Saturday, July 24, 2010

Questions and Answers

Sometime last week, during the stress of the great computer meltdown and being buried in client work, I got an email from a student wondering if he could ask me a few questions about my art, my technique, and my career.

So, I took my new laptop with me to lunch, sat down, and answered his questions.

This is what I had to say:

What is your choice medium, or does it vary according to the nature of the project?

I usually pencil and ink all of my work the old fashioned way, with pencils, 2 ply Bristol board, black Pelikan ink, brushes, Micron Pens, and white out. I still love pushing ink around on a piece of paper even though a lot of people have gone totally digital these days.

I then scan the original art into the computer, clean it up a bit, and color it in Photoshop. I use an old version of Photoshop (6) and use a mouse to do all of my work. I've tried Wacom tablets but didn't like them too much. I have yet to try a Cintiq tablet but, maybe, someday.

Right now, the mix of doing things old school and new school really appeals to me and, I think, gives my work a look that you couldn't achieve by just traditional or digital means alone.

I pretty much always work the same. I tend to put up work on my portfolio that reflects this style so the client knows what they are getting. While I can airbrush, traditional paint, and do a lot of other artistic styles I figured it's best to show potential clients this style since it's what I'm best and quickest at doing.

How do you prepare for a project?

Well, it depends on the project. But, it almost always follows the same path. I'll either have an idea myself or get an idea or manuscript from a client. Of course the first thing to do is read what the idea is and make sure everything is clear between the client and myself before I do anything. I want to make sure we're all one the same page before I put anything on paper. Once I have a good idea of what they (or I) want there is always a bit of brainstorming. Just thinking through ideas of what I want to convey.

And finally, again, to make sure we're all on the same page, I always do thumbnail sketches of everything before I start penciling. Even if it's a piece for myself I tend to do thumbnails. It gives me good ideas of postures of characters, the type of shot I want to convey, and just gives me a nice general idea of what I am trying to achieve.

Doing this helps convey and idea to the client visually that I may or may not have gotten across successfully by just talking or writing about it.

And, once everything is approved in the thumbnail stage it's off to do pencil sketches.

What kind of options do you present to an art director?

It depends on the art director and the assignment. I've been doing a line of kids’ books for years so I pretty much know what they want and what they expect from me. So, generally, I'll give them one set of thumbnails for how I think the interior of a new book will look.

For new clients, I'll sometimes give a few different thumbnail ideas so they have a choice. But, usually, I'll just sketch out what I think they want and we go from there. If it's not what they want I can always do a new set of thumbnails quickly.

What kind of instruction or education do you have in the arts?

I took art classes in high school and even went to a VocTech type of class in my senior year for illustration that lasted half the day. I went on to the Joe Kubert School of Graphics and Cartoon Art in Dover, NJ for three years for my college education. During the summer between my second and third year I worked as an assistant artist in a small studio doing a lot of marketing and merchandising for comic book related materials. I worked there my last year of school and a few years after that.

It was invaluable to be able to work in a place like that while still learning art. It's one thing to learn art in school but it's a whole other thing to work in a real art environment, learn all the tricks, and have the real life deadline pressure a place like that brings.

From there, it was on to working for myself...

Have you had to reinvent yourself as an artist to stay relevant?

Not really. The only time I can really remember having to "reinvent" myself was when I had to switch from airbrushing and move into the digital world of Photoshop and Illustrator. I went kicking and screaming but, after figuring it all out, I really loved it.

But, there was never a time when I felt I had to change my style or my approach to art. I just had to learn a few new tools.

Do you have an agent? If not, how do you get new clients?

Nope, I've never had an agent. I've never even tried looking for one. I've heard both good stories and bad stories about having an agent but I seem to be doing fine without one.

As for getting new clients, I have my own website, blog, and I pay to have my art on two sites. One is and the other is CreativeShake. com. Both cost money but I'd gladly pay double because having my work out there on these sites gives me the great career and clients I have today.

Did you pursue a style or did your style find you?

I never conciously pursued a style. I'm sure I was influenced by things here and there throughout my life but there was never a time when I thought, "I'm going to draw just like this guy." I would look at artists I loved and picked up things from each of them here and there but it was always incorporated into my work in my own style.

So, I guess my style found me.

What memorable moments do you have, good or bad, from your professional career?

Well, I try and focus more on the positive than the negative but I'll try and give a good rounded answer to this one.

+ Getting my first gig from Marvel Comics doing some airbrush painting over Jason Pearson on a Spider-Man piece. I was finally working for THE Marvel Comics and it started a great working relationship that lasted for years and years that had me both painting and inking for the comic book giant.

-Having the Marvel work dry up and having to get a regular job type job again. After working for a company I loved as a kid it was a huge ego blow to go back to a nine to five type job. But, things like that keep you humble.

+ Having the first issue of my own self-published book, EXIT 6, come out. It was great to have a box of printed comic books that I had done all by myself.

