(credit: Aaron Renier)

by Amy Cavanaugh

Chicago-based cartoonist Aaron Renier has been illustrating stories written by himself and others for years. The author of The Unsinkable Walker Bean, Renier’s latest project is an illustrated edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for Scout Books. He recently talked with CBSChicago.com about his work.

CBSChicago.com: What drew you to being a cartoonist?

Aaron Renier: The love of comics drew me to becoming a cartoonist. I loved reading comics in the newspaper, comic books based on TV shows I watched, and MAD and Cracked magazines. I very early discovered how incredibly powerful the medium is and accessible for a young artist. You can do anything your imagination will let you do with just the restrictions of your own artistic abilities. The better I got, the more fun I had.

CBSChicago.com: What’s your drawing process like?

AR: My process is a pretty typical one. I do rough sketches in my sketchbook, to figure out the basic idea of what I want, and how I want it to look, and then I measure it up on a piece of bristol board for my final drawing. After I’m done penciling, I ink directly on top of my pencil lines. After my drawing is done, I scan it into the computer as a bitmap file. If the work is in color, I, or my colorist Alec Longstreth, color it in Photoshop.

CBSChicago.com: What materials do you use?

AR: I use a pretty thick Bristol board to draw on. I pencil with a very harder graphite pencil to rough it all in, and then to clarify for myself I tighten up the pencil in places with a regular number 2 pencil. Once my pencils look the way I want them to, I fill in my drawing. I use all sorts of pens and brushes. My favorite brush is the cartoonist’s favorite Winsor Newton Series 7, and I love the G Nib quill pen. I like using both quills and brushes together to get both the spontaneous and flowing feeling of lines, and then the control of a pen. Together they become something different to me — they become real together. I sometimes use black colored pencils, and white out to get chunkier textures and white. Sometimes if the drawing calls for it, I’ll scratch them up with razor blades to get gritty textures. Since my drawings are always scanned into the computer as pure black and white files, I see my tools as black and white creators. Anything to get those marks is in bounds to use.

CBSChicago.com: How would you describe your aesthetic?

AR: I would have to say it’s adventurous, inventive, and whimsical in a drawing style that is striving for clarity. I like stories that wind up and unravel and then get tied up at the end.

(credit: Aaron Renier)

CBSChicago.com: Have you illustrated works by other writers before?

AR: I illustrated a series of books called The Knight’s Tales about the Knights of the Round Table by Gerald Morris and An Anaconda Ate My Homework by Alice Schertle. It’s really fun to illustrate other people’s stories, especially when I can hear back from the author about the drawings. I like knowing that they like what I’ve done with their words. I hope to bring something new to the text, and that the author appreciates or is excited by it.

CBSChicago.com: What was illustrating The Yellow Wallpaper like?

AR: It was pretty fun. I was living in isolation when I drew it on a farm in New York, and I could feel the story in very real way. I didn’t go insane, but as I read the story I saw myself in bits of it, maybe a little like she saw herself in the wallpaper. It was a pretty twisting experience.

CBSChicago.com: Had you encountered the book before?

AR: I hadn’t, but it was a pleasure to come across it this way. I had been wanting to work with Scout Books for quite a while, and this was a great project to finally connect with them.

(credit: Aaron Renier)

CBSChicago.com: How long have you been in Chicago?

AR: Since 2009. I’ve been moving around a lot since 2000. I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, Brooklyn, New York, and now Chicago. All are fantastic places to live. I just get a little antsy, and I need to change scenery.

CBSChicago.com: What’s the art/cartoon scene like here?

AR: One of the best in the United States — if not the best, a very good rival. It’s vibrant, supportive, inspirational. It’s a scrappy place where people do what it takes to get things done. I love it. I love its history, and what’s happening there now. I’m a midwestern boy who grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, so it’s a perfect place for me.

CBSChicago.com: What else are you working on now?

AR: The sequel to my last book, The Unsinkable Walker Bean, and a secret book I’ve been writing for a while. I’m hoping to get Walker Bean part two out in 2013.

Amy Cavanaugh, CBS Chicago