Have students who love to draw, draft, sketch, and doodle? Take them behind the scenes to gain some inspiration from Kids Discover’s beloved illustrator Rob Wood.
It was Rob Wood’s fourth-grade teacher who first saw a spark in the artist. During a unit on Ancient Egypt, she assigned him the role of recreating the pyramids of Giza and a sphinx on a butcher-paper mural across the classroom’s blackboard. Decades later, after returning from the Air Force, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree, and becoming a professional illustrator, he would help produce the very first issue of Kids Discover… Pyramids.
For over 25 years, Wood, with the illustration firm Wood Ronsaville Harlin, Inc., has added life and beauty to issues of Kids Discover. A combination of meticulous research and artistic narrative makes a Wood Ronsaville Harlin piece instantly recognizable, and their work illustrates historical narratives and scientific scenes for kids with clarity and intrigue.
Born in Johnson City, Tennessee, Wood attended college locally at East Tennessee State University. After earning a BFA in graphic design and painting, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served a year in Vietnam. “Probably the best thing that happened to me was being drafted and joining the Air Force,” he said. “This broke my ties to home and opened up my world.”
After leaving the Air Force with an honorable discharge, he attended the University of Georgia for his Master of Fine Arts. Soon after, he began his long-term collaboration with Pam Ronsaville, Greg Harlin, and Matthew Frey, which was established as Wood Ronsaville Harlin, Inc. in 1978. Over the years, the firm has worked with clients such as National Geographic, the Smithsonian, Time Life, the National Park Service, and, of course, Kids Discover.
In collaboration with Kids Discover’s researchers and writers, Wood Ronsaville Harlin succeeds in bringing stories to life with historically accurate details. Right down from the buttons on a piece of clothing to the landscapes of ancient empires, Wood’s paintings grip the imagination as they inspire a new understanding of the past.
Kids Discover: How did you begin your painting career?
Rob Wood: I have always been interested in art. My 4th-grade teacher was an artist and thought I had some talent so encouraged me. We were studying Ancient Egypt and she covered the entire blackboard with butcher paper and had me draw a large landscape that included the pyramids and sphinx. I never stopped painting and drawing.
KD: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
RW: In today’s world it’s very hard to make a living as a freelance artist. My advice would be to really scrutinize your work and decide what areas you are strongest in. Put together a professional website for only the best samples of your work. Search out those clients you feel would be interested in your style and content. Then compose a letter and attach your samples, and then follow-up. Most important, don’t give up.
KD: What have been some of your favorite issues to work on for Kids Discover?
KD: What is your process like? Can you take us through the steps of creating an original piece?
RW: The first thing I do is familiarize myself with the subject matter. I also do additional research which allows for more possibilities when creating the sketches. Next, I do a series of rough pencils exploring different angles and viewpoints. Once I’ve settled on the scene, if it’s a historical subject, I bring in my business partner, Pam, who puts together costumes.
We then find models, sometimes myself, to pose for the figures and have a photo shoot. I use the computer to put together a composition with the various photos. Sometimes I will superimpose the photos over my rough sketch.
Finally, I’ll create a tight sketch using my computer composition as a reference. After Kids Discover reviews it, I make any corrections and either send them an additional final sketch or if the changes are minor, I will proceed to the final. The subject matter usually dictates the media I will use to create the final, whether watercolor, acrylic or digital.
KD: Who inspires you as an artist?
RW: There are quite a few painters that I am drawn to: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and even Mark Rothko. However, my favorite is Andrew Wyeth because his work shows so much more depth than simply representational art. I can’t walk away from one of his paintings without taking something from it that touches my soul.
Thanks, Rob! You can see more of his art on his website, Rob Wood Fine Art, and in Wood Ronsaville Harlin’s gallery. Also read about the careers of illustrators Ed Gabel and Michael Kline in our ongoing Behind The Scenes of Kids Discover series.