Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ray Billingsley - Cartoonist Survey #221

Cartoonist Ray Billingsley was born in Wake Forest, North Carolina in 1957. He learned to draw early thanks to some sibling rivalry with his older brother who studied fine arts. He started working as an artist at the age of 12 contributing cartoons and illustrations for stories to the children’s magazine, Kids. Ray graduated from the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and then went to the School of Visual Arts on a four-year scholarship. After completing his studies at SVA he began an internship at Walt Disney Studios training to be an animator. From 1980 to 1982 he drew the nationally syndicated comic strip “Lookin’ Fine” which was distributed by United Features. Unfortunately “Lookin’ Fine” was short lived so Ray began free-lancing, creating work for a variety of projects such as storyboards, TV commercials, greeting cards, t-shirt designs, graphic posters and magazine layouts and covers. He was a regular contributor to Ebony magazine from 1978 to 2007 and also produced work for humor magazines like The National Lampoon and Marvel Comic’s Crazy Magazine.

One night in 1986 he woke from a dream with the inspiration for a comic strip character that he quickly drew before going to back to sleep. The character he dreamed of was none other than the title character of the long running comic strip, “Curtis”. Debuting on October 3, 1988, “Curtis” is syndicated through King Features Syndicate and appears in over 250 newspapers worldwide. It follows the urban life of an eleven-year-old boy named Curtis Wilkins and his family and friends. Ray has been praised by fans, community leaders, educators and corporations for having the strip depict serious social and health issues such as crime, drug abuse, asthma and smoking. The American Lung Association awarded him with their President’s Award in 2000 for his storylines that have Curtis trying to get his dad, Greg Wilkins, to stop smoking. When “Blondie” celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2005, Ray featured Dagwood in “Curtis” as part of the celebration. There are two book collections of “Curtis” strips available, “A Boy Named Curtis: The Curtis Chronicles Volume 1” and “Living On Spongecake: The Curtis Chronicles Volume 2”. Visit Ray's official website and get all of your Curtis merchandise here. To see more pictures of Ray’s studio head over to the The Cartoonist Studio.

What is your favorite pen to use?

I use Speedball pens to ink with. I have been ever since I started (long time ago). I really like the feel of the linework it can produce with varying degrees of hand pressure. Mainly the "B" series of penpoints.

Do you draw in pencil first and if so do you use a standard pencil or a mechanical one?

I do draw in pencil first, after really imaging the scene and working it out in my mind's eye first. I can actually see the panel construction in my mind before I go to sketch. I always use the non-repro blue STAEDTLER pencils.

Do you do your coloring by hand or on the computer?

I'm from the Old School, so I do most of my coloring by hand. But for special drawings for magazines, etc. or for a book cover I, of course, use my notebook. Most hand coloring is done with AD markers, which gives a nice even deep solid color.

What type of paper do you use?

My favorite paper to use is a 2 ply-Bristol Plate stock. Plate is so smooth that my pen literally glides over it without the bumps that Vellum might bring.

What thing(s) do you hate to draw?

So far I haven't actually come up against anything that I hate to draw-with the exception of dull repetitive panels with just the characters heads talking. To me that seems boring. If you consider yourself an artist, then BE an artist and give some interesting visuals! I feel I owe that to the readers.

Do you buy your supplies from big chain art store catalogues/websites or a local one that you physically go to?

I used to like to go to art stores because I liked the whole atmosphere. The salespeople who knew their stuff about the supplies, the smells of the paints, being able to touch the pastels and charcoals. But in recent years as some of my favorite haunts began to close and disappear I turned to doing a lot of shopping online.

Are there any rituals that you do before starting to draw?

There aren't any real rituals I can think of. I've been doing art for so long it's just second-nature, as easy as breathing. Speaking freely, I just bullshit around until the ideas began to gel in my mind. Ideas are always floating around in my mind, so I might make some sketches first, but that become sort of rare. I just keep them in mind until it all comes together. Then I hit the pads to iron out the details before going to pen and ink.

Do you listen to music while you draw and if so what genre?

Yes I do sometimes listen to music. Music has always been a big part of my life. I have been witness to some of the greatest names in music there ever was to the present. I don't have a specific genre that I favor most. It all depends on what mood I'm in. You ought to see my playlist. There are probably some things there that would surprise you.

Did you read comics as a kid and if so what was your favorite?

I was a very big comics reader as a kid, but I didn't have a specific favorite. There was a series of superhero robots called METAL MEN, that few people may remember. I used to really like them. They could change their shape way before the Transformers. Growing up, there was a real variety in humor. You could appreciate underground 'toon as much as the 'legit'. I took in everything I could.

What is or was your favorite comic strip?

My all-time favorite comic strip was (surprisingly) LI"L ABNER. That Al Capp could really draw well and his characters and storylines could get really crazy funny! I miss great art and good story writing.

What was your favorite book as a child and do you still own a copy of it?

I think my favorite book was the one I won in school for drawing when I was around eight years old. It's a copy of "Winnie the Pooh". Not the Disney fluff. The original stories with the original art. It was presented to me by my teacher Mrs. Nelson, who was one of my first teachers to encourage me to continue drawing. She signed it as did the principal. I still have that book tucked away.

