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Sunday, 11 November 2012

Interview with Jon Hodgson

Jon has worked on some of the biggest projects a fantasy artist could wish for. His clients range from the “BBC:” right the way to “Wizards of the coasts”. His work has a light airy feel that is pulled off effortlessly. Despite having the airy feel his work is textured fantastically.

His subject matter is always based on fantasy which is married perfectly to his almost watercolour like style. His images feel loose but looking at them closely not a single line is out of place. Everything in his works just blends together. Nothing is offensive to the eye or feels out of place.

AF: What got you into fantasy art?

JH: As a kid I was fascinated by the books I found around the house. The Tolkien Bestiary, an illustrated copy of The Hobbit, lots of art books. My family are a creative bunch, so it was bound to rub off. I very quickly got into Fighting Fantasy/Choose your own Adventure books as a kid, and the wonderful illustrations by the likes of Russ Nicholson sealed my fate.

AF: Who are your inspirations?

JH: It’s a tremendously long list. Paul Bonner is a big one of late, in that he successfully blends fantasy and mythic themes, and I love the more mythic, real-world-legend side of fantasy. Angus McBride has been a life long inspiration. I love how be blends a clear love of painting, looser areas and laser sharp focus. I find his style of painting absolutely wonderful. There are a couple of names who when I was a younger man showed me the way through their work, and showed that what I wanted to do was possible – Simon Bisley, Justin Sweet both showed me you could really “paint” and be an illustrator.

AF:How long did it take you to get to a professional level?

JH:That a tough question. I did the whole art school thing for 4 years, then worked as a props maker for a few years. I guess from deciding to really take my painting seriously in terms of it becoming a career and going full time took maybe 3 years? It’s hard to pin it down precisely because professional is such a vague term. Many people are paid for making art that looks awful. Many “amateurs” produce simply marvelous work which they have no desire to sell.

AF: What is your ideal project?

JH: I am extremely lucky in that I’ve been working on it for close to 3 years. It’s called The One Ring, and it’s a Middle-Earth roleplaying game. It’s an absolute joy to be involved in, and the whole thing has really pushed me in so many ways.

AF: If you could colab with any artist (living or dead) who would it be?

JH: Hmm. I recently painted a cover over a pencil sketch by John Howe. I think I’ll struggle to top that. John is like a mandarin of fantasy art. He’s hugely knowledgible, and a true renaissance man. I’d like to be like that when I grow up. I suppose I should make some moves on that growing up thing as I approach 40…

AF: You specialised in abstract painting, what changed?

JH: Hmm. In some senses nothing – when I get the occasional chance I still paint abstracts for myself. Without getting too deep into it, I had a few gallery shows and didn’t warm to that world at all. I prefer what I regard as the honesty I see in illustration. If your work is good enough you will get work and get paid. Simple as that. The criteria are a lot more open and transparent. There are a bunch of skills required in the gallery art world which i have no interest in pursuing. I love the pop art aspects of fantasy illustration, and I am love the relationship the fans have with the work. It’s very direct.
How do you typically tackle a project?
This has changed for me somewhat in the last couple of years. Typically a brief will come in via email, I have a think about it, make some thumbnail sketches to see what works, take one of those forward into a tighter sketch, send it to the client and hopefully then paint it.

In recent times since more of my time is taken up by art direction, and producing a lot of work for the company I art direct for (Cubicle 7) the communication with the “client” is a lot more direct – the client role is now taken up by colleagues, and that’s a very satisfying change. There’s less of that slightly adversarial relationship that can creep into freelance work – I work more as a team member now, and I love that. I also have a lot more freedom to put what I think is important in artwork for games into practice, rather than solely doing what I’m told, and I’m loving that. I think I had reached a point in my career where I needed a more responsible role where I could be heard as well as listen.

AF: What are your current long time goals?

JH: To retire to lounge on a pile of money? Seriously I want to push forward with the quality we’re bringing to projects at the company I work for (Cubicle 7). We have more and more big projects coming up and I want to make those sing with amazing art. I’m consistently humbled by the dedication and talent of the guys who work for me, and I’m constantly trying to figure out way to facilitate and support them. That’s really important.

For myself I would love, if it were possible, to work on more Middle-Earth material. It is so deep that it is immensely satisfying to work on, and can carry so much variety in tone and texture. To keep bringing the Early Medieval flavour to Middle Earth if I am allowed to do so.

AF: What one creation are you most proud of?

JH: Oh crumbs, that’s a hard one. Like so many illustrators I look at my work and largely see it’s flaws before anything else. I’m always looking to the next project. In fact to answer this I will actually have to go and look at my dA gallery to find something I’m happy with. Ok I’m going to be awkward and pick two if I may be so bold? First is an image called “Mountains Boy” which was a purely personal piece. I was genuinely happy with that one, and I feel it’s the closest I’ve come to what I would call a work of art. It’s highly ambiguous, and I love that. Some viewers see a guy leaping off rocks into a landscape with joyful abandon, some see a suicide. And I didn’t distinguish as I was painting it, and that ambiguity was very much the heart of the subject.

The other piece is the painting I made for The One Ring of Smaug. I had just an afternoon to do it, which felt totally insane for such an important subject, and it was weird to have this lucid moment during painting it at high speed where I thought to myself “here you are, painting Smaug for an actual Middle-Earth publication. Er wow.” I hope to never lose that feeling of gratitude and wonder. I thought I did an ok job with that one. I knew it had to be fairly simple due to the time constraints, and that meant it had to be one hammer blow rather than a delicate series, if that analogy makes any sense? I think it works, just about.

