An interview with Chris Jones, illustrator of 25+ picture books and leveled readers plus multiple magazine features, and author-illustrator of graphic novels and comics for all ages. Hear about his love of wild settings, his resistance to the bound pages of a sketchbook, and his method of creating narrative tension by putting his characters through emotional workouts. 25 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:15] Interview with Chris Jones
CA: So you’re working on a project right now with your wife writing and you illustrating?
CJ: Yes, my partner. I started a book about a ladybug …. I really wanted to draw the bugs but I just couldn’t get the plot to go. So I said, Do you want to take a stab at it? Because she’s a writer. So she came up with a really good treatment for it. …. So it’s been fun…
[2:10] CA: When you work on your own projects, do you write as well as illustrate sometimes?
CJ: Yes I do. …. It’s rare that everything is clear at the beginning. For me, it takes a lot of revising and exploring to kind of find out how I want the story to go. …
[2:45] CA: …. And do you have any favorite plot twists, or the ways that the story turned around as you were working on it, that sort of surprised you? …
CJ: Yeah. I love plot twists. … always unexpected twists in the story are coming up, new angles. …. You get an aha moment and you’re like, Oh, this would work…. That’s inspiring when I’m working on stories. And I love twists in movies and books as well. …
[3:25] CA: And in terms of narrative and just getting a reader to turn the page, do you have any advice for young writers on pacing or building tension?
CJ: … I usually can centre it around strong emotional reactions. So I put my characters through stuff and their reaction, their emotions, create the tension. You know, they’re feeling really sad or they’re feeling really desperate or some other strong emotion. And then that drives them through the story….
[4:10] CA: And what about settings… Do you have any favourites? …
CJ: My style is kind of irregular and organic. …. I love drawing jungles, alien planets. … because I love the organic feel of all the vegetation and the rocks and all that stuff. That’s my go-to setting.
[4:40] CA: … Do you have any advice for young author-illustrators for either character or setting?
CJ: I focus it around, What do I want to draw? Or what kind of setting do I want to tell a story in? …. And then I’m like, How can I tell a story around that? And then I think back to my childhood, some strong emotions or some things I went through. And then say, Oh, the grasshopper could be nervous about going to school in the jungle or something. …
[5:35] CA: And do you keep a sketchbook where you just sort of doodle?
CJ: I used to. In high school and college, I used to sketch a lot. But now I find sometimes I’ll use it just for really rough notes and stuff. But I’ve always found sketchbooks, for me, too precious. … I find I don’t use sketchbooks very much, only for like really rough jotting down stuff…
[6:30] CA: And what about endings? How do you feel about sad endings? …
CJ: I love sad endings. I have done some adult comic stuff where I’ll immediately go for all sad, all hardship. I love it. Adversity — I love it. …In kidlit typically, … you end it on a happy note. But any chance I have to do non-kidlit stuff, I’m always like going for dreary and sad when I can. Because it’s that strong negative stuff that brings out all the good juicy emotions…
[7:10] CA: Is there any activity or place that you tend to get your best ideas from?
CJ: …Usually my best ideas come when I just sit down and doodle. I’ll just let it be free. Try not to edit – like that’s hard for me because of all the years of client work. … And then when I do that, I’ll connect different things together … I always keep my sketches, even though they’re all on tracing paper. But I keep all the pads…So doodling for me is key. …
[8:00] CA: So that’s something that you would recommend to young artists and authors?
CJ: Yeah. My first instinct is visual. … When I write, I plan out everything by drawing it. It’s harder for me to write out what’s going to happen. Instead I have to kind of draw it out, and then dialogue comes from that as I piece everything together. …
[8:30] CA:. So if you’re working on a graphic novel, you don’t write out the story. You start with the images?
CJ: Yeah. … I will kind of start with the problem…. I’ll have ideas for really good scenes around that, and how they can push the story. But my struggle is tying it all together into one kind of arc. That’s my struggle. But I just keep doing different scenes and different scenes … I do my best thinking visually until a point, and then I kind of have to sit down and write a bit, even just a summary, to tie it together. And then when I go back to drawing … I’ll piece it all together …. It’s kind of a back and forth all the time. But I usually start visually.
