Here is Marek explaining his process:
I create all my artwork using Adobe Illustrator. I begin by ‘sketching’ out the composition, roughly drawing the elements and moving them around the page until I’m happy with the positioning. I always start off in colour because it gives me a sense of how the finished piece will look. It also means there’s less to do later on! Rather than draw everything freehand I build the image up by overlaying shapes drawn using a mouse. Because it’s vector artwork each bit can be endlessly adjusted or replaced so the picture is very easy to amend if the client chooses.
Before sending the image for approval I add some basic shading using colour gradients and shadow overlays and finish off with any highlights.
Once any amends are done, the next stage involves adding textures to some of the background elements. These are linked black and white image files placed in clipping masks and coloured up. I like the contrast from mixing these with the clean vector artwork. It stops it looking too flat and computery.
I then add fine detail such as strands of fur, extra highlights and shadows and grubby bits.
Finally I apply Gaussian blur effects to soften the shading and make any last adjustments.
How long have you been illustrating?
Pretty much since leaving art college in 1993, punctuated with spells as a graphic designer. I always liked drawing as a child but didn’t really think of pursuing it as a career until I was in my mid-teens.
What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?
My first paying job was a pen and ink cartoon for a brewery’s full-page newspaper ad, recruiting landlords to run pubs. The cartoon was of a pub interior populated with various stereotype customers. It was a fun job though I had to work through the night to get it done. Advertising deadlines are cruel and unusual punishment.
What made you decide to attend the Falmouth School of Art and Design?
I hadn’t originally planned to go there, but was rejected from my first and second choice BA courses . Falmouth was my first choice HND (Higher National Diploma) course but I’d largely chosen it due to the palm trees on the prospectus cover! I wasn’t even sure where in the UK it was. As it turned out, it was a really good vocational course, though coming from a big city like Leeds, living in Cornwall was a bit of a culture shock. I love Cornwall though and would recommend it if you’re a bit of a hippy.
What did you study there?
In the first year we did a bit of everything – oil painting, airbrushing, technical drawing, etc. In the second year we could specialize so I concentrated on developing a pen and ink technique.
Do you feel College helped develop your style?
It helped refine it at the time, though in retrospect I was quite a lazy student and could have pushed myself a lot more. I definitely should have done more life-drawing. My style today bears little resemblance to my output back then though!
What type of work did you do after you got out of school?
To be honest my first year out was a bit of a disaster and I pretty much spent it on the dole. I managed to get a few small commissions – pen drawings for adverts – but it was a bit disheartening. In the end I decided to expand my skill set and signed up for a graphic design/computer course run through the job centre. I fell in love with the Apple Mac but ironically it was my illustration work that got me my first full-time job.
Did the University help you get work?
We studied professional practice in art college and they arranged a week in London for us to take our portfolios around publishers and agents. I didn’t get any work as a direct result of that but I had some encouraging feedback from an agent, though he didn’t offer to take me on.
Have you seen your work change since you left school?
Definitely. To some extent the black and white illustrations I’ve produced for the Zombie Goldfish series are the direct descendants of the style I had back then, but other work bears no resemblance at all. Working digitally has had a huge impact on my approach to illustrating and allowed my to experiment a bit more stylistically.
What finally happened in your life in 2001 that made you decide to quit your job and freelance?
After my initial failed attempt at freelancing I spent about six years working as a full-time salaried graphic designer. The last four and a half years I was at The Works in Leeds where I was also the company’s in-house illustrator and consequently managed to assemble a large array of illustration work. Graphic design was always a bit of a means-to-an-end for me and once I’d built up a portfolio and a few industry contacts I felt it was time to try again. It also helped that the internet had become available as a means of communication and self-promotion. I no longer had to drive all over the country to show my work and I could work from home much more. The graphic design skills I’d picked up also helped as I could fall back on that if the illustration work became scarce. Bizarrely, one big push came from doing a parachute jump for charity. Jumping out of an airplane on my own and surviving was quite a confidence boost!
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision at first. While at The Works I’d drawn some cartoons aimed at children for the National Railway Museum in York and also for Asda supermarket. They seemed to go down well so after becoming freelance I did a bit more here and there but still didn’t consider myself to be specifically a children’s illustrator. Then I managed to get regular freelance work at Tigerprint, producing children’s puzzles and board games for Marks & Spencer. That was great fun and I grew to love working for children, especially when I got to se their reaction to my drawings.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I’ve done five to date. It’s a relatively recent thing for me but one that I’ve aspired to for quite a while now.
What was the title of your first picture book? What year was that?
It was called ‘Mortimer and Teasdale’ and was written by Rosemary Jameson. It’s a collection of stories about two dogs that live on a farm. Rosemary self-published it back in 2007.
How did that contract come your way?
Rosemary had seen my website and emailed me to see if I was interested.
How did you get the contract with Feiwel & Friends to do the Big Fat Zombie Goldfish series?
It was actually Macmillan in the UK that contacted me. Tracey Ridgewell, the book’s designer, had seen my work on childrensillustrators.com and emailed me. Macmillan had already commissioned the cover art for the first book but for some reason the illustrator wasn’t down to do the inside pictures. My style was similar to his so I guess I fit the bill. After doing a couple of test character designs I got the job.
I see that you have illustrated a number of books with Picture Window Books. How did you get those contracts?
I was contacted originally by Lori Bye who was a designer at Capstone Publishing, of which PWB is an imprint. She’d seen my website and thought my style would suit one of the books in a series they were producing. It was about a horse and a beaver who build a flying machine. I’d approached it almost like a comic book style-wise, which fit well with Cari Meister’s excellent script. I really enjoyed working on it and was really pleased when they asked me to do a follow-up. The new book is out in July I think.
