Today, we take a look at the work of father of two, and story-telling artist, Mike Smith. He has spent years illustrating his kids' lunch bags and has crafted stories to help them work their way through different situations and beyond. His art and stories are a great inspiration for all parents trying to reach their children as they grow. You can find more of Mike's work on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Tell me a little bit about your background... Who you are; what made you interested in art?
By day I am an architect, I have been fortunate enough to have designed everything from schools and newspaper buildings to churches and even a puppet factory. Since I started drawing on the lunch bags I have also done character design and illustrations for clients. In terms of what made me interested in art, it was the act of story telling and creation. As a child I loved to draw and I loved Star Wars, so I would draw those spaceships and robots to continue the stories on my own. As I grew older I branched out and created stories of my own. The idea of creating the stories followed me onto the lunch bags.
Who are your current art inspirations and how do they affect your artistic process?
At this point in my career I am caught between techniques and form. My earliest inspirations were comic book illustrators and as an architect I am looking for ways to incorporate a larger environment into the illustration, the background is a great place to delve into detail, and when I started doing the lunch bags the characters themselves would often be very small so that I could focus on the backgrounds because it was like designing buildings. I still lean to a less formal style of illustration I think and gravitate toward things that are whimsical and slightly ridiculous. I like to try different techniques and styles, even if I don’t directly use them in one of my illustrations. The practice is important. I always keep a sketchbook with me and sketch out rough ideas for different designs or compositions. I spend time looking online for illustrations or character design to get new ideas as well as following folks on Instagram and Twitter. I also reach out to ask questions, with the lunch bags getting a good strong white to pop out a character is always a challenge and I have asked more than one person how they did something and will always answer if someone asks me a question as well.
What made you want to use lunch bags as a canvas? And can you tell us what media you use to create your art?
When my daughter was in kindergarten her class went on a field trip and we were instructed to pack her lunch in a paper bag. As it sat on the counter I went to write her name on it and proceeded to sketch a princess out on the bag. That afternoon Sara brought the bag back to me, which was a surprise because I had expected it to be thrown away, but it wasn’t only saved, her teacher had laminated it. A few weeks later Sara misplaced her regular lunch box so I packed her lunch in a paper bag that I doodled out random characters that she was into at the time. After a week she had found her lunch box so I packed it up and sat it out for her to take. She then informed me that she didn’t want the lunch box; she wanted a lunch bag and one that had a drawing on it. So it began. Everyday I was doodling out a random character or image, we made it through Christmas and I was running out of things to draw, so I fell back on telling a story. That first year it was “Sara and the Soggy Stickers.” The main character was Sara (my daughter) and it was set at her school with her friends and teachers, her brother Taylor and Sara’s Mom and Sara’s Dad were recurring characters as well. A couple of weeks after Sara started getting the lunch bags our son said he wanted them too. He was in 3rd grade at the time and was reading Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books. I had written the start of a story for him, so I adapted the beginning of that story into a sword and sorcery saga that went to school with him each day too. At the end of that year, I told them that I would continue to draw the bags and tell the stories, but it would only happen on Fridays. Since then Sara has gotten a new story that revolved around her school and adventures each year. As she grew older we noticed that she was having difficulty reading and she has since been diagnosed with dyslexia and she also has a strong dislike of being the center of attention in a setting where she may be onstage or giving a speech, so those challenges have been worked into the stories. When she hit middle school the stories focused on the changes of a bigger school and I was able to create other characters that rounded out the cast. This past year, Sara started high school and it was a new school where she didn’t know very many people, so I wasn’t sure how cool it was going to be to have a lunch bag with a drawing on it and I gave her the option of not having them but she has taken one every Friday. Instead of a linear story, this year has been funny definitions of words relating to high school. So far, the bags have been a source of making friends at her new school as kids come to find her each Friday to see the new illustration and word of the week.
For a brief period my son said he didn’t want the bags anymore and the story was discontinued. He then informed me that he didn’t want the bag, but he wanted the drawings, so I found sketch cards that I would draw a dragon or character on for him. Eventually the draw to tell a story was too much and I created a robot character that was a knight that fought robot dragons. That has been going on for about 4 years now and Taylor is about to graduate high school, so that story may be wrapping up soon.
For the lunch bags I sketch out the basic illustration using a blue col-erase pencil to get it composed. Then, I use Faber Castel or Prismacolor ink pens to tighten up the line work. Once the ink is down, I erase the blue lines and use Copic Markers to render the image, at that point I will write the text on the bag and then use a white gel pen to highlight the character and then use pastels to create a glow around the illustration to give it a pop. For my son’s sketch cards I follow a similar process, but use a graphite pencil and then watercolor the character before I ink the drawing.
What are your thoughts on the art community in your area?
I live in Nashville, there is a very vibrant and diverse art community, I have been asked to speak about the illustrations and lunch bags by multiple groups and have been warmly received at each turn. There are groups that meet specifically to sketch and exchange ideas, which are a lot of fun. I have also made several virtual friends across the globe as well, others who are illustrators, both professional and on lunch bags who I have struck up friendships with by discussing our work that have continued now for several years.
How did your children change your life, both personally/professionally and as an artist?
My wife and I had been married for about 7 years before our son was born. We are both architects and all the time management issues that go along with the profession. Once the kids came along we realized that we needed to make a concerted effort to both be there for our family but also to be ready to step in when a deadline or project needed more of our time at the office. As the kids have gotten older it hasn’t changed that much, they are both teenagers now but still deserve as much attention as we can give them. In terms of changing me as an artist, they allowed me to focus on something consistently for a period of years, I tell people starting out that they have to draw everyday if they want to be an illustrator, either professionally or even just for fun. Having children can take a lot of time, but they also can focus the time that you do have available onto something specific. Like I mentioned before, I have always drawn, but with the lunch illustrations I now had something specific that I could work on that had a deadline every Friday and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint my kids.
How have they been involved in your art?
When they were younger they wanted to see the illustrations everyday, now my daughter (who follows me on Instagram) doesn’t want to see the drawings in person until they are completed. They used to have ideas to include in the story but leave that to me nowadays. My son has developed an interest in calligraphy so we discuss pens a lot.
How has your background as an artist affected your kids? Do you think having an artist dad helps inspire their creativity?
We have always encouraged the kids to find their own path. That being said, I always give a sketchbook or something like that to them at Christmas. I would hope though, that having the art in their lives has exposed them to different ways of seeing the world and that you don’t have to wait for someone else to tell a story, you can make one up on your own that is every bit as good, if not better, than what someone else may do, and have more fun doing it as well.
I would like to thank Mike for taking the time to participate in this interview. More importantly, I would like to thank him for utilizing his artistic abilities and story-telling prowess to make a difference in his children's lives. Don't forget to show Mike some love on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Is there a parent who is an artist you know who could provide us some Monday motivation? If so, please send their name and a link to their work (or social media account) to LunchNoteSketch@gmail.com, or tag them in any Monday motivation post on any of the Lunch Note Sketch social media pages. I would love to feature him/her.