I am envious of people who can draw. You transformed many of my daubs into really interesting pictures. When did you realise that you had this skill, and how have you developed it?
I’ve always loved to draw. The first things I remember drawing were ‘detailed’ pictures of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, aged 7, in the art area of my first school, the day after the first episode aired. At that point I was still convinced it was a show about some turtles and a teenaged mute, but I’d been bitten by the drawing bug and from then on was the ‘class artist’ (along with my best friend at the time).
From there, it was just a case of sticking with it, until my GCSE art course very nearly stuck a stake in my love of drawing. I had a succession of terrible teachers, one of whom made us sew a collage of seashells for a whole term. All I wanted to do was draw, and learn how to draw better, but aside from one excellent morning where we were shown the building blocks of a human face, it was an impossible struggle to actually bring illustration into art lessons. I clung to Lichtenstein and the like as we swung through the history of modern art, but the lack of practical skill teaching obliterated any enthusiasm to follow the subject through to A-Level, which was a real shame. I wish I’d been able to specialise in illustration at school, but the focus is on objective marking schemes, hoop-jumping, and pointless pamphlets of preparatory sketches, usually produced after the final piece. If I’d been able to do a GCSE in How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, I’d be a lot better at scribbling than I am now!
After that, I decided to devote myself to ‘serious literature’, i.e. the type that comes without pictures. I still wrote a (not very good) novel during sixth form, and planned a blockbuster children’s adventure series that was going to make my fortune, but I was kidding myself all along about the not-drawing thing. Half of the preparatory material for the books was illustrations or acrylic paintings, and my notebooks were all still scrawled with pencil sketches. It was around that time I first got the internet and a scanner at home, too, which got me into digital art and colouring in a big way.
It wasn’t until the first week of my English degree at
that I picked up some comics again, and realised what I really wanted to do. :-) Luckily the English courses are flexible enough to cram in four or five novels and an essay a week and leave just enough time to re-learn how to draw. Cambridge
I started Dubious Tales (www.dubious-tales.com), my now long-concluded webcomic, in my final year at university, mainly to force myself to write, draw and colour a page every week. I think it worked out pretty well, and I’d love to have a schedule that had enough spare time that I could do one again! One day soon I’ll get around to challenging myself to see whether I can colour a page more quickly than I used to – one page of Dubious Tales used to consume a whole Sunday for colours alone…
What projects are you working on now?
Always a tricky question! Although the day job is doing its best to get in the way (I seem to spend a lot of time redrawing or recolouring bits of pages to meet approval these days – work that tends to follow me home, where the computer is better!), I’ve always got a good few projects on the go – some more serious than others. I’ve just gotten a graphics tablet, so I’ve been spending a few weeks getting used to that and experimenting with various pieces of art. I’ve been revamping my blog (dubiousaj.blogspot.com/) with the aim of putting up a lot more sketches and coloured pieces… a plan which of course has fallen by the wayside, as Christmas is always horrendously busy! I’ve just wrapped up a couple of commissions, as well as ‘painting’ my Christmas card for this year.
There’s a lot going on. I just need to find enough time and focus to finish some of my projects! And of course, getting them printed or published is another uphill climb altogether…
Who have been your biggest influences? What type of books, films, music do you like?
The sad but true story is that most of them are pop culture collaborations, rather than individual artists (which isn’t to say I’ve haven’t gone back to find out exactly who was responsible, or, in more than one case, ended up working with them…). Childhood was a succession of shiny 80s cartoons that left an indelible mark and made me want to tell stories (even toyetic ones!) – Ghostbusters, Turtles, Transformers. I absorbed a love for comics alongside them, and all the visual vocabulary that goes with it, without even realising. Tintin gave me a love for the ligne claire style.
Star Wars and endless probably-too-adult-for-me-at-the-time science fiction novels (Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear) were my bread and butter through my defensibly nerdy teens. The X Files added horror to the SF mix, and Buffy demonstrated you could have your pop culture references and eat your high emotional drama too.
