Over the many years that I have been traveling to tradeshows, gallery exhibits and teaching I've received so many questions from fans and students regarding my own personal journey to becoming an artist. Here I thought I would take a moment to answer a few of the most common.
Q: "How long have you been working as an artist?"
WOC: "I've been drawing ever since I was a child. I began studying formally at the age of ten at a private art academy in my home town. From there I went to Alfred University where I received a BFA in painting in 1992. During this time I also studied at The School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design in Manhattan to learn illustration. I received my first commission in 1991, and have been illustrating professionally ever since."
Q: "What kind of materials do you use?"
WOC: "I always say that I will use whatever gets the job done. I've used everything under the sun, from oils and acrylics to collage, mixed media, found objects, digital, and even dirt. I am always experimenting with new techniques, new mediums and grounds. I have found however that the majority of my pieces are acrylic under paintings with oil finishes on either illustration board or masonite. Beginning in 2005 I have been painting digitally, using Photoshop on top of traditional drawings, using a stylus. This technique has allowed me to experiment with new textures and colors that was impossible in traditional painting.
Furthermore I find that this is a frequent question when I do personal appearances and demonstrations. I always encourage new artists not to think that buying certain paints and brushes will make them better painters, or that using the same materials and techniques of their favorite artist will make their work look just as good. Just as a $5000 camera will not make you a better photographer, the top of the line oil paint and finest sable brushes will not make you a better artist. In fact expensive materials will often hinder a new artist from feeling that he can experiment and make mistakes. I've done some of my best work with a ball point pen and a piece of copy paper. Practice and patience are the only sure tools you can use, and they are free."
Q: "How long does it take you to do a painting?
WOC:"That depends on the project. A small concept sketch may take 20 minutes, while a complex wrap-around book cover could take 20 days.
When I work on a bigger painting, it is a process that takes several steps. First I like to think about the image I want to portray, the mood I am trying to capture that sums up the story. From here I begin thumb nailing quick compositional concepts, perhaps a dozen. These I refine to a rough sketch or two which is then submitted to the art director. After the two of us have hashed out the changes I produce a finished drawing on the canvas using all of my reference. If the art director requests a color sketch I will provide one, and up to this point usually takes about two weeks.
Now I can begin painting. I start with a tonal under painting in acrylic to establish my forms, and basic color scheme. Once this is sealed I can oil paint over this building up consecutive layers of paint, refining and detailing until it is finished. The actual painting process takes about 30 to 50 hours for a book cover depending on the amount of time that is budgeted by the client. The process is very similar when painting digitally. Consecutive layers in Photoshop are applied in almost exactly the same technique as the traditional method. A large book cover may have up to ten Photoshop layers.
For more information on how I paint see my new: painting demonstration.
Q: "Do you use photo reference?"
WOC"It depends on the assignment. If I am painting a dragon, or a two headed beast, no, but I will draw a great deal of inspiration from photo reference of animals or creatures with similar anatomical structure, or details such as skin, eyes, feathers, etc. If I am doing a close portrait of a character then, yes, I do use photography. The flavor and scope of the project is important for deciding whether or not to use photography. For a small spot illustration for a gaming project, it would likely take longer to find a model, setup lighting and costumes, photograph and process the image, than it would to paint the illustration. For a book cover where the facial details are important to the image, then I may take the time. It is important to remember that photographs should not be copied, but rather used as a guideline. I do have a very large reference library for everything from costumes to animals. The internet has also become an invaluable resource for visual reference. "
Q: Do you prefer traditional or digital?"
WOC:" Both traditional and digital mediums have their advantages, and I use each one for different reasons, and often combine the mediums. I don't think that one is seperate from the other. Just as I don't think that oil is better than acrylic, or pencil better than pen, I don't think that digital is better than traditional. When doing a painting for a gallery show I always choose oil, when working under a tight deadline for a client I almost always use digital. This day and age I consider myself multi-media. I use photography, pencil, digital, oilpaint and acrylic all in one painting sometimes. If I were pressed however, and had to pick only one medium to work with the rest of my life, it would be oil paint. It is the medium I was trained in and enjoy the most.
