William Stout: Always 100%

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
William Stout has had a long and acclaimed career as one of the finest painters and professional artists in the world. Best known for his love of dinosaurs, Stout has also painted murals, drawn comics, illustrated film storyboards and much more. His paintings of dinosaurs are legendary, and have resulted in Stout being offered commissions to paint the creatures on giant murals at museums. He also has released a number of books through Flesk Publications, which provide a great look at the work that this amazing artist has created throughout his career.

Jason Sacks: Your take on some of the creatures you illustrate is unique. How much did you try to follow the classical monsters, and how much did you bring yourself?

William Stout: With the trolls, I was following the style of Swedish children's book illustrator John Bauer. The Nome King was drawn in the style of classic Oz illustrator John. R. Neill. The dragons are strictly of my own creation, informed by my knowledge of dinosaur anatomy (except for the Sea Dragon picture which was solidly influenced by Arthur Rackham, and the Chinese dragon which was derived from several different ancient depictions of dragons on Chinese robes). 

The Jabberwock was informed by John Tenniell's sole illustration of that beast; I tried to make it much more anatomically logical, though, as well as more rhythmical and dynamic. The monsters in the illustrations from Abu & The 7 Marvels were created in direct response to Richard Matheson's text. The Oni is my somewhat Westernized take on the Japanese creature. The Edgar Rice Burroughs were inspired by his ever-so-illustratable texts.

Sacks: Did you create some creatures of your own design?

Stout: Yes; the rest are pretty much just out of my head or influenced by my observations of nature.

Sacks: How did you come up with the ideas for them?

Stout: I do what I call "thinking with my pen". I always have a sketchbook with me so that I can never be in a situation where I can get bored. I like to make lots of little thumbnail roughs in an attempt to come up with interesting picture ideas and creature designs. I may not have a specific problem I'm trying to solve or even necessarily a subject matter in my head that I want to explore. I often honestly don't know where the heck my pen is going to lead me. That keeps it interesting for me.

Sacks: Did you try to follow a certain train of thought when depicting them?

Stout: If I am trying to solve a specific problem, yes. If not, I just go wherever my pen (and my subconscious) takes me. That's part of the fun of the process. The idea for a new masterpiece could be lurking inside my pen, just waiting to spring out onto the next page.

If I'm stuck for a picture idea I will brainstorm and make a very quick long list of every word associated with the subject I am attempting to portray. Then, I'll take words from the list that are rarely, if ever, seen in association with each other and pair them up to create a fresh new concept or idea.

Sacks: You talked about having "problems that you want to solve" with your art. That's an intriguing phrase. How do you approach your art as "problems to solve"?

Stout: If you think about it, each painting and each illustration presents a problem to be solved. Typically for me, that "problem" is an idea I need to convey in an arresting manner. My goal is to solve this problem before me in a way that is fresh, surprising, original and interesting. 

For example, I recently painted four covers forFamous Monsters of Filmland magazine depicting my takes on the Frankenstein monster, a werewolf, The Mummy and Dracula (i.e., a vampire). For obvious legal reasons, I was not allowed to use the countenances of the classic Universal creatures; my other problems became:
  1. These creatures have been painted hundreds of times by some of the best artists in the business. 

    What can I do that they haven't done? In the case of The Mummy, for example, I depicted him wearing a pharaoh's headdress, something I've never seen before.

  2. Besides depicting familiar monsters in a unique way, these paintings also have to function as covers that can be read from across a shop, hopefully enticing the casual observer to purchase the magazine.
When I am trying to solve a visual problem, I don't limit myself with the parameters of style. If the solution I come up with requires a style of art that I have never done before, I figure out how to duplicate that style. That's when my versatility comes in really handy.

Sometimes that means coming up with a style that doesn't yet exist. For example, I just created a new zombie painting for my 2012 Zombies! calendar. This was the image for October. Instead of doing another Halloween zombie, I decided to surprise my collectors with a Mexican Day of the Dead image. 

I lived for almost a year in Mexico City while I was working on Dune and Conan the Destroyer, so I'm intimately familiar with the myriad of Day of the Dead rituals and icons. Nevertheless, I refreshed my memory by going through loads of Day of the Dead graphics, noting the common visual imagery among them --- I found lots of cool stuff but I didn't find what I thought was an appropriate art style. I wanted this piece to be simple and graphic like traditional Mexican folk art, so I just made up a new style to go with the imagery I had come up with in my rough. It's honestly not like any other work I've done before. It's always nice to stretch yourself as an artist, something I strive to do as often as possible.

