Let's Talk Art | Combining traditional painting with digital and pin-up with John Keaveney

March 8, 2017

Welcome to the second interview in the #LetsTalkArt series. The aim of this series is to explore what it means to be an ‘artist’ and to find out how artists have developed their craft over the years. Throughout the series, Jack Woodhams will be chatting with artists from countries all over the world, many of whom have worked for incredible brands such as Disney, Marvel, BBC, 20th Century Fox, Empire Magazine and more!
This time Jack is interviewing London based illustrator John Keaveney who often combines traditional painting methods with digital finishing techniques to create his stunning work. In this interview, we’ll be discussing illustration training, the importance of social media and self-promotion as well as the evolution of style and technique.
So, let’s talk art…

Your art style is very unique; you tend to combine traditional and digital styles. Can you tell us more about your workflow?

Lots of research is done and reference material is gathered before I start my sketches. I break my ideas down to decide which are the basic elements I want to include and I try and fit them into a composition. Sometimes I’ll go through a couple; sometimes I’ll go through 5-10 initial concept designs. Once I’m decided on my composition I begin working into detail. I use a range of techniques and mediums to create my final illustrations. I paint with acrylic or gouache paints to create a traditional textured aesthetic, once I’m happy at this stage, the artwork is scanned into the computer. I digitally add tones and work into the piece further, colour is applied in Photoshop.
Working digitally helps me have control over the final process. The Wacom tablet I use has been designed to feel as natural as possible, which supports my traditional style. The benefits of digital painting are helping me to produce work faster, being more flexible and allowing me to enhance my paintings or correct proportions and mistakes.

When working on new art, how do you best discover the best composition or style for the piece?

I use pencil and paper or Adobe Photoshop to sketch concepts. I tend to look at cinematography for inspiration. When I was a student I would study artists that I admired to learn how they approached their work.
Usually, the subject matter decides the approach to composition. When creating a new artwork I always ask myself, what’s the story? Who is my target audience? My job as an illustrator is to portray a story through illustration and making it engaging with my work. I generally focus on the protagonist as the focal point.

In 2010 you graduated from Portsmouth University, England, would you say that studying at University helped to excel your skills as an illustrator?

The illustration course at the University Portsmouth is respected for its emphasis on professional practice and contextual Research in Illustration. The course helped me with exploring different materials and techniques I would never use otherwise. But I developed my existing skills through specialist workshops which included print workshops, Adobe workshops, etching, printing and photography. Whilst at University I was able to explore themes such as, narrative and sequential illustration, the ethical and social positioning of the artist, and exploring literary sources for inspiration.
The third year of University was focused on self-promotion, which encouraged us to challenge ourselves, push boundaries and realise your potential as visual practitioners. We had professional illustrators David Lupton, Sara Fanelli and other working illustrators discuss their working career. A significant experience, that provided us with a basic understanding of the commercial world of illustration.

For any artists reading this who may not be able to go to University, what advice would you give them in regards to progressing their talents?

For me, it was a great experience. It was a place to make friends, advance my skill set and learn to be independent. University courses allow you the opportunity to explore techniques and mediums you wouldn’t else be able to do whether you find you enjoy them or not!
The internet has created an explosion of opportunity for digital designers and artists. Today the high amount of accessible tutorials and guidance access is everywhere. Video tutorials are accessible in an instant on YouTube, Instagram, social media and for free. Self-taught skills are great, I’ve taught myself a lot of techniques over the years including airbrush and sculpting. But being at University surrounded by other students in the same position as yourself helps push your creativity and communication skills. The knowledge you can obtain from others experiences can really boost your skills. I feel a University degree helps you get your foot in the door if you plan on working in an art-related industry. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and which what path you want to go, and how much effort you put into it. I think it’s defiantly possible to become a successful illustrator without a degree.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked in many different sectors, from pop culture to fashion to storyboarding. Is there a sector you prefer or would like to work more in?

Over my career, I have professionally worked as an in-house designer and illustrator for design agencies as well as taking on freelance projects form my home studio. I’ve learnt a lot so far over my profession. I originally thought the best carrier suited to me would be a concept artist but as my style developed over time, I realised I was more suited to working at a slower pace on detailed pieces. I have become quite a perfectionist.
Right now I am where I always wanted to be, creating alternatively Licensed and official movie Posters and being a freelancer, deciding which clients I want to work with is great.
I am passionate about film and cinema so having the opportunity to interoperate my favourite characters and films couldn’t be more awesome. I often get to choose the characters or subject matter when creating a new piece. I feel my best work has come out of being passionate about the subject.

