Smash Pages Q&A: Jake Parker on Inktober and more

The founder of October’s ‘Inktober’ event discusses this year’s event, his latest chidlren’s books and his forthcoming graphic novel ‘SkyHeart.’

For some people, Jake Parker is the talented children’s book illustrator behind books like The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair, The Little Snowplow, and the just-released The 12 Sleighs of Christmas, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker. Some of us though remember Parker as one of the artists who first made a splash in the Flight anthologies and went onto write and draw the Missile Mouse series of graphic novels and The Antler Boy and Other Stories, which collected his short comics work.

He is also the man who started Inktober, which went from a personal challenge to himself that he posted online to something much bigger. This year Inktober was bigger than it’s ever been. In 2015, just under 330,000 posts on Instagram were tagged #inktober2015, and this year more than 3.2 million were tagged #inktober2017. This doesn’t mean that everything was without controversy. Parker responded to the question of whether it’s possible to participate in Inktober if one works digitally and Parker’s statement, which read in part “The spirit of Inktober is self improvement, and there’s no better way to master your craft than to draw without a safety net” was not liked by some people and so I asked him about Inktober and his new book.

To start, fall, just for people who don’t know, what is Inktober?

Every October, artists all over the world take on the Inktober drawing challenge by doing one ink drawing a day the entire month. I created Inktober in 2009 as a challenge to improve my inking skills and develop positive drawing habits. It has since grown into a worldwide endeavor with over a hundred thousand artists taking on the challenge this year.

There was some drama before Inktober started, and I wonder if you would like to address some of that in a way that one just cannot easily do on twitter.

Every year I get questions along this line: Can I do Inktober digitally? And every year I tell people, yeah sure, do digital. I personally believe that inking traditionally is more of a challenge, but to each his own, right? However, I want people to feel challenged when doing Inktober. I think you get more out of Inktober when it pushes you to the edge of your capabilities. This year I saw more and more people asking if they can do digital and I went into teacher/dad mode and I decided to plant a flag on digital vs ink for inktober. I stated my reasons for why I thought you can become a better drawer by inking traditionally. In my mind that message was meant for the person who likes to work digitally, but just needs the push to work out of their comfort zone and to try inking traditionally.

I think what is at the core here is, and maybe I’m wrong, is that people want to be challenged, and they want to improve, but there’s deeper needs that they are hoping Inktober will fill for them, the need for validation, and the need for community. So say you’re an artist who isn’t very good at drawing with a pen in ink, and your primary need is validation that you are an artist, and validation that you are a good artist, then you’re going to want to take on the challenge using a medium you’re more comfortable with. If your need is community, and you’re not a very good ink drawer then you might worry that you won’t find community among ink artists with your underdeveloped inking skills. So you do the challenge digitally so that you can still hang with the other digital artists in your community.

Herein lies the biggest problem with a lot of artists. Too much of our self worth is wrapped up in our abilities. Validation and community are important needs that should be filled, but not based on our artistic abilities.

A healthier perspective is for the artist to get nourishment from the work itself. If you’re primary goal is to master your craft then you’ll feel better by challenging yourself, no matter the outcome. So instead of manipulating a drawing challenge to meet your needs, you manipulate yourself to rise to the demands of the challenge. And that’s all I’m asking the artist community. I want people to rise to the challenge of ink drawing.

To what degree do you think of Inktober as “your event”

It’s my event to the degree that people look to me as a guide and inspiration for what to do. It’s also my event to the degree that people look to the social media channels and the Inktober website that I own and operate as a guide to how to do the challenge. I know that the majority of people who do the challenge have no idea who I am and I’m fine with that. But I think in order for the challenge to be organized and effective there has to be one official source for information on the challenge.

You have a new book that just came out, The 12 Sleighs of Christmas. What is this book?

This is probably the most fun I’ve had on a project in a long time. New York Times best selling author Sherri Rinker wrote an incredibly cute story about Santa’s elves designing and building 12 radically different sleighs when they find the original sleigh is trashed. There’s a big rig sleigh, hot rod, submarine, rocket and yes, even a robot sleigh. When I read the manuscript I knew I had to illustrate it.

Like a lot of people I know you from your comics, but how did you make that move into picture books?

My first picture book was illustrating Michael Chabon’s Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. Chabon is a lover of comics and he was familiar with my comics work and asked if I’d be interested in illustrating his first picture book since it had a comics vibe to it. After that I just started getting more manuscripts in my inbox and I’ve been illustrating 1-2 books a year since 2010.

Picture books and comics are not, but they do have a lot in common, and how have you found working in the field?

The hardest part for me is to refrain from breaking the picture book down into panels. I love the sequential panel storytelling style of comics because you can be so specific. But in picture books it’s about finding that one image that expresses the feeling of the words. It’s like doing 16 splash pages.

I ask in part because in comics you were writing and drawing all your own work, and you have made picture books on your own, but most have been collaborations and what has that process and experience been like?

I love it. The author has done all the hard work, and I get to come in and do all the fun stuff; character design, environment design, lighting, coloring. I get to flesh out their world. I think I fall back on my experience working in the art department for feature animation than I do comics for this.

I do also want to ask you to say a few words about your book Little Bot and Sparrow, which came out last year and I really like.

This book actually was a comic first. I drew a 10 page story for Flight Volume 2 way back in 2004. When I got the shot to write and draw my own children’s book I kept coming back to this story about a robot who doesn’t know anything about the forest and a sparrow who befriends him and teaches him to dream. It’s a quiet story, but like you said, I think one that we need right now because it teaches that friendships can come from someone you least expect, and that when you lose a loved one they are always still with you.

So what are you working on now? Or will be working on after October? More picture books? More writing? What do want to do next?

I’m neck deep in my self-published graphic novel SkyHeart. This has been a daunting project for me because the world I’m creating here is so vast and I’m taking on characters and ideas that have pushed my abilities as a writer. I’m planning on wrapping up production on it in January and sending it off to the printers. And my inktober project this year was to design and draw a new character on a single sheet of paper. As I drew each character I crafted a little background story for them. I ended up calling the project “Travelers of the Five Kingdoms” It turned out to be one of the most challenging illustrations I’ve done, and was really well received by the Inktober community. A bunch of people have requested a print of it, and so I’m selling those now.

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