Tom van Rheenen

Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an artist?
I grew up in a town near Amsterdam. When I started university I moved to Amsterdam, and have been living there since. I started drawing at the age of 19. At the time I was playing Guild Wars, and the amazing art done for the game got me interested in drawing. It started out with just doodling around, mostly drawing characters from the game or fairies and gnomes from illustrated books, after a while I also started doing more structural drawing, Bridgeman and the likes. I grew to like it more and more and at some point I started to crave proper classes. I came across the Concept Design Academy in an ImagineFX article, a school that offered 10-week classes, which was perfect for me, because I could go there during the summer break. I attended a class taught by Bill Perkins, which to me would be the decisive moment of wanting to become an artist. Before then I had been mindlessly drawing, I had no idea what I was doing. Then Bill revealed this whole new way of looking at art and gave me the tools and principles to look at life and understand why it was that I liked or didn’t like something. That new way of thinking really propelled me forward and amazed me so thoroughly that I knew: this is amazing and I this is what I want to do.

Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
I never went to a full time art school, as I only started drawing when I was already enrolled in university to study law. I always find being self taught somewhat of a faulty description though: there are so many resources out there, and so many artists that are willing to help and teach you, we are all in this together. I took online classes, read books, studied artists and, as mentioned, attended classes for two terms at the Concept Design Academy in California. The most important thing of course to develop your skills is to draw, plain and simple. Besides that, I think two things have been really important to me. First thing is understanding: being able to look at artwork and understand what that artist is doing, why it is or isn’t working, understanding the choices that have been made. It applies to understanding life as well: I continuously try to ask myself what something is doing or why it looks like that, rather than just copying the contour or colour. Understanding something allows you to deviate from it, while maintaining its function. The second thing that has taught me a lot is just copying the shit out of artists that I like. The longer you spend with a drawing, the more you start to notice, and you get to understand those drawings so much better. There are so many amazing images these days – just look at the Character Design References database! – and it’s easy to just flick through, but you miss so many essential parts of those drawings that way. Spend some time with them, analyse them, and you get to appreciate what the artist has been doing so much more!

Have you always been supported in your artistic path or has it been challenging to let your family and friends understand your choice?
Definitely supported. My parents are the kind of parents that just want their children to be happy and my friends are glad that I found something that I’m passionate about. Or maybe they are just glad to see someone escape the drudgery soul crushing discipline that is called law. Now that I’ve graduated, I do sometimes get a bewildered look when I tell people I no longer desire to become a lawyer – but they just don’t know how much fun drawing is!

What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up ( artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
Well, growing up I had never thought about drawing really. I did enjoy Disney’s Robin Hood and The Aristocats, but it had never occurred to me there had been people sweating over all of those drawings. I liked drawing animals though and I believe I did recognize myself as somewhat of a genius at creating my own Pokemon – which were basically circles with something on their heads haha. As a teenager I was more into sports and used to play a lot of field hockey. I just detested art – I associated it with modern and contemporary art and haughty characters trying to dream up a deeper meaning behind the blue square they were looking at. It’s funny, because although still not very fond of contemporary art, I did become one of those people philosophizing in front of a painting. The irony.

Did you have a favourite subject to draw when you were a child and do you still have one today? If you do, what makes it so special?
My favourite subjects today would be animals and odd looking people. I mean, animals are animals, they are just amazing, so diverse and a never-ending inspiration. And I really enjoy funny looking people – I really try to refrain from saying ugly, because truly they aren’t! But there is so much joy in drawing characters with wonky chins, bulging eyeballs and crooked noses. To me, there’s no fun in drawing perfect looking characters.