AF: You worked on commissions for Wychwood brewery. What is the most bizarre project you have ever been given?

JH: I would say the series of drawings for sex education for kids with autism. It was a very strange one, but did actually feel very important. Sometimes a brief comes in, especially with the educational stuff i work on, and you learn something. I don’t spend a lot of time wondering how people who are differently abled cope with the world of sex. I mean it’s scary enough for those of us who have been blessed with a more straight forward brain and body set up, right? So it was nice to help.

AF: What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

JH: Number one, above everything else: Make sure you love the actual work of drawing, painting and image making to order. This is often expressed by showing off how many hours you’ve worked or whatever, which to my mind is nonsense. You can produce better work in less time if you’re set up that way. I used to do life drawing this this dude who would sit and look at the model for 5 minutes, and then pick up his pencil, draw one line which was the whole figure. It was amazing to watch, and taught me a lot about work, and what it means.

To me working all night potentially says you have no grasp of time management and paint too slowly, but it seems to be the en vogue thing to show off about. Be very wary of being sucked into that. We all have to put the hours in, but just working hard and long hours isn’t enough, and is not sustainable for a full adult life if you want to have stuff like friends, relationships, kids, quality of life in general. Whilst we all love making art the danger of solely living to work is as corrosive to an artist as an office worker.

But soapboxing about time management to one side, do make sure you love it. It is the only thing that will keep you going through the inevitable hard times. I see a couple of aspiring artists in my social circles who don’t have sufficient love of the actual processes, and they want what they perceive as the fame and respect that comes with the role. That’s a nonsense, and a wrong-headed thing to chase. People at the very top of the game have the same concerns as those at the very bottom – how to stay in work, how to make ends meet, how to get all this work done. That doesn’t change with success, and it’s the love of the core process that will sustain you.

Also you must understand that being an illustrator is running a business. If you hate that idea, if you can’t find a way to sell yourself, to do accounts, to do marketing, networking and all of that stuff? Then maybe it’s not the life for you. Equally though there are many ways to handle that stuff, and they will vary by the individual. Couple of examples of that: I know one successful freelancer who has his mum handle his accounts and invoicing. Fair enough! For self promotion, these days I can switch on my self marketing persona like a light. It’s not “me”, my true, personal, family self. It’s a character that I had to build in order to get out there and get work, or else I was going to have to give up. Ways and means, you know?

Be careful not to be suckered into pity-parties and moaning groups. There is a lot of this about – where illustrators get together to tell each other how hard done-by they are. Whilst it is good to compare notes and war stories to get wiser about the business, pure negativity is never helpful, and self pity helps no one. Becoming a full time illustrator is hard: the numbers are against you. You will get really down about the challenges, you will suffer, you will want to give up. Make no mistake. But you can make a living from fantasy art, and in general the people you will hear proclaiming that one can’t are speaking about themselves. And often a glance at their folio will explain it.

Work hard, work smart. Make work that will sell in work time, and if you need to express yourself beyond that make personal work for yourself outside of work time. Eventually you might be lucky enough to bring the two together.

Set yourself clear, achievable goals. Don’t say “I want to work for the top company by X date”, that’s easy to say and tough to achieve. Set small goals like “I want to have submitted my work to 10 art directors this month”. Or “I will make 2 new folio pieces this month showing new things I haven’t tackled before”.

Be aware that advice from others is always skewed by their own perspective. Some people will tell you in no uncertain terms to be a specialist – find a niche and work the hell out of it until you own that niche. Equally though someone else will tell you to try everything, have experience in everything, be able to say “yes I can do that” more than “no I can’t”. How do you reconcile those pieces of advice? It’s very difficult. Different things work for different people, and being a successful illustrator is by definition a statistical anomaly. Those of us making a living are a tiny, odd minority of fantasy artists, let alone artists in general. Success in illustration is about being an outlier in many ways. So all advice is worth listening to, digesting, and drawing your own conclusions about. Try to be as widely read as you can be. Always look outside of your niche.

Focus on what you can control and change. Draw more. Paint more. If you find yourself whining on-line stop, hit delete and go draw. It is within your power to change bad situations with hard work, but no one can do that work for you, and whilst we all need to let off steam, don’t do it in the place where you advertise your services. Punch a pillow, moan to a friend off line. Draw more.

There is no magic short cut. I get asked a lot what brushes I use in Photoshop. Hard round. The first one in the defaults I believe. It’s nothing to do with special brushes. Learn to draw and paint you can turn almost any tool into good illustration. There are whole industries dedicated to telling you that you need expensive tools, precious artifacts of artistic creation, that you need to pay for this and that. Be wary of that stuff. It’s a diversion. A pencil and piece of typing paper work just as well a lot of the time.

Last of all, don’t believe the hype. Being an illustrator is precisely nothing to do with the 19th Century myth of being an artist. Don’t aim to be an eccentric creative who wears a beret and goes on and on about how eccentric and creative they are. Unless you have the super-talent that lets you get away with that fun nonsense (and some people do, and more power to them, they make the world a more varied place!) aim to be a hardworking, dependable ditch digger of an illustrator who is nice to work with, who inspires clients with hard work, timeliness, flexibility, self awareness, crazy stuff like manners and social skills: It’s a job.

Be sure to check out Jon’s Deviantart account here
Also be sure to bookmark his personal website

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