Interview with an Illustrator: Dan Woodger

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Since graduating three years ago Dan Woodger’s oblong-eyed creations have graced the pages of numerous editorials, like ESPN and The New York Times, and have been part of campaigns for GiffGaff, The Webby Awards, and Oreos. It’s easy to see why. His highly stylized, comic book figures have an all-age appeal to them that’s eager to be snapped by companies large and small to give them the charming and cheeky edge they need.

What I love about his work is the Where’s Wally-esque packed-in nature of his pieces where every element is an illustration in itself. Minimalism isn’t in his repertoire. I spoke to Dan about his work and the role education played in his comeuppance (there’s a theme here!) as well as future projects and how he almost became a golfing instructor, to give you young’uns an insight into the mind of an illustrator.

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Can you explain your job title and how you came to it?

I guess my official job title is ‘freelance illustrator’. I feel quite comfortable calling myself that now but it was something I found difficult to say with any conviction when I was starting out. Unlike most other jobs where you apply, go for an interview and then start your job on such and such date. Freelancing is a gradual progression where you start off by getting the odd commission, thinking, “ah maybe I’ve made it!” and then the inbox goes dead for 2 months. Fortunately with persistence that gap between one job and the next began to narrow and after a while the work became consistent enough to quit my part time job and rely on illustration full time.

How long did it take before you were able to rely solely on your illustration work for income?

It took about a year probably. After university I had to move back in with my parents, like a lot of graduates. I had no work, very little money, and was feeling pretty dejected. I was trying to apply for all manner of creative jobs but apparently having an illustration degree seems to mean absolutely nothing!

However I tried to remain undeterred by this and kept plugging away making personal work and trying to contact ad agencies, art buyers, creative directors etc. I also made a poster/CV, which I sent out to people and eventually I managed to get an internship at YCN.

YCN was the turning point really. It gave me the opportunity to show people what I could do and fortunately they liked my work enough to offer to represent me. After that I gradually started get more emails and work opportunities. After 6 months or so I was earning just enough money to afford to move out.

It’s still not exactly a comfortable living as I never know how much I’ll earn from one month to the next but things are going ok and I get to do something I love all day everyday!

Was your experience with education something you studied or fell into for lack of a better word?

Yeah, my art education was sort of an accident. I had three great years studying BA illustration at Brighton but it almost never happened at all. I come from quite a small town in the Hampshire countryside where exposure to art and design is in pretty short supply so and despite having a life long love of drawing I was totally clueless as to how I could ever earn a living from it. Instead I turned my attention towards sport and almost pursued a career in teaching golf! It was totally by chance that in the final few months of my A Levels I discovered that my college offered a one-year art foundation course. I figured rather then finish my education there I’d give drawing one last roll of the dice and enrolled in the foundation. It was hands down the best decision I ever made and I’ve never looked back.

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Your style has a very distinctive playful or most child-like quality. Was this something that was developed during your time at university or was it your natural way of drawing?

I used to draw like this as a kid, inspired by a mild obsession with The Simpsons. However, again due to a lack of knowledge about illustration, throughout school and college for some bizarre reason I had got it into my head that in order to prove yourself good at drawing you had to draw realism. I put all my efforts into drawing things and making them look as much like the photograph as possible. I think this misconception was probably due in part to the way my school taught art lessons. Which mainly consisted of being handed a black and white photocopy of a famous painting and then being asked to copy it.

Remarkably it wasn’t until the end of my first year at university that I finally realised I didn’t have to draw like that and could just draw cartoons if I wanted to. I went back to a way of drawing that felt much more creative and somewhat more natural to me, like when I was a kid, and I then spent the rest of my time at Uni developing my characters and exploring with colour. I became interested in 1980’s pop culture and started incorporating some of those inspirations into my work until eventually it manifested into the style I have today.

That’s really interesting and I think a problem with a lot of beginning illustrators – I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m not a photographer in a sense. Looking back do you think you could have got this far with out your time at University? Stylistically or career wise?

