CM: What is your background/education in art?
AD: I went to art school. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid to late 90s, then went out in the world and worked in L.A. for a while. Eventually I felt like I was getting distant from illustration, which is what I went to school for and what I love doing the most. So I went to grad school and went to New York and the School of Visual of Arts and got my master’s there. At both schools I had a really good time and learned a lot. So that was my formal education.
When I was a teenager I did some summer art classes at the local school, the Art Institute of Boston. My high school had a solid art program, which was Brooklyn High School. But even as a little kid it was always something that I did and was encouraged to do. I had a lot of support from my folks and friends, and it was the way I related to the world and learned about myself and my own thoughts and connected with people early on.
CM: How did you get into illustration?
AD: There’s a couple ways of answering that, the technical side and the interest side. I’d begin by just saying that illustration was the thing I identified with, loving books, book covers, picture books, and reading. I read a lot, so that’s how illustration became the art that was a means to directly connect to people. But also it felt relevant because it addresses specific ideas. As wonderful and open ended as art can be, culturally speaking and emotionally and personal and all of that, illustration, for me, has a quality I identify with specific to fulfilling objectives—communicating a specific idea. In the case of books it’s communicating the essence of a story in one dimension. I like that. There’s a very tight framework, and within that there’s plenty of room to explore.
But on a technical side, it’s a long, slow process. When I got out of school I was sending out postcards to publishers and researching, going to libraries and bookstores and looking at magazines and books and who published that, and that looks cool, that looks like maybe they’ll like my stuff, and tracking down art directors. It takes a long time, and that slowly evolved with email. For me, that was the late nineties and early 2000s, and it became prevalent to have websites up and direct people towards that. Now everyone does that, and it’s a lot easier to shoot an image over to art directors and hope they’ll check it out. And that’s basically the common thing I had to do, annually, bi-annually sending out email cards and inviting people to check out my work.
These past couple of years I’ve sort of stopped reaching out because I was getting overwhelmed with work. That ebbs and flows, and it when gets quieter and I’ll poke back up. Because that’s the thing specifically about illustration as a career: there’s no security. You never know. You can get it into your head that this is it, I’ve really made it, and you’ll find out the next year that it’s not quite as busy. All that very familiar, at least for me, feeling of ‘will I be able to pull this off for another year?’
But you just stick with it if it’s your thing. That concern of making a living is significant, but it’s one of those things you have to decide and then go with. The time I made that decision ultimately was going from high school to college. This is something I really enjoy, it’s really important to me, but does it make sense to do this as a career? It seems like years and years of jobs—temping and art department work in the film industry, and all different kinds of jobs in the time you’re on your own and having to make ends meet. At some point I was able to stop doing that and focus on making images and paintings for illustration and galleries.
CM: When you’re illustrating for books and designing book covers, how much do you know about the story before you try to make these images that are going to represent the story?
AD: There are a couple of answers to that, too. The short answer is yes, that’s definitely what I prefer. Every time I get offered a job to do a book, one of the first questions I ask is can I read it. Sometimes that’s super easy, which is the best, when the art director says yes, I’ll send it to you. I read the whole thing and take notes and that’s when I am in the most grounded place.
Because here’s what happens sometimes as well: either it’s a brand new book or it’s still being written, so you can’t read it. Things come up where you can’t always read it and that makes things a little shakier. The art director will sometimes say this is what the story is about, or get you some kind of summary, which is okay. If that’s what you have to work with, you work with what you’ve got.
I’ve had the whole spectrum of experiences, where I’ve been able to read it and be grounded in knowing it. I’ve had times where the art director hasn’t read it, for one reason or another. Either they’re lazy—I’m not going to say that’s the case, maybe they can’t because they have too many projects—but then it’s a somewhat tricky situation. When you’re in different places where the author clearly knows what they’ve done, the illustrator has read the book so they know what’s going on, and the art director has a pretty good idea but just not too specific. So the best situation is when everyone is on the same page. The art director has read the book, the illustrator has read the book, everyone has read the book so they’re working from the same place. But it’ll happen when there’s a mix there, where not everyone is as informed as would be ideal, but often times there are good reasons where it’s a business and people are busy. That’s the long answer.
