Interview with Jeff Willis, Cartoonist

Interview with Jeff Willis, Cartoonist

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Cartooning

Jeff Willis has over thirteen years experience as a cartoonist, illustrator and graphic artist on a freelance and full-time basis. Since 1999, Mr. Willis has worked for KnowWonder, a Washington-based business, as a Tradigital Artist (combining traditional and digital mediums) in production art for animation and interactive game elements for licensed childrens' CD-ROM software programs.

With KnowWonder, Mr. Willis has created background art for games and animated vignettes (mini-movies), icon art and animation production, including licenses for "Nickelodeon's Rugrats" and Scholastic's "The Magic School Bus". Through his career, he has also developed licensed properties for Looney Tunes, Major League Baseball, Disney, and the National Wildlife Federation, and he was Art Director for Pacific Cities Sportwear in Everett, Washington. He has created art for children's educational interactive CD-ROM software programs.

Mr. Willis is a member of Cartoonists Northwest and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and he was a runner-up in a national contest called "Create The Comics of The '90's," co-sponsored by USA Today.

Jeff & His Career

How did you discover you had a talent for cartooning?

I showed an interest at a very early age. I was drawing before I could read. One of my earliest recollections was in Kindergarten when I drew a picture of my cat with those huge kiddy-crayons. My teacher liked it so much she put it on the wall. I'm not sure, but I think she kept it.

I was influenced by cartoonists of different styles including, Chuck Jones, Walt Kelly and Charles Schultz.

How did your career unfold?

I attended the University of Washington for a few years to study art. While I was there I was fortunate enough to have my own comic strip in the college paper, The Daily, as well as being the Husky Football cartoonist. People actually seemed to like my comic strips, but my studies didn't fare so well. I was a terrible student regarding anything but art, so I dropped out.

After a short-but-sweet career working with the physically-challenged (an emotionally-rewarding but financially-draining job), I decided this wasn't where I wanted to be. I decided to become a cartoonist, but I didn't really know how to begin. I quit my job with illusions of grandeur, where I would lock myself up somewhere and develop a portfolio of comic strips and find a career as a syndicated cartoonist. This turned out to be much more difficult than I expected in dealing with submissions to the syndicates. I had no idea just what I had gotten myself into.

I started freelancing creating artwork for a computer newspaper, designing logos, greeting cards and spot art for various clients. Later, I found work designing cartoon T-shirts for a company in Kent, Washington. I picked up quickly how to cut colors using amberlith and learned to use a Photostat camera. Eventually, through a friend's referral, I found a job in Seattle designing art for children's multimedia software. The job sadly evolved into a photo-retouching job after the company had changed direction. Again, this wasn't where I wanted to be. I interviewed for a company in Woodinville, Washington, called KnowWonder. It was the best interview I had ever had in my life! Unfortunately, they were looking for another type of artist at the time. A year and a half later they called me back for a second interview. I was amazed that they kept my resume for so long. I was hired the next day.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

I am doing what I've always wanted to do. I knew I was going to be a cartoonist of some sort all my life, and I'm doing it now. I simply kept looking for cartooning opportunities and was always able find them no matter how small.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

The fact that I'm actually involved in cartooning in some way is my greatest success, and it still befuddles me how I got here. There was never any formal education for me in this area. I have yet to find such a thing as a formal degree in cartooning. If they exist, they have eluded me. I'm primarily self-taught as a cartoonist.

My biggest setbacks? I'm a college dropout. Yes, I'm one of those. I never truly learned proper studying skills. There was a time when I was quite embarrassed by being a dropout, but in retrospect it never prevented me from finding me good work. Perhaps it did slow the search down a bit, but I've always been able to prove myself with my talents, skills and perseverance.

You've worked on many high-profile projects in your career, including Nickelodeon's Rugrats, The Magic School Bus, Looney Tunes, National Wildlife Federation and more. Are these kinds of projects important to you and your career? What are some of your other favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?

It seems that, wherever I find work, it's often oriented around licensed products. Each licensed product is another feather in my cap and a piece for my portfolio. Building a large array of different licensed art, as well as my own proprietary art, helps to show that I can work in a variety of styles and please various clients. For example: The fact that I had worked with Looney Tunes and Garfield products helped me land work doing art for licensed multimedia products at KnowWonder.