Talk a little about your process, how do you create your art?

I paint in greyscale and then add colour digitally. Traditional paint can be unpredictable, from using textured brushes to watercolours. They have various densities and blending properties, so each requires a different treatment.
When working in Photoshop, there are great advances to drawing and painting that counts. Drawing on my Wacom effortlessly I can paint knowing that I can fully control the process. I have the ability to easily able to go back in my history tab, effortlessly colour enhancing my works. I use custom brushes that have the appearance of a traditional paintbrush. When drawing traditionally, you’d need to spend a lot of time carefully building up layers to make such an effect. You know exactly what you want to do, it just takes a lot of time.

In the past year, you’ve had some of your work sold via Bottleneck Gallery in New York, including some officially licensed prints. How did you get to that point?

Having worked for Empire Design (Award Winning Design Agency) for a few years has been one of the biggest help in my career. Whilst working at Empire I designed and created concepts campaigns for Official movies & TV. I was lucky enough to work on some amazing campaigns. Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, ParaNorman, Alan Partridge, James Bonds Skyfall, Drive, Stoker to name a few.
After working at Empire I had a desire to keep creating poster artwork, this time focusing on cult classics. Movies and Pop culture have always appealed to. There is a community of poster collectors out there and I think that’s partly due to companies like Bottleneck Gallery, Grey Matter Art, Mondo and PosterSpy. The release of alternative posters is growing, a large community of artists and movie fans that follow this movement. I entered a few creative briefs, including a PosterSpy competition designing a poster for ‘Star Wars The Force Awakens’. My artwork gained recognition online through social media which went viral. The gallery contacted me interested in collaborating on such projects and the rest is history.
Being part of the Bottleneck Gallery has been such a great experience, to have this extended network of friends. Having my work sold online next to artists like Drew Struzan, Tomer Hanuka and Laurent Durieux such talents and a great honour to be amongst them.

For artists looking to collaborate with galleries or to sell their work, what advice would you give?

I would research the gallery or design agency website you plan to approach. See if your work is a match to the other art they sell, or maybe your style might fit in. Being polite and friendly, showing that you are someone that they’d see having a good working relationship with. Your work must be up-to-date, have a website, not just a social media account of available work. Show current work not artwork that was done 5 years ago in high school. They would want to see what this year’s work looks like.
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back. Not everyone will get back to you. I’ve been the same position, and it takes time and perseverance. Keep the work flowing and explore different ways to grab people’s attention. Most importantly make sure to listen to feedback, have an open mind. Speak to the illustrators you aspire to and ask them advice.

What’s your favourite illustration that you’ve created in the last 3 years?

Tough one, usually it tends to be whatever I’m working on currently. I guess I would have to pick the campaign poster I designed for the film ‘Stoker’ collaborated with my partner whilst working at Empire Design. The mood in that piece is really close to what I shoot for in all of my work and the drawing seems to speak well for itself.
The poster is fully hand drawn illustration. It’s not often you get to draw a fully illustrated official poster. As more often than not posters these days are created in Photoshop. I was included as part of the film trailer for ‘The Making of the International Teaser Poster’ showing me and my partner drawing the poster over the trailer, fun experience! Seeing my artwork printed onto Advertising posters/buses on my way to work in the mornings was a bit surreal. Furthermore, the work we created was shown at the Curzon cinema Premiere. Whilst at the Premiere I got a chance to speak to the talented Old Boy director Park Chan-Wook. I managed to meet up with him after the premiere. He mentioned he loved the poster artwork we created for his campaign. He was a totally humble friendly guy!
Another favourite piece of illustration I created recently was Marvels Captain America for Bottleneck Gallery/Grey Matter Arts. It was a dream; I’ve always loved comics as a kid, so I had a personal connection to the piece.

In 2010 you were an exhibitor at the New Designers exhibit in London, one of the most important events for student and graduate artists. How did you find this experience useful?

