Every children's book requires an illustrator to bring the author's words to life. The Case of the Plastic Rings - The Adventures of Planetman has an illustrator with remarkable talent: Thomas Deisboeck . Tom graciously agreed to let me interview him. My questions are in black, and Tom's answers are in blue.
How did/does your history and home background affect your illustration work?
I was born in Munich, Germany, and grew up with comics of the Franco-Belgian tradition, Asterix, Tintin, Spirou etc. These books were not only drawn very well, the story arches masterfully wove a bit of history and plenty of adventures together, and all of it PG. Mind you, the 1970s were a pre-personal computer area, growing up without 24/7 social media on an ever-present web - which clearly dates me – but that meant we read books, and comics, and had time & space to let our fantasy fly. A well-developed imagination is an absolutely crucial asset for an illustrator (and anyone else, really, regardless of age and profession).
Tell us something about your educational background that made you a better, or more caring, artist/illustrator.
I went to both Medical School (in Germany) and then business school (in the US) which depending who you talk to is either a testimony of a quest for a broad education or a thorough lack of focus. Artistically, I am largely self-taught, but I took online classes with Charles Zembillas at the Animation Academy in Burbank and John Byrne at the London Art College. Charles is a friend and a Yoda-type influence. He has the uncanny ability to be super supportive while he readily improves with ‘annoying’ ease every single one of my character designs and cartoons. The internet has moved the power from studios and agencies to the creatives with artist-owned content being published non-stop at low or no costs which was not an option just a few years ago. The byproduct is that there is so much great art at sites like Behance, Deviant and even Pinterest that it's humbling. I recommend whenever you think you got a piece perfectly right and feel the urge to kick back for a few min, take a quick look at Pinterest drawing pins and it brings you down to earth quickly.
Please share your hobbies, interests, or activities with us, you know the ones for during your leisure time (laugh), if you have any.
First off, I do a fair amount of work because I have 2 other careers in parallel (medical scientist and entrepreneur/consultant/investor). That being said, I like to spend time with family and a few good friends wherever they are. Traveling with family has always been one of my absolute favorites – from Alaska to Europe to Africa, any place in the Caribbean – life is short, so nothing is a better ‘investment’ than making unforgettable memories together. I enjoy watching “old” movies, reading comics and art books, try to keep up with the best magazine ever – The Economist, enjoy kayaking on a quiet lake and walking our dog. I love to collect art – old Disney drawings or cool comic pencil layouts from (more talented) artist friends that work for Marvel or DC.
Illustrators/artists are often asked when they started illustrating or what triggered their interest in art. I’d like to know that, too, but I would especially like to know what keeps you illustrating.
I loved watching Disney’s pictures, particularly those from the Golden Age of Animation, i.e. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia; Walt’s 9 Old Master Animators are the Gods, unrivaled, no electronics available at the time, just pure skill. I started to draw in High School, then dropped it for 30 years and restarted 10+ years ago when I went on a plane to LA to meet with Charles. It was and is an outlet for my sense of humor and emotional expression. What keeps me drawing? – well, both, the constant thrill to push the boundaries of my skill and try to get better, and the enjoyment of every now and then getting it (almost) right.
How do you manage to draw/illustrate and have time for relationships?
Finding quality time to sit down and draw is always a challenge because there are so many demands on anyone’s time these days. Deadlines are not always helpful; while they aid in focusing attention, they cannot force the production of an artistic masterpiece, or anything close. So, managing various time demands really comes down to setting priorities – my family (incl. our dog) comes first, then the various deadlines, in my various jobs. It helps that cartooning is super fun for me, so I tend to book it under relaxation which moves it up the priority list ...
What inspired you to illustrate your most recent book?
Planetman is exciting for a number of reasons. One, Karen (Cioffi-Ventrice, the author) did a marvelous job in drafting an engaging story on a worthwhile subject, and it inspires me to contribute in this ‘literary conservation effort,' if you will. Artistically, it was fun to develop the visual looks of the three protagonists and then equally challenging to remain consistent to the character design, also knowing that there are more books in the series. While I have done a fair amount of editorial cartooning, this is my first children’s book and so I wanted to get it right or at least gave it a try … which led to constant publication delays (which 4RV graciously was very patient with). Ultimately, the boys are little superheroes; this requires a bit of a more animated drawing style which I’d like to think I handled reasonably well.
Would you share something about your most recent book?
Let’s just say that we all know that climate change is real and that recycling is important but it also can be fun, strengthen friendships and ultimately help men’s best friend to get out of a pickle, eh, ring … you’ll see.
