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Interview with Chris Leavens

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Read Time: 16 mins

Chris Leavens is a talented vector artist born and raised in Pennsylvania who now resides in Los Angeles. He graduated with a BA in film and video and initially worked in the film industry. Later Chris decided to take a break from the film biz and began working as an illustrator, graphic designer, and web designer, focusing primarily on educational material for children.

Chris creates vector art entirely in Adobe Illustrator including textural elements. Chris's work incorporates absurdity, anthropomorphism, and a healthy dose of humor. For those who don't know he has also written a tutorial for Vectortuts+ .

In this interview he talks about how he got started in the design industry. He gives an insight into his creative process, talks about the awesomeness of vector art and Adobe Illustrator and much more!

1. Hello Chris, give us a background bio on yourself? What is a typical day is for you as a designer?

Hi, thanks for interviewing me!

I grew up in a pretty culturally-isolated, rural area in east-central Pennsylvania, USA. We lived (and my parents still live) in a nice house on a dirt road with very few neighbors. Basically, this forced my brothers and me to entertain ourselves with our imaginations and, as a result, all three of us ended up pursuing careers in the arts.

I doodled through much of school and that helped me sort out what I liked to draw: strange, hybridized creatures, anthropomorphs, and surreal scenes, often drenched in bizarre humor. I've been very fortunate to have people notice my work and guide me in the right direction, leading me to my current career as an illustrator and designer here in Los Angeles.

As for a typical day, it's not too exciting from an outsider's point of view! I wake up, exercise (usually running), spend time with my baby daughter Sonja, work on projects, spend some family time with my wife and daughter, work some more and go to bed. Lately I've been working seven days a week, so things have been a little crazy, but in a good way. I'm not super social nor am I a big party guy, so spending time with my art and my family suits me just fine!

2. Where and how did you learn all this design craft? Did you take any formal education or are you self-taught? How long have you been working as a designer? Tell us about your first design job.

The one and only design-related class I've ever taken was a basic Photoshop class I took during my senior year studying film at Penn State University. It was a digital art class, so neither design nor technique were pushed very hard. More than anything, it introduced me to the idea of digital art. After I moved to Los Angeles and started working in the film industry, my tiny bit of Photoshop experience started to land design-oriented jobs in my lap. I basically used these jobs as an excuse to teach myself Photoshop and After Effects, which eventually led me to Illustrator.

I learned Illustrator completely on my own, no books, no classes, no websites. Every time I had a new project, I tried to use and figure out a new tool. I applied my knowledge of the other Adobe programs and tried to figure out methods for replicating common conventional drawing and painting practices. The art's the important part, right? So I tried to create art first, and figure out the technical bits second. Anyway, my first attempts at vector art looked pretty simplistic and were a bit sloppy! I'm pretty meticulous about things now that I've got a solid mastery of the tool set. When creating any kind of art, it's really important that the tools don't act as an obstacle. You should almost forget they're there!

I guess my first design job was probably tied in with my time at a small film production company here in LA, back in 1998 or 1999. I created motion graphics and print ads for a local career college. Very glamorous! Joking aside, it was a great opportunity to learn and get paid at the same time.

3. I noticed that you initially worked in the film industry what made you switch to design and illustration? Was it an easy decision?

I can't say it was the easiest decision. The film industry's pretty rough, especially for an outsider with no connections. It's truly more about who you know than what you know. I was fortunate very early on, however, and was hired to direct a feature documentary detailing the life of actor Jack Nance. I was 23 or 24 when we finished it and I was still pretty naïve.

I had a hard time dealing with the egos, the cynicism, the shady business dealings, and I still didn't really know how to take criticism. All of those factors in addition to a nasty break-up I was going through at the time made me feel a bit disillusioned about the film industry, even though I'd been moderately successful. One freelance motion graphics job I had ended and I was presented with an opportunity to do some print-design work for the education market, so I did it. I soon found that it was a better fit for me and I really enjoyed the process.

4. What is it about the vector medium that fascinates you? What tools and applications do you use to create your vector arts and what does your workstation looks like?

For me, the awesomeness of vector art and Adobe Illustrator is really based in its extreme flexibility. You can create in a way that's almost infinitely mutable and non-destructive. Want to change a color? OK! Want to change the shape of a face? Sure! Shuffle objects around and change the composition? No problem! Illustrator is the ultimate yes man.

As for my tools, I use Illustrator CS4 almost exclusively to create my art. I'm not a big plug-in guy; AI works pretty well for me as is, although there are a few minor things I'd love to change about it.

