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Interview with Nathan Shelton

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Nathan Shelton is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer from Leicestershire, UK. He specializes in a unique colorful and cartoon style of vector based artwork. In this interview Nathan talks about how he started with a very humble beginning creating illustrations by hand using traditional tools like inks, pencils and watercolors, how he discovered vector art, what he likes about vectors, his love for character illustrations and more. He also kindly shares with us some great tips on design and illustration.

Q Hello Nathan, can you share with us a brief biography of yourself; tell us where you're from, and about your formal education and how you got started in digital art field?

I'm originally from a little village in South Wales called Nelson, although I now live in Market Harborough in Leicestershire with my wife Eloise, my one year old twins Jacob and Daisy and a beagle named Humbug. I attended college in the mid 90's and have an HND in Illustration and Graphic Design (incidentally no client has ever cared what qualifications I have).

Following formal education I traveled for a year around Australia and New Zealand. On my return I started my business Ant Creations in 2000 with help from The Princes Trust. I started the business in Wales creating and supplying Welsh greetings cards; I created all my illustrations by hand using watercolors, Pantone markers, inks and colored pencil. I would then scan the illustrations in to the Mac, print out the artwork and create all the cards by hand (cutting, sticking, packing, selling). Things were going well, but a mere six months later I moved to Leicestershire (to be nearer my future wife) and found there was no real market for Welsh based artwork of any kind! I quickly realized I needed to adapt to a different market entirely. I decided to move away from the handmade, craft type path and concentrate on the commercial side of illustrating. I needed to appeal to businesses and decided my style was too labour intensive when a client needed any amends etc (which they inevitably do). I wanted to be able to amend my illustrations quickly and easily at any stage of it's development, and I found the answer to all my problems when I discovered vector artwork.

I love the clean lines and the real vibrancy that vectors offer. It's an amazingly versatile way to create artwork and it also totally complements my natural style of drawing. I decided that I had to learn how to create vector artwork. I had never really used a computer to create work from scratch as I was far more used to creating the work by hand and scanning it in for a few tweaks in Photoshop. But, I had a copy of Illustrator and I slowly but surely taught myself how to create the style of vectors that I wanted and it's true to say I have been in love with vectors ever since. It's a fantastic form of digital art and I am amazed at the diverse works of real art that artists are able to achieve.

Q How long have you been designing and illustrating? What's the one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Do you remember your first drawing or your first brush with digital vector art? Why is your business name "Ant Creations"? Any specific reason or story?

I have been running my business Ant Creations since 2000. However I feel like I've been designing and especially illustrating my whole life. I can't resist drawing if I'm anywhere near a pen or pencil. It's usually a subconscious thing when I pick up a pen and start drawing whatever pops into my head (which is almost always cartoons). I have loads of old sketchbooks that I filled as a child. Some of the ideas I came up with then can still inspire me now. There is a big difference however in drawing for fun and drawing for your livelihood. I believe you should constantly develop as an artist, therefore I know more today than I knew yesterday.

But if I had to choose one thing that I wished I knew when I started my career then it would be that to say no can be the best way forward. What I mean by this is that you should believe in your work and your worth as a professional artist to potentially turn down work if you don't feel you are being treated or paid fairly and that as a professional your opinion is extremely important when it comes to your art. Confidence in your ability is of paramount importance!

And as for my first attempts at vector artwork…well let's just say they were very basic, and it took me a long time until I mastered the pen tool and started creating work that I was happy with.

When I started my business I didn't want to be tied down to any one particular field, so the word 'creations' covered almost any area of art or design. I needed a word to use before the 'creations' and at the time I used to sign my work as 'Nat'. Ant is an anagram of Nat and fortunately begins with the letter A which also ensured I came out higher in any alphabetical lists of businesses etc. Ant's are also resourceful little critters and work extremely hard. The name has also allowed me to create numerous ant characters for promotional use over the years. That's the basic story.

Q How does your creative process flow? Do you start by sketching or do you start digitally? What are your research resources?

Everything starts with a pencil and my sketchbook. I prefer to work in a sketchbook and keep them all in chronological order when they are full. They are a bit like a diary for me that I can look back on for inspiration when working on new projects. Once I'm happy with the sketches (and hopefully the client too) then I scan it into the computer and create a few layers in Illustrator and get straight onto the vectors. Sometimes the work comes out very similar to the original sketch, and sometimes the final results are quite different. When I'm working on my own illustrations I tend to deviate more and even start work from scratch in Illustrator, but a client usually expects the vector to look pretty similar to the sketch. Initially I stay pretty close to the original, but because vectors are so versatile I can always have more of a play at a later stage by changing the composition and colors etc. As far as research goes then a Google image search can give you everything you will ever need (and a few things you don't!).

Q Tell us about Mal & Lard, who are they? How did the concept evolve and how long have you been designing these comic strips?

The cartoon strip has been appearing in the Harborough Mail which is a weekly newspaper for around seven years now.  I've always been drawn to simple cartoons. I suppose it's something to do with my nature that I like funny cartoons to get to the point pretty quickly.  The dimensions of a newspaper cartoon strip has to be an exact size, and It's quite difficult to squeeze a joke that usually has a beginning middle and end into a fixed space.  I create Mal and Lard by hand, which is pretty much the only art I create that's not vector based (although I do finish it off in Illustrator by adding the text). It's good to create things in a different way occasionally and creating work for a newspaper is a different deadline to many other projects I work on; the time scales are extremely rigid. Also, the stories that are around in any given week that I have to try to get a joke out of are not usually straightforward. I have to get my brain working in a different way than usual which keeps me on my toes!

