Born in Los Angeles, Richard Torrey began his career as the creator of the internationally syndicated comic strips Hartland and Pete and Clete.
Today, Mr. Torrey is an award-winning author and illustrator of 15 books, including Ally-saurus & the First Day of School (Sterling), My Dog, Bob (Holiday House), and the three-book series Almost, Why? And Because (HarperCollins).
His books have received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist. Among his awards, Richard has received the Booklist Editor’s Choice award, an ALA Editor’s Choice award, a Junior Library Guild Award, a Children’s Choice Award, and a Bank Street College “Best Children’s Book of the Year, as well an Outstanding Merit award by Bank Street’s Children’s Book Committee.
Along with his own books, Richard has illustrated dozens of books for Simon & Schuster, Golden Books, McGraw-Hill, and Scholastic and has created a successful line of greeting cards for Recycled Paper Greetings. He also worked with Disney on the development of an animated children’s series for their preschool division, Playhouse Disney.
Richard is also a highly acclaimed speaker, known for his educational, inspirational, and entertaining presentations. Finally, for the better half of three decades, he has taught classes at the Art League of Long Island. (Artleagueli.net)
The son of Hockey Hall of Famer, Bill Torrey, Richard lives with his wife in Shoreham, NY.
Recently, we’ve had an opportunity to interview Mr. Torrey. Below are his generous replies to our many, many questions.
What inspired you to begin your first drawing? How old were you?
According to my mother, I started drawing about the time I could hold a pencil (or crayon). I actually have a picture of a dinosaur I drew at age 3. Apparently, I was copying my older brother, who was doing a kindergarten report on the subject. It wasn’t very good, but being 3, I didn’t care. That’s the beauty of being young. You don’t judge your work. You’re not worried what others think. You’re just doing what comes naturally. In the truest sense, that’s what being an artist is all about. What’s Picasso’s line? “All children are born artists; the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”
What art interests you most, in terms of what you do, and then in terms of what you enjoy seeing?
I love many types of art, but if I had to narrow that scope, I’m attracted to things that have a bold, graphic element to them—anything even slightly “cartoony.” I also like things that have a bit of quirkiness to them as well as drawings that show the artists hand in the creation of it. If it’s too perfect, too clean, it tends to bore me. As an example, take a look at William Steig’s work.
What’s the easiest part of drawing for you?
Probably that initial character concept or design. Being a visual person, I think in pictures. Whether it was in my days as a syndicated cartoonist or now, doing children’s books, I’ve always been able to visualize the characters and the world they exist in as I am creating the story. So, before I even touch pencil to paper, I have some sense of what they’re going to look like. That’s not to say I don’t change my mind once I see the sad thing I’ve just drawn.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this struggle, but what I find most difficult is the next step, determining the particular look and color palette for a book. Even after I finally settle on that overall look, I’ll question it, tweak it, second-guess myself until the final moment, when it’s ripped out of my hands, and sent to the editor.
Is it difficult to draw something purely from imagination? Is that a skill you develop with time, or is it instinctive?
Wow, that’s a great question! I’ve never been asked that. To be honest, it’s probably easier for me to draw something purely from imagination. Whether it’s a skill or instinctive, it’s how I have operated most of my life. I can clearly remember a particular 5th grade art class when our teacher told us to draw a hiking boot she had put on a stool with a feather and a flower in it. Whether it was because I wasn’t good at observational drawing, or more likely, because I was bored out of my skull, I did a terrible job and got an F on that assignment. (Do they still give out F’s?)
The bottom line is, I have a somewhat photographic memory, and can picture the things I want to draw. Whether that image is a realistic representation of what it’s supposed to be, it’s what I see, and it’s what I’m going to draw.
If someone asked, why do you draw, what would you say?
I draw to scratch an unquenchable itch. I have the same reaction today that I had as a child, flipping over the placemat in a restaurant and staring at the blank white space on the other side. I have this immutable need to fill blank spaces with my doodles.
When did you first consider yourself an artist?
I still don’t consider myself an artist. I’m a cartoonist and an illustrator. While I do make that distinction jokingly, I have had other “artists” make it with the intent to put me down, which just makes me smile. I am what I am. I don’t wait for inspiration or my muse to go paint a landscape or bowl of fruit—that’s not how my brain works. Now to actually answer your question, I guess I considered myself an artist when I landed my first syndicated comic strip, “Hartland.” I was 25, so roughly 400 years ago.
How would you describe your work style?
I have had a saying by Gustave Flaubert that has hung in my studio for my entire professional life: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” That philosophy has served me well.
My 12 years doing syndicated strips taught me how to organize my day to get maximum output. I learned techniques to slide into that creative mode so I could do my writing in the morning. The rest of the day was spent doing layouts and inking.
Since becoming a children’s book author/illustrator, I may spend long stretches of concentrated time writing, but even then, I’m sketching thumbnails of the characters. But every morning, I rope off time to get into that creative mindset, whether I’m going to actually create that day or not. It’s a skill that needs to be honed and sharpened.
What techniques and tools do you use to keep yourself organized?
You’re assuming that I keep myself organized. Other than putting things into my calendar app, I’m usually flying by the seat of my pants.
But I’ll go back to the Flaubert saying, and my experience of working as a syndicated cartoonist. It was like going to creative boot camp. The syndicate required you to have a ten-week backlog of strips. Your editor may nix a week or more of your monthly submissions. And every day, one strip was being used in the newspaper. It means you are always in work mode. I guess I’ve never lost that.
If you had to choose one, would you consider yourself a big-picture person or a detail-oriented person?
Because I write and illustrate, it’s like I’m two different people. When it comes to my writing, I’m definitely a big picture person—still learning to become better at the details. As an illustrator, I’m more of a detail-oriented person, often wrestling with the big picture aspects.
