Robert Magnuson spends most of his days working from home as a children’s book author and illustrator. Some of his works include Duck and Croc’s Magnificent Race, which was named as one of the Best Reads Of 2012 by the National Children’s Book Awards, and is now an on-going series of Ginormous Tales. His work has been featured in publications like The Junior Inquirer, K-Zone, Kwentillion, and The Philippine Free Press.
When he starts to feel constricted by the walls of his home, Robert usually takes his work to a nearby coffee shop. When he was very young, his interests included comic books and Star Wars action figures. Today, he still takes a glance at the things that had caught his attention as a child, but he’s also looking for new things to do with his wife and son. He does his best to intentionally get into the things they’re interested in. This includes playing games and spending more time outdoors with them.
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist
Drawing was something that I learned to do, but it seemed to me that it was with quite a bit effort. In my family, it was my middle brother, John, who was really good at drawing. He was born with a pencil in his hand. Over the years, I’ve met artists like him. People who just seemed to have “it” from the get-go. Unlike John, my hand did not seem like a perfect fit around a pencil. I grappled with lines and shapes — going over them twice, then thrice. Never getting it right. John was the one who encouraged me to draw lines in one confident stroke. And that’s the way it was. One practical lesson at a time.
I remember my dad asking John to give me drawing lessons. John was around grade 3 and I must have been in Prep. I recall sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper and John teaching me how to draw a balloon and an apple. But after the two formalities, we just decided to skip all that and have fun. We began making stories and drawing them in our notebooks. And, like I mentioned, we did this for fun. So the formal lessons took a back seat. Waaay back. There was no intention on our part to draw for a living. Coming up with stories and illustrating them were done for the purpose of sharing. And this visual-storytelling-thing was a new language we were learning how to speak. And that’s where it all began.
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
When I go through the process of making a book, the coloring stage has always been a struggle for me. I can get through penciling and inking and feel a degree of satisfaction with my work during those stages. But, boy oh boy, when it’s time for coloring, that’s when the sweats start to come. It does not help that I’m color blind.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
To solve certain challenges, I’m also led to finding better ways of doing things; finding better tools which can help get the work done more efficiently. As I get older, my responsibilities continue to grow. I have a family who needs my time and attention. Work is important, but my family is my higher priority. So I have to seriously figure out better ways to do things. For example, is digital inking something that will help get the work done just as effectively? And to find that out, I need to learn how to do digital inking. There’s a learning curve that seems to get steeper the older you get. Just like when I need to learn new drawing apps. This is where I am thankful for YouTube instructional videos featuring people who are half my age teaching me how to do these new things.
But, with every book I work on, prayer is my go-to source for endurance. Without it, I sincerely doubt I’d get anything done. That’s how I deal with challenges such as color blindness or facing a not-particularly-creative day.
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
I know it’s a cliche to say “necessity”, but it’s true. I used to draw for the mere pleasure it brings, but there’s nothing like the need to put food on the table or the need to be available for my family to force me out of my comfort zone. But I’m also aware if there’s no fun in the work, it becomes drudgery. So there are times when I have to intentionally remind myself to have fun with the work itself.
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I would tell myself to always have fun. Intentionally find laughter in the work. Enjoy the word, enjoy the line. Don’t get caught up in comparing your work with others. Appreciate the uniqueness of the voice that’s been given to you.
I say this because there are moments when I worry about my work and I become obsessed with “perfection”. While working, I would ask myself things like “is this good enough?” or “is this the right way to do this?” Certainly, these are valid questions. But the problem comes when healthy concerns turn into debilitating worry. When this happens, all the fun is exhausted from the project and the work begins to sour. If I’m not having fun making a book, it will show. I think this is especially true for children’s books. So when I sense that the work is no longer fun, I force myself to take a break. I tell myself to do something to get more breathing space in my head, to get back that spirit of delight.
Once my spirit has been refreshed, that’s when I return to the work. In my case, this offers better mileage contrasted to sitting anchored to a storm-tossed and shipwrecked desk.
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making your art?
I love making stories. I even enjoy drawing more when I have a story to tell. For me, it’s always the story that ignites the passion — even if it’s only the seed of a story. The story becomes the driving force. The desire to tell it, and the hope that I can tell it well.
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
I endeavor to do my work in the mornings and maybe do some finishing touches after lunch. I prefer spending my afternoons with my wife and my son. We do chores together, study, play. But I’d be lying if I told you this is how it works out every day. All my plans usually get jumbled while in midair and I simply hope all the pieces land in a nice straight line.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
There is no way around it. Distractions are a serious problem. The only way to deal with them is to unplug myself from the source of the distraction and seek a well-secluded location to work.
