Award-winning illustrator Elwood H. Smith was born in Alpena, Michigan in May of 1941. Wanting to be a cartoonist, he studied art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Institute of Design at IIT in Chicago. When he got out of school he landed a job at a studio an hour outside of Chicago as the assistant to the assistant art director. Elwood worked at that studio for a year and a half before joining the National Guard. He went back to work for the same studio when he returned from basic training, but wanting to be closer to the city, soon took a job in Chicago at the Marshall Fields department store, where he worked in the advertising department. He stayed at Marshall Fields for six months before moving on to a couple of advertising agencies and then an illustration studio.
In 1976 Elwood moved to New York City and began working full-time as a freelance illustrator. A year or two after moving to New York, he rediscovered the old comics from the 30’s and 40’s. These comics had an effect on his drawing style, influencing him to move away from his previous cross hatch style of drawing. During this time he was also inspired by many of the wonderful artists and illustrators he crossed paths with, including Guy Billout (Cartoonist Survey #208) and Lou Brooks (Cartoonist Survey #250). Along with Lou Brooks, Bill Plympton and Mark Alan Stamaty, Elwood was a founding member of the all-cartoonist band, Ben Day and the Zipatones and played lead guitar.
Now, after over 35 years of working professionally as an illustrator, Elwood’s style has been both recognized and appreciated worldwide. His illustrations have regularly appeared on and between the covers of Time, Forbes, Barron’s, Sports Illustrated, Parade, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other publications. His artwork is also in high demand in the world of advertising and has been used n marketing campaigns for Mrs. Field's Cookies, QVC, TGI Fridays, SONY, Samsung, Inglenook Wine, Land's End and many others.
Elwood has illustrated numerous children’s books, including three written by Susan E. Goodman, “The Truth about Poop”, “Gee Whiz: It’s all About Pee” and “See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House”. “Catfish Kate and the Sweet Swamp Band” by Sarah Weeks, “Stalling” by Alan Katz, “Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog” by Adrienne Sylver and “Zoo Ah-Choooo” by Peter Mandel are just a few more of the popular children’s book titles for which he has provided his whimsical artwork.
In addition to being an artist, illustrator and musician, Elwood is a self-taught animator. When he started making his first animations, he was just using a combination of Photoshop and iMovie, but after doing a lot of online reading and research, he progressed to using Toon Boom Studio and then Macromedia Flash. His animation work led to him doing character development on a couple of projects for R.O. Blechman and J.J. Sedelmaier of The Ink Tank commercial animation studio. Below is an animation that Elwood created last year for the Greenbelt Land Trust in Oregon.
What is your favorite pen to use?
For decades I used a Pelikan 220 Fountain Pen with a fine or medium nib. They no longer make it and the three I had finally gave up the ghost. I got a few via eBay, but often the nibs weren't up to snuff, so I now use a Pelikan 200 barrel with a 250 nib. I get them from Richard Binder because his price is good and he "Binderizes" each nib before shipping. That means he makes sure the nibs flow properly. His website: Richard's Pens.
Do you draw in pencil first and if so do you use a standard pencil or a mechanical one?
I always draw my sketches in pencil using tracing paper pads and F (2.5) Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. During the summer, when humidity seeps into the paper, I switch to a #2 pencil. I use electric pencil sharpeners. Recently I worked up all sketches for a kid’s book directly into Photoshop using my large Wacom Cintiq 21UX tablet. I still prefer analog tools, but I'm trying to get more comfortable with the stylus and tablet.
Do you do your coloring by hand or on the computer?
I most often use good, old-fashioned transparent watercolors, but I have been known to paintbucket a thing or two in Photoshop. And when I work in what I call my "new style", I add layers of my watercolor swatches under my hand drawn, inked-in line art.
If you do your coloring by hand, what do you use?
I use Kolinsky sable brushes, usually a size #6 or #7 and Pelikan pan transparent watercolors. For years my favorite brush was a Strathmore Kolinsky #7. It pointed beautifully and held ample amounts of water. I could lay in a huge area, like a sky and, with the same brush, add a tiny spot of color to, say, a button on a character's coat. Sadly, the Strathmore brushes were discontinued. Today's brushes aren't nearly of the same quality. I've heard that the reason is that climate change has affected the weasel's tail fur, which is used to make the brushes. I find Isabey to be a good brand and I have tried and like brushes from Trekell, Kalish, Kolonok and the independent English brush maker, Rosemary & Company brushes, but none hold a point and have the snap like the old Strathmores.
What type of paper do you use?
I use only Arches 90# Cold Press Watercolor Paper. It's the only paper I've found that is a perfect mate for my pen nib. Plus, it makes creating a flat wash much easier.
What thing(s) do you hate to draw?