It’s really important if people are interested in doing books and book covers, you have to love books. You can’t just be a person who likes making pictures. The story is so important, so being familiar and understanding what the characters are about and the language is important. It’s not just knowing what it’s about, but it’s important to know how it’s written and the tone and the subtext and that stuff that’s in the words themselves. It’s all important. If you’re getting it right you’re being true to the characters and the story.
CM: Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve illustrated?
AD: I’ve had so many that have been great. The Raven Boys series I’ve been involved on, that’s been pretty terrific. [Maggie Stiefvater] is a really great writer, and it’s fun to be involved with something that’s so popular. And the characters are really solid, so I’ve enjoyed that a lot.
The Netrunner cards that I’ve been working on for a number of years now, that’s also been fun. It’s been a really interesting mix. That’s one of the things that’s fun about being an artist/illustrator is having access to so many different worlds. While The Raven Boys takes place in more or less the real world, though there’s a kind of magical quality to it, The Netrunner world is in cyber space. So that’s always fun to go from one world to another, to go into this dark, cyber digital battlefield. I like that place too.
There’s a cover I’m working on now that has been really challenging. It’s a sequel to a cover of a book, which I think is coming out next month. It’s called The Guns of Ivrea, which is a really fun, hard fantasy novel. It has magic and some old-timey monsters in it. The first cover I did I’m happy with, another great project where I was given full access to the story right as it came off the writer’s computer. And now I’m working on the sequel to it, and it’s totally my idea. It’s really tough, there’s a big battle scene in it, and I’ve been going through the text to find really specific details about armor and weapons and the emblems of the different armies—all the stuff I want to make sure I get right. Because while you can tweak stuff up later on, I want to get it as accurate as I can. I don’t really do a lot of big, complicated ensemble group images, so I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but trying to take it one step at a time. There are so many facets to this, and right now I’m focusing on trying to orchestrate a big battle. It’s great. I always like a challenge and not always doing the same thing, so any chance I get to do something a little different I definitely enjoy learning new things and trying to solve a new problem. But it’s also tough.
One other project is the branding of Mexi Kai. I moved out to New Zealand back in 2011 and was invited to create the imagery for a Pacific/Mexican food trucks company. I had a really short period of time to conceive of and craft the look of the company and template the art for the truck as it was being built. It was all new and challenging in scope, timeframe, and the stakes were high, but a rewarding experience.
Illustrating Fat & Bones and Other Stories was another enriching yearlong venture. I was hired to draw about 10 or so images and ended up doing many dozens. The art director gave me free reign with the artwork and once I figured out how to capture the creepy, gritty look and feel of the story, there were so many characters and moments I wanted to depict. It was fun to just run with it.
CM: What do you think is the hardest thing about illustrating a story?
AD: I think it depends on the story. There isn’t one answer to that question. I think my experience has been that the hardest thing is being true to that particular story that you’re working on. There’s always balance between doing your own work that feels personal and distinctive, what’s generally referred to as style, but that’s a word I don’t really like using it at all. But doing what is really your own, and then fulfilling the needs of the story—that particular story and the voice of that author and that world. And finding the place where those two meet. If you can do both at the same time, then that’s the successful piece.
But we’re speaking entirely about the story and the illustration, and not at this moment the business stuff, because there’s all kinds of challenges that can come with that, with all these other people involved—marketing departments and all the money, deadlines, all that stuff. So we’ll put all that other stuff aside and talk about the story and addressing the story and making a compelling and very true image for it.
One of the things I notice that I do, if I can, is put everything on the cover if I can distill it down to an image that really captures it all. Then maybe touching on secondary themes on the back of the cover. With everything going more and more digital you see this a bit less, but when you hold the book in your hand you can see the back. We’re seeing less and less of that, but regardless, if I can, I cram in a second note on the back to give a fuller presentation.
