I met up with Melbourne based illustrator, Chris Edser at his studio for my first in-person interview. As an emerging illustrator in Melbourne, Australia I would like to continue my artist interviews by forming networks with local artists to learn more about how living in Australia effects and inspires an artist. Chris is a successful illustrator who draws whimsical Australian inspired creatures, plants and basketball players whilst creating animation and wood carvings. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, Chris completed a Bachelor of Visual Communications (Illustration) at the University of South Australia and has gone on to co-founded The Australia Project, intern at Fabrica Creative Research Centre in Italy and teach animation and illustration.
J:Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? For example: where did you go to school, what classes did you study and how has this helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?
C: I grew up in Adelaide, I’ve been in Melbourne the last two years. I went to high school there (Adelaide) and then I studied illustration at University of South Australia. My course was called a bachelor of Visual Communications but its split into Graphic Design and Illustration. I majored in Illustration, but it had a lot to do with graphic designers, and I had a half mind that I might go in that direction but I was always interested in doing what I wasn't studying so i was playing around with animation while I studied Illustration. And through that interest I won a competition in animation that gave me this scholarship to study in Italy for a year. That was a interesting start to work because I was a student and hadn't really done any professional illustration or animation work.
J: What kind of animation did you do?
C: While I was at uni I was doing stop motion stuff. Like plasticine and making things out of wood, but now it would all be drawn 2D animation. Their is lots of simple cartoon stuff, then I started doing these basketball ones as a practise to do extreme movements and they took off so I’ve been doing a lot of those.
J: What programs do you use to do animation?
C: I use Photoshop a lot actually. I have used Flash and I’ve started playing around with TV Paint a bit. Im still most comfortable for the drawn stuff using photoshop and then After Effects for complicated animations.
J: It's really great that you got an internship after university. Did that help set you up for the future?
C: Yeah, that was around the time my friends would be doing honours and work experience and things like that. I did come back and a lot of people as well came back expecting everything to be easy and then I kind of got a bit of a shock. But then I started doing teaching early and that would at least pay my rent and a bit extra. So I didn't have to do as much freelance stuff and that was great cause I spent a lot of time doing projects that I wanted to do. I did a lot of stuff for bands that didn't pay that well but they let me do what I wanted. And that lead to advertising and editorial work which paid a bit better. By then I had done enough of what I wanted to do. I'm sort of back and forth from animation to illustration work.
J: How would you describe your illustration style?
C: I feel like there are two different ways I draw. There is one which is more realistic using ink lines which you saw in the studio, and drawing animals. It draws from natural history illustration but there’s a lot of fantasy still in it. I rarely just draw things straight up. My pieces will often feature some humour, fantasy or whimsical nature to them, like these koalas but there not just straight up Australian, they’re mythical monsters based on an Australian sense of light and animals. It’s interesting, for my personal work I used to draw these monster creatures and they just looked like a lot of other peoples monsters. They had a good personality but they weren't really unique. I like them but when I started making use of a koala or a wombat as the base and took my imagination from that, I think they got a lot more interesting. It's more my thing so I'm liking that direction. And then I do more cartoon illustrations which comes from my animation side of things, so I still get commissioned to do a lot of cartoon work. And then I like mixing it up which is nice.
J: I am intrigued by your creature illustrations and their continuous relation to Australian animals. This theme appears to have become iconic to you as an illustrator. What is your story behind this?
C: That came from working in Europe for a year. You notice what people are fascinated by that you do. And I think, this happens in high school where your starting out as a student and you see what other people do and you love it. I was doing these monsters cause they where cool and other fantasy things like dragons and mythology. I guess my work was looking like other art that I liked and that’s good when your starting out. You get good at drawing through doing that but people where really fascinated that I had grown up in the Adelaide hills and there where koalas in the trees all the time and I didn’t think that they were that special but the amount of questions that people would ask about them. And even the uniqueness of the colours of Australia and the light in the trees. Putting that into something gave me reference to start drawings as well. I have always been a good imaginative drawer. If you ask me to draw a koala or a monster I’ll draw it but to actually look at a real animal and draw what you see and then add that imagination, that can be really interesting. There’s not really a meaning to them but there’s an identity to them and a personality that’s like my personality; there not direct observations and there using imagination and there using stuff that I've taken in from other mythology but then also from what I've seen in Australia. My pictures mix this mythology of different European culture with things I have heard in indigenous mythology or Australian history. I don't want to get too political but I think that’s how Australian culture is.
J: Would you say that because you grew up in an Australia culture that influenced you as an artist?
C: Yeah, I would always draw Australian animals growing up. And theres sort of this notion that Australiana can be really cheesy but to celebrate some of those things is interesting to.
J: Can you describe your process of illustrating from start to finish?
