Ian Miller is a 68-year old British illustrator with a fascinating career behind him and more to come. His is well known for his macabre, fantasy illustrations and quirky, original style.
His work has been featured in H.P. Lovecraft’s books, David Day’s Tolkien-inspired compendiums, Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and various role-playing and wargaming publications. He has worked with director Ralph Bakshi on films like Wizards and Coolworld and even came close to contributing to the movie Shrek, with concept art for various environment elements.
I was happy to do an interview with Ian when I learned that recently, in April this year, he had his book launched, The Art of Ian Miller, with more than 300 art pieces being published (some for the first time). The book, that I’ve had the pleasure to read and couldn’t put down until I was through with it, is a treasure for anyone passionate about illustration, as well as mythical stories and how they’re represented visually. The artist’s comments along every concept piece presented in the book are inspiring and make you want to dig deeper, every time.
The interview here is, basically, my wish to know more about this artist’s intriguing career, with the road he had to take up to here and the lessons he learned along the way. I asked everything I wanted to know and he was kind enough to answer my every question, revealing wonderful insights.
So much of the drawing process is about creating tension in an image by balancing weight with fluidity. I work hard to ensure that the final image conveys a sense of movement, or else captures a frozen moment in the flow of the narrative
I quoted the previous paragraph from your book. Now, what are the techniques you found best, in order to be able to create this dynamic flow, but in the same time “capture” one instant, like time stopped just enough for you to put it on paper? Aside from using spheres, what other techniques do you use?
I use line to express flow and direction. All lines make a sound, have velocity. Mono lines, as with those made by a technical pen, make a singular flat liner noise. The modulated line made by a dip pen, one which flex on the curve, hum and oscillate. Lay down a series of lines, juxtapose or mix the two types, and the marked surface resonates. The eye follows the interplay of lines across the surface of the paper.
The more adept one becomes at line work, the more harmonic the composition becomes, the flow and sense of time is arrested by the simple act of truncation, by the edge of the paper or the introduction of a retaining frame. This does not curtail the anticipation of more movement beyond the barrier, that is implicit, but rather causes the eye / cognitive senses to pause and consider the proffered fragment. Time frozen.
There is a time in the image making process when the image speaks back to you, and it is always important that you respond to these calls, if you wish to avoid a still-born, airless image
What are the steps involved when you create a piece? How do you go about it?
I meander. And always think of a poem by Kitahara Hakushu – Rain on Castle Island shore. These lines most especially:
Moved by oars; oars
By songs; songs by the bos’n’s mood.”
If it is what I call a ‘free fall’ approach, I begin without preparation. This extemporized process is always very exciting. Tempered by years of practice, it never fails to throw up interesting images.
When a more focused approach is required, I do a series of preparatory drawings first, to establish the form and general disposition of the image. There is a time in the image making process when the image speaks back to you, and it is always important that you respond to these calls, if you wish to avoid a still-born, airless image.
If I’m working in what I term my ‘tight pen style’ the process is long winded and labour intensive. If I’m working in a ‘run at the wall style’, the affair is quick and frenzied. I enjoy both equally.
When doing a piece, how much do you rely on a plan beforehand and how much on inspiration, improvisation?
I seem to have answered this question previously, but I can perhaps expand it a little.
Inspiration, improvisation, are all part of the same process. Passion is also essential. Although I bring the same skill base to bear, my mood will dictate how I chose to begin on any given day. Sometimes the day will flow sweetly, everything one knows, one can do and will happen in the order that I predicted, on other days the most basic exercises stumble along. I get there the hard way. This is how it is. I thought it would get easier, perhaps it does for other artists, but it hasn’t for me. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise?
Maybe, the uncertainty and transient unease keeps me on my toes?
Walt Whitman said : ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes’.
Dada allows the simultaneous negation of any affirmation.
Dada is yes-no, a bird on four legs, a ladder without steps,
a square without angles.
Dada possesses as many positives as negatives.
To think that Dada simply means destruction is to misunderstand
life, of which Dada is the expression.
Theo van Doesburg , 1923
I used whatever tool best serves my needs. If I can do the work more efficiently and produce a better image using a computer, then I will
What tools do you use in your illustrations? Both traditional and digital, if any.
I used whatever tool best serves my needs. If I can do the work more efficiently and produce a better image using a computer, then I will. The only proviso being my computer skills are up to it. I very much enjoy combining traditional forms of image making, images drawn at a drawing table, with the astonishing facilities for manipulation on a computer screen. I have produced some very interesting images in this fashion. I will use brushes, compressed charcoal, oil sticks, even barbed wire, with equal gusto if the need arises.
