Interview: Illustrator Ray Frenden

This interview was initially published in the Go Media Forum but we decided it was relevant to all our GoMediaZine readers as well.

Ray Frenden the Artist. I think it’s necessary to put this all in context with a brief overview of the insane force of nature that is your work. What is it that you do, how did you carve out a name for yourself, and what are you currently up to?

The usual spiel I trot out for these sorts of occasions is that I’m a self-taught illustrator with a penchant for monsters and the macabre who draws things for money and likes to write. I was weaned on old horror comics, pulp fiction, and sci-fi. I’m a bit of an anachronistic fella. I’m not big on current pop culture and I’ve always felt a bit out of place and disjointed from it. That separation started as a default state when I was a kid and became a conscious choice as an adult when I moved to rural Illinois after having grown up in Chicago proper. I like seclusion and am most creative when I’m alone and distractions are at a minimum.

Outside of your work, what do you like to do, what causes are you interested in, and what do you think defines you as a person? Basically just, who is Ray Frenden?

I spend the majority of my free time working with animals. My wife operates a trap, neuter, return service for feral cats – we catch cats and get them fixed and put them back in their natural environment. She runs a cat shelter too. More info on that, if you’re curious about cat overpopulation and the difference between a feral and a house cat, can be found at my wife’s site, http://cattaxi.org.

Our rural shelter developed a relationship with several city shelters. They get a lot of farm animals that either are gotten as pets and abandoned or escape from live markets and are caught stray in Chicago. They have neither the capacity or resources for farm animals in the city so my wife and I snag them. Whatever we can’t place on local farms ends up being an addition to our motley crew of misfit animals.

I’ve currently got a couple dozen chickens (reformed fighting birds and rescued laying hens), five ducks, four dogs, a gaggle of barn cats too feral to be placed into homes, fourteen house cats, three sheep, a piglet (and not some pot belly pig, a real pig that’ll weigh a veritable ton eventually), and a horse.

Our latest addition, the aforementioned piglet, fell off a hog truck on a busy interstate. The little fella is barely four pounds and is covered with road rash. We’ve got him on piglet milk replacer and he’s living in my home office. The animals make for a lot of responsibility, but I dare say they’re a more rewarding part of my life than commercial illustration. If rescuing made money (rather than sucked it out of my pocket), I’d devote myself to it full time.

Current art. What currently holds your interest? What techniques are you enjoying using? What subject matter really gets your gears turning?

Inspiration-wise, I just got back from a trip to D.C. The National Gallery had an exhibit featuring the masterworks of German artists. Lots of great charcoal, wash, and ink drawings. Those fellas really appreciated preliminary work. Seeing those studies reminded me that the drawings which are important are the twenty you cut your teeth on. It’s hours spent gesture drawing and drawing from life that most will never see that separate the good from the great. I’m still learning that myself. I get impatient and want to rush ahead and forego the preliminary work. Whenever I spend the time to do studies, make a maquette or take photo reference, and really plan a drawing, things go smoother. I’m continually inspired by illustrators from the golden age of illustration such as Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Mort Drucker, Johnny Craig (perhaps my first exposure to the sort of work I do and easily my first inspiration and biggest early influence), Alfredo Alcala, Pete Hawley, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Frank Frazetta. Everyone loves Frank’s paintings, and rightfully so, but it’s his brush and ink work that floors me. Most of these guys can be seen on the inimitable Leif Peng’s Flickr account here if curious: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leifpeng/

Materially, I’ve been mixing up my usual Rosemary and Co. sable brush and ink work with some Japanese manga nibs from JetPens. Using the techniques in the Famous Artists Course, I’ve used transparent layout paper as one puts separate elements of a piece on different layers in Photoshop. If you sketch the primary elements on a transparent paper, you can arrange them for the most pleasing composition, scan them or tape them together, and print them or transfer them onto your final substrate for inking. I’ve been doing my spot colors this way and will have a 100% traditional process soon aside from the scanning and bundling of the file for clients. It’s not too dissimilar to what the proto-illustrators of yore did to prepare “camera ready” artwork.

My work has been moving to a more realist, painterly style for some time. I’ve been practicing that style digitally as I’ve not got the ideal setup in my home office for busting out oil paintings. I’m hoping to change that and start working with real paints soon. In the meantime, I practice mass drawings and am interested in seeing where mass drawings and lineart intersect. I’ve done some experimentation marrying the two to varying degrees of success.

I want to be trying new things constantly. I get bored easily. If I’m bored, I create boring work. I’m not worried about confusing art directors by displaying a myriad of styles. That may be a good rule of thumb for most situations, but I can’t adhere to it. It’s not in me to be comfortable with, and willing to stay true to, one style.

You are the go-to guy when it comes to questions about Art Programs. Any suggestions for budding artists as to how they should approach the topic? Personally, I feel like it’s better to develop the skills on paper and then find a program that helps you to more easily convey your own personal style. I know that you really explored your art mainly through the tip of a Stylus early on though. What are your thoughts on the matter?

This is tricky. I’ve seen both sides. I drew a bit as a kid traditionally, but I really learned most of what I know on a tablet. If you watch some of my old tutorial videos, you’ll hear me wax poetic about my love of digital art.