Q: " What do you feel is the most important skill needed to be an illustrator?"
WOC:"Storytelling. The art of illustrating is the art of telling stories with pictures. So many artists overlook this fundamental foundation. I've known painters over the years with magnificent skills never succeed because their images do not convey an emotional narrative. They're excellent painters, but not illustrators. Illustrating is not painting, or drawing, or digital or any medium. illustrating is communicating ideas in pictorial form, be that in oil, digital, pencil or photography. Tell an interesting story in any medium or style and you're making interesting illustrations. Decide what kind of stories you want to tell, then choose a medium that best conveys that vision. All mediums are only tools. Choose the right tool to make your stories come to life.
Q: " What is your greatest ambition as an illustrator?"
WOC:"I've got a few. As a boy it was to be on the cover of Dragon magazine....did that in 1997. Then it was to have my own book, that I did in 2008. I think now I'd like a Caledecott , a Hugo and a Spectrum Award, and best of all....75 yrs after my death have my collected works made into a Dover Book."
Q:Do I need to go to school for art?
WOC: Depends on the school. Art is much more than painting and drawing, and being an artist is much more than a technical vocation. Do you need to go to college to be an artist? No. Are there successful artists working who did not attend university? Yes. But I feel that it would be irresponsible to advise young, college age students, not to get as good an education as possible and a degree. Without a degree you are are gravely limiting your options for your future in any field. Any entry level professional job will require a bachelors degree in some field.
Young art students, (including myself) are often not excellent academic students, and the thought of going to a competitive college appears daunting. Don't allow this to diminish your education. I always recommend that students try to attend the most competitive college or university available to them with the best art department that they can afford, but to avoid art schools. University will expose a young person to a variety of people, ideas, experiences and disciplines that make a mature and thoughtful artist allowing you to get a degree in any number of disciplines. Art Schools and ateliers on the other hand are fine for an introductory or continuing education to learn specific skills or crafts, but lack the comprehensiveness of a College or University and are far too expensive for the limited education they offer. So the short answer: Yes, go to college and get an education and a degree, and if you want to be a painter, an illustrator a glass blower or a candlestick maker, there are innummerable weekend workshops and summer courses that will hone your specific craft."
Q: "How do you break into the illustration/publishing business?"
WOC:"Business is my least favorite aspect of being an illustrator. They don't teach you in college that a large portion of your time is going to be spent running a small business. Advertising, research, invoicing, contract negotiation, web hosting, shipping, travel, sales etc. Starting a career as an illustrator is no different than starting any other business. Advertising and visibility are your first concerns. Most business models will advise that you should spend 10% of your net income every year on advertising. Go to every single convention you can possibly schedule. The bigger the better. Gen Con, World Con, Dragon Con, San Diego Comic Con, Illuxcon, Spectrum Live, et al., these are some of the biggest. Don't underestimate the little local cons too. These are great for networking with other artists in your area, and developing a support group. Hopefully at these cons you will get noticed by winning an award, giving away a lot of flyers, and meeting editors and art directors. A single handshake with an art director is often worth the trip. A website portfolio is essential, so that art directors have 24/7 access to your work. Networking around the internet on social sites and art blogs is also an excellent way to bring traffic to your portfolio. Hard copy portfolios are still accepted at most publishers, but it has become much faster for an art director to just click to your website, than to sift through hundreds of portfolios. I have not shown a hard copy portfolio more than ten years years, and have not been asked for one. Blanket advertising like the Illustrator's annuals are an expensive and ultimately fruitless endeavor. There are thousands of artists in those books and they go to advertising agencies and marketing departments. Likewise, massive art websites like DeviantArt, ConceptArt and CGInet, are easy pitfalls because you become lumped in with thousands of mediocre and amature artists. Target advertising is best. Only target to art directors, not to art departments. Publications such as Spectrum, Expose, ImagineFX or Society of Illustrators are excellent since a twenty dollar investment can potentially put you in a collection of the year's best, and on the shelf of every art director in your field. In the beginning commissions may be few and far between, but take advantage of this time. Spend any down time you have working on your business. Create new paintings for your portfolio, learn new skills, take a life class, travel, work on advertising etc. Becoming a full time professional illustrator is like becoming a full time actor or writer. Treat your career like a business, and you will greatly improve your chances for success.