How long, on average, does it take you to draw a picture?
It depends on the medium I’m using. I can knock out watercolor illustrations with pen and ink or pencil line in a day, whereas acrylic paintings may take a week. That said, I generally don’t do each illustration for a book start to finish before moving on to the next one. I often do layout of all the illustrations at once. Then I’ll do all the line art. Then I may paint all the faces. I’ll do this type of production all the way through to the end. I may have 40 or more illustrations all being worked on at the same time. I have found it helps to ensure character consistency as it allows me to see the characters on every single page at the same time.
Which artists inspire you, or are your favorites, and what strikes you about their work?
I suppose I’m drawn to (no pun intended) illustrators who have incorporated some level of non-digital drawing. I especially enjoy pen and ink or pencil line art, whether color is added or not.
From my years as a strip cartoonist, I can’t think of anyone more talented then Bill Watterson or Charles Schulz.
I’ve always marveled at the work of J. J. Sempe, who’s just as much a genius for the lines he doesn’t draw, as for the ones he does. I also still love the work of Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey, particularly for their pen and ink crosshatching abilities. Try drawing a clear sky with pen and ink—now that’s talent!
There are many more I could name, but in general, I increasingly appreciate things that are or were hand-drawn. Those tiny imperfections or quirks in each line or brush stroke seem to be missing in the digital works. It’s those very imperfections that give an illustration its character and soul.
Do you admire your own work?
I probably spend a lot more time scrutinizing my work than I do admiring it. I will say I admire my ability to learn, to improve, to evolve, and to bounce back after creating something dreadful.
Have you ever hated something you drew?
Every day. I’ll redraw something ten times or more before it even begins to be acceptable. Mistakes or bad drawings are a built-in part of the creative process. If you’re open to it, iteration teaches you something and brings you closer to a better version of that perfect idea that was in your head. One of my favorite sayings on this is from the author, Pam Druckerman; “A large part of the creative process is tolerating the gap between the glorious image you had in your mind and the sad thing you’ve just made.”
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?
Any time an editor rejects something you have put your heart and soul into, it’s tough. Especially if you get the sense that the story didn’t connect at all with them. Bottom line, if you can’t take criticism or rejection, then you will not enjoy being a writer or illustrator.
What has been the best compliment?
Throughout my career, I’ve done hundreds of assemblies. To have a young student tell you your book is their favorite—that’s as good as it gets, because, in the end, that’s why you do it. It never gets old.
What have you learned from your experience as an artist all these years?
I’ve learned to enjoy the process, to not get too low when things aren’t going well or too high when things are going great. I’ve learned that creative people think differently, and I wouldn’t want to be any other way.
What are the most important attributes for remaining sane as an artist?
It helps to develop skin as tough as rhino hide as well as an understanding that everyone has an opinion, and it’s literally impossible to please everyone. Every now and then, I try to rekindle that child artist within me that Picasso talked about.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention my wife, Sue. I would never have been able to do what I do without her. She is the smartest, most levelheaded person I know. I think of all the times over the years I’ve second-guessed my work. Each time, she’s patted me on the head and said, keep going. That’s love.
Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job, like data entry or working in a factory?
I’d be really bad at it.
What are your views on social media for promoting your work?
I’m sort of a dinosaur, but I know that it has become a very important tool. Publishers almost insist their authors/illustrators have some sort of digital presence.
Which social network worked best for you?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and I have a website. In the past year, I’ve been really horrible at keeping up. That’s going to change. In fact, I’m just starting to put together a plan to go online with lessons, sharing all that I have learned over the years.
Besides drawing, what are your interests?
I love history, reading, photography, and sports. I play golf—badly. I also used to play the guitar and have recently gotten a new one only to find out I forgot how to play it!
If your friends or family members were asked to pick three character traits that describe you, what would they say?
Loud, funny, and loyal.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
I’m happy right here in my studio. But if you mean somewhere different, I’d say the lodge at Pebble Beach in Carmel.
What’s the best movie or show you’ve seen in the last year?
I don’t watch a ton of TV or go to many movies. But my daughter got me watching Schitt’s Creek, which I find hilarious—especially the character Moira Rose.
What is your favorite film or show, and why?
My favorite show has to be Parks and Rec. Such incredibly funny and endearing characters. I love character-driven shows or movies. The Office is another one. Great characters-very funny.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
I would give a lot of it to Shriner’s Hospital or St. Jude; then, I would spend my days drawing for the kids who have to spend time there and bring them all puppies. I might also buy my wife a Porsche. She’d look good in a Porsche.
What is your favorite memory from childhood?
When I was eight, I drew a horse in art class. At the time, my father was the GM of a hockey team out in California, and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was a season ticket holder. For some reason, I decided Schulz needed to see my horse drawing, so I took it to a game, found his seats, and showed him the drawing. He drew Snoopy for me on the back of my drawing. I literally floated back to my seat. That Snoopy hangs in my studio today.
What is your favorite motivational phrase?
Being self-employed, I live by many motivational phrases, like the Flaubert quote I mentioned before. Another one I like is, “your life doesn’t wait until you’re ready.” Picasso said it another way, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” My entire career has been predicated on that philosophy. Just do it!
What makes you laugh?
Being about nine years old inside, I laugh at a lot of stupid stuff.
Do you laugh at your own jokes?
Sure. As I said, I’m nine inside and say a lot of stupid stuff.
What is the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen?
That’s easy, the birth of my two children and my daughter’s wedding. All indescribably beautiful.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Don’t ever go through the motions. Go big or go home. I truly believe that you have to practice excellence. How you do one thing is how you do everything.
What advice would you give your younger self?’ Sit up straight!