My children’s book “Bad Dog, Marley!” has spent the last couple weeks at #1 on The New York Times children’s picture-book list, which thrills me. I say “my” book, but it’s really “our” book. “Bad Dog” definitely was a collaboration, and my partner was Richard Cowdrey, a talented artist living and working in Ohio who took my words and ideas and turned them into charming, magical illustrations. Not only that, but he did it on a very short deadline, completing his work in a fraction of the usual time. Good job, Richard!
My wonderful editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Maria Modugno, had given me the final say in choosing the artist to illustrate my book. And Richard was my hands-down favorite. As it turns out, he was Maria’s hands-down favorite, too. His early rough sketches of Marley and Marley’s family won us all over. I guess I don’t have to tell you, Richard has a goofy Lab of his own at home, Murphy, which helps explain how uncannily he managed to capture the spirit of these animals.
Anyway, I wanted to introduce you to Richard, thank him in this forum for his amazing work, and share a feature story about him that ran in an Ohio newspaper this week:
Gambier artist illustrates best-selling children’s book
By Mark Jordan, News Staff Reporter
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
GAMBIER — “I believe that everybody’s gifted,” said Richard Cowdrey as he sat in his studio, surrounded by pictures, paints, pencils and books, with windows overlooking a peaceful rural pond. “It’s just a matter of finding where one’s gifts lay.”
The 48-year-old father of four, and grandfather of four, said he is grateful he found exactly where his talents lay: Illustration.
“Without the art thing,” he said with a grin, “I’d be in serious trouble. I was not a good student.”
Cowdrey is a freelance illustrator who has designed and executed artwork for clients all over the world, including the official poster and program for Superbowl XXXII in 1998, calendars for Longaberger Baskets and ads for Abercrombie & Fitch. In more recent years, he has achieved success as an illustrator of children’s books, particularly with the release of “Bad Dog, Marley!” based on the best-selling book “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog” by John Grogan. “Bad Dog, Marley!” entered the New York Times Bestsellers List for Hardback Children’s Fiction at No. 7 four weeks ago and has been at No. 1 for two weeks now.
Cowdrey has steadily built his career and reputation for over 25 years. After graduating from the Columbus College of Art and Design, Cowdrey worked for Hallmark in Kansas City for a time, then moved to Vermont and began to establish himself as a freelancer. He admits it was tough getting started.
“I’d been married a short while and had a baby on the way right after that,” Cowdrey said. “So it was right into the frying pan. In the beginning, it was piecemeal, whatever [work] I could get. But one thing leads to another.”
In time, he picked up an agent in Boston, and, later, one in New York.
From Vermont, Cowdrey brought his family to rural Knox County 13 years ago. Originally from Cincinnati, Cowdrey returned to Ohio to be near family. Cowdrey and his wife, Cindy, began to search for a home reasonably close to, yet still outside, the Columbus metropolitan area. They were stopped in their tracks by Gambier, which reminded them of a small New England village. That narrowed their search to the vicinity of Gambier, where the Cowdreys found a nine-acre site on a gravel road in Harrison Township. The illustrator’s studio sits on the shore of a large, stocked pond, down the hill from the house and the carefully tended garden.
“Thirteen years later, my wife and I still go, ‘Wow!’” Cowdrey said, looking out the window over the pond to the pine woods beyond.
The studio is filled with desks and tables for drawing and painting. One desk is devoted to Cowdrey’s computer.
“I have a big iMac with all the bells and whistles,” Cowdrey said. “The thing is, as I’ve told people, it’s like I have a Jaguar and no driver’s license. I do use it for e-mail, and I can scan my sketches and send them. That’s the limit of my abilities.”
According to Maria Modugno, vice president and editorial director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, Cowdrey was one of many illustrators considered for the job.
“We wanted somebody who could capture a contemporary feeling, with a lot of energy,” said Modugno. “Those are two qualities that Marley has in overabundance.”
After the field was narrowed to six candidates, each illustrator submitted sketches for a scenario from the book.
“Richard’s were far and away the best,” said Modugno. “The author John Grogan said, ‘This guy must have a Lab!’”
And such was the case. Grogan’s book is about a big, sloppy yellow Lab named “Marley.” Cowdrey has a big, sloppy yellow Lab named “Murphy.”
Cowdrey remembers his first impression of the book.
“I know this dog,” Cowdrey said to himself after reading one chapter. “I know this story.”
He fell in love with the project and worked hard to win it.
And win it he did, in late October 2006, when Grogan selected Cowdrey as the illustrator he wanted. Cowdrey had less than three months to go from his initial sketches to finished acrylic paintings, which, according to Modugno was a “break-neck pace,” but he was able to meet the deadlines.
“I ended up pulling a few all-nighters, which I hadn’t done in years,” said Cowdrey. “It about killed me.”
The book was rushed through production and released in May with a large print run of hundreds of thousands of copies. Cowdrey said he is proud not only of the book’s success, but also in his original contributions. He said that although Grogan had a few specific ideas for illustrations, Cowdrey’s input was welcomed. No one dictated to him the details of each painting.
Cowdrey envisioned the poses of the characters, then enlisted the help of a family he knows from church — Mike and Robin McKinley and their daughter, Maria — to pose for reference photographs. He used these reference poses to model his initial sketches, which were then redone as paintings after being approved by the publisher. Cowdrey said he asked the McKinleys to pose because they matched the general verbal descriptions Grogan gave for the main characters in the story. Naturally, Cowdrey’s own dog, Murphy, served as technical reference and model at several points throughout the creation of the illustrations.
Modugno was delighted with Cowdrey’s work, and with Cowdrey himself.
“He’s pretty fabulous,” she said. “He’s a hard worker, he’s talented and he’s agreeable. That’s a very rare combination.”
A sequel is already in the works: “A Very Marley Christmas,” which is slated for release for the 2008 Christmas season. It will adapt further stories from Grogan’s “Marley & Me,” and will again feature illustrations by Richard Cowdrey.
Cowdrey will be doing a book signing at Paragraphs Bookstore in Mount Vernon on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Books will be available for purchase.