John Avon
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John Avon

Biography

I live just outside Brighton, East Sussex, England. My wife (Patricia MacCarthy) is an established illustrator, and my true best friend. We have two boys, Laurie and James who are brilliant and already love to draw and paint. My main hobby is music, I play guitar, piano, compose and record my own peices. I love to read and go walking on the nearby downland or by the sea.

I have included in my biography below (click on the pages) an extensive account of my life as in illustrator and how I work. This is largely due to the many questions I receive and I hope of interest to new artists out there!

Early Years

I was born in 1961 in Cardiff, South Wales UK- the same year Russian Yuri Gagarin went into space and the Cold war was at it’s height. My father William Avon was a building contractor and my mother Marion, were just about the best parents a kid could want. I had one sister Lydia and as a family were very close. Back then there were no home computers and hardly any gadgets for kids to play with, so it was a diet of soldiers, cycling, model kits and drawing that kept me sane. I remember sketching lots of boats, soon moving onto weird war machines bristling with guns and strange creatures that certainly were not human.

As I got older, at school, it soon became apparent that art was the only thing that I seemed any good at and my parents were keen for me to develop my skills. My father religiously kept all my paintings and drawings from this period, I still have all this stuff, going back to my 1st year on this crazy planet! Luckily my Art teachers were always superb and looking at my early paintings, they were very surreal,with strange bizarre combinations of subjects. I remember the first time I saw Salvador Dali - his ideas and technique blew me away and probably set me up for eternity as a realistic painter - but seeing the world in a far from ‘normal’ way.

Around the age of twelve, I was painting in oils and up to leaving school produced some substantially strange landscape paintings. Taking it all very seriously and going to great lengths to better my technique. I used to regularly just copy a photograph and saw detailed ‘tight’ painters as the best around, not that I do so now, but as a teenager it seemed a really cool thing to do.

Art College

Soon as I went to college it all was about to change: there was I wanting to just get a ‘better technique’ when suddenly I was being asked to use mediums like wax crayon or charcoal and learn to “see” things, initially I hated it! We had to draw what to me, were the most boring subjects - I can now see the importance of how we were guided, looking at basic form / lighting / composition / life drawing, all doing me good, but so limiting - all I wanted to do was paint fantasy!!!

Thinking about it now, art college, is so very valuable regarding looking at the basic elements, understanding simple rules and experimenting with materials, but even more essential- if your going to be a commercial artist, working to someone else’s brief, dealing with their opinion etc., is crucial to how it is as a professional.

In the UK you need to do a “Foundation Year” near to your home town, so I went to Cardiff Art College in 1979, then doing a degree in Graphic Design at Brighton Polytechnic, leaving to start work in 1983. Though I had some pretty negative teachers who did more bad than good, I had the great fortune of being taught by some great ‘outside’ artists- like Chris McEwan to name but one. These guys would not only help, but tell you what the big bad world was like, all with a veil of optimism and excitement- so essential to the insecure struggling student!

The last year at college were the most satisfying as we were required to produce work for our final degree. Though it sounds pompous now, I embarked on an epic series of four oil paintings- based on “The Transition of Mankind” big subjects... BUT for the first time I felt like I had done something, which to me was special. I was just about the only artist who painted realistically and a series of surreal fantasy spiritual paintings, must have been utterly un-fashionable back in the early 80’s, but with my boring haircut and terribly old fashioned record collection, it didn’t seem to matter. I went to hell and back painting them, but at the final degree show I got a respectable grade and perhaps a little respect from my colleagues.

john avon

Starting Professional Work

The first illustration I ever got paid for, was to draw an image of the local Bakers shop for a newspaper advert! I then moved onto more challenging architectural reconstruction's for brochures and within 6 months picked up my first (of what were to be many hundreds) of book covers. Getting started was damn hard. I would endlessly go round the publishing houses in London showing my paintings, but no one was taking the plunge of using me- as “I had not had any book covers in print!!!” So- how the hell do you get started??? Basically in the end you do find the right person / art director who will take the risk. I thankfully was given a thriller to illustrate by ‘Futura’ called “Waterhole” I was so damn excited and by the end of the week had painted a snake with bullets as markings on it’s body and a machine gun in it’s mouth!. Six months later there it was, on the shelves of W.H. Smiths, with my name on the back, WOW! I was so amazed and proud! I phoned my Mum and Dad, they walked up the high street and there it was in my local town in Penarth, South Wales!

