Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Illustrator Merrill Rainey Creates Beauty out of Junk: The Debut of the Color, Cut, Create and GIVEAWAY by Kathy Halsey

Craft Chat with Merrill Rainey

Dinosaur World and Horse Ranch! Just add a kid who colors, cuts, and creates!

Who doesn't love creating a new world? Merrill Rainey has created two great escapes for children ages 6 and up.  Merrill makes paper engineering simple with tools that most households have: markers/crayons, scissors, and glue. I gifted my granddaughter Rosie with her own horse farm this past weekend. Two lucky readers who comment on today's post will receive one of these 2 books. Read on and learn more about an illustrator's journey. Merrill shares tips for how author-only folks can find their inner artist, too.

1. I’m drawn to your unique art. You use cut paper, paper engineering, and “create beautiful things out of junk.” (I love that catchphrase!) How did you begin your illustration career? How did your style evolve?

Kathy, where to start! I will try to keep this as short as possible, so let me jump in my wayback time machine, and give you some Cliff notes!

  • -  During the early 2000’s I attended and graduated Kent State University with a degree in Visual Communication Design with a background in Illustration

  • -  In 2003 I was hired as a graphic designer for a company that created large training visuals for fortune 500 companies. As an in-house designer, I was learned many things -  client supply chains and their visions and values, but I wasn’t learning anything about illustration. I was losing track of my original goal becoming a children’s book author and illustrator.

  • -  Over the course of the next few years, I regained focus. I rebuilt my portfolio, got my first magazine assignment with Jack and Jill magazine, and signed with my first illustration rep Tugeau 2, all while working a full time job.

  • -  In 2007 I joined SCBWI, a must in this industry. I owe a lot of my success to the art directors, editors, authors, and illustrators that I have met through this organization.

  • -  In 2010 my son was born. Shortly after this milestone, I was worked a 40+ hour work week at my day job and helped take care of a new baby.  I worked on contract work in the eventing until about 4 or 5 in the morning, slept for a few hours, and did it all over again. Eventually those late nights finally paid off. I quit my full-time job and my business as a full-time freelancer.

  • -  I worked for the next 7 years, slowly building my client list. I worked on projects like creating online world assets for different toy brands, educational illustration work for companies like McGraw Hill, and of course illustration work for Highlights Press and Magazine.

  • -  2014 brought more changes including the arrival of our daughter. During this time, I went through a renaissance with my art. When I started out, I was working completely digitally. Then after a portfolio review at a SCBWI Northern Ohio event, I was told to “find my trade picture book style”. Those six words sent me on a journey to figure out what that statement actually meant and how to achieve this goal. Through a lot of trial and error with different mediums and talking with other illustrators and art directors, I found a renewed love of cut paper and collage work.

  • -  Although I had some bites earlier on, my trade picture book career didn’t really start until 2019 when I got some good advice, and the opportunity to sign with Bookmark Literary. My agent Teresa is a gem and works really hard for her clients! In just a short amount of time, we are already three books in with more on the way.

- The rest is still history in the making! I probably have left out a couple of important moments in time, but 10 years of hard work and persistence is a lot to write down in just one interview. ;-)

2. You’re known for magazine illustrations, especially your brand character work for “Jack and Jill” and “Humpty Dumpty” magazines. Is magazine illustration or your approach to it different than what you with book illustration?

This is definitely a yes and no answer. My starting point to approaching any illustration or project is the same. I start by reading the project brief or manuscript. While reading, I start to jot down thoughts and ideas that I could use to make visuals that work well for the project. From there, I scribble in my notebook and create thumbnail sketches. These sketches are small 2”x2” rough drawings that allow me to start figuring things out in my illustrations: spacing, character placement, camera angles, pacing, or where words will go. These sketches are where my work starts to come to life.

Working on a book is a little different because there are even more things you have to take into consideration when starting out, like the pacing of your artwork with the text, page turns, color consideration for things like moods and emotions, and character consistency. It is a more in- depth process from start to finish.

3. Many of our GROG readers are writers not illustrators. Yet, the picture book’s unique format gives art and words equal weight.  Share some advice to help writers channel their “inner artist” and understand the illustrator’s job. Should they doodle, make dummies, or take an art class?