From the initial client idea to the final work: what goes through your mind when you are designing and what is the method you use when starting a project? Could you describe it?
For me, the first thing I try to figure out is what they are looking for. What kind of style or feel are they looking for; how realistic or cartoony should the design be; do they have certain existing material as reference in mind? Sometimes you’ll figure this out quite quickly, other times it’s more trial and error, see what they respond most enthusiastically to. Once I have at least some idea of the right direction I will start looking up reference, often extensively. Reference grants you your ideas, you might see interesting details, shapes, patterns, that you would’ve never thought of yourself. Finding the right reference can at times be tricky; you have to search beyond the fake looking stock photos that show up in Google. For this reason, I always take screenshots or save images of interesting references that I happen to see; they might be useful later on. Once I have my reference, I will start sketching and sharing ideas. The most important thing I try to remind myself of in the process of sharing sketches is to ask myself; what is it that I want to communicate with this drawing and is it clearly communicating that to an uninformed viewer. It’s easy to assume that a client will understand how the sketch will translate into the final image, but this isn’t necessarily the case. They don’t see what’s in your head, they have to see it on paper. From there on, it’s just refining the ideas that your client responds to. Making it look good really is the last thing you want to worry about. If your client isn’t responding well to your idea, they are never going to jump for joy when they see the final image. You save yourself a lot of time if you get that underlying thought just right.

What is your process in colouring your art and what type of tools and media do you use?
I generally work in Photoshop, both for sketching and colouring. I personally prefer to paint directly in a single layer, though for professional work I will work more in separate layers, so it’s easier to make adjustments later on. I tend to figure things out in line first, establish the right pose, the distribution of my proportions and shapes, basically everything other than my lighting, values and colours. It’s going to be my roadmap that I can always turn back to. From there on I’ll establish my local values and colours. This is often an undervalued step, but it can really help your composition and help you control where the viewer will look – and it only takes a moment! Looking back at my own work, I think some of my images could’ve gained a lot if I had just taken a step back and thought about my local values more. Once I have those figured out, I’ll decide on the directions and the colours of my light sources. For character designs I often stick with quite neutral lights, as that helps bring out the local colours I’ve chosen. When considering my lights, two things are key: does it show the forms well and does it convey the right mood? It really depends on what you are going for though, sometimes establishing a very obscure lighting might establish a great mood, but not show your design well. Lately I’m working a little less three dimensional in terms of lighting and instead work more with line, but the same thinking process remains.

What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
I enjoy both the sketching and painting phase a lot. During sketching all these ideas cross your mind, trying out different expressions, shapes or funny situations. It starts out with this one idea, evolves in something different, and hopefully you’ll end up with something entertaining. During the painting part, it can very be rewarding to see how that expression turns out, and it’s quite relaxing, as you’ve figured most things out in your sketch already. Thing I still enjoy most is working on the face. I tend to unconsciously and uncontrollably mimic the expression I’m drawing, resulting in a funny sight for the people seeing me work haha. It really varies what part is the hardest. Sometimes things come together quite naturally, other times something isn’t working, and it can be tough to figure out what the problem is. I think the hardest part is to have the patience to solve it and really commit to it. At times it’s very tempting to just yell at your drawing, angrily flip your desk and walk away – insert meme here. Though sometimes walking away for a moment to come back with a fresh perspective might be the wise thing to do. Just leave your poor desk be!