After that I managed to concentrate on book covers. I artworked the odd local advertising job, but to me illustrating covers was a dream come true. Soon I got to work on a regular basis for certain art directors, who became friends and would trust me with whole series of books. These were mostly thrillers, horror and crime novels. It was always great to get a series booked in- it meant some kind of security and often my diary was booked ahead for many months. The only problem was trying to paint 3 covers in 4 weeks (this I had to, to pay the bills) and keep the standard high. There always were more artists looking for work, than there were jobs and the pressure was tough.I found after a while that I got some fantasy / sci-fi work and realized this was were my heart lay. The heavy subjects of death inherent in Crime and Horror novels was relentlessly negative to me- so to paint images that were “off world” just better suited my temperament.

The first really famous author I illustrated was Stephen King. It was nerve racking as I wanted to not let down my new client Peter Cotton at Sphere books, and saw the potential exposure really good for my career. After painting “The Dark Tower vol2” and vol3 I seemed to be on a roll, doing covers for Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett, John Brunner, and Cordwainer Smith, to mention just a few. I also painted for the Horror author Peter James and repackaged the entire works of crime novelist Dorothy Simpson. The late 80’s early 90’s was a mad productive time for me and I used to read many spiritual books. So I literally rang up the main ‘mind body spirit’ publishers and soon ended illustrating over a hundred covers for subjects like: Meditation, yoga, dreams, Psychosynthesis, Yin & Yang, The new age, plus the good fortune painting new covers for spiritual books I was actually reading by choice at the time! This was very amazing and I felt like there was a real point to my career, not only as an artist, but for the whole self help area, just fantastic...

Advertising

Basically anyone will tell you: Advertising is where the big money is, and like all my painter friends, I tried to get in with some good packaging clients. Overall I did some pretty exciting jobs, especially in the corporate financing world, and worked on Adverts that appeared in the national press and classy brochures for big London firms. It was quite fun and certainly paid much more than publishing. The hours were pretty tough, sometimes working through the night to finish a image to go to press the next day. But emotionally it all left me cold, you never really get any acknowledgment for the work and some of the guys I met could be great or ruthlessly rude, especially in the music industry. Compared with Publishing the packaging people I met doing the few CD covers I did, could sometimes be just awful and it was a relief to be out of that :/

Magic The Gathering (card game) and a changing industry

People to this day (like myself at the time) ask ‘what the hell is this game Magic you illustrate for?’ well before I started working for the game, I had no idea either.In the Brighton art studio where I used to work with my mates, an American art director called Sue Anne Harley was looking at a friends work, under recommendation from the illustrator Ian Miller. I just happened to be in that day and she also looked at my stuff. So I got to do some cards as well- the Mirage mountains and little did I know what this was the start of...:0

Basically right up to the present day, Wizards of the coast have been and still are my biggest long-standing clients, enabled me to paint some incredibly inspiring worlds and concepts, I have had what is some kind of steady income, traveled literally around the world to places like Japan, South Africa, Australia, Russia, Malaysia and all over Europe, had worldwide exposure, but last and not least met some brilliant people who have become great friends!

When I began illustrating the game, I still was churning out the book covers and was heavily into advertising. Gradually as the years went by, the book covers stopped coming to me- why, you might ask? About 10 years back, the whole publishing industry changed with the onset on computers and great software. Companies now found that they could cut costs by getting ‘in house’ designers to do the covers themselves, which simultaneously created a more photographic / typographical look. Probably within 2-3 years many of us illustrators were ‘out’ and retouched photography was ‘in’ with the emphasis on design and graphical lettering being king. I must admit, to me I broadly liked the direction (said through gritted teeth!!!) yes it put allot of us out of work, but nice lettering and great photography seemed to look just as good, if not better. The advertising I was doing was exciting but it felt more like I was part of a machine than a creative individual. I worked as a retoucher on the ‘Lowenbrau’ beer commercials and yes it had to be done well, the money was good, but really any person with advanced Photoshop skills could have done it. So gradually I did more and more Magic cards and it always felt like the ‘perfect’ job to me.

