We spoke to him about his creative background, how he creates a narrative in his illustrations and what he likes most about working with Affinity Designer for iPad.
What made you want to become a cartoonist and illustrator? Were you creative growing up?
My parents recognised that I loved drawing from an early age and were very encouraging. I took art lessons, and received art supplies and books for holiday and birthday gifts, and jumped at any chance to visit art museums. Oddly, I sort of resisted the idea of being a cartoonist or an illustrator until I was in college. I’d assumed that art would always be a part of my life in some capacity, but didn’t seriously entertain it as a vocation until I was in my 20s.
How did you get to where you are now?
I took a circuitous route. In high school, I was convinced that I couldn’t make a living as an artist and wanted to study architecture, which felt like a practical compromise. A semester of physics, chemistry, and math changed my mind. I studied Classics but spent most of my time in school drawing for the school’s newspaper and humour magazine.
After graduating, I went back to school for animation. I worked in video games for a decade, before a decade of freelancing. For the past eight years, minus a bit at the start of the pandemic, I’ve been working as a designer for a small publishing company, with some freelancing on the side when exciting projects come up.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
As mentioned, I spend most of my working hours as a graphic designer/art director for a small publishing company called Key Step Media. My typical day depends upon what deadlines we have coming up and the state of various freelance projects I have going on. Before the pandemic, it was a pretty standard desk job: 9-5. When the world went to remote work, we loosened up our schedules a bit. Generally, I start work around 9:30 am and wrap things up around dinner (unless I’ve taken significant time off in the middle of the day to go running or biking).
If I’m working on an illustration or something of my own, I’ll often work in the evenings with my iPad on the couch so that I can hang out with my wife and cats without feeling completely antisocial.
Storytelling is a big part of your work. How do you come up with fresh ideas for your cartoons and illustrations?
If the work is editorial in nature (accompanying an article or a podcast episode), I try to identify the themes of the piece and play off of that. When it works well, the illustration complements the article rather than just visually depicting it. I try to emphasise the humour and levity of a situation. My style tends to gravitate towards that, and I have found that it helps bring balance to otherwise serious subjects.
“If the work is editorial in nature (accompanying an article or a podcast episode), I try to identify the themes of the piece and play off of that. When it works well, the illustration complements the article rather than just visually depicting it.”
For cartoons or illustrations that are entirely mine, I generally come up with a concept and try to refine it to its essence. Illustration and cartooning are like haiku: they’re stylized forms of communication that reward brevity. I usually have a narrative hook that I’ll structure the piece around—like a punchline if it’s a humorous comic. Because I work digitally, there’s room for improvisation en route. If a sketch has an unexpected visual touch that jumps out, I’ll adjust. This, of course, depends upon deadlines.
For the most part, I suspect I come up with ideas the same way most people do: reading, observing, and spending too much time inside my own head!
Could you talk us through your creative process? How do you turn ideas into finished works?
I almost always have paper and a pencil at hand. Generally, an illustration starts with a barely legible scratch on paper. I love drawing people, so generally, I think about how I can convey an idea or theme through body language. I’ll doodle poses until I have something that feels right. From there, I’ll switch to the iPad, doing rough sketches of the overall composition, and tightening them up before I switch to working in vector.
When I work in vector, I tend to stick to the Pencil Tool (using a stabilizing rope) for organic shapes, and the Pen Tool for geometric shapes. I’ll pick a garish colour (bright pink, or bright green—something difficult to ignore!) and start outlining objects, moving from the foreground to the background, and concentrating on one figure at a time. I tend to group objects and colour code them with tags. I don’t worry too much about sticking to my sketch—the beauty of working in vector is the ability to tinker without losing quality. Once I have all the basic shapes, I’ll change them from outlines to solid colours.
When the shapes are all blocked out, and the colours are approximately where I want them, I’ll add vector details—lines and shapes to define objects, or to indicate their relative position in space. (Is there a better feeling than creating a pressure curve, and then using the pencil tool to draw the perfect line? It’s just so soothing—like watching a lava lamp!)
“Is there a better feeling than creating a pressure curve, and then using the pencil tool to draw the perfect line? It’s just so soothing—like watching a lava lamp!”
After everything has been created in vectors, I’ll adjust the colours to get the right balance between the different elements and to fit the motif of the piece. From there, I’ll use the Pixel Persona to add textures, shadows, and other raster visual flair.
How did you first hear about Affinity, and what inspired you to give Affinity Designer a try?