What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
Everything I know, haha. I mean, I didn’t invent drawing, my knowledge is solely derived from other artists. Sometimes directly taught by the artist, sometimes derived from studying their work, nevertheless the knowledge was theirs in the first place. Sure, it’s filtered, you choose what principles and insights work best for you, but still, I owe everything to those that went before me. There are so many things I could mention here, but I’ll try to limit myself to some lessons I got from looking at two of my favourite artists, Carter Goodrich and T.S. Sullivant, that I think represent the overall change in my thinking and approach – lessons that I couldn’t have learned without the help of Wouter Tulp and Brian Ajhar. I’m an avid fan of shapes. No wonder I admire Carter Goodrich’s work as much as I do. Now when you get taught character design, often the classes teach you to design with basic shapes: square, circle and triangle. The first thing I had to learn was to throw those out of the window. I’m thoroughly convinced that it’s easier to acknowledge the existence of something once it has a name or a definition, just like recognizing a colour becomes easier once you can make distinctions between more subtle hues, rather than just naming them all yellow, or blue. I found it became much easier to recognize and design shapes, once I stopped thinking of an ellipse as some variation on a circle, or even stopped seeing an ellipse as an ellipse, but thought about where the curves would be the strongest or the flattest. Now Goodrich’s shapes are wonderful, on a flat paper. But what I failed to see for a long time, was how well they worked in 3D space. Not only do your designs become stronger if you’re designing for animation, it also helps you to understand how a shape has to fold. It might sound strange – it took me a while to get used to it and I still have plenty of room for improvement – but seeing your shapes in 3D can actually make designing them easier. I’ll throw in a little lesson from Walt Stanchfield here as well, that helped me a lot in drawing three dimensionally: actively think about the exact thing you are drawing. Don’t draw ‘a nose’ – draw the bottom of the nose, then the tip of the nose, the backside of the nose, the bottom of the nostril, the side of the nostril, well, you get the idea. It helps a lot in getting your curves in the right places, and will make your lines tell the viewer as much about the form as they can. Once I was viewing the designs in a three dimensional manner, it was pointed out to me that Carter’s designs wouldn’t be half as good if the characters didn’t have the amount of character and attitude as they do. As wonderful as shapes can be, it reminds me I need to keep my character in mind first. The shapes can’t be approached in isolation; they need to serve the purpose of the character. So figure out your character first! Is the character mean, friendly, explosive, withdrawn? Let those traits reflect in the arrangement of your shapes. Now finally to T.S. Sullivant, another master designer. But as much as I love his plump designs, the lesson I want to talk about here is actually what’s written underneath them. I enjoy these lines a lot, because they can lead your drawing. Sometimes I try to come up with a fun line, to give my drawing a direction or purpose. Writing it down and forcing myself to come up with something clever can help me a lot in bringing meaning to my drawing and gives me a clear idea of what the characters need to communicate. The drawings that I find the hardest are the ones where that lack a clear, underlying idea. Writing something down in words beforehand can do wonders. Not that T.S. Sullivant is the first or only one to do this, but his designs are so great, and the postures are so wonderful, that they’re just a pleasure to look at.

Is there something that you have designed that you are most proud of?
There’s a fun Cyanide & Happiness comic about ‘The Creator’s Curse’, it’s so painfully true. You spend so much time with a piece, you can really grow sick of it. You can’t look at it with the same freshness with which you look at someone else’s work, you can only see the flaws. I think I can only enjoy my own drawings if the personality I tried to capture manages to shine through the stains from technical flaws. The only design I think I’m still happy with – for now, haha – is my painting of Firecracker, a Dachshund who wants to be a stunt dog. There’s something about that little fellow, some innocent happiness and excitement, that I enjoy. Or it’s just because I love dogs haha.

What is your longterm career goal and what would your dream project be?
My long-term goal is to design for film. As a medium, I just love it; it’s such a magical combination of so many art forms that together create this really moving (pun!) experience. I also love that it involves so many other people and disciplines, it transcends the depth that one could put into his work when working alone. Just being involved in the creation of such compelling masterpieces, with so much attention paid to storytelling, emotion, acting, composition, design, music, doesn’t that sound amazing?! My dream project would be a place where I can work closely with skilled people that I can learn from and admire for what they are creating, may that be a major studio or a small group of artists, as long as you’re creating something wonderful as a team.

What advise would you give to an artist who is dealing with an art-block? How do you boost your imagination and keep yourself creative?
The first thing that comes to mind is to change it up. If you’re trying to create something new and the dissatisfaction with what you’re coming up with is starting to hinder you, go do some studies. Go draw things outside or regular objects in your house – I actually sat in front of my toilet and started painting that, which must have been quite a strange sight haha. Do a master study or two of one of the artists you so admire. Just get drawing again. You’ll learn a lot from it, and you’ll go back to your project with new energy and knowledge. To keep yourself creative, just keep your eyes open really. There’s so much inspiration around you, pay attention to it. When you want to practice your creativity, I could also recommend a fun exercise I got from Marshall Vandruff, which is to do associations. Look at objects or animals or anything, and see if you can think of something that has similar traits, and try to translate those into your initial object. Some are quite obvious, like referencing a crow nest for a person’s hair. I believe that some of Nicolas Weis’ amazing tree designs for The Croods, were inspired by vegetables and coral. Being able to relate objects and translate them into something new is a great skill to have. Give it a try!

