I met Guy Francis when I saw this amazing watercolor online of a Tusken Raider with a popsicle. I commented on his post and we talked back and forth and worked a deal where I could own it. I gave him my address to ship it and then I realized I would soon be driving right by his hometown. He was nice enough to let me swing by his home and pick it up and meet him in person. I soon discovered that Guy is one of the nicest human beings on planet Earth. His wife and kids all fall into that same category. I was able to check out his studio and was immediately jealous of his workspace. It was what a creative space should look like, filled with inspiration, art, toys, gadgets, cool furniture, weird sculptures and plenty of room to create. He had old projects everywhere and his in-progress work on the table. Although we were surrounded by all this cools stuff I didn't get the feeling that you shouldn't touch it like a museum. It was more like a workshop, where things should be used, played with, and included in the creative process. My kids and I bombarded him with a million questions and kept asking about this piece or that. Finally, in an attempt to be respectful of his time we pried ourselves out of there and were on our way. We've kept in touch ever since and will bump into each other occasionally at CTN. Hopefully with this interview you can get to know him too.
When did you decide you were an artist?
I remember in 4th grade friends started asking me to draw stuff for them and offered to give me their milk at lunch, I realized that there might be something to this artist thing. At that time, somewhere in the back of my mind, I figured I would do something related to art. I just wasn’t sure what that was.
What did your parents do right and what did they do wrong in raising an artist?
My parents always gave me access to creativity. I was given positive feedback, lots of encouragement and the tools to draw and create. I don’t ever remember a time that they discouraged creativity. For example, my high school friends and I used to draw all over my mom’s kitchen counter. It used to drive her nuts because she always kept a clean house and hated a messy kitchen. She got mad at us, not because we drew on the table, but because we didn’t use paper and she couldn’t keep our drawings.
Give us the basic outline of your path to becoming a full-time illustrator.
I drew all the time through school. I took all of the art classes in high school: graphic arts, photography, drafting, art, etc. After graduating from high school and a two year mission for my church, I found myself looking at college and wondering what to do. Like I said before, I knew I wanted to do something with art but didn’t know what that was. I friend of mine told me I should be an illustrator. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was but he explained that illustrators did art for books and stuff, not fine art that you put on your walls. Bingo! That was exactly what I wanted to do, so I enrolled at Brigham Young University as an illustration student. As a senior I got the chance to show my portfolio to a visiting art director. That led to my first children’s book, Showdown at Slickrock, and I’ve been doing freelance ever since.
You seem to use traditional media and digital tools interchangeably, which do you use for what? What are the advantages or disadvantages of each?
Until recently, all of my client work has been traditional—acrylic on watercolor paper. I’ve alway used the computer, but until recently it was just a means to the end. I would generally sketch on paper, scan it into the computer, resize and make adjustment in Photoshop, print it out on nice watercolor paper, paint, and then scan it back in, make any additional adjustments, and send it off to the client. In the past several years, I did much of my sketching digitally, but still printed and painted traditionally. Recently I’ve gotten my digital painting to look the way I want and I’ve started doing entire jobs digitally when it seems appropriate. But it’s hard to step away from traditional. There is something about painting that is terribly rewarding.
You were kind enough to give me a tour of your amazing studio (coolest I’ve ever been to), what are the best and worst things about working from home?
Aw shucks, you’re so kind.
I worked for an educational software company for the first ten years of my career doing freelance jobs on the side. There was a point where I felt it was time to go full time freelance and work from my home studio. It was a scary choice but the best one I could have made at the time. I built my studio big with extra desk space so my kids could be there with me, but not on top of me. It’s a big plus having my family around. It is one of the main reasons I wanted to work from home. They can be a source of distraction at times but they were all very good about not bugging Dad when he’s working. Plus, they make really great models.
Working from home can be tough. You have nobody pushing you to go to work but yourself. For that reason I love deadlines. They force me into a routine. Between jobs, I get distracted easily. Discipline in a home studio is so important but so, so hard.
What is your routine like?
Early on it was get the kids sent off to school then hit the studio and paint til Letterman was over. Now I work more during the day and try to spend evenings with the fam. I also teach at the local university a few days each week and that mixes the schedule up a bit. The routine changes though. Sometimes my productive hours are in the morning, sometimes it is late at night, you just go with it when the mood hits.
I know you have lunch regularly with some of my favorite illustrators, how did that come about? I imagine working by yourself can make you stir crazy, what else do you do to stay sane?