It was a recommendation from my brother who is an imaging scientist at Apple. I wasn’t doing much freelance work at the time, and only had legacy copies of Adobe on my home computer. In 2015, a client sent me a file I couldn’t open, so my brother recommended Affinity Photo. I ended up really liking the interface and bought Affinity Designer shortly after. Eventually, I started using the entire suite for home and work. I started using it for illustration when I broke my Wacom tablet right before a deadline and decided to use Affinity Designer’s vector tools with a mouse (this was before I worked on the iPad). I liked how the illustration turned out and decided I’d use it regularly. My earliest illustrations were rough, but I enjoyed the process. When I bought an iPad Pro, Affinity Designer was the first app I bought!
What do you like most about working with the iPad version?
Two reasons, primarily: it’s a drawing program that doesn’t sacrifice the features one needs to do professional work in a portable format, and the integration with the Apple Pencil is just magic. I love the interface of the iPad version. There’s a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, the interface seems to melt away (literally, if you use the “Hide UI” button!). For my vector illustrations, 95% of the work is done on the iPad, with only a bit of colour correction, and the final exporting done on my desktop computer (and generally only so that I can have a bunch of artboards on the screen at once at high resolution). I love that I can throw my iPad in my bag and work from any location, in the same exact file format I’m using on my desktop computer. I can work from a cafe or my couch, or on vacation—though I try not to do that too often!
“I love that I can throw my iPad in my bag and work from any location, in the same exact file format I’m using on my desktop computer.”
Is there a favourite project that stands out that you most enjoyed working on?
I’ve really been enjoying the illustrations I’ve been doing for the podcast First Person Plural. They’re usually done on a pretty tight deadline, so I don’t have too much time to overthink everything. I need to listen to the audio files, identify the key themes, pick a visual metaphor that works with the episode, and turn around a final illustration in just a couple of days. Probably like most artists, I rely on deadlines to get things done. I try to set myself goals with my art, and this project has been great at allowing me the flexibility to grow within a reasonable schedule.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with some of my academic friends on a few science communication pieces. It’s an interesting collaborative challenge—I’m not a scientist, so trying to straddle the line between fun, easy to parse visual communication, and illustrative work that uses the established conventions and iconography of the particular field is tough. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to do more of it in the future!
Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?
For the next few weeks, I’ll be working on illustrations for a game idea I’ve been tinkering with for the last few years. It’s a hybrid of illustrations, comics, and graphic design—basically the confluence of my vocational interests! I try to use downtime and personal projects as a chance to hone my craft. Under deadline, I’ll err on the side of caution and rely on techniques I’ve used before. I’m planning on using these next few weeks to tinker with my process, and improve on some areas I’m just not as comfortable with.
If you could have your work published anywhere, where would it be?
That’s an interesting question. I really enjoy making things from start to finish, so I suspect that I’d actually want to do the publishing myself. I like all the various aspects of publishing: from concepting, design, and layout, to illustrations, to working with printers and scrutinising proofs. I think at this point in my career, I value holding something in my hand that I made, that makes me happy, over greater fame or recognition. Of course, if The New Yorker or Dragon Magazine wanted a spot illustration, I wouldn’t say “no”!
What do you like to do in your spare time when you’re not illustrating?
I run and bike a lot. I love being outside, and use it as a way to mentally recharge, and recover from a job that has me sitting all day. Plus it gives me fodder for illustrations for my local running and cycling clubs! And games. My career started in games, and though I don’t have the time to devote to them like I did in my 20s, I love playing them, thinking about them, and tinkering with ideas for new ones.
Lastly, what would be your advice for aspiring cartoonists and illustrators?
There’s really no more practical advice than just to draw. Draw all the time! Draw for pleasure; draw with specific lessons that you’d like to work on in mind. Technology will change constantly, but the basics of technique and composition are applicable across any platform.
“There’s really no more practical advice than just to draw. Draw all the time! Draw for pleasure; draw with specific lessons that you’d like to work on in mind. Technology will change constantly, but the basics of technique and composition are applicable across any platform.”
Think of illustration and cartooning as unique languages. They borrow from other visual media (fine art, theatre, film, and television) but have evolved their own, often regionally specific vernaculars. How can you efficiently convey meaning, playing with the strengths of each medium? Look at your favourite illustrators and cartoonists, and try to see what it is about their work that resonates with you. What makes them unique? What makes them effective? Then consider what will make you unique and effective.
Lastly—and this is critical—don’t be afraid to mess up. I cringe looking at some of my own older work, but it all represents growth. Seek advice and constructive feedback from trusted friends and mentors. Cartooning and illustration are solitary professions; having a community of friends with whom you can talk about technique, celebrate the victories, and commiserate on the setbacks does wonders for one’s mental well-being!