I very much enjoy combining traditional forms of image making, images drawn at a drawing table, with the astonishing facilities for manipulation on a computer screen
I am intrigued by an illustration showing a toy soldier with demons coming out of his head and controlling his mind. It’s a very strong and fascinating drawing. What is the story there?
This is an image from a story I wrote a good few years ago now entitled: The Revenge of the Tin Soldier’
It nearly got published. But now languishes in various file boxes and my plan chest draws.
I tried putting it into a computer once, but this was at a time when computers were not so reliable as they are now, and everything kept disappearing never to be found again. It is a torturous tale, beset by demons and nasty shadows. It’s a love story, scrawled across the pages of twelve full scrap exercise books in a hardly legible style I call ‘Regency Willow‘.
It was a clockwork world,
A place of whirring mechanisms and turning keys,
Of well-oiled cogs and flexing springs:
A place in which few thought beyond the next squirt of oil,
and those that did met secretly in dark places
lest they die in the Waste…
I see you have many pieces created as a “pattern-making exercise” – as you say and, as a result, your patterns are impeccable. However, nowadays I feel like illustrators don’t use such detailed patterns and textures in their work. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure I can answer that with any certainty. I can postulate of course. We live in an ‘Instant whip‘ world. My pen style is slow, not cost effective if you are thinking of it in terms of a product based exercise.
Some might consider the technique arcane. Surface detail has always been important to me. It may be that I’m just paying court to the Northern European tradition for detail? Or because I’m short sighted and always look at thing close up. I could say that I used lots of lines initially to cover up bad, draughtsman ship, and over the years this ‘blind’ transmuted into a robust and viable style of its own.
When did you decide to become an illustrator, how did it happen?
I do not think I actually made a conscious decision to become an illustrator. I have always hated labels.
I studied Painting at St Martin’s in London and when I graduated it seemed there were two popular options for employment. One, stay on in the academic system and train as an art teacher, or take work as a night security guard; the logic being, you could then paint in the day time and still get to eat. Those that went this route soon found they were sleeping all day and doing no painting. Having already spent seven years at Art school, the thought of another year training as an art teacher was not an option for me. I wanted out. Walking around a factory with a candle and crippled dog was not even a starter.
As is the way of life, somebody asked me if I fancied doing a series of drawings for a new arts magazine called Image. I said yes, because yes seemed the right thing to say. I loved storytelling, so coming up with visuals for the magazine was easy. The Editor/owner had seen some imagery of mine in an Exhibition, in a London gallery and the rest is history. Things turned out well, and other illustration work flooded in. I was paying my way and doing something I liked. That was in the 70’s, I have dropped in and out of the illustration world ever since.
My Mother worked for one of the leading theatrical costumiers in London during the early part of the fifties. Not many young boys knew about the inflatable bra of a particular Hollywood star and the problem of its wayward valves in the fitting room
Your work reveals a rich imagination. What were your influences, throughout your evolution? Where did inspiration come from?
My Mother worked for one of the leading theatrical costumiers in London during the early part of the fifties, so I was from the outset caught up, so to speak, in the most intimate workings of the Illusion Machine. Not many young boys knew about the inflatable bra of a particular Hollywood star and the problem of its wayward valves in the fitting room.
My toy chests overflowed with the cast offs and oddments from a score of film and theatre productions. And all these years on I often wonder what happened to those chests. Maybe the unsolicited kiss that old crone gave me on the long seat of the red bus in Whalley Range has something to do with it?
I was mesmerized by the sheer flurry of it all and receptive to everything that was weird and wonderful. Fact and Fiction were very much in contention and strange worlds could still be reached through the backs of cupboards, if you knew where to look.
Bubble gum was made from everglades swamp water and that was a fact.
In your book, at some point you make an interesting observation: “I think castles might well be a metaphor for vulnerability rather than strength”. Why do you think that might be?
Is this where I say: ”Did I really say that”?
History is littered with descriptions of so called invulnerable fortifications being invested and reduced to rubble. Hiding behind a wall of stone or steel invariably ends badly. Maybe it is just standing still, that puts you in the way of it. That said, I think it’s a subjective appraisal.
Being locked in and unable to maneuver, trapped in a confined space makes me feel vulnerable by default, despite what they might say about the strength and thickness of the walls, or the unassailable heights beneath me.
There is a classic story by Franz Kafka in Metamorphosis and other stories called the Burrow which revolves around the obsessive construction of a defensive labyrinth of tunnels. Which I think underwrites this feeling.
How do you go about when creating a character? How do you manage to give it life in the powerful way that you do? Do you imagine a whole world around him, even if you only sketch him as a secondary element, in the background?