C: Focusing on a recently commissioned realistic piece, I got the brief from the graphic designer who was doing the magazine and it was matching red wine to beef and he actually had the idea of putting the bottle and the cow together. So that was quite straight up but usually I’ll do a lot of research first and often it will be an article about beef and red wine and I would come up with an illustration for that. So whether I would have come up with that or something different I'm not sure but you’ll get a brief like that. Usually I try and find out as much as I can about something even if its a personal project because I find it important to be informed about things. For example you might be drawing an illustration about wine and as a illustrator we don't know everything about wine, but its really fascinating like even in this I just found out about the different shaped bottles for different types of wine. I sort of knew roughly what a red wine shaped bottle looked like and what a white wine bottle is shaped like and what a champaign bottle is shaped like but within that there are special ones for claret and burgundy. A variety of wines use different shape bottles and I did research into that and I think people really appreciate that, when you find out about there industry cause they’re an expert in it. As illustrators we know every little type of pen and ink and brand of paint and everybody has that for there chosen profession of interest and you want to learn as much as you can.
J: I agree, you definitely want to be accurate especially if your working with someone who knows all about what it is your drawing.
C: Exactly, and your trying to communicate that as well so if you get something wrong it will not only make you look bad but the client as well. Even from doing my basketball stuff, one of the players changed his number midway throughout the season and I just did a quick google image search and in most of the photos he was wearing a different number and the amount of people that picked up on that were like ‘aw its not right!’. So it’s good to do your research and make sure you get things right.
J: How have you marketed yourself to grow and become successful as an illustrator and animator in Melbourne, Australia?
C: I think there is less importance now on the city your in and what you do. I’ve created this physical portfolio. It’s this lovely folder box thats made out of wood and it has these beautiful print outs of stuff I’ve done. I think that’s the most import thing. And increasingly it’s not just my website but all social media. I’ve gotten probably half my work this year through Instagram and Tumblr. I think its important to have the website as well just because people go to that and it gives us some sort of creditability that this person is working and in the industry.
Basically because your question was how do you promote yourself in Melbourne, Australia, I would say about eighty percent of my work isn't from Melbourne. I know I'm new to Melbourne, it’s only been a couple of years but it’s not Adelaide either, it’s America or Europe or people in Sydney and Brisbane.
J: Could you please give some examples of your roles with clients, how you came about them and your overall experience?
C: I’ll explain a comparison of different relationships. It’s great to get something long running. My longest one even before I was a professional was for the band ‘The Beards’. They've been quite successful over the past ten years here in Australia. They sell a lot of merchandise and I started doing stuff for them when we were friends back in Adelaide for not much money. But I’d get a dollar from every t-shirt or CD sold. We created this really nice relationship where I did that. When I was just starting out it would be a couple of hundred dollars for a t-shirt design or a CD design which was relative to what they were making and now there probably at the height of the popularity in the last five years or so. And that was thousands instead of hundreds and it worked out really well cause they didn't have to over pay me.
I was at this animation festival and there were these people who had done music videos for bands and I was saying to people, “You never know whose going to be successful, and I know there not paying as much as an advertising client but they've helped out when I have needed sound for animation. There’s a notion that you shouldn't work for little or no money because your lessing the value of it but that was one situation where it worked well because there was this mutual respect. Now when they tour Europe I’ll get a lot of money for not as much work because there’s a lot of t-shirts and CDs and things. I know a lot of people who have done work for bands and it’s not worked out well, or the bands become successful and they got left behind when they worked for half a year doing this animation.”
Advertising is always interesting because you can have good and bad experiences. I find sometimes there’s too many people involved in a project making too many opinions. I prefer working directly with a client of one graphic designer or creative director who has a clearer vision.
J: Who and what inspires you as an artist?
C: I like to say that the best thing is to not always look at other visual artists, instead look at things like nature. I find that’s where I find the most interesting things. I can list some artists that I love obviously and that is interesting for people to see but I like watching nature documentary’s such as ‘David Attenborough’ or recently a video called ‘Basketball Stuff’ and I’ll like the style of basketball players and take how different people move into my animation and use that as an influence for animation rather than Disney and watching Adventure Time over and over again. You find as an animator you just go to these things because that what everyone is talking about. Animators always gush other things like Studio Ghibli or French studios like CRCR. I watch all that stuff but it’s also important to find your own things that are outside of whats cool in the industry at the moment. So weather that’s for illustration or animation I’ll look at nature, history books and current people who are doing similar styled work to me.
J: From your own experience and maybe from some people that you know, what should upcoming illustrators and animators put in there portfolio or reel and what should they not?