So there’s distilling it all down to one image on the cover and then saying there’s another aspect or quality or detail and letting the back being the place where you continue that a bit more. I find that rewarding, if only for myself, even if it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get seen much.
CM: Are there any books that are special to you or that you would love the chance to illustrate?
AD: Oh, totally. A book that has been something I’ve wanted to do, and I know where it belongs—it’s a Penguin book so I couldn’t just do my own version—is The NeverEnding Story. It would be really fun to do. I read it years ago, but I reread it recently and realized that it’s a book which is mostly known because of the movie, which was terrific—fun and visually imaginative—but that doesn’t really do anything for the book. And for a person who is a real devotee of literature, I would love to visualize that book because there are so many differences that really deserve to be realized from the text and not as comparisons to the movie, which is at this point thirty years old. I’ve done some sketches to kind of fantasize a little bit about it, so maybe sometime I’ll get a call to work on that, that’d be terrific.
One thing that’s been happening that I’ve noticed more is all these public domain books that have been published and are classics and have been out for a while. There’s places like Creative Action Network that do covers for these books, which is totally cool and legal, so I’ve been doing a little of that. This is just covers, not interiors, because there’s a bunch I would love to do interiors for as well, but it’s been nice to revisit some of my favorites and play around with what the covers would look like.
I just finished reading and doing a cover for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. With stuff like that, it feels kind of like a piggy back to make an image for something that’s already so substantial, but it feels good. I enjoy it.
There’s a lot more I’m not thinking of, like A Wrinkle in Time, Narnia. Narnia would be amazing. These are the kinds of books that really got me into reading and are so close to my heart, like the literary equivalent of Star Wars. They defined my childhood. Stuff like that would be really terrific to spend the time on.
There’s always the balance between doing projects for work because you need the money and it’s your career, and then there’s the stuff you want to do for yourself in terms of exploring as an artist and doodling to see what it might look like. There’s always a balance there. I have a handful of pet projects that probably won’t go anywhere and are things I’ll just put time into when I’m a little less busy, and then I’m busy I push them aside.
There’s a lot of stories out there that would be great to dedicate time to and realize in my own world.
CM: A lot of your fine art features animals, and many feature certain animals predominantly than others—like foxes, wolves, ravens. Are there reasons why animals, or those animals, feature so strongly?
AD: One of the reasons I really connect to illustration is because there’s a framework to respond to, and I like that. I’m not spinning in my own juices or my own tiny world. It forces me to adapt and address ideas outside of my own head. So when it comes to my fine art world, in a way this becomes a lot less explainable because so much of it is coming from a more emotional and comfortable place.
In terms of the animals, I really don’t know the answer besides that I’m a big animal lover and have always been more comfortable painting a fox than a person. It’s as simple as that.
Extrapolating from that, there’s the initial connection of us and animals as living beings. I really, as a human being, connect easily with them, both as pets and going out and traveling and seeing animals in the country or watching nature programs. Those are some of my favorite things.
So it’s a simple human connection, but if we want to get a little more exploratory about it, I could say that the draw is a way to explore what I think are meaningful symbols and symbolism. There’s a whole language that we as humans ascribe to forms, where animals anthropomorphize and take on so much rich meaning for us. That’s something that I really identify with as well. Birds are a big part of that. Lately it’s been foxes and wolves. I go through cycles. I don’t think I’ve had a year where I do one animal and move on and never do that animal again.
So there are animals as animals and animals as symbols. I really enjoy how a depiction of a bird flying can denote so much—specific and open ended—quality, like freedom and aspiration. In the U.S. bald eagles are the symbol of freedom. In other cultures, birds are prominent as symbols of messengers, emblems of a greater aspiration, like Icarus flying towards the sun.
So that’s the kind of language I really gravitate towards and find meaning in. I’m motivated to use this language as meaningful symbols because I find it’s richer and deeper than if I were doing imagery that had very specific iconography. I have done it, but I don’t connect with it so much because I feel very aware of time and permanence and how in a couple of years the cell phone we use now will look outdated. I don’t like getting hung up on specifics that will date anything or be a means to separate a person from the imagery, so I tend to gravitate towards things that by and large have a timeless quality.
