Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an artist?
I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA). I don’t remember ever consciously deciding to become an artist. Creating art has been one of my favorite activities for as long as I can remember and I think from a very early age I knew that I wanted a career in some artistic/creative field. So, to answer your question, I think I probably decided on some level that I wanted to become an artist during those early days of discovering how completely awesome drawing was (and still is!).
Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
I studied art at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin called St. Norbert College, and during that time I was also able to study abroad for a semester in Florence, Italy. Additionally I’ve taken a few individual classes and workshops since moving to Los Angeles. And I’ve been fortunate to have jobs that have presented challenging problems, which have provided great opportunities to learn and further develop my skills.
While I am extremely grateful to the teachers, mentors, and institutions that have helped me with my artistic development, a lot of learning, discovery, and maturing have happened outside the classroom as well. Practice and play. I think those are two key ingredients to the development of any artist. You have to put in the time—there are no substitutes—and you have to keep experimenting and exploring. The end of curiosity marks the end of progress.
Have you always been supported in your artistic path or has it been challenging to let your family and friends understand your choice?
I have been very fortunate to have been surrounded by very supportive people my entire life. I can’t recall anyone ever asking me, “Why on earth would you want to become an artist?” In fact, it was the opposite. As a kid, I remember teachers and relatives telling me that they looked forward to one day seeing my name on a book at the library or my painting hanging in a museum. (Managed to cross off that first one—still working on the museum thing!) I didn’t realize it as a child, but hearing those sorts of comments was very empowering. I was a shy kid, and probably insecure about a bunch of things, but the enjoyment I got from drawing did a lot to help build self-confidence.
I encourage anyone who is reading this to remember how far a few words of encouragement can go toward fueling someone’s dreams, especially with children.
What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up (artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
I had quite a few. From what my parents tell me, I loved playing with my plastic animal and dinosaur figures and, of course, Star Wars action figures. I enjoyed trips to the neighborhood libraries and soaked up the illustrations in children’s books and, later, comic books. Bill Peet is one of my all-time favorite children’s book author/illustrators (and I’ve recently enjoyed introducing my three-year-old son to his work and watching his eyes light up as mine probably did many years ago). Dr. Seuss, Steven Kellogg, Maurice Sendak, and the Babar books were also favorites. Sesame Street, The Great Space Coaster, and Scooby Doo are some of the TV shows I recall enjoying, along with nature documentaries on PBS. Some of my favorite comics were X-Men and the lesser-known Alien Legion.
The first movie I ever saw was Star Wars. I was only two, and I can’t say that I remember seeing it, but I think I was imprinted on it at some level and those characters, creatures, vehicles, worlds, and adventures certainly made a profound impact on my childhood play. All of these varied influences helped fuel my imagination and desire to one day work in the entertainment design field.
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?
I’ve always had a strong attraction to drawing characters, specifically animals and monsters. I haven’t really analyzed it too much, perhaps because it is such a deep-rooted passion that developed before I can remember. I find the immense diversity found in the animal kingdom to be truly amazing and inspiring. The human race has, of course, immense diversity as well—and I do enjoy drawing people quite a bit too—but the physical and behavioral diversity is rather tame when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Think about the morphological differences between a praying mantis, a manta ray, and an aye-aye for example.
While a really good environment or vehicle design has a lot of “character,” I’ve historically just been drawn to creating actual characters where I can attempt to bring as much soul and personality to them as possible.
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?
Whenever possible, I like to let the design brief and character descriptions percolate in my subconscious for a while before actually putting pencil to paper. I also ask a lot of questions at the beginning of a project. Sometimes these questions are directed at the client and sometimes they are just an internal dialogue in my head. Who are these characters? Where did they come from? Where are they going? What are their motivations? What are some of their distinguishing personality traits? What is their fashion sense like? How does who they are translate into information that can inform their visual appearance (attitude, body language, facial expression, clothing and/or props and accessories, hairstyle, etc.). Additionally, a lot of the chosen visual style is based upon the desired tone of the project (live action, animation, slapstick…).
