Friday 11 November 2011

Interview with Martin McKenna

Martin McKenna is a freelance illustrator based in the UK. He was born in London, and started out in illustration with work for fantasy & horror RPG fanzines in the 80s, in particular the H.P. Lovecraft-devoted Dagon. His first professional commissions came from Games Workshop for their magazine White Dwarf and this began a long relationship with the company, illustrating lots of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay publications and the very first Warhammer 40,000 book, as well as many other GW books and board games. Martin has also created game-related material for other publishers, including covers and internal illustrations for twenty-five of the Fighting Fantasy series from Puffin Books/Wizard Books, and card art for Magic: The Gathering from Wizards of the Coast.

Martin also produced artwork for various publishers around the world including Scholastic, Time-Warner, HarperCollins and Oxford University Press, illustrating popular authors such as Anne McCaffrey, Raymond E. Feist and Harry Turtledove, as well as some classics including Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and The Silver Sword. He was fortunate enough to receive the British Fantasy Award for Best Artist.

Martin illustrated the book accompanying the album release of Misterstourworm & the Kelpie's Gift, an orchestral work based on stories and characters from Scottish legend. His artwork was used as large-scale backdrops for live performances of the work by The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, with narration by Lord of the Rings actor Billy Boyd.

As an author, Martin has written books about digital art including Digital Fantasy Painting Workshop and Digital Horror Art, and edited Fantasy Art Now published by Collins. In addition to work in publishing, Martin does concept and production art for computer games, and film and television productions which have included the BAFTA-nominated The Magician of Samarkand for the BBC, and most recently Gulliver's Travels for 20th Century Fox.

Talisman Of Death

  1. Tell us about your artwork.
I’d hope it can speak for itself for the most part. I’m not sure there’s a lot I can add, especially if a picture’s worth a thousand words and all that. I like drawing dark, shadowy, gnarled things. They’re a lot easier and more fun than doing light, bright and pretty things. Particularly when, if something goes wrong, you can just make it a silhouette, stick it behind a bit of knobbly tree, or hide it in some mist. But no, generally I’m drawn to monsters, melodrama, and a crepuscular gothic sort of mood. Plus over the years I hope I’ve got better at some kind of useful storytelling through pictures, and in my most recent projects I’m working really hard on that. For probably too long now I’ve been working on my first big solo picture book project, which has a deceptively simple story I’ve struggled to perfect. It’s my first serious stab at writing, at the suggestion of one of my kindly editors. It’s a nightmarish adventure for children exploring themes of darkness and light. I’ve strived to create the look and feel of the ‘golden age’ of book illustration and the work of Rackham and Dulac, but with some modern touches. With any luck I may not have fallen too far short.

Carol Wailers
Removal Giant

  1. What aspects of your childhood inspired your artistic creativity?
The things that I found most frightening! My earliest drawings, mostly scrawled on my bedroom wallpaper as if I were a troglodyte, all came as a direct result of whatever good, strange things disturbed me in books and comics, and especially on television. The first murky TV memories I have are of Doctor Who, and I was fortunate to be at an ideal impressionable age that coincided with those great gothic horror episodes of the mid 70s. Combined with a very early introduction to Hammer and Universal horror movies - again, I’m grateful to have grown up with all the late night horror double bills that used to be shown by the BBC. This proved to be formative, vital stuff and provided a foundation for exploring all sorts of spooky fare that I still love and find inspiring. I’m at my happiest when I have goosebumps.

  1. Tell us about your learning process, and particularly how your work evolved as a result of it.
Big Ben
Whatever I’ve learned has been self-taught; nothing I’ve done has come as a result of any formal training. Perhaps it shows! For many years all my stuff was done with purely traditional materials, using inks and other often unpredictable unguents on paper that didn’t allow for much in the way of mistakes, so I had to gain confidence in my technical abilities early on if I was ever going to complete jobs and meet deadlines. Since 1997 most of my stuff has been digital, which is much more forgiving and I guess it helped me loosen up a bit in my work. But it was a case of almost relearning things or at least how to approach things slightly differently and how to embrace the perceived freedom of all this new-fangled electrickery. My digital work went through a few dodgy phases while I was finding my feet again and searching for some sort of identity within it all, and now I feel happier with how I’m using Photoshop etc for drawing and painting. I seem to be enjoying doing things that are simpler again, using the new technology so I don’t have to worry about the paper buckling.

  1. Are there any underlying themes or messages in your work?
Virtually everything I do is commissioned work, so whatever themes or messages it contains are mostly those that are necessary for the artwork to be doing its job in conveying a mood or helping to tell a story, for the client.

  1. Of the artwork you’ve created, do you have a favourite? If so, why this particular work?
There’s not really one particular picture I like, it tends to boil down to things that stand the test of time and that I can bear to still look at. Any time I look through old work I find different things that I like and dislike each time. It’s a nice surprise when I look at something I’d almost forgotten doing because it had to be done in a hurry, which is usually the case, and discovering that it really wasn’t too bad. Some pictures remain stinkers and are best buried at the bottom of the drawer.

