Illustrator Profile - Andy Rash: "The more you draw, the better you will know yourself"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 2, 2016

Andy Rash is an illustrator, animator and children’s book author with a wide range of styles who lives north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has done extensive editorial illustration work for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly and more, all while illustrating 10 books for other authors and writing and illustrating five of his own. Rash’s most recent children's book is the delightful Archie the Daredevil Penguin. Most notably, Rash has created a brilliant series of “low resolution portraits” he calls iotacons. These have included solo and group portraits of everyone from the U.S. Presidents to Jesus and the Apostles to all the characters from the Breaking Bad TV series.

I’ve been working for about 20 years as a freelance illustrator and children’s book author. I’ve written and illustrated five books, including Are You a Horse, Ten Little Zombies: A Love Story, and Archie the Daredevil Penguin. I’ve also illustrated about 10 books by other authors. I have done editorial illustrations for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Wired and many others. I have a side project called “iotacons,” which are very low-resolution portraits; that has led me into mosaic design and animation, including animated promos for Nickelodeon.

I earned a BFA in Illustration from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in NYC. During college summers, I worked at a couple of small graphic design houses. Those were great learning-on-the-job situations. I’ve also taught at SVA and a professional seminar course at MIAD.

I live just north of Milwaukee. My wife is a graphic designer, and we frequently collaborate on projects. We have two children.

I work in a home office with my wife. It is a nice flexible set up. Our kids are young, so we like to be home with them when we can. We tag team the parenting duties.

I have two main styles. I paint with gouache (and sometimes use an india ink resist) for one style, and the other is very low-res digital. I call the low-res stuff “iotacons.”

Our family had some Atari home computers back in the 80s, and some extremely rudimentary graphics and animation programs. Drawing was done with a joystick with a choice of four colors. I loved it. I spent hours laboriously animating Jabba the Hutt eating frogs and the flickering neon sign at the Bates Motel. Several years ago, I was fooling around with a modern graphics program and I zoomed in. Way in. The screen looked like my old Atari program, except with any color I wanted. I decided to make as low resolution a character as possible, like the size of the robots in Berzerk. The first thing I did was the characters from Star Wars, because I thought the huge variety of costumes would help the characters read. I did most of them about 25 pixels high. I moved on to other costumed characters like Star Trek and The Addams Family and started posting them on a blog. I called the images “iotacons,” forming a portmanteau out of icon and iota, as in “the slightest amount.”

After that, I took on the presidents of the United States. I had to make the heads bigger, because I could rely much less on the costumes. I did a few more pop culture things that got shared around a lot, like The Big Lebowski, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Back to the Future, and Mythbusters. Then I did the U.S. Senate, where I really cut my teeth on low rez faces. These images started being made into cross-stitches and cutting boards and tile mosaics and all sorts of surprising things. The Luke and Vader from my first iotacon were used by the street artist Invader to illegally decorate a car park in East London with a giant mosaic. It is big enough to see on computer maps.

I started getting work with the iotacons in Fortune, Wired, AARP, The New York Times, and a few other places. Then an architect called up and asked me to design mosaics for the restrooms in a restaurant he was designing. Then Nickelodeon called and asked if I knew how to animate, so I started doing animated iotacon promos for them.

For me, the most interesting part about iotacons is the response I’m getting from people who make crafts out of the designs. I haven’t had as much time recently to do huge arrays like the Senate or Breaking Bad, but when a famous person I like dies, I compulsively make an iotacon portrait of them and share it on social media. There are tons of those on the iotacons blog.

I think my big break was when the art director of The New York Times Book Review, Steven Heller, looked at my portfolio and asked me to call him in two weeks. This happened in 1996 and he hired me for an illustration every two or three weeks for a very long time. It was visibility in The Times that led to many other clients at other magazines and newspapers and also children’s books.

Visually, I have been influenced by Ed Emberley and Jim Henson. I love the work of Ed Benedict and Jim Flora. Writing-wise, I love Shel Silverstein and Arnold Lobel.

Edward Gorey—he seemed to just do exactly what he wanted to do, and to always know what that was. His books are always entertaining to me, no matter how many times I have read them.

I like to binge on picture books at the library. I also have a book about 1950s animation by Amid Amidi called Cartoon Modern. I look through that book a lot!

Keeping the flow of assignments coming in while I am working on other things is tricky. It takes discipline to keep the promotion machine going. Also, I spend a lot of time conceiving book projects—which may change a lot before and after the publishing deal is done. It is essentially spec work, which can be hard on the budget. It takes a lot of faith in the project.

Viking asked me to do a trailer to promote my picture book, Archie the Daredevil Penguin. I had just recently given myself a crash course in After Effects, thanks to some jobs I got from Nickelodeon, so I knew well enough how to produce broadcast quality animation. But I needed to generate the audio as well, which I knew nothing about. So I wrote a song for some penguins to sing in four-part harmony, and I did a follow-the-bouncing-ball karaoke thing at the bottom. I took my incomplete animation to a library event and showed it to everyone there. It was silent, so I had to sing along with it. Afterwards, I asked if anyone knew anything about music recording or arranging quartets and nobody said anything. But on the drive home, my neighbor said to her husband, “So, you gonna help Andy with his project?” Sufficiently goaded, he called up and told me that what I was asking for is exactly what he does. He arranges and mixes music and has a recording studio in his den. So I went over to record three of the penguins and the fourth was recorded by one of his bandmates. I’m very proud of the results. A year ago, I didn’t know how to do any of the work involved, except for drawing penguins. Now I have a sing-along to take to school, library and store events. It’s amazing when all the kids in a full gymnasium sing along to a song you wrote.

I had a regular gig at The New York Times where I got to do an illustrated map every week for quite a while. I really loved that, because I could really explore and develop my map making skills. It was very challenging. I’d love something like that again, where I could do a weekly job and really investigate it over time. I love doing the iotacon portraits, so some kind of regular gig doing that would be great. I also love the book work.

I hate to exclude anybody, but there are several art directors to whom I owe a great deal, including Steven Heller, David Saylor, Edel Rodriguez and Rodrigo Honeywell

I love Wesley Bedrosian’s dry humor, John Cuneo’s fearless self-exposure, Dan Yaccarino’s endearing characters, Dan Santat’s cinematic compositions, Anna Raff’s loose control, Jon Klassen’s awkward postures, Ed Emberley’s playful design. 

In addition to editorial and picture book illustration, I do animations for television and web sites, greeting cards, game design and product design.

I promote myself with emails and competitions and I promote my books with school and store visits. When I visit New York, I try to get as many face-to-face meetings with publishers as possible. Social media helps some, but it’s tricky to figure out who will actually bring a project to a conclusion unless they are a known entity like a publisher or a periodical. I have a book agent and an entertainment rep, but they help more with contracts and deals than with initially locating work. 

I think if a person is developing their voice, quantity of work is more important than quality. The more you draw or write, the better you will know yourself and be able to play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. Also, if you want to illustrate books, show art directors your work in something that looks as much like a book as possible.

See more Andy Rash illustrations, new work, and updates:
Andy Rash website
Twitter @iotacons



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