Our Friday Draw Lunch is a great recharge. Rodney Bills, a great friend and artist, would sometimes meet his students at the mall food court to draw and sketch people. We thought it was a neat idea, so we started making it a regular thing. Nowadays, on any given Friday you can find a whole bunch of artists hanging out at the mall. For me it is a chance to get out of “sub-level 2”, the name of the aforementioned lonely artist basement studio, and get a chance to talk with other humans, draw, and eat.
Other things that help break up the monotony of basement life, include working in my shop or getting out to the mountains for a hike.
When did you start using an illustration agent?
Somewhere in the early nineties while I was working with the educational software company I had a co-worker who did an internship in New York with Shannon Associates and later went to work with them full time. He must have mentioned something to them or showed my artwork around because they later contacted me about being my rep. I’ve been with them ever since.
Does that take the pressure off digging up work or is that pressure still there?
My agent does so much of the things that I’m terrible at doing myself. One of those things is finding work. It takes off tons of pressure and lets me focus on the art. They also negotiate prices and billing—all the stuff I hate. I still get some people contacting me directly. If it sounds like a job I’m interested in doing, I will direct them to my rep and let them work out the details. They are the best.
What is a typical time frame to complete a children’s book like “Clark the Shark”?
The first Clark the Shark took 3-4 months. The ninth Clark the shark was more like 3-4 weeks. By the time I was doing the later books, I had the routine figured out. I knew the characters, the settings, the painting process etc., so it was just a matter of pounding it out.
Was that a little surreal to have one of your books included in a McDonald’s Happy Meal? How did that deal come about?
That was a deal worked out between Harper Collins and McDonalds. I had very little to do with it other than Clark the Shark was one of the books selected for the campaign. I just got a “Hey, so this is a cool thing that is happening” email. I then ran out to McDonalds—actually several McDonalds—to buy a Happy Meal with my book in it. I will say it was very cool, and a very weird thing to see artwork I created on the box.
What advice would you give an artist that wants to get into illustrating children’s books?
If you are serious about doing children’s books, go for it, don’t let anything stop you. So many people say they would like to do a children’s book but that is usually where it stops. They think that because children’s books look simple and childlike that they must be easy to make. They are not. They require a lot of work and skill. If you are willing to put in that work you can do it.
Spend time at the bookstore or library studying children’s book. Find the ones that you connect with, the ones that are successful, the classics. Then analyze them, break them down and figure out what makes them so awesome and successful, their structure, layout, design, everything. Then incorporate that into your own work. When it’s time to submit your portfolio or story idea, send them to the publishers who do the kind of books you’d love to do.
I love your church sketches, have you ever had anyone recognize themselves from one of your sketches you post? Do you ever worry about the effect of drawing in church instead of listening may have on your everlasting soul?
I purposely don’t draw specific people for that very reason. I don’t want people saying “that doesn’t look like me” or get offended for some reason. I like to draw unique people and exaggerate features. Some people don’t want to know how many chins they have. I like to pull pieces of different people together to make my drawings. This guy’s nose with that guy’s posture and so-and-so’s hairline. If it kinda resembles somebody then that is a bonus.
I usually tuck myself away at the end of a pew but often times I’m sitting right up in front facing the congregation. I try to be inconspicuous, but they know what I’m doing. I’m not fooling anyone.
Most people may not know that you’re an amazing sculptor, builder, and tinkerer. How often do you get to make something?
Tinkering in my shop is my relax time. It’s creating and building for myself without the pressure of deadlines. A lot of the time it is the thought of spending a few hours in the shop that drives me to get the important stuff done. So the answer is, I always have some side project brewing in the back of my mind.
You’ve built automatons, metal ray-guns, wooden stuff, and weird mechanical thing-a-ma-bobs. Is there something that you’d like to try to make that you haven't done yet?
Right now I’m building a Civil War type mortar cannon that will shoot golf balls, a “flame licker” steam engine, an easel stand for plein air painting, some tool improvements for my lathe, and of course a few ray gun ideas. The list goes on and on but it really feeds my creativity and problem solving needs.
I think you’ve already made quite a mark on the world, is there anything you’d like to be remembered by?
I love it when young parents tell me they read my books to their kids, the same book their mom read to them. So much illustration is temporary. You see it once or twice then it’s gone. Children’s books stick around. I still have some of my favorites from when I was a kid. It makes what I do worth it.
Is there a big project you’d like to pull off?
My next goal is to write and illustrate my own stories instead of illustrating books by other authors.