I think all three suggestions you mention are a great start. I’m a firm believer that the only way to truly understand how something is done, is to experience it firsthand. I would also suggest talking to as many illustrators about their process as possible since all illustrators work a little bit differently. I would also suggest taking an illustration workshop where you get real life experiences on how illustrators create their work. Make sure that the workshop gives you an opportunity to experiment with the new art materials and mediums that you learn about. The Highlights Foundation is a great example of such experiences. If you can’t afford something like that, just take a trip to your favorite bookstore or library and find those picture books you already love. Pull them off the shelf,, and study the art you see. Ask yourself: What is it about this art that makes you love it so much? Is it the characters? Is it the textures made by simple brush strokes? Or is it the mood and emotion set by color? Start to pick apart and analyze what makes the artwork so successful. How do the illustrations flow from one image to the next? 

After you study the art, look at how the words and illustrations work. Do they work well together, or do you stumble and get confused? Do they blow your mind because you would never have thought the illustrations would look one way based on how the text reads? There is so much you can learn by just observing someone’s work. A large part of the art of illustration is just being able to observe the world around you. For example: What shape is a silver maple? What does its bark look like? Is the sky really blue? What do you smell when you walk past a bakery? Is it a cookie? What type of cookie? Maybe chocolate chip? Now, do these observations remind you of anything from your own past memories? What emotion comes to mind when you think of these experiences? Then, once you really understand what you see and feel, can you sketch that in your notebook? Can you now paint or draw it giving enough details so that your viewer will understand what you are trying to convey in your illustration? This is the type of thinking that can help you find your true inner artist.

4. Merrill and I are lucky to live in Ohio, home of the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum. The Mazza features the most diverse collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators in the world. Tell us about your art exhibit at Mazza. What does the museum offers to you as an illustrator. (It’s an unknown gem!)

I completely agree that The University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum is a hidden Gem! What a place for true inspiration! With more than 14,000 pieces of original children's book art, there is something to inspire everyone. Their staff is like no other and the programming they offer is just awesome. If you have never had a docent lead tour at the Mazza; you need to! The docents are so well-educated on the museum’s collection. They know every little back story to the art hanging on their walls. To me, those little back stories are just one of the small things that will add a bit of magic to your visit at the Mazza.

A few years back, I had an opportunity to exhibit my collage work for Humpty Dumpty magazine. The experience was just unreal. It was such a thrill to see my work hanging on a museum wall with so many well-known authors and illustrators, especially a museum that is respected by so many in our industry. A few of my pieces were even left with the museum to be preserved and shared with future generations.

5. We're excited to help you celebrate the September 15 launch of your Color, Cut, Create! Dinosaur World and Color, Cut, Create! Horse Ranch with Odd Dot. I know my granddaughter Rosie will fall in love with Horse Ranch. How do you bring a project like this to life? I’m wondering how many hours and tinkering you put into these projects.

A project like this is definitely a great undertaking, but such fun at the same time. I spent months just trying to figure out what was going to be in each book, and how I was going to make them. I had 176 pages to work with. Although that may sound like a lot, when you start to prototype a toy, you have to take into consideration things like page size, and how many pages it will take to build one toy. So for instance the volcano toy for Dinosaur World takes up five pages vs. a single dinosaur toy take up one page. 

For about a year, my kitchen table was full of paper toy prototypes. A prototype is a preliminary model that allows you to figure out and test the functionality of your toys before you add in all of the cool details. Prototypes give you the opportunity to experiment and explore how you are going to make a 3D object out of a single flat sheet of paper. Many, many prototypes were created for both of these books. By the time I finished each book, I had needed to increase my work space from one large table to two. As a toy designer I had to build everything over and over to make sure that it was made well and didn’t fall over or fall apart for the end-user.

Many times when I am creating my products, I will let my kids build and play with them to see how they react. It allows me to observe firsthand what is or isn’t working, and how I can make it better. I sometimes refer to my children as my S.M.E.’s, Subject Matter Experts.