So that if you have a piece on your wall that had some meaning for you, that in five, ten, fifteen years, that painting would still serve you in some way. I’d like to think that if you’re in a great mood there’s something there, and if you’re depressed that this piece on your wall can be there for you and be supportive through those up and downs that come with life.
The other thing I find is that animals, animal forms, are much more varied than human beings. There’s so much variety, everything from claws and horns to wings and scales to fur. There’s so much variety and opportunity for dynamic forms and shapes and textures. I really enjoy all of that and getting lost in it. And even at times pushing even further into fantastical and monstrous, that’s always fun to push beyond and not feel beholden to what exists as we know it. Obviously you can tell that within the subject of the form, there’s a whole other space, and that’s this abstract world. The animal form is in many ways allows me a recognizable window, a relatable form, so that once I have that there’s a chance for me ostensibly to take your hand and go into a whole other open ended place that’s not defined, but seems to be a realm of emotion and meaning and exploration and the unknown.
So that’s a thing to identify with. Oh, that’s a bird, and you can freely float into it and through it and whatever you can find in that space is there for you. I don’t do much in the way of total abstraction, which is totally legitimate, but I find personally I like to trend between both worlds—between the real world and the totally open world of abstraction. That’s the space I like to be in, a little bit of that trickster, messenger, architect is the one I really identify with.
CM: What artists have influenced you or that you have enjoyed and learned from?
AD: There are so many. I used to do this thing where I would write the name of the artist, a painter or a writer or a director or a musician, and put them on my wall, and the wall would be covered with this post card of names because I always felt this need to not have these names deep in the recesses of my brain but to be out and visible, something of an acknowlegment. So there are a lot.
A lot of them, I’d say the really formative ones when I growing up, were illustrators, which should not be a surprise. That’s where I found myself. A lot of painters and a handful of contemporary artists, but I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older I’ve been seeking out less the work of others and trying to hone my own. So most of the names are a bit older, at least for me. They were more significant when I was younger.
M.C. Escher, even though he’s pop-y and a college poster kind of guy. That thing where I was talking about going between worlds, I think he was on a whole other level of being able to do that, to create imagery that is occupying multiple worlds at the same time and was really brain-opening work. Escher was a big one.
Klimt as well, another popular college poster, but just so gorgeous and visual. And the way that he introduced abstract shapes in what became his very own language. He was very terrific too.
When I was a little kid what blew my little brains was my introduction to the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. That’s not one artist, but probably half a dozen or so illustrators doing that, but these really wonderful black and white, somewhat graphic—in terms of black and white, not violence—of all these images of griffins and creatures. That’s something I’d love to do one day. That’s always been a pet project, to do my own monster manual.
I have to mention Joseph Campbell. I feel like his name has come up recently because Star Wars is out again. His work, which I was introduced to as a little kid through Star Wars but then got to understand how significant his work was, the sort of stories that are universal. That was always so significant when I was younger and has always stuck with me ever since.
Another guy who I keep going back to do is Andrew Wyeth. It’s so interesting how narrative his work is without there being much of an explicit story—so small and delicate and of one small area. There’s layers and layers, and for me a sense of story there. There’s such incredible skill in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s too caught up in itself. His work feels really raw.
Winsor McCay was a big one, who did Little Nemo, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, which I grew up with too. I’d say Calvin is living in me, like he’s living in a lot of us—a spastic little kid with this tiger. I always loved the quality, the juxtaposition of simple, playful, genuinely cartoony imagery with content that was surprisingly thoughtful.
So those are some that have stuck with me. For reference and for those who’d like to learn more, I keep an ever growing list of artwork by fantastic artists here – https://www.pinterest.com/adamsdoyle/mastery/
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists and illustrators?
AD: First and foremost, and stuff like this is what everyone hears and goes without saying, but at the same time when you’re asked this questions you have to say it, which is you really have to love it because it doesn’t pay well and it’s regularly terrifying whether or not you’ll be able to make enough money to support yourself. It requires love, and that means the dedication of time. It can be challenging to not go out and do stuff with your friends and not get caught up in distractions, and we all know there’s plenty of those today.