Did you have any formal art training and if so where did you receive it?

I guess my real formal art training began at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art. At that time there wasn't even a cartooning course, so I sort of stood out. But I had the principal and my Guidance Counselor to push me on. I received a real challenge when I attended the School of Visual Arts, under the tutelage of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. Will really made me bust my ass.

Do you feel that the Internet is a blessing or a curse?

The Internet has been both a blessing and curse. It has, in a way, leveled the playing field. One no longer has to wait on the acceptance of some suit sitting behind a desk to determine whether your work is good or not. You can publish yourself, as I have had to do, when mainstream continually tells you that you're not worth the effort. On the other hand, I have seen a lot of 'artists' who clearly are not or needs a lot of practical work and they put their stuff out there and call themselves 'pro'. The problem is when some of them are so egotistical that they're not willing to listen to advice that in the long run would help them become better artists. I have seen some really good artists who just haven't got a break, or being held back, and some who should certainly work more before putting their stuff out there for display. There is such a flood that practically no one stands out!

Did either of your parents draw?

None of my parents ever drew. In fact, as far as I know, none of my relatives tried their hand at drawing, even my older brother Richard. It was he that first got me interested in drawing in the first place. My father actually tried to dissuade me from following cartooning as a career. He just couldn't envision it so he didn't understand. We weren't close at all.

Who in your life is/was the most supportive of your art?

I didn't have my dad's support but my mom and my brother and sister had my back. I was so crazy about cartooning and so full of creativity that it was just something I had to do! I didn't really need any pushing. I'd do it anyway. Throughout school I got in trouble for drawing on reports, homework and test papers. It was like something I couldn't help from doing. Even as a kid, when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I always said I'd be a cartoonist. I always knew. Most of the guys my age around my neighborhood didn't even know that I drew. I kept very quiet about it around most people. When I was an adult and well into my career, most of the cartoonists that I had admired became close friends. Mort Walker I met when I was around 15 or 16 and we've always been close. My friendship with Charles Schulz was great. I used to wonder what he saw in me. Jules Feiffer has always been a good crazy friend. There are just too many to list separately!

Do you keep a sketchbook?

I do keep a sketchbook. In fact I have very many sketchbooks compiled from over the years. From large to pocket-sized. Carrying a pad was a habit that started with me by the time I was twelve.

Have you ever taught cartooning/drawing and if so did you enjoy the experience?

I have "taught' cartooning for quite a few years. What I do is actually help a cartoonist structure his artstyle, panel construction and work on their writing. But I am kind of tough on students. Usually they come to me and ask if I can be of help. I tell them that before we start, he or she has to be committed to the task, and willing to listen and take advice. Usually, the egotistical will drop right out, because they have all the answers and don't want to listen. But the ones that stay get homework, sometimes have to redraw entire strips and rework their writing skills. I don't have time to screw around with anyone who thinks they know it all. I think so far I've had like thirty or so artists. It's always a great feeling when they see just how far they have come or improved. When they feel they're ready, or I feel it's time for them to 'leave the nest', off they go to try their hand at the industry.

Do you collect anything and if so what?

I collect several things. Original comic art from friends in the industry plus some from artists that I think are really good. I didn't start out collecting old comics but I still have a lot of old comics and humor books from when I was a kid. My mom didn't toss 'em all out! I also collect works of art like colorful sculptures and authentic cultural art pieces. I enjoy crystal and lead glasswork. And, of course, music. I believe a person's favorite music comes from the time they began getting laid, so my collection of music starts back in the late '70's to now.

If you were an animated cartoon character who do you think you would be?

If I were a cartoon character, no doubt I'd be like Bart Simpson. No doubt!!

Are you a righty or lefty?

I am a righty! You do mean in drawing, right?

If you weren't an artist what would you want to do for work?

I have never given serious thought as to what I would do if I wasn't a cartoonist. I used to be very good in science, especially chemistry. Dug astrology. And I really like animal life. Maybe I would have worked with dolphins. I had a fling with music and performing but knew early on that it was too much work for too little respect and pay. Plus I knew that lifestyle rarely lasts.

In one or two sentences describe your drawing area.

My drawing area is a bustling array of messy papers and creativity...It may look like a hurricane has struck but I know where everything is!

Do you play any musical instruments?

Yes, I play several musical instruments. I was lucky that I seemed to catch on to them pretty quickly. The trumpet, trombone, had a time with the bugle, drums, the synthesizer, I sung and was learning the bass and sax before I hung up music as a career.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to pursue drawing as a career what would it be?

My advice would be to work very hard, find your voice and stay committed to it. It's a big sacrifice but well worth it. There's nothing better than having a stranger tell you how much they've enjoyed your work, your vision. Never be afraid to throw away a gag or plot that isn't working or one that is overworked. It should come and feel natural and smooth. And experiment! Put it down and walk away from it for awhile and then come back to it with a fresh eye and mindset. Do it from a way that you didn't think you could! Try your vision from a different point of view, push your own limits for in art there should be very little limitations. That's why it's called "Art".

Thank you very much for your time Ray!

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