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Design

To the Point: An Interview With Chad Sell

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Incredible Hulk dress-up

This month's interview is with the extraordinarily talented illustrator Chad Sell. Delight in his depictions of RuPaul's Drag Race contestants, web comics like Manta‑Man and his autobiographical Vreeland, and assorted projects like Dragopolis. Get the lowdown on Chad's inspirations, process, experiences, and more.

Thanks so much for the interview, Chad! Let's start at the beginning: What got you into art? 

I was lucky to have a family that was extremely supportive of me as a young artist, which is weird. Both my parents were doctors. Both my siblings are doctors. But I had an aunt who was an artist, and my mother always admired her, and our house was filled with her work.

Self portrait
Chad's self portrait

Are you formally trained, self-taught, or is it a mix of both?

I’m formally trained as an artist, but not necessarily in what I actually do. Which is to say that I studied painting, photography, and film as an undergraduate at Yale. I enjoyed my time there, and it shaped me into a very critical thinker, always striving to improve. But my digital illustration skills and comic book style are self taught.

Illustration of Laganja Estranja

What is your creative process like?

I try to start simple, usually with a small thumbnail sketch. I love to start getting into the nitty gritty of anatomy, facial expressions, the drapery of clothing—but I find that the core compositional elements have to be there in the first sketch, and they have to work well together if the final piece has any hope of turning out well.

Cleaned up Storm sketch
Cleaned up Storm sketch.

As I've gotten into more complicated color palettes, I try to work up a very detailed color sketch early on. Figuring out a stellar palette early on can really be half the battle! And I figure out the basic value relationships at this step, too.

Color comp of Storm sketch
Color comp of Storm sketch.

I’ll usually end up fussing over all of that as the piece progresses, but figuring out those crucial elements early on saves me a lot of headaches later.

Final version of Storms day off work
Final version of Storm's day off work.

What programs and tools do you use in creating your work? Anything you're especially fond of that you'd like recommend?

I draw almost entirely in Manga Studio 5, which I love. Most of my work is drawn on a Yiynova tablet monitor, which is a cheap Chinese knock-off of a Wacom Cintiq. I recently bought a used, first generation Microsoft Surface Pro—it’s nice to get away from my desktop and draw on the couch for a while, but I mostly use it for sketching.

Various panel sketches

For how long have you worked professionally?

Three or four years? I had been lucky to have a day job that was pretty adaptable to my needs. As I started getting more paid illustration work, I could gradually winnow down my hours to the point where I went full-time freelance!

Recentl drawing of Rupauls Drag Race contestant Violet Chachki
Recent drawing of RuPaul's Drag Race contestant, Violet Chachki.

What's your typical work day like?

I get all of my writing done in the morning, when I feel the sharpest. That might involve outlining the bones of a plot or figuring out layouts for a comic page. I give myself a few hours to work on my personal projects, or at least I try to. I find that when I spend an entire day only doing work for other people, I’m resentful and unhappy. So, yes, I try to balance the personal and professional. I’ll work into the early evening, which is also when I pack up my Etsy orders.

Fanart of Jean Grey of X-Men
Fanart of Jean Grey of X-Men.

How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work?

I work entirely at home in my living room. It’s not very exciting. I have art supplies and packing materials everywhere. My favorite thing is a giant slab of cardboard from some IKEA furniture. I’ve covered it in scraps of my old artwork. It’s basically there to remind me, in the middle of my various daily struggles, that I do sometimes make art that I like. 

The aforementioned collage
The aforementioned collage.

You recently published the second chapter of your comic “Vreeland”, an autobiographical comic about caring for your grandparents in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What can you tell me about the process of reliving those years and telling a sequential story about it?

It’s weird, and it can be hard. Sometimes it feels impossible to summarize the most complicated, chaotic, crushing time of your life into something that makes sense and makes a good story. But ultimately, I think my VREELAND stories are some of the best stories I have to share. They’re a distillation of four years of my life, my effort to keep alive memories of my Grandfather, who was a remarkable, wise, and funny man.

Vreeland web comic
Chad's webcomic, Vreeland, which you can read online.

I was introduced to your work through RuPaul’s Drag Race. I know fans of the show patiently wait not only for each season, but for your illustrations of the contestants. Did these drawings start as fan art? Or were you contracted by the show (or queens) in any way?