[9:35] CA:… You don’t just get it all out and then revise it all. You do a back and forth?
CJ: Yeah… I spend a lot more time revising everything instead of the initial first draft type of thing. I’m always going back and forth. … So every time I go back and forth, it shifts how I view it and I get better ideas. …
[10:15] CA: …What would be your advice in terms of revising for young people?
CJ: I think for young kids, they see the finished product. So they’re not understanding the whole, what it took to get there, which was very laborious. … when you’re just starting out, it’s more important to get something done and look at it, and not worry so much about trying to make it perfect or trying to make it more than you can. …Sometimes you have to work on more, different projects before you’re ready to come back to the first one and say, Oh, here’s how I could make this better. …The more things you have on the go sometimes can help as you get stuck.
[11:20] CA: People who work on picture books… do tend to have far more than one project on the go at any time…[for me] It’s sitting down and actually finishing one that’s difficult.
CJ: I know. Sometimes you have too many ideas …My problem is keeping track of them all. I just have them everywhere. And then I forget. Like I had good ideas before; where are they? I don’t want to look through, you know, hundreds of stacks of papers to find them. I need a better way to document them.
[12:00] CA: And have you ever had the experience where you’ve drawn or worked on completely different things and then found a way to unite them in one narrative?
CJ: … yeah, I’ve used bits from ideas and pulled them in, because I really like the little ideas but I have no idea what to do with them in the story. So I’ll just grab them and try to steal them and put them in what I’m working on.
[12:40] CA: Speaking of stealing, are you ever inspired by other artists or other stories? …
CJ: When I was growing up, I had a huge comic collection. I was always inspired by it. …But now, I’ll see artists I really admire or writers who I really like, and I’ll be inspired … But I think for me, the key is to kind of stay true to who you are. …. And also I try not to look too much at other work, because there comes a point where I reach a level where I’m like, I get discouraged…. And I lose my creative energy. So it’s important for me to really limit that to small fragments when I need it, and then focus on my own creative energy, because that’s where the magic will happen. …
[14:20] CA: And have you ever illustrated like a fairy tale or Shakespeare or some classic piece of literature … and doing them in a new way?
CJ: Aside from a few illustrations, just one-offs for like Shakespearean stuff, I can’t recall any. … I’ve never really felt the urge to do that. What really inspires me is working on something completely new. … because I just feel like I can really sink my teeth into that with less limitations because I can take it how I want instead of trying to remain true on a certain level to what’s existing before.
[15:35] CA: Do you write or draw stories based on your own childhood, or using real moments?
CJ: …If I’m doing personal stuff, I’ll definitely draw from childhood experiences… A few years ago, I did a comic about my experiences as a paper boy growing up and all the trials and tribulations with that. … That’s where all the good inspiration comes from, all those childhood emotions. So I love to draw on that.
[16:30] CA: Have you ever based any stories or illustrations on things that you’re afraid of?
CJ: Yes. The book Andy’s Song, where he loses his voice… I kind of based that on my fear of losing my ability to draw or ability to create. How would I feel? …
[16:55] CA: Do you have a critique group, or …is there somebody who responds to your work before it’s out?
CJ: … For my writing, yeah, I always want someone to look at it because I’m not as confident in my writing. So yeah, I’ll get my partner to look at stuff. But usually for the illustration side, in the past I’ve used other illustrators and I just bounce stuff off them, like how does this look? … But typically, I feel like I’m such a private person with my process until it’s ready to be shown, that I struggle with showing anything, even for feedback. … I will just step away and then come back a couple weeks later with a fresh eye. And it’s almost like I’m seeing it as someone else … Because you get too intimate with something when you’re working on it, so I find that stepping away and coming back can also help a lot.
[17:55] CA: … do you read your work out loud?
CJ: Yes, that’s really helpful because it’s so easy to not notice things unless you’re reading it out loud. And how it flows and how it rolls off the tongue and, you know, is it hard to say. Yeah, I do that.
[18:15] CA: And what are some books that influenced you?