Concept art, animation, illustration, comics, there are lots of choices. When you’re young, sometimes you know only one thing: you love to draw. What should a young artist take into consideration to make the right decision when choosing an artistic path?
Learn the fundamentals. There are so many principles that support all the above-mentioned art forms. Don’t worry about having the same fancy brushwork as that artist you admire, because that’s not really what makes their design so successful. If you learn your fundamentals properly, you can do almost anything and you will be much more adaptable. Don’t rush it, and make sure to properly learn the basics: understand how forms work in a three dimensional space, how lighting works, how colours and values relate to each other and how they can influence the mood of your image, how the human body moves, etc. And don’t forget about them: there is always more to be learned.

Many art teachers and schools suggest to their students that a commercial artist should always work in one consistent style if they wish to have a healthy career. In your own experience, do you believe this to be true?
I honestly wouldn’t know and I’d guess that would depend on the client as well. Some artists get hired for their unique quality, some get hired because they are very adaptable and can work in many styles. I would say that it never hurts to be able to handle different styles, as it allows you to take on a greater variety of projects. Nevertheless, I would want to mention that defining style shouldn’t be limited to technique, rather the contrary. Every artist has a bias towards certain elements – be it shapes, edges, certain colours, etc. – and that will always show up through your work, regardless of the tools or brushes you use. If I’m looking at reference, I’m going to notice or be attracted to something different than someone else. We all interpret what we see differently. In the end, I think that is what really defines your style.

If you had to recommend only one art book (a comic book, graphic novel, children book, ''how to'' book) to a fellow artist, what would it be and why?
The excellence of a book is defined by the extent it can expand your knowledge or perspective, so my recommendation might not be the best for everyone, but I would recommend Drawn to Life by Walt Stanchfield. It’s packed with principles of drawing and advice on how to bring more life and clarity into your drawings. I have a tendency to focus a lot on shapes when designing, and this book is a great reminder to pay more attention to actually breathing life into them.

Who are the artists who inspire you the most today and what are some of your favourite designs out there?
Oh, there would be too many to name! Carter Goodrich, T.S. Sullivant, Heinrich Kley, Richard Thompson, Heidi Smith, Wouter Tulp, Cory Loftis, Shiyoon Kim, Uli Meyer, Brian Ajhar, Dice Tsutsumi, Robert Kondo, Andrea Blasich and Matt Nolte – to name a few. Lately, I’ve also been looking a lot more at Fred Moore, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl and Albert Hurter. There’re so many great designs out there, but I really love Carter Goodrich’s drawings for Gusteau in Ratatouille. Also, all the designs in Disney’s Robin Hood are so wonderful, I just love the way the characters move and wiggle, there’s so much charm to them.

Social networks, crowd funding websites, print on demand online service, you name it. New media on the internet are connecting the artists directly with their fans like never before. In your opinion, how is this affecting the industry and what are the pros and cons?
The way artists are able to share their work these days is just great, and getting feedback from your audience is so much easier. Also, all the crowd funding websites allow artists to do more personal work, and it has already helped a lot of great projects come to life. However, I think people, especially when they are starting out, should be careful not to get overwhelmed by all the amazing artwork that is out there. You’ve got to be realistic and can’t expect yourself to be able to do all these things at the same time. Sometimes I just need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and go back to what I find the most important and start working on that, step by step. Be patient, let the work inspire you and have faith that with time and practice you will get to the level of all those wonderful images that flood your wall or feed.

Finally, Where can we see your art online and get in touch with you? How can we buy your creations and support your work?
You can find my work on my Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Behance. I’m currently not selling anything, but you can always support me by sharing my work with your friends. And please feel free to send me a message if you ever have any questions or just want to have a chat. I’d love to help out where I can!