You know how there are some illustrations that you look at and all you can think is, “Wow, that looks like that was fun to do!” That’s what comes to mind when I look at Kent Culotta’s work. It just looks fun – quirky, cheerful and full of life. It was no surprise to learn when he so graciously agreed to let me interrogate him that he has his background in animation. When I found that out, it just made sense. Animators are just FUN people. Thankfully Kent has taken to picture books so we get to enjoy his exuberant images in our own time.
Kent Culotta was born in Detroit, Michigan and grew up nearby in Plymouth. He attended Michigan State University, where he received a B.F.A. in graphic design, and then spent a year at UCLA, where he studied animation and film. He got his first job in animation at Filmation Studios, where he worked on Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night, and then went on to work at many studios on many films, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Pagemaster, Prince of Egypt, El Dorado, The Ant Bully and Ice Age 3. Kent recently illustrated his first book, Dan, the Taxi Man, written by Eric Ode and published by Kane Miller.
Describe yourself in five words:
creative, daydreamer, sheepish, persnickety, and silly.
Now, please tell us how you got started in picture book illustration (in more than five words)…
Well, I think I’ve always been interested in being a picture book illustrator; it just took me a while to get there. I did declare at the age of nine that I was going be an author and illustrator. Then I got “sidetracked” into my related interest: animation. Over the years I would take illustration classes, attend SCBWI events, etc. Finally I decided to take the plunge and started sending out postcards of my work to publishers. I didn’t hear anything right away, but about a year and a half and a few more postcards later I received an e-mail from Kane Miller asking if I would be interested in illustrating a manuscript they had. Of course I was! I did have to go through a bit of an audition process with the main character, Dan, the Taxi Man, but once I got a design that they liked, I was off and running.
Gosh, I don’t even know where to start. There are a lot of artists that I love and that have been influential with me, probably starting with Walt Disney. (I was a total Disney geek as a kid.) I love early 20th century illustrators, especially J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. (A little six degrees of separation trivia: my great-grandfather was at one time Norman Rockwell’s dentist!) Other painters of that period I really enjoy are Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Charles Burchfield. Comic strips from the same time period, like Polly and her Pals and Gasoline Alley. More recently I’ve become fascinated by mid century artist/designers like Mary Blair, Jim Flora and Alec Steinweiss. One contemporary artist who totally speaks to me is the cartoonist Seth.
a. Which is your greatest strength? My greatest strength, that’s a hard one to answer. I guess I would have to say shape, although having worked in animation I have a pretty strong grasp of line too. (Maybe a too strong grasp at times!) On the other hand I’ve really been enjoying working with color lately and feel like I have developed a rather distinctive way with it.
b.Which poses your greatest challenge? My greatest difficulty is, easily, perspective. Working so long in animation, my main focus has been in drawing characters. Having to design and paint settings involving a lot of perspective to put those characters into freaks me out sometimes.
This is a challenge for me since I still do a lot of freelance animation work. Sometimes I have to put my personal artwork to the side and it can be hard getting back to it. I find that having deadlines is the best way for me to keep on track, even if the deadlines are often self-imposed.
Just keep putting yourself out there, and don’t let fear/self-doubt get in your way.
I have a couple of ideas that I’m working on right now. One is a picture book about a famous composer, and the other is based on a verbal game my brother and I used to play.
Always is such an infinite word! I would say this has often been my dream job. (All right, I’ll admit it, I used to dream about being in animation too. Been there, …) If I could do anything else, I would love to be a composer/lyricist for a Broadway musical. Or a set designer. Or a costume designer. Or…
While I let Kent finish that thought, I urge you to check out Kent’s debut book Dan, the Taxi Man. After that, make sure to stop by this website to see even more amazing illustrations, then get breaking news coverage on what Kent is up to on his blog But if you can’t get enough Kent you can always reach him on his facebook page.