Illustrator Profile - Chris Sickels / Red Nose Studio: "Put the work out there that you want to make"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 22, 2018

Chris Sickels is an Indiana-based illustrator who publishes his work under the name Red Nose Studio. His elaborate 3D illustrations have appeared in numerous editorial publications, as well as books and an increasing amount of animation. Sickles has illustrated a children’s book called Elvis Is King, written by Jonah Winter, that will be published in early 2019. He has also created a stop-motion workshop called Full Circle that has traveled around the country, most notably to the ICON9 conference in 2016. His remarkable sculptural work is built by hand, using everything from wood, paper, and paint to found objects. As Sickels says, “just about anything is fair game” in making his artwork.

I am based in Greenfield, Indiana, USA. I grew up driving tractors, cultivating corn, helping deliver calves, colts and piglets, and shoveling shit and baling hay on a small family dairy farm of about 500 acres just about an hour from where I am now.  

I didn’t realize it as a kid, but growing up on a small family farm relates very closely to what I do now. You have to make hay when the sun is shining, you have to find ways to keep the business relevant with changing times. You have to roll with the punches; sometimes things work out in your favor and sometimes they don’t. It’s important that you get up every day and get back at it. I am always relating to those Tom Waits lyrics, “Get behind the mule and plow.”

I recently learned of a relative who drew. I got to hold drawings of his from the early 1900s, including homemade, satirical comics, patent concepts for tire treads and a scene drawn from his sickbed while he laid in traction after doctors broke his bones as a misguided treatment for severe arthritis. My mother paints daily, always trying new approaches. She shows me that curiosity and learning should only grow stronger with age.

Earlier in my life I worked on an asphalt crew, was an art handler for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, created prototype vintage containers for Bath and Body Works and even worked as a secretary at a food staffing agency.

I earned a BFA in Communication Design with an emphasis in illustration from the Art Academy of Cincinnati. My first illustration commission was in 1995.

Originally I worked under the name of Chris Sickels Illustration, but one day in downtown Cincinnati I saw two photo studios on the same street, each with the owner’s name plus photography on the door. It was then that I realized that a studio name would hopefully allow my work to go beyond just illustration. As a painting student I admired John Singer Sargent and I pored over his rose nosed portraits. I figured red in the nose would make my work better. Well, that really wasn’t the case, but the red noses stuck around and eventually Red Nose Studio seemed like a good studio name.

I have been married to my amazing wife Jennifer for 21 years; we have four kids that test our endurance daily.

My studio is in my garage—nothing fancy, no plumbing—but I have heat and air. Inside it are many drawers, boxes and compartments that hold various materials that I use in my work. I’ve been here for about 15 years, so the materials are well stocked. The studio is in the backyard, surrounded by our flower gardens and trees. I try to not take my commute for granted.

After a sketch is approved I use that drawing as a blueprint to build the piece, trying to build only what will be seen by the camera from that one particular vantage point, much like a theater set is built. Materials include wire, foam, polymer clay (Sculpey), fabrics for the hand-sewn clothes, wood, paper, paint, found objects—just about anything is fair game. Everything looks pretty rough until the objects get set and the lighting starts to finish the piece. That’s where the loose ends start to come together. There has to be a bit of give and take at this stage, where I start to set the guiding sketch aside and see if I can capture the energy and emotion in the final image. I take at least 150-plus shots, adjusting positioning, tweaking the composition, lighting, depth of field. I generally do everything “in camera” and use Photoshop to dodge and burn— much like I was taught to use a dark room in school—and to remove supportive wires, etc.

My work was first put on the national scene through working with How magazine. Being based in Cincinnati, I was able to meet the art director, Amy Hawk, and after a few years of working on painting spots for them she allowed me to give the 3D illustration a go. I had showed my experimental 3D work to her several times while working with her and when the right assignment came around she took the chance on me. The stars aligned because I couldn’t have done it without the help of photographer Steve Paszt, who allowed me to set up the scene in his studio and guided me through the process of painting with light to bring out the best in the piece. Thanks to Amy’s confidence and Steve’s willingness to share his knowledge of photography, that is when I knew I wanted to make a go at the 3D work.

There was a year in school where I was introduced to Calder’s Circus, the Quay Brother’s Street of Crocodiles, Aardman’s Creature Comforts, and Wallace & Gromitt. Throw in all the new materials and techniques I was exposed to in school, and my mind was filled with possibilities, many of which would not surface until several years later.

After I finished school I worked as an art handler at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati and assisted on an installation of the work of Tim Hawkinson. He was there for the installation because a lot of it was site specific. This was a point where I saw that art didn’t have to follow the rules of work on a tightly prepped canvas. Coupled with that with the fact that Hawkinson was a down-to-earth worker getting in there with his hands and not just directing us around. It truly made me feel that one day I could make it to where he was. He just worked, and worked hard.

Honestly it is right here under my nose. Sometimes it is easy to see other folks’ adventures and travels and get a severe case of wanderlust, but when I let all of that anxiety go and listen to my children and look beyond my drawing table, that is when the best things are seen.

Running my own race, it is easy to get bogged down by all of the great stuff being created out there, to end up feeling that what I am working on today isn’t up to par. But when I let all of that go, my best work surfaces. So, keeping myself in check can sometimes be hard; that is usually when feedback from my wife Jennifer (who has been with me through all the highs and lows) puts a struggle in perspective. Sometimes when working alone, one can take themselves and/or their work too seriously.