The Magic style guide and how we are commissioned

Basically every year a new expansion of the game comes out. Research and development (R&D) together with the Art department create a new ‘world’ environment and three times in 12 months we get to paint that place. The game is always fresh as each year we the artists are literally in a new place, with new characters and a new style guide to look at. A frequent question I am asked is about the general look and who decides what? Basically, we are sent a visual guide with images and notes, this is so we get to (as a team) provide a unified look / vibe / feel. The individual cards seen in the shops originate as it’s game function with an assignment, art brief, sent to us via the art director. This is text only, but we are often referred to the style guide for the look and feel. For instance when ‘Mirrodin’ came out (still my favorite expansion) I got to do some of the basic lands for that set, so when designing my forests for instance, I would be guided by Mark Tedins sketches in the style guide. This is great as we are given a direction, but how we actually paint , render, see it, is up to us. This is essential for the whole set to have continuity.

Fantasy Art and Magic

Magic the Gathering has evolved in look, but still represents a wonderful outlet for Fantasy artists like myself to work their skills. The whole Fantasy /sci-fi industry still need illustrators to do the creative bit. Photography and clever design lettering does work on some book covers / game box covers in this genre, but nothing beats an artist sitting there coming up with new weird and wonderful images. As in Star Trek we can “boldly go where no man has gone before” that is why give me a Fantasy art commission before an advertising job anytime. The money may not be as good (unless you one of the lucky few working on major motion pictures) but for me I am every day “off on a journey of discovery” truly a wonderful way to earn a living. These days I do take on other jobs when they crop up, but, at the moment, magic literally for me is ‘Magic’ and i’m privileged to be involved.

john avon

Computers and “John, don’t you think it sad you don’t paint anymore?”

The whole argument about ‘real paintings’ and ‘digital paintings’ always makes me smile. I can see why some say to me how sad it is that for the last few years I have not ‘got my paints out’, and on one level it is. All my life I have played with paint, made a mess with colour, used oils, turpentine, cleaned brushes, stretched paper, struggled with a damn airbrush, bought stay-wet palettes etc. etc.- all great and a really experience. But for me, there is a big BUT... Yes I did hundreds of actual paintings you could physically hold in you hand- great! However from a commercial point of view (even us artists have to pay fuel bills, pay the mortgage and feed our kids) painting and ‘business’ always seemed at odds. There are really two separate issues here: one of the craft of how you actually work, the second what you want to achieve. From a ‘craft’ standpoint, no doubt nothing beats the tactile physicality of painting- as an event in itself, truly wonderful. From a commercial, business standpoint, for some it can still be wonderful and works fine.

My experience is very black and white. If I had endless weeks to spend on each painting and the client / customer wanted to hold the artwork in their hand, painting is the winner. But as this is my business and many of the jobs are very challenging to do ‘time’ becomes an issue- as any working artist will say. We are ruled my the DEADLINE and in this world you can be the best artists around, but if your always late, the client won’t come back- end of story. So if there is an easier way, which paradoxically for me is a better, more appropriate, only a fool would not take it...

Here are many reasons why I now prefer to paint digitally, as a paid professional artist. I must stress this is just how it is for myself and other creative individuals might radically disagree!

Being in control of the design and feel

I can (and this is truly glorious) make changes, quite easily, right up to the last second. With physical art, if the foreground figure, for example, looked fine when it was on the sketch, you may well feel it’s actually not quite in the right place, as the painting progresses. If your doing the piece digitally with a layer, say in photoshop (my main software) you can nudge the figure over a bit, till it just sits right. If that mountain range now looks a bit too high, you can even move a damn mountain down a bit!!! If the sky is now too colorful and competes with the central character, in a second- you can desaturate it, or experiment with making it a totally different colour. None of these things I could do easily with flat art, but now you can be in control and ‘experiment’, possibly getting closer to that perfect elusive point... ok that does not exist! but the possibilities are much larger, especially with design and composition.