As for hardware, I've got a Mac Pro, a nice, big LCD, and a Wacom Intuos4 tablet. I place my Wacom tablet to the right of my keyboard, which some folks seem to think is odd, but I use the keyboard a lot while I'm drawing, so it works great for me. Really, there isn't a right or wrong way to do things, so whatever helps you create faster and better is the right way.

5. As you said you would love to change few things about Adobe Illustrator, what would it be?

Adobe Illustrator can only address 2GB of RAM and that needs to change. When you're working purely with vectors, it's usually not too big a deal, but when your vectors have tons of anchor points or you introduce any raster graphics or effects to the mix, RAM starts to disappear. Most of my issues with RAM come into play when I'm exporting my artwork as a JPEG or a TIFF. The RAM fills up and poof! The export is canceled. I've also run into trouble when I've used complex custom brushes to create textures. There are too many points for AI to render a preview and it shifts me to outline view, which is virtually useless. Upping the max RAM would solve these issues.

Also, on the topic of exporting art, there's a limit to the size you're allowed to export at and it's not as big as I'd like. I'm not sure what the physical limitation is, but as an example, I had to export an 90 x 90 cm piece of artwork at 300dpi for the recent Blood Sweat Vector art show and Illustrator wouldn't let me do it. I had to open and rasterize the image in Photoshop, which is pretty ridiculous.

Another bizarre issue, which I'm guessing was a bit of an oversight, is that the SWFs exported by AI use Actionscript 2 instead of AS3. Seems weird to me that they don't even give you an option, but they don't! A client I'm working with needs me to deliver AS3 SWFs for technical reasons and there's absolutely no way I'm drawing in Flash (I'm not a masochist!), so I have to copy the artwork from AI and paste it into Flash in order to produce the proper SWF file, which is an extra step I'd rather not monkey with.

Another great change would be to shift the art redraws that occur in the layer thumbnails and the navigator panel to another core. AI doesn't use multi-core processors really well at the moment, and I think shifting the redraw processes to an alternate core could help speed up performance, especially when you're dealing with complex art, which I often do. I'm sure I could think of other changes I'd like to make, but that's what comes to mind at the moment!

6. Walk us through the creation of a typical artwork. How much of your creative process takes place using traditional methods? What is the first spark that triggers you to start on a piece?

Ideas just sort of seem to pop into my head. Sometimes (very rarely!) they're very vivid and I'm able to draw a rough idea of my thoughts, but most of the time it's just a tiny piece of idea that gets me started and it often morphs into something else. I tend to start out with a super-rough reference sketch, but sometimes I just jump into Illustrator and start creating.

I know a lot of vector artists draw a complete sketch conventionally, scan it in, and trace it with vectors, but I don't trace. Personally, I find tracing incredibly tedious, like busy work. I'm not saying I think tracing is bad or that people who trace aren't talented or anything like that. I'm just saying it's not for me. Some of my favorite and some of the best vector artists out there trace their sketches and come up with terrific results. I like the freedom and spontaneity of drawing with vectors without being encumbered by a previously-set guide.

Once I start creating within Illustrator, I start by building basic, flat shapes and I arrange the composition. During the beginning stages I also try to pin down some basic color choices because color so often dictates the feel and mood of a piece. I use a lot of layers and label the heck out of everything! After I finalize my basic composition, I start to add details like faces, clothing, decorations, etc. Next I move on to shading and I end with textures, because they seem to be the most taxing on my computer. When I'm done, I either post the art to the Internet or send it off to a client for approval. Then I cross my fingers and hope for the best!

7. What is your favorite Illustrator tool, trick or technique? Is there any special effect that you usually use or any tips you might want to share?

I love clipping masks. They're fast (Command + 7), flexible, and most of all, non-destructive. If you want to add elements into a clipping mask or move an item within a mask, it's super easy. I use a lot of gradients as well. For shading, I tend to use feathered objects nested within clipping masks. I'm not a fan of gradient mesh, mostly because working with it seems pretty slow and cumbersome to me. Of course, it's hard to deny the awesome power of the plain old pen tool, which is what I use most of the time in Illustrator.

One tip I'd share, which may be obvious, is to use the multiply and screen blend modes for quick shading and highlighting. It's great because you can use an objects inherit color, draw a shade object on top of it, set it to multiply, and you've got some pretty nice-looking shading (you can always add a little black to the color if it's not dark enough!). Do the same with screen for highlights. For me, it's a real time saver and it produces some great, often rich-looking color blends.

8. What would you say has been the highlights of your career so far? What projects in your career have given you immense creative satisfaction?

I guess for me personally, it's that over the past two years my artwork has been invited to be shown in galleries and art shows. It's great to be able to make money from your art via design work, but it's really satisfying to have your artwork on display along with other great artists producing artwork across a large spectrum of media.