Sacks: What are some of your favorite creations that have come from the word association game you mention?

Stout: Here's an early one: I wanted to draw a picture of a dragon. I wanted it to be warmly humorous, so that meant it had to have an idea. I couldn't think of anything right away, so I brainstormed and wrote down everything that came to my mind on the subject. I quickly had two long columns of words. Then I tried pairing the words in unexpected ways. I finally combined "lance" with "dragon" and came up with the idea of a dragon barbecuing a knight, skewered like a shish kabob on the hapless knight's own lance. To sweeten this macabre scenario, I had the dragon dreaming about cooking the knight for his loving girlfriend dragon.

Sacks: You obviously have a great love for classical illustrators... 

Stout: Yes, I do. 

Sacks: Did you grow up seeing their work?

Stout: No, I didn't. We were very poor. As a little kid whenever I would wish upon a star it was almost always the same wish: that when I went back inside the house to my room, if I looked underneath my bed I would find a chest of books (I also loved food and would sometimes wish for my own package of cheddar cheese).

Sacks: Did your parents encourage your love for classical illustration?

Stout: No, not directly; they just weren't aware of classical illustration. Some of my first books, however, were Poky Little Puppy and Big Brown Bear, both illustrated by the great Gustaf Tenggren, who is still one of my favorite artists. Oddly, enough, though, as poor as we were, my parents would occasionally buy original oil paintings for the walls of our home --- usually landscapes; some good, some bad.

Sacks: You're best known for your dinosaur art. Why do you love them so much?

Stout: The first movie I ever saw was the original 1933 King Kong. I was three years old. Not long after that I saw Walt Disney's Fantasia. I was awestruck by the Rites of Springsequence. I think the combo of the two damaged me at a genetic level; it's been dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs ever since.

Sacks: You got to work early in your career with legends like Russ Manning and Harvey Kurtzman. Do you have any stories about working with them?

Stout: I learned an enormous amount from both of these great men. 

Besides teaching me loads about the creation of comic art and turning me on to Japanese prints, by my own observation Russ Manning taught me how to be a great father (my own father left us when I was 14).

The biggest thing I learned from Harvey was to never assume knowledge. Once, when I was working with Harvey and Willy Elder on Little Annie Fanny, I began to pencil in a fire hydrant that Harvey had roughed in. "Wait!" He stopped me. "Do you really know what a fire hydrant looks like, or are you assuming you do?" he asked. "Grab the page and a pencil and let's go outside."

We walked out to the street where Harvey immediately spotted a fire hydrant.

"Now compare your drawing to the real thing."

The hydrant I had drawn would have been identifiable to any member of the public as a fire hydrant. But looking at a real one, I saw crucial details I had missed. I corrected my drawing. It now rang with vibrant authenticity. Although Annie was a comic strip, Harvey wanted her world to ring as true to its readers as the actual one in which we all lived.

Harvey never assumed he knew how to draw any hand position, no matter how many times he had drawn that same position in the past. He always drew hands looking at his own hands for reference.

I've been a stickler for that kind of authenticity ever since. It really slows you down, though. I call it my "Kurtzman Curse".

Sacks: You've done so much different art - fantasy paintings, nature paintings, murals, comics, storyboards, even a designer of rides at Disney parks. Is there one thing you love above others?

Stout: My favorite work is painting murals, oil on canvas. They're large, they're permanent (a true artistic legacy) and most of them are huge, difficult graphic problems to be solved. The more difficult the problem, the more I like it. I love doing the research for the murals as well. Research has always been a fun part of being an artist.

After mural painting, my favorite work is doing oil paintings of natural history subjects and creating comic book art. It's sad that comic art pays so poorly; it's just as hard (if not harder) to do than other forms of art.

I really like creating ink and watercolor pictures, too. Line is very important to me.

Sacks: Is there anything else you'd like fans to know about you or your work?

Stout: Despite my very black sense of humor, I won't take any job that is a detriment to or adds to the pain of our society. No tobacco ads, for example, or anything that promotes the hatred that cynically gets spewed out each day over talk radio.

They should also be aware that I will never intentionally try to disappoint them. A long time ago I took on Norman Rockwell's motto: 100%. That means that after all the negotiations are over, no matter how much (or how little) I am being paid for a job, I will put in 100% of my absolute best effort to solve my client's problems and create the finest work possible in the time allowed me. It's a terrific way to get good real fast, plus, knowing you tried your best, you never have to look back on any job with shame or regret, knowing you could have done better.


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