Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
Chris Sickels (a.k.a. Red Nose Studio)

h1 July 15th, 2013 by jules


This morning I’m going to have cyber-breakfast with artist Chris Sickels, who creates sculptural and 3D illustrations and who illustrates children’s books (amongst other creative projects) under the name Red Nose Studio. I wish it weren’t a fake breakfast, and that’s because his breakfast of choice is, he told me, “the chocolate zucchini bread that my lovely wife Jennifer and my daughter Ava make together. Pair that bread with a cup of French press coffee, and that is the bee’s knees for me.” If I ever actually meet him in person, I’m going to remind him of this moment and hit him up for the zucchini bread and French press coffee. Coffee-lovers don’t forget such things.

Today’s post includes lots of Chris’s process images, a photographic sneak peek into how he created the art for his latest illustrated title, Jennifer LaRue Huget’s The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away From Home (pictured left), which was released by Schwartz & Wade Books last month. You may remember his 2010 illustrated title, which I covered here at 7-Imp — Here Comes The Garbage Barge, written by Jonah Winter and also published by Schwartz & Wade. To see art from that book, you can visit that 2010 7-Imp post (or even this one), but with the exception of some portfolio pieces at the close of this interview, all the images here today are from The Beginner’s Guide, a tale both funny and moving (the same illustration below that nearly brought Chris to tears, when making it, does the same for me when I see it) and which School Library Journal calls “imaginative and subversive.”

Let’s get right to it so that you can see how Chris creates his intricate worlds and also what’s next on his plate. I thank him for visiting 7-Imp today.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Chris: Illustrator — with a little bit of author in there.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?


Jules: What is your usual medium?

Chris: I build small puppets and sets out of various materials, both new and reclaimed. I create everything from small props to fully tailored clothing for the characters. Everything is built to fit the approved sketch and then photographed here in my studio/garage and sent to the publisher.

Chris: “In the boy’s bedroom, you’ll find more drawings from my son. Even the little red and blue monsters are built from his designs. The bicycle seat and handlebar sculpture is an homage to the famous Picasso assemblage, called Bull’s Head.”
(Click to enlarge)

“So you need to decide. Do you really want to stay at your best friend’s and go to bed before his sister? Might as well be home. Maybe Grandma’s house isn’t such a great idea, either. She might put you to work. And suddenly sleeping in the park doesn’t sound that exciting? I mean, what if there really was a bear?”
Chris: “[These are] chipboard trees. The boy’s bow is actually carved out of wood.
The armrests on the park bench are bent spoon handles.”
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Chris: The content of the story drives the illustrations for me, regardless of age.

Family portrait from The Beginner’s Guide…
Chris: “The boy stands 6 inches tall. We have named him ‘Fox.’ The mom is a
type designer; the father is a tattoo artist; big brother wants to be a rock star;
and baby sister is surely going to be an opera singer!”

(Click to enlarge)

Construction of the boy’s head
(Click to enlarge)

The boy’s finished heads
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Chris: Greenfield, Indiana, birthplace of James Whitcomb Riley.

Construction of the house:
Chris: “The entire house is about 6′ wide and 4′ tall and 18” deep. …
[In the final spreads], you can see the telephone and electrical wiring
running through the floors and walls.”

(Click each image to enlarge and see in more detail)

Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?

Chris: I have been a freelance illustrator since 1995, mostly focusing on the editorial/magazine and advertising markets. The Look Book came out in 2006, and in 2008 and I was approached by Schwartz & Wade Books about possibly doing the illustrations for Here Comes The Garbage Barge.

(Click each image to enlarge and see in detail)

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


Painting the skies in the book’s backdrops
(Click each image to enlarge)

The kitchen table:
Chris: “The table and chairs were made specifically for [one of the last spreads]
out of wood, cardboard, and aluminum wire.
The formica design on the table top was drawn by hand.”

