J. Otto Seibold on Art, Books, and his Mr. Lunch Empire

 J. Otto Seibold, Untitled, 2014. Vector illustration, dimensions variable.
 J. Otto Seibold, Untitled, 2014. Vector illustration, dimensions variable. 

Artist J. Otto Seibold was interviewed by Australian artist Kim Evans for Culturezone. They talked about books, art, graphic design, and licensing.

Kim Evans: Can you please write a short introduction blurb about yourself, how wonderful you are etc . . .

J. Otto Seibold: Hi, I am J. Otto Seibold. I am wonderful etc. . . I have done seven or so childrens books as co-author and primary illustrator. I also did one coffee table type of book for the Japanese market.

Who/what inspired you to become an illustrator/artist? Wen did you know this is what you wanted to be?

I don’t know, I am only just recently telling people that I am an artist . . . . . before that I said I was into “pictures for money” but I don’t feel that way anymore . . . . I really liked what John Hersey was dong back in the day, know what I’m saying? That shit was ill.

For how long now have you been working as a digital illustrator? And was it a conscious decision to embrace new technology or a fear of being left behind?

I started in 1987 in earnest . . . . . but I had bought a mac (128k!) in 1984. . . the one with the expensive etch-a-sketch program “macdraw” so in 1987 nobody had the fear of being left behind. . . . they were too busy running! I was unconscious when I embraced new technology. . . . but it worked out the next day.

Most people know you for your illustrations in the Mr Lunch books, Monkey Business, Olive the other Reindeer . . . . to name a few. Has this work created a demand for you as an illustrator in other genres such as advertising or editorial?

I do advertising work the way Arnold Schwarzenegger does booze ads in Japan. . . that is, I’ll do it so long as my friends can’t see it. I have been doing editorial work for quite a long time now . . . . . now I just send out the same illustration over and over . . . . . to satisfy all the article titled “How to Make Money on the Internet”

What was the initial reaction of publishers/art directors to your use of digital images?

They didn’t know anything about it. . . . but their printers usually did . . . . there were many mishaps to learn from.

Do you see a positive future role for digital illustration? Do you think ‘traditional medium’ illustrators should fear the digital illustrator?

No. . . they should do whatever they have been doing . . . . and just tell people they wrote a custom photoshop filter script. . . . nobody will ask them any “tech” questions after that.

Were you ever a ‘traditional’ or w tedium artist? If so are you still dabbling?

I draw and take photographs as much as I do computer stuff. . . sometimes I try to see how long I can go without drawing in the computer. . . . of course now the web and e.mail has me at the electronic trough daily.

Do you use or experiment with any other programs besides Adobe illustrator to create your images? Would you consider changing to another program to start a frewsh project with a new look?

I like Photoshop . . . . I have been messing with Premier. . . I shoot a lot of DV format video . . . . . the editing is getting easier . . . I like to graffiti when I can . . . . Usually with the family . . . we go out and tag other tags of people we know. . . . . our four year old always draws a flower “so they know it’s me” she says.

Do you think the illustration industry is in a healthy state at the moment?

D.O.A. uhm, I really don’t know about it from the guild point of view . . . I think there is no shortage of really cool looking stuff. . . . people are all using there machines …. Ideas are still very important though . . . . blub-blub . . .
J. Otto Seibold, Untitled, 2014. Vector illustration, dimensions variable.
J. Otto Seibold, Untitled, 2014. Vector illustration, dimensions variable. 
Can you support yourself on illustration alone or do you have other stable work just in case of dryspells?

I clean the stables on Wednesday. . . I get fifty bucks and all the oats I can carry.

How did the J.Otto empire begin? What is/has been the inspiration and motivation behind the J.Ottoworld business?

It was an epiphonous moment in 1987 . . . . I decided I would never sellout to Disney (only others). I thought J.Otto was a fine remix of my actual name. . . . I was on the wooden floor. . . . it was sunny. . .

Your books and illustrative style are fresh and fun for children but they also have a contemporary sophistication which attracts adults, and most likely a cult following. . . as the designer’s/illustrator’s illustrator. This would be seen as outside of the ‘normal’ children’s publishing audience. Do you see a trend or change of direction in audience and their demands, and within the contemporary children’s literature/picture book industry?

Hmmm, we are trying to make childrens books and I have enough of a time to try to do them well . . . . it is usually more an effort to stave off embarrassment than steer the industry. Kids like our books. . . . . and they don’t care if they hurt your feelings. . . . . I really appreciate their super harsh honesty.

Who do you think are your main audiences/age groups and in which countries are your books most popular?

Swedish graphic designers. . . . and nice people who want to show me the book they have been trying to get published. . . .

Do you see the picture book as an art for children’s literature or does it hold some other meaning for you? Do you see your books as artforms or as forms of literature?

They are books. I am really trying to make great books. I love the format. . . we are always pushing for literature. . . . we may even try a fable. . .

The picture book doesn’t receive the ‘high art’ status within the fine art world, and within the graphics world, it’s often seen as quaint and secondary to other illustration areas. Some would even argue that it’s not literature. What comments would you like to make about the perception of the picture book and it’s importance in art/literary culture?

Nobody has time to read. I have to make time to do it myself. I have real artist friends and they say thoughtful and kind things about my artworkings. . . I am not worried about any of that stuff.

Picture book illustration isn’t always lucrative or a guarantee of fame and success. Are these things important to you and what incentives do you adhere to, to keep you motivated and productive in this genre?

We are making it work. . . . there are many ways to keep things fruitful. We framed our GUARANTEE of SUCCESS and it hangs in the hallway near research and development.

Have the success’s of your books exceeded your expectations?


Has your website helped to raise the profile of your business or increased sales of your books and merchandise?

I think so. . . . we get many-many people writing to us there. . . . again, well composed letters of praise. Our cottage industry is looking to relocate to the waterfront . . . . shipping!

Do you maintain the licensing and merchandising rights of your characters? Was it an important early decision and part of the ‘plan’ for your business to do so?

Yes, it has always been a major concern of ours. . . . I would hate so see something I had created being sold at Taco Bell. We have been lucky to hold as many rights as we do. . . proprietary issues are up there with religion and politics for me.

Will we be seeing animated feature films of Mr. Lunch or any of your other books?

Olive is set to be an animated xmas 99special on FOX. We are working with Matt Groening's production company. . . . and the script is really great, thanks to a fellow named Steve Young.

What changes, if any, would you like to see for the future of picture book illustrating and contemporary illustration in general? What criticisms do you have of either?

I don’t know . . . . I am just happy to maintain my feud with childrens book powerhouse Rosemary Wells. . .

What is the future for J. Ottoworld and to what great heights would you like to go to?

It is in a nice place right now. . . . I don’t rule out anything. I think we will be getting into DVD art films, selling stickers, we have a pile of books we are set to do . . . . . very busy . . .

If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing right now?

Sitting in jail . . . . drawing binky from the matchbook.

Do you have any ‘juicy’ industry gossip you’d like to share with us, or vicious ruors you’d like to set straight? (or you can start one if you like!)

Lane Smith has tenticles that reach so far up into the government that we should all be happy we don’t know the whole story . . . . how’s that? I. . . . I made it up.

Are there any comments you’d like to make about your chosen profession, the industry or Digital Illustration in general we may not have covered here?

Yeah . . . I want apple to give me free computers . . . and I want a screen the size of a jumbotron.

T H E  E N D

J. Otto Seibold and Mr. Lunch opens at The Contemporary Jewish Museum on November 20, 2014

Gabriela Laz, J. Otto Seibold, 2014.
Gabriela Laz, J. Otto Seibold, 2014. 


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