Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Master of Paper Merrill Rainey

Merrill Rainey is a master of creating images on paper. Yes, he can paint and draw with the best of them. What really sets Merrill apart is his the way he cuts paper. Merrill is truly a master of creating images out of cut paper. He makes elaborate images just by gluing cut pieces of paper together! But that's not all. I'll tell you what else you've won: You won the chance to learn from someone who creates not only cut paper art, but 3D paper art, paper engineering and a bit of paper animation for good measure!

Merrill's work includes "Frog. Frog? Frog!: Understanding Sentence Types" written by Nancy Loewen and "Red Beard" - Scholastic iRead by Hank Paek.


Dani: How did you get your big break in illustration?

Merrill: My first big break came back in February of 2010. After a lot of late nights rebuilding my portfolio, creating a mailing list, and sending out postcards, I finally got both an email and phone call from Jenifer Saulovic who was the Art Director at the time for Jack and Jill Magazine. I was just leaving a meeting with one of the local design firms here in town where I was talking with the owner to see if they had any illustration needs when I got her call. (I used to spend a lot of my lunch hours personally advertising my work.) She said she received my postcard in the mail and wanted to know if I would illustrate a three page short story for the magazine called Button Up. Of course I said yes, and long story short, that initial project was the beginning of a long standing friendship and relationship with the staff at U.S. Kids Magazine.

Dani: What was one of your favorite projects?

Merrill: This is hard to answer. It seems like almost every new project becomes my favorite. But if I had to pick one… well maybe two :-) I’d have to say Freddy’s Supper Power which was a comic style short story for the June 2016 issue of Highlights magazine, and the cut paper illustrations I have been currently creating this year for Humpty Dumpty’s world which can be found on the inside front cover of Humpty Dumpty magazine.

Dani: Can you give us a quick overview of how you construct your cut paper illustrations?

Merrill: I don’t know if I can quickly explain this but I’ll try :-)

Every illustration of mine always, always starts with a thumbnail sketch. This is where I work out all of the kinks (composition, hierarchy, text placement, etc.) before moving on to the next step. Once I have a thumbnail sketch that I can work with, I then take a snapshot on my phone, open the photo up in Photoshop, blow it up to final art size, and from there I redraw and clean-up the sketch. Then comes the tricky part when sketching for a cut paper piece. I have to think of the art as shapes vs. lines. I also have to keep in mind that I’m not going to be able to add in all the detail I would normally add into my pen or pencil work. I should also note that the creation of the final art is kind of an organic process. Some of the charm that you get in the final artwork can’t be planned for and unfolds during the creation of the final art. My last step before I jump into cutting any paper is to add some quick color to the sketch. This helps me to figure out what type of mood I want to set in the piece as well as what colors of paper I will need.

Once I have all of this set and ready to go, I pull out the light box, my paper cutting supply kit, construction paper (this is key), and two over sized print outs of the sketch. One sketch is to hang on the wall for reference, the other is to use on the light board for tracing shapes and object placement.

I always start with creating a base layer out of white Bristol board and (usually) black construction paper. The black construction paper is cut to final art size then glued to the Bristol. Note that I work at least 30%–40% larger then the final printed piece. This base layer allows me to have a place that I can start laying down the finished sections of the illustration, and adjusting each piece to its proper position before gluing it all together. Kind of like a puzzle mat.

From here I spray paint some background colors on construction paper to see what will work best. While those are drying, I start to create the various sections of the illustration. I will work backwards by creating the foreground first. Mainly due to the fact that most of the detailed work will go into the first two layers. From here on, as I mentioned, the rest of the process is more organic and unfolds as you begin to work. Many of the objects are built freehand and not traced off of the sketch. Once I have all of the sections created, I will then start to adjust things. I layer the art and glue everything to the base Bristol layer in a fashion that when hung and lit to be photographed, will get the desired effect for the photoshoot. (I do all of my own photography for my projects.) On average, it takes anywhere from 4-6 days to create the final art for one cut paper piece.

A few things to note about this work:

- Construction paper has a very rough tooth to its surface. This
rough service allows the glue to bound strongly between two
sheets of construction paper. Hence the name “construction

- Don’t scrimp on the glue, make sure you buy name brand. I
recommend Elmer’s Glue-All glue.

- Make sure you have a good comfortable pair of scissors (I use
Fiskars) and have a lot of Xacto blades on hand.

- Be patient with the process.

Dani:  Could you talk about the basics of paper engineering?

Merrill: This is an easy one ;-) If you can build a box you can build anything. The trick comes when you want to make that box popup, or move. That takes a little more time and understanding of how to cut and fold your paper. There are a few good books out there you can use for reference (Playing With Pop Ups by Helen Hiebert, The Pop-Up Book by Paul Jackson, and Pop-Up by Duncan Birmingham). I personally like to dissect other people’s pop-up books and greeting card work. This allows me to see
firsthand how they created their pop-up ideas. It’s like learning by example from the masters.

Dani: What's one thing you wish you knew before going into illustration for children?

Merrill: I feel pretty lucky in this area. I was well prepared before quitting my full-time job as a Graphic Designer and launching my illustration studio, LittleRainey Illustration & Design.

Since then I have learned a few things that would be wise to emphasize to all those thinking about starting their illustration career. This market isn’t the easiest place to be. It’s flooded with artists that don’t seem to know what their own capabilities are worth. It’s a lot of late nights and weekends. And it’s a lot of WORK! You have to be the type of person who is willing to be an art director, a marketer, a secretary, and the IT and billing departments. You have to realize you are a business. You have to get past those fears of talking with people and showing your work. You have to take risks!! You have to listen to feedback from your peers to grow your capabilities. And as awesome as it is to create work in the children’s illustration industry, you have to realize it’s a business. You have to be willing to put in the time to run the business and the time to actually execute the work. Which in reality is well over a full-time job.

Now, I don’t want to scare anyone off here, but I want to make it clear that if you want to achieve your dreams, you’re going to have to work hard for it. Also, it might not happen right away, so be patient. Eventually, your hard work will get noticed. :-)

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  1. You said it best, "learn from the masters" and I think that is what you have given us. This was a great article describing your journey and technique which I enjoyed very much. Plus your advice in the last paragraph was a great reminder to be deligent and patient but the goal is achieveable if willing to work hard. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Merrill, you must have excellent fine-motor skills and a lot of patience to be a paper engineer! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing your intricate process, Merrill. Wow!

  4. Cute and fun work! I want that Color-Cut-Fun book, 😊

  5. Always loved pop up books. Your work is so fun thank you for sharing your process!

  6. I loved seeing your fabulous paper creations and learning about your process. This was a great post. Thank you for sharing Merrill!

  7. My medium is also cut paper. I love the puzzle aspect of creating the layers. I loved getting a few tips here.

  8. Very interesting talk on your technique. Thank you so much for sharing the technique and the honesty of challenges of running your business.