C: Being true to yourself and market for the whole world rather than what you think some local people might like. Be personal and be aware of where you're from. You don't want to pretend your living in New York when your living in Melbourne. Who you are and where you grew up might appeal to someone here. When I say that, if you have an interest, for example with me I wanted to do things that are based on nature and animals and plants in my portfolio. Theres a lot of work that I do that's okay and it might be well done for what it is but I don't put it in my portfolio. I actually want to narrow it down soon so Ive just got to find time to redo my website. So even like how you found those monster illustrations I’ll probably even take that off or I might have an archive for people who want to go deep and see more. On the front of my website I might have ten to twenty of my best images that I like. If a client comes and says we want something like this image but we’ve got this job, that's what I get excited about. And then another guy might select images that he saw and they were out of that ten to twenty selections and say I saw this but can we do that to this concept. And so you get excited to do that job because you attract people who have a similar taste to you and they are asking you to do what you love doing. I know its important to show you've done professional work and for me that is more my personal work but I think thats attracted the jobs that I want. When your starting out its hard to say no when someone offers you something but if its not enough money or your going to spend half a year doing something your not going to value or use to promote yourself it’s really worth rethinking. I know some illustrators who if they are going to work for money you might as well get a retail job and then your not hating drawing. I know someone who did that and he's now really successful. For the first three years he just worked retail and only did a few of the best jobs he could and personal work so he wasn't trapped doing work that he didn’t like and he didn't loose enthusiasm. I know a lot people who have taken on anything and lost that so something can be said for saying no to things and just putting forward what you love doing. Like if you like doing concept illustrations think about what will put you in the best position for that.
J: What is your advice for people aspiring to gain a career in Illustration living in Australia?
C: You can live in Australia but you don't have to just be based here, you can think more globally with what you do. If it is animation and concept art it wouldn't be bad to visit places like LA or Japan but you can still live in Australia and work for all these big studios. Guys in my studio have clients in America and Europe and there just doing it from here. They can send you briefs here and you can work on it while there sleeping and send it back, it works out pretty well.
J: Do you do any illustration tutorials? If not could you recommend some you have found useful?
C: An Australian based animation resource called Oz Animate. There's a tutorial on there that’s really good for Photoshop animation. And then every animator has the Animators Survival Kit by Richard Williams. I have that in the studio, it’s really good for walks and stuff and then there's videos that go with that. I would recommend doing a lot of life drawing and things from nature.
J: Where did you learn how to do woodcarving?
C: South Australian Woodcarving Academy based in Adelaide. My girlfriend bought me four lessons years ago and I did them for a bit of fun to try something different. I really liked it and stayed on for a year and made some things. I think I had made something out of wood but really quickly and painted a face on it and she really liked it and she said “Hey you should do more of that”. And we kept driving past this place and wondered what they did in there cause there was all these rocking horses out the front and it looked cool.
J: And how many classes do you think you did until you where confident enough build these sculptures?
C: You can do anything but it just takes more time. The first four of five classes were 3 hours long and they get you to do these different shapes. That was 12 hours. And then after that they basically say what do you want to make and I made this dinosaur thing, and that was pretty small. And after that I started making some of my characters. Looking back my first one took me months but I probably could make it really quick now if I wanted just because I know how much wood you can take off without splintering it and stuff like that. Where as back then I would break it every now and then or I’d go really slow.
J: Can you explain your creative process for your sculpture called Terry?
C: That was probably the first sculpture I did. He’s based on one of the monsters that I drew. That was probably about five years ago now that I did it. I took the drawing and just said “Can I do something like this?”. I wanted to do something sitting on a stump so it came out of natural wood. I had the drawing but then got given the stump of wood and sort of was like how do I make this work and did a whole lot more sketches for that. One of the other guys had done this bear with hair texture and I’m trying to use that in all the things I do now. I’m seeing not as many people do that, most people polish things smooth. The hair texture mimics how its been drawn, I had drawn all those little hair lines so it felt like that was a good three-dimensional representation of what I had drawn on paper. Terry was the first one that I did that way so I guess he’s special in that way. I sort of discovered that that could translate into this sculpture. I think its made me better at drawing, doing something in 3D.
J: You've done a lot of exhibitions, I’ve noticed from your website. How do you get into them?
C: I think there’s a lot of group shows I’ve done or been invited to do. Back in Adelaide we had this T-shirt company that had exhibitions. I’ve been more commercial recently cause I've been waiting to finish this woodcut. Its mostly been a matter of just doing stuff, like you just create a chunk of stuff and try and find a place where you can put it on display. My first one was just in a garage and then one was in the gallery of the shop that we sold our t-shirts and it was mutually beneficial for them to promote these t-shirts because they had sold them. I've never made a lot of money as a exhibiting artist. I’ve sold some prints and things but I use that to promote commercial illustration.