While I’m mulling these things over I will usually start with quick, loose sketches and try to explore a variety of directions for each character. In addition to overall attitude I try to play around with various shape combinations at this stage. After feedback from the client, it is more exploration and more refined and focused sketches based on what the client responded to in the first round.
How far I take a design, creating turnarounds or colored renderings for example, depends on the client’s needs and budget. For projects that are in the early stages of development and trying to get funding or a green light, I will often create a mockup movie poster featuring the characters and project title.
What is your process in colouring your art and what type of tools and media do you use?
I like working with both traditional and digital media. What I use for any specific image is partially dictated by the goal of the image itself (what medium will best help me achieve this goal), the deadline (working digitally can sometimes be faster, especially if stages of revisions are expected), and sometimes whatever I’m in the mood for. I haven’t quite figured out why, but sometimes drawing with a pencil on paper feels more comfortable and sometimes drawing with a stylus on a Cintiq does. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one form of media, I’d choose a sketchbook and a pencil. (I can’t imagine Cintiqs like sand too much, plus it might be a challenge to find an electrical outlet.)
When working traditionally I like the Faber Castell 9000 series pencils, colored pencils, watercolor, a little bit of gouache, and Copic markers. Digitally, my pipeline is mostly Photoshop.
In terms of process, if I’m coloring an image in Photoshop I most often start with a sketch (either pencil or digital) and, after giving it some thought, block in the main colors on a layer underneath my sketch. I call this, to no surprise, my “underpainting.” If I’m feeling unsure about the color of a shirt, for example, I will block that in on a separate layer so I can easily explore other color options if needed (using a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer for example). Once I feel pretty good about the underpainting, I will create a new layer above my sketch layer and paint some more on top to create my “overpainting” (my imagination does not extend past my drawing into my workflow titling skills, obviously). Here I can refine the shapes and details as needed and really start to pull it together. Final steps usually include some tweaking done with various Adjustment Layers (Levels, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation…) and Layer Modes (Multiply, Color Burn, Screen, Overlay…). Then, hopefully the client loves it and everyone lives happily ever after.
What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
Typically, the most fun and enjoyable part of the creation process for me is the beginning: roaming through my imagination and coming up with the ideas followed by some early rounds of exploratory sketches. Usually the possibilities are wide open at this point—or at least as wide open as they will most likely be. After that, it is—necessarily so—a more focused effort to narrow down choices and arrive at a final design.
Once a design is approved the final rendering stages can sometimes be challenging, at least in the beginning. As a design inches toward the finish line, excitement builds (usually!) as your character gets closer and closer to really coming alive.
What is a typical day for you, and whom are the people you work/collaborate with?
Lately I’ve been mostly working from my home studio. My daily schedule for work includes a variety of tasks: drawing, painting, researching, gathering reference material, communicating with clients, reading scripts, etc. On top of the freelance duties my Daily Zoo project demands considerable time, with both doing a new sketch each day and working on new books & other products, responding to fan mail & social media activity, and preparing for conventions and book shows. It’s a constant challenge to juggle freelance work, personal work, family, and sleep. Sleep is often the one that loses out!
The people I collaborate with vary on any given project. Sometimes my main contact is the director. Other times it may be producers, production designers, art directors, writers, CG modelers, etc.
What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
While working from my home studio is great in many ways, it can sometimes feel like a bit of a vacuum. One of the things I miss most about working in-house at a studio is the opportunity to work next to other artists on a routine basis. You can be exposed to so much from observing other artists at work: everything from expansive philosophical views on the creative process to tips and tricks about which kind of colored pencils to use. I enjoy learning about how other artists work and what their inspirations are.
Is there something that you have designed that you are most proud of?
I like to think that my most successful, fulfilling work will always be my next drawing!