Corrections

The client e-mails you “we don’t like the lightning coming out of the Dragons mouth...” So, in the old days, this meant physically painting out the lightning and retouching the bit underneath- cost to me- sometimes about 2-3 hours and much irritation. Now digitally maybe about 10 mins (even less if it’s on a layer). Don’t get me wrong I still hate corrections they are an utter pain, but the clients paying for the work- so give them what they want!

Going wrong

So your having a bad day. You trip over the cat and spill your coffee, the car won’t start and your probably coming down with a bad cold. It’s raining, the washing machine breaks down and the kids shoes are covered in mud. You start work with a brain full of ‘sh--t’ and what a surprise, you mess up your painting! Done this many a time and just part of life... BUT with a computer, you can’t damage the file of the day before, you just maybe loose, at worse a days time. BUT what is much much worse- is before computers, I needed to paint part of the thing back again to where it was, and if substantial, believe me- an awfully frustrating thing. This is probably the single biggest element that computers have brought me!

The benefit of hindsight

Leading on from the above- sometimes I know something is wrong and I just can’t find the hidden clue. I know it’s there, but damn me if I can work it out. Digitally you can try things out, sometimes very fundamental things. I did an “Orrery” up in the sky, for Magic a few years back, when painting, it was all going fine, but fundamentally it just looked very average. No amount of detail, clever lighting made it better and just looked too ‘normal’. So finally in the last hour, I tilted the entire image to the side, stretched the perspective, desaturated most of the colour and put in a yellow zing flash of lightning. BINGO! in under 3 minuets suddenly it “felt” right. So anyone who says computers are not instinctive is in this case utterly wrong, they are just a fantastic tool that enables you to to do ‘great’ things. In many respects I am lucky to have only had access to this technology over the last 10-12 years, and really have experienced the best of both worlds. Pat my illustrator wife, sometimes scans in one of her watercolours, we experiment, come up with a solution, print it out- she then has a test sheet to work from, without ruining her actual painting!

Delivery, sending and printing

You can quickly send the art to the client for approval, you can send the file to a mate for an opinion, you can send it to the printers for proofing AND if your monitor is calibrated properly (if you understand cmyk values correctly) you can predict more accurately what it will look like in print. We live in a day and age when you can buy a superb printer for £100 and zoom out copies of your picture, actually seeing how it will print with the standard 4 colour process. You can print copies to give to your friends, make an easy folio or on good paper sell prints and make some money or just use them for promotion. Yes you can scan in physical art, but if it is digital, your bypassing the scanning / colour correction stage and the process is much much easier.

john avon

My Technique

I always find this hard to sum up as I actually don’t feel my process of working is anything special, but seeing as I am asked this week in, week out, I will try.

Oil painting

I started out using oils, originally on pre made canvas board. I would draw the pencil line down, put in under painting to block in the tones. Build the base colours up in acrylics, then go in with the oils. I would generally use soft, medium, very dry brushes to blend / fan the colour and establish very blended graduations. At this very wet stage, I would have to wait for bits to dry using fast drying mediums like Liquin, then use smaller brushes, for all the detail. Most if not all of my initial book covers were in oils and I managed to get an almost photoreal, old masters effect, which seemed to work well- but hellish to get dry on time!!!

Acrylics & Airbrush

Having a few horrible last moment disasters with oils not drying, I switched to Liquitex Acrylics, staywet palates and the damn airbrush for blending. I say damn airbrush as it seemed to rule my life for over 10 years. Yes it could do great things but was an utter pain to keep working- ironically I got well known for doing the thing I most hated using! Where oils were all juicy, wet and blendable- Acrylics were to me all dry, unblendable- but much easier to manage in a commercial sense. They were great for textures / grass / rocks etc. but somehow a bit soulless after oil paint. Some of the vivid colours were easier to get “straight out the tube” and I did have fun getting a more graphical feel, but looking back, always they felt just a means to an end.

Digital Art

I remember the day Pat and I bought our first Apple Mac. Utterly slow by today's meager speed monsters, but within a few days BREAKTHROUGH!!!. Using Photoshop and Painter, I could see how I could blend images, make painterly gestures, do textures and airbrush just the same- WITHOUT ALL THE HASSLE!!!. This was a great breakthrough and mostly I have never looked back. With modern technology and these great machines, it straight away suited the fast commercial world.