Very useful! I went 2 years, first as a student, the second year I was invited back as a graduate for the ‘One Year On exhibition’. The New Designers exhibit was a great experience to meet other students and graduates in exactly the same position as you.
It was a great opportunity to interact with design companies and get advice. I received useful guidance from The Association of Illustrators. Explaining the best ways to get an agent or and get your work out there. Helping you recognize your own abilities and give you the tools to develop them. New Designer is a great place to sell yourself, offering networking and connections that might help you get a job in design or freelance projects.

For graduates or emerging artists, what is the 1 most important thing you tell yourself as an illustrator to stay motivated?

I am motivated by film trailers and upcoming releases. My licensed poster for The Force Awakens was purely motivated by my excitement for the movie and being a big fan of the franchise. I keep myself motivated by choosing subjects that excite me.
It’s hard at times to keep the motivation up if I’ve hit a wall I have to take a break and make sure I’m looking after myself. I make sure to get enough exercise which will not only improve my physical health but also reduce stress, enhance my mood and overall well being, which will aid my creative practice. Whenever I hit a problem with my creative process I try a different approach, try experimenting with different angles. Being positive and actively articulating your ideas with a partner improves your overall well-being.

Some illustrators find too much exposure to artwork hinders their own creations, how do you feel about the enormous amount of work available to view online?

Creativity comes from everywhere, everyday life, from a photo or a conversation you had that day. Originality is difficult at times, most artists have been inspired the way they perceive the world around them. The artwork I see online pushes my creativity to produce work that progresses my work.
A lot of the time we subconsciously take in what we see. Every major influence of mine is present in my thought process, whether I’m intending it or not. A lot of art is created from personal experience, memory, observation, and imagination but I think we can’t help but be inspired by online research, trends and movements.

You currently use an Intuos Pro Graphics tablet for your work, how does the tablet aid your workflow?

I’ve used Wacom products for about 9 years now. It’s being an essential tool and a wise investment. It speeds things up enormously. Whenever I’m conceptualizing ideas or creating storyboards the Wacom tablet has been ideal for quick sketch creations. I have been using the tablet for so many years that it feels natural to work with. The Intuos Pro has advanced over the years creating it even more of a comfortable experience. The pen pressure sensitivity has improved and feels more accurate than ever.
Using my Intuos Pro I have a huge advantage over my workflow, especially for detail-oriented image editing. When using it with Photoshop, the pressure sensitivity applies to my brushes helps my work look and feel almost traditional. I’m able to blend colours, add effects, and apply retouching techniques efficiently creating maximum productivity within my workspace. I sometimes use custom brushes to recreate authentic looking textures. Combing my traditional work doesn’t deter my productivity, but allows me to have much more control over the final outcome.

You have worked on some ‘pin-up’ style illustrations for pop culture characters. What draws you to this style?

I appreciate the female form and the glamour of pin-up art, it’s a beautiful subject. I love vintage pin-up art and Pulp. It’s a big inspiration to my work. I like to create pin-ups that have a vintage feel with a modern edge.

With the huge landscape of social media and the overwhelming amount of art that’s available online, do you feel like it’s becoming essential as an artist to utilise these platforms?

For me creating a social media account has helped immensely. I’m not the best at self promotion; I’m usually laid back and reserved. But social media helped me find my voice and has been a great tool for me to communicate to my supporters and other members of the art community. The potential for social media is huge, and if your work is good, people will begin to follow you. Depending on where you are as an artist, you can at the very least have a way for followers and clients to contact you directly. It’s created a platform for artists to showcase what they could do and connect directly with their peers.
Creating a presence online with social media helps exposure, your artwork shown to the world. These social platforms have led to the vast majority of work for many artists.

As a freelance illustrator, how important is self-promotion and do you have any advice for artists looking to promote their own work?

Self promotion is massively important as a designer or artist; arguably the most important brand that you ever work on is your own. Being able to demonstrate your compassion, creativity and dedication. After graduating from the University I spent a few years working on my portfolio and starting to get my work seen by clients to gain commissions.
The Internet is probably the first port of call for most clients these days when sourcing an designer or illustrator. Promoting your work on website portfolios, blogs, inspiration sites, interviews, Twitter, are your useful ways to promote your work. Sites like PosterSpy, Deviantart, Behance and AOI portfolios are also excellent portals for clients to find creative talent too.
With self-promotion, it’s important to be rememberable. Be yourself, and embrace your work and show it to as many people as possible. Don’t be afraid of failure, I’ve taken many setbacks and lost many gigs over the years, keep up the passion and it will pay off.