(Click each image to enlarge)

The tree:
Chris: “The tree is cut out of chipboard, which probably was a tree at one time!”

(Click each image to enlarge)

The wagon:
Chris: “[The boy’s] wagon is made out of copper sheets, cut and soldered together and painted. Notice the name ‘Red Nose 90’ on the wagon. I met my wife in 1990. The hub caps for the wagon are made from those orange juice container seals that you pull off and throw away. The sock monkey has a wire body and miniature button eyes.”

(Click each image to enlarge)

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Chris: I take along a couple of characters/puppets and props from the book to show the kids how I make my work, and I encourage them to create art from non-traditional and unexpected materials.

Chris’s designs for the comic book and food packages that appear in the book
(Click each to enlarge)

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Chris: Chris: The Secret Subway, written by Shana Corey, which is a picture book that has just entered the sketching stage.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got our coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven(ish) questions over breakfast. I thank Chris again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Chris: Starting is the scariest and most exciting part of the process. I don’t have much of a system, other than just reacting to the manuscript and discovering the characters and the key scenes in the book. If it is a historical account, I will submerse myself in the visual and factual research of the subject. This is where I get a bit compulsive about uncovering as much about the subject as possible. I like to have too much information in the beginning and allow that information to be the vocabulary that I draw with.

With that said, it is all about the drawings, the compositions, layout, page breaks, and visual flow of pages. Once the drawings are revised, edited, and then finally approved, I then move to figuring out how I will actually build the scenes.

Building a spread:
Chris: “In the kitchen, the drawings on the fridge are from my son’s ‘mini’ drawings. The fridge handles are clarinet keys. The espresso machine is made from an old phone and clarinet keys. The faucet at the sink is a bent nail. Dad’s camera has a
vintage ‘screw on’ earring back on it.”

(Click to enlarge)

Chris: “The pencils are carved from toothpicks. The eraser is actually cut from a
pink eraser. The note is about 1 inch x 1.25 inches.”

(Click to enlarge)

Baby sister
(Click each image to enlarge)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Chris: My humble studio resides above a two-car garage. Sloped walls and a large window that overlooks our backyard flower gardens. I have an odds-and-ends collection of wooden drawer cabinets that holds everything from my fabric selection and props from past projects to found objects, waiting for just the right use in a piece. One entire side is dedicated to housing the many puppets from projects ranging from today to the very first puppet I made. My tools range from a compound mitre saw to small dental tools for sculpting.

Building the “maybe the park” spread, which includes
drawings on top of the photographed scene (not shown here).
Chris: “The idea for the drawings over top of the photographs was conceived to help show how the boy wants to put his mark on the world and also show how
he sees the world through his imagination. … This [spread] is where the boy’s imagination and vision of the world really take shape.”

(Click each image to enlarge and see in more detail)

3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Chris: Most prominently, it is the works of Shel Siverstein—his drawings, characters, and poems—that had a huge impact on me as a child and still do today.

I also longed to carry a bow and quiver alongside the characters inside the paintings N.C. Wyeth created for Robin Hood.

Setting up for one of the final spreads:
Chris: “The boy and his rabbit had to run down this hill 27 times to get this shot! (Actually, I used about 30 feet of fishing line to suspend everything, including the comic book and camera.)”

(Click to enlarge)

Spread as it appears in the book:
“Maybe you’ll give your folks one last chance—even though they don’t deserve it.”

(Click to enlarge)

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Chris: For red wine, it would be Gérard DuBois. For beers, it would be Carter Goodrich.

Setting up one of the book’s last illustrations
(Click to enlarge)

Same moment, as it appears in the book:
Chris: “This is the hero shot. I just about came to tears while shooting this.
Tried to let the warm light of the house contrast with the cool light of the night.
The stars were created by poking holes into the backdrop.”

(Click to enlarge)

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Chris: The Eels, Firewater, and Lucius.

But I generally stream the amazing KEXP out of Seattle all day long.

