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Illustrator Kenny Spicer: ‘software evolves, and you must evolve too’

Kenny Spicer is an illustrator who has a keen interest in automotive art. He joins us today to speak to us about his work, his creative background and give us his thoughts on Affinity Designer.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Kenny Spicer, and I currently live in a small town in North Carolina. I have been an illustrator for 21 years and have been drawing since I was six. What I am most known for is automotive art and illustration.

Have you always had a very creative background?

Yes and no. I have always been artistic but never thought this would end up being something that I did for a living. When I was in school, my mind drifted like most kids that are bored and uninterested in what they’re learning, so I doodled in my notebooks. This ended up pushing me more and more in an artistic direction. Notebooks started becoming sketchbooks, and doodles became drawings, and it all happened without me really realising it. I was picking art classes in high school to take just for an easy grade and never expected it to go anywhere. I went to college for the first time to take classes in other fields but then dropped out.

If I had to give credit to something that got me to this point, I would have to give it to computer games, as games opened up a new creative outlet for me. Being a fan of Doom, Quake, and Unreal really opened the door for me to make some fan art and bring out that artistic side in an all-new way. Instead of doodling and drawing on paper, I had now moved to the computer. It wasn’t long after that I got my first pen tablet, and I was back in college looking for any type of computer art classes that were available (which wasn’t much in the early 90s). Now all these years later, here we are.

You specialise in automotive design. What first got you interested in this?

Who doesn’t love cars? I mean, it’s got to be something in every boy’s DNA. Once I got my license, all I studied for years was cars and the car culture. I could go on and on about how I first got into cars and drawing them, but I think it comes down to friends. A lot of my friends were also into cars—low riders and hydraulics, so I had a wide range of influence and experience with the culture. One of my buddies is a pretty successful car and bike painter, and we worked together on cars and car renders for his business. This really oriented my career more specifically into the car art field—being able to create the paint scheme for a render of a car before it actually goes into the shop helps the customer visualise everything beforehand. Things just took off from there.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Wow, this is a big question. There are so many different influences. I love games and the art in games. I used to make maps for some game mods (Quake), so that has always been a big influence. I never really got into comic books, but I love the art style of comics. I follow some comic artists on Instagram and love seeing the art they create—they are very inspiring.

How would you describe your approach to design?

These days I do a lot of apparel design for screen printing, so my approach to design varies from customer to customer. I don’t always get to wake up and just draw the coolest, most vibrant, colourful designs like other artists. Colours cost money, so you have to learn to express yourself with a limited palette. This isn’t always the case, but nonetheless, you become very aware of the limits and try to stay within some boundaries. The more you save customers money, the more likely they are to keep coming back. There are those times when you get to go wild and do what you want, and that’s always fun. The more freedom you get, the better the results. You don’t get to draw things you like every day. Sometimes it’s just busy work and nothing you want to brag about or post about. Sometimes customers want what they want, and you can’t talk them out of a bad idea. However, you are optimistic about each new job.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I have worked at a couple of studios and printers over the years, but these days I’m lucky enough to be freelance and work from home. I never would have seen this possible years ago, so I feel very fortunate to be able to do this. When the pandemic started, already being able to work from home really helped me and my customers keep going when the rest of the world seemed to have stopped. So, I feel very lucky, and I enjoy the creative process even more now that I am working from home. Being in your own space and working in your own time really makes a difference.

What’s your plan for the rest of the year?

This year I plan to work on some of my own projects. I spend so much time working on other people’s designs, that I don’t put aside time for creating something for myself. I want to spend time creating something that I like and something I’m interested in and explore new creative ways to do things. I am always looking to learn new techniques. If you’re not learning, you’re falling behind. This is something that is so important in this industry. Software evolves, and you must evolve too. I also plan to get back to the roots of drawing with more pencil sketches and bring back some of that process to keep things fresh. Sketching and painting on the iPad and computer gets repetitive, and it’s good to mix it up a bit.

How many designs do you usually sketch before choosing one?

It varies from job to job. A lot of the time, I just do thumbnails to get different ideas out and down on paper. I then pick the one that has the most potential for a good design. Sometimes it’s not even necessary when a customer just wants a specific vehicle drawn, as the focus is all on that with their logo incorporated into the design.

How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?

I think every artist is constantly evolving their style—trying new ways to do what they do every day and trying new paths to get the same results. I know I am always trying new shading styles, and most importantly, ways to speed things up. Being able to become more efficient with time is definitely important. I admire the artists that get to spend weeks on a design, but that’s not even in my stratosphere. One thing that I have had to evolve on is time.

Tell me about how your sketches transform into the final artwork we see.

Many customers send me a photo of a vehicle to draw, although it’s never a good photo. It always seems like a photo from an old flip phone or something. Sometimes it’s a photo of the vehicle in the shop being repainted or fabricated. It’s very hard to see the details, so I have to sketch everything from scratch in a base sketch while getting photos of the newly painted or reworked vehicle along the way. Race cars are normally being rebuilt when I get the job, and I have to use a standard car reference as a guideline knowing it could change before the final results. Bikes are never in one piece and are typically being painted, so you always have to keep in mind that you’ll have to make adjustments before the final piece is done. I may start the design one day and get a far as I can with it with the information I have, then move on to another design. Then I come back later once I get the rest of the information or photos and finish everything.

Is there a project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge of your career so far?

Bikes! They are the most fun to do but also the most challenging because they have so many small engine parts. It’s so easy to miss something if you’re not careful, and they will let you know if you do.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on Affinity Designer?

Affinity Designer has definitely changed my workflow over the past couple of years. I do most of my sketches and designs in the iPad app and move over to the desktop for type work. Affinity Designer and Photo have been one of the most integrated full apps for iPad mirroring the desktop versions, and that’s one of the reasons I keep using them so much. Having that desktop app all built into the iPad has been wonderful. I can’t wait to see what’s next for both the desktop and app versions of Affinity Designer.

You can find more of Kenny’s amazing work on his Behance and Instagram and his website.