I’m not sure I know how to answer that. That you feel I’m doing that is something to think about, encouraging even. I am often amazed by people’s responses to my pictures. It’s what I do, based on a lifetime of watching and observing. And continually drawing and painting. When you have been doing it for as long as I have, you have to get a few things right.
I quote from your Wikipedia page:
Fellow contemporary illustrator Patrick Woodroffe comments in the introduction to Blanche and Miller’s Ratspike: “[…] Sometimes Ian made me see the world differently. I couldn’t look at a pylon or a rocking horse or a gnarled tree without being reminded of Ian’s drawings […] He is an excellent artist, which is by the way only marginally a matter of technique. There is nothing of the copyist about Ian Miller. I doubt very much that he uses reference material of any kind.”
I am curious, do you use reference material of any kind? 🙂 And if so, what would that usually be?
For most of my career as an illustrator, I did not use a great deal, if any reference material in my work.
I now suspect I may have made life a great deal more difficult for myself than I need have. I could say my imagery erupted from a purblind medievalism. But I’m not sure that washes.
I have always loved Durer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros, which is essentially a fantasy image. Had he had real reference for this animal, I wonder if it would have looked quite so good? Hamstrung or otherwise, I’ve stumbled along with a head full of approximate shapes and descriptions. Which seemed to have served me reasonably well.
I prefer to think that the new technology opens up new areas of expertise rather than blights the more traditional forms of image making
What do you think of the way illustration has evolved, in terms of technology, up to now?
Back in the days, you only had one sheet of paper and each line put down could ruin the entire drawing, plus each effect was so difficult to achieve, while today we have layers, all kinds of effects and tablets to make things easier.
Does this new environment help artists achieve greater results, or does it make them work less? Is now a better time for illustration, you think?
I was taught at Art School, that: ‘The Technician stops where the Artist begins. Some might argue we have created a ‘hot house plant’ style artists with wonderful blooms but no root system. This may be true, but I see a lot of young artists with astonishing standards of draughtsman ship and the disciplines we associate with good practice. There are some very exciting tools around for image makers to use but they are at days end only tools. You may to be able to do things faster but not necessarily better. I prefer to think that the new technology opens up new areas of expertise rather than blights the more traditional forms of image making.
It was whilst my wife and I were wondering penniless around San Francisco in 1974 that Ralph Bakshi tracked me down via London and New York and offered me a job working on his film Wizards
You lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the ’70’s. What was the animation industry like, back then?
There were no computers in the places I saw. Everything was pegged and hand drawn on light boxes. There were xerox machines and rostrum cameras.
How did you end up working for Ralph Bakshi?
It was whilst my wife and I were wondering penniless around San Francisco in 1974 that Ralph Bakshi tracked me down via London and New York and offered me a job working on his film Wizards. At that time the title was War Wizards.
The hunt was prompted by Ralph after seeing a Gormenghast Castle image I created for Pan books in London some months earlier. My association with Ralph was a dynamic and never to be forgotten experience. I once likened it to trench war for artists. You lived ever second of it, whizz bangs, screams and all. It was sometimes exhausting, but it was never boring or middle of the road. He allowed me immense artistic freedom, for which I will always be grateful.
The ‘70 animation industry? Everything was pegged and hand drawn on light boxes. There were xerox machines and rostrum cameras
You did some work for the Shrek movie, in the ’90’s (according to Wikipedia). What kind of work did you do? What was it like, working on that project, for you?
I did a series of concept designs for the swamp, Shreks house, the Dragon’s castle and the Witch’s house. It was a brief association. The powers that be, decided my style of imagery was frightening and not suitable. There were other who felt differently, but eventually they went too…
Is there anything you wish you did, in your career, but still haven’t?
Some really good drawings, one of which I’m about to start work on. And several others I have in mind for an exhibition.
I did a series of concept designs for the Shrek movie. They decided, however, that my style of imagery was frightening and not suitable
What would you advise young illustrators nowadays?
Work and study hard. Above all things, observe what is going on around you, all day and every day. The Pursuit of excellence is the prime directive. Humility is a boon.
Decide early on, whether to wish to follow or lead? Be your own person–and when it seems like everything has gone to dust, fall over, bite the floor, scream, cry, whine if it helps, then get up and go again.
There are no shortcuts, believe me.
Once the world of ideas has been transformed, reality cannot hold out for long – George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Be your own person and when it seems like everything has gone to dust, fall over, bite the floor, scream, cry, whine if it helps, then get up and go again
Thank you for a lovely interview, Ian Miller!
You can purchase his latest book, The Art of Ian Miller here – and if you read this far, chances are you will love it as much as I did.