Q: "What is your favorite part of being an illustrator?"
WOC:"The freedom. Being your own boss is difficult, and a lot of hard work, but as an old friend of mine says, "A bad day painting, is better than a good day working." I make my own hours, I can accept or decline work as I like the project, and best of all, I draw monsters all day. The people I've met over the years too are some of the most talented and steady friends in my life. That has been a real joy."
Q: "What is your least favorite part of being an illustrator?"
WOC:"Working on deadlines to a committe of directors without any art traininging can be disheartening sometimes. But being a part of a team that successfully and creatively builds a world you're proud of makes it worthwhile."
Q: "What painting in your career are you most proud of?"
WOC:"At last count I have executed nearly 5000 illustrations for publication since 1991. I would have to say that "The Green Knight" is my favorite. Of all my paintings, it is the only one that hangs in my home. For me it is the purest composition, compelling narrative, and painted well. It was the process of that painting that makes it my favorite. Even today, I can recall the sheer pleasure of executing that piece. The paint just sang, using stains and scumbles, scratches, impasto, and glazes, it was like playing."
Q: "What should I put in my portfolio?"
WOC:"I have a good friend who is an art director at a major gaming company. One year at San Diego Comic Con she sat at a porfolio review table and looked at aspiring artist's work all morning. The line had stretched around the hall, and on Sunday she had estimated that she had seen over 2000 portfolios. I asked her 'Did you find anything good?' She answered flatly, "Nothing.'"
"It seemed amazing to me that out of 2000 portfolios she found nothing even remotely usable. The problem was that every single portfolio was the same. Pencil drawings on looseleaf paper of manga characters, superhero panels taken straight from the 'How to Draw the Marvel Comics Way' book, and celebrity portraits copied from photographs, and paintings taken right off of on-line workshop challenges. If you have any of these things in your portfolio, Take them out!!
Make sure that all of your work is original. Your ideas, your concepts, your designs, your style, and all appearing to be painted by the same artist. If an art director sees ten paintings she may like them all, but if they're all in a different style, they will hesitate to hire you, because you're unpredictable. At the same time you want to show your diversity. Mix up the subject matter, pallette, and composition, but keep the theme of the style. Creativity is the key, as you can see by some of the quotes from art advice for portfoilios by schools and companies. You can teach an artist painting or computers or any medium, but you can't teach creativity. That's the one thing all clients are looking for. I've seen Art Directors and Schools take on artists who were obviously substandard technically, but their creativity was amazing.
Keep it simple. Less is more. A minimum of eight paintings, no more than twenty in a portfolio. If you're uncertain about a painting, leave it out. We don't need to see everything. As a general rule, an art director will deciede whether he likes you or not with the first image. The second image shows that you can repeat the quality, and the third painting just confirms that its not a fluke. Additional images should then show your diversity and range.
Art portfolio webpages have become like art vomitoriums. Remember that an AD or College will judge you on your worst piece. Be careful what you put out there. Pencil doodles and design renders are nice, but don't make an art director sift through fifty unfinished sketches before getting to one finished piece. I can't tell you how many portfolios I've reviewed where the artist said, 'Oh, that's not finished.' Then it shouldn't be in your portfolio."
Presentation is important. Both traditional and online portfolios should be neat and easily navigable. If you're showing a client a beat-up sketch book with coffee stains and ripped pages, you've lost it before you even start. Even if the material is decent, the client is going to question the condition of the art they will receive and the attitude that you will give to their project. Colleges will likewise question your dedication. Your work is your life and livlihood, treat it with respect and others will too.
Be Professional. If you want to be a professional illustrator you have to act as a professional illustrator. Don't waste art directors' time. Do you like getting unsolicited junk mail? Multiply that by 5000 per month and you get an idea of an art director's life. Art directors love art, and some of the best friendships are between artist and art director, but if you're not getting noticed by art director's, you're work isn't ready yet. Standing in line at portfolio reviews, dumping images into slush piles of art drops, just will make you look amatuerish. If you read Art Directors blogs, they are busily looking for new talent. They scour shows, surf the web, read blogs, look at new work all the time. If you're not getting called, its not because they don't see you, don't hassle them! I've had good friends who were art direcotrs that I never worked with. Its not personal.