- Having to stop publishing EXIT 6 because the sales just weren't there. I had to stop after three issues and spending a little over ten grand. It was a hard decision to make and sent me into a depression for a while.

+ Putting work up on and getting my first outside of comic books assignment. It was for a small magazine in Ohio called Cincinnati Magazine. When I was first offered the assignment and I thought about how much money I would be paid I was still thinking in comic book money. I thought for a full illustration and two spot illustrations that maybe, just maybe, I could talk the guy into paying me four hundred bucks. When he told me his budget and said, "sorry, but the money we have for the whole project is only twelve hundred dollars," I knew, finally, that I could make a good career with my art.

+ When art became a "job" again I decided that, this time, I needed some other kind of hobby so I could get myself away from the drawing board. I started playing music. I learned guitar, bass, drums, and a bit of piano. Learning music made the whole universe make a whole lot more sense to me. And it was nice to finally have some other interests and focus other than illustration.

+ Creating OilCan Drive, a concept that mixed both illustration and music in a futuristic cartoon band. It’s a band that features a giant gorilla on bass guitar and the whole gang travels around the burned out wastelands of America in a stolen air ship.
I figured, if I was lucky, and OilCan Drive ever got onto the radio, it would be some small college station during the “crappy new music hour.” But, for some reason, because of a few lucky breaks coming my way, OilCan Drive’s first radio appearance was on a Milwaukee radio program. The song was punk rock cover version of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It was played on a program that featured Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Ramones, and Led Zeppelin.
For some reason my little cartoon band was among those greats. They seem to fall ass backwards into opportunities most real bands would kill for. I find the whole thing funny and very satisfying. What’s not to love about that?

Who are your influences?

I'm never sure if “influences” is the right word or if it's just artists I love and respond to. But, for people whose work really rubs me the right way, here is the partial list (I'm sure I'll forget someone):

Adam Hughes, Dave Stevens, Mike Mignola, Arthur Adams, Alan Davis, Mike Wieringo, J. Scott Campbell, Mike Allred, Drew Struzan, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Green Day, Blink 182, The Who, and Pete Townshend.

And you thought it would just be people who drew pictures...

What is your opinion of the future of the illustration market?

I think, no matter the tools or the delivery system used, the world will always need creative people who can actually put the ideas in their head out into the world. Whether it's on paper, a digital pad, or some future holographic projection the need for creative people will always be there.

It's an interesting time now where, if you have the drive, the time, and the imagination, you can do anything you want and somehow get it out there for people to see or hear. You can draw an image, make a movie, or record and album all by yourself and get it out there. I love that freedom and now, more than ever before, you're limited only by your imagination and dedication.

It's a fun time and I'm really enjoying the ride.

What advice do you have for young illustrators?

If you love it, keep doing it. Even if no one believes in what you're trying to do but you love it, keep doing it. At some point, even if it takes years, something will happen for you. As Dave Sim of Cerebus once said, "God grinds the axe he intends to use."

Always do your best work and always keep learning. Keep your mind open to new ideas.
Never work simply for the money. Whether a client is paying you a hundred bucks or fifty grand for a piece do the best you can at all times.

Always have some sort of project of your own that is yours and yours alone, even if it sits on the back burner because you're too busy with client work. It will give you a safe creative haven to escape to when the clients get too crazy or if there is some new art technique you want to try. Having something of your own that no one can tell you to change or fix is a great thing to have.

Don’t be so focused on art that you don’t try new things. Don’t put yourself in a box. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you can’t like other things. It took me years to realize I love sports like football and hockey. I wish I had started playing music sooner in life. Don’t let being an “artist” mean you have to play some sort of role of what you think being an artist means to other people. Love sports, cars, mechanical engineering, doing your taxes, whatever. The world is more than ready to pigeon-hole you into some sort of box. Don’t do it to yourself.

And, finally, have fun. It's why you started creating in the first place. If it's wasn't fun you never would have done it in the first place.

If it wasn't for the fun, you might as well be a plumber.


rob! said...

Great interview! Love the whole +/- thing.

Jeff Lafferty said...

Great insight man. I enjoyed reading it, especially the advice bit at the end.

Manu Mane said...

Very good interview, Sean, it's nice to have an artist's testimony about his adventure like this ! And the sincerity you put in your communication is always appreciated !

(To move back to a recent discussion, I don't use the mouse too much for colouring or using FX, because I noticed a too long use of it gave me weird pain in my wrist. I read somewhere it wasn't good for the wrist bones. The stylet of the tablet is more convenient for this kind of work anyway, according to me, because easier to control, the mouse always run and leaps and you have to go back and erase, and do the operation again all the time....)

jamie peeps said...

it's always great to read the real deal from another illustrator. I tell my illo ninjas at MECA that it has to be fun first, or they won't persist.
Thanks for the honesty!

Sean Tiffany said...

Thanks all! Glad you liked the little interview. I always try and be as upfront and honest as possible. Otherwise, what do people really learn about you.

Life is full of ups and downs. It's what you learn from your mistakes that make you the person you are today.