A Day in the Life: Illustrator Craig Phillips

Craig Phillips describes a typical day in the life of an internationally published, multi award-winning, homeschooling illustrator of children’s books and rock music posters… okay, maybe not such a typical day.

He explains his process – thumbnails, roughs and finals – and where he finds inspiration. Craig is a Russell Clark Award for Illustration finalist in this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, for his book Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts (Allen & Unwin).

My work days start with heaving myself out of bed and into a cold shower – very helpful for waking one up – then a cup of tea and perhaps a swim in Lake Taupō (during the summer), before I disappear into my studio for several hours to think, sketch, write and conceptualise any new work.

For me, the first half of the day is the best time of day for thinking. I need to be alone and without distractions. My notes and sketches are almost indecipherable to anyone other than myself – a messy stream of consciousness and jumble of words and scribbles, out of which emerges something that I can grab onto and develop. No matter how silly or left-of-field an idea or sentence might seem, I scribble it down.

Once I settle on an idea, I’ll design the piece first as a tiny one-inch-high thumbnail rough. It’s in these little roughs that I work out the foundation of a picture – the abstract shapes. Fat vs thin, tall vs short, dark vs light. If the thumbnails are right, then the picture is going to work. Thumbnail roughs are a very important step in the process and one I apply to posters, comics, book covers – everything!

I like to take a break between each stage of the process to let an idea or image sit with me awhile before I develop it. I live in a shared house with my partner, our two homeschooled children, another homeschooling family, three cats, four chickens and an indomitable Shih Tzu named Missy. Part of my contribution to the household is making sure the kids get enough exercise. So I’ll take all the children bike-riding or skateboarding, and maybe sit and play my guitar for a little while before I pick up the illustration again. Maybe I’ll duck upstairs and make yet another hot chocolate or cup of tea. I drink a lot of hot beverages. On two days a week, I take the children to the local pool or hot springs. One of the best things about how we do things is that you have the whole world to yourself during the day.

Back to work! The next phase of any picture or page of comics is the rough stage. I find this stage quite enjoyable. It’s where I take my little thumbnail composition and draw it much larger, and start to flesh out characters and background and the flow of the piece. I don’t use any reference at this stage. I develop it as far as I can without stopping to use reference. It’s still about shapes and dynamics at this point – not details. They come next.

When the rough is looking and feeling great, I trace it onto a new piece of paper and start the final stage. I use real life models, mirrors, reference – whatever it takes – to make the piece as strong as it can possible be. From here on, the process requires less thinking and more labour. The piece is then finished in inks and brush and coloured digitally – and it’s sent off to press and into the hands of book lovers all around the world.

I’m not always working on finished art and rushing to meet client deadlines. I also run after school and holiday drawing workshops for kids. Teaching is a way for me to directly pass on what I have learned to the next generation of artists, and is incredibly rewarding. I also travel a lot promoting my books. My next show is Sydney Supanova, 15-17 June, where I will be sitting on panels and promoting Giants, Trolls Witches, Beasts: Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods (Allen & Unwin) and The Adventures of Jack Scratch (ME Publishing).

I also spend a lot of time studying. I love to sketch and study anatomy and animals. My sketchbooks are filled with all sorts of animal sketches and I spend at least an hour every night filling them with new drawings. I find the immediate, raw act of drawing with colour pencil on paper to be an almost meditative experience, and good for the soul.

I love being an artist. Every day – every project – is different. There will always be something new to learn, to create, and to share.

Craig Phillips

Craig Phillips' recently published anthology of fairy tales, Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts: Ten Tales from the Deep Dark Woodswas included as a Notable Book in the Children's Book Council of Australia Book Awards and shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, as well as being shortlisted in several other international book awards. His new, high-seas kids' adventure series, The Adventures of Jack Scratch, has just been released. Throughout his extensive illustration career, Phillips has created book cover art for all the major international publishing houses, and rock posters for bands such as Queens of the Stone Age, DJ Shadow and Foo Fighters. His illustrations have been included in the Spectrum exhibition and the Society of Illustrators exhibition in New York City, as well as appearing in the Luerzer's200 Best Illustrators Worldwide Annual. A recent career highlight was creating illustrations for Neil Gaiman's American Gods.