Brian Ajhar

Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an artist?
I grew up in the United States in a small town surrounded by farms in western N.J. called Stewartsville. The town has a rich history and was originally settled in the 1700’s. My parents moved there with my family which consisted of two older sisters an older brother and myself when I was two years old. My father built a grocery store next to the house and was a butcher and store owner by trade. My mother was a hair dresser who worked in the store and had a beauty salon attached to our house. It was all in the center of town with one blinking stop light. The house I grew up in was a historic old stone house built in 1750 by George Washington’s secretary’s brother and the secretary William Stewart (Stewartsville) named the town and settled there. Unbelievable but true and it is documented in a several historical books about the town. Wanting to be an artist was a gradual and natural thing. My first career choice as a child was to become a home run hitter for the San Francisco Giants. Like many kids I idolized Willie Mays and wanted to play baseball for a living. With lack of talent in that area we all know that didn’t work out.

Before High School I discovered the satire of Mad Magazine. My favorite artist from Mad was Jack Davis. I used to study and copy his exaggerated figures and how he made expressions. I also started to collect TV Guide covers and NY Daily News Magazine covers that introduced me to Ronald Searle, Al Hirschfeld & Bruce Stark. I always gravitated toward the exaggerated figure and expression. When I got to High School I used to get into trouble doodling pictures of teachers in my notebooks. That led to me rethinking my direction to stay out of trouble as I started doing pencil & ink caricatures of my teaches and sports coaches for our High School newspaper. The drawings always had to be approved by the teachers or they wouldn't be published. Teachers were sometimes offended by my unflattering drawings but I had a good success rate of being published. I even sold a few of the drawings to them for five dollars each. During this time I realized that it was possible to make money by drawing. I also felt a sense of accomplishment and I enjoyed the attention I received by just drawing pictures that people liked. This experience gave me an identity that I never felt before as I dreamed and imagined the possibility of making a career by drawing and painting.

Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
After High School I continued on to a Community College art program with the intention of developing my portfolio with a goal of getting into a reputable art school. There I met and studied with a successful local painter named Robert Doney. This man helped open up the world of painting and turned me on to oil paint and watercolors. He also introduced me to the Italian and Dutch master painters and sculptures. Through his demonstrations in watercolor he shared with me his system of painting that I continue to use today. From setting up my palate, to limiting my color, and working on the painting as a whole; aggressively, while experimenting as the painting evolves. This gave me confidence and allowed me to further explore paint and use what watercolor naturally does to describe shapes and exciting marks. I fell in love with watercolor and painting at this time. All of this was a great introduction that only grew as I continued as an illustration student at Parsons School of Design in NYC in 1977.

While at Parsons I continued to experiment with color and painting methods and also was exposed to a tremendous amount of drawing. Two drawing teachers that greatly impacted me were Burne Hogarth (Tarzan) and Dave Passalaqua. Dave was a student of the artist Rico Lebrun, a well known artist & teacher who Walt Disney brought in to their studio to teach drawing to the animators during the Bambi movie. During this time of exploring I felt like I was finding a personal approach to drawing that was unique to me. Dave never taught techniques or copying the model, he taught experimentation, expression, invention, believable anatomy and developing your point of view. I was never much of a realist so this connected with me. He always stressed to “marry your drawing to your illustration”. That was a difficult thing to understand when I was a student but as I matured and continued to experiment with drawing and painting as it became one and the same. I was lucky to be influenced by him at the right time. Being a student in NYC also exposed me to great museums, galleries & bookstores. Artists such as Honre Daumier, Gustav Dore’, Thomas Rowlandson & Arthur Rakham were starting to influence my work during and after my Parsons days.

