Today, illustrator Tom Booth takes a quick break from his sketchbook to answer some questions about his latest book, Who Wins?, a history flipbook that encourages readers to pit historical figures against each other in hypothetical contests. (Think Muhammad Ali vs. Ada Lovelace competing in an air guitar championship!) Tom shares some fun facts about his contributions to this unique project, his advice for budding artists, and which historical figure he wants to have a cup of java with.
Workman: One thing that struck me the most when we first met is how you didn’t go to college and only focus on art. You were a history major! I love this fun fact about you because I think a lot of budding artists (or writers) think they have to be dedicated to one path in order to be successful in that field. Can you talk a little bit about your journey?
Tom Booth: I’ve always loved storytelling, which led me to studying history in college. But I also majored in studio art, and I think the combination helped direct me towards a path in publishing. I tend to draw inspiration for stories from pursuits outside of my creative work, while maintaining time and space for visualizing those stories. It can be a tricky balance, but you hardly notice when you’re passionate about the process.
W: This month, your latest illustration project—Who Wins? with author Clay Swartz—is finally out in the world! I’d love to hear about how you got involved in the project, and what it was like to create “game faces” for so many famous figures?
TB: The amazing team at Workman Publishing invited me to their offices after discovering my work on Instagram. Simply put, it was a nice surprise! They introduced me to Clay’s concept, and I was immediately excited to illustrate so many historical figures. I’m lucky in that I’ve studied game faces for most of my life because I lack one, and still try to look tough from time to time.
W: It was so fun to see a sketch from start to finish with your Serena Williams drawing. How long does it typically take you to complete a drawing? What’s your process like?
TB: Each figure takes roughly 45 minutes, but it varies. The process consists of quickly sketching a rough idea of the figure. Then, I work on top of the rough sketch to refine my lines and shapes, and add color.
W: Out of all the characters in Who Wins?, who would you want to have a cup of coffee with?
TB: I think it takes a special mind to think of Frankenstein and that Mary Shelley would have more stories to tell over a cup coffee.
W: Let’s chat a bit about the challenges! Ping pong! Global scavenger hunt! Rap battle! Talent show! What went into deciding which images were paired with each challenge?
TB: This portion of the project was challenging in that I had to think of an exact moment in each activity that communicates the challenge. Research is definitely a necessity. But sometimes you have to pull something from your head, like when I had to illustrate “Living in the year 4100.” Who knows what we’ll be wearing in the future?
W: Speaking of challenges, which one do you think you would dominate? (I’m not sure we should count “coloring in the lines” here.)
TB: I’ve had a lot of pets growing up—dalmatians, chameleons, and hamsters to name a few, so I think I would do well with keeping a goldfish alive.
W: How do you keep art fun for yourself during projects?
TB: Staying inspired is often easier said than done, but I find that it helps to just start drawing when you don’t know what to draw, and that you’ll find inspiration in just creating something. I also think reading is a constant source for new ideas, especially when it comes to a project like this.
W: What’s your best advice for aspiring artists (of any age)?
TB: Practice, practice, and practice some more. As long as you are willing to practice you can expect to see yourself get better at any skill you choose to pursue. If you stick to something, you’ll be amazed at where it can take you.
Check out the game faces of historical figures like Jane Austen and Jackie Robinson in Who Wins?: 100 Historical Figures Go Head-to-Head and You Decide the Winner. Stay up to date on Tom’s work @TomWillTell on Instagram, and his website: Tom-Booth.com.