How and why did you decide to pursue illustration as your career?
I’ve now been illustrating professionally in the field of fantasy, science fiction, and horror book jackets, calendars and CD covers, for over 20 years. In that time, as in any trade where you are building contacts and confidence, it wasn't plain sailing at the beginning. There were crashing waves of rejection from time to time, but it didn't sink me. I always felt that people appreciate the value of persistence and hard work and, after many years of grafting and honing my craft, publishers and clients took notice and started rewarding me with commissions.
Who or what have been some of your major artistic influences?
Starting out, an early influence was the work of Derek Riggs, who created the album covers of the British rock band Iron Maiden. I remember studying the details of the record covers, being so impressed by the dynamism and energy of his style. I had an exciting chance meeting with him when I worked in an art shop in Brighton, England many years ago. After showing him my work he was very encouraging and thought I had potential. We’ve remained friends ever since.
My inspirations and influences also include the works of the classical painters, Velazquez, Rubens, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt, among others, and also artists working in the fantasy scene: most notably Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta. I was first made aware of Frazetta's dramatic work on the covers of Robert E. Howard’s [Conan The Barbarian] books that my brother used to read. When I was a bit older, I saw Boris Vallejo's stunning book, Mirage. I was enthralled by the allure and magnetism of his work which really sealed my passion for a career in Fantasy and Science Fiction art.
What was your first commission as a professional illustrator?
My first professional commission was from the British science fiction magazine, Interzone in 1997. I then started working mainly for magazines doing cover work and interior illustrations. After that, I started getting book cover work and landed my first major book cover deal in 2001 with Little, Brown [Orbit] publishers for the first in the very popular series by Kelley Armstrong, Bitten.
More recently, with contacts established and awards to my name, commissions have steadily increased. I’ve won the British Science Fiction Award for best artwork three times, as well as the Asimov’s Science Fiction Award for Best Artist amongst others. Over the years, I've worked for all the major book publishers such as Baen Books, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Tor, Del Rey to name a few and with prodigious writers such as Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Nightbreed), Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Phillip Pullman, (His Dark Materials, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), to name but a few.
What is your favourite medium to work with and why?
I began with pencils and oils early on then moved on to acrylics and airbrush. Later, I realized that just as I was getting into the book cover market, I was witnessing the cusp of change and the global revolution of computers. Commercially in the book and magazine genre, going digital was the way forward for me after much consideration whether to stick with traditional mediums or embrace the new technology – I took to the digital approach very well, but found computers are still only a tool [an incredibley sophisticated one at that!], but as with airbrushing and photography, it’s still the artist behind the tool that counts.
Do you have a favourite soundtrack you listen to when you’re working?
Music is very important to me while I’m working. I listen to film scores and music by, for example, Vangelis, Thomas Newman [The Shawshank Redemption], Tangerine Dream, and Basil Poledouris. I sometimes buy a soundtrack without having watched the film and that can be fascinating – not knowing the flavour and tone of the film and just being led by the music. It helps to have the right score or piece playing when I'm trying to get into the mindset for a particular job: sometimes it might be a creature cover or a science fiction piece, so that has an influence on the choice of music. Lately I have been listening and appreciating Podcasts about people's life stories as the spoken word [Audio books as well] are an entertaining addition to the music.
Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?
I had always wanted to do something creative and my love for book and album cover art was something that made me want to pursue a career in this field.
Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?
I stayed on at Sixth form college and then went on to do a Foundation course which was an incredible experience for me. It really opened my eyes to what I wanted to do, the level of quality teaching and opportunities to do different things such as fine art painting, graphic design and also computers which was at that time just starting to creep in and it was fitting as that was one of final parts of the course I studied.
Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?
I live in sleepy Southwick which is just outside Brighton and I grew up in the same town as well. It's a good base as its only an hour to London to see clients.
Was creativity part of your childhood?
Absolutely! I still have a bright red paper mache T-Rex I made in middle school! I used to draw all the time and loved making things. It would be difficult to imagine myself not being creative in some way.
Have you always loved to draw?
Yes, I loved sculpting and drawing, but drawing won over eventually. Thats said, I have been sculpting a bit more recently.
Which books from your own childhood really stand out?
Well, I wasn't actually an avid reader when I was younger, apart from the Story Teller series that came with a tape that you could read and listen to, I loved them so much when I young. Very special!
