Behind the Scenes with Chris Sickels: Imaginative Illustrator

There’s only one turn in the 100-mile drive from Cincinnati to Greenfield, IN. You just head out of town on Interstate Highway-74, then turn right on State Route 9. Drive far enough, and you find Chris Sickels in his studio, a two-story red garage behind his green house. But he’s not alone. There are the puppets. Four long shelves, packed with puppets, run across the entire length of the long back wall. Looking into all the carefully sculpted faces, you start to hear them chatter in your mind: A red-haired woman is yelling at the top of her lungs, calling her children home for dinner. A slick businessman in a suit tries to sell you a nice piece of real estate in Florida. “Damp? Well, just a little,” he says. A Gypsy fortune-teller whispers, “I see … I see a bright future for you.”

Chris Sickels' studio in Greenfield, IN

If you’ve read even a few issues of HOW magazine, you’ve seen the work of illustrator Chris Sickels, aka Red Nose Studio. Former HOW art director Amy Hawk first hired Sickels in 1999 to illustrate the June issue’s cover. Soon after, Sickels became the regular illustrator for the Business Tips column. When he first started illustrating for HOW, Sickels had only been out of college for three years and was working part-time doing construction, installing and tearing down shows for museums in Cincinnati, while pursuing a freelance career on the side.

Today, Sickels is worlds away from where he started. “When I was first looking into colleges, I knew I wanted to go to art school, but I didn’t know about illustration,” he says. “I also didn’t know people created things for magazines. I grew up on a farm, and we didn’t have subscriptions to magazines. So, when I went to school, I figured I’d have to design shampoo bottles for Procter & Gamble or draw logos.”

And he probably would have forged a fine career doing just that if it hadn’t been for a couple of influential people who steered him in a different creative direction. “During my sophomore year in college, I met a student (Sean Wallace) who was kind of nontraditional,” Sickels recalls. “He’d been a Marine, and he came back and was studying illustration. He basically took me to a newsstand and showed me magazines and how these guys could create work to fit stories and work with writers.”

Another big influence was Susan Curtis, an illustration instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati who helped Sickels find his own style. “My first few years in college, I was really inspired by Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and C.F. Payne,” he says. “But there was an instructor who taught an advanced illustration class, and she took me to the downtown library and showed me books of illustrators who created their own worlds and their own characters, and the work wasn’t based on models or shots of people in certain environments. She said that illustration can be more you and less based on real life. So, she taught me to play and just have fun in my sketchbooks.”

In those sketchbooks, Sickels’ characters first came to life, but as his career grew, the sketchbooks became more personal. “I don’t do job sketches in them,” he say. “I just carry them with me. They’re like little security blankets, so if I’m waiting someplace, I’ll draw. Ninety-five percent of the drawings are horrible. But every now and then, there’s this little gem that pops out or a character that really seems to say something. Just recently, like just last week, I started to see that there’s a lot of good material in those books and that I can really let those characters translate into the work I’m doing now.”

Scale plays a pivotal role in Sickels’ work. As he’s discussing a new assignment with an art director, he’ll make sketches and notations about what kinds of objects he might use to create a backdrop or props for the puppets. Anything is fair game for these creations. For one illustration, Sickels constructed an old-fashioned canister vacuum from a hodgepodge of materials including a garlic press, a tire gauge and the cord from an old electric skillet.

Sometimes these found objects decide the size of the puppets, which are usually 6 to 8 inches tall. “The objects take the pieces in different directions,” Sickels says. “It’s not always in your complete control. So you have to work with the objects instead of trying to bend the objects to fit your idea.” For a piece where the environment of the illustration is more important than the characters, Sickels starts with the background and uses existing puppets to work out the details. “If it’s more about the puppet itself, then usually the head will kind of start it, because that head is the emotion,” he explains. “In a lot of my pieces, the characteristics in the face are the soul of it. So the face is usually one of the first things to get done.”

Sickles shapes the heads from Sculpey, a flesh-colored clay that can be hardened in the oven. The bodies are wire armatures covered with foam. And the fabric clothing is sewn right onto the puppets. “The sculptures sometimes look pretty crude, or the stitching is really rough, or the buildings are painted really sloppily,” Sickels says. And that’s where the camera comes in. “It hides so much. You throw something a little bit out of focus and it looks more detailed. So I try to use that illusion of the camera to its full advantage, especially with editorial timelines. You know, you may only have three days to do a piece.”

Part of what inspired Sickels to move from drawing and painting his characters to creating them in 3D was the challenge of learning how to use the camera. (He shoots with a couple of old 4×5 cameras and occasionally with a digital camera for small pieces.) At first, he’d call his photographer friends for advice. “I had this little notebook, and I’d keep notes of each shot, so if I needed to replicate the lighting, I’d know what I did,” he says. “Now I’m to the point where I’m a little better at playing things by ear. But it’s taken about five years to get the photography under a little bit of control.”

For the past few years, he’s been teaching himself to make stop-motion animated shorts starring his puppets. And the most recent challenge he’s set for himself is to become a better storyteller. “I’m pretty happy with how I can do an image or a sequence of images,” he says, “but creating a story that progresses over time and has a conflict and a resolution—I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it yet.”

The closest he’s come is the work he did for The Red Thread Project, a collaboration with a local design firm and printer. “I would walk around the house saying these stupid limericks, then I started putting drawings to them,” he explains. “They’re not poetic, there’s no rhythm to them, there’s no math to them like a good poem. But that’s how my work is. My work isn’t really graceful. It’s usually pretty awkward—like if the puppet moved, he’d fall off or he’d trip or he’d run into a wall. It’s a bit of beauty and a bit of awkwardness. And I think that’s kind of how I am.”