Thursday, 3 June 2010

Tom Kidd Interview

There is a wonderful escapism to Tom Kidd's work. He paints such beautiful worlds of tranquillity and majesty that it makes me wish I could visit and explore them in one of his brilliant looking Zeppelins.
Having been a working illustrator for 30 years now, Tom has certainly created a large back catologe of awesome paintings that made it very difficult for me to decide which to use. In the end, I could have picked any number of his paintings and they would have the same impact, but opted for my personal favourites.

With his recently released book "How to Draw and Paint Dragons" and forth coming "Otherworlds: How to Imagine, Paint and Create Epic Scenes of Fantasy," being absolutely must buys, I can't recommend them enough for such a small price, you will have a large collection of amazing paintings. "Kiddography" by default, is an essential book to own for anyone interested in fantasy art.

Tom Kidd - Cole Falls (2001): "This was a private commission and one of only a handful that I've done. Typically, publishing and design work keeps me pretty busy. It is a wonderful thing when you connect perfectly with someone on a project though."

The Interview

Lloyd Harvey: In your book, ‘Kiddography,’ you talk about how when you were young, you chose the path of an illustrator over being an artist. If you had picked the role of an artist instead, how do you think your career and work would be different today?

Tom Kidd: First, thank you for reading the book. I greatly enjoyed writing it and I appreciate people taking the time to read it. Most art books are only looked at. I took some care to make that book as entertaining as I knew how. As you know, the usual approach is to have a professional author write the book. Out of sheer hubris I it wrote myself. Then I insisted on designing it. I enjoyed the process so much that I’ve written two more books. These are instructional books illustrated with my art and they will both come out this year.

Strangely, the world of illustration gives me more opportunity to paint what I want. Fine artists are required to paint, either the subject matter someone wants to hang on their wall, or for museums that buy based on the needs of investment driven collectors who give endowments to the museums. At least this is what museum curators tell me. By painting something other than science fiction, fantasy, horror and the occasional historical illustration, I wouldn’t be true to myself. That would eat me up inside. If I didn’t paint what the gallery market wanted I’d have starved and if I did paint for the sake of sales I’d likely be consumed by self-loathing. The happiest of all worlds is to write and illustrate your own words.

Also in your book, you spoke about a considerate New Yorker who acted kindly by passing you your portfolio through the closing doors of a subway train, having left it on the seat by mistake when you got off. Have you been able to thank that nice stranger personally or have you given up hope of ever seeing them again?

My wild hope was that I’d hear from that fellow, that he might read the book or have told the story to someone who had read my book. It hasn’t happened as yet. That was some day. I don’t know what I’d have done had I lost that portfolio.

A Fish Out of Water (from Tom Kidd's Gnemo book): "This picture illustrates the chapter title when Gnemo arrives and everything in the world is new to him. He has a great deal to learn, not the least of which is the language and how to earn a living."

Throughout your book, there are numerous digital painting experiments. Have you ever completed a commission 100% digitally? How do you find painting on the computer as opposed to your preferred traditional medium of oils?

The computer is a very nice way for me to find out what I actually know. It’s enough of a difference to my preferred medium, that it forces me to think. I’ve been painting so long I paint without really thinking consciously about what I’m doing much. Thinking is good. Whatever challenges me this way is good for me.

For “How to Draw and Paint Dragons” I did several digital demonstration pieces so I guess you could say I did a paying job with that medium. My preference remains oil and watercolor even though I greatly enjoy working digitally. Give me a laptop and a drawing tablet (or one of those Cintique tablets please) and I’m enjoying myself as much as I would drawing in a sketchbook.

Tom Kidd - H.M.A.S. Wyeth (1989): "My first painting for my book Gnemo. At the time I had little idea where this story was going."

Lets talk about your Gnemo project. The story is about an adventurer by the name of Gnemo and the paintings you create are of the wondrous places he has seen. How long have you been working on it/have you worked on it? When do you think you’ll get it published?