The best way to get work is to do really great work that is as good or better than the stuff they're already using, win some awards, (Art Directors love awards.) do shows and make a large presence on the web. The rest is up to them. If they don't like your work, you could stand on your head and juggle, it wouldn't make a difference. Stay professional. Don't worry about what one art director says, there are thousands of them out there. Do the work you love, do it the best you can do it, and the rest will happen. If you seriously want a critique, approach another artist, one you admire and respect, who will give you an honest opinion. "
Sell it. Remember that you are the salesman of your product. You need to be be your own best advocate of your work. If you're not interested and excited about what you do, no one else will be. I've done reviews where artists say "don't look at that one, its not very good." or when I ask a question about a design or color choice they've made I get a shrug. You need to believe in your work and be proud of it. Be open to critique, but also defend your choices. Art Directors are people too, your work needs to be your work, not theirs. Art is a very personal endevour, you have to do the work you like!"
The Following are examples of what leading University and Corporations are looking for in artist's portfolios.
Bioware Inc. Portfolio Submission Guidelines.
"To be a Concept Artist for the games industry, you need the following:
Imagination - if you don't have this as a foundation, you will never draw anything uniquely cool or interesting. We have seen plenty of great renderers with no imagination. Those portfolios are tough because the work looks good, but there is not an original idea in the bunch."
Mason Gross School of Art, Rutgers University Portfolio Submission Guidelines.
"Your portfolio...should represent your creativity, potential for artistic growth, dedication to artmaking and working hard, and offer evidence that you have looked at and read a bit about art and its history....Avoid cartoon action figures, monsters, graffiti art, "cutesy" kittens, traditional portraits (drawn from photographs), glamour and fashion advertising images."
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Portfolio Submissions Guidelines.
"Technical ability may or may not be considered more important than the creative and artistic efforts evident in your portfolio. We strongly recommend not submitting work copied from photographs or from other artwork. The Admissions Committee is interested in seeing the execution of an original concept."
Bizarre Creations Studios. Art Advice.
The things you'll need to show are a varied and creative (yes, creative, not copies of other peoples stuff!) portfolio, showing your talent and enthusiasm for art. It's an idea to show or take along a range of work - paper and computer, from early concept to completed pieces. Having talent is essential, as a talented artist doesn't need experience, and can usually adapt to other media.
The Savannah School of Art and Design. Portfolio Submissions Guidelines.
"Applicants should not submit work copied from film, television, photographs, magazine/book illustrations or other sources...Portfolios should include drawings from life, interior and exterior drawings of buildings, and work that demonstrates applicant's personal creativity."
Q:"Who are your favorite artists?"
WOC:"There are so many artists that I admire that it would be impossible to name only one. As an illustrator, I often look to Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth for inspiration. As a painter I find many of the modern artists inspirational for their compositions and bold colors. Among these are Kandinsky and Motherwell. In the past several years I have become deeply influenced by the Japanese woodblock painters like Hiroshige and Hokusai for their cinematic compositions. As a story teller I always look to film. My favorites for cinematography are, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, The Last of the Mohicans, and anything by Ridley Scott.
Amongst my peers I admire Donato Giancola, Jason Chan, Bebessa Guay, Justin Sweet, Todd Lockwood, Adam Rex, Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Michael Whelan and Tom Kidd, not necessarily in that order."
Q:"What do you feel is the most important aspect of being an illustrator?"
WOC:"Patience. Patience in developing skills, patience in your work, patience in your career. I strive for patience, but usually fall drastically short."
Q: "What reading list and web sites do you recommend for artists?"
