Illustrator Interview – Fred Koehler

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We are back with our illustrator Wednesdays and you guys are in for some treats over the coming weeks, as I have some sensational artists lined up for you. I am so enjoying getting to know these colleagues and their work better. Fred Koehler feels like one of those writer/illustrator friends that I have met, but can’t quite remember where. Of course he is part of the notorious Pixlars, and this photo may be the reason why! I follow Fred on FB for the delightful blend of funny+profound (well, ok, and a little weird, but I like that), and I have the feeling that his picture books may well incorporate this mix.

  • Illustrator or author/illustrator?

[FK] Definitely Author/Illustrator. It’s weird. The writing comes naturally and the illustration is always a grind for me. Even today, I’m struggling to find the right inspiration and technique for the finished style of my work.

  • What’s your nationality, where have you lived and how has this influenced you?

[FK] I’m an American, and I grew up in Florida. We camped and fished and spent much of our time outdoors. I also lived in West Africa for a couple of years, which has a similar climate to Florida but without the air conditioning. Walking instead of driving, spending hours in nature, making plans based on the weather – all of that lends itself to a slower pace of life. But it’s a rich life.

Wow, I have spent time in West Africa myself. You’ll have to give me more details. I do the slow pace real well!    

  • Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.

Sea Monster

[FK] Great question. I used to doodle in the church bulletin and at school instead of paying attention. I’d like to think that the important stuff sank in. At school, art classes were the easiest place for me to get good grades and the least likely place to get beat up. I studied graphic design in college and faked my way through the rest of my classes. I worked at newspapers, advertising agencies, government, and even corporate America. I always felt I was telling someone else’s story, which was fine, but I also had stories of my own to tell. So in 2009 I started writing and illustrating.

  • Fred, I can’t wait any longer to ask, how did you recently nab such amazing agents as Tracey and Josh Adams of Adams Literary?

[FK] He he he. I think this one needs a disclaimer – what worked for me wouldn’t necessarily have worked for someone else. I had sold a book already on my own with boatloads of help and encouragement from SCBWI. But more importantly, I had lots of other ideas to pitch and sell. After a query through the Adams Literary website, I shared some of those ideas with Josh and Tracey – and they saw potential. Then, we arranged to meet in person at an SCBWI conference in Orlando. I showed up to our meeting in a bathing suit and cowboy hat. They didn’t flinch. Josh even shared his fries. Basically I was weird and they liked me anyways, so I pretty much figured it was meant to be.

So you don’t recommend me trying my next agent meeting in bikini and baseball cap? 

  • How important is the wider artistic community in your art?

[FK] I think the wider art community does two immensely important things for any artist. 1. All forms of art influence and flavor our work. Lots of folk art here in Florida. Good local music. Film. Tons of raw talent and great ideas. My work here in Florida is waaaay different than it would be if I lived in, say, D.C. 2. Being surrounded by other creative types reminds us that we’re not crazy. It’s so easy to let our dreams die because nobody else believes in them. Creatives are believers and encouragers by nature I think, and it’s a vitally important community for any artist.

  • Do you have themes/characters to which you return again and again in your art?

Cat Hippo

[FK] I like to focus on simple, meaningful interactions between characters. The pieces that people respond to the most are not complex at all, but the story behind the art engages them emotionally. It makes them say “I’ve felt that way, too.”

  • So tell us a little about creating DAD’S BAD DAY and when it will hit the shelves?

[FK] DAD’S BAD DAY hits the shelves in Spring 2014. I know it’s still a long ways off, but as it is my first picture book I’m thrilled to have the extra time. My editor, Kate Harrison, and art director, Lily Malcolm at Dial are a great fit. They’re professional, personable, and excellent at what they do. I really couldn’t imagine a better team. I try and take a very objective approach to the art and the story. I have a vision. So do Kate and Lily. As long as the vision stays consistent, I’m happy to revise the detail work however they see fit. I’m hoping that attitude makes for a better book and many future projects together.

  • What does your workspace look like? 

[FK] A picture of my workspace would have to be a collage. I can run my whole company from a backpack, and I like to be on the move. I work for a couple hours at the coffee shop, then maybe to the library, to the house, the airport, wherever. I don’t like sitting still for too long, so I try and break up the day by moving my workspace every couple of hours. I will include an image of one of my workspaces at home. 🙂

  • Can you share a piece or two with us, and the process of producing them?

[FK] Sure. I’m going to give you an exclusive peek at the original character sketch from DAD’S BAD DAY. It all actually started in a coffee shop where I was hanging out with my two-year-old son on a Saturday. I was stubbornly trying to ignore him so I could draw and he was stubbornly trying to command my full attention. I scribbled these two elephants angrily staring each other down.

We were both completely frustrated with the other, and eventually had to leave the coffee shop so we didn’t make a scene. I went back later and simplified the sketch, and it turned into this.

That second version, untouched, is what opened the door DAD’S BAD DAY. It was done in photoshop with a layer for linework, a layer for tones/texture, and a layer for color. I wish I could give you some glimpses into the depths of my vast illustration knowledge, but I don’t have much formal training. I think my advantage lies not in knowing HOW to draw, but in having good ideas of WHAT to draw.

  • What advice would you share with an artist fresh out of art school who wants to become a children’s book illustrator?