The world of Gnemo may never become a real book. I’m okay with that. However, if given the opportunity to do Gnemo the way I’d like to, I’ll move Heaven and Earth to make it happen. It started as only a way to release pent up creative energy that illustration work didn’t quite allow and still serves that purpose. Gnemo was never meant to be a way for making money. One day, to my surprise, Tundra Books offered to do the book. Sadly, that company went out of business and the book has been in need of a publisher since.

I started on Gnemo (around 1980 I guess) shortly after I did my first book cover. It was only sketches for years and I didn’t have a name for my character. It wasn’t till around 1988 that I came up with an interesting plot to go with the art. All the pieces then came together like chummy old pals at a reunion. Although those pieces of ideas had never met before they somehow had instant history. It was as if I’d made a living thing and that life suddenly had a life of its own.

Who or what, have been big influences to the style of the narrative and the art of the worlds that Gnemo explores?

Science is my biggest influence for Gnemo. I read a lot of science articles and they merge, compliment and cross-pollinate in my brain to produce both story and pictures. It’s likely you’re thinking in terms of a list of artists and illustrators. That list would go on forever. To know whose work I greatly admire I’ve named several things in the Gnemo story after those artists. Often I’ve named my Gnemo paintings after them: “Winsor McCay City, H.M.A.S. Wyeth, Bonestell Valley” and so on.

Triumphant: A cover that Tom painted for the amzing H G Wells book, The War of the Worlds. 

I’m a big fan of your War of the Worlds tripod interpretations. What type of illustrative jobs are your favourites to work on? What would you like to do more of?

I approached “The War of the Worlds” as a conceptual design job. H. G. Wells wrote the book in 1898 from the perspective of someone at that time. I saw his words through my 21st Century eyes and painted accordingly. The Martian war machines most interested me and I drew them as machines with creature-like qualities in motion, three-legged motion. Wells thought this out well. He described the Martian machines as having not mechanical gears. This would’ve made them structurally more like animals. They moved by use of mechanical muscles, a future prediction for human machines as well. I truly loved turning Wells’ words into pictures.

When it comes to completing a painting, every artist spends different amounts of time behind the canvas. How long (on average) do you spend working on a final piece? Do you find yourself working in long stints or would it be something you do in short, multiple sessions?

The actual painting of book covers, as opposed to reading the books and coming up with ideas, is anywhere from a week to two weeks. I’ve done them in less time but that requires me to concentrate and work long uninterrupted hours. A tight deadline is the main ingredient of painting fast. I need the pressure otherwise my mind wanders and I find myself experimenting. Paintings, other than book covers, are often done in a day or two or can take months.

Piranesi: When this piece was first exhibited, Tom was asked "I give up, where's Waldo?" It comes from the his Gnemo book project and everything in the painting has a reason to be there but until he releases the story for people to read, no one is going to know what it all means.

What is the longest you have ever spent painting a picture?

A year. Although, not really. It took me a year to finish a large complicated painting titled "Piranesi" but I did several other paintings while working on it. I do this for major works simply so that I can get some sense of having completed something.

Questions Every Artist Gets Asked

What has been your career highlight to date?

It’s always nice to receive awards. It’s nice when museums want to exhibit my work. It’s nice to read positive reviews of books I’ve done. It’s nice to receive fan letters. I don’t know if any of it is a true highlight though. People’s perceptions vary greatly on what’s important and what’s not. No one (other than other artists) comes into my house or studio and are impressed with awards on display or often don’t seem to notice the paintings on my walls.

Still, I guess the most thrilling thing for me is when another artist buys a painting I’ve done. Michael Kaluta and Jean (Moebius) Giraud have bought paintings of mine. That made me pretty happy. Wait, the highlight of my career is that I still have one after 30 years. There’s an unlikely achievement for you.

Tom Kidd - Winsor McCay City (1990): "Here I tried to take all the attractive qualities of cities and put them into one painting. No matter how beautiful, the city's origins lie in great injustice and tradegy."

What was your big break into the illustration industry?

It was Tor Books and the credit for discovering me goes to its editor Jim Baen, who later started Baen Books and I’ve since done many covers for Tor and Baen. Prior to that, I’d been pounding the pavement all over New York. Here and there I picked up jobs but things weren’t steady (this is all around 1980). I’d been in the city a year. My other lucky break that year was the World S. F. convention in Boston. I went to the convention and I sold everything I brought there. That money kept me from starving while I looked for illustration work.

