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The inside word on illustration from Frank Stockton

New York illustrator Frank Stockton is one of those artists who, when you stumble across his work, you can’t help but stop and marvel (and on occasion, tear the page right and tack it on the wall). Stockton’s incredible draughtsmanship, coupled with a powerful knack for innovative, graphic storytelling, has resulted in an impressive body of work. Having already been published in magazines such as Esquire, The New Yorker, GQ and Penthouse, just to name a few, Stockton is already making a big name for himself within the industry. We spoke to him recently.

Where did you go to school?
‘I received my BFA in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena’

Since school up until now, what has your artistic journey been like? How have you seen your career develop?
‘I didn’t really get any editorial illustration work until I decided that was my new identity. It sounds corny, but I had to move from California to New York and start telling people “I’m an editorial illustrator” in order to set myself on the path to making that happen. Of course, it took months and months of constant care and maintenance before I was able to actually make ends meet exclusively with my editorial work. But I think that’s how it happens for almost everyone.

‘One thing that helped me get work more quickly was trying to define the type of illustrator I was. I looked at my passions and pushed the work in that direction. Because I love Indiana Jones, Kill Bill, UFC, basketball, cartoons, comic books and the like, I told myself I was going to market myself as “the man’s man illustrator.” It sounds silly, but it wound up helping me get assignments for jobs I was really excited to do. For example, my first big assignment was a six page feature for Esquire Magazine in March 2007: “60 Things Worth Shortening Your Life For,” which included stuff like bull riding lessons, getting into a bar fight, and drunken scuba diving. That gig got me a lot of exposure, and people were willing to try me on other type of illustrations, too–which is good, because I would be bored out of my mind if I was still doing that kind of stuff every week a year and a half later’.

How did you find your style? How would you say it’s evolved since you began?
‘When I was in school I used to paint all the time, but I never liked painting for assignments. I get really emotional about painting. It’s a really stressful experience, and not one I like being art directed through. Anyway, in school I became known as a “painter,” but the only reason I was exclusively doing that was because we hadn’t been encouraged do much else.

‘When I got out of school, I started trying to find other ways to make images that would be quicker and more fun. Since I grew up on comic books, strips and the like, i wanted to do something that reminded me of the stuff I enjoyed looking at as a kid. So I took up the pen and learned some of the basics of photoshop and started trying to recreate the flat, simple coloring I’ve always enjoyed so much.

I don’t like to use the word “style” because it seems to imply that you chose what your stuff looks like; that is, that you make rules for what it can and can’t be. I try to leave room to evolve, otherwise I could just hire a couple of illustrators to execute my “style” and go on vacation.

I like the evolutionary process. Every time I make a new piece I try to push myself further than last time, whether that’s by pushing color, narrative, drawing style, more texture, using brush or pencil instead of pen, whatever. The goal is personal growth. I try to surprise myself every time I make something. It’s tough balancing being an artist with being an illustrator sometimes, though, because above all else you are expected to deliver a quality product that meets the client’s expectations. So, through trial and error I’ve learned to do certain things that make my work more consistent, but less spontaneous’.

How would you describe your process?
‘First I’ll gather photo reference and draw up some sketches. After I’ve sent a couple of sketches and they’ve given me the go-ahead on one of them, I will re-draw the sketch at about 70% of the print size as tight as I think I’ll need for inking. It’s more fun to go straight to inking, but I’ve found that over all the pieces turn out better when I take the extra time and do the tight sketch.

Next, I scan the pencils in and print them out on 11×14″ bristol in light blue lines, and ink directly over that. I scan the inked drawing back in and viola! I’m ready to color in photoshop. Sometimes I’ll add another layer with ink wash or watercolor or something, but the busier I am, the less time I have to try stuff like that’.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
‘Variety. I like doing stuff with different emotional tonalities. I love changing gears and going from silly to sexy to serious. Anything new is a challenge. The least exciting thing is when someone calls and asks for something just like that other thing that I’ve done. That’s when it becomes just about a paycheck’.

When you find yourself in a creative slump, what do you do to try and get out of it?
‘When I’m in a creative slump, it’s always because I’m not pushing myself. Sometimes it comes from doing an assignment that’s too similar to another one I’ve done, or from having so much work to do that I don’t have time to make anything awesome. Nothing frustrates me more than the feeling that I’m repeating myself. The best cure I’ve found for slumps is updating my blog every seven days. Since it’s the reason people come to my site, I want to always have new and exciting content. I want people to ask, “Hey did you see Frank’s blog this week?”, and I want his or her friend to answer, “of course!”‘

Plans for future projects?
‘I’m developing an “art of” site for myself that will have archives of drawings, paintings, and illustrations, and a store where people can purchase prints and original art from. I’m going to move the URL of my blog over to that site, too, once I get it up and running. The current website will still be geared toward art directors and potential clients, and the new one will be geared towards other artists, students, and my parents. I also have a comic book I’ve written that I am trying to finish drawing, and a couple of other book ideas that are on my short list of things to do’.

frank stockton

frank stockton