Q What is it about vectors that fascinates you? What tools and applications do you use to create your vector arts? You seem to be selling a lot of your vector illustrations thorough micro-stock websites like iStockphoto, what are the advantages and disadvantages of selling your arts through these sites? Has it also bought you more clients or projects?

I absolutely love vector artwork. It's the closest I can get to perfection when I work. For me it's so clean, vibrant and versatile. I can play with an illustration for hours, days, weeks or even months in search of the perfect composition and color scheme. Changing things with a click is such a great asset when it comes to creating work, especially when you have a client that changes their mind at every stage. Vectors also allow my to recycle my illustrations which is fantastic when it comes to selling images as stock.

I first stumbled across iStockphoto in about 2006. I was originally skeptical as I thought it would somehow devalue my work, and I also didn't see how it was fair that the site took the majority of the revenue when you sell an image. However, I have since come to learn that sites such as iStock massively increase your potential to earn money whilst also increasing your exposure on an international level. So much work is done behind the scenes to make the site work as smoothly as it does and it's fantastic to know I can earn money while I sleep. I have gained a great deal of exposure and many clients through my work being sold as stock. You are totally in control of your work and you are free to create as much or as little work as you please. Having no client dictating the type of work you create is very refreshing. I do love the interactivity with a client so would not want to create stock full time, but the potential is there if this is the path you choose.

Q I see a number of colorful and funny character illustrations in your portfolio. Where does the idea for these illustrations come from? Do you have any professional tips and advice on how to design an interesting character illustration and how to come up with great character concepts?

Characters are a passion of mine. When I'm doodling I very rarely draw the same character twice so I'm always creating someone new. There are almost limitless possibilities when it comes to creating a new character. You could ask a thousand illustrators to create the same character and they would all come up with something different. However there are some rules to follow when it comes to making a character a certain temperament. We have all absorbed so much visual information (usually on a subconscious level) to instantly be able to recognize certain character traits. A little difference in a characters eyes or eye brows, or the shape of their nose, mouth or even head. Their general posture and any one of a number of other bodily gestures will dictate whether a character is good or evil, strong or weak, kind or mean and any number of other types of personality or behavior.

It is vitally important to really listen to a client and to fully understand the brief when it comes to creating a character for use by a company etc. You need to know what this character represents to enable you to create something that's right for the client and that the character is conveying the correct message. I love the life of their own that the character takes on, and also the life that other people inject into a character using their own points of view. Creating a new character can be like creating a new life or a new life form. I appreciate characters are mainly in 2D form, but the actual love that some characters can instill in others is rarely matched in other forms of art.

Q What design project are you working on currently? Which amongst your works or projects is the one that you consider your favorite or the one that you enjoyed working on the most and why?

I'm currently working on a variety of things. A few illustrations that are going to be used on web sites, a couple of illustrated label designs, a logo plus a few other graphic design projects such as leaflets, posters, stationery etc. I'm also working on a few personal projects at the moment. I'm keen to get into the merchandising game and it seems there is no better time when there are so many great sites that offer the opportunity to sell your work on a multitude of things.

As far as favorites go I'm afraid I'm quite fickle when it comes to my work. I usually love whatever I'm working on and it's my favorite thing until I start work on the next thing which then becomes my favorite I do have a few past projects that I still look back at fondly. There have been several character designs that I have really enjoyed working on. I love seeing a character develop from a simple sketch to finally emerge as final artwork in different poses and situations. I also really enjoyed working on a project that involved creating lots of different Halloween faces. That was one of the projects that kind of developed as it went along. The sketches I created were really quick and sometimes quite basic and I designed most of the features of each face directly in Illustrator as I went along. It's always great to have a bit of freedom when you work, that's why creating personal work is so much fun!

Q Who are your inspirations as an artist? Are there any websites that you visit on a regular basis for design inspiration?

I couldn't reel off a big list of names that have been massively influential or that inspire me on a regular basis. That's not to say that I'm not totally inspired every day when I see so much amazing work in many different places. What I'm saying is that I am regularly blown away by the talented artists and designers that I see all over the web. The internet has allowed everybody with a talent (and some without) to get their work in front of the world. I simply don't remember the names of all the great artists that influence, inspire and excite me on a daily basis and remind me that I need to up my game and constantly develop as an artist simply to compete! The website that I visit most regularly is iStock, and you only have to spend a little time there to realize the wealth of talent that abound around the whole world.

Q If you could boil art and illustrations down to three basic points, what would they be?

It needs to be compelling, it needs to communicate and it helps if it's created to a high technical standard. From a commercial viewpoint artwork usually needs to capture attention, convey a message and look pretty at the same time. Not all art needs to fulfill these criteria but through my professional experience a client wants the final artwork to be visually appealing and technically sound.

Q Nathan, thanks for the interview. What message or advice would you like to give to aspiring artists and illustrators?

If you want to earn your livelihood from art then you must absolutely love what you do and be willing to do it for free. Only by having such a strong desire to create for a living will you get through the tough early days of business when money is something that you won't have. Being thoroughly professional and business like in your approach to attracting and retaining clients is almost as important as the quality of work you produce. Get better at you what you do every day and never give up!

Nathan Shelton on Web

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