Interview Series 2011 – Graphic Designer and Illustrator Michael Murdock

by Sean | October 24, 2011

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“I make things look awesome.” This is the first claim to greet you when visiting Michael Murdock’s website, and he isn’t joking. Rather, maybe he is, but not in some smarmy way. Much like Michael’s work, the attitude exudes a playfulness that is refreshing in this world of too-serious-for-its-own-good design. From 3D Illustration to sketches that look to have been born while sitting in a school house limbo, Michael Murdock can do it all.

Website: mjmurdock.com

What are some techniques you use when drawing your detailed illustrations? How do you use color and space?

My first university art courses were very design based, so I tend to approach my illustrations as design challenges, balancing composition and color. I usually start by placing the key elements of my illustration, and then filling in the details as I go. I generally find that limiting my color pallet and playing with negative and positive space yields the best results.

Can you explain how you come up with your ideas? What is your creative process?

Most of my ideas start with phrases or images I see and want to play around with. Some of my best ideas have come out of listening to lectures or podcasts. I’ll find something that really interests me that I want to turn into an illustration.

Also, I think I come up with my best ideas when I have meaningful constraints, so I try to base my drawings on a theme and gradually build up the image from that initial spark.

What are 3 golden rules you always follow when it comes to illustration?

Three rules I follow in my illustrations:

1. Always start rough and stay loose. I always want to just jump into a final illustration and make something beautiful. I have to resist that urge and make some rough, ugly drawings first so I can find out what in the world I’m doing. After I do this, then I can move on to the precise drawing.

2. Power through the negativity! During every drawing I do, there’s always a phase where I feel like it isn’t working and that I’m a failure as an artist and a human being. (True story.) All I have to do is POWER THROUGH it and the drawing will start to work out. Everyone can make a nice drawing, but most people quit before they get there. Professional illustrators are the people who never give up.

3. Have a non-artistic friend you trust who you can bounce ideas off of. This is really essential. You may think you have a really good idea, but if most of your audience doesn’t get it, you haven’t done your job! The less artsy the friend, the better.

You are skilled in many different areas of design such as illustration, motion graphics, 3D design, etc. How do you decide what medium is best for what you are trying to convey? What are the benefits of being able to work in various mediums?

This relates to my obsession with knowing things. I love design and illustration because there are infinite ways to solve problems. I’m also obsessed with learning new tools and software. These elements work well together and make my skills more valuable to clients. It’s always good to have more tools in your arsenal, and having a good basis in the fundamentals of art and design will ensure that you make the most of each medium you work in.

When it comes down to it, my focus is on effective storytelling and speed. I choose my mediums based on which will tell the story best. When there are impending deadlines, I choose the fastest way to get there. It’s always a balance.

mjmurdock Summer 2011 Reel from michael murdock on Vimeo.

2011 St. Louis Addy Awards Opening Reel from 90 Degrees West on Vimeo.

How do you keep up with your creative side when you are working under pressure/strict deadlines?

When deadlines are looming, most designers go into “instinctive mode.” With limited time, people tend to rely on whatever habits and skills they’re most comfortable with. What I do to keep energized and creative is step away from a project for a while and work on something else. Even giving yourself a 15 minute break from a project can help you break through problems and give you the opportunity to attack a design from a different perspective when you finally return to it.

You seem to have a fun and very detailed illustration style. Can you tell our readers how you defined your style? When was your “ah ha” moment?

My AH HA moment was a long time in the making. In my illustration courses, I saw the amazing work being done by James Jean and Jason Chan and knew I wanted to do something like that. Their style is very realistic and painterly and I spent a lot of time trying to make my style more like theirs.

My style now is more like doodling and I developed this aesthetic when I realized that drawing in my sketchbook was fun, and working on naturalistic and painterly illustrations was not. Once I learned to embrace this fact, I’ve had a lot more fun (and success) with my illustration work.

What is the secret to responding to the client’s needs while always maintaining a recognizable style? Do they often just give you the reins and let you run with it?

My best answer to this is to figure out how to work your client’s creative process into your own creative process. Find ways to take them along for the journey of discovery. This is very hard because it is different for each client. In my case, I take notes on their goals and ideas and make sure to include elements of that in my work. That way I maintain my style, while also fulfilling their requests. It’s a balance between giving them what they WANT and making sure they get what they NEED. It’s important to remember that this is often not the same thing!

What kind of artistic process goes into pencil sketching?

This depends on the type of illustration I’m working on. For most of my client work and some drawings that I work on, I start with a rough pencil sketch before working on the final. Other illustrations, usually pieces in my sketchbook, I start with a super rough sketch and make it up as I go.

Some people struggle with coming up with ideas. How do you choose your subject matter?

I tend to work with similar themes in my drawings so that I have at least some idea of what I want to do when I start. The most fun aspect of drawing is finding out where that idea takes me. I think it’s fine to start with something you’ve done before as long as you keep yourself open to moving outside your comfort zone.

I think the key skill here is learning how to brainstorm effectively. It’s a hard thing to do.

What opportunities do you see for young people who are interested in a career involving illustration?

Illustration is a really tough industry to break into. There are much less jobs for people who only do illustration now, so to give yourself the best chance, learn as many disciplines as you can. Having a good sense of typography and design will help you be a better illustrator and help you collaborate with art directors more effectively.

The good part is that the world is becoming more and more visual with online media, ebooks, mobile games, and informational graphics. Drawing is an essential skill to communicate in this increasingly visual world and new jobs are opening up to accommodate.

Do you have any final advice for our readers?

Carry a sketchbook and use it! This is a great way to get new ideas and develop your skills.

Did you like this interview and want to see more? Do you have an idea in mind for a potential interview candidate? Contact us now and let us know who you have in mind and we’ll consider them for our next interview series. Thanks for visiting Blog.Smartpress.com!

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