What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up ( artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
When I was a child my mother seemed to always be working on some form of creative project. My father played the violin and his father and uncle made ornate wooden musical instruments. There was definitely some creativity in my lineage. At a young age my mother exposed me to Grimms Fairy Tales through “Little Golden Books”, a story book collection we had in the house. I also remember watching a kids 1960s TV program produced out of Philadelphia called “Cartoons Corner General Store”. My favorite part of the show was the host Gene London doing a segment where he reads classic stories from Grimms Fairy Tales or Hans Christian Anderson. He would then act out the stories while sitting behind his drawing table as he would draw all types of characters from dragons to giants, to the heroic prince to demonic witches and villains. The camera angle made it appear as if you were looking over his shoulder as he was drawing and describing what was happening in the story. His drawings would evolve right before my eyes as he would put his own personal look to the Grimms that I knew from the Books. It was very exciting to see this as a young boy. I always enjoyed seeing him draw the villains and the non perfect characters. The character of the villain and all their flaws always seemed to have more depth and were much more interesting to look at. 

I also loved the mythology stories and adventure movies. “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” comes to mind with Ray Harryhausen’s visual effects and stop motion animated characters. The skeleton fight scene and all the mythological characters that existed in that movie along with the original King Kong & The Wizard of OZ were my favorite movies to watch. Another childhood memory was a TV show called “Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.” This aired on TV once a week, as Walt himself previewed the Disney characters in storytelling animation sequences along with episodes of real animals in their habitat narrated to a wildlife adventure story. Periodically Walt introduced the viewers to the behind the scenes making of a feature animation. He would talk to the animators as they were working at their desks, asking them questions about their process of telling stories with drawings. He interviewed the Disney’s 9 old men that included, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas & Marc Davis. I can still remember them explaining how they drew their characters while trying to animate a sequence, searching for that perfect moment in time that would make their characters unique and help make them come alive. This was my favorite thing in the world observing the secrets of how the artists worked and thought behind the scenes. I couldn’t get enough of it. There was no internet, you couldn’t rewind or tape a program. Once it was over that was it, done. Until the next week when it came on, but you never knew when Walt would profile the artists again. So you had to keep watching and waiting for the next time. This all happened from the ages of six to nine years old. At this time my mother noticed my interest in drawing and with a little pleading on my part, bought me art supplies, paper, and books to learn from. 

Did you have a favorite subject to draw when you were a child and do you still have one today? If you do, what makes it so special?
I liked drawing many things as a child from pets, sports heroes, monsters, to copying cartoon & comic characters to my father’s bowling team. If I really analyze and narrow it down, a common thread that appealed to me would be that I gravitated towards characters interacting. When I think back there was always a main character and his sidekick or something else in my drawing. I always like to do people or animals responding to each other. It was a good foundation for how I approach my work today. When I moved and went to school in NYC it opened up a whole new world of art museums and book stores that I would frequent. I found many artists that I felt connected to and collected books of, Honore Daumier, Gustave Dore’, Thomas Rowlandson, J.J. Grandville, Heinrich Kley, Arthur Rackham & Winsor McCay to name a few. I was fascinated with the way they invented, exaggerated & composed intricate groups of characters with expression and gesture. They were all masters of drawing and knew how to communicate a powerful idea. Daumier and Rowlandson, had a natural way of using color and line to attract your attention to where they wanted you to look. That fascinated me and affected my work and helped me control the colors I used. They were true masters of satire and their work always made me stop and think about what was going on. There was also a sense of energy and excitement in their lines. It was a searching line, not preconceived and always shining through and accents the color and tone which I found exciting. I love a line that is searching within the drawing, uninhibited and unafraid of being exposed within the art. It also allows you to see the drawing evolve and how the artist spontaneously thinks, explores and searches as decisions are made on what lines to put down to define his subject. By going to museums and collecting books I realized many of the artists and drawings that I loved were depicting that perfect “moment in time” the Disney artists spoke of. 

