INTERVIEW: Craig Phillips

Craig Phillips is an award winning illustrator who has been providing illustrations to the publishing and advertising industries in the United States, Australia and Europe for over a decade. He has created book jackets and interior art for Random House, Penguin, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, TOR Books, Wizards Of The Coast, Oxford University Press and many more. He has created tour posters for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters and provided editorial work to many publications including Rolling Stone Magazine.

He has most recently written and illustrated a couple of childrens books – Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts and The Adventures of Jack Scratch #1 – The Quest for the Hiss-Paniola. The former has sold out of its first printing, and was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, and the latter has been garnering rave reviews, including right here at ACJ!

Interviewed by Darren Close

 

It’s been a long time since FINCH, Craig!

It sure has. I still have half a mind to go back and pick Finch up again.

Tell us a little about your journey from FINCH to where you are now – based on the strength of that book I had always assumed you’d be headed to Marvel or DC shortly thereafter…

Finch was way back at the start of my illustration career. I think I was working in magazines as an art director at that time and just picked up my US agent, Shannon Associates.

I was always in love with comics, but my career went into book publishing. And I have loved it. I worked mainly in books for kids and teens and supplemented that with a little bit of advertising work. I illustrated books for the likes for Simon and Schuster, Random House, Penguin, TOR, Scholastic, Hachete, Walker Books and Allen & Unwin over the years.

I talked with my agent at different points along the way about working in comics, however my agent always felt that the money in comics vs the output of work you need to do, is just not viable – and he’s right. For one painted book cover I’d have to do at least 6 pages of sequential art. So I never ventured into comics, and enjoyed many years in book publishing. I still work for these publishers today. This week I am doing covers for Random House and illustrating chapter books for Simon & Schuster.

Now my overwhelming urge is to create my own books. I started this shift a few years ago and the first book (Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts: Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods) came out last year. I have a lot more to come, too! It’s an extra hard graft on top of the client work, but I think it is a shift that will be worth making.

In order to make a living from your art in Australia, you really need to diversify the kind of work you’re available for – what has that been like?

That is a good question. You can either brand yourself solidly, like Victo Ngai or Yuko Shimizu or James Jean among others. OR you can be a jack-of-all-trades and styles and not have a real visual identity that people recognise. Either way, you do need to be able to take on a variety of projects.

I spent years taking the latter approach. But I now believe that you need to really brand yourself. You need a distinct yet adaptable style. Your own brand. I think that approach is more enduring and better of any artist in the long run.

In terms of working in Australia, it is really important to think globally. Right from the start I knew the Australian market was not big enough. You have to think in terms of Australia, the US and EU, and not put all your eggs in one basket. I have my agent representing me in the US and EU. I represent myself in Australian publishing. And I work on my own royalty based projects, too.

What’s the strangest project you’ve worked on?

Don’t ask… 😉

What kind of workflow have you developed over the years, how do you juggle so many projects at once?

I usually have 6 clients on my board at any one time and the workflow is a constant challenge. Right now for example, I am juggling 2 covers for Random House, a cover for S&S, a book of interiors for S&S, a book for an educational client, pitches for a movie franchise, and a graphic novel. It is never a simple process. One client might request changes, change brief, hold onto sketches, or add in new art to a job, and it effects all your other jobs. It is never a seamless process. There are always challenges to workflow. It’s just the way it is. I am used to it now.

How important is it to get away from the drawing desk? – you’ve posted on social media how much you enjoy your surfing.

Oh, if it is ONE thing I stress to upcoming illustrators, it is to get away from the drawing desk. An artist NEEDS to move. Stretch. Do cardio. Get downtime. Spend real time with family. It is very easy for an artist to get so locked in that they don’t look up for years. Make sure you get out and into the sunshine, maintain a healthy social life and exercise routine!

What are your primary tools of the trade, do you do a lot of digital work as well as traditional?

I mostly use ink on paper, and a graphic colour approach in photoshop. So I go through a lot of paper! But I have been doing more digital work in recent years, especially on covers. But my preference is always to work on paper and get away from the screen. It’s a better balance for me.

Software wise I use Photoshop CC. I ink with pens and a brush, and use hand created textures to add some natural feel to digital colour.

When you go to the comic shop, what are the books that attract you? What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I don’t get to a lot of stores, as I am nearly 3 hrs from the nearest comic shop! But I am always drawn to indie looking stuff, Vertigo-esque titles and things that are a bit different. I am not very drawn to superheroes. I tend to steer towards fantasy/adventure stuff. My all time favourite book is still Jeff Smith’s Bone.

The Neil Gaiman AMERICAN GODS coloring book project, how did that come about? Did you get any feedback from Gaiman about how it came out?

I was approached by Harper Collins via my agent to contribute about 18 pieces to that book. I was thrilled. Working on a Gaiman project had always been on my bucket list. It was a fun gig. We executed it quickly, and Gaiman was very succinct and not too hands on with feedback. I think he made 2 edit requests across the whole 18 pieces. And when he picked one of my images to use for the cover, well, that was just brilliant!

You just announced that your recent GIANTS, TROLLS, WITCHES, BEASTS illustrated childrens book has officially sold out of a massive 5700 copy print run, as well as shortlisted for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year, AND shortlisted for an Aurealis Award. That’s amazing!

