Iowa State University Alumni Association| online edition | spring 2009

Chuck Richards



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Critter Sitter coverWhat is it about being a kid that makes the colors brighter, the thrills more thrilling, the scares scarier?

ISU art professor Chuck Richards may not be able to explain it, but he can sure draw it.

His latest book, Critter Sitter, tells the tale of poor Henry, a young lad who ambitiously promises to pet sit an escape artist boa constrictor, a mess-prone bloodhound named Slobberchops, goldfish, a cockatiel, and a snooty cat with a queen complex. It all ends in what Richards, who teaches drawing at Iowa State, calls a “comedy of terrors” in the fascinating, scary garden of old Mrs. Angora.

It’s beautifully executed with drawings first tinted with watercolor and then finished in colored pencil. The illustrations have a decidedly mid-century setting and details – not unlike what Richards remembers from his own childhood. But each also has an explosive quality, presented in jarring, tilted angles with crickets and goo and frogs and dogs and just general chaos popping from every page. Think Norman Rockwell gone wild.

It’s no accident, either, that we’re shown this delightful disaster from the angle that a kid would see it – kitchen countertops at almost eye level, a slobbery dog delivering licks at the same level as our faces.

The 32-page book, published by Walker Books in fall 2008, has drawn national praise. Kirkus Reviews says, “Richards’ illustrations are comically endearing and expertly drive the rollicking story, bold colors and exaggerated angles milking the chaos for all it’s worth.”

Richards says the accolades feel good, that he feels like he’s truly hitting his stride as an artist and doing what he ultimately should be doing. But it wasn’t what he set out to do.

“If you would have told me 20 years ago that I was doing this, I’d have said, ‘You have to be kidding me.’ I was a serious artist!” he says, puffing out his chest a little to fake pomposity.

But that was before he had two children and was pulled into the magic of childhood all over again.
In fact, the pet escape theme for Critter Sitter was inspired by a pet-sitting incident that occurred when his daughter was caring for a neighbor’s dog and tree frog and the frog escaped during a cricket-feeding session.

It’s not Richards’ first book. He wrote Jungle Gym Jitters, the story of a boy whose dad builds a jungle gym, published in 2004 to similar praise as Critter Sitter.

The New York Times summarized his work this way: “It looks so lively and spontaneous, page after exuberant page… It is Chuck Richards’ marvelous drawing – constantly surprising, consistently engaging, and madly thrilling – that triumph in the end.”

It was a tough process to get a book published. Richards sent blind queries to publishers for years, and then finally got an agent, who also got no response. Finally, Richards traveled to New York to meet with a few publishers and ended up getting two book deals.

That book led to a commission for four murals at the children’s hospital at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. A woman involved in selecting art for the hospitals had purchased Jungle Gym Jitters for her grandchildren. When it came time to commission the murals, she remembered the delightful illustrations from the Iowa State art professor.

Richards was also hired to illustrate a children’s book written by another author, but it’s just not the same, he says. His artistic vision is clearer and the process is more rewarding when he can generate the story line himself. “It’s more fun to come up with your own story and your own characters. You’re more invested in it.”

Richards, predictably, is one of those kids who grew up drawing non-stop. When he was five and living in Naperville, Ill., his dad gutted an old console-style television with a flat glass front, put a bulb behind the glass, and created a dream tracing light box for the boy. It allowed him to obsessively trace and recreate his comic book faves, such as Popeye and Superman.

Looking at his illustrations today, with their slightly manic, quirky quality, it’s not surprising that he was an obsessive MAD magazine fan, loved horror flicks, and was a huge follower of Basil Wolverton, who specialized in comic grotesques.

In fact, he points out that his work is almost cinematographic, that he loves the odd angles that a filmmaker might seek out.

His process for making the drawings for his books goes back to that first tracing box. Illustrations start out crudely as thumbnails in his sketch books – just very rough scribbles and stick figures “that really don’t mean anything to anyone but me.”

Then he collects images and photos of various animals and objects to use as reference material and inspiration as he develops illustrations. From there, he creates separate line drawings – different pieces for rooms, fixtures, characters – on pieces of tracing paper. He scans all the elements and makes composites in PhotoShop on his computer, allowing him to, say, reuse a room background in more than one illustration.

Then he prints and transfers his drawings with a graphite-backed paper onto watercolor paper. From there, he goes over the work with watercolor washes and develops lights and shadows with colored pencil. Each illustration takes two to three weeks to complete, depending on the complexity.

His books and the murals have been worked in around his schedule teaching drawing in Iowa State’s College of Design. He puts in many evenings and weekends
at his home studio, but says he wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s his passion.“It doesn’t feel like work.”

Teaching is a perfect complement to the actual drawing, Richards says. “If I’m not talking about it, I’m doing it… I think I’ve learned more about drawing as the result of having to talk about it so much.”

Students benefit because they’re taught by a practicing artist who still is exploring and actively engaged in art. Richards also loves the enthusiasm of his students and interacting with them. “I really love drawing, but drawing is an isolated pursuit.” Interaction with faculty and students solves that.

Meanwhile, he’s working on a Web site, which will include animation that his son, Andy, a film student at the University of Iowa, is designing sounds for. He has a semester sabbatical slated for spring 2010 to focus on his animation and drawing work, including another possible book.

It’s a rich, fascinating time for him as an artist, Richards says, and it amuses him that moving forward has involved looking back. “Having spent most of my adult life looking for my ‘voice’ as an artist, it makes perfect sense to me to have finally found my purpose at the place where I started.”

About the Writer | Veronica Lorson Fowler ('84 JLMC) is an Ames freelance writer and editor and a former Des Moines Register reporter. She is the mother of three children and the veteran of many hours of bedtime stories.