But I am quite grateful to have had the opportunity to do the Daily Zoo project (drawing an animal a day for over ten years now after surviving acute leukemia). Diving into a blank page every day to feed my soul has been more rewarding and therapeutic (and good for my artistic career) than I could ever have imagined.
What projects have you worked on in the past and what are you working on at the moment (if you can tell us)?
I’ve had the good fortune to work in the entertainment design field for over sixteen years and in that time have enjoyed working on a variety of projects. While there have been numerous projects that never went anywhere or are still in development (especially recent projects) I’ve contributed to films such as Penguins of Madagascar, Men In Black II, The Santa Clause 2, Alien vs. Predator, Star Trek…and worked for clients such as Disney, DreamWorks, Sony, and others. Several recent and current projects have been designing characters for smaller production companies that are developing their own IPs to pitch.
What is your long-term career goal and what would your dream project be?
My main goal is to continue to find opportunities to explore my imagination, challenge my creative problem-solving skills, and to grow as an artist and a person. But I suppose I should also have the goal of discovering a way to stop or slow down time because I’ve got way too many ideas for projects that I will probably never have time to do.
Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
Both situations have their pros and cons. Freelancing can potentially offer more flexibility in one’s schedule, a greater variety of projects and day-to-day tasks, and no commute (a biggie when you live in traffic-congested Los Angeles!).
Freelancing is a LOT of work, however. In addition to creating the actual art you’re also responsible for the bookkeeping and invoicing clients and sometimes, unfortunately, spending time chasing down payment when it is not as forthcoming as expected. Self-promotion is important, especially earlier in one’s career, in order to let people know you exist and can create extraordinary things for them. That can take a lot of time, energy, and resources and is something that does not come naturally to many artists, me included. Another important thing to consider is that when you are self-employed you don’t receive benefits: no paid vacation, no pension, no health insurance, and no free donuts on Friday mornings!
Having said all that, freelancing has provided me with great opportunities, introduced me to amazing people, and allowed me to make a successful living by doing something I love to do. Both freelancing and working in-house at a company offer great experiences and opportunities for creative growth. I recommend trying out both paths.
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?
While a looming deadline can certainly be an impetus for great creative output, in the big-picture view I think time and energy are two very important, very precious, resources that are necessary to long-term creative growth and productivity. You need to pace yourself, take care of yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually), and feed your soul. It’s much more difficult to be creative and produce great work when you are exhausted, stressed, and depleted.
I believe our creative potential to be infinite, but only if we are good stewards to our imagination and overall health. This means, in part, taking time to play (with your kid, with your dog, with your friends, with your art…) and replenish the well of your imagination by keeping your eyes, ears, and heart open to receiving new experiences. Soak it in!
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?
I would start by asking myself what is it that I like to draw. What brings me the most satisfaction? If you want to go in the direction of entertainment design, ask yourself what are you most passionate about? Do you love video games? Comic books? Animation? When you’re starting out I think it can be beneficial to focus in one general direction to build up a solid resume/portfolio, learn fundamentals, and make contacts. I think trying to bite off a little bit of everything as you are starting out of the gate could be counterproductive. Having said that, it’s also good to try a lot of different things to see what you like the best (storyboarding, character design, prop design, environments, etc.). I see a lot of crossover opportunities in commercial art and just because you start out working in comics doesn’t mean that you can’t also have a career in film design at some point.
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?
That’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer! I have worked in numerous styles over the course of my career (photorealistic monsters, graphic and stylized cartoon penguins, etc.) and the Daily Zoo project is a smorgasbord of different styles and visual approaches (part of what makes it so much fun). A substantial body of work done in a specific style, as long as it is of high quality, is certainly a great tool in establishing an artist’s career. It can potentially pigeonhole you as well. The producers of Game of Thrones may not approach you to design a new breed of dragon if they think you can only draw cute bunny rabbits. If you have absolutely no desire to design a new breed of dragon for Game of Thrones, then of course this is not an issue. I’ve tried my best to build a career on creating imaginative work of high quality that meets the client’s needs—or for my personal work, feeds my soul—regardless of style. If anything, I’ve tried to develop a personal and professional style that is less tied to particular visual traits and more based on creating characters that are full of expression, personality, and life!