Any cartoon style of art is important to me. Not only do a variety of licenses help me widen my horizons in style and techniques, but I also just happen to enjoy doing cartoon artwork in any arena. Getting paid to do it is just gravy!

One of my favorite projects was designing art for the 13th Annual St. Patrick's Day Dash, a very popular 4-mile race in downtown Seattle. I was able to try something other than cartooning, which often helps me keep a fresh interest. The Dash Committee used my art for their television half-hour special, reporting the race, plus it was fantastic to see a huge wave of runners wearing my T-shirt. I run the race most every year, so it was especially fun to be involved behind the scenes.

I'm very enthusiastic about being involved in multimedia right now. It's still very new and fresh to me. I'm constantly being challenged artistically in this field.

I am also working on a few personal projects including writing and illustrating children's books. This is another chance for me to widen my interests.

The Actual Work

Describe a typical day of work for you.

Each day is a little different from the next, but here is one example. With a huge cup of coffee at the ready, I might start by sketching some concepts of a background for a multimedia game. If the sketches are approved, I will then ink them in by hand, followed by scanning them. If the style calls for it, I will render the line art with a vector-based program.

From there I might import that art into a pixel-based program and add flat colors. If the colors are approved, I can move onto adding shading, patterns on walls, highlights and so on. Most games require navigation items (things you can click on, scoreboards, timers, etc.), so I might then sketch concepts of these next. Actually, all of this will usually go well beyond one day, but you get the idea. Another day, I may be working on inking, scanning and coloring animated characters.

Are there specialty software programs for cartoonists? If so, what are they and what do they do? Do you use any other mediums for your work?

Any art programs I use are strictly tools for my finished work. The programs I use are Adobe Streamline (used after scanning to turn line art into vector-based art), Adobe Illustrator (a vector-based program) and Adobe Photoshop (a pixel-based program which is an industry standard for many artists, used for color rendering techniques). For 2-D style animation, Macromedia Flash seems to be the most popular, especially since it applies to websites so well.

I also love working with pen, brush and ink.

What are some of the professional organizations for cartoonists?

There are so many that I don't even know them all. Some that I know of are the National Cartoonist Society, American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, Cartoonists Northwest (to which I belong) and Southern California Cartoonists Society. There are also plenty of other artists' organizations that many cartoonists belong to; for example, I am also a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Check out the websites of some of these groups, and check their links pages to find one that might be in your area. You'll find them worldwide.

Is it important to collaborate with your cartooning colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

Collaboration with my coworkers is important because you can bounce ideas off of one another. You might find that, if you have a good idea, they might be able to help you improve it.

Hanging out with my cartooning friends is also very important. For example, when I joined Cartoonists Northwest I had little experience professionally. Many companies will seek these groups to find artists. This was basically how my career took off. I found contacts though the group.

Also, never underestimate the networking power of your friends and colleagues! If you have friends in any art field they may know of opportunities for cartoonists. I have found work through friends and vise versa. It's a great feeling to help a friend.

What are some common myths about cartoonists?

Number one is that many people, including some artists, think that cartooning is a lowbrow form of art. This seems mostly an American myth and is a very aggravating stereotype, especially since cartoons are so popular. You can't open up a magazine without finding a cartoon illustration. When you open the newspaper to the editorial section, the first thing you see is the editorial cartoon. Cartoons can be thought provoking as well as fun and entertaining.

Cartoonists are some of the most creative and prolific artists around. In Europe, cartoonists are well respected as artists. There are even museums that are focused around cartoon art in the U.S. and abroad.

Number two is that cartoons are pigeonholed into comic strips, comic books and animation only. Cartoon art is everywhere from children's books to T-shirts to magazine covers and so on. Cartooning is simply another form of illustration.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education. What did you like and dislike about your cartooning-related education?

Since I wanted to be a cartoonist, I was frustrated that there was no such thing as a formal education for cartoonists. You certainly won't find cartooning in the curriculum of art classes at any University. I have never heard of a BA in cartooning. This doesn't mean art classes are worthless to cartoonists. On the contrary all of the fundamentals of art apply to cartooning. The finest cartoon illustrators know this and use their artistic eye with discrimination. Everything I learned in my art classes was invaluable to me, and I use all of the fundamentals in my cartooning.