You currently work as a freelance illustrator, how do you get motivated to work from your home studio?

Good music is a must!
As an artist working in the isolated environment, it is important to be able to share thoughts and ideas with other artists, friends and family.
I like to set myself goals, and meet targets. Whether it’s planning to paint 4 pieces this month, 2 paintings this week. Try and reach those goals, it’s good to push yourself.
Getting out and having time to reflect, it helps to step back from the studio; you never know when inspiration will strike.
Lots of motivation and inspiration comes from what is around me. Surrounding my workspace with books, or artwork I admired that either directly influences me. Creating a calm environment is vital to an enjoyable and productive workspace, not only for you, but for your work.

Illustrators often find it difficult to find their styles and although you have worked in a traditional style a lot, you’ve also experimented with other methods. Would you say you tend to lean more towards one angle or are you happy to try any style?

I’ve gone through many styles over my career. Developing and learning along the way. When working with some clients I see myself as a chameleon, I adapt to any circumstance to suit the needs of a clients brief. In the future, my style might change, depending on where my work takes me. I’m still experimenting all the time, I recently took up airbrushing.
I enjoy combining traditional and digital together, getting the best out of both. I’ve always strived to develop my skills by trying different techniques but making sure to have a distinctive style. When it comes to the themes of my paintings, they also change, as they are the reflections of the significant narrative of the work.

Are there any artists who particularly inspire you?

Without a doubt my partner is first and foremost my biggest influence that inspires me to be the creative person I am today. We met at College 10 years ago and we’ve worked together strongly throughout the years, she’s supportive and marvellously talented!
I try to be inspired by other mediums like films, comics and music. Of course, I have my favourite artists, I’m deeply in love with the works of Bob Peak, James Jean, Alex Ross and Jason Edmiston for example but the list goes on. Some of these artists have marked my carrier in one way or another I’ve always been interested in poster and comics, not only as a form of entertainment, but as a medium that I could use for my own visual illustrations.

You were very much a 90’s kid, what was your favourite part of growing up in that era and do you feel like it’s inspired your art in anyway?

My favourite part of the 90’s were classic TV shows like, Batman The Animated Series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-men animation/Spider-man and Fresh Prince of Bel Air of course! I honestly have no clue what children watch today. I feel like the variety of cartoons and animations of the 90s influenced me today and which projects I want to work on.
At Art Foundation I took up Animation and at one point I was planning to study it at University. But one thing led to another and I found that Illustration was the path to go down. I respect all the traditional animators of the Disney era who’ve created movies that have inspired generations. To me, the creativity and fantasy of the 90s and 80s originality can’t be compared to today’s blockbusters. Fantastic storytelling, that something films these days are missing. Man, I miss the 90s.

Wacom has been working hard on their product development, especially with competitors popping up. Do any of Wacom’s upgraded products with improved technologies interest you? And why?

Wacom products are catered for professionals and home. These range of products are designed for different circumstances depending on whether you’re a enthusiast or a professional designer/illustrator. They offer a range of products, each with its own suitability depending on your budget. For example, The Cintiq Touch-screen tablet seems to be becoming popular with professional designers but I haven’t got my hands on one yet!
I’ve tried other tablet devices, but none of them has the same precision and reliability as my Wacom Intuos Pro. The tablet I use feels natural and like second nature to me. Something I feel other competitors haven’t achieved. As an artist, it’s incredibly important to be able to rely on my Wacom tablet for the precession and speed. I feel other tablet devices haven’t achieved the same quality and reliability. To me is essential to creating professional, detailed, digital design.

Finally, what is the ‘dream project’ that you’d love to work on?

I’ve done a lot of artwork that I’m proud of, that I thought I’d never achieve if you told me when I started my journey.
I would love to continue doing Official Posters. I would love to do a solo exhibition that speaks to the world in a very profound way, shown in a prominent gallery, in a well respected art community.

That brings us to the end of this month’s Let’s Talk Art, be sure to follow Wacom on social media to be informed about the next instalment. We’d like to say thank you to illustrator John Keaveney for taking part in the interview and for sharing his techniques and experience with us.

Follow John on social:

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