No, I don’t think I would have got this far career wise without university. Illustration is an unusual course to do though! It’s not as though you go in the door and for 3 years you get taught how to be an illustrator. It’s more about exploration, trial and error, finding out what you like and dislike. I feel extremely privileged to have studied at Brighton where I was surrounded by an alumni of incredibly talented people and I think that being around other illustrators of such high quality every day inevitably raises your own level of ability. Without those experiences I don’t think I would ever have got this far. However, I would suggest to people thinking of doing a creative course to think about it carefully. It is great fun but you need to make sure you’re prepared to get the most out of it. It’s very expensive, especially with the tuition fee rise, so if you’re keen on going make sure you ring that course out like a sponge, do everything, make use of all the facilities, use the library, do screen printing, learn book binding, get tutor advice because once those three years are up, that’s it! So absolutely make the most of it while you can!

Can you take us through the process of one of your most recent commissions from start to finish?

Yeah, sure. I have just finished a piece for the Chinese version of Bloomberg Businessweek.
The article was about a large shopping centre in Beijing called Taikoo Li Sanlitun where they sell a whole range of western branded products such as Starbucks, Nike, and Apple. They asked me to draw a crowd of young, fashionable people walking and shopping in front of the 2 iconic buildings that stand at the entrance to the complex.

The way I create compositions is quite methodical; it’s more like graphic design in a way. I create all the various elements and characters separately on different sheets of paper, scan them into Photoshop individually and then piece them together like a puzzle

So to start off this particular piece I sketched the two main buildings as well as a few smaller similar looking buildings and a row of silhouetted skyscrapers to help create a depth of field. Next I developed around 20 individual characters walking around, holding shopping bags, looking at phones, and drinking cups of coffee etc. Once I had enough I scanned everything in and started layering and sticking the pieces together to form a final draft composition.

After signing off the draft spread with the Art Director (and adding in a Michael Jackson impersonator at the Senior Editors request!) I then began tracing my own sketch using the Wacom tablet and Photoshop. This is the most time consuming part, as I have to try and make the lines as neat as possible. Then once that’s done it’s just a happy, childlike task of colouring in.

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What’s been the hardest part of the freelance illustrator learning curve?

For me it’s been learning how to deal with quiet spells. Fortunately I’ve had quite a busy 2013 so there haven’t been too many this year but I find them very difficult to deal with. I work from home so the novelty of having a few lie-ins and playing Xbox in the middle of the day wears off very quickly, and soon turns to frustration and self loathing. I’m a workaholic, so if I’m sat around the house at 11am on a Wednesday I start to get very twitchy and get the need to find something to work on. Creating personal work in the quiet spells definitely helps. It gives you something to concentrate on and I think it’s a healthy creative practice. In fact I created Jurassic Skate Park when I had my quietist spell. Which turned out to be arguably one of my most popular pieces so that in itself probably proves that learning to deal with them is worth while!

I think I’m the same, I have a backlog of ideas for those quiet periods. What have you got planned for 2014?

I have a few group exhibitions lined up for next year, which is pretty exciting, as I haven’t exhibited any work since I graduated from Uni in 2011. I’ll also be trying to use my spare time to develop a few personal projects that I’ve had in the pipeline for ages, but generally I’m just hoping for much of the same really, I love being an illustrator and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do something I love everyday. So if 2014 continues on in the same way from this year I’d be more than happy.

Lastly, what’s been the biggest mistake you’ve had to learn from during your career?

Thankfully I don’t think I’ve made too many mistakes so far, as most things in this job are negotiated by email, which gives you a long time to think about what you’re going to say before you say it! However one of the most common mistakes I have made is letting myself get excited about a job before its been officially confirmed. It’s incredibly hard not to get your hopes up when a potential client gets in touch with a brief, budget and deadline. Only to turn round the next day and send you a one-sentence email telling you they’ve “gone another way.”

(As an aside getting overly excited about briefs is my biggest fault too!)

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Michael Arnold

January 7, 2014 / By

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