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?
I have a long history of working for Editorial, Advertising and Children’s Publishing clients. I’ve learned and focused my point of view within the genre of illustration. My work has always been character oriented and my goal was to have the characters communicate an idea within a story. I want the viewer to look at my work and get a sense of what the character is all about by observing his body type, his gesture and attitude, his clothing, and his personalty. I try to explore and think about what makes this character unique and different by contrasting his traits with another or several other characters. I am looking to get a response from my idea and my characters. I’ve been told by many clients that my characters have an appealing quality. I believe because my characters can cover a wide range of emotions. This adds a feeling of sympathy and humor even for a less likable villainous type. The excitement for me comes from the process of striving to find that unique trait in a character’s personality and that satisfaction I have as it evolves. When I can look at the drawing and say, “That’s it”. Designing characters for me is not just what the character looks like and is dressed like, but it’s more about the total personality package. In addition to the personality, it’s about how one reacts to a situation. A reference I always go to with students is Ollie Johnston when he is developing his character’s personality. He asks himself two questions: “What is the character thinking and why does he feel that way?” He stated that, “If you can answer those two questions for your character you really have something to build on”. 

Although I’ve designed characters for different genres, there are differences and overlaps between the 3 types of design. For me it is all similar in the thought process of designing characters, but here is my take... With magazines my job is to design a picture that is engaging enough to get the attention of the reader. My work is character oriented so the characters created must tell a story that revolves around a concept but also needs to be enticing to the reader. The idea within the art must set the tone of what the written article is about. It must be thought provoking enough to draw the viewer into continuing to read the written word. My illustrations usually have backgrounds based on the concept in which the characters will be interacting. So my job within magazines would be to design interesting characters that are varied in shape contrast and personalities into a concept that best give you the essence of what the article is about. Because I’ve worked for magazines for such a long time at this stage they usually hire me for the look of my work and the way I think. Children’s Books are a similar approach for me except that multiple illustrations must tell a story on consecutive pages and must have a flow within the compositions. I also think about how my spreads are designed by thinking of how to vary the busy space and quiet space as contrasts. Books that I’ve done have multiple characters so I spend time on the character’s personality and expression and what body shapes best fit them. A variety of characters, tall, short, thin, thick, oval, round, square, and triangle shapes so they are interesting to look at on the same page. When designing for animation I think about all of the above with an emphasis on how the character looks moving and how the shapes read and define the character from multiple angles. How the character shape turns and how it works to simplify the animation process. It’s a collaborative process so the designs have to be clear and concise so multiple people can work from the concept drawings.

What is your process in colouring your art and what type of tools and media do you use?
I will touch on my traditional approach and process. I would start in sketchbooks with doodles and thumbnails with pencil or pen. Then go to tracing paper with a soft 4b-9b woodless pencil and flesh out ideas by doing a bunch of drawings until I get something I like. Scan, send & get client approvals. I have two methods traditionally going to final color. One is for simpler less complex images in which I redraw the sketch idea directly on Strathmore 5ply illustration board and try to do a more refined drawing while the goal is keeping it loose & spontaneous. If the drawing is not fluid I will start again till I get it to where I like it. I draw with Pencil, Ink Dip Pens & Derwent drawing pencils, the earth colors (yellow ochre, chocolate, venetian red..etc). The pencil colors bleed when I do water over it and it gives my work a nice monochromatic base to add color. For more complex images with multiple characters and environments I draw and refine the drawing as a reversed image( trying to keep it spontaneous) on Canson tracing paper with Derwent drawing pencils. When the drawing is at a stage I like I transfer the drawing by burnishing onto my watercolor paper (Arches 300lb hp or 140lb cp). I then soak the paper with the drawing on it and stretch similar to stretching a canvas  on a drawing board (JT21 staples & butcher tape over staples). After the paper dries I go back and refine the pencil line punching in accents and building up a general focal poing. I then work wet on wet with a watercolor brush as I block in shapes and light source with just water using the earth color derwent pencil as it bleeds. I do this with watercolor paper or Strathmore board. It’s basically doing an underpainting in a variation of a warm sepia tone similar to what Dutch Masters and Rembrandt did with oils. I studied Arthur Rackham’s work intensely as a student and loved the overall tonality in his art that solidified his limited color palete.

