Tony Jonhson / Illustrator
Nicola Manuel: Hello Tony! First things first, tell us a little about your illustration and how you came about working within animation and illustration.
Tony Johnson: Hello! Well I’d never planned on being an animator/illustrator it just evolved naturally.
I originally trained as a fine art sculptor but fell into film production at the end my studies and subsequently animation due to lack of funds to hire cameras, crew, lights, etc. I was money poor but time rich and I could already draw, so teaching myself animation seemed like an ideal way to realise my ideas.
Later I started to receive illustration commissions after clients saw my animation and character designs online. So that too was just a natural progression.
Illustration allows me to develop and realise ideas a lot faster than investing months at a time developing and producing animation. However animation allows me to experiment more with narrative, motion and timing. So the two disciplines are perfect bedfellows. I think this is why my illustration is currently very character focused and stylistically influenced mainly by the modernist animation design coming out of studios such as UPA and Warner Bros in the 50s and early 60s. Their intelligent use of bold colours and flat economic design is a massive inspiration.
NM: I love that quote, “Money poor but time rich.” It seems to be the way when you’re starting out in the creative sector. It certainly sounds like you’ve made your career a productive one, working across animation into the progression of illustration!
How did you initially introduce your work to clients?
TJ: So far it’s been pretty productive. I’ve had the chance to work with some great clients and collaborate on some fun projects but I feel my career is still in its infancy. I’ve yet to approach clients directly as most have discovered my work through Twitter, Tumblr or Vimeo, then rummaged around my website and dropped me an email. This is great in terms of working on a wide variety of projects but you’re reliant on what comes your way. I’d really love to work on more publishing projects this year so targeted self-promotion is something I’m focusing on at the moment.
NM: You’ve touched upon the importance of social media and how important it is to really get yourself heard on the beast that is the internet. What have you found has given you the best results in your illustration work (in terms of social media) and what forms of self promotion do you do in the physical form, unless it’s all digital?
TJ: I mainly enjoy using Twitter for the community, Tumblr as a sort of open sketchbook or for longer blog posts and Vimeo for animation projects. I’m on Dribbble and Facebook too but I use them far less. These all link through to my website and they all cross-pollinate. I’ve noticed most of my commissions; contacts and print sales have come as a result of using Twitter though.
I’m pretty active on Twitter, which is amazing for connecting with a broad community of artists, animators and other creatives. It’s great for striking up conversations, discovering opportunities or just banging on about your work. It’s informal and very social, often crossing over into the real world with art swaps, project collaborations and meeting up for beers.
If you’re an independent visual artist, Twitter is an excellent platform to promote your work. I’d say just post works in progress, sketches or fully realised illustrations. Link to the other places you lurk on the Internet, share the work of your peers and engage with the community.
In terms of physical promotion I’ve carried out very little, it’s been mostly digital. I’m going to experiment with sending out postcard mail shots to art directors this year. So fingers crossed.
NM: Twitter is a great source for finding new creatives! It’s amazing how much communication you can achieve with someone across the minimal 140 characters. Fingers crossed for the self-promotional postcards as well. The physical print is just as important as digital as well.
Whilst you have been freelancing within illustration, have there been any trends within illustration that have surprised you?
TJ: I haven’t really noticed any surprising trends in particular. This might be because the projects I’ve worked on so far have been quite eclectic. Perhaps as my career develops those trends may become more apparent.
NM: Bring on your future career!
You stated earlier that animation was a way to realise ideas, so what it is about animation that gives you this freedom? You’ve got a great selection of animations on your website – Holly and the Wolf, Marzipan Reindeer is quality.
TJ: Thanks. Although animation gives me a huge amount of creative freedom it’s not without its limitations. Which is a good thing.
At the conception stage of a project, when everything is exciting and you’re scribbling away at a treatment, it’s very tempting to dream up a vast cast of characters and a myriad of settings, throwing everything you can dream up into the mix. However, unless you’re willing and able to spend years producing a three-minute animation, economy is king.
As with live action filmmaking you have to learn to reconcile the scope of your ideas with time and budget available, pare down your ambitions and ruthlessly edit yourself at treatment/script stage. But as I said this is in no way a bad thing. It’s great to have limitations as it breeds creativity and forces you to strip everything away to find the core of your ideas, the rest is embroidery. Fun detailing. That in itself I find quite liberating.
NM: What are you working on at the moment and where do you see your work going in the future?
TJ: I’m beavering away on several projects that unfortunately I can’t talk about yet. But in terms of personal projects; I’m in pre-production on a new animated short, I’m designing tees and I have a couple of fun illustration collaborations in the pipeline. I’m enjoying the variety of work coming my way, the mix of personal and commissioned projects keeps things fresh.
For the immediate future I simply hope to stay busy and to keep working with great people on interesting projects. Long term I’m aiming for children’s publishing, I’d love to illustrate a children’s book.
NM: You’ll have to keep us updated when the work does get released! Sounds exciting. Great work on keeping your personal projects updated alongside your commissioned work.
As a round up of the interview and as a freelance illustrator, when are images better than words?
TJ: A great thing about images is that they’re hard to ignore, they’re intrinsically interruptive. They can surprise you and draw you in. They don’t require the same level of active participation as someone reading text to convey meaning.
An image, or more specifically an illustration, however intricate or simple, serious or whimsical, can communicate difficult and abstract concepts with an immediacy that just can’t be equalled with text.
Ultimately though I feel that illustration is at its best when it supports or provides context for what has been written.
If you’d like to see a little more of this talented chaps illustration and animation (I’d highly recommend watching Holly and the Wolf, Marzipan Reindeer), then click right here.
Tony Johnson, a name to watch.