This post is part of a series in which we interview successful makers on how they built their business. Today we are interviewing illustrator, Will Terry.
Will Terry has been a freelance illustrator for 23 years. After finishing his BFA project at BYU he began working for magazines and newspapers not far from where he grew up in Washington D.C. His early clients include publications such as Time, Money, Wall Street Journal and ads for Sprint, Pizza hut, M&M Mars, Fed Ex, and Master Card. He has illustrated about 30 children’s books for Random House, Simon Schuster, Scholastic, Penguin, Klutz, and Albert Whitman. He has created several indie ebooks that have sold tens of thousands of copies and has started a story app series with Rick Walton beginning with Gary’s Place.
We interviewed Will about how he started career in celebration of his upcoming workshop, Illustrating Children’s Books.
When did you discover your love of drawing?
I always loved to draw even though I was never the best in any of my classes from elementary through college. In fact I was put on probation in my BYU college art classes because I wasn’t doing well enough. I had to work really hard or they were going to kick me out after 1 semester. I didn’t get kicked out and started to understand how to create better images. By the time I finished my BFA project I was in the upper half in my group of 20.
How did you start your illustration career?
The confidence of coming from behind gave me the courage to show my portfolio back home in Washington D.C. and I started getting magazine work. Over the next few years beginning in 1992 I completed hundreds of assignments for magazines, newspapers, and advertisements. In 1997 I was asked to illustrate my first children’s book – Pizza Pat which has sold over a half million copies. Since then I’ve illustrated about 30 children’s books and a few games for Hasbro and Ceaco, 3 ebooks, and 3 story apps. All told in the past 22 years I’ve completed about 2800 assignments for companies all over the world.
If you could start all over again, would you change your career path in any way? why?
Yes! I was going for a really quirky way of drawing as a beginning illustrator and I thought that learning how to draw better might ruin my style. It delayed my progression for about 15 years. I was still working as an illustrator but I know I was passed over for many jobs because my drawing was holding me back. You can always learn to “undraw”. Just look at Jon Klassen’s work. He was a professional animator so you know he can draw – but if you look at what he does in his children’s books you’ll see a very primitive style – he’s un-drawing but it’s very convincing and competent because he knows how to do it right.
Another thing I would do differently is become a student of popular children’s books. I think a smart approach would be to spend days and weeks just dissecting book after book. I think you need to reverse engineer the best books to learn better how to create your own masterpieces.
I also would have gotten into writing classes to learn how to write my own books. The publishing world is in love with the author/illustrator for picture books. It makes sense to try to be both. It will give you a much better chance of being published than only illustrating.
How do most people enter the children’s book illustration profession?
It’s interesting to me that people come from all facets of the creative world to become children’s book illustrators. Many come from graphic design – after perfecting their craft they learn how to design – such an important skill in making art for children’s books. Many come from animation. Perhaps they got laid off or found it frustrating to be part of a team and left out of the credits. Animators are winning awards like Jon Klassen’s “That is Not My Hat”. Many come right out of art school and start making book dummies to submit to agents and editors. I even know some that were editors and art directors at publishing houses. Many are writers who have learned the craft of illustrating like Mo Willems. One thing most of them have in common is regular attendance at SCBWI events both nationally and locally.
What would you say is the best path to this career?
Becoming a very good at drawing. Practicing the mechanics of good shape construction in perspective. Observational drawing is good and needed but going the next step of concepting and constructing your characters from the ground up that function dimensionally needs to be practiced for many years. The artist who knows what to practice and practices this on a regular basis will have a much better chance.
How long does it take you to illustrate a picture book?
It used to take me anywhere from about 500 – 600 hours to illustrate most of my picture-books using acrylics on paper. Armadilly Chili, The Frog with the Big Mouth, The Three Little Gators etc. were illustrated in acrylics. When I switched over to digital in 2010 it cut the time in half give or take. I think the biggest change is in saving all the sketch transfer time and under-painting which used to take me about 4-6 hours. Now I can take my iPad sketch – email it to my desktop and lay in the under-painting with a click of the mouse and the paint-bucket tool.
Did you always know that you would be a professional illustrator?
My life now is exactly what I would have hoped for. I never thought I would get here and had much self doubt especially since I was almost kicked out of my college art BFA program. I wasn’t good enough back then and was allowed to continue on “probation” for one semester. I later taught at the same college – BYU for the same professors who put me on probation.
Will is teaching a session during our live online workshop, Illustrating Children’s Books. The live workshop starts on January 18th, but everyone who signs up will get lifetime access to the content. See the full schedule and sign up here.