Do you have a favourite picture book or recall one of the first picture books you saw?
It was the Story Teller series with the lovely art in the magazine that really appealed to me.
Who or what has been your greatest mentor?
When I first started out I got to know the artist [Derek Riggs] who created the sensational early record covers for the rock band, Iron Maiden. I first met him when I was working in a Art shop in Brighton. He was very encouraging and was using computers at that time. I had just purchased one and he really helped me understand the programs.
Also, the late Paul Brazier who was the designer and guest Editor of the beloved British Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine, Interzone. He really helped me get to grips with the Mac, HDs and scanners. I owe them both a great debt of thanks.
Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.
I had developed a couple over the years, but when I generally start a piece, say for example, Talking to Dragons, I always start in greyscale. Colour isn't important at this stage, as one should be more focused with comp and character development. Then, when I am satisfied that it's going in the right direction, I start using colour and then finalising the overall design. When I started working in greyscale only, I improved rapidly as I wasn't having to juggle too many things in one go. One thing I have learnt, which is not discussed as much, is a simple thing, organisaton. I really improve with my digital, oil painting and also my sculpting when I organise each stage so it's as clear [as it can be].
What piece of software or hardware could you not live without and why?
I use a MAC to produce all my commercial work these days, so I guess it would be a computer and Photoshop although I am learning new software to try and add something new to my skill set.
Are you an author/illustrator?
I am an illustrator. I have written outlines for childrens books and also an ouline for an illustrated fairy tale but it's getting the time to move the project forward when other projects are vying for my attention. Here is a character that is a mischievous so and so for a fairy tale I am outlining.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
It's actually a quote I read many, many years ago. I live by this to this day.
Nothing in the World can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. Calvin Coolidge
What was your last ‘lightbulb moment’?
Each cover I create has a lightbulb moment when I feel I cracked it so to speak with a design or a comp or a character's expression.
How do you overcome a creative block?
Rest or a change. I've had times when I couldn't get into a project, so a little rest is good, but often a change is better as it freshens the mind and actively doing something can be stimulating and get you over that hump.
Are there any children’s classics you’d love to illustrate and/or re-tell?
I would love to retell or illustrate the Snowman. Either in my oil painting style or my children's style. That would be lovely! Maybe more texture or bigger, more expansive scenes with more snowmen and snowwomen. Capturing the atmosephere is a priority because in the book there is no dialogue, it all hangs on Raymond Briggs' beautiful story telling through images.
Animals feature heavily in children’s books – do you have a pet?
My parents always had lots of dogs, Papillions, Chiuauas a Pomerainian and a Terrier. Pictured here was my Papillion, Marni. My girlfriend and I should really get a dog or a T-Rex, but I have heard they tend you eat you out of house and home ! :)
Do you keep a sketch book?
I used to and I would recomend it, but I work in several mediums, so I am either drawing or oil painting, using the computer or sculpting. The way I see it is this...Sketching is great, but I personally need it to be focused or I lose interest, so I have to be 'locked' into a project in order for me to be fully engaged and committed. I can't sketch without a goal in mind. I know that might sound weird This is just how I operate and see things.
Have you ever thought about trying out a different technique or a different style?
Yes, its an traditional oil painting technique. The basis of my technique stems from the Angel Academy in Florence, Italy where I attended a Caravaggio workshop taught by the legend, Michael John Angel. I loved the course and Maestro's method so much that I wanted to further develop my skills and understanding after I returned home so I continued my tuition with the absolutely brilliant Jay Blums who was formally an instructor at the Academy. Many exciting and fruitful years of learning later I am thrilled to be exhibiting alongside some of the greatest icons in the field of traditional fantasy art.
Which project are you most proud of?
I'm honored to have been involved in so many wonderful projects and book series over the years but here are a few.
The Temeraire books was a long series and I created my best Dragons for Naomi Novik. I went for a serpentine look. Much sleeker than some dragons you see which look more prehistoric and the artist has made an effort to show them as more dinosaur like. I decided to have a sleeker, smoother design that snakes it's way round the central icon that appears on each cover.
Another series I loved was Kelly Armstrong's Bitten series. The first book, called Bitten was my first major book cover and I am very fond of that cover.
Also there was a Monster series called The Demonata by Darren Shan, published by Harper Collins Children's division. I had never been told I need to give my monsters more goo, more gore and more blood! I happily obliged :)
Finally, I had the honor of working with Clive Barker who wrote and directed Hellraiser. I illustrated his back catalogue and we did a series of signed prints together. I was thrilled to have met and worked with him.