I keep this quote up own my wall:
“Not a thread of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.”
—Brendan Gill, author.

My representative, Chrystal Falcioni of Magnet Reps has been a guiding voice for 15 years. She helps me stay focused on work and family and allows me to choose the work I want to do.

A multifaceted project for the Langland agency creating print and motion work for an autism study called The Aviation Study. The print work evolved into animated loops leading up to a 30-second stop-motion commercial to promote the study.

Not only was the agency great to work with, I also enjoyed troubleshooting and problem solving with them on some of the more difficult aspects for the animation. Although a majority of the work was physically fabricated and shot here in my humble studio, it truly took a team to pull everything together.

For me it hasn’t really been about specific assignments. I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes dream assignments don’t pan out like you hope, almost as if the expectations are too high. It always comes down to mutual confidence on both sides of an assignment, adequate time to problem solve and complete the project, along with a reasonable budget. Much of what I list in the following answer falls into the dream assignment category for me.

Honestly, my favorite art director is one who allows for mutual confidence, who trusts me to do what I do. One of the art directors that I feel truly embodies this is SooJin Buzelli of Strategic Insight. She calls on illustrators to create images that they want to make but still meet the needs of the assignment. One of her key attributes is her ability to distill the message into a sentence or a few keywords that allow for a direct message without the burden of specific scenarios. This is where the magic happens—a little bit of trust from an art director can go a long way for me.

Irene Gallo of Tor Books is an art director who has a similar confidence in who she calls for specific stories. I just finished a piece for her about a manipulative librarian and rats who lurk in the shadows and speak forbidden words. One of my most memorable pieces for her was for a short story called “Hero of the Five Points.” Her confidence in my work helped me plow through the tough parts on that project, which went on to win a number of awards for the illustration.

April Montgomery of Computer World is an art director with great confidence, directness of message and encouragement for creating images that expand the message of the text. We worked on a project where we channeled Annie Oakley for a piece about freelance CEOs called Gun for Hire.

Amy Hausmann with MTA Arts&Design, with whom I created an art card called The Blowing Bowler for the the NYC subways. It ran through 2016 with a two- minute stop-motion animation also called The Blowing Bowler which ran on the 52 screens throughout the Fulton Center station.

Michael Mrak of Scientific American brought me in to illustrate A Compendium of Irrefutable Facts for These Fact-Starved Times. How could anyone not be pleased with the notion of illustrating unicorns for Scientific American?

As I reflect on the art directors that I enjoy working with I realize that the majority are women, and I realize that there is more to be said about the great work that is being nurtured by these strong and confident curators. I definitely owe my career to women art directors.

Christoph Niemann for his ingenuity, humor and material usage, along with a seemingly endless application to new markets.

Robert Hunt for his shear breadth of skill, his willingness to selflessly educate, and his career longevity.

Wesley Allsbrook for her groundbreaking work in VR, truly opening new worlds for illustrators.

I have always been strongly influenced by stop-motion animation and have pursued personal projects over the years. It fell out for a while until about 2010, when my oldest son asked if I knew how to make stop-motion. Our little experiments reignited my enthusiasm for stop-motion.

I created a short personal film, Creosote, in 2015.. The work I did on Creosote led directly to a collaboration with Good Thinking Atlanta, Primal Screen, and Tin Roof Marketing on a 30-second PSA  called Holding Polluters Accountable.

These animation projects have helped lead to projects like The Blowing Bowler and the Autism study that blur the lines between print and motion work.  

My passion for stop-motion work has led to a simple crash course stop-motion workshop called Full Circle. The goal of the workshop is to allow participants to try their hands at stop motion, with readymade puppets and props and a suitcase stage. Full Circle has traveled to ICON 9, Austin’s AIGA Design Ranch, The Design Family Reunion, the Society of Illustrators in NYC, several universities and most recently the UCDA Education Summit.

I dabble a bit in illustrating picture books. The Secret Subway, penned by Shana Corey, came out last year and the publisher has won many awards for it. Past books include Here Comes the Garbage Barge, The Look Book and The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home.

I’ve had just a taste of character development. I worked on the early stages of the film The Little Prince and I found it to be an aspect of work that I’d like to learn more about.

It is an exciting time for me because I am starting to see the merging of two of my passions: stop-motion and illustration. In 1996 being a self-taught stop-motion animator wasn’t a viable career path, so I stuck with illustration and eventually was able to fold what I loved about puppet fabrication into my illustrative work. Today, illustration and animation are running much more parallel and I am excited to be able to integrate animation right beside illustration, sometimes even blurring the line.

There has never been a perfect answer for this one, and today I think it is even harder to be good at it, I still think the work will speak for itself. More important than ever is the notion of self-initiated projects, putting the work out there that you want to make. Just getting in the front of the right people is still a major hurdle.

When folks ask me what I know now that I wish I had known starting out, I tell them the fact I was naive enough to think I could make it played a big part in my drive. If I was smarter or had better foresight I probably would have given up. I think there is a lot to be said for not overthinking what you are doing. You should just get down to chasing it.

See more Chris Sickles/Red Nose Studio illustrations, new work, and updates:
Red Nose Studio website
Twitter: @rednosestudio
Instagram: @rednosestudio