I started drawing drag queens because I saw Raja at the start of Season 3, and I said, “I have to draw her.” I posted that early work online, and a lot of the queens were really receptive and excited. I made it a weekly thing during each season, and it’s just kept going from there! I have done some jobs for both Logo and World of Wonder over the years, but the bulk of my Drag Race work is still my own thing.

Chads drawing of drag queen BenDeLaCreme
Chad's drawing of drag queen BenDeLaCreme

Your webcomics “MANTA-MAN”, “MANTA-DAD”, and “PART-TIME NINJA” are delightful and weird. Tell me more about these “strange and occasionally sexy stories”.

One of my biggest problems is that I tend to take myself and my work too seriously. I started making MANTA-MAN during a period when I needed to do some weird, raunchy, ridiculous stories that were as weird as I wanted them to be. I wasn't worried about selling them to a publisher or making any money from them. They were just my weird little thing.

MANTA-MAN himself

MANTA-DAD and PART-TIME NINJA are both sort-of spin-offs from that shared universe. I’m constantly questioning whether I should keep doing that weird, eccentric stuff, or whether I should pursue other projects that I will inevitably take too seriously again.

The cover of MANTA-DAD 1

How has your experience been selling your artwork online? Do you license your work out, or run your own business for merchandise?

Right now, I print, pack, and ship all of my own stuff through Etsy. That means I spend a lot of time at my print shop, which I never, ever look forward to. I obsess over my packaging supplies, filling our extra closet with poster tubes, and I spend hours a week packing orders during my busy seasons. It’s a lot.

Chad holding one of his posters
Chad, holding one of his posters of Bianca del Rio.

I used to sell a lot of my work on my own website, but that proved too stressful. I had issues with hacking and with my site’s stability, and it’s just too worrisome to have your income rely on your skills as a webmaster. Etsy is more stable and reliable, even if they have more fees.

The back cover of one of Chads books
The back cover of one of Chad's books.

I’ve tried licensing out my work with Fab.com and some T shirt companies like TeeFury and TeePublic, but the vast majority of my business is still through Etsy. Customers often express surprise when I personally reply to their questions, and they value the fact that I take this stuff seriously.

One of Chads art prints featuring Rupauls Drag Race season 4 winner Sharon Needles
One of Chad's art prints featuring RuPaul's Drag Race Season 4 winner, Sharon Needles.

Let's talk freelance work. Who are some of your past or present clients?

I do take on freelance work when it feels right. A lot of it has a queer pop cultural bent, based on my Drag Race illustrations. I’ve done videogame animation for So Much Drama! Studios, which produced the official RuPaul’s Drag Race mobile game Dragopolis, as well as the new Mean Girls game. I’ve done art for card games, board games, comics, all sorts of things. It’s fun, and I love working with engaged collaborators, though I definitely prefer to own the work I’m making.

One of the villains from Dragopolis
One of the villains from Dragopolis.

I’ve seen you mention having done conventions and exhibits. What are some you’ve done in the past, what’s your experience of them been like, and most importantly, any upcoming events this year?

I exhibit at comic conventions, which is great. I usually have a mix of my comics work and my Drag Race prints, and I’m always surprised at the excited reaction of fans when they spot a queen they recognize. I’ll be doing C2E2 in Chicago this April, as well as Chicago’s CAKE in June. I’m hoping to attend some queer-oriented shows, too, and even sell my work at some drag shows!

Colossus fanart piece
Fanart of Colossus from X-Men.

It’s a lot of work planning your displays for a convention, but it’s fun to work those creative muscles. You also have to plan how you’ll transport your merchandise, how to pack everything into your baggage, how to make sure it doesn’t get crushed, bent, or destroyed. But I love being at shows, meeting fans, talking comics, talking shop, talking drag queens.

The cover to Chads graphic novel Doodleville
The cover to Chad's graphic novel Doodleville.

What words of advice do you have for aspiring artists?

It’s very hard to become a good artist. It’s also very hard to make any money with your art. But don’t equate being a good artist with the money you make from it. You can make good money from bad art. And some of your best art might never make you a cent.

Captain America dress-up

Wonderful advice from a wonderful artist. Many thanks to Chad for taking the time to share his work and experience with us today. Do yourself a favor and follow him around the web through the links below:

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