When you are not drawing, how do you like to relax?
The hardest thing with an illustator is to switch off, especially working from home. Days out away from the house. Going for walks, I tend to get some great ides when walking,
What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
I am an open book, pun intended :)
How important is it for you to be part of a creative community of people?
I think it's very important indeed. There is a danger of being too isolated as an illustrator/artist and possibly even losing persepective. I remember attaending a convention and hearing other artists at the time discussing ways of keeping active and trying to have a fresh approach. Exercise is important and also getting out of the studio a bit more.
If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?
If I wasn't an illustrator, I would be a sculptor or be involved in Special Effects. I always loved monster movies and I could definitely see myself creating or designing creatures or characters for movies.
What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?
Monsters! I do love a good monster :) I have also created a lot of animals such a tigers, leopards, cats and a crazy, blue donkey :) I do enjoy drawing them too. I have created a huge amount of SF space opera style pieces. I think a balance of subject matter is good as it keeps me fresh.
How do you get your creative juices flowing?
I think music is essential in creating the right mindset. I saw on the TV recently there was a experiment with drivers listening to fast paced music and their driving become more erratic and they drove faster. I think when driving and also illustrating, its better to have something with a slower pace, maybe more ambient music playing. However, to counter that and this doesn't inlcude driving as there are risks of injury, I do often listen to faster paced music when initially roughing out my visuals as finesse isn't needed, momentumn is, so sometimes dance or rock is preferred.
What is your favourite children’s book and why?
It has to be the Snowman by Raymond Briggs. The animated cartoon had a big affect on me. The music and also that fact that I live just outsdie Brighton, so I felt a connection.
Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.
Not including my oil painting style, I have two commercial styles with cover work, the photo-realistic approach which lends itself to adult fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy and also the cartoon-realism approach which appeals to middle grade, young adult and it gives me the opportunity to draw much more which is always a pleasure. Here are two examples - one crisper and harder edged and the other style is softer and smoother, as if I have taken all the sharp edges away.
Which project has been most instrumental in developing your personal style?
I had been trying to develop a new style about 10 years ago with more emphasis on drawing and more painterly. I had a hard digital style that lent itself to adult non fiction, hard science fiction and was photo realistic. I really was trying to evolve, but it was so difficult at the time as I had a lot of work that required my then current style. I came back from a incredible trip to Florence and I had a commission for a Conan the Barbarian type character and the publisher gave me the exciting opportunity to do something new. This was the basis of the technique that I have used for most of my children's cover work.
What do you hope children take away from your drawings?
I would hope, like any artist, that we all have a positive and enduring effect on children growing up and maybe inspire some to be artists when they grow up.
Take us behind the scenes and describe your studio / workspace.
Well, I have to admit its a bit untidy :) It's cosy and many cups of tea and 85% dark chocolate have been enjoyed :)
The photo is of my oil paintings as I don't think the computer is very interesting to look at. I try to put up some of my fave pieces I have created and a few old pics from other artists I grew up admiring.
Which 4 words would you use to describe your illustration portfolio?
Diverse, Versiatile, Dynamic, Exciting.
Which area of children’s publishing excites you the most?
I would say the area where imagination is still the priority in terms on the type of illustration that gets used. Too much of the other areas of book publishing have been reduced to a cover comprising of royalty free photos. There is still a sense of wonder with children's books and long may it continue!
Have you taken part in any speaker events?
Some years back, I did a few gigs about my work and the business. I was a bit shy at first, but it was really worth doing as it was a great experience and the feedback was amazing. I think I will do more.
Tell us about the creation of your favourite character from one of your books.
That is so hard as I have created many characters, but some have been for authors that have descibed a character, so I am fleshing them out, With some covers, I do get the chance to create my own fun characters and in this cover I had the chance to create a pulp Science Fiction cover. This was such a lot fun to do, having to imagine what American and European people from the 1930s and 1940s might think robots and artificial life would look like - and generally that there would be a anxiety fuelled spin on the idea.
How many times do you tend to draw a character until you are happy with it?
Sometimes It take a few attempts to get it right, but what I do (as I work digitally) is to simply keep going over it until it looks right. Sometimes I'm like a dog with a bone. I won't let it go until I am satisfied!