Who Is This Masked Metaphor?: Interview with Illustrator Howard McWilliam
From financial journalist to varied virtuoso of illustration, artist Howard McWilliam has a lush portfolio of caricatures and creatures of comical proportions. He has given a humorous face to financial magazines with tongue-in-cheek parodies of the business world. Naturally, McWilliam has also captured the spirited corner’s of childhood with illustrations for the Ghost Detectors series by Dotti Enderle and I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll.
1) What made you decide to make the transition from financial journalist/editor to full time illustrator?
As long as I can remember I’ve always wanted an art-based career, and this didn’t change even at university when I switched from Fine Art to English Literature. (I found the latter extremely interesting, and the former too conceptual: more about attaching half a lawnmower to the wall and giving it a postmodern title than about drawing and painting.) After pursuing a few artistic avenues unsuccessfully upon graduation, I fell into financial journalism in London, but paradoxically found this presented a great opportunity for illustration: meeting and working alongside many other editors, they got to know me as a part-time illustrator and trusted me with their covers. I worked like this for four years, fitting my artwork in around the dayjob, until I was working so much I had to choose one or the other: it was natural to choose my true passion… it just took a while to get the guts to quit the safe salary for unpredictable self employment!
2) Please describe your illustration process-what medium(s) do you use and how do you approach each new project?
I began illustrating using watercolours or acrylics on paper and canvas, but gradually began to discover how far digital techniques had evolved since my college days. It’s possible to mimic almost any media or painting surface with a tablet and the right software – and not having to wait for paint to dry is a big deal with magazine and newspaper deadlines (some large colour jobs I’ll have to turn around in as little as four hours). These days, I do all my work by sketching with a pencil on paper, scanning the result and colouring it completely in Corel Painter on a PC.
3) What and/or who are your influences?
My biggest influence growing up was Quentin Blake, best known for his match-made-in-heaven pairing with Roald Dahl. I’ve always wanted to try and capture something of his movement and characterisation, but in a completely different three-dimensional style. My interest in lighting and colour to create this is massively inspired by the wonderful CGI animation of Pixar and the rest. I think these films have really upped the ante on visual products.
4) How does illustrating for children compare to doing editorial/conceptual work?
The main difference is much longer deadlines: instead of producing an illustration before tomorrow lunchtime, you have a year to turn around a 32 page picture book. As I have to fit a book around my continuing editorial illustration, this is very handy, but also requires more motivation (work will expand to fit the time available, as Murphy’s Law states). Thankfully, the joy of illustrating for children provides all this motivation and more: Amanda Noll’s monsters were a gift for any illustrator – rather more exciting than illustrating tax or pensions!
5) What advice do you offer illustrators who are just starting out professionally?
Take any opportunity for face-to-face contact you can, and be open to any unconventional route into the business no matter how circuitous. I never thought financial journalism would lead to my dream job as an artist, for an example. Personal contact with an editor can open so many doors, and they’ll often prefer to farm work out initially to people they know than take a chance on a stranger on the end of a phoneline. Once you’re more established, your portfolio can start doing the talking.