posted on Apr 13, 2020

Interview: Craig Elliott

Interview: Craig Elliott

by Firestarter

Craig Elliott is an artist based in Los Angeles, California. He received his education at the famed Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and studied under artists such as Harry Carmean and Burne Hogarth. Craig’s carefully crafted and arresting images of nature and the human form have captivated audiences with their visual and intellectual celebration of the beauty in this world and beyond. In addition to his fine artwork, Craig has had a hand in designing many of today’s most popular animated films from studios such as Disney and Dreamworks.  A multi-faceted artist, he is also an accomplished landscape architect, sculptor and most recently, jewelry designer.  Especially known for his exceptional ability with the human figure and creative composition, Craig’s work has evolved into a unique vision informing and influencing fine art, print, animation, and commercial worlds. Find his tutorials here!

Well hello, Craig! Nice to meet you!

Joking, I’ve known you for 9 years. It is such a pleasure to formally interview you for the first time. For those new to Craig’s work, welcome, you are in for a treat and a treasure trove of knowledge. I’ve already asked him about his breakfast, but I won't reveal the secret until the end of the interview.I’ll let him do (most of )the talking, so adjust your devices and enjoy.

Could you tell us a bit about how your career began? If I’m not wrong, I remember your cousin got you started into kit model painting.
I would say yes that being given miniatures and paints for them in Christmas 1979 was the thing that started me on a determined path to art. I did draw a lot before that because my Grandfather would encourage me to draw as well as draw for me. He mostly drew the processes of how things were made, like paper or orange juice! I was fascinated by this and barely left room for him to draw because my face was so close to the paper! For some reason, I never really used the drawing I learned with him when I was young except to sketch out dioramas for my miniatures. The dioramas are really where I got fired up and became interested in art. As evidence for how interested I was in them, I won 1st, 2nd and 3rd place at a fantasy convention for my dioramas when I was 11, having never entered before- I sort of got over competing with them after that. Where else is there to go?! I distinctly remember walking into the room where they were displaying the winners and I was so small I couldn’t see anything but people’s butts, let alone the winners table. I poked some guy and asked him who won, and he moved aside and pointed to my 3 dioramas and said, “This new guy won all 3 places, nobody knows who he is” I told him they were mine and he freaked out and started introducing me to everyone. That was my first real feedback from anyone but myself on my work. I just sat at home working in a bubble for years! I didn’t create a two-dimensional painting until being a Junior in High School when I took my first art class. I ended up going to Art Center in Pasadena after my High School art teacher insisted that I was an artist to my mom. After graduating, I got a small job painting a comic for Dark Horse Comics, and shortly after, my first “real” job at Disney Feature Animation in Burbank.

You have had so much success with all sort of great teams and studios, how do you keep your motivation for art-making, and what does this motivation mean to you?
I think my motivation comes from my imagination. My mind just doesn’t seem to stop creating images, ideas, inventions, and innovations. I have so many ideas in notebooks I’ll never be able to create them all. I think all the ideas are like lava coming out of the ground, there is some sort of internal pressure I cannot explain that makes these ideas. Why am I motivated to act on the ideas? I’m not sure. I think my best explanation is that the ideas could, in some way, make the world a better or more beautiful place for others and myself. It is a similar motivation to people wanting their house to be attractive, it makes life better. But since I can see this thing in my head that would be so amazing to me, I want to create it and experience how its beauty adds to the world around me. 

I think young artists struggle a lot with the right motivation to make art. Many people wonder if it’s money that matters or the love for the craft. I’m wondering, what advice-and that is any advice, not only regarding motivation- would you give younger artists, not ones who are just starting, but rather people who already began their journey in this path?
I would say, at least for me, money is not the big motivation in my career. I think it is something to do with making something beautiful, the dreams and visions we all have, seeing other great art and design, all inspire me to try to achieve something even more dramatic or beautiful. There is also a desire to create something that I think is beautiful and trying always to get closer to and better at doing that. Having said that, I do need a certain amount of money to buy the tools and art supplies I need to make those visions I have come true. I also need to keep health insurance of some sort because I have a lifelong health condition that requires expensive medication to keep me alive. That is a bit of motivation! 

What do you think the art world could implement to change people’s view of it, to evolve?
Promote art education for everyone! Back in the day, everyone got a much better art education and it created more fans of art and appreciators of art. It is so important that everyone at least understands some basic things about art. Our world will be more beautiful and artists' lives will be so much better if we can push for this. I know it! The level of education does vary around the world, I understand this, and I have lived in the US my whole life, so this does apply a lot to the US, but it is helpful anywhere.  