Would you change anything if you could? If so, what?

I would have gone to a different college, one directed towards art or perhaps a liberal arts college. I would have applied to a college that teaches animation, as well. I am fascinated by it, and I only dabble in it now. I also would have learned the business aspects of art and not just the "how-to's" of art techniques.

If someone has the art talent already, should they go to school for cartooning and why?

Yes, however, don't feel as if you have to seek out a school that has cartooning courses since they are hard to find. As I mentioned, all of the fundamentals of art apply toward cartooning. If you are interested in comic strips or writing for cartoons in some respect, then consider taking writing courses too.

How does a prospective art student assess their skill and aptitude for cartooning?

Cartooning is something you either have a passion for or not. Aptitude for it, like any other type of art, is a gift. Skill comes with practice and refinement. I know some extraordinarily talented graphic artists who couldn't render an expressive cartoon if they had to. But then that wouldn't be their style. Most cartoonists I know noodle around in sketchbooks constantly and grow as an artist as they develop their talents. Some create their own characters, some draw their own comic strips or comic book stories, and some simply enjoy drawing in a cartoon style.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for cartooning?

California Institute of the Arts has a good reputation. I understand Disney has a hand in the animation and theatrical programs. The Art Institutes has a good job placement program for graduates. The Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington has a very good reputation for their art program. They have a large film making department and offer animation instruction. Many cartoonists have emerged from there, including Linda Barry and Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons".

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in cartooning?

Really do your homework. You will have to dig deep to find schools that support cartooning in their curriculum - but don't let that deter you. Check out as many colleges as you can and as many course catalogs you can get your hands on. Consider the entire art program of your prospective school before you decide what courses and schools will cater to what you need to learn.

Can geography play a role in choosing an education and career?

When you choose your art school or college, think about the area where you want to work. When you graduate, will you look for work in the same immediate area? Will your classmates do the same and saturate the area with cartoonists? Are you willing to move to find your career? I spoke with an American friend who went to animation school in Canada. He noticed that the area he graduated from was saturated with fellow students and jobs were scarce. Now, there are many Canadian artists working our area. Cartooning opportunities in your city may be very hard to find. You may need to broaden your scope geographically when you decide where you want to work unless you work freelance and can send your submissions across the country.

What types of majors can one graduate with that will lead to a career in cartooning?

Cartooning is a form of commercial art, so a strong study in that can be helpful but not exclusive. Courses in painting, life drawing, composition and graphics will be invaluable in cartoon art. Animation, of course, is a specific study in itself.

Job Information & Advice

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in cartooning?

Cartooning jobs can be found in websites, greeting cards, garment design, story boards, animation, 3-D art, computer games, toys, package design, comic strips, graphic novels, children's books, the list goes on...

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of cartooning?

Build a cartoon portfolio. If you want to focus on cartooning, then build a portfolio of cartoons and illustrations that show your particular style. Don't try to copy another artist's style. Come up with a group of drawings that convey your capabilities and ideas. Don't be afraid to include a work in progress. Many creative directors can get an impression of your thought process by seeing how you build your art. Bring a sketchbook, too. This can often show how you think better than a finished piece of art. Don't overwhelm a potential employer with too much art. Be selective in what you present. Show your best and most favorite pieces.

What are some differences between freelancing and working full time?

There are several things you need to weigh when making a decision on freelance vs. full time work.

If you are a freelancer then learn some business skills. You need to be part artist, part marketing director and part accountant. Mail your art samples to Art Department heads and other clients, and do it fairly often, otherwise they are liable to forget you. You will be your own boss and enjoy the freedom to pick and choose your work as a freelancer, but you will have to provide your own medical and dental insurance and take care of your own tax withholdings.

Working full time on the other hand can provide job security, medical and dental benefits and even financial investment opportunities. You will know where your next paycheck will come from but you will have to commute to get it. You won't be your own boss, but if you are as fortunate as I am, you will work with a terrific creative pool of artists.

How can the reality of cartooning as a career differ from typical expectations?