My art at my last two LA shows sold out, which was both surprising and great! I just took part in the Blood Sweat Vector show in Berlin, and word is it was a big success, which says a good deal about the rise of vector art as a legitimate medium for art. Also, being invited to take part in Göoo Magazine and being featured in their 2010 calendar were both really nice honors!

9. What are you working on currently, any interesting or exciting projects that you would like to talk about? Is there any dream project you would like to work on? What would it be?

Oh, there's a project I'm working on right now that I'd love to say more about, but I can't because I signed an NDA. I will say it's a computer game and that it's a huge project, but that's about it. It's pretty awesome because the people behind it contacted me and basically just asked me to create artwork with very little direction or limitations, not something that happens every day, especially when pay's involved!

As for a dream project, I'd love to create a line of children's books and eventually extend it into animation. In a lot of ways, I feel like I was born to create art geared toward kids. I think for all of its strangeness, my art is generally fairly positive and free from violence and morose themes. When kids do see it, they tend to love it, which is a high compliment!

10. Your illustrations are very detailed, filled with fun, fantasy characters. How would you define your style and what would you want your viewers to walk away with when they see one of your pieces?

Fellow vector artist Julian Dorado, whose work I like quite a bit, once wrote a comment on one of my pieces posted to Flickr that said something about my artwork being hard to describe and unique, and I took those words as an extremely high compliment, not only because of the artist they were coming from, but because I really try to elude categories.

If anything, I try to give viewers a piece of art that they can attach a story to. I talk to people at art shows, and the stories they come up with are incredible! I don't really like explaining my intentions too much because I think it interferes with someone's personal view of my art. Hopefully this doesn't sound too pretentious, but allowing the viewer to fill in the words, if you will, sort if gives them a piece of the art.

11. What do you consider your major influences to be? What are you favorite sources of inspiration?

I love Tim Biskup's more fanciful, fun artwork and I really like Jim Flora's work. I'm also a big fan of the classic surrealists, especially Magritte. My younger brother works at MOMA and he got us into the opening of the Dali exhibit a couple years ago, which was pretty awesome.

I really like crawling around Flickr when I have the time because there are some great artists and the community is really positive. Aside from art, my biggest source of inspiration is nature. I love hiking and going to remote places. When you come off of the sand dunes in Death Valley, or you hike among the red rocks in Sedona, it's hard not to come away inspired. My Dad, my brothers, and I are planning to hike the Grand Canyon next year, which I'm really looking forward to. I've been there twice, but I've never hiked to the bottom.

12. How has the design industry changed from when you started till today and what changes do you see happening in the next few years? How much is it important for an artist to keep oneself updated of the latest technologies, software and whatnot?

The Internet has provided a ton of opportunities and avenues for communications that simply didn't exist even a decade ago. Promoting yourself on a national or international scale was really difficult for an emerging artist. The Internet has democratized things for artists in so many ways. Now, as long as you're willing to put time into promoting yourself, your artwork truly speaks for you. I have a pretty steady stream of prospective clients who contact me, completely without solicitation, which never would have happened ten years ago.

As for changes I see on the way, I personally think there's a designer T-shirt bubble that's been forming over the past few years and it's on the verge of popping. Threadless is huge and I think they'll easily survive, but there are just too many other people doing it now and the price per shirt is a bit expensive. Unfortunately, the volume of T-shirt outlets coupled with the number of interested designers makes it nearly impossible to have only well-designed shirts. There's going to be some bad designs and a lot of mediocre ones, and people aren't going to buy into that for much longer. It won't go away completely, but as a business, it's going to shrink significantly. I hate to be negative about something that can be really cool when done well, but the writing's on the wall.

New technology is important to artists, but not essential. From a communications point of view, I think it's important to use all available tools to promote yourself, but does every artist need to buy every new piece of cutting-edge software and hardware? Not necessarily. If you can afford it, it's great to work with the latest tools, but there are a lot of artists who can create pretty amazing work on ten-year-old software. It's the artist and their skills that are important, not the tools.

13. Chris, thanks a lot for the interview! What message or advice would you like to give to the aspiring artists and designers?

Thank you so much for the opportunity. My advice to aspiring artists? The art should be your primary focus. The tools and technical aspects of programs like Illustrator should be secondary. Focus on creating a style, an artistic identity. Draw what you love, what you find interesting and compelling. It'll help you to move forward and stay true to your own unique vision.

Get outside and draw things beyond your desk! Vector drawings of USB flash drives and iMacs, while good for practice, aren't going to show up on anyone's wall anytime soon. Lastly, promote the heck out of yourself using the free tools available online like Flickr and Twitter. They're great for networking, meeting other artists, and getting constructive criticism!

Chris Leavens on Web

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