Many of you who know Craig’s concept and illustration work may not know that he is a multidisciplinary human. You heard me right, not only artists. I always joke with him that there is nothing he can’t do or learn. I’ve seen him build guitars, forge iron, skateboard, and make some mean blood orange tiramisu. Basically, if I don’t know how to do something I ask Craig. Where do all of these interests come from? Do you think they all bleed into each other and impact your concept work?
I think the biggest benefit to my concept work of all my “excess” knowledge is that I can design machines that function realistically, plants that are out of the ordinary, structures that feel believable, etc. Since I know how these things work, my designs are more accurate and understandable. I also find that when people find out I can do other things, I am asked to do a wider variety of tasks. For instance, on my last 2 films, I mentioned that I had done sculpture work and Art Directed at Sideshow Collectables, and they have asked me to assemble or sculpt and cast and paint the maquettes for the film. This is something I had never done on my previous shows but by documenting and mentioning that I had done it before I was given a wider variety of tasks to do. This is something I really enjoy. Part of being a Production Designer that I really love is the variety of tasks required. I don’t have to sit in one spot all day, I get to move around, go to meetings, paint, sculpt, talk to my crew, do art reviews, etc. It fits my personality well. If times are rough, I can forge a new iron window grate for a neighbor, or repair a faucet, create a landscape design, etc. This is another flexibility that being diverse affords. I think all this comes from boredom, in the end, I get bored easily, and need to learn something new to stay interested and happy. My book collection is way too big, but I have read them all. Everything from creating and working with electrical motors, to mold making and pictorial composition I use all the time! Right now I’m using all three of these skills in making a giant 10 by 7 foot animatronic frame for Baby Tattoo books for a painting that I worked on with Olivia Berardinis, Shag, and other artists. I guess I am a collector of skills!  

Indeed your world is filled with such variety, going through your book and art supply stash is the version of Disneyland for the curious mind! This is why your work comes alive and is so sought after. There is a misconception that one needs to slave away painting and drawing to produce what we call “good art”. We could say that art is a product of the one who makes it, and what inhabits in and around that artist. What do you think good art is? Is there even a way to explain it?
I think good art is in the mind of the artist partly, and in some more objective design principles as well. It is a merging of these things. Humans and even animals have visual systems that respond to images in predictable ways. We can harness these features of vision and how the mind interprets images to create emotion in the viewer. This is mostly what we call composition, but it has many facets. The other part is the artist’s vision, personality, and way of seeing. After teaching at many schools I see that you can’t remove this from an artist. Even if they try to copy or ape another artist. There is always something unique, different and something of their own. The more an artist can cultivate that uniqueness and apply the composition to make their vision sing true the better the art!  

Could you tell us about your day to day Craig? I imagine different productions have different needs, be it a show, illustration or creating props (like that neat Wally Kazam wand), and that it can be a tricky change in pace to manage.
I actually prefer working on several things at once to keep me going. Variety is my caffeine! I like to break up my day, do some casting and sculpting the first half of the day, and paint on the computer the second half, then go into the shop and forge some roses on the anvil. That Variety keeps me inspired and happy. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess I do schedule myself on my Moleskine datebook, I put several tasks I feel in the mood to do from the job I have and put little boxes next to them all. I fill in all the boxes like a high school test form as I go along and it is a great feeling! Try it out, you might like it! 

You are right! Marking a task as completed feels so good! But what happens when life gets in the way and you fall behind on things? How do you regroup and keep going? It is hard to think such a thing can happen for artists who have been doing this so successfully. Perhaps many people imagine that such a thing would never happen to you at all! And I want to see those iron roses, please.
I do get behind of course, and I have to take care of 3 acres of land, a barn, and a well also. I guess you have to be confident that you always will eventually get on top. I remember my mom always saying do the hardest thing and you like the least first. I do this all the time, I always work on the biggest or most difficult part of a task first, then the second most and so on. It is like climbing a mountain and towards the end of the day, you are sliding down the other side, doing the most fun and easy parts of the task! It is a great strategy! 

This is a typical one, but it's a crowd-pleaser: What is the best art advice you have ever received?
My drawing teacher Burne Hogarth used to yell at the students “Feel the Goddamn form!” At first, it was intimidating and seemed like he was trying to scare artists into being good. But after a while, I realized he was shouting because it was the most important marker of drawing well. You REALLY DO start to feel like there is something solid that your pencil or pen moves around and over when you are doing it right. As if you have the tip of your pencil on the surface of a sculpture and it cannot make a line that does not describe the form. That is like the Jedi “Feel the Force flowing through you” thing. 

I think it would be nice to leave the readers with some material to continue their artistic journey. Could you recommend a piece of literature, an artbook or artist to study, a film, and something else, like a podcast or best muffin flavor? Unless you don’t like muffins.
I think Eye of the Painter & the Elements of Beauty by Andrew Loomis is an underrated and barley unknown book with so many great ideas and bits of knowledge to help an artist build great images. Also, I would encourage artists to study outside their chosen field. If you love graphical art styles, study Carravagio. You will learn something from every great artist, whether they are in your “genre” or not! Muffin wise I’m digging these vegan low carb (2 grams) chocolate muffins these days, but love the classic cranberry orange muffin too. I gotta find a low carb one of those too! Podcasts, my favorite are TWiT (This Week in Tech) and Macbreak Weekly. Both are on the network and about technology. Since I grew up in Cupertino, and my stepdad started many computer companies, tech has always been an interest of mine. We used to sit at the dinner table talking about hard drives, CD’s RAM, etc. He even gave me the job of designing the first graphical user interface after the macintosh on a UNIX system his company was making. I was like 13 at the time! Film-wise I’d have to go with my favorite TV show Red Dwarf. The early seasons were classics and I have watched them 1000’s of times, they never get old for me!  

Thank you so much for sharing all this Craig. One of the things that I love most in this community is how freely we all share our thoughts and experiences, and I can imagine young and seasoned artists alike will draw something from this interview. Also, you now know what muffins to bribe Craig with, and he had bacon and eggs for breakfast. I am a woman of my word.

Portrait by James Martin


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