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?
Just one? Scanning the sagging bookshelves around my studio tells me that this is an impossible question! I love reference books with high quality photographs, especially of animals (such as Creature by Andrew Zuckerman). A few good books on anatomy are an essential part of any character designer’s library (Animal Anatomy for Artists by Eliot Goldfinger, Anatomy for Sculptors by Zarins & Kondrats are a good start). Walt Stanchfield’s two-volume set, Drawn to Life, is packed with valuable information on design fundamentals and aesthetics. I love the many Art of books that are being published with the release of most animated and genre films these days. Focal Press and Design Studio Press (full disclosure: DSP is the publisher of the Daily Zoo books) are both great sources for a variety of instructional and inspirational titles. I could go on, but you said just one, right?
What’s your point of view about the industry today: what are the expectations for someone who wants to make a living with an artistic career?
To perhaps be a little overdramatic and paraphrase Dickens: It’s the best of times, it‘s the worst of times. There is a ravenous appetite for artistic and creative content these days (TV, film, video games, apps, the Internet, comics & graphic novels, children’s books, illustration…) and the tools at an artist’s disposal are becoming more and more powerful. It’s also very, very competitive and all the tremendous talent out there keeps raising the bar. And, especially if you are freelancing, you have to try to protect yourself as an artist and not get eaten up by the “machine.” In the realm of content creation, ideas are the gold—just make sure you’re not giving them away for free.
Who are the artists who inspire you the most today and what are some of your favourite designs out there?
There are too many to list—and I would inevitably forget to mention some. I will say that the contemporary entertainment design art that most catches my eye has strong underlying fundamentals (good draftsmanship can never be underrated! To all the aspiring artists out there: practice, practice, practice! Draw, draw, draw!) and an understanding of anatomy and color theory but then also brings in something unexpected and fresh. I have a lot of respect and admiration for technically well-executed art, but the stuff that really wows me always has a good idea at its core.
We have a soft spot for hand drawn animation, what is your opinion about the future of this art form?
I would like to believe that traditional hand-drawn animation has a healthy and robust future, though it may not be in the cinema as it has been in the past. The big-budget studio animated films have mostly veered towards computer animation but the cool thing is how advances in technology and distribution models are opening up new ways to create content and share it with audiences. As long as pencils and paper are still around, I believe there will be people interested in making those drawings come to life through traditional animation.
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 it’s awesome in the sense that it is creating more opportunities for artists to share their creations with others. There are no longer just a handful of routes to tell your stories to a global audience and it is becoming more feasible to avoid the “corporate sanitization” that sometimes occurs when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Granted, more opportunities doesn’t make the work and the path to success any easier, per se, but it does give an artist more options. The downside is that one could argue there is TOO MUCH content available at the click of a button and that can be overwhelming at times. Still, I suppose too much inspiration is better than too little.
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 contact me, view some of my work, and find out more about the story of The Daily Zoo on my website ( chrisayersdesign.com ). If interested, you can also sign up for my mailing list on the contact page ( chrisayersdesign.com/contact ) to receive my Daily ZooLetters in your inbox a few times each year.
You can find me on Facebook under the name Chris Ayers & the Daily Zoo ( facebook.com/Chris-Ayers-The-Daily-Zoo ) I also have a webstore ( chrisayers.bigcartel.com ) with The Daily Zoo books, prints, & apparel. When ordering a book, I’m always happy to sign it and add a sketch of your favorite animal, free of charge. I should also note that a portion of Daily Zoo proceeds goes to support various cancer-related charities and research. I’m also hoping to launch a more extensive line of t-shirts in the coming months, so stay tuned!
Thank you Chris :)