Illustrator James Firnhaber discusses creating art for children's books, blending profundity with goofiness and experiments in making games…
3dtotal: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
I'm James Firnhaber, a freelance illustrator based in Philadelphia. I make most of my work for chapter books and children's book, which is a dream come true. Illustrating for a younger audience is so rewarding to me, since the books and games of my childhood were so influential in my life. When I was young, Illustrations made fantastic journeys and faraway worlds feel so much closer, and I think a lot of kids need that sometimes.
In this piece, I wanted to make an image that was beautiful but hinted at a hidden danger
3dt: Who are your favourite artists? Who, or what, has had the biggest influence on you and your art?
Comic artists like Bill Watterson, Gabriel Ba, and Moebius have all have been hugely influential in the way I think about drawing and visual storytelling. Hiroshi Yoshida's color palettes and the playfulness of Lisk Feng's work are also constant sources of inspiration. Of course if it weren't for the gift of a Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
concept art book, I never would have considered a career in illustration.
3dt: Much of your work has quite a whimsical, storybook quality; where does that come from? What inspires and informs that style?
I think I look at things in a pretty relaxed and optimistic way, which tends to come through in my work. I love cartoons like Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender
, and more recently Steven Universe
. They're goofy and lighthearted, but aren't afraid to address deeply emotional topics. Profound moments are so much more powerful to me when contrasted with a lighthearted tone.
Just best friends getting sodas and sharing secrets in a world of their own
3dt: What software, techniques or materials do you use to create your art?
I like to draw very small at the start and enlarge the piece as I move from thumbnail to sketch, and again from sketch to finished drawing. The second half of the process I handle digitally in Photoshop
, where I do the coloring and overlay textures from my library of scanned watercolor swatches.
3dt: Is there a skill, a piece of software, or a technique that you would really like to master?
Animation would be at the top of my list. I've dabbled in various forms throughout the years, but never had the focus to truly practice. Collaborating on a game development project with my brother has renewed my interest in animation and pixel art. The grid structure and simplification of detail inherent in pixel art makes it perfect to learn the principles of animation without getting caught up in the drawing of things.
A piece for a children's book titled The Runner's Sandals where the hero has been sentenced to janitorial duties
3dt: How do you keep your portfolio up-to-date? Any tips?
Without feeling like I have a problem to solve, I quickly lose direction, so I stay engaged in my work by asking questions, and answering them with illustrations. Can I incorporate this technique? How can I tell this story? What happens if I switch up my process? Working this way makes even disastrous pieces feel like progress, because whether I like the answer or not, I still know what I've learned.
3dt: Are you a member of any social media groups? Any favorite hashtags you check on a daily basis?
I'm not nearly as involved as I probably should be! I showed up late to the smartphone party, so updating my Instagram has always felt a little foreign to me. Though Tumblr seems to be dying, it's my favorite because of all the amazing Illustrators I've discovered through it, like James Fenner, Leonardo Santamaria, Samantha Mash, and Ash Mackenzie just to name a few.
Another for The Runner's Sandals where messengers flock to the palace for a sandal fitting contest
3dt: What are your artistic ambitions?
My dream job would be illustrating book covers for a whole series. Being an illustrator or creative director for an indie game studio would be amazing as well. At some point, I'd love to write and illustrate children's books and graphic novels of my own. Teaching should fit somewhere in there too. There are just so many groovy things to do.
3dt: If you weren't an artist what do you think you would be doing?
In the past year, I've been pursuing my hobby as a board game designer more seriously and would jump at the chance to make a second career out of it. Like drawing, making games is something I've been doing all my life, so I'm happy to let the two inspire each other and see where it takes me.
The rite of passage for entry into the sunken city is a gift for its king
3dt: How do you occupy yourself when you need some down time from art?
After a long day, I like to walk down to the pier and watch the trolley cross into New Jersey and back, while listening to a favorite album. Friends, family, music, and games always help me catch my breath when work gets overwhelming. I try not to give myself long breaks from making work, but trips out west to see family are the perfect excuse to set it aside and refresh.
3dt: What can we expect to see from you next? Got any projects on the horizon we should keep an eye out for?
I'm currently working on black and white interior illustrations for an upcoming book from Disney/Hyperion publishing. If you can make it to Minneapolis, you can see my work in Light Grey Art Lab's The Lost Isle of Kismet: Choose Your Own Adventure Exhibition
. I'll also be at PAX Unplugged this year play-testing my two player strategy game Immateria
, so stop by!
See more of James Firnhaber's beautiful art at his website
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Learn how to put emotion and tell a story with your art with a copy of Beyond Art Fundamentals