Growing up, Christopher Lyles always knew he wanted to be an artist—and his growing career took a few interesting twists and turns to finally get there. After years in various art schools and working on a few unique professional projects, Christopher landed on a career he’s passionate about: teaching students and designing playful artwork for kids. As a featured artist with Mouse + Magpie, Christopher brings unique perspective and experience to his artwork and to the children’s decor we create together.
When we spoke with Christopher about his journey as an illustrator, we learned that his artwork is not only created for children—it’s also fully inspired by them. That philosophy is at the heart of the Mouse + Magpie mission, and we are proud to partner with artists like Christopher who really make that vision into a reality. Read on to learn more about how Christopher got started as an artist, why he ended up in illustration, and what makes him so passionate about creating artwork specifically for children.
Christopher began studying art with a dream to focus on animation—which then led him to pursue drawing and painting and, finally, illustration. But his experience with creative work began much earlier on. He shared more about the winding road that led him to children’s illustration and his favorite projects so far.
Christopher: My grandmother was an artist, and we spent a lot of weekends over there, so I spent a lot of time painting and drawing as a kid—but I would say I really started to go into art full speed in middle school. My high school art teacher helped me develop a portfolio, and three art schools later, I finally started pursuing children’s illustration. I actually began my professional career designing greeting cards (which I still do today), but I eventually got a children’s literature agent who helped me get involved in education and book illustration projects.
My favorite project so far is a book called Lucy and Lila that I did in all colored pencil for Little Bee Books. I posted a picture of a little pink elephant that I made for my niece for her birthday, and a publisher wanted me to make a whole book about the character—which was kind of backward. I had to come up with a story really quickly with help from the editorial team, and it was one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had. My collection with Mouse + Magpie would be right up there as well!
Today, Christopher works as an art teacher at a school in Connecticut and simultaneously maintains a thriving illustrative career. While his days are definitely busy, he finds this combination career to be incredibly fulfilling.
Christopher: I work with first through sixth-grade kids as an art educator. I also have two kids of my own, so I'm around kids 24/7. My studio at school overlooks the playground, and I get so many ideas from seeing them swinging from the monkey bars, laughing, and playing. Because I teach and illustrate, I often have to multitask. I’m fortunate enough to have a job that allows me the flexibility I need to remain a working artist.
When I'm set up in my studio at school, kids come down to the room, and we all work in there together. Oftentimes, they'll question what I’m doing with my artwork, which is great. They make me think. They have really great insight and their responses will often enable me to finish an illustration I’m stuck on. They're the ones that are going to be looking at these books the most, so it's really important for me to have their feedback.
Being able to create for the exact market I teach in is the wildest in the world. It’s so satisfying to see them smile when I'm showing them artwork—any artwork—even if it's not my own. Reading them a book and showing them the pictures, they're often able to come up with their own story or their own meaning. They're so adventurous, and they're so imaginative. I love to see the way kids react to artwork. It really is the greatest thing.
Christopher eventually connected with the Mouse + Magpie team via social media and was thrilled to get to work producing a children’s decor collection. He’d always dreamed of licensing his artwork for use on other products and was excited to create illustrations that tell a different story for each product in the collection. He shared with us the creative process that led to the creation of his sea otter collection, including Sea Otters at Play.
Christopher: Last summer when Mouse + Magpie contacted me, I was planning to visit the coast at Monterey where there are sea otters hanging out in the bay. I love sea otters. They're playful and have such childlike personalities, and it was a no-brainer. I went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and I took my sketchbook, and I started coming up with these playful sea otters to use for the Mouse + Magpie collection. I made a hundred tiny thumbnail sketches and chose a few that really spoke to me. At that point, I started sketching over the drawing, doing color studies, and playing around with different textures. To make the kelp for this project, I actually scanned in different leaves from our garden and cut the images into kelp shapes!
When creating artwork for kids, you have to try to maintain excitement and a sense of fun. That's what I try to evoke in my work and why I create with that hand-done quality. There just has to be a certain sense of playfulness to the work. My boys are obsessed with sea life, so I got the lamp and blanket for them to use upstairs in their room. They actually go to bed with the blanket and it's pretty cute. To see a child own something that you've created and hold it precious ... that's really cool. It’s the best compliment you could get.
As a passionate art educator, Christopher has a lot to say about the importance of art in children’s lives. He dedicates much of his time to teaching children about the world through artwork and dreams of continuing that purpose through other mediums.
Christopher: I think it’s so important to foster creativity and imagination. I often teach art through children’s books because there are so many different styles of illustration and artwork, and they all speak to kids differently. I also teach through wordless picture books because I like to see how kids can look at a picture and come up with their own story. I often think that's the greatest test of any illustrator: it shows how powerful your work is if kids can actually get the message you're trying to convey with no words at all.
I worked on a wordless picture book about a penguin for my Master of Fine Arts thesis, and it’s still a goal of mine to get that one finished. I’m also working on two picture books right now. I’d also love to create a book surrounding birds—I just love their shapes, their colors, and their skinny little legs. And as far as licensing goes, my work with Mouse + Magpie was just the beginning. I'm hoping to do more. I would like to see my work on wall art, canvases, wrapping paper, gift tags, ceramics, a whole wide variety of products. I like to know that my artwork can be enjoyed by a lot of people in a broader range.
Hold Me Tight Wall Clock by Christopher Lyles
Creating artwork that children will enjoy is a career path full of passion, creativity, and fun. It’s also typical to take a more winding path on the way to where you’d like to go—and Christopher has a final message of encouragement to share with artists who may be in the same position.
Christopher: Sometimes, people get out of school and think they know what they're going to do with their lives. But it took me literally three different art schools to finally get on a track that I thought best represented what I wanted to do and the kind of art I was creating. There were so many twists and turns, and that’s true for life in general. It’s really important, as an artist, to listen to others’ observations and get insight from all over. Really value other people’s criticisms or fondness for your work, and let that shape what you do.
At Mouse + Magpie, we’re passionate about bringing the work of artists like Christopher Lyles to a greater public. We’re proud to showcase colorful, inspirational, and whimsical designs on our children’s decor products, and we plan to keep giving artists a platform to bring more childlike fun into the world.
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