Heading out of my teens and off to university, Spaced had a huge effect on me – I owe Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes a great debt. A triple whammy of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (the ultimate back-to-comics cliché, but perhaps less so at the time), Ultimate Spider-Man and Y: The Last Man got me back into reading comics, but it was Craig Thompson’s Blankets that made me want to try for a career in them, and John Allison and Scary Go Round that showed the webcomics way. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim neatly accompanied me through the last five years. There are too many to count, really, and I keep remembering others I’ve left off the list – Japanese TV doramas, the manga of Naoki Urasawa and Katsuhiro Otomo. I’ve just gotten into Community of late, and it’s basically the sitcom I’ve always wanted to write. One less thing for me to do! :-)
My inner child gives me a high-five every time I work on an old favourite, which keeps the enthusiasm going through the approvals process, but my personal work incorporates pretty much everything going. I love work that hops across genres, or which combines them in new and unexpected ways. Horror rubbing up against comedy, character pieces in the middle of sweeping epics. I like internal narrative cohesion (rather than kitchen sink approaches to storytelling), but as life doesn’t fit into genre boundaries, I like stories that don’t either.
Musically, I like songs that tell stories, too, as well as bands that have a unique energy. Los Campesinos! The New Pornographers, Stars, Hefner, Feist, Lykke Li, Rilo Kiley… Long lists. I can do lists. :-)
Films-wise: Grosse Pointe Blank, Eternal Sunshine, Donnie Darko, Brick, Linda Linda Linda, Only Yesterday, Back to the Future… And it’s Christmas, so I’m looking forward to the annual festive viewing of Die Hard…
I tend to burn through novels as well, when I do get the chance to sit down and read them (usually on train journeys), but it’s tricky to pick long-term favourites. After gorging on ‘literature’ for my degree, I usually find myself gravitating towards relatively lighter fare, which seems less like a moral failing as the years go on. :-)
What are your ultimate aims artistically?
I’d love to be able to make a living by producing my own material – whether that’s novels, comics, colouring, drawing or, ideally, some combination of everything that I do. Which is a tricky proposition in itself, especially as I’m often guilty of starting five different projects when inspiration strikes and tiring of them when the first flush of energy dies out. I’m looking to work with more collaborators to make sure there’s always someone demanding the next pages of a script, or the next colours, or the next concept.
The trouble with my approach is that I get the biggest buzz out of ‘research and development’ – my favourite thing at work is coming up with new concepts and projects and putting together the initial volley of plans – it’s the making them a reality where I most often come a cropper. A phalanx of clones would seem to be the only answer…
What are your aims professionally?
See above! I’m still working on the master-plan, basically. I’m definitely feeling the need to get a move on, of late, so it’s time to knuckle down and produce some actual content.
What advice would you give to other artists and illustrators?
Find more time to draw than I do, for a start… and finish things! The advice I see most often is ‘persistence’, and it’s the piece of advice that comes up the most often because it’s the most useful, and also, as an artist, usually the last thing you want to hear! Your art will get better the longer you stick at it, the more you draw, paint or colour, the more you absorb influences and work on your style. You’ll find more and better opportunities for yourself the longer you go looking for them. And most importantly, no matter if you’re working in straight-up illustration or comics, look outside of your field for inspiration. Read widely. Read the news. Investigate photography, portraiture, art from all over the world. Everything that challenges you to take on influences outside of your narrow range of experience gives something extra to your own artistic vocabulary, even if you’re not consciously synthesising it.
Most importantly, try to get out of your comfort zone. Left to my own devices, I can happily draw only the things that I know I can draw. But it’s only by tackling the things you can’t – and being ready to fail, and fail often – that you’ll get better. If you’re producing your own comic strip, try a little schizophrenia and write a script for it without limiting yourself to what you can draw. You might be cursing your Writer Self later, but you’ll also be pushing yourself in new directions. Even better is a challenge like Schoolboy Science, which involved a lot of photo and diagrammatic reference and unexpected illustrations.
Finally… if you’re drawing people, studying anatomy and how clothes fold will always make your work better. One day I’ll take a sabbatical and do sketches of nothing but…
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Married, happy, and telling my own stories in as many ways as possible. Anything else is very hazy at this point!
Thank you for your time, Andrew
You’re welcome, Keith!