ARTIST FOCUS: PJ MCQUADE
We’ve got a blockbuster of an interview for you today, the super cool and talented PJ McQuade! Chances are that you’ve seen PJ’s art floating around Tumblr before, now you can read about his life and some of his great stories below!
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Where do you live now?
I’m a freelance artist. I do editorial work for magazines, newspapers, book companies and various other agencies. I have an online store on Etsy full of fun nerdy stuff available as prints, cards, waterproof stickers and ornaments. Last year I started creating limited edition giclée prints iconizing geek pop culture for galleries around the globe. I’m working on a graphic novel featuring all these weird characters I started creating in high school. Been working on it for years on the side and am hoping to start unveiling it all later this year.
I grew up in a town called Northport, in the state of New York, a suburb on the North Shore on Long Island, specifically on this peninsula called Eaton’s Neck that juts out about 5 miles into the Long Island Sound. It was pretty isolated from the main land, separated by a long thin stretch of road surrounded by water, about 20 minutes from the nearest traffic light. I currently live on Hicks Street in Brooklyn, NY with my wife Daria and our dog, Football.
What is your day job? What do you do there?
I don’t have one, I’m full time, yay! Started that kinda by default though. Years ago, in 2009, the stage production company I had been working for was hit badly by the Great Recession so work really slowed down. I was at a point in my life where I thought that to have an actual career as an artist, making actual money, it was now or never. Time to get super serious about it. I had always been creating artwork and getting jobs here and there, but at that moment, I decided to delve into commercial art, specifically the business of illustration, like never before. It was a tough go for a while but I’m finally starting to get where I want to be.
How long have you been illustrating? What’s your “origin story?”
Like all artists, art is an instinct that takes hold early, it’s a compulsion that becomes a habit. Many of my first memories involve drawing. I remember being quite impressed by my father’s dinosaur chalk drawings on the driveway when I was like 2 or 3. It was like magic, POOF! Dinosaurs! There! On the driveway! My origin story involves a rather angry rooster and an unlocked gate, but that is a story for another time.
What was your first professional job creating artwork?
About 8 months out of the college, I heard through the brother of my sister’s friend that the SciFi Channel’s website was taking open submissions for a weekly online comic series. I had just moved to Brooklyn that Fall and the world was my oyster so I thought, why not? I spent a week or so coming up with a story called Freedomland NYC, about a father and his adopted daughter in an alternate dimension of NYC. I plotted it, drew all the characters, created a series bible, a couple of sample strips, then pitched it in a midtown office building and somehow got the gig! It was crazy, like a dream come true. But then it got stressful, I was kinda unprepared and overwhelmed by the whole thing. In the end I wrote and drew 27 episodes over the course of the year, two seasons worth of material, about 400 illustrations, basically all in pencil in these little 6x9’” sketchbooks! I didn’t own a computer or a scanner so I would take all the drawings each week into the SciFi offices and they scanned them. I was such a pro, haha! It was an amazing experience but when it finished it was a relief, I was burnt out and itching to experience life outside of the studio, so I spent the next period of my life going a bit wild. I became a bike messenger, a professional grilled cheese maker and a bartender at Welcome to the Johnson’s on the LES of NYC and the singer in a super loud band called The Spicy Rizzaks. I did all these things that I never thought I would as a shy kid growing up. It was so much fun! But always the drawing table was calling my name and eventually I just couldn’t ignore it any longer, I didn’t want to. So I returned to my studio, this time more settled, with a renewed sense of purpose and an insane work ethic, ready for action!
Who/what influences your art? Is there a particular person’s style that has influenced you?
I have so many influences, in both style and content but I can’t really pinpoint just one person. It feels like I’ve taken everything I’ve ever seen and liked, from monster movies to comic books, to animation, painting and fine art, put it all in a blender, and poured that into a cup made out of my own inclinations, then drank it and ate the cup. Creation-wise, check out my Ode to Geek piece to see who and what I really responded to.
What medium do you typically use when creating your art?
I work pretty much all digital at this point, which is odd because a few years ago I was a staunch traditionalist working in watercolors, gouache and colored pencils. I was like “Digital Shmigital!” But as I looked out onto the commercial art landscape during that time I mentioned above, it seemed like the smart move for a couple reasons, and it has paid off. Right now, it’s kind of essential in terms of speed and the ability to make changes and edit quickly. There are so many fantastic things that you can do with a computer, I’m still learning and adapting to it. I got a Cintiq last year which makes digital drawing much more organic and natural which is really cool. That said, I am very much looking forward to getting back to traditional mediums on personal projects and ideas that I can take my time on without deadlines, see where that road leads, and infusing my digital works with a bit more of a traditional feel.
How do you tackle new projects? Do you have a process you like to follow?