My basic way of working today is:

First I make little thumb nail sketches and get together the basic idea.

I will look at my reference books, my own photography and sometimes put together in Photoshop a montage of random pictures, to establish quickly to relevant mass of objects- as they relate to each other. There are only a few artists who don’t use reference- most do. I never use photographs for the actual end piece, but my technique sometimes can look very real- especially with some of my older work

Then I Draw everything on actual paper with a 2H propelling pencil, sketching out the image, often being quite tight and precise. The line is usually clean, as I will be later, digitally be making the image into sections.

Then it is scanned into photoshop and I e-mail it to the client

After approval, I make any changes, then begin to tonally build up the image. This mostly is done by spending a few hours ‘pathing’ out the whole image (where possible) creating layers, darkening the front, getting lighter to the back. This is the tonal perspective stage, but I will also begin to give each layer a colour tint.

Having got my tonal values established, I will nudge the composition about and re-tweak the design.

Considering now the colour elements, I will begin the all important “shedding light” onto each element. This can come from anywhere, maybe top right, and can be any hue. Probably I will be at the same time putting in a secondary side light, maybe half as strong possibly like a glow from another light source off to the left.

When I get positive feedback about my work, it’s almost always about the way I use lighting. This to me, is just obvious, as Great Lighting = Great Atmosphere. Just look at almost all of Kev Walkers paintings, the guys the master at lighting (and great a design) but it’s the light which makes anything special... An image can have great detail and technique, but if it has no atmosphere, for me it’s dead.

At this stage, I can really sense where the image is going and may radically change something, possibly even showing the client, as it was not apparent on the initial sketch. Sometimes I will panic and think it looks like a pile of cr-ap, but it’s better to sort out any problems now then get in too deep.

Details and form will now be essential and key to the specifics. If the trees, for instance, have a certain type of bark, the clothing on the figure is made of a certain type of texture or the creature has a certain type of scales on it’s body- now is the time to get stuck in. I will never ever just finnish a section, but get about half way, then move on. I only finnish a bit, if I am sure it’s right, and I only know this, after a while. Often, it looks better unfinished- ironically some finished bits look too busy and I will be taking them out. I just hate paintings that are all busy and have too much detail- I have done this myself and can look just like a Christmas Tree. This is why I only finnish the individual sections, at the end.

As I said before, you can still radically do some serious changes- even at the closing stages. Don’t feel bad if you take out a bit that took hours to do, it was essential journey to now know what “to do” Sometimes that elusive bit only comes to me, by a process of elimination. This is where computers are great. I have a thing about too many colours- I hate multi colored pictures, other artists have sometimes said I can be too monochromatic, this is often true, but to me some colours look just wrong and I would rather just put in grey and it feels right than chuck in loads of colours and it look wrong. Colour is an area I still need to work on, it’s all about confidence and experimentation, but all in good time!

There is often a euphoric end stage, when It’s starting to come together, when you feel this, your almost there. I will flatten the whole image and just instinctively put bits of light here and there, then somehow there is a point when it’s... over.I am asked sometimes “how do you know when to stop?” For me there is a point where the image just seems to be where I wanted it to be and as I am artistically a restless kind of person, I just want to move on. There is also the time issue. Mostly I am working to a schedule and literally have to begin the next piece and my head has already moved on to the next challenge!

We all find our own voice eventually, in truth I am still trying to find mine, and is quite rightly is an on going process. But there are some things which work better than others and act as foundations. It may be I will soon find another way to work for it’s good to stay open to new ways of expression and methods- this keeps us fresh and forward looking.

My favorite contemporary artists (relevant to Magic) are Todd Lockwood, Kev Walker, Daren Bader, Mark Zug and Donato Giancola- all who have fantastic technique and seem to have a very recognizable style. Anthony Waters can draw and concept the most amazing things and some of his paintings are just off the scale in ideas. I also like comic book artists like Glen Fabry and Carl Critchlow who use line in such a supreme way, all these guys make me drool with envy!!!