Do you have a particular process or technique, and if so, what?
I really try to visualize poses in my head before I sit down and draw; that cuts down on multiple to-be-discarded drafts. I tell myself that’s more efficient but perhaps I’m just lazy, combined with unfounded confidence and no hesitation whatsoever to use my eraser. While I can create directly in digital media, here I draw everything first blue pencil on paper, strictly 2D, then scan it and from there work on it on a Wacom tablet in Photoshop. I love the quality of blue pencil with its ability to allow for nuanced line work – it allows me to literally “carve” a character out of a white piece of paper which to me is the main part of the creative process. This determines everything that comes afterward. In other words, you can be a top expert at digital touch-ups, but you won’t be able to ‘rescue’ a sub-par drawing; that said, you can definitely improve a pretty good drawing with digital mastery, particularly nuanced light effects and a vibrant color palette that can advance the storytelling. I continue to practice with and learn through both media.
How do you feel when you complete a book?
Satisfied – for all of 10 min – then anxious because I know I could and should have done better with some illustrations, and apprehensive because it starts all over with the 2nd book in the series, but now I have less wiggle room as the characters are defined … i.e., more pressure, higher expectations all around. That said, it obviously feels good that people relate to it and already asked me to do another book.
That sounds like an author feels after finishing a book, especially if a sequel in the works. Anyone who reads The Case of the Plastic Rings will be waiting anxiously for book 2.
What are your illustration/arts achievements and goals?
It’s not money, at least not primarily. Rather, I’d like to have my art seen by as many people as possible, even better then if a large portion of them enjoy it. That would necessitate making access affordable or ideally free which admittedly is not a particularly appealing business model to most children’s book publishers. Artistically, I’d like to be satisfied with the quality and consistency of my work – which will remain an elusive goal. It’s always good to push yourself.
With not being able to foresee how many books will sell and which ones, I don't know of anyone who gets into the book business for the money. Sad but funny in a way.
Are you a member of any group or organization that aids you in your profession?
Not that I can think of … there are professional organizations and societies, so perhaps at some point, I’d be invited to join, we’ll see, you can always dream. I do like to stop by at the Society of Illustrators when I’m in NYC – they have a lovely little restaurant upstairs that’s rarely packed amidst all the buzzing traffic in Midtown Manhattan, and you can marvel at the original Norman Rockwell behind the counter. Speaking of, I recommend visiting the Rockwell Museum at Sturbridge in Western Mass – look at the Saturday Evening Post covers that Rockwell did and you see what the gold standard is for turning inconsistent top quality. This guy was annoyingly good, marvelous stuff each and every one of his illustrations.
I would suggest you join SCBWI if you can.
Does illustrating help better you as a person? How?
… drawing calms me down also because I like to listen to either Frank Sinatra or Cool Jazz like Chet Baker in the back when I work on a piece. You can’t force it so you may as well enjoy it when everything comes together on a good day and you get that elusive pose or perspective finally right or experiment with a new brush on digital. And given all the quality competition out there, the quest to be consistently good is ever humbling … a bit like golf.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an illustrator?
First, make sure you love drawing – then draw, draw, draw & try to get better – and finally and most importantly, don’t be discouraged by rejection. Unless you’re a rock star out of the gate (at which point you probably won’t spend your time reading this interview), this field is super competitive and you’re bound to have to deal with constant critique and setbacks, many of them. It’s then when reason #1, i.e. love for drawing, helps you get through it – in addition to a super supportive family and group of long-term friends.
What is your favorite genre to read? Your favorite author or authors? Yes, even illustrators need to read.
I just finished “The Woman in the Window” by AJ Finn (a.k.a. Daniel Mallory) which I bought in a small independent book store up in Vermont and thoroughly enjoyed. I am still working on Fiona Deans Halloran’s biography of Thomas Nast, the German-American grandmaster of political editorial cartooning – fascinating how he established the pen as a much-feared tool for voicing political critique. I am currently reading “Berlin”, a comic book for mature audiences driven by rich characters set in the stormy backdrop of the Weimar Republic by Jason Lutes. At times, it feels like a masterly interwoven ensemble movie, and it is a revelation as to where graphic novels can go.
Any other comment?
Well, I enjoyed this – so, thank you, 4RV, for the opportunity. Secondly, if you made it that far in the interview, thanks for reading – and I’d say you deserve a wrap-up and get back to drawing … NOW!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Tom.