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Interview with Illustrator Tom Percival

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Tom Percival is a writer, illustrator and animator who is based in the United Kingdom. He has created the illustrations for the successful Skullduggery book series and his own picture books, Tobias and Home for Mr Tipps. During the following interview, Tom shares his knowledge and experience on working within the creative and publishing industry.

Q How did you enter into a career of illustration and what education/experience did you have?

I made a conscious decision during 2004 to become an illustrator. Prior to this I was working in a web-based design agency in London. The work that I did there was occasionally illustrative, but mainly I did a lot of animated gifs, Flash work, animation and a bit of coding on simple games.

I studied graphic design at University and up until then used to draw all day every day. When I attended university I focused on motion graphics and music production. I guess it was a bit of a deviation, but ultimately any creative skills that you learn feeds back into each other, so it was by no means a waste of time.

Besides, I do a lot of motion graphics work alongside my illustration work to help promote the books that I write and illustrate. Because I can create the music, animation and illustration work, it means that I have a very clear idea of how I want the final piece to be presented.

When I decided to become a full time illustrator I reduced my working week to three days at my full-time job and used the other two days to build up my portfolio. My salary was obviously cut down dramatically, but I did get a good portfolio together and managed to secure an agent.

Soon after I left my job but continued to do freelance graphic design to cover the periods when I wasn't getting any illustration work. I gradually phased that out until I was a full time illustrator. So it was a pretty cautious approach, I know some people just jump into these things, but having grown up in a caravan with NO MONEY WHATSOEVER, I was very keen to make sure I could actually make a living from illustration before I left a secure job!

Q Who or what inspires your work? And how has this inspiration led to developing your own style?

I have a lots of different influences as I work across a lot of different styles in a number of mediums and in different genres. To list all the people who have inspired me would take a long time! One thing that I would say is that it's best to be inspired by the message in someone's work as opposed to the aesthetic, otherwise you can quite easily just become a clone of them.

I guess the single biggest influence on my work would probably be Dave McKean. I saw an exhibition of his work when I was about 13 and it absolutely blew me away. His approach to his whole career is fantastic and he sets himself no restrictions on the areas that he can or can't work in.

The most inspiring site I have come a cross recently is Pinterest.com. It's a fantastic place to see just how much amazing artwork is being created. It can also contain a lot of home decoration material which isn't really my thing, but you know, 'horses for courses'!

Q How do you find a typical project and secure it?

I get some work through my agent, especially the commercial work - for the last few years I have created all of ASDA's halloween characters and there is no way that they would have been aware of me or my work if it wasn't for my agent.

I work two days a week at Harper Collins Publishers doing all their creative marketing for the children's division so I know quite a lot of people in Publishing now - I guess that counts as word of mouth?

I do pitch ideas for some projects, as that's how the picture book work comes around. Again, I have an agent who goes to speak to the editors and I don't do that directly until a contract has been drawn up. Finally, I get work from Twitter and Facebook. By the way if you want to follow me on twitter go to @TomPercivalSays

Q Can you detail your studio setup and how you take a rough idea to finished piece?

My studio is a complete mess. I'd love to be one of those people who sits at a pristine desk surrounded by neat filing units but instead my Wacom tablet is the only clear surface in the entire studio.

Currently I have a set of weights, a baby-walker (my sons, I've not needed one of those for years) stacks of 1950's national geographic (very cool for research/inspiration), an etching press and LOTS of pieces of paper with drawings, linocuts, screen prints and paintings on.

I always start work by hand, so for example, with a Skulduggery picture, I draw the figures in pencil on cartridge paper and then shade them using Letraset Markers. I used to shade my line art on the computer, but I prefer the look and feel of working with the markers. It's nice to have originals too.

Then I scan the images in and tint the shading on the computer, adding additional highlights and shadows, digitally if necessary. I finally composite all the characters and background elements together in Photoshop. For the final image I often use 3D assets, photography, painting, drawing and found/scanned objects (to create texture.)

Q How does working with vector programs fit into your work flow?

I use vector programs mainly in animation work or for the more commercial illustration work. All of my ASDA Halloween illustration work is vector based, as they need to be able to scale some of the illustrations up to fit across a whole supermarket isle.

I draw freehand in Flash with the Wacom and then export as a FXG file as all the other export options from Flash seem to monkey around with the colours for some reason! I just find the vector drawing tools in flash so much more intuitive, although Illustrator is obviously more precise for 'pure' vector artwork.

Q Did you submit the FXG file? Or did you convert to another format?

The agency I was working with on the ASDA Halloween characters had requested Illustrator files, so I used the FXG format to convert the freehand vector drawn images from Flash into a format that I could open in Illustrator, then it was simple 'file: save as.'

Q Could you give an overview on the creative process you worked through for the ASDA illustrations?

