Interview with Russ Cook
Russ Cook is a illustrator and caricature artist from Oxford, UK. He has a unique caricature style which can be seen on his portfolio site that has a number of celebrities and well known people’s caricatures. In this interview, he talks about how he got started with illustration, caricatures, his creative process, ideas and inspirations. He also shares some vector art tips and advice, read about this and more at the jump.
Q Hi Russ, give us a little background bio of yourself, where you’re from and what's a typical day like for you?
Well, I live in Oxford, UK where I grew up, although I was born an hour up the road in Reading. There's no typical day for me; days can be busy or quiet; long or short; but I'm happy if I can get one bit of drawing done at some point. Not always easy when there is a pile of admin' to sort out.
Q When did you first feel a calling to be an artist? Did you attend a design school or are you self-taught? You also do traditional painting, what made you pursue digital arts?
I'm not sure of an exact time of when I felt called to be an artist - I don't think you ever are; it's something you just do. It applies to anyone in any field who wants to explore what they do without any self imposed strictures, all the while striving for an unobtainable perfection! I didn't study art officially although I did a foundation course in art & design at Oxford Poly when I left school. By the time I left I still didn't know what I wanted to do so I got a regular job. At this stage art and illustration was something I did for fun and when I fancied it. I obtained more and more 'artistic' jobs as I went along and started taking the odd commission. I didn't have any specific goal as I loved all aspects of art, therefore I didn't apply myself to one particular discipline. Eventually I leaned towards caricature as it combined two disciplines (caricature and fine color application) and I thought there was a gap in the market. Anyone can get clip art illustrations but proper caricatures will always have to be created individually. I still take regular illustration work and also earn a living through sign making and fitting vehicle graphics.
I think you can be at a disadvantage if you don't have a clear vision from an early age of what you want to do - but it's not the end of the world. If you keep observing and keep sketching then you're laying a solid bedrock when you come to realize what artistic avenue you wish to pursue.
Q You specialize in drawing caricatures and you have a unique drawing style, how did you develop this style? Was there anything or anyone in particular that prompted your choice of art form and style?
I think it's the same for most people; the style just develops as you go along. There has definitely been many many influences along the way . I'm old enough to remember buying the first issue of the British comic 2000AD which showcased styles of artwork that I cribbed from endlessly when I was a kid. I would say that my color work is influenced more by comic artists and illustrators rather than by caricature artists. Although I do have personal favorites, caricature artists don't influence me that much.
Q Please tell us about your creative process for a typical caricature. How much of your creative process takes place using traditional methods? Do you doodle a lot? What tools or software do you use?
With color work I usually start with a sketch. However, I don't get too involved with it. The morph is the most important aspect so when I'm happy with that then I go straight to final. I don't worry about working out color values as all that is found in the reference image - and I nearly always use one - so there's no point. But sometimes I don't bother with a sketch and just go straight into a final: a very recent caricature of Jim Jarmusch was drawn straight with no prep drawing and I used pretty much my own color values - though maybe it shows! As for doodling I do a bit but not as much as I'd like to. It's good for cartoon work but I don't find any real advantage for caricature. I find caricature takes more concentrated study.
Tools and software are as follows: for painting I use acrylic on canvas board. The board is more durable than a paper, obviously, and the canvas finish is a great medium to work on. You can get it for a reasonable price (in the UK). Acrylic is the best medium for me as it's so versatile. You can apply it in a thin wash like watercolor or build it up in glazes or impasto like oil. Acrylic is a bit tricky to get used to if you've never used it before as it dries fast, but once you get the knack you can dispense with flow improver and increase the speed.
Vector work is all done in Adobe Illustrator. Sometimes I take the image into Photoshop for some effects and filters, such as glows and drop shadows, but I try and keep everything vector, even textures! I've recently done some damage to the bank account and purchased a Wacom Cintiq which is great fun. I've been replicating sketching techniques with it and I think I've got a fairly authentic look. It has some great advantages but you'll never beat a sharp nib and a piece of paper. All vector work is mouse and keyboard.