CJ: I was always into humor and I was always reading… graphic novels and comic stuff. But I also like … the Lord of the Rings, that type of story with the deep setting and the deep characters. … And specially science fiction, … because I love the unknown and the exploration and the adventure…
[19:00] CA: Have you ever created monsters?
CJ: Yes. I have a real fondness for drawing monsters. I’ve always loved drawing very expressive faces and very outlandish monsters with expressive faces. So yeah, I’ve done a few series of illustrations with that. …The next kind of project that I’m trying to work on is going to hopefully centre around some sort of monster. …
[19:40] CA: And what kinds of things scared you as a kid?
CJ: … I’m still scared of dark lake water. I love to swim, …but if I can’t see the bottom in a lake, I get really freaked out. Like something’s under there; it’s going to get me. …
[20:00] CA: And did you tell scary stories around a campfire as a kid or have any off-the-cuff storytelling experience?
CJ: No, I never did that. … maybe I need to do that with my kids. …
[20:20] CA: Do you have a regular practice? …
CJ: Yeah. For me routine is key, because when you’re working for yourself and when you’re working at home, it’s very easy to slide into different habits that aren’t good for your productivity. So I always try to get up at the same time. I have a morning routine. … I always do my important thinking work in the morning first thing, get that done. … having a routine really frees me up to focus on the work…. I don’t think about what I’m doing today; I’m always kind of following the same pattern…. A lot of times it’s hard to leave your work though, when you work from home. It’s always there.
CA: So how do you manage not to let it bleed into all the hours of the day?
CJ: When I used to live on my own, where my drafting table was right next to my living room, it was very hard. …. But now my studio’s in a different part of the house. That really helps. And it helps if I get an early start because if I get an early start I felt like I’ve done enough for the day. … So, when I’m working I’m really focused, and then that helps me leave it at the end of the day… come back fresh. … Know when to take a break because, as much as you want to get stuff done, sometimes you just need to take a break for your brain.
[22:20] CA: Nice. Okay. Thank you so much for doing this. …
CJ: My pleasure…. Bye.
[22:35] Chris Jones introduces himself
CJ: So I’m Chris Jones. And I grew up with a passion for drawing. I would always be sitting on my living room floor drawing, copying, you know, Mad Magazine, and drawing. And all through school I’d be the one doodling in my notebooks in class instead of paying attention to the teacher. And that just continued through my whole childhood. And then I went to OCAD, and graduated OCAD. And then after that I wasn’t really sure how to make a career in art. We didn’t really get taught any of the business side of it. So I wasn’t really sure. Like I still loved to create, but I just kind of fell into like a graphic design job. And I stuck with that for about 15 years. And it was kind of like a soul-sucking day job that I didn’t really like. But I was always creating on the side. So after 15 years I’m like, I’ve had enough; I need to go out on my own. And I just made the leap. Because I was always working on this side, so I said, I’m going to do this. So in 2011, I went out on my own, full-time illustrator. And then it gave me the freedom to be my own boss and work on my own projects more so, and develop my skills better because I would be doing it full time. So I did that in 2011 and I’ve been doing it since. And I fill my time with illustrating for kids lit magazines, picture books, educational materials. And then I feel my free time with all my personal projects. I work on graphic novels, comics, picture books. Yeah. That’s it in a nutshell.
[24:10] Find out more about Chris Jones
You can hear more creative writing and illustrating advice from Chris Jones on Cabin Tales Episode X, “Picture a Story,”featuring interviews with illustrators, and on Episode 6, “Begin in the Darkness” about opening stories. You can find out more about Chris Jones and his work from his website at MrJonesy.com. And follow him on Twitter @mrjonesy.
[25:04] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the award-winning young adult author Karen Bass. Thanks for listening.
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
Chris Jones is an illustrator with a passion for visual storytelling. He has illustrated over 20 books for young readers, including Scholastic’s Take Me Out to The Ice Rink, and This is The Rink Where Jack Plays. When not illustrating for clients, Chris spends his time writing and illustrating his own comic and picture book projects. Find Chris online at: www.mrjonesey.com; Instagram @mrjonesey; Twitter @mrJonesey