From the initial client idea to the final work: What goes through your mind and what is the method you use when starting a project? Could you describe it?
I usually start with a feeling of mild panic and I’m not being tongue in cheek here - unless it’s a subject that really excites me or I can immediately visualise, then I worry about how I am going to approach the job. With experience though, I find the best remedy is to start drawing and trust in the process. It’s hard sometimes to work from a blank slate, that is why it is important to get something on paper quickly or get stuck into some research - that’s a starting point, an initial momentum. It’s easier to change course and find a direction when you are already moving! So usually, I start by reading through the client notes. They normally provide a basic idea of what they want, sometimes a very clear idea. I prefer it though when they leave a little room for interpretation and creativity. I think it’s important here to focus on the general themes and ideas they are suggesting along with any problems that really need solved and anything they really want to steer clear of.
For example, I might have to design a character and be given some style reference, or ideas from other projects they like. Along with this I usually get a character description, which is both physical and mental and then maybe some script segments or story ideas for the characters to set them in context. Sometimes the reference provided can be too much and it gives too many directions and it’s difficult to know where to focus. Other times it can be too vague. In these scenarios I find the best solution is to draw something, thinking about the limitations in place, present to the client and take it from there. I always start with a bit of research - it doesn’t have to be much. If it is a subject I am unfamiliar with I will spend a bit more time here. So, say I have to draw a frog character - I will research frogs! Of course reference is invaluable for coming up with something unique, otherwise we just draw variations on the same thing all the time. Sometimes if the project I am working on has a lot more depth and scope, I might start thinking deeper about character backstory and thinking about real people who I know, or have seen in films etc that might give me a hook to draw from. There should always be a bit of that in every character design, but sometimes there really isn’t the scope or time for deep character analysis and exploration in a project, which is a shame. The deadline and budget really are the biggest creative limitations sometimes.
So, once I have mulled over the brief for a bit and feel I have researched enough, I think about what I might draw or design and take it from there, starting with thumbnail ideas to present to the client. I always start with a big page of thumbnails - it’s a quick way to generate ideas and variety to show to a client and find a direction early in the process. Once I start drawing, usually ideas start to flow and before I know it I have a page of thumbnails.
What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
The fun bit I guess is the initial idea dump stage where you can just experiment and come up with lots of ideas. It's the most free and creative part of the job. At the same time though, it can also be the hardest part - coming up with unique ideas which fit the client brief while providing variety and character, storytelling. It can be stressful at times, sometimes it takes a while before ideas start to present themselves. I think I have a love hate relationship with the process!
Saying that I do get a thrill when finishing up illustrations and getting to do the details which can really bring a piece to life. That’s at the point where most of the problem solving and hard work should be over and the brain can relax a bit. For personal work I guess the whole process can be fun, although I find I do my best work when presented with a client brief and some clear art direction. Or when I am inspired and have a clear vision in my head - in those moments, when you are in the zone, that is fun, enjoyable.
What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work, collaborate or share your creative time with?
Well I work from home, so my typical day starts with having breakfast and walking to my desk. I check emails, follow up on stuff I need to, maybe send some invoices. If I'm juggling multiple projects I plan my day out in my head and generally stick to that plan. I generally work until lunch time usually after 3 hours work or so, have my lunch break and then continue until dinner time. Some nights I end up working late on other projects or catching up on stuff if I started late, it just depends what's on my schedule at the time.
The beauty of being freelance is generally clients trust you to get on with the work and put in the hours but without much stipulation of when those hours are. So if it's a nice day I might spend some time in the morning going on a bike ride and making up the time later on. Or if I feel like it, I might take an afternoon nap. That’s how I roll. Working from home does mean I don’t have much interaction with people. I communicate mainly via email to clients or via online project management software if they request it. Of course there is back and forth between myself and art directors, the occasional phone or Skype call. Mainly it’s just me and my Cintiq. Sometimes I miss having that studio environment of other creatives to bounce ideas off of and have a laugh with. At the same time though, I enjoy being able to work alone while listening to what music I like, or audio books etc without annoying anyone around me. I do make up for all this alone time by socialising out of hours, as it’s easy to get cabin fever!