Q You draw caricatures using a variety of media such as, vector, digital painting, acrylic and pencil. Once you have an idea, what determines whether it ends up being a digital or traditional piece of work? What fascinates you about vectors? What is your favorite tool, trick or technique? Is there any special effects that you usually use or any tips you might want to share?
I haven't done any real painting for a while and that's a conscious decision, so most of my color work is vector-based at present. I'm currently still excited with the possibilities of vector and digital and still have ideas queuing up regarding how to interpret painting and printing techniques as well as ideas for special effects The main love of vector is down to the fact that it gives you great control when it comes to editing. As your previous interviewees have stated; it's so easy to change colors to get lighting right or to manipulate shapes. Also being able to isolate layers so they can be edited has its obvious advantages. When used imaginatively I think vector can have a real knock-out effect; the colors can look very rich and vibrant. The only downside is that the artwork is, in finality, digital. I do miss having a tangible product. Can't have it all, I guess!
My tips for vector art would be:
- Get organized - especially if you like creating complex images. For a long time I worked on one layer and would get into tight corners trying to edit an image that was getting more and more complex as I tried to group and ungroup sections as well as unlock areas I wanted to stay locked, etc. So I'd say take advantage of the layer option (F7 - in AI) where you can lock them, change layer order, alter transparency, etc.
- Explore. There are some great tool options which are cool in themselves but when you combine them they can make some great effects. Try the gradient tool and the transparency tool in combinations and layers. The possibilities will suddenly hit you if you're not already aware of them.
Q One can see a number of celebrities and well known people’s caricatures on your portfolio site. How did that evolve? What was the inspiration and idea behind it? Which amongst your caricatures is one of your favorite or the one that you enjoyed working most and why?
For the caricature site I just fancied something that looked a bit opulent and 3D. Come the time I redesign it it will probably look totally different: more modern, slick and minimalist perhaps. Although it's a bit showy at present I've tried to keep it to the one main color scheme. If you've got a site showcasing artwork you don't want it to have the same coloring as your images because the two just merge into each other. It's hard to pick a favorite caricature but for vector it would probably be Jean-Paul Sartre. My favorite painting is Morrissey. At about 100cm it's the biggest I've painted - so far!
Q What's your favorite sources of inspiration? Do you find yourself browsing online design communities or websites? Who are your favorite artists or designers?
My favorite online forum is probably deviantART. I believe it's the world's largest site for creative arts. According to Wikipedia it has over eleven million members and receives 100,000 uploads a day - which is insane. It's free and totally egalitarian so you'll find disney animators with profiles, well known comic book artists, sculptors, writers as well as kids uploading their first attempts at art. It's very inspiring and I've spent far too much time that can be considered healthy poring over the staggering art that some people are producing. Oh - and I got a private commission in my first week of joining; so people do see your work. There are too many artists whose work has impressed on a deep level but some current favorites making my eyeballs pop are Sean Galloway, Bob Strang, Ashley Wood and Patricio Betteo - check them out!
Q Thanks for the interview Russ. Would you like to give any tips or advise for aspiring illustrators and digital artists?
Keep practicing as much as you can. If you want general advice then try emailing your favorite artists. Most are cool guys and girls who are happy to impart it. But don't ask about their specific techniques - you've got to figure that out for yourselves - ha,ha! If you have a tough skin then ask for critiques from people whose art you respect or from commissioning art directors. Take their advice on the chin - it's rarely fun getting honest critiques but they'll help make your art better. Don't ask your parents or friends; they'll just repeat how they can't understand why you're not rich and famous already.
Also start your own blog (if you haven't already) and regularly check in on other peoples. Google have their own free blog service and they've recently expanded the templates so you can customize a fairly individual site. Also join the various free online art forums that exist - the web has come to save us all and there is never a better way to show your work to the world. So find the free art communities, create an online profile and upload your best work. Good luck!