Dave McKean on his creative process

James Garside


The legendary Dave McKean in interview on his creative process.

David McKean is an illustrator, photographer, comic book artist, graphic designer, filmmaker and musician. His work incorporates drawing, painting, photography, collage, found objects, digital art and sculpture.

He’s known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, distinctive artwork, and CD covers for the likes of Fear Factory, Front Line Assembly, Machine Head and Tori Amos.

I certainly don’t have a rock n roll lifestyle. I work in the night — that’s probably the only odd thing. I work in the middle of nowhere and it is very quiet so I can get work done. I really love it. It’s a great way to spend my time and I love working on my own, but there is enough contact with friends and art directors and going out photographing people that I am not here all the time.

He spent his childhood sketching from film-stills in books, comics etc.

You go through levels. It got to the point in school where I was always being asked to do the poster for this or that set design, so your confidence gets built up. But my first day at art school totally trashed that, so you have to start again. It was only by the third year out of four that I felt I was pulling my own weight, and by the end I thought I was doing okay. But then you go out into the real world and the levels keep rising.

He has a Protestant work ethic and stresses that you can be taught the technical aspects of the craft like being able to draw.

I don’t really believe in things like talent. I do believe that people are born with a set of skills, but I think they are pretty abstract. You may be born with good hand/eye co-ordination, stuff that’s handed down through the genes, but you can be taught how to draw.

Over the years the computer has played an increasingly important role in his work. By scanning in photographs, illustrations, or creating an image from scratch. He can distort and manipulate the original beyond recognition.

I put off buying a computer for years because I hated the idea of sitting behind a monitor screen all day. I like to get my hands dirty. It is such a powerful tool that it is hard to ignore. The main thing for me is to have complete control over the manipulation of the image and to get it just right. There are all kinds of things I have started using like 3D model stuff. I don’t like the crispness, cleanness and shininess of them, but there’s an awful lot that can be done to give them some depth and some age.

His advice to young artists?

Always carry a sketch book. Keep scribbling.

I carry a sketch book around with me all the time and make doodles, draw things and ideas come up.

Go to art school.

The advice I always give is initially to go to art school. It gives you three to four years to play with no commercial pressures and to discover what you do best and to look around at what other people are doing. It is far better than sitting at home stewing, masturbating really…

Get a portfolio together. Make an image every day.

If you have gone through that process it is simply a question of getting a portfolio together and finding some sort of identity for yourself. You really only do that by doing it. By that, I mean make an image every day, do something the next day and the next, and then do another. The worst thing to do is think, ‘If I can just draw this one picture’ and put your whole life into that one drawing.

Work your ass off. Get better.

You have to do it every day, and as you actually get around to making a living from it the turnaround time becomes increasingly fast. In art school we had six weeks to do a project. Now I am lucky to get six days. You have to react very quickly and emotionally to a brief, and that is a skill you learn.

I think that covers it. The man’s a legend. Anyone who thinks otherwise can see me after school.

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NCTJ-qualified British independent journalist, author and travel writer.


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