I always enjoyed experimenting combining new mediums and exploring how they responded to each other. I love texture and paint marks in my paintings and the accidental things that happen with watercolor in getting textures and shapes. I would then use watercolor and layer transparent washes and build up the painting to an overall middle value while retaining the drawing by accenting the line that is lost in the wet process. So I am constantly going back and forth working around the painting as a whole with line, shape and paint. It’s not a drawing that you fill in with color, the color is integrated with the line and the line is constantly being redrawn and explored as the painting grows and evolves. The last stage would be to accent the line with Derwent drawing pencils and I use a dip ink pen for details, accents and some facial expressions. Then also add the highlights and accent the light source and the final accent of dark shapes. It’s a constant back and forth until the image works with the values and the viewers eye follows the line and color choices to where I want them to look. Which is normally the idea and the focal point in the picture. I have added liquid acrylics to my traditional process within the last 15 years and it brought a brighter palate to my work. Digital has also come into my life since 2008 but I use the same thought process with layers as used with tracing paper. A book I illustrated a couple of years ago “No Pirates Allowed” is the first book I did totally digital from sketches to color paintings. Animation projects inspired me to learn and improve my digital skills. I’m learning new skills every day in digital and I’m excited to see where it can go. It’s perfect for character design. I’ve found out that integrating digital and traditional is similar in thinking but I feel that working digitally actually expedites the learning process of traditional painting and drawing. That said, I try very hard to spend time on growing my skills on both traditional and digital.

What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
The most difficult part for me is starting. No matter who I’m working for, it usually starts with the written word. I get a magazine article, a synopsis of a story, a character description or a storyboard. I try not to be too habitual in any process so I never just sit down and just start. After I read what is given to me, I might look through some books, references, maybe take a walk, play with my dog, put on some music, or news, then do a few more things to procrastinate. After I get all that out of my system, I’m ready to begin. I don’t know why starting is so difficult but I’ve never missed a professional deadline. I can’t say anything is really easy but there are some fun and gratifying moments. There are times that I get into a zone while drawing or painting that I am totally oblivious to everything around me as the hours go by. I also still get excited while attempting to capture that special magical moment in time between characters that make the idea that I’m striving for happen.

What projects have you worked on in the past and what are you working on at the moment (if you can tell us)?
Over the years it seems like I’ve worked for hundreds of magazines and dozens of advertising agencies all over the world. I’ve done quite a few book covers and I also illustrated 14 children’s books with 6 different publishers in which 5 of the books are printed in multiple languages. I’ve also taught at several art schools and Universities and currently online. The last couple of months I have been doing a lot work with “House Special” formerly known as Laika House. I’m also currently busy with several editorial and promotional jobs. So no procrastination time for me this month. 

What is your longterm career goal and what would your dream project be?
I was invited by Tina Price to participate at CTN Expo since the beginning and plan to be there every year. Although I still do books, magazines and advertising projects I have been guiding my work to more character oriented design for animation. CTN has opened up a whole new world of meeting incredible artists and potential clients, many have become good friends. My goal is to work on exciting projects with talented people designing characters that reach the big screen. This is my motivation I had opportunities in the 90s when the animation industry was in a state of flux but I chose to stay on the book illustration path. I guess it’s never too late to pursue new opportunities if you are passionate, keep learning, and never stop pursuing.

Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
I have been freelance since 1980, but I am open to working at a studio or Freelance on a short term project to project basis.

What advise would you give to an artist who is dealing with an artblock? How do you boost your imagination and keep yourself creative?
Always look and observe everything. Make it a part of your being to see unusual or peculiar things in people, animals, or any living creatures. Create games in your head as you observe the things in your life. Let me explain: If you are at the shopping mall taking in the sights and drawing in a sketchbook. Before you draw make sure you observe. Imagine observing a husband and wife walking and shopping with their child who is happily eating an ice cream cone. Explore all the possibilities and study the characters and what you think they are thinking individually and how their moods and actions play off each other. An average person would look at the Mom, Dad, and Child and say, “what a cute family”. An artist or character designer would look deeper and ask questions. “What if” type of questions? “What if” the child dropped the ice cream cone, how would they all react. What would happen then? How would the child react? How would the dad react?.. The Mom? The other customers in the mall? The blind person walking by with a a dog? The Large lady walking by carrying bags not able to see over the bags? ...”What if” she slipped on the ice cream feet in the air bags flying. Try to give yourself opportunities to create, imagine and invent scenarios that tell a story. Imagine to yourself a “What if” for multiple scenarios that may happen. Try to find that perfect moment in time that allows you to define your point of view. What scenario and time of it would you choose? The act of something happening, before the act, or after that act. Free yourself to create, invent, observe and ask your self questions. Challenge yourself and make your ideas expand. Make it part of your life as an artist to develop your thought process. Be unique in how you think and see things and draw everything with a passion. And also make it a goal to learn something new every day! That would be my advice.. If that doesn’t work for you try procrastination.