It takes going through the arduous process of learning all the fundamentals, technically, which means stuff like still lifes and figure drawing, learning light and shadows and from there developing an understanding for capturing narrative and story, and all that preliminary stuff to get to the place where you can let go of it. There’s not a way of skipping around it, and one of the great things about going through art school is they put you through that gauntlet.
As for making it as an illustrator, sometimes I don’t even know what it takes because it sort of feels like it’s a different time now then when I started. When I was younger, it was getting work in the hands of art directors, but I was coming up at the tail end of the time when illustrators would sit down in meetings and talk about portfolios and meet art directors. I did that, but it wasn’t like my teachers would say that was all they did. These days that’s very rare. There’s, in a way, no need. Everything you need is online with your own site, with your own work, and that’s what art directors will respond to.
So it’s a mix of things, which means it used to be a challenge to get stuff seen and be met with, and now the challenge is getting people to really pay attention to work because there’s so much. Now a new illustrator and me and someone who is way more successful than me are all in competition with each other and with the rest of the world. There are no borders. That’s both fundamentally wonderful because it means the bar is higher and higher because any art director can work with anyone they want from around the world, but it can also be overwhelmingly challenging because how can you possibly compete when there’s so much phenomenal work out there?
All you can really do is focus on what is meaningful to you and put the time in to understanding the fundamentals of crafting a compelling picture, and familiarizing yourself with the companies—publishers, games, books, cards, whatever it might be—with those that you respond to because there’s a much greater chance that they’ll respond to your work and reach out.
So much of the work that I have had over years has been something that crossed my path, and I thought that looks really cool, like the Netrunner project I’ve been working on. I’ve been working with them for a number of years. I just saw it and I thought it looked really neat, I wonder if they’re hiring. I emailed the art director and she got right back to me and we’ve been working together ever since.
Just be prepared for a challenge. It’s very hard to get work. On top of that it’s very hard to make a good image. There are multiple layers of challenge, but it’s rewarding when you get these little successes along the way because you’re fulfilling the need of a career and a fulfillment of your creativity.
There’s nothing better than working on a project in front of me at my desk and then going to doing something else and still working on it in my head. I enjoy how it can be both an external, physical craft that I’m doing with my hands and my eyes, and that also occupies my inner world, solving problems and composition and figures at the same time. If that’s the kind of thing that the person reading this gets excited about, then this is definitely a great field to be in.
Just know that you’re going to get an enormous amount of input that says you shouldn’t be doing this. That is to say, people in your life might say to be more realistic, or when you are presenting your stuff you’ll get an enormous amount of that. And I get that all the time too. Everyone who’s in a creative world where you’re trying to put yourself out there, gatekeepers will say it’s not working. You have to deal with that all the time and build up a thick skin, and at the same time have a super thin skin because the work requires that degree of investment and sensitivity. You really can’t be a totally detached, unemotional artist. It just doesn’t work. You have to be able to handle both of those things, both of those areas of experience—the harshness of it, and the open, loving, sensitive side of it.
If you’re aspiring to be an illustrator, I believe strongly in knowing the source material. I mentioned already that I always read, whenever possible, the books I’m illustrating. If you’re depicting Frankenstein’s monster, for example, there is so much imagery already out there. Ignore all of it. Reading the original text, not just a summary either, brings an intimacy unlike anything else. That is essential for the work we do. Be true to the story. Be true to the characters.
Additionally, I highly recommend traveling or better yet living abroad. One of the perks of being an illustrator is that as long as you have access to the Internet you can email files from anywhere. Experiencing other cultures, cities, and landscapes first hand will live with you and inspire you for the rest of your life. If you can manage it, buy a plane ticket and go.
Adam S. Doyle’s paintings exhibit in New York City, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and in Europe. A lifelong reader, Adam loves illustrating books and book covers. Additionally, he enjoys crafting images for card games, greeting cards, album covers, theater and concert posters, package design, and dreamscapes.