John McKinley studied Fine Art and Illustration at Denison University in Granville Ohio, and at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He specializes in character design and humor, and has illustrated the Ready, Freddy book series for Scholastic. The series has more than 3 million copies in print. John’s work has appeared in diverse media, from Popular Science magazine to the LA Times to the famed Children’s Television Workshop.
Much of your work contains more than the simple illustration itself – I mean it often conveys ideas, wordplay, humor that stretches reality. Have you always been interested in extending the meaning and ideas in this way? Have you ever drawn a simple basket of fruit?
“Being an illustrator, I have to be able to draw anything and everything. Knowing how to draw a bowl of fruit is important to me. Much like having gloves is important to a mountain climber. But extending the meaning is what it’s all about. If I’m not employing wordplay, then I’m focused on the character’s unique expression. It’s never just the fruit bowl with no other message. That’s what art school is for.”
There’s a animated cartoon quality to some of your drawings – something akin to the old Tex Avery kind of va-voom! eyes, or the classic Warner Brothers hyper-reality. Were you a fan as a kid?
“I liked Warner Brothers cartoons, but my real inspiration came from the illustrators at MAD Magazine. Some of those guys, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Norman Mingo, Al Jaffee, Jack Rickard, all knocked my socks off. I wanted to be as good as them. They were my heroes.”
When you brainstorm new ideas, are you chiefly interested in the words first (to create a visual pun) or is it more that you see or hear something and it strikes your mind in a way that tells you: this could be something interesting?
“Mostly it’s the words that come first. A funny play on words will pop into my head then I’ll go to the drawing board and work it out. I’m much more productive starting with a solid mental concept, than when I drift along drawing, trying to arrive at something. Of course I do spend tons of time drawing with no clear destination in mind. I save ALL of my sketch books, and will go back and look at them, because they are filled with funny ideas. Things that didn’t strike me funny when I was drawing them.”
Your characters have a kinetic aspect to them, they are often captured mid-motion. But even when they are simply looking at the viewer, they seem to be ready to do something that could get them arrested. Do animals know more than they are telling us?
“Yes, definitely. I love the knowing stare…the eyes that lock onto the viewer. I am endlessly amused at drawing animals looking right at me. There’s plenty going on in animals heads that we don’t know about. But the perfect, energetic, dramatic gesture is always successful in picture making. People like lively.”
“That’s easy, the stand alone drawing. Maybe it’s my short attention span,( I can barely follow a movie plot) but I prefer the impact of the single image. I illustrate long stories, but my preference is short and to the point communication. I do love creating characters and whole universes of creatures. Instead of writing a script about what they say and think, I put it all in their faces.”
You have perfected a “John McKinley” style — did you start out drawing with this flavor or was it something that developed over time?
“The flavor has always been there but my technique has become more refined over time. I feel I draw better every day, which is a gratifying thing. I am at a point now where “how to draw it” isn’t the challenge anymore.”
- The little-known MAD magazine TV special, 1974 (dangerousminds.net)