Tim Miller is the illustrator of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) and the upcoming middle grade series Hamstersaurus Rex. He will also make his debut as a picture book author with Moo Moo in a Tutu, which is set to go on sale in early 2017. In this installment of Meet the Illustrator, we chatted with Tim about the comic strip that inspired him to begin drawing and how working with children at a museum played an important role on his road to becoming an illustrator. Read on to learn his “secret artistic formula” and more!
What first made you excited about art?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Snohomish, Washington. It rained a lot and I was the biggest wimp at doing my chores, so I needed an escape. One year, maybe around the age of seven, “Garfield” came out and it was exactly what the doctor ordered. I thought the comic strip was the funniest thing ever and immediately started trying to copy Jim Davis’s pictures. Much to my surprise, I discovered I could do it. Just like that, I became a Garfield-drawing maniac. Suddenly, Garfield didn’t live just in the comic: He became mine, because I could draw him doing whatever I wanted. That was way more entertaining than scooping up cow manure in the barns or watching the raindrops roll down the windows of my room.
When my family and teachers and classmates took notice and applauded my work, it was a positive morale boost — especially for a kid who felt relatively invisible. It was the first time that I took a sense of pride in myself. As a result of all the positive attention, it was also when I began to identify myself as an artist.
What illustrated book from childhood has stayed with you over the years?
I had a few books that I remember enjoying growing up. The Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel, was memorable, as was the Little Bear series, written by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. My favorite book, however, was one that my aunt gave me on a visit to Berlin called Miss Priscilla’s Secret, by Jennifer Zabel. It’s a totally weird book and I can’t say I was a fan of the story, but what I loved about it was discovering several mischievous mice hidden in the backgrounds of the images. I thought they were completely hysterical, and it was such a big deal to me that they were hidden. It was like a secret message from the illustrator that added a whole different layer to the story. I would spend long hours looking at those mice and cracking up.
Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?
The inspiration for my work simply comes from a very mundane knee-jerk response to some sort of external stimulus in the world that strikes a chord with me. (For example, the first time I encountered Julie Falatko’s Snappsy the Alligator, mental images came to mind as I read the story — and those mental pictures became the foundation to build upon.) When I begin to sketch an idea, I try to draw what I’m seeing in my mind as best I can, but it’s not always clear. Usually, it becomes clearer only after I make several rough sketches. I continue to refine the concept until I land on something that feels solid.
I think of the process as trying to make out something in the fog. It’s difficult when you’re far away, but as you draw nearer, the details become more distinguishable. A key part of the process, though, is that I have to be entertained. There has to be a good personal motivation in it to lure me forward.
What does your workspace look like?
I work in the basement of my apartment in Queens and currently it’s a mess. By nature I’m a tidy person, but sometimes when I’m digging into a project things get turned upside down. I get so involved in the work I’m doing that cleaning is the last thing on my mind. My workspace is really a reflection of my mental state. When I’m working on a problem, it looks like a hurricane came through.
Right now it’s a disaster because I’m up against a pressing deadline.
What materials do you most like to use?
My secret artistic formula for creating my illustrations is as follows:
Draw with brush and ink on paper…
Scan images onto computer. And add digital hocus pocus…
What design resources would you recommend to young artists?
Honestly, there is nothing better than giving yourself permission to sit and experience the world through the wonderment of your senses. Seeing is an opportunity to read what’s all around you. The more you are open to it, the more you make discoveries and connections that lie just below the surface of things — discoveries that can feed your work. This can be as simple as sitting on a park bench and taking notice of the activity in your vicinity, or wandering into a museum and engaging with works of art. What you meet in these encounters — what you discover in your response to them — becomes your creative wellspring.
How have you gotten kids excited about art?
Before breaking into picture books, I worked at the Queens Museum, managing after-school and family programs. My interactions with children at the museum were actually what sparked my interest in writing and illustrating books.
One of my favorite things to do at the museum was to engage school groups in the galleries. You might think it would be difficult to get a group of five-year-olds to have a thoughtful conversation about a Tiffany stained-glass window, but it’s actually a lot easier than you’d expect. It’s simply a matter of presenting the subject in a way that’s personally inviting, and then offering students the opportunity to respond to it.
It’s an incredible thing to sit before a work of art with a child and ask them what they see. They bubble over in no time, with insights and observations that will both surprise you and stretch your own interpretation. The crucial ingredient is to respect their intelligence and invite them to elaborate whenever there’s an opportunity. This is the same approach I use when inviting students to make their own works of art. It’s exciting and meaningful to them as long as we allow them the opportunity to discover it for themselves, and it continues to grow from there with our support.
What have kids taught you about books and reading?
Not too long ago, I observed a father reading a book to his daughter on a morning subway commute. I was moved by the father’s animated delivery of the story as his daughter sat wide-eyed and completely engrossed. Her eyes grew bigger with each page. She leaned in toward the pictures, pressing her face close as her expressions changed. She looked concerned, relieved, and then gave a big smile. She was taking everything in and turning it around in her mind as the words and pictures put before her became a portal of imagination. She stepped into a new world and was living in it, identifying with the circumstances of the characters and their plight.
The train stopped at the next station and the father and daughter quickly closed their book and jumped up. The small child clung to her father’s hand as they pushed out the doors along with the other passengers. She was still the same person, but she was changed because her experience had broadened. The world was different and had newfound meaning for her because of the journey she had just been on. My biggest takeaway from all of this was the subtle yet powerful impact that reading can have on an open mind.
To learn more about Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), make sure to check out the hilarious book trailer here.
Tim Miller is serious about being funny. He studied Cartooning at the School of Visual Arts and now works on picture books that are both playful and absurd. Tim lives in Queens with his cat, who did not ask to be mentioned in this bio. Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) is his first book. Visit him online at www.timmillerillustration.com.