What has been your biggest success?
Undoubtably it’s the ‘My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish’ books. I love working with Mo O’Hara – I think we must operate on a similar wavelength. I’m really quite proud of those books and it’s been very exciting to see how how popular they’ve become.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture book?
Oh yes, but unfortunately I’m just not a writer so it’s unlikely to happen any time soon!
Have you ever thought about doing a wordless picture book?
No but that would be a challenge I’d like to take on.
Do you have an artist rep.? If so, how and when did you connect? If not, would you like to have an agent?
I’ve never had an agent. I managed to build up quite a good collection of clients over the years, which has generally kept me very busy. I guess if an agent could get me regular really well-paid jobs so I didn’t have to work so much then I’d be tempted!
What types of things do you do to get work?
I have a website (www.mjcartoons.co.uk) and also have a portfolio on childrensillustrators.com. I seem to get most of my work through them these days and occasionally I get jobs as a result of recommendations. I’m also attempting to produce a body of work which I can sell as prints, though finding time to do self-initiated work is really difficult.
Have you ever worked with a self-published author? Would you be open to that?
Yes, my first picture book job was self-published as I mentioned earlier. Last year I also illustrated a picture book for Eleanor Levenson, entitled ‘The Election’. It’s a book for young children which explains the concept of voting and democracy. I thought it was a valuable project to work on as hopefully it would encourage children to engage with politics. Eleanor actually started her own publishing company, Fisherton Press, to release it and worked very hard to promote it in the run up to the UK’s general election this year, getting the book discussed on tv and in the press. I’m always open to working with self-publishers if I like the story, though it depends on how busy I am with my other work.
Do you think that you might try illustrating a graphic novel?
That would be awesome! I’ve read comic books all my life and love graphic novels. I have all the Walking Dead series and it would be a career highpoint if I could do a zombie graphic novel, though with my style it would have to be a humorous one! Earlier this year I did some black and white illustrations for a children’s zombie adventure novel called ‘Melvin McGee, Zombie Hunter’. The author, Mathew Sullivan, is a school teacher who uses the medium of comic books to teach literacy, which I think is a fantastic idea. You never know, maybe he’ll try a graphic novel next. Alternatively, maybe Mo O’Hara will write a Zombie Goldfish one!
Do you have a favorite medium you use?
I work entirely digitally so I guess my favorite medium is my Mac. I’m currently using a 15” MacBook Pro with a 27” Asus monitor.
Do you take research pictures before you start a project?
I usually spend some time collecting reference photos on Google, particularly if the job involves actual locations or requires historical accuracy. I finally bought a decent camera last year so I might start taking a few more myself in the future. I always take photos on visits to interesting places which occasionally come in useful.
Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?
Not really. My work is almost entirely done in Adobe Illustrator, which these days has a lot of the effects built in that once upon a time I would have used Photoshop for.
Do you have and use a graphic tablet?
I bought a Wacom Intuos last year with a view to trying some hand drawn stuff but to be honest I’ve barely touched it. It’s a lovely bit of kit but I get arm ache quite quickly. I probably should practice with it a lot more. I do find tablets generally quite awkward when navigating a computer but my wife Hannah swears by them. She uses it more than me at the moment.
Have you done any illustrations for educational publishers?
Loads. It was actually my introduction to children’s publishing. I regularly work for Cambridge University Press and Pearson Education and have produced illustrations for educational publishers in Greece, Taiwan, Canada, Japan and Turkey. It’s actually fun stuff to do – occasionally I even get to do comic strips!
Has any of your work appeared in magazines?
Yes, I have a monthly spot in National Geographic Kids illustrating bizarre festivals and events. That’s loads of fun and once in a while I do some extra editorial pics for them. I’ve also been a longtime contributor to Air Emirates children’s inflight magazine.
Do you have a studio in your house?
I did in my last house but after a protracted spell of working at home (about 2 years solid) I started to go a bit stir-crazy. To save my sanity I started sharing a studio with some friends instead which was much more sociable! I don’t have a studio in my new house so if I need to work at home then it’s a case of setting up on the dining table, which is a bit of a nuisance. One day I might convert the attic into a useable space but I won’t go back to working at home again full-time.
Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?
I try to maintain a balance between work and home though that regularly falls apart as a consequence of juggling lots of clients.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
Not at the moment. I’m open to offers!
Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?
Completely. I keep in touch with all my clients via email and deliver my work using Dropbox. I certainly wouldn’t have the foreign clients that I do without the internet. Also having my work available to view online is great. Living in Harrogate, I’d struggle to get known if I had to visit potential clients in person.
What are your career goals?
I love my job but I’d like to get to the point where I‘m not working all hours of the day! I’d also definitely like to do a graphic novel (and maybe have a signing session at Forbidden Planet in London to top it off!)
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a series of books for Cambridge University Press as well as my regular magazine pieces. They’re all in different styles which makes things interesting. I’m also about halfway through the first of my self-initiated projects to ultimately sell as prints.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
One advantage of working in Adobe Illustrator is that if a client sends me a PDF of a page layout I can use it as a template to illustrate around. I can then make the best use of the space allowed around the other graphic elements. I usually supply it back with the template included so they can see how the illustration should fit in. The template layer can then be deleted easily. I also set up a graphic style for shading. This is usually a mid-grey colour set to multiply. I can then quickly apply shadow without mixing loads of different shades.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?
Get you portfolio online, be nice to your clients and don’t under-quote!
Thank you Marek for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.
To see more of Marek’s work, visit his Web site, http://www.mjcartoons.co.uk/
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Marek. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!