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
When I feel creatively spent, I stop whatever project I’m working on. I then check out what else is happening around me. Sometimes, I’ll take a walk or spend time with my family. I’ll try to do something that will take me miles away from a project. The farther the better. This usually works for me. I find that when I return, I’ve got new life to breathe into whatever project I’m working on.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
Every time a child tells me they loved a book I worked on always feels like an epic win. Hearing the same from teachers, is also incredibly encouraging.
Making books can be very lonely work. Every word has to be written, every line drawn and inked. Every square inch colored. It’s just you spending hours at a desk. It can really test your creative cheer.
So when I finish interacting with a classroom of children who tell me they like these stories, those moments take the weight of the work right off my shoulders.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
If anything comes to mind, it’s the first picture storybook I made many many years ago. It looked pretty bad. I went into it with 100% enthusiasm, but I had no training when it came to illustrating books. And it showed when the book rolled off the press. The colors were muddy. The pages were dark. And my hands weakened when I held the final product in my hands. I realized I had so much to learn. Fortunately, my publisher at the time noticed how heartbroken I looked and told me he was willing to print an improved edition if I wanted to give it a second go. Which I did. It was still far from perfect, but I made sure the colors were brighter.
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
I’m not really a marketing whiz. The imaginary marketing experts I’ve constructed in my head will say it’s a matter of “networking and staying visible”. When I consider this, I see myself going nuts if I had to post stuff online every time I had a half-decent thought or a napkin scribble just for the sake of having something to say. Instead, what I’ve been doing lately (because it’s all I have time for) is turn my focus towards consistently making the best and most honest stories I can for as long as I’m around while prayerfully hoping that along the way, as I visit children in schools, and do the every-so-often online post, people will catch sight of my stories. Because the truth is, much of where I am now has been because of people I’ve met who thought well enough of my work to invest in it — either by publishing my stories, or by pointing their friends in the direction of my works.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
Game plan? Yeah, I used to have game plans. But as the years go by, they never seemed to materialize. What has happened, in actuality, isn’t so much of a game plan, but more like me stumbling through one open door to the next, making sure that I bring the best work I can offer after picking myself off the floor every time. I hope that as I go along this road, the opportunities get better (not necessarily increase) and I get to produce better work. I wish I could say I’ve been in control of my career from the get-go, but this simply isn’t true.
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
I believe that all the great stories are out there waiting to be found. The challenge is training our senses to spot them. When it comes to creativity, I think we all have our dry spells which we need to ride out. My current go-to place for hunting ideas is in that zone where I interact with my wife and my son whenever we play. They tend to challenge and draw out the best in my imagination, even during the dry-spell seasons.
Q: What is your big “WHY”? Why do you feel the need to make art? Who are you doing it for? What’s the hidden reason behind your big dream?
Who do I do it for? I do it for me. I do it for my wife. I do it for my son. I do it for the lonely girl or boy who is looking for a moment of fun. I do it for the parent who wants to share a read with their kids. I do it because I think it’s what I was made to do. I do it for the pleasure of it. And I do it despite the pain this particular creativity produces. I do it because it’s the best way I know how to communicate my thoughts; putting pictures and words together and laying out a message through illustrated storytelling. I enjoy it.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
Superboy and The Legion of Superheroes #201 - one of my favorite childhood comic books. It was this first comic we had that did not showcase popular characters like Batman and Spider-Man. These had heroes who I had never heard of before and so it offered me that sense of seeing something strange and new for the first time within a familiar medium.
Another would be, the original Star Wars trilogy which captivated my childhood imagination like nothing else. Unlike movies today that fall from interest after a month of screening, the original trilogy had me hooked for years. And in between the films, I read the comics and played with the toys.
Another would be the Sesame Street TV show. It had the awesome combination of being fun, good-natured, educational and honest (Remember the way they tackled Mr. Hooper’s death? I thought that was brilliant).
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills?
At an early age, the drawing books by Ed Emberly helped me a lot. These were the books that laid the foundation for my enjoyment of drawing pictures.
I also recall having some Jack Hamm books on our shelves, particularly his book on cartooning. I browsed through that every so often as a child. Of course, every comic book my brothers and I bought was a feast for how to do (or not do) proper storytelling.
With that said, I always find myself going back to the old masters of the medium like Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, to name but a few. I love looking at the comics of my childhood.
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
Man, I wouldn’t stay in just one place. Wouldn’t it be great to have a mobile office? It would be great to experience life in different places and bring your work wherever you rest your feet for the day. But I do tend to gravitate towards nature. The coffee shop I used to frequent had a terrific view of trees. I also like working in gardens, and if I could afford it, I’d enjoy working by the beach.
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
I’m sure I’ll think of someone else a week after I answer this question. But for now, it would have been Jim Henson.
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills? (Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art has inspired you to get better, over the years.)
For the short time that we drew together, it would be my brother John. Him and the slew of Silver and Bronze Age comic artists whose works made an indelible impression on me. Those few childhood years with my brothers and those comics have a magical quality about them. They remain golden in my memory.