In the studio with Mike Lowery, illustrator of America’s National Parks

Mike sketching in his studio (or one of three coffee shops) Mike sketching in his studio (or one of three coffee shops) © Mike Lowery

As an avid traveller and US National Park enthusiast, Mike Lowery jumped at the opportunity to provide the illustrations for our Lonely Planet Kids title, America’s National Parks. Here the artist talks us through how he came up with his designs for the book, his journey to becoming a professional illustrator and the unique challenges that come with working on a project that inspires severe wanderlust.

Tell us about the brief

When I received an inquiry from Lonely Planet asking if I’d be interested in working on a new children’s title, America’s National Parks, I said yes immediately. As an avid traveller, I’ve been a huge fan of Lonely Planet for years, I’ve carried one with me since my first trip overseas to Japan in my early 20s. Now my wife and I have two kids and we’ve been trying to make our US vacations focused around National Parks! So it was a perfect fit.

The way the project was pitched to me was pretty simple; I was asked to draw fun cartoons all over the page designs the Art Director had put together, which is exactly what I did! I like the fact that America’s National Parks is full of fun stuff about the parks that families could enjoy together. It’s something I would pick up to actually use, so it was easy to get behind this project and I really enjoyed being part of it.

How did you make a start?

I started by reading through the manuscript to get the feel of the book. It was playful, which allowed me to be playful with my illustrations. It also had lots of photographs of the animals, monuments and natural features found in each of the parks, which allowed me to be looser with the way that I drew stuff, since it was already being represented realistically in the book.

Before I made any sketches, I revisited some sketchbook journal drawings from a few of the National Parks that I’ve actually visited. This way I could remember some of the aspects that really stood out to me when I was there. I keep a daily journal in a sketchbook to keep track of trips that I go on. I record stuff that I like from the trips, like what we ate or weird sights, which come in handy for research.

I then put together a list of items from the parks, such as animals and plants, before printing out the pages that had already been laid out and started making rough sketches on them. Once the roughs were approved, I moved over to illustrating the finals.

Were there any challenges?

I went a little slower with this book than some other projects because I kept getting sidetracked reading about the parks. It’s kind of tough to sit in a studio and draw when you’re pouring over gorgeous pictures of the great outdoors. In fact, halfway through working on the book, I ended up flying out to Mt Rainier National Park and started planning a trip to finally see Yellowstone National Park in 2019!

What’s the one item in your studio you can’t live without?

My wife (who is also an illustrator) and I share a studio, so I’d start by saying her. But, the less sweet answer is probably my computer, I guess. It’s become a big part of my process, and I might not have seen the email asking if I’d like to work on the book without it. The one art supply I couldn’t live without in my studio is mechanical pencils.

How did you get into illustrating books?

I studied Graphic Design and Fine Art (painting and drawing). Slowly my design work and my gallery work started becoming the same thing, and that’s how I discovered the world of illustration. In my early 20s I started sending out a bunch of samples of my work to different publishers and eventually one of them (Penguin/Putnam) sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in illustrating a book about a gingerbread man and I’ve been working on books ever since!

After illustrating other people’s manuscripts for so long, I started writing and illustrating my own books. Last year my collection of journal drawings of weird-but-true facts called Random Illustrated Facts hit the shelves, and my latest release is Slightly Jet Lagged: The Travel Sketchbooks of Mike Lowery.

Where in the world do you usually work from?

I’m usually working in a coffee shop somewhere near Decatur in Atlanta, USA. There are three that I rotate working at so they don’t get annoyed with me sitting in there. I also have a studio in my house that I work from too. When I’m not in the US I’m often working in Völksen, a little town in Germany where my wife is from. Her dad lives in an old farmhouse and we’ve got a room set up upstairs where we can draw and I worked on a lot of this book while in that house.

Follow Mike’s daily drawings at @mikelowerystudio.

‘Bats of Carlsbad Caverns’ preparatory sketch
The final illustration for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA
Mike’s overlay illustrations of Acadia National Park, Maine, USA
Mike’s daily sketchbook when he visited National Parks on a trip from Nevada through Utah
The front cover illustrations of America’s National Parks
Mike’s sketch of Völksen in Germany where he sketched much of America’s National Parks

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