It depends, but generally it involves doing some rough sketching, figuring out what elements I need, then researching a ton of reference via Google and books and magazine I’ve collected. Then I make a mess, start composing in rough shapes and blobs. Then it’s a matter of refining, drawing and redrawing again and again, and sometimes again, until its looks pretty good. That’s really the secret, to just keep working it and reworking it. Sometimes you can nail it off the bat, but having the ability to work on something that looks awful for a while and not get freaked out and scrap everything, and conversely, not diluting yourself into thinking it’s awesome when its not, is very important.
Tell us about your current projects. What are you working on? Any upcoming shows?
I’m currently working on a couple editorial jobs right now, including a cover for a magazine for The Children’s Institute. I’m going to be in the upcoming King for A Day show at the Hero Complex Gallery in L.A. and the Glow in the Dark show for the Bottleneck Gallery in Brooklyn, both in March. Also working on that graphic novel and developing a bunch children’s books with my wife, who is such a fantastic, imaginative writer. Our stories, my art, her writing, watch out world!
How would you describe your own art style? Any evolution to your style since you began?
I dunno, comic realism perhaps? For editorial work,I do a couple different shades of style, depending on the subject matter, size and deadline, ranging from realism to a more simplified, graphic approach. I definitely feel like I’m still evolving as an artist, that I haven’t put it all together yet, my “signature style” so to speak. It’s kinda frustrating, but also exciting at the same time. I know my best is yet to come. Lots of work to do in the meantime.
What is the most important element to a successful piece of art for you?
To make the viewer see the before and after of the piece in their mind, like you’ve caught a moment. In terms of pure portraiture, to be able to infuse a sense of thought or emotion into your subject, like they have something going on between the ears, behind the eyes.
What is the best art advice you have ever received?
I don’t remember any particularly amazing art advice that changed everything for me. You pick up wisdom here and there from smart artists who know more than you about this and that, and apply it to what you do. But in terms of my career, one of the most important thing I learned overall the last couple years was to treat art like a business. Art can be many wonderful things, totally non commercial, as an pure expression, but as someone who wanted to make a living as an illustrator, amongst other things, that is essential. Which means promotion, via emails and postcards and social media and a lot of it over a long period of time. You have to get your work in front of people whose job it is to hire you, again and again until it sticks, and you stick. Play the odds, just keep promoting. It’s not a pleasant process. There’s a lot of worry and rejection, you have to go almost numb to it. Listen to criticism, but also be able to ignore it and go our own way. It’s tricky. And you’ve to be good at what you do too, and you need to always be getting better. The only sure fire way to get hired is to make something that’s undeniable. The whole thing is tough, full of ups and downs,but it’s fun too.
Tell us about your Star Wars Christmas series. Where did your inspiration for that series come from?
To me, Star Wars and Christmas are inseparable, Not because of the notorious Xmas TV special from the 70’s, but because growing up that was when Santa brought me Star Wars toys! The Sears catalog came in the mail in early November and behold - pages of the new action figures and spaceships.You know what I’m talking about.
Card wise, it all started in 2010 when I created the Tauntaun catching a snowflake on its tongue. It was done for no reason other than I have a deep unholy love of tauntauns. Around Christmas that year, I decided I wanted to make personal Xmas cards for my family and friends, and that image was perfect so I got a bunch printed. I put the leftovers up for sale on my then newly opened Etsy shop and they sold out pretty quickly. The next year I did a couple more cards (Lando and Bossk), the following year a couple more, and a couple more. I added ornaments into the mix this year and got a huge reaction to them. Patton Oswalt got a Quint from Jaws ornament this year and tweeted about it, pretty cool! I’m always looking to create different types of products and expand, got a bunch of fun ideas so stay tuned, lots of cool new items to come. Check out my store here.
Are you playing any video games currently?
I got a Nintendo 3DS recently for my wife, it’s fantastic! She’s currently playing Super Mario 3D Land, freaking out about getting enough stars to advance to the next level. I play a bit here and there but honestly, I went to videogame AA a couple years ago. I LOVE videogames but man they just eat time and I’m at a point, no judgement on those who play a lot, where I decided I needed to focus on getting other things done. Part of me is dying to get a PS4 or Xbox and Skyrim and just veg out and play for weeks but I just can’t. One day! I am on level 130 of Candy Crush, currently waiting out a 24hr. quest block, haha, I always look forward to the next Zelda game, particularly to visit the new towns and hidden shops to buy the new potions and stuff.
Do you have a favorite video game series?
The Legend of Zelda of course. Still gotta beat Skyward Sword though, about 2/3rds of the way through.
If you could be a dinosaur with any super power, which would you choose and why?
A Tyrannosaurus Rex with super intelligence and the ability to control the delivery of mail, and regular sized arms.
If you want to keep up with what PJ is working on, here are a few places you can follow him.
Twitter | Tumblr | Facebook | Website | Blog | Instagram
Also be sure to check out his Etsy Shop where you can pick up all his awesome work.