When I decided to be a cartoonist, I had the fantasy that since I was a good cartoonist I could find work at any time at any place. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Do not kid yourself. Any career path will have its pitfalls and art is no exception. If anything, its more an example of really fighting the good fight. When you're in High School, everyone may love your drawings, but when you go to college you may find that you really know very little about art as I did. Don't be discouraged by feeling intimidated by the talents of your classmates or your teachers. You are there to learn not to prove yourself. Learn by discussing ideas and techniques with your teachers and fellow students. To paraphrase Chuck Jones, creator of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, every artist has at least 1000 bad drawings inside them. Just work on getting them out of the way as early as possible. You are an artist, embrace that. Wrap yourself up in it and lose yourself in it. That is what artists do.

When it comes to your actual career move realize that you are not the only cartoonist out there. Finding work may be the only time you need to prove yourself with your portfolio. Looking for work is going to be no less of an uphill climb, but don't be discouraged. If you are sincere about your cartooning or art career and love what you are doing, then be prepared for hard work in the job search. The opportunities are there, but you have to hunt for them. Have confidence in your work. Show it off, but don't be arrogant.

What is the average salary for cartoonists in the US? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

Wow, what an open-ended question! There are as many salary levels, as there are artists and styles. Since cartooning itself is a diverse category, it's very difficult to put an actual average on it. I hate to be vague on this but it's true.

I know comic book artists, comic strip artists, production artists, T-shirt artists, multimedia artists, animators, editorial cartoonists and so on, and each one of them can give me a different answer according to their own specific field. Depending on your cartooning field you can definitely make an excellent living. A cartoonist or cartoon illustrator in a wide range of areas could easily earn anywhere from $35,000 per year on up. Honestly, it depends on the actual industry, not in cartooning as a whole.

How available are internships in this field?

In a company setting, there can be quite a few. Many schools offer internships for their students and grads. Some schools may require interning as part of their curriculum. Some cartoonists looking for work will offer themselves as an intern to get their foot in the door. I have one associate who, like myself, didn't finish school. He searched for a company that was willing to take him in as an intern and found one with the help of a friend. He is working full time now and loves it. Internships can offer a much more realistic view of a work environment than a classroom setting.

How is the job market now for the cartooning industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?

Right now, it's open and varied. There are more opportunities in many industries than ever. Competition, however, is getting tougher as there are more cartoonists than ever. I don't see the curve changing much in five years, but anyone passionate enough for cartooning should never be discouraged.

What is more important to job searching in today's art market for cartoonists, traditional skills or technical skills?

You will need knowledge in both areas in today's market. I use the corny term 'tradigital' to refer to traditional and digital skills.

You need to be aware of some things. I have seen many artists who use digital skills as a crutch and, consequently, end up with a very mechanical look to their art. They don't develop a style of their own when they don't explore hands-on art skills. Draw, paint, doodle, sculpt, and... just use your hands-on skills whenever you can. There is a certain aesthetic feeling you get with tangible materials that you will never find with a computer.

On the flip side, there are many companies that hire artists based much too heavily on technical skills. This is a true shame. It means that wonderfully talented artists are unable to find employment, and potential employers are missing out on some extraordinary talent.

Industry Trends

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of cartooning which could help students plan for the future?

Multimedia is still a growing arena. Software and the Internet are growing like blackberry vines. Even though dot-com companies can burn out quickly, I don't foresee much change.

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Many artists provide their resume and portfolio via their own website. This can allow potential clients and employers to view their work anytime.

It has also allowed a lot of room for what I consider 'junk sites', websites by anyone who knows how to build a simple page of their own home grown art. You can see a vast difference from a professional's website as opposed to a novice website but it makes for a lot of sifting to find the good stuff. If you aren't a web designer but can still put together a simple web page, then don't be afraid to show off your best work.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in cartooning?

Try to develop your own style! I cannot stress this enough. Many artists and cartoonists alike who are fresh out of school seem to adapt the style of their teachers, mentors and professors. I once worked with a team of artists who attended the same art school and took the same classes with the same teachers. Consequently, they all had frighteningly similar styles. In my case, I have adapted different styles to please various licenses (Disney, Warner Bros., etc.), but I still have a style of my own as well. Be yourself wherever you can.

Related Articles