[FK] I know some successful people in this industry – a few dozen who have book deals or are on the verge. One thing they all seem to have in common is that they got really, really good at something before they found their artistic voice. Dan Santat did backgrounds for video games. Kathy Blackmore and Kelly Light were animators at Disney. Donna Gephert (writer) did greeting cards. I spent ten years in public relations and advertising. If not for all those years writing speeches for school board members and photoshopping plates of mashed potatoes to make them look creamy instead of chunky, I wouldn’t be as good at what I do today. So the advice is pretty simple: don’t worry about the jobs you find along the path to your goal, but by all means learn everything you possibly can from them.

  • Five Fun Ones to Finish?

What word best sums you up?

[FK] Thankful

If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?

[FK] The Florida Keys or maybe the Bahamas

Funniest thing one of your kids has said? 

[FK] “Your feet smell like bad guys.”

Cats or dogs?

[FK] Dogs

If you could spend a day with one children’s book character, with whom would that be?

[FK] Aslan

Feel free to friend Fred on Facebook, check out his flickr site or follow him on twitter, @superfredd.

Fred, thank you so much for sharing with us today. I expect to see mashed potatoes in one of your books someday! I love the animosity (and wrench) in that first DAD’S BAD DAY sketch! And you are the first to reference Narnia on this blog. To your continued success, Fred!

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28 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Fred Koehler

  1. What a great interview, Joanna! Fred, thanks for sharing your story and your art. I love the drawings & look forward to reading DAD’S BAD DAY.

  2. Fred Rocks.

    Oh….and I somehow knew he was a dog person. Which is a compliment. Even though I’m a cat person. Which is probably why it’s a compliment. We cat people need to learn to hang our heads out the window and let the tongue flap around a bit more sometimes. Fred you are an inspiration!

    • Fred K. says:

      Hey you. I think you coulda been a dog or cat person. And that’s a compliment, too. Give yourself a big ol hug from me.

  3. Tina Cho says:

    What a fun interview, Joanna & Fred! The illustrations look darling! I like what you said about surrounding yourself with creative people! Congrats on this book deal and agent!

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed the interview. I like the simplicity of Fred’s art. Very expressive. Will definity want to read Dad’s Bad Day.” He sounds like a rebel. Glad you’re doing these illustrator interviews again.

    • Fred K. says:

      Hi Patricia. I am most definitely not a rebel. At least that’s what I kept trying to tell the principal. Oh well. Thanks for the note!!

  5. SO very good to see the illustrator interviews series return! And what a great opener for the new season. Fred sounds like such fun, and I’m very impressed at the way his drawings of those elephants convey so much emotion, both in the original detailed sketch and in the simplified final drawing.

    Thank you both!

  6. First thing I remember about Fred was the suspenders. And his smile. And I like being described as notorious!

  7. Mike Allegra says:

    Great interview! And I love the illustrations!

    I’m looking forward to getting a copy of Dad’s Bad Day.

  8. Cathy Mealey says:

    How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when those two elephants made a scene at the coffee shop! (OK, I’m extrapolating here, but it is such a vivid story!)

    Great interview, can’t wait for DAD’S BAD DAY!

    My former brother in law enlightened me by crossing off agenda items on the church bulletin to make the time pass. Should have been doodling instead I guess!

    • Fred K. says:

      Hi Cathy! Yeah… It’s a great coffee shop, in spite of the fact that they let riffraff like me hang out there. There’s definitely benefit to doodling. In fact I have heard rumor that it actually helps you pay attention. That’s probably not true, but it’s an excellent excuse for when you get caught.

  9. Great interview and illustrations. 🙂 It’s also fantastic reading about a fellow Florida SCBWI-er.

    • Fred K. says:

      Hi Medeia! Thanks for reading. We’ll have to run into each other at one of the next conferences. They’re always fabulous.

  10. What a fantastic interview! There is so much awesome in here it’s hard to articulate 🙂 I think my favorite part was “The pieces that people respond to the most are not complex at all, but the story behind the art engages them emotionally. It makes them say “I’ve felt that way, too.” – so very true! But I love those elephants staring each other down, the idea of feet smelling like bad guys, and the sheer confidence you’d have to have to show up to meet your potential agents in a cowboy hat and a bathing suit! I will be looking forward to Dad’s Bad Day with great anticipation – I wish we didn’t have to wait until Spring 2014!

    • Fred K. says:

      Thanks so much, Susanna! A lot of my hard knocks have come in the advertising world, so keeping the concept simple has kind of been beaten into me over time. And about the bathing suit and cowboy hat – sometimes you just do things because you know it’ll make a good story one day. 🙂

  11. Lori Alexander says:

    Great interview! Looking forward to picking up a copy of DAD’S BAD DAY. And I hope your stinky bad guy feet make it into a future PB.

    • Fred K. says:

      Hi Lori!! Thanks for the kind feedback. When my son said that to my daughter I almost wrecked the truck I was laughing so hard. It may deserve a spot in somebody’s middle grade novel.

  12. Leslie Rose says:

    Fred, you are a kick and a half. Love your pix. I’ve met Josh and Tracy at several SCBWI conferences – super peeps. I’m glad you all found each other.

  13. I’m glad these have returned. Thanks Joanna and Fred.

  14. Breeber Butt says:

    Great work, Paul Baby…and yes, I’d say you are a rebel, with our without suspenders. We are proud of you and happy can’t wait to see more in person.


  15. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    I guess “listen” wasn’t the right word, LOL. In any case, Fred’s story is pretty story book, isn’t it? Great interview with fabulous illustrator!

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