I am a lazy drawer. I don't keep a sketchbook and even though I'm known for my "mob scene" illustrations, I really only like to draw a few things. I'm terrible at drawing cute & sexy women or handsome men, I'm not that fond of drawing kids and I have no interest in drawing architecture. I do all those things because that's part of my obligation as a pro illustrator, but if I had a choice, I'd probably only draw odd cars, animals, plump, goofy men and cacti.
Do you buy your supplies from big chain art store catalogues/websites or a local one that you physically go to?
I try to buy some stuff at the local art store, but they don't carry the brushes, brand of pencils or pens that I use and--sad to say--I can get whatever I want via the web for so much less. Dick Blick is probably my favorite source, but I buy from various sources.
Are there any rituals that you do before starting to draw?
The first thing I do is procrastinate. Then I go down to make tea. Finally, depending on when the job is due and how much Maggie (my rep, wife and creative partner) nags me, I sit down, read the manuscript and jump in the shark infested waters.
Do you listen to music while you draw and if so what genre?
I used to listen to music all the time when I worked. I couldn't understand why anyone sat in silence to work. Now that's mostly how I work, in silence. Maggie does, too, so the house has no sounds except for my pencil sharpener or a cat hiss for hours. When I do play music while working, I've lately favored the softer sounds of jazz--players like saxophonists, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond and guitarists like Jim Hall and Ed Bickert. When Maggie is out, I might crank some Tom Waits or Gustav Mahler on my superb sound system.
What was the first job as a cartoonist/illustrator that you were paid for?
My first job out of art school was an assistant to the assistant art director at a small publishing house about an hour north of Chicago. I learned to do keyline and pasteup I did some page layouts and I got to do small cartoon spots for their magazines, Jobber Topics and Super Service Station.
Did you read comics as a kid?
I read comic books and newspaper comics voraciously. I also studied the cartoons in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. I occasionally read books, but I guess I preferred cartoons because I loved the zany images. I was a kid in the 40s and 50s, so we didn't have a television, just the radio. Partly because my hometown, Alpena, Michigan, was so far north, television reception was horrible, so my family didn't get a television set until I was 14 or 15 years old.
What is or was your favorite comic book?
I loved most all comic books, but I recall being knocked out by the art by Jack Davis and John Severin in the EC Comics like Two-Fisted Tales, Tales From The Crypt and, later on, MAD Magazine.
What is or was your favorite comic strip?
When I was small, I read everything from Prince Valiant and Dick Tracy to Popeye and The Katzenjammer Kids, but my favorites by far were Barney Google & Snuffy Smith and Pogo. I'm also pretty sure I caught some of my favorite cartoonist, George Herriman's Krazy Kat before he died in 1944, but I can't prove that the Detroit Free Press carried that strip. If it did, I'm sure I was crawling all over that paper at a very early age, soaking up cartoon images like Ignatz.
What was your favorite book as a child and do you still own a copy of it?
I loved the Tarzan books and anything by Zane Grey. I don't think Tarzan holds up very well, but I still like to occasionally reread a Zane Grey book, like Spirit of The Border, which I read not long ago. I'm surprised that it hasn't been made into a movie.
Did you have any formal art training and if so where did you receive it?
I studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for two years. My high school art teacher, Nancy Feindt, looked around for a school that taught cartooning and CAFA was one of the few back in the late 1950s that did. I worked in a factory for a year to get money for tuition. It wasn't a very good school, but it gave me a place to grow up a bit and learn a few things. The best part of it was this: Nancy got me into a big city.
Do you feel that the Internet is a blessing or a curse?
In my opinion, the internet is mostly a blessing. It can be a distraction and I'm easily distracted, but in the main, it's a great tool. It's so easy to find visuals for even the most obscure reference that I might need for assignments. It's a great place to show one's work in almost any format imaginable. I recall those old days of schlepping around a heavy leather portfolio and I'm sure glad I don't have to do that anymore. The downside, of course, it that younger artists don't get to meet the designers and art directors, something that I did back in my New York City days and which has served me well over all these years. How wonderful, though, to be able to not only show my illustration, but feature my short animations as well. A potential client can check it all out immediately.
No, neither of my parents were artists. My mother was an excellent seamstress and my father was good with his hands. He tied flies, made wooden ice fishing decoys and was a good carpenter. He was a foreman in an iron foundry and was, in his own way, a very creative guy. He built my first electric guitar and they often showed up at bar gigs when I began playing in bands. My parents praised my drawings when I was a kid and when my high school art teacher suggested I go away to art school, they thought it was fine idea and, although money was always tight for them, they helped me pay my tuition my second year.
Who in your life is/was the most supportive of your art?
