Otnes was born in Junction City, Kansas, and raised in the Midwest, where his family frequently moved because of his father’s work.
His peripatetic youth made socializing difficult, but it also resulted in Otnes’s strong sense of independence.
His artistic ability was evident from an early age, when he imitated his favorite cartoonists and comic book artists.
His skill, which was encouraged by his father, was also recognized by his high school art teacher, who arranged for him to visit The Lincoln Journal, where he was hired to work when he was not attending school.
Various jobs led to an apprenticeship in the engraving department. Working at the paper enabled him to imagine a future in art for himself.
While taking night classes at the Academy of Art, he worked at Whitaker-Guernsey, one of Chicago’s top studios, where he turned out illustrations for major advertising clients such as Abbott Laboratories and United Airlines.
At the time, his work reflected the influence of illustrators he admired-expert draftsmen Al Parker, Robert Fawcett, and Austin Briggs, among others.