Horse lovers check out this fun video by clicking here. Those who dig dinosaur, here's your video

6. The subjects you bring to life, dinosaurs, horses, asteroids, are so kid-centric. How do you mine your childhood memories to infuse your art with whimsy and humor?

Although not everything was perfect, I have only the best memories of growing up in the 80’s. I come from a large family, and even though we didn’t always have the things our friends and neighbors had, my parents made sure we had what we needed. They gave us opportunities to play, explore, and to just be kids. My siblings and I would spend summers riding bikes, camping, and going on imaginary adventures. Evenings and holidays were always spent playing board games with each other. The fall brought large leaf piles to jump in, and tackle football games at the schoolyard across the street. When winter came, there were hours of tunneling through the snow and snowball fights.

These moments in time instilled in me a sense of observation of the world around me, imagination, love, and family. I still remember things like running to the back door of my childhood home, opening it, and taking a deep breath of the crisp cool air on the first night of fall. Each year I relive the magic and wonder of one Christmas Eve as we returned home from my grandparent’s house to find that Santa Claus had already come and our presents were waiting for us under the tree. These types of memories shape who we are, what we do, and what we create in life.

Now with my own children growing up, I watch and observe them, and take inspiration from their emotions, amazements, and observations of the world.

7. What projects are you working on now?

Besides fixing up my new home, I have my bimonthly magazine work for Jack and Jill and Humpty Dumpty magazine in the works. I also have another new project brewing that I can’t say anything about yet, but keep an eye out. And of course, when I have time, I have a list of stories that I just can’t wait to tell!

8. Was research involved in deciding what horses and dinosaurs to use in the Color, Cut, Create series?

There was a large amount of research done on what horses and dinosaurs I should include in each book. The decision for the dinosaurs was based more on fan favorites like the Spinosaurus, dinosaurs I liked growing up, like the Ankylosaurus, and requests from my kids. The decision for horses to include came from trying to make sure I had a good variety of different breeds of horses in the book. I had spreadsheets listing names of what horses, dinosaurs, set pieces, and ground cover I was going to create. Some of these items were caves, a barn, ground foliage, different kinds of trees, volcano lava, and a ranch gate.

I wanted to make sure that I had a good variety that was also true to life. Once I had my lists created and a prototype of each toy made, I would then send them off to my awesome editor, Justin, at Odd Dot for review. Like most projects, there were always edits and additional toys to make.

Thank you for having me on the Grog! It’s been a pleasure talking with you and your readers. I look forward to seeing who receives the copies of the Color, Cut, Create! books. I hope they have just as much fun building all they toys as I did making them. CHEERS! 

Find more about Merrill here: https://littlerainey.com/ and on twitter: @LittleRainey. 

Remember to leave a  comment or question to win a free Color, Cut, Create books.


  1. I loved reading your process! And if I don't win a copy, I'll be buying one!

  2. Awesome! Thank you for sharing your process Merrill :)

  3. These are so neat and I know a little grandgirl who would love creating with these!

  4. Merrill, Merrill, MERRILL! I'M ABSOLUTELY THRILLED to see your AMAZING new books! Success couldn't come to a nicer or more talented person.

  5. You and your talent are admired, Merrill.

    Thank you for writing an article for the SCBWI Spring 2020 Bulletin. I enjoyed reading your creative journey, “Weathering the Storm”.

    Suzy Leopold

  6. Thank you for reading and responding,Suzy.

  7. Wow. Your work looks amazing and I can’t wait to snag this book for one of my daughters. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks for stopping by the GROG and hope you win.

  8. Great interview! I enjoyed learning more about Merrill's creative process.
    And thanks to Merrill for the shout-out to the magical Mazza Museum. We love sharing your works with visitors. :)

  9. This is so interesting!! Thank you for showing such amazing, creative talent!! Looks like lots of fun for all ages.

  10. My comment was published without my name--sorry about that!

  11. My 8 year old granddaughter Savannah fills the house with what she calls her 3-D 'paper creations'. There's paper everywhere! She says she wants to be an artist for a living. What a great gift for her to know you, through your books, to see someone that took their love of 3D paper art and actually did it!