WOC:"There are so many great works that could help guide an artist in his career, some practical, others are more spiritual. First of all under no circumstances should you ever pick up a book that has the words "how to draw" in the title. Very simply, there is no one way to draw, there's just one person's way to draw, and each person has to find their own way. The only way to learn is to do it, everyday, from life, never copy another artists work. It takes more time, but you will develop your own voice, and save a lot of money on books. The only way to learn to draw is to draw. With this in mind there are however hard and fast rules of aesthetics, color theory, optics composition, and perception that are unalterable, and they must be learned.
Some of the books that have helped me over the years...
"The Story of Art" E.H. Gombrich. (The only must-have book. Traces the ideas and movements of art from the prehistoric to the present day.)
"Art and Illusion: A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation". E.H. Gombrich. (This book is a great reference for learning how and why we see pictures.)
"Introduction to Aesthetics" George Dickie. (Comprehensive overview of the history of art theory and the study of beauty.)
"American Society for Aesthetics" visit:aesthetics-online.org(A great website with interesting articles by some of today's best art theorists.)
"Composition". Sarah Kent. (This is a children's introduction to composition that I use for teaching, but I have never found a better reference on the subject.)
A wonderful webpage that sums up the basics of Composition:
Composition and Design Principles
"Color Perception in Art". Faber Birren. (Everything you ever needed to know about color theory.)
"An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists". Fritz Schider. (The Anatomy book that I have worked from since high school.)
"History of Art". H.W. Janson. (The definitive book on the history of art that every freshman art major is required to own.)
"Concerning the Spiritual in Art". Wassily Kandinsky. (A treatise on the idea of the avante garde and the emotional impact of color.)
"Theories of Modern Art." Hershel Chipp. (A collection of writings from some of the leading artists from the modernist movement.)
"The Artist's Handbook" Ralph Mayer. (The ultimate art how-to book. Everything from grinding pigment, to making your own paint brushes and great color-spectrum charts.)
"The Sun the Moon and the Stars". Steven Brust. (A novel about a young painter in NYC. One of my favorites.)
"Narcissus and Goldmund". Hermen Hesse. (A novel about two artists in the middle ages. One a journeyman, the other a monk.)
"The Life of Bevenuto Cellini" Bevenuto Cellini. (Autobiography of a baroque sculptor chronicling his adventures in Italy.)
Q:"What do you do when not illustrating?"
WOC:"That would assume there is a time when I'm not illustrating. Actually I love the outdoors. Hiking and gardening are two activities I really enjoy. I've hiked in Maine, Montana, Wyoming, New York, New Jersey, California and Washington. One day I hope to hike the Appalachin Trail. I like traveling in general. Being an illustrator has allowed me to travel all over the country and visit museums and meet people, and see interesting and historic places.
In the past few years I have been teaching as well. To introduce a new artist to the ideas and concepts of art is very rewarding.
Q:"Where do you get your ideas?"
WOC:" I steal them from a little elf in my dreams. Believe it or not, this is also a common question. If I had a formula for coming up with new ideas I'd be the wealthiest man in the world. Unfortunately, ideas are an amalgamation of all our experiences and perceptions. Sometimes the stimuli of what you've seen and done or where you have been at a certain time triggers an idea. The general formula for coming up with new ideas is not to close off the world. There are 5000 years of painting and sculpture, 2000 years of literature and 1000 years of music to be inspired by. For an artist to purposefully only focus on early 21st century pop culture is hopelessly short sighted. Going out and seeing and doing everything you can will inspire ideas and creativity. Listen to music you've never heard before, go to a new museum or gallery, try a new art medium, eat food you've never tasted before, talk to people you've never met. These are the ingredients of experience, and new ideas."
"Inside The Actor's Studio" Questionnaire:
Q: "What Turns You On?"
Q: "What Turns You Off?"
Q: "What sound or noise do you Love?"
WOC: "My daughter laughing."
Q: "What sound or noise do you hate?"
Q: "What is your favorite word?"
Q: "What is your least favorite word?"
Q: "What other profession than yours would you like to attempt?"
Q: "What other profession than yours would you not want to attempt?"
WOC:"Anything in food services."
Q:"What is your favorite swear word?"
Q:"If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you reach the Pearly Gates?"
WOC:"Want to go again?"
Are there questions that you have that are not listed here?
To send a question or comment to William O'Connor mail to: