On the Move with Mike Ciccotello
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
By Connie Isbell
Mike Ciccotello is an author-illustrator, a member of Monmouth Arts, and the latest subject of our "Studio Spotlights” series. These profiles were born out of curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes at our artist members' studios. We look at the tools they're using, the objects they keep around for inspiration, and their current projects.
It seems impossible that Mike Ciccotello’s recent artwork isn’t created with traditional artist tools -- the layers of color, the brush strokes, the highlights and the shadows, they’re all there. The only difference is that the final results are the product of a stylus and iPad. We chatted about the freedom that comes with going digital and what it’s like to balance his flourishing career in illustration with family life and a full-time corporate job.
Why the switch from traditional to digital art?
Until about five years ago I worked in our basement with a full painting set up: multiple easels, a desktop computer, and drafting table. But after our twin boys were born I wanted to be present for them -- to be around them wherever they were and still be able to make art. I didn’t want to be in the basement studio or in some offsite location. So for me, going digital was simply a practical way to keep creating. These days, everything I make is in the application ProCreate on an iPad Pro, with an Apple Pencil.
What was the catalyst for you to make picture books?
I always circled around the idea of making art for children. In high school, I made murals for kids, created comic strips, and cartoon characters. Unfortunately, every time I asked someone about how to get into the children’s illustration field, I was told the industry was too difficult to break into. I remember asking this question through my twenties... and thirties. I was casually interested, but since I wasn’t getting the right answers, I didn’t really pursue it. Occasionally, I would run into a friend that had a friend that worked in publishing, but that never panned out. Finally in 2015, I was looking at work on Instagram, and stumbled upon a children’s book class from SVSlearn.com. I took the class and learned about The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I joined the organization and attended the regional conference that summer. I started making progress in the children’s illustration field immediately. I met industry professionals, learned how to build my portfolio, joined critique groups, got portfolio reviews, and best of all, I was among like-minded people with the same goals. In hindsight, I wasn’t properly motivated. I asked the wrong questions to the wrong people all those years. Yes, it is difficult to start a career in children’s illustration, but it can be done with hard work and perseverance. Knowing where to start helped me so much. But I still needed to do the work; there’s no getting around that.
Why do you make art?
That’s simple. Joy. I love the impact that art has on others, as well as how it makes me feel.
How does your medium influence the art you make?
I don’t think my digital medium influences the style or subject matter I create, but I do think it has a lot to do with my ability to create. Working on a mobile digital device allows me to create whenever and wherever there’s time to create. Ten minutes before I get my kids up in the morning while sitting at the dining room table. Fifteen minutes at the doctor’s office. Or even a ninety-minute train commute. I work a full-time corporate job at Telos Corporation as an Art and Design Director, and I make books for children at nights and on the weekends. Time management is key to getting my work done. Being able to accomplish that work, digitally, in non-traditional space, helps me achieve that.
Where do you find or look for inspiration?
I find inspiration all around. I was once told to create from what you know. I try to find magical inspiration from everyday objects, locations, and occurrences. A lot of my characters are references to my everyday life. My picture book Twins was inspired by our twin boys. And I recently participated in Inktober and created a bunch of ink bots that were inspired by shapes from everyday objects.
What do you wear to the studio?
Since I create digital art, I don’t have to worry about what I wear. As long as it’s comfortable, I’m happy.
Do you work in silence or with music or the radio on?
I prefer silence when I work. I love music, but I dive deeper into a piece when I have quiet all around. Often, I will get into the narrative of the piece and play out different characters' voices in my head.
What have you been thinking about/obsessing over recently?
Trees and acorns for a picture book I’m illustrating, Treemendous, by Bridget Heos (Crown/Penguin Randomhouse). I’m also having a blast creating characters for Beach Toys vs. School Supplies, my next author-illustrated picture book, (FSG/Macmillan).
Who’s on your radar right now?
Right now, I’m most inspired by illustrators Carson Ellis, David Roberts, Raina Telgemeier, Shelley Johannes, and Ben Hatke. Each for different reasons.
What three words would you use to describe this studio?
Mobile, Practical, Imperfect. After I switched to digital work, my wife and I decided to turn my traditional studio into a play area for our boys. I moved my “studio” to the corner of our guest bedroom. Most of the time, I’m on my iPad when I create and can work anywhere, but I also have an iMac setup with a 24” Wacom Cintiq. It takes up a lot less room, and there’s nothing to clean up. I can draw directly onto the Cintiq display and have it mounted to a flex-arm. The flex-arm allows me to create while sitting all the way back in my chair, leaning over the desk, or even standing. Working on a 24” display allows me to review my line widths and textures at full size while looking at the entire image.
What’s a piece you’ve made that you’ll never get rid of or sell?
That’s a big letdown with digital work. You can print the work, but there is no original piece when you’re finished. So, I think we have to go back to when I was creating traditional work. There’s a painting I created in 2005, Dana’s Sky. It was a breakthrough piece for me. I’ve had many offers for it, but I won’t part with it.
What’s one thing you wish you had known when you started?
I think if I would have known that "one thing," I would have missed out on so much discovery. For example, I didn’t know anything about children’s publishing until five-ish years ago. If I had gone into children’s publishing straight out of college, I would have missed out on years of experience in television, design, motion graphics, making and marketing art shows, and working on breaking news deadlines. I think all of that experience has led me to where I am today. I don’t think I would change it at all.
You can see more of Mike’s work on his website, Instagram, and Facebook. His debut picture book, Twins (FSG/Macmillan), can be purchased locally from River Road Books in Fair Haven or wherever books are sold. If you want to buy a copy online, visit TwinsPictureBook.com.