The Shadowing
Howl of the Werewolf

  1. Tell us about your British Fantasy Award for Best Artist.
It was quite a long time ago now. But still I caress it and polish it and adore it for most of every day. I carry it with me everywhere and show it to people at bus stops. Actually, there’s not a great deal to tell. It was nice to get one, whatever it was I did that year, or cumulatively up to that point, to get me nominated and all. The best thing is having an example of the statuette itself, which was made from a carving by my great old friend Dave Carson. Although I did already have one he made for me out of concrete in case I never received a real one, and I still use that as a doorstop.


  1. How is creating science fiction or fantasy art different from creating other genres?
I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of difference. As a commission, any job requires an individual approach to fulfil the brief, whether it’s something fantastical or otherwise one works within whatever stylistic parameters are put in place. The same basic rules of lighting and composition and whatnot remain the same. The main difference is in the challenge of making a fantastical, unreal subject appear believable to some extent.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
I’m very happy if I get something finished. And if I don’t hate it, then I’m ecstatic. I’m exaggerating somewhat but it’s not so far from the truth. I love it when there’s an image, a piece of work that I’m happy with, that I can sit back and look at in the evening but which didn’t exist in the world that morning. There’s so much about the process of making this stuff that I find challenging. I’ll usually get underway with some procrastination. And after some frisbee with the dog and a bit of gardening, and the washing-up, I’ll procrastinate a bit more. Eventually I’ll confront my demons and probably, not having overcome that which I find most challenging at all but merely sidling around the back of it to give it a kick before running away, I’ll have produced another piece of work which I’ll forever thereafter think could’ve been better. But the next one’s bound to be great.

  1. What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in art?
Sorry, art’s full. Anyway plumbing pays better. Oh okay, to attempt a more serious answer, I guess the key thing is to keep working and enjoy it. If you love what you’re doing, stick at it and really put everything into pursuing it chances are stuff will happen for you. There's no tried and tested method of getting into illustration work, everyone I know who does it professionally got to where they are by different routes. Overall it's simply a case of remaining persistent. The important thing is to get your work seen by art directors etc -- submit samples of your work to companies and publishers who put out the kind of stuff you like, and maybe approach art agencies.  Some diligent research online can give you the name of an art director within an organization and how to contact them. And then if you fire off enough bullets, depending on the suitability of your work (and any number of other random factors), one is sure to eventually hit something and you're off to a start -- anything to gain experience.  I remember when I was about sixteen I entered a Games Workshop drawing competition, but rather than being entered into the competition I received a letter from John Blanche (their then art director) inviting me to work for them, which was incredibly exciting for me at the time. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  My career started before the internet made it so much easier to contact people -- now it's possible to really put yourself out there in the world through Facebook and the like. Get a site set up, or simply start a page on an art site such as CGSociety. Love what you do, keep at it and don't give up.

  1. What have you done to promote and market your artwork and what advice would you give to other artists?
I suspect I’ve probably not been doing enough to promote myself recently. What I could really do with is to be asked to give an interview for a blog -- then I’ll hit the big-time. I’ve been a bit quiet of late, working away on my projects. But I dare say I need to remind folk I’m not deceased, so I must do things like update the blog on my own site soon... too easily neglected, as I’ve discovered. As for advice to artists, I’ve probably already covered that in the previous answer.

  1. Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal client?
That has got to be Windsor Davies. Just the thought of him fixing me with his steely squint while gurning that moustachioed pout, before complimenting me on the good job what I done by saying, “My lovely boy!” in his sonorous Welsh baritone is what forever drives me on. A slightly more serious answer might be, I dunno, designing some telly Doctor Who monster stuff perhaps. If you’re reading this, Moffat, give us a bell.

Centaur Uniforms

  1. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the continuing application of your work to film and television?
My little forays into film and TV have been fun, but quite intense and stressful at times. Although that might have been due to negotiating the M25 at 6am to get to film studios - I’m not much of a commuter. I’ve loved seeing my artwork come alive on screen as costumes worn by actors, or as animation or whatever. I’d really like to do more work in film if I get the chance to muck in on anything good, as long as I don’t abandon the sorts of personal book projects, which have been taking up all my time recently. If I have any reservations, it might be that movie productions can be just so sprawling and complex with so many people involved - I went from the last such experience I had at Pinewood to working alone on my simple little picture books, which has been a nice, calm time in comparison. Having opportunities to hop between the two spheres every now and again provides a refreshing contrast, if I’m lucky enough to continue to be asked.

  1. Tell us a little about any good art you’ve seen recently.
I’m seeing good things all the time. But recently I’ve been stuck very much in the past, on that Rackham and Dulac trip, with a liberal dose of Sidney Sime. The latter can really stir my imagination and lure it away into murky, spectral reaches. Just the thing on a slow day.


  1. What other interests do you have?
Aside from reading a lot and endlessly watching films, other interests are mainly outdoor activities, in necessary contrast to sitting indoors and the very sedentary business of doing illustrations. Training my brilliant border collie for sheepdog trials - by far my best achievement of late! Climbing Scottish mountains in sideways rain, and recently learning to fly aeroplanes, which provides plenty of thrills and mental exhaustion.

  1. Where can we find you and your art?
My work and I turn up in all sorts of odd places. But check out and that poor neglected blog it features that one day I might actually update.

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