Oh yeh! Thanks! Giants is my baby. I can’t tell you how much of my life went into that. It was family project. We all bore the brunt of the labour and time that book took to make. And we are all proud of it. To sell out was amazing. To get shortlisted for an Aurealis was brilliant, and long listed for a CBCA a real shock. We are crossing our fingers and toes to see what happens with the CBCA short list. But if it doesn’t make it, I am still so happy.

Can you tell us a bit about the journey of getting that book made?

It started with a pitch to The School Magazine back in 2012. I wasn’t sure what to pitch, so I thought I’d just do what I liked – Fairy Tales! And so I pitched a Swedish tale called The Boy Who Was Never Afraid. That was published, and I created two more tales for The School Magazine – one in 2013 (Snow White & Rose Red) and 2014 ( Thor & The Frost Giants).

In 2014 I received a call from the head of Childrens and Teen books at Allen & Unwin to contribute to a graphic anthology of mythology. But while I had her on the phone, I pitched my own book of fairy tales, and it all started from there.

I also received some Emerging Author funding through the ASA and Australia Council, which helped me take a month or so off and start work on the book.

I worked on scripts and thumbnails, but didn’t start the bulk of the heavy lifting – pencilling, inking, production, until late 2015 and through 2016 – and we sent off the last page after Christmas 2016, I think. That was a big, big job! And so good to finally see in print.

How is the experience of working with book publishers, any tips on how to make that process as smooth as possible?

Thumbnails! Good communication! Deliver on time as best you can. Again, nothing is seamless. You are always juggling a ton of stuff. But thumbnails and good communication are a great start. Also, keep your first roughs loose and tighten up through the process so you don’t waste time putting in too much detail too early. And don’t give the publishers any surprises in terms of changing things in your composition. Publishers don’t generally like surprises. Stick to your roughs.

You made the move to New Zealand a few years back, what prompted that, and how does it compare to living and working in Australia?

We have always loved NZ. We spent a lot of years travelling here for the snow seasons. I certainly miss aspects of Australia, and all my friends, but love NZ. Working here is not a great change for me, as all my clients are in the US and it is just a matter of setting up and working as usual.

In terms of living – it’s is great! It is a bit slower here. A bit quieter. The climate is friendlier, even if it does get very cold in winter. My children feel very at home here. I find New Zealand is quite forward thinking in a lot of ways, and seems to do it’s own thing.

And the mountains! I LOVE the mountains. For a snowboarder, it is a great place to be.

The ADVENTURES OF JACK SCRATCH book recently achieved its Kickstarter goal, tell us a bit about how that project came about.

Three or so years ago my then 6 year old daughter asked me to make a book just for her. She wanted it to be about cats, then changed her mind and asked that it be about pirates. Then she thought it would be genius to make a book all about pirate-cats!

We brainstormed a lot of ideas together, and pitched the first episode to The School Magazine.

They ran it as a ten part serial. Several years later, I was looking at the old strip and thinking that it would be great as a series of colour books for children. I didn’t have the capital for the printing though, until a friend of ours who runs her own small publishing company offered to publish it full colour, and in hardcover!

I rebuilt the original strip, adding in a lot of new art, expanding the story and editing it all into a book called The Adventures of Jack Scratch #1 – The Quest for the Hiss-Paniola!

We ran a Kickstarter campaign and fully funded at 150 percent in just 12 days. Which was amazing! The books are back from the printer. The print quality is wonderful, and they have all been sent out to backers. The support we received for the book was overwhelming and hugely encouraging. I am writing book #2 at the moment. And loving the process!

You billed this book specifically as “Reclaiming comics for Kids” – something it seems the comic industry at large (certainly “the big two”) is not really that interested in doing that. But I think it’s so very important if comics as a medium is going to survive.

My goal in making comics is to make comics that kids can read. I’d often wander into stores with my children and be struck by how little there was available for kids. But that seems to be changing now, with more books coming out such as Hilda, Amulet, Phoebe and the Unicorn – all family favourites here.

Apart from JACK SCRATCH, what else can we look forward to seeing from you later this year?

I have – somewhat crazily – put my hand up to do an art book called Asgard, and am working on Jack Scratch & The Curse of the Kraken. I also hope to publish a little sketchbook, and have a few ideas for some medieval ghost stories. But maybe that one will have to wait till 2019.

What advice would you have for any aspiring artists, specifically perhaps in making the transition from self-publishing comics to commercial illustration?

My first piece of advice is to learn as much as you can. Study. Fill sketchbooks. Network. Spread your work far and wide via social media. If you want to get into commercial illustration, you might want to try the agent route. Although that is a topic for a whole new conversation. My transition was via an agent. I was doing bits here and there for magazines, and making my own comics back in the late 90s and early 2000’s, but it wasn’t until I landed an agent that my career gathered a lot of momentum and I could live off my art.

Thanks for your time Craig!
(I still kinda hope you’ll do some more FINCH books someday, I loved that book!)

I WILL! I can’t leave that character unfinished.

Thanks very much Darren!

 

craigphillips.com.au

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About Darren Close

Darren Close
Darren is the creator and publisher of the KILLEROO series, and also the creator of the OzComics website and subsequent drawing challenge on Facebook. He's been around the local comic scene for far too long for many people's liking. Gary Chaloner was foolish enough to make him the new Managing Editor of AustralianComicsJournal.com

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One comment

  1. Antoinette Rydyr

    Beautiful artwork and great interview! Disappointed that you didn’t reveal the “strangest project you’ve worked on”.

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