What was the best piece of artistic advice you have received or can offer?

The best advice I’ve ever gotten I didn’t believe. I was told my paintings were bad as book covers because I didn’t leave space at the top for type. An artist told me that I wouldn’t get cover assignments till I could show art directors I could do that. This was back in the days before computers when you could easily add space to a painting.

Anyway, I made sure to format future sample paintings so there was space at top and I immediately sold rights to the newer work for use on book covers, cover assignments then followed. The moral of the story is that you need to pretty much show art directors exactly what they’re looking for. I think it’s easier for an artist to look at another artist’s work and tell what they’re capable of than it is for an art director.

What do you think is the most effective way you market yourself and your work?

My advice is to do everything to get your work seen. Look into every opportunity that comes your way as best you can while spending as much time in the studio as you can. I’m somewhat behind here technically so a younger artist might answer this question better than I could. Almost everything I did when I was starting out is now obsolete. Between conventions, juried publications and the Internet, there’s a lot of opportunity to get your work seen. My personal belief is that the effort you put into directly marketing yourself takes away time from developing your art, so you’re best doing it in the most efficient way possible.

Tom Kidd - Artistic Liberty: "This piece was an original cover idea for my Kiddography book that was repurposed as  a signed inserted bookplate for when the book is bought through Bud Plant Comic Art. This is the painting Jean (Moebius) Giraud bought, minus the border."

As an artist, what are the biggest challenges that you face?

Any problems I face as an artist are small compared to the problems that are part of anyone’s life. It’s those problems that often get in the way of me making art. My wonderful wife is here to help me with many things but often I simply let my real-life problems pile up and then, when I have time, I rush through them. The jury duty people always want me when I’m terribly busy. They don’t understand that a freelance artist means you can’t stop what you’re doing and have someone fill in for you.

Deadlines and poor art direction are minor problems comparably. One thing that an illustrator can face that’s different than most jobs today is that your work is out there forever. Not everything you do will be your best work and old work can haunt you, especially when you realize what you did wrong.

Tom Kidd’s Randoms

Do you prefer Pepsi or Coke-a-Cola?

Out of great respect for Haddon Sundblom I’d have to say Coke. That’s an illustrator’s point of view for you. Neither of those drinks taste the way they did when I was a kid though. I don’t think it’s because I changed because I still like everything else I liked when I was younger.

If you were to have a last meal, what would it be?

Other than the great advantage of it being unattainable and thereby extending my life forever, I think I’d enjoy a medley of extinct animal meats: dodo, mammoth, tyrannosaur, thylacine, passenger pigeon and unicorn. I like traveling, seeing unusual things and eating the most unusual of local cuisine so if somehow these meats were brought forward in time I’d, at least, be able to try something few other people had before I was executed. That makes me wonder what my offense would be though. Heretical painting?

Are you a morning person, or a late night owl?

I’m both. This can be quite hard on me at times. Often you’ll find me hard at work at 5 AM and then another day working well past midnight. I’d prefer to be a bit more regular but my body won’t let me.

What would you rather have: a bionic arm or a bionic leg?

I’ve seen those programmable robots in factories construct some amazing things, never tiring, never making mistakes, plodding on night and day. It seems to me that a bionic arm could be set up the same way. At one point you could be in direct control but while you’re resting it could continue on working for you.

My bionic arm wouldn’t be super strong but would instead be super facile, able to paint with absolute precision even if I was asleep (quietly, of course). If it were my left arm – or even a third arm – I might be able to do two paintings simultaneously. It wouldn’t need to be in proportion to my body and it could have extra joints and appendages where needed.

If you were a super hero/villain, what super power would you have?

I’d like to be able to freeze time so I’d be able to study and paint anything. This would also help me greatly with deadlines. I’d likely abuse my power though and days, months and years would go before I restarted time. While the universe remained frozen in time I’d continue to age frittering away my own time.

Now that you have read this interview, go spoil yourself and head over to Tom's website or buy his books, they are so good!

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