I have been drawing SpongeBob SquarePants professionally, with varying degrees of success, for ten years now as of today.
February 14, 2000 was my very first day working for Nickelodeon as part of Nickelodeon Creative Resources (AKA: NCR). And it was on that day I got my first real exposure to the now still mega-popular SpongeBob SquarePants.
That day I saw what was for me my first episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants”, and considering the date it was no coincidence the episode we watched was episode 16a, “Valentine’s Day”.
And so began my official training in learning to draw SpongeBob “on model” (which is to say: how he looked on TV), a training with obstacles. For starters, all the other illustrators up at NCR at the time had recently been out to the west coast where they were taught by the ACTUAL SpongeBob Production team. I was therefore getting second-hand lessons, from, and I doubt they’d dispute it, guys who themselves hadn’t quite figured this character out (he’s trickier than he looks). Second, from the time production on the show had started to February 2000, SpongeBob himself had changed in some ways. Of note at the time were SpongeBob’s eyelashes, which HAD be drawn as wedges but were then changed to more rectangular shapes. And then there was my own frustration that came when I’d do a drawing I thought was close and that drawing would be bluelined (which is to say it was corrected) and that redrawn version would be what was sent to SB Production (which, to clarify, were the people making the show, including show creator Steve Hillenburg). We’d get further corrections back from them but I wasn’t getting a direct line from my work to the people whose opinions and critique, really, mattered.
In time I got closer, though it was a long slog. There were always changes. There were always lessons to learn. Over time, I started to pick up on things. I’d notice how on the show (and I watched a LOT of that show) and in sketches by SB Production and storyboard artists, folks like Sherm Cohen, Jay Lender, Caleb Meuer, Heather Martinez and others, they’d break “the rules”. I learned how SpongeBob’s arms moved up and down the sides of his body…how he’d respond to cartoon squash and stretch. Eventually my drawings were going out unchanged. Finally I was getting direct feedback. I was figuring him out.
I remember distinctly stating aloud one day something along the lines of “one day I’m going to draw a SpongeBob that will get approved with no changes…and on that day, I’m quitting”…or something equally boisterous.
Lo and behold, just shy of two and a half years…having drawn who knows how many SpongeBobs (along with many a Jimmy Neutron, Invader Zim, CatDog and the occasional Hey Arnold, Angry Beaver, Ren & Stimpy, etc), it happened. I’d done a drawing of SpongeBob that was sent to SB Production unaltered…and that drawing was approved. No changes. I’d done it! I’d finally drawn a single figure of SpongeBob…correctly.
And would you believe this all happened the week I’d just given my notice that I was leaving to work freelance from him?
Better still: that pencil drawing became this finished pose:
And yes, on the pencil drawing I’d roughed in a word balloon of SpongeBob saying “I quit.” A beautiful coincidence if ever there was one. (though, looking at it now I wonder if his legs are a smidgen too short.
In June of 2002, I left my position up at the NCR offices and started working freelance. And with that, it turns out, I was drawing even MORE SpongeBob. I started drawing coloring books, storybooks, Video/DVD cover, packaging art, and so on. SpongeBob’s popularity hadn’t waned and there was always a demand for more poses…more poses based on episodes, more seasonal poses, sports poses, pirate poses, and holiday poses including, of course, Valentine’s Day. (these poses would then get re-purposed and used in all manner of products, from T-shirts to stationary to housewares and ads…basically, if you’ve seen a SpongeBob pose there’s likely an 80-85% chance I worked on it on some level)
And then there was the “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie”, which meant MORE coloring books and poses and, well, more SpongeBob.
And then Nickelodeon Magazine started publishing SpongeBob comics in the magazine, and I was one board. It’d been a while since I’d drawn comics/sequential storytelling, so it was great fun to work in the medium I’m so fond of.
In nearly all that time I never once met or had contact with anyone from SB Production. I always wanted to. I always wanted to “talk shop”. I wanted to meet Steve Hillenburg, the guy who created these characters I’d been drawing…drawing to a standard he set. But it hadn’t happened. I’d go out to Comic-Con in San Diego and wonder if one of them might walk by my table and call me out for being one of the “east coasters” who were such slow learners.
As it turns out, about two years ago something like that did happen at Comic-Con. I’d gotten back from my lunch break and I was told that someone who worked on SpongeBob had come by and asked about me; they wanted to meet me. “What? Who was it? What’d they say?” Information was not forthcoming. I was told it was a woman and she said she’d come back. And she did, and I got to meet one of the show’s storyboard artists, Heather Martinez. And she was super-complimentary and said something that really made my day. She told me how she and the folks who worked on the show knew my name and knew my work and knew me as the guy who, while not one of them, drew SpongeBob right. And in a very weird way, in a way that most folks might think insignificant…heck, she might’ve thought it insignificant if she thought about it at all, it was a great moment, for me, of professional validation.
There aren’t a lot of moments when you get to meet people you respect, admire or appreciate professionally. I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen a handful of times and I’ll tell you: it never gets old. It’s always super-awesome.
One day, maybe, I’ll actually get to meet Steve Hillenburg and thank the man himself. But until then, I’ll thank him here, on a news feed I can only imagine he’ll never, ever see.
But all of that said…what it comes down to is that SpongeBob SquarePants has been my bread and butter, my livelihood if you will, for a while. And every Valentine’s Day since that one in 2000 I can’t help but remember that first “meeting”. Sure, it might not be a love story by any traditional measure, but from where I’m standing I can’t help but love the guy, even if, ten years later, it’s a little bit harder to think of new Valentine’s Day poses…
And if you made it this far and read everything, here’s a special treat: Nickelodeon hired me based on sample drawings. They sent model packs of SpongeBob and then Nickelodeon star CatDog, and said to draw two poses for each character. From those drawings I was hired on as an illustrator at NCR.
Below: my original, very first, very raw SpongeBob sample drawings. I’d like to say here and now…looking at it I can’t believe I got the gig. I don’t think I’d have hired myself.