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? 
My suggestion would be to do what you love and work toward your strengths. Always learn from what is out there and the learn from great masters of art history. Constantly expand your artistic and educational knowledge and vocabulary. The internet allows you to follow artists and even ask the willing artists questions about a particular part of the industry. Join drawing groups on Facebook to inspire your drawing projects. Go to events like CTN Expo. Take classes online to better your skills. If you are a student of drawing and excel in your drawing and thinking skills your options will expand and overlap into a variety of areas. Always make your personal work grow and work on self generated projects. A young artist's work will eventually grow organically into their personal direction if they put the time in to grow their vision. Also never stop learning and expanding your skills.

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?
I can think of many more than one book, but if I was forced to pick one as being the most inspirational, it would be”Ronald Searle, To the Kwaiand Back” “War Drawings1939-1945” This book documents illustrator Ronald Searle's life and work while captured as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during WW2. He became a POW at age 19 after volunteering for the British Royal Army while still a student in art school. Although captive and facing disease, torture, friends dying and the horrors of war he managed to have the desire to ignore the risk and capture his experiences with drawings. This focus no doubt contributed to his dark and unique sense of humor. I highly recommend this to anyone in any profession not just to an artist. This book has helped me to keep things in perspective. What you can learn from his life and how his art gave him purpose to live is a valuable lesson for any creative person. Go get a copy !!

What’s your point of view about the industry today: what are the expectation for someone who wants to make a living with an artistic career? 
My point of view is that there are opportunities for someone with the motivation, desire to grow, and ability to seek out the information to help their art evolve. That said the competition is huge with art students being put through art schools faster than the opportunities. I do not know of a successful artist that does not put 100% of their being into becoming a successful artist. You have to be willing to put in the time to grow your skills and thought process. Your work should be a passion and a way of life. There is always rejection in a creative career so you have to understand that it is part of the game. You are always in competition with someone to get the next job. Understand that and use it as a motivational idea and realize that if you are not bettering your artistic view point and skills your competition is.

We have a soft spot for hand drawn animation, what is your opinion about the future of this art form?
I grew up with and love hand drawn animation. I hope to be part of a future hand drawn project or film. I am encouraged by the films “Paperman” and “Song of the Sea” that seem to be using technology incorporating 2D drawing. It’s exciting to see where it all goes.

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?
I think there is more opportunity than ever before for the little guy with a great idea to get that great idea in front of the public and create an audience faster. The pros are that a motivated individual now has ways to bypass traditional publishers, artist agents & studios and create a following that he or she can personally nurture. I have seen many tech savvy artists use all of the above and coordinate their online promotion with all the various social networking sites and generate a ton of exposure for projects. Also “Artella” is a very interesting thing happening online to connect talent with projects all over the world.

Finally, Where can we see your art online and get in touch with you? How can we buy your creations and support your work?
Sure anyone can connect or friend me on social media. I post images on Facebook and other sites. 

CTN Network Page has the links ( ) and CTN EXPO Page ( ).

I'd like to give a big thanks and appreciation to CDR and CDC for asking me to do this interview. You guys are doing amazing things to expose, inspire and inform artists to different points of view. If anyone is going, I'm hoping to meet some of your followers at CTN Animation Expo this November! ...Stop by and visit me! I’ll be posting my location on Facebook in the coming months.

Thank you Brian :)