My parents were supportive during my younger years and during my last two years of high school, my art teacher, Nancy Feindt took over. She brought real knowledge of art to the table, something my parents lacked.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
No, but I doodle when I talk on the phone. If I'm at my drawing table, I draw little characters on the bits of watercolor paper that I use for testing colors. I will doodle on any paper surface that's near the phone, like envelopes or scraps of paper. I then cut out the best ones and tape them into sketch books with Magic Tape.
Have you ever taught cartooning/drawing and if so did you enjoy the experience?
I like doing talks and workshops, but the little teaching I've done hasn't gone well. I taught some classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York back in the late 70s and the students didn't do the assignments. I hated having to be a policeman to kids who didn't seem to be motivated to learn or produce. Workshops and lectures are nice because I can share some of what I've learned and then walk away. I really appreciate those who are dedicated to teaching. I don't have the dedication. Too selfish, I guess--I'd rather do my projects than push kids to do their stuff.
Do you feel that talent or passion is more important in drawing?
You need both or you'll end up being mediocre. And by "talent" I don't mean you necessarily have to be a master draftsman, you simply need to be inventive and creative in your approach to your work. I can think of several really good cartoonists and illustrators who are merely passable drawers, but their ideas are so compelling that it doesn't matter. If you lack passion, you might consider another line of work. You need it to endure the hard times and art without it is not likely to get the attention of editors, art directors and designers.
Do you collect anything and if so what?
I've never been a serious collector, one who has a methodical collection of something, like Gibson archtop guitars or comic books from a certain period or by a particular cartoonist. But I've fallen in love with things, like high-end audio or I've tried to find the perfect Martin D-18 guitar and those passions (Maggie calls them obsessions) have been exhausting, but fun. I also have pursued things like trying to find the kind of pens used by the old classic cartoonists, hoping the nib would be the key to drawing like them. Maybe I was obsessive during my various pursuits, but I always learned a lot and I loved wallowing in seeking the holy grail of whatever I was chasing.
If you were an animated cartoon character who do you think you would be?
Probably some Elwoodian character.
Are you a righty or lefty?
According to family folklore, I was born a lefty and my dad attempted to teach me to do things right-handed. His take was that it's basically a right-handed world and he was afraid my left-handedness would make life harder for me. So I ended up drawing and doing most things with my right hand, but I still throw with my left and I use most tools, like a saw and hammer with my left.
If you weren't an artist what would you want to do for work?
Music. I learned to play guitar when I was about 14 or 15 and I've been playing music ever since. I've had periods when I put my guitar aside, but I have written songs and learned to play the lute (not well) and I can't imagine not making music. Wherever I've lived as an adult, I've started bands and making music with others is one of the greatest joys in life one can have. I'm a pro artist and an amateur musician, but when I was in art school, I was mightily tempted to pursue music as a career. I think I made the right choice, given my nature (I don't love to travel), but I've always been in awe of great musicians. I think music is the greatest art of all. That may be because I don't do it as well as the real professionals, but my religion, my God, is the music of Gerry Mulligan or Tom Waits or Gustav Mahler.
In one or two sentences describe your drawing area.
A chaotic mess.
Do you play any musical instruments?
I play guitar, mandolin and I once learned to play a handful of simple tunes on the Renaissance 7-course lute. I can flat pick some fiddle tunes quite well when I'm in shape and I can play around the edges of Western Swing electric guitar, but I am a very limited guitarist. I have written what I consider to be some very fine songs and I produced an album of them with guitarist/producer and singer, John Platania, who has played with Van Morrison, Bonnie Raiit, Chip Taylor and many more. (Editor’s note: You can purchase the album in CD or MP3 here.)
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to pursue drawing as a career what would it be?
Do it, but don't think it's easy. You need some talent and lots of dedication and tenacity. If you are lacking in any of those things, I don't recommend you go into a career in art. You may not have to have amazing skills at drawing if you are one of those imaginative and gifted souls who think way outside the box, but learning the craft is always a good thing. I don't consider myself to be an exceptional draftsman, but I do well enough and I bring to my artwork a distinct look, a point of view, a special world of characters, which compensates for any of my shortcomings as a drawer.
Who is your favorite artist?
That is a terribly limiting question and I can't imagine offering up an answer. But I can say that one of my favorite painters is Francis Bacon and I love a quartet of old cartoon masters, George Herriman, Billy Debeck, Elzie Segar and Walt Kelly. But there are so many other artists, fine and commercial, that I can't begin to list them all. Or thank them all. Seymour Chwast, Jack Davis and R.O. Blechman gave me such pleasure and then opened my mind in so many ways. Print makers like Leonard Baskin and Jose Luis Cuevas still get my creative juices flowing. The old animators like Ub Iwerks infused my soul with an energy that even today remains essential to the way I think, the way work.
Watch this process video (which I have watched at least
Thank you very much again for everything Elwood!