that style the coloring is more graphic and painterly. The more photo illustration is the closest to my graphic design training. I love designing with photos and creating illustration with it, but it usually does not fit children’s book illustrations as it is more urban and more graphic. 

Have you ever thought about trying out a different technique or a different style?

Yes. I constantly trying out new techniques or trying new ways of creating. I love to see what I can do. For a while I would illustrate in a very distinct style and just recently, maybe 2 months ago, I switched to try a new style. I think if we never try new things we will never grow as artists.

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How long does it take on average for you to finish a spread, from initial sketch to final colour?

For me I spend more time in the concept and layout stage than any other part of the process. I will take about 1 hour with the idea and very loose compositions. Then another 2-3 hours working with the layout and really getting it nailed down. Then I would spend another 1-2 hours laying in color and finishing touches. So, it totality it would take around 6hrs for a spread.

What do you hope children take away from your drawings?

I want kids to take away the same love and emotion that I put into each illustration. I have a rule when I am drawing a silly character. If I do not chuckle as I am drawing it, I am not doing my job as an illustrator. I really want the kids to feel excitement, fun, silliness, and just plain joy.

What do you do in your spare time?

In my spare time I love to run!!! I run long distances, it is a great release for me and some of my best ideas come from running. I also teach college (art and design), graphic design, play with my kids (I want them to have more interest in Legos) I also work on artwork that are not children illustrations.

What is your favourite children’s book and why?

My favorite characters all come from graphic novels. I really love this character from the graphic novel, I hate fairyland, it is by the illustrator Skottie Young. The other character that I really like is Mal from a series called Mal and Chad. Love the simple styled inked lines.

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

For me a typical day in the studio is me producing work. I have a tight schedule with kids, teaching, and life. So, when I am in the studio it is all about producing. Whether it is a logo, new character, monster, a new idea, etc., I am also focused on executing and finishing.

Take us behind the scenes and describe your studio / workspace.

My studio used to be a playroom and is now my studio. It is pretty cozy. My desk is our old kitchen table. On one side is a large pencil drawing and the other is all my digital equipment. On the walls are drawing by me, my friends, and my kids. The kid’s drawings are where my illustration inspiration come from. It is messy, but I feel I work better in a little bit of mess.

Where do you get the ideas for your characters?

My ideas come from basic shapes. I love the idea of taking something that is a basic shape and asking, “What if?” – What if they had 2 arms, what if they had 3 eyes, what makes this interesting, etc. Then once I identify that, how do I put my spin on it? How do I infuse me and my style into those parameters?

Share your favourite piece of artwork from your portfolio and walk us through its creation.

The zebra is my favorite current illustration. I looked at many images of zebras and had to think about how do I keep the quality of the zebra and infuse my own style. I wanted the head to be disproportionate from the rest of the body. I think that is friendlier and funnier. Then what do I put on him that would make it even funnier, so I thought of a tie. But not just a tie a striped tie, because that is of course what he would wear. He loves stipes!!!

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Which 4 words would you use to describe your illustration portfolio?

Fun, silly, goofy and colorful!!!

Outline your dream project.

My dream project would be to have a book that I could do in my style and free rein over that style as well as being able to layout the book and choose the typography. To be able to design the book from outside to inside would be the best!!

Which area of children’s publishing excites you the most?

The best part of children’s publishing for me would have to be the illustration side of it. Love coming up with the ideas, bringing the authors words to life, and having fun with composition.

Have you taken part in any speaker events?

I have done speaking events and I love them!!! The topics I usually cover are: demos on how to draw, how did I got into art/illustration, sometimes about the creative field in general and working for a creative industry. Which I have 15+ years as a designer working in the field.

Have you visited any schools to speak or hold workshops?

I have done both. I have gone into schools and given drawing workshops. The drawing workshops are usually about how to take a simple shape and create a monster. I usually take them step by step to start and then let them create their own. The kids really love it.

I have also gone into school to read my book and ask any questions about the process of drawing or writing.

Do you have a favourite soundtrack you listen to when you’re working?

I do have a soundtrack. I listen to a lot of electronic music and epic movie scores.

What things affect your creativity?

Creativity is an interesting thing. It is not something that you can just turn on or off like a light switch. So, for me it is the environment that affects me the most.

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What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

Best piece of advice that I have ever received is be proud and trust your style and your way of illustrating. Never compare yourself to anyone; be inspired by, look up to, but never compare. Be proud of who you are and how you illustrate.

What was your last ‘lightbulb moment’?

The last light bulb moment was when I found this new flatter style of illustration. For me to be able to get all the whimsy and personality that I had in my other style into these flat obtainable flat shapes is really exciting for me. In fact, I think I can get even more personality in this style the others ones ever did.

What makes a good children’s book?

What makes a good children’s book is do the kids like it! Are they relating to the book, are they getting what you wanted them to get out of it, are they laughing where you want them to laugh? That’s what makes it good.

Which project are you most proud of?

The last project that I was proud of was my last book. It was the first story book that I wrote and that was a challenge for me. The challenge was how do I get my point across and have the words and the image match up.

When you are not drawing, how do you like to relax?

To relax, I run. I run a lot. I love going out and running for hours and come back relaxed and ready to go.

What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

One thing people don’t know about me is that I used to weight about 120 pounds more than I do right now. It has been a long journey and I am proud of my weight loss.

How important is it for you to be part of a creative community of people?

love being part of a community. And when I don’t have it or I am working by myself on many projects I miss it.

If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?

If I was not an illustrator what would I do….I would be either a comedian or a psychologist. Both are involved with dealing with people. I find people fascinating and how they interact, how they laugh and how they communicate. It is fascinating to me.  

How do you overcome a creative block?

To free a creative block, I usually get away from the project. Go for a walk/run/exercise. Getting your mind focused on something else usually frees it up.  

What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?

My favorite subjects to draw are the unrealistic things; monsters, dragons, robots, etc.

How do you get your creative juices flowing?

For me I don’t have a lot of time, so when I sit down to create I am ready and completely focused. I am also always trying new things and trying to see where my illustrations can fit in this world.

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