I started to hit a few semi-local art meet-ups hosted by my friend Charlie Athanas featuring the likes of traditional heavy weights like Dave Dorman. I asked questions about traditional art supplies and the same curiosity that urged me to learn more about digital art kicked in. I didn’t even know what the gradations of pencils meant. Asking Dave Dorman what a 4B pencil is is sort of like asking Lance Armstrong what a pedal is. To he and Charlie’s credit, they fielded some pretty obvious questions and never made me feel stupid for asking. Dave recommend I read George Bridgman and Charlie really helped me on the art supply side of things. About that same time, I started a dialog with Coop of all people about traditional inking. Those guys are passionate about their methods and that sort of thing rubs off. I was hooked.

I learned that a five dollar synthetic brush and a two dollar bottle of ink was more accurate than my $5400 worth of MacPro and $2000 Cintiq. (http://frenden.com/buyers-remorse/) I was making prettier lines traditionally in a week. I felt good about my progress when Michael Cho (a fantastic illustrator and kindred spirit when it comes to all things linework) told me that most guys take years to get that level of traditional control. I was flattered. The digital practice carried over towards traditional skills. That’s my only explanation. Muscle memory is muscle memory. A stroke is a stroke, be it via stylus or brush.

I cut my teeth on digital. I see its uses. I still employ it here and there. It’s fast. But I’m pretty sold on traditional art. More accuracy, more life in the lines. They’re both tools. Learn both. Each has strengths.

You’re releasing some brush settings, which is very cool of you. Do you have any reservations about this at all? I remember when you first released your Manga brushes on Emptees and about 9 million people started aping you. I’ve met lots of artists who are very insecure about releasing their process and techniques. How do you feel about it?

I had a very open policy about that sort of thing. Before I became a full time commercial illustrator, I toyed with the idea of releasing all my works into the public domain. I’m a reluctant capitalist at best.

I offered a lot of tutorial videos and brush settings and developed a bit of renown (insofar as an illustrator can – we’re talking about a pretty small niche of interest here). I was surprised at how closely some of the derived works were to my own.

I need to be in a constant state of evolving and it’s petty to be threatened by those who want to learn from you. If they catch up to you, so what? Great, I say. Being scared of that is like admitting you have no more room for personal growth. I’m no advocate for finding a style and sticking to it come hell or high water. That sounds like a boring existence to court.

I’m self taught (http://frenden.com/hindsight-is-2010/). If it weren’t for other artists sharing their trade, I’d be nowhere. My favorite sources of instruction are Harold Speed, Bridgman, Hogarth, Vilppu, Loomis, Will Eisner, Preston Blair, James Gurney, and, grouped together, the Famous Artists Illustration and Cartoon Course crews. With their examples of spreading vast wealths of knowledge, I’d feel pretty small for not spreading what little I do have. There’s a tradition of shared knowledge that is bigger than any commercial concern or personal insecurity that one might have.

Ray Frenden the Future. What’s on the horizon for you as far as work and plans? What are your future aspirations and goals? I’ve heard you have a large interest in designing for 2d gaming, can you tell us a little about that?

I originally got my Wacom to make pixel art. I worked in the games industry making 2D, sprite based art and UIs for a casino games company for about a year. I still love games and enjoy thinking up game systems be they for video games, collectible card games, or even board games. My two areas of intense interest have almost always been comic books and video games. Comics were more of my focus as a kid and games more so as an adult.

I want to move away from making art for other people and start working on my own ideas in both those areas. I hope I can do that.

Any final thoughts, tips and suggestions for aspiring artists, or general tomfoolery?

I got asked this on Formspring the other day. I’m regurgitating part of that answer here because I think it encapsulated my feelings on the topic in a more pointed way than I’m typically able.

As far as getting into the market is concerned, be patient, work hard. Put your work in everyone’s face and be an aggressive advocate for yourself. Be your harshest critic but also your biggest fan. Otherwise your insecurity will eat you for lunch. You owe it to your potential to not beat yourself up and stifle your growth.

Style wise, try not to think about it. If you’re drawing all the time, that will come naturally. You will make the marks that feel right to you. The ones your muscle memory has absorbed and saved and cataloged are the ones that add up to a style.

If you want to spread across the tubes and get attention, being memeful helps. Make images that are loaded in advance to appeal to one demographic or another. If you make art about video game characters, video game blogs might talk about it, etc. It’s a cynical stab at self marketing at its worst, but a genuine expression of interest in a given topic at its best. I see peers having great success with jumping on the story of the moment and making art to match.

“I’M WITH COCO.” That image was everywhere a few months ago.

More importantly than anything else mentioned above: do what you love. It shows in the work. That will get you more attention, more deserved attention, in the long run. We live in a plastic world that places a high value on moments of fleeting authenticity. Being yourself is the best way to stand above the pack. Knowing who you are in the first place is the hard part.

Ray Frenden the Contact. I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to answer questions, and for helping out on this particular project.

Flickr: http://flickr.com/photos/rayfrenden

Twitter: http://twitter.com/frenden

Website: http://frenden.com

Forum/pals: http://styl.us

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