In the second of my series of interviews with designers discussing how they collaborate with writers/publishers, Melbourne based illustrator Guy Shield shares the creative process behind his scenic storytelling.
You’ve illustrated for an impressive list of publications, including Kill Your Darlings, Wired, Rolling Stone and Granta. How do you negotiate with the art director or editor to get a concept approved?
I prefer to think of it as a collaboration more than a negotiation. To be honest, I’ve never really had to push to get something over the line with an editor/AD. I try not to get too attached to any of my ideas unless I think I’m onto something really great, in which case I might try to sway them by suggesting things could be stronger.
But often it comes down to the type of person I’m dealing with. I’d like to think I can discern pretty quickly between a client who knows exactly what they want, versus the type who’s happy to give you creative freedom.
Either experience can be fun — the art director who sends a load of references and tells you, for example, what kind of lamp they want in the background, is a lovely reassurance. On the other hand, creative freedom is quite liberating. Although when you’re left unguided and the feedback is simply “great”, I feel like there’s no real relationship happening – which makes it like a loveless marriage!
Halfway in between those two you can hit muddy territory, where there’s guidance but no confidence/leadership. The response-by-committee “can you just try this?” feedback. Hesitation can be creative murder — the ones who know what they don’t want, but can’t express what they want until they see it, and you’re left batting in the dark. It’s those situations I’ll have to break out more options than usual for, or iron things out in a few more steps than usual to make sure everyone’s happy.
Designing book covers, I generally pitch 3 or 4 initial concepts followed by a series of rough drafts, before a series of refined drafts and finally, the finished art. At the end of a “normal” job, I have between 20 and 30 drafts in my process folder. How many drafts do you consider “normal” for an editorial illustration?
My process isn’t dissimilar to yours, but as my illustration can be quite labour intensive/detailed there are the same number of steps, with fewer drafts. I’ll start with roughly 10 concepts, but I’ll only present the 3-4 I’d be happiest to work on. Flooding an art director/editor/client with options can be dangerous. By limiting the number of options to just the ones I’d be happy to work on, the end result feels much more engaged. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll maybe consider the remaining 6-7 concepts, but I haven’t had that problem (yet!).
From here I’ll do a tightened (but still kinda rough) sketch, get feedback/approval on that, and then present a final tighter pencil draft. This is their last opportunity to make any final tweaks as after that I’ll ink it up and run colour through it, digitally.
The colour stage usually involves a bit of back and forth, but all up I’d say I my process involves 5-10 roughs, two pencil drawings, one ink drawing, three colour proofs before finished art. It also depends on deadline. If I’ve only got 48 hours to turn something around, then options/feedback gets paired back to essentials.
In addition to your commercial illustrations, your website features a staggering number of personal illustration projects, and a blog where you show and discuss your creative process. You also show process on your Behance site. What motivates you to produce so much work, and share your process?
It’s funny, I go through major phases of having drawer’s block, so when that creative knot gets untied it’s followed by a phase of panic, where I suddenly have a tonne of ideas I want to produce/try. It can be a short-lived, or quite an extended period of time, but either way I just know that I need to be as prolific as possible!
Drawing for me is such a natural and fulfilling past-time, that I really am a kid in a candy store when I’ve got loads of things I want to do, so I’m just producing all this work to satisfy a creative itch.
As for sharing my process — when I was working as a designer and getting into illustration on the side, I’d track down and write to some of my favourite illustrators/artists and ask them about their process, and for any feedback they might have on my own work. While I didn’t always expect replies, a lot of the time they’d write me some incredibly thoughtful, generous and open-minded replies … almost like a mentor.
So I feel by sharing/discussing my creative process, I’m offering up a wealth of learning I’ve acquired from others over the years, as well as my own experiences. I think it’s important for anyone in this sort of position to leave behind more than just a body of work. I feel like my process isn’t sacred and if it gives anything close to the level of inspiration I was getting from some of my heroes back in the day, then I can at least feel like I’m giving something back!
Describe your ideal collaboration – who would you like to work with, and how?
I’ve always wanted to take a year off to produce a book of short stories in a graphic novel format with a collective of well-known/talented authors from around the world. I like the idea of collaborating with someone from a different field, where ultimately it’s bringing the best out in both works. Either that, or to illustrate covers for an entire back catalogue of an author, like what Ex Libris Vintage classics did a few years ago.