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