The brief was fairly tight. They had very clear commercial objectives for each character. Each figure needed to appeal to a certain age range or personality type and had to have an appropriate mood. Having said that, how I represented those moods was up to me.

So I received the written brief for the personality type and then got to work with pencils sketching out a whole raft of ideas. These got solidified along the way until we arrived at the character designs that ended up being used. Some of these arrived more quickly than others. A few characters I got with the first sketch, which is always nice, as it maintains that initial excitement!

Q Your work is built up from hand-drawn techniques, do you think there is a danger the traditional creative techniques will eventually be replaced?

I don't think that traditional creative methods will ever die out. They might be replaced in a commercial environment at times, however as illustration is essentially style led, it's cyclical in the same way as fashion is. So, whilst you might have a period when everybody is adopting the latest technical innovation to express their ideas, you will also have times when more people are utilizing traditional mark making techniques instead.

As long as people are expressing their ideas in some way, I'm happy! I do a lot of motion graphics work and use lots of plugins for AfterEffects like Trapcode Particular that are just amazing! There is no way that you could do the things that they can do with traditional animation, so as far as I'm concerned every method has it's own unique set of advantages. It's like the debate about books versus e-books really, it's not a question of one or the other, both are valid and useful.

Here are a few animations that I've made:

Q How much control or input do you have on the layout and typography of a children's book like Tobias?

I had a certain level of control over the layout of both Tobias and a Home for Mr Tipps. The authors at HarperCollins work with a designer whose job it is to actually make the book work!

I had set ideas on how I wanted certain spreads to work, which I think was viewed in a positive light, as it meant one less thing for the publisher to worry about. It was great to have someone to veto certain ideas I had though, and I can say 100% that the input from the designer improved the look of both of my books.

Q And do publishers have a standard way deciding how the layout and book size will be achieved?

I wanted to have the book in a square format so that the double page spread would have a similar aspect ratio to widescreen for real impact on the spreads where there's a big action splash, and the publisher was fine with that. So I guess as long as you and the publisher are moving in the same sort of direction these things aren't really problems. I suppose it's different as I studied graphic design and worked for a good few years on both interactive and print design, so I know what I'm doing.

Q What advice can you give to someone beginning a career in illustration?

It's tricky to give advice as I only know what I did and what worked for me at the time. I did a lot of work for free on flyers, club nights, friends bands, charities, etc. Anything really to build up a strong portfolio of work that was visible and out in the real world. I was also getting paid work as a designer so that was feasible for me, it's tricky if you need to make illustration pay your way from the start.

Working at a design/advertising agency or a publisher also helps, as there are lots of people who you become friends with that go on to become creative directors or commissioning editors. I know that sounds a bit 'it's not what you know...' but the fact is a good working relationship with someone is invaluable. Obviously, your work needs to be as great as you can make it, but if you can't get on with people, you'll never get repeat work. So, be passionate but not too arrogant. Be punctual and professional.

In terms of your portfolio, context is key. A bunch of twenty very cool but completely random illustrations isn't going to make someone feel they should hire you. Divide your portfolio into blocks Editorial (magazine) work, Publishing (split into genre's if appropriate) Advertising and personal or 'art'. That way if a magazine editor/designer is looking through your portfolio, they know exactly where to go.

If you don't have any of those kinds of work then re-make pieces that you like. Take a magazine article and re-illustrate it, dropping your version into the design. Again, this sort of context shows that you understand the industry and that not only can you create beautiful images but that you 'get' what they will be wanting you to do.

Lastly, I would say try to get in touch with a working illustrator that you might know or have access to and ask them to have a look through your folio and offer advice. When I was younger a comic book illustrator called Charlie Adlard (he creates art for The Walking Dead) took a look through my portfolio and REALLY helped/inspired me. So I kind of see it as an obligation to help out people when they're starting out. Besides, when you get old and horribly unfashionable, perhaps one of the people you helped out at the start will offer you work!

Q Finally, do you have any illustration work due to be published?

I'm currently working on a new picture book called 'Jack's AMAZING Shadow', but I'm still finalizing the last few spreads, and publishing is a sloooow process, so it could be that this won't be released until next year! Here are a few spreads to give you a sense of how it's shaping up. World exclusive!

Also coming up I've got the new Skulduggery Pleasant book, 'Kingdom of the Wicked' coming up, which looks absolutely ace, but I'm sworn to secrecy on anything Skulduggery related! I can reveal that it will probably have a picture of Skulduggery on there though ;)

I've also done the UK cover for the first book in a new series by Geoff Rodkey called Chronicles of Egg, which is a rollicking adventure set on the high seas, Chronicles of Egg: Deadweather and Sunrise.

Tom's next book, Jack's Amazing Shadow is due for release in March 2013. For more information visit his site at: tom-percival.com.

Tom Percival on the Web

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