Some more of Chris’s art/portfolio pieces;
the final one is inspired by the Shackleton Crew

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Chris: That I was raised on a small family farm and by the time I was 15, I was an experienced animal ‘midwife,’ helping cows, pigs and horses give birth. I could fix an old tractor, and I hunted pigeons for a quarter each.

Chris’s illustration for Christopher Rowe’s short story,
“Jack of Coins” (for Tor Books)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Chris: “Trust.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Chris: “Quit.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Chris: Creatively, it is confidence in my work or even other’s confidence in what I can do.

Jules: What turns you off?

Chris: Boredom.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Chris: “Horseshit.” One of my favorite childhood memories is hearing my grandfather say that word.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Chris: The breathing of my sleeping children.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Chris: The sound of a motorcycle engine seizing as I am riding.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Chris: Theater/stage design.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Chris: Work in asphalt (because I did this during a summer in college).

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Chris: “Mind the gap.”

* * * * * * *

THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer LaRue Huget. Illustrations © 2013 by Red Nose Studio. Spreads used with permission of Schwartz & Wade Books, New York, NY.

All other artwork and images are used with permission of Chris Sickels/Red Nose Studio.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

16 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with
Chris Sickels (a.k.a. Red Nose Studio)”

  1. Extraordinary.

  2. […] Guide to Running Away From Home partly because I knew of a feature coming out on the expansive Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog. The delightful Julie Danielson sorted through an enormous amount of images to compile a cool […]

  3. This post just fascinates me. Thanks Jules for interviewing Chris and Thanks Chris for being so generous with your photos. Everything about that last scene in THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE is packed with emotion.

  4. These images are even more delicious than chocolate zucchini bread.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Ok… this book has been on my to be read list for a bit now after reading so many great reviews but now… I seriously think I am going to go out right now to buy it. I can’t get over the process that Chris uses to create these scenes. Absolutely amazing!!!

  6. Skills. INSANE. SKILLS.

  7. My mind is totally BLOWN.

  8. What an incredible post. Jules, thank you. I must have spent an hour with it – nose pressed up against the monitor marveling over the incredible tiny details. That espresso machine, the retro dining set, the wagon piled with belongings… well I guess I’m going to be one of many here to use the term “mind-blowing.” I loved hearing what they all were made from. And the cutaway view of the house with every detail considered, even the electrical wiring – just perfect.

    Chris, thank you for being so generous with sharing your process photos. It’s so interesting to see your photography setup and all that goes into making your images. I’m not surprised that your least favorite word is ‘quit’ because any other illustrator would have run from the studio screaming, trying to get that warm light/cool light contrast you accomplished in that last spread. Your perseverance is an inspiration. I’m a huge fan.

  9. Jayme! I thought of you as I worked on this interview. I wondered if you were a fan, and I figured you’d really dig it. Big-time.

    I’m glad he chose art over animal midwifery.

  10. I’ve seen that illustration for Jack of Coins, and love the idea of you building out these puppet scenes. Chris, it seems like you put an incredible amount of work and possess an enviable amount of craft knowledge.

    As ever, thanks for being a wonderful interviewer, Jules!

  11. I have always loved Chris’s work. Seeing the process photos and hearing more about it makes me appreciate it all the more. It’s like a one-man movie studio. And in the end, even though I tend to think that I work pretty hard at what I do, it just makes me think – gosh, I could be doing so much MORE! Thanks, Jules for the fantastic post and thanks Chris for sharing your studio with us. Inspiring and humbling. It also looks like a lot of fun!

  12. A master of this craft, to be sure. Extraordinary.

  13. So very fresh and inspiring!

  14. Such an inspiration! Thank you!

  15. Amazing
    I would like to see more detailed work of you and to know more about the materials used and the way of making
    You are an amazing animator and illustrator

  16. I adore Chris’s works! So inspiring to see every little detail he pours his energy and passion into. Thank you for the insightful interview!

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