One, two, three, four. I declare a thumb war!
The game is popular because it’s easy. You just need a friend and your hands.
But Jeff Miracola learned there’s more strategy to thumb wars than he thought when he illustrated a guide to the sport, Thumb Wars (Klutz, 2011).
He joins Read, Write, Repeat to talk about his experiences with the book.
How did you approach illustrating Thumb Wars?
I was contacted by Jill Turney, art director at Klutz/Scholastic, to illustrate the cover and a few interior illustrations after she and Editor Eva Steele-Staccio saw an illustration of a Mexican wrestler I had done for Advanced Photoshop Magazine. They really wanted some of the same flavor and energy of that illustration to work its way into Thumb Wars, so my approach from the beginning was to give them that same kind of look without repeating myself too much.
My first drafts of the cover art had Mexican wrestlers on the front in various poses. Jill and Eva liked these sketches, but they decided to go with a different take on the cover by featuring a referee character. I originally had my heart set on a wrestler complete with decorative garb for the cover, but as I fleshed out the referee concept, I liked it, and it made more and more sense.
At the same time I worked on the cover, I did some interior illustrations. It was a tight deadline, about two weeks, because Klutz needed to get the cover and some other illustrations done to mock up the book for Scholastic approval and also send the cover art to the printer to be included in the spring catalog.
Once I was done illustrating the cover and those few interior illustrations, I approached Jill and Eva about the prospect of creating all of the illustrations in the book. As a fan of Klutz books and having bought many for my own kids, I know that they don’t normally have one illustrator do an entire book, so I didn’t expect a positive response to my question. I was surprised to find out that they were already considering me as the sole illustrator on the project. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.
A few months later, when the text was complete, I worked with Jill and Eva to illustrate the entire book, along with additional changes to the original cover.
What did you learn?
I’ve learned that working for the large publishers, like Klutz/Scholastic, is no different than working for any other publisher. Assignments are never delivered in nice, neat packages, all tied together with a “nothing’s going to change” bow. The publishing industry is constantly dealing with deadlines and the pressure of getting books to market. The editors don’t always have the luxury of getting all their ducks in a row on a project before having to get illustrators, writers, or others involved, started on the project. So, as an illustrator, be prepared to make changes. Sometimes you are told to illustrate a concept only to find out someone higher in the chain modified the direction of the project and you’ll have to start over.
I never have a problem with this because, when I work on a project like Thumb Wars, I emotionally invest myself in the project and want to see it succeed. So I do what it takes to make the art director and editor happy with the product. I never want them to just settle for something I’ve done. I want them to love it because they’ll be that much more enthusiastic about fighting for the project if it’s ever looking like it could be bumped from the publishing schedule. And I’ll admit that I was giddy at the idea of illustrating a Klutz book. Their books really have been a part of my family over the years.
How did working on this project differ from illustrating a picture book?
I didn’t have as many continuity issues with this project as I would with a picture book, as far as characters go. A few characters appear in various places in Thumb Wars, but nothing to the level of a picture book. I just wanted the book to have a cohesive feel and flavor. This is especially difficult on a project like Thumb Wars when you aren’t given every spread at the same time. I wasn’t able to build a dummy of the entire book. I had to illustrate one spread or page at a time. As the book started to come together, I would go back to previous pages and fix illustrations so they felt more in keeping with the look of the book.
I was actually illustrating two different styles in this book because I also created the technical hand illustrations, which are handled differently than the characters or backgrounds. Incidentally, my children got involved in the creation of the book as well. My son and daughters were the hand models for all of the technical illustrations. They had a lot of messy fun with the mud wrestling spread especially!
Was it a job requirement to have lots of games of thumb wars? Did you learn any secrets to success?
Yes, lots of thumb wrestling! I had forgotten just how much fun it could be. And the various activities in Thumb Wars, creatively put together by the team at Klutz, are a lot of fun.
And I’ve learned that I’m not as strong as I think I am. Parents sometimes let their children win when they are competing against them in something. (Oops. Did I just break the parent code of silence?) But I was honestly trying to beat my kids at thumb wrestling, and they were pinning me down more than half of the time. So I’ve got to start doing more of the training exercises mentioned in the book.
One secret to success when thumb wrestling your children is to threaten them with housework if they don’t let you win. Just kidding.
How did you get started as an illustrator?
I got my first professional job back in 1993 after attending GenCon, the world’s largest fantasy gaming convention. At the time, it was held in Milwaukee (now held in Indianapolis). I put together a portfolio of my art and walked around the convention with my girlfriend, now my wife, as she pushed me to show my work to every art director or editor who’d take the time to see it.
I used to be a lot more shy about my work, so without Silvia nudging me along, I don’t think I would have done as well as I did that year. Within a month or two of the convention, I got my first phone call from an art director at Wizards of the Coast to do 18 illustrations for a role-playing game.
What’s your favorite medium to work in?
My favorite medium is oil paints. I have two different styles – one for paintings, and one for all my digital art like that found in Thumb Wars and other children’s industry projects. Although I love the convenience and forgiveness of digital work, there is nothing quite like sitting down in front of a canvas, pushing oil paint around, applying glazes, and slowly watching a painting come to life over days or weeks. When all is said and done, you have created a one-of-a-kind, physical piece of art that is a time capsule for that moment in your life.
For many of my oil paintings, I can tell you what music I was listening to when I painted it or what was happening in my life at that time. I just don’t have the kind of friendship with my computer that I do with my easel, I guess.
What are your goals as an illustrator?
My current goal is to publish a book with my wife. She is an aspiring writer and already has one manuscript out with an agent and is close to finishing her second manuscript, a young adult fantasy. We have teamed up on the creation of one picture book so far, but I need to create the book dummy and shop it around for a publisher. That’s something I hope to accomplish early this year.
She and I have at least a half dozen other ideas for picture books ready to be fleshed out. Having my name and my wife’s name on the same project would be a dream come true for me.
Whose work do you most admire?
For fantasy artists, I am a big fan of Frank Frazetta, Brom, Boris Vallejo, Berni Wrightson, Sanjulian, James Gurney, and Scott Gustafson.
In the children’s industry, I am a big fan of my friends Tony DiTerlizzi and Scott Fischer. I also really enjoy the work of Peter Brown, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Van Dusen, Dr. Seuss, and Munro Leaf. The Story of Ferdinand is one of my all-time favorite children’s books.
Jeff has also illustrated the picture book Welcome to Monster Isle (Immedium, 2008) by Oliver Chin.
You can see more of Jeff’s work at his website. Or by reading his blog.