What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
Every time I see a piece of art I like, I learn something as I always tend to analyse why I like it. So everything is an inspiration really, it could be something simple like how a particular artist stylises hands or it could be more complex like their approach to painting light and form. I learnt a lot from my first art boss, William Hazle, back when I was in my first game job. I guess I learnt the ropes from him about being in a studio environment, responding to feedback, being art directed and really thinking about how to design for an end product. That stuff laid a foundation for everything I do today. Really though, everyone I have ever worked with has taught me something, maybe not intentionally but by osmosis. I’ve worked with some great people, too many to mention.
Is there something that you have designed that you are most proud of?
Not really. I always look at my old designs and see where I could have improved them! I guess I am happy about doing a recent ImagineFX cover. I didn’t see that coming, but I jumped at the chance when it came around. I wouldn’t say it’s my strongest work ever (see, I’m just too self critical) but it was quite a privilege to be able to do it and in a way it felt like, OK, maybe I’m a professional artist now? It still feels weird saying that.
What projects have you worked on in the past and what are you working on at the moment (if you can tell us)?
I've been lucky enough to work on a variety of projects in a variety of mediums. I first started out working on mobile games, all pixel art at the time. I've worked on a couple of traditionally animated feature films - “The Illusionist” as an inbetweener and clean up artist and “Titeuf le Film” as an animator. I then worked on a variety of other games and lots of small scale freelance gigs. I designed the character Spymouse for an iOS game. That’s probably the only character design I can think of that maybe made the light of day and didn’t end up in some development limbo somewhere… I’ve done quite a few illustrations for Saga magazine over the past few years, so any avid readers might have seen my work in there.And I did a fun illustration job a couple years back where I had to redesign a board game (The Enchanted Forest) that I used to play as a child. That blew my mind. More recently I've been involved with children's television production. When I was in Australia I worked on a cartoon network telemovie “Monster Beach” and a show called “Exchange Student Zero” mainly doing character model packs, turns and hands, expressions etc, and I've also been working in some new children's shows in development, designing characters, props and environments. These shows are still under wraps so I can't say much more than that right now, but I hope they will be out in the next year or so… Very recently, as I mentioned, I was asked to do an ImagineFX cover. It was out in the UK in late January. I guess that would be the most “visible” thing I have done in my career so far.
Do you have a long term career goal? What would your dream project be?
When I started out my goal was always to just draw for a living, then it became “become a freelance character designer”. I feel I've achieved that aim so I'm at the point where I am re-evaluating things. I would love to do a bit of feature animation development but I’m not sure I really have the skills yet. I'd also love to do more editorial or book illustration, maybe in a more traditional capacity, as I like the idea of telling holistic stories rather than just designing the characters. I think I will push more in that direction in the future. Ultimately though, I want to create something of my own, that is the dream. I have a few graphic novel ideas I’m trying to find the time to develop. I also have a couple of children's book ideas simmering away. I think that is my main long term goal - get a graphic novel or children's book made. I do a lot of work for other people's ideas so I’d really like to get stuck into some of my own. I have found recently ideas are just coming to me, whereas when I was younger I had nothing to say. Perhaps life experience is giving me something worthwhile talking about. Oh and of course, I would love to work with Nick Park one day in some capacity. That would be a dream project!
Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
I have had some great experiences working in companies, met loads of great people and learnt a lot in the process. One of the main reasons I went freelance though was to free me from routine and restrictions on my time. I love to travel and being freelance allowed me to take as much time as I wanted and could afford, to travel. Saying that, freelance is hard work and is quite a time sucking enterprise. However when I work hard and long hours it is a choice I've made rather than one being imposed on me, which is important to me. I like to be in control of my life as much as is humanly possible. Right now I'm happy with freelance although as I get older I begin to see more of the pros and cons. Freedom is great when you are young but as we age and start thinking about the future, paying bills saving for a pension etc the appeal of working in a company with all the benefits it provides is tempting. Perhaps one day I will return to that life or even start my own company. But for now, freelance is paying the bills and the more experience I get the more viable it becomes. I’m not quite ready to give up on everything I have been slowly building over the years! Besides, freelancing means a variety of projects and disciplines. Illustration, character design, prop design, concept art… I never know what is coming next and that can be exciting.