Will Terrell is a cartoonist living in Oceanside, Ca. He has been working as a professional comic book artist and freelance illustrator for over 9 years. But he's been making comics for over 15 years. He started out self-publishing mini-comics, just out of high-school, and since then has done just about every job you can do as a comic book creator. He is probably best known for his cafe sketches, and inspirational videos which can be found on his YouTube channel.
When did you first decide to become an illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?
I stumbled into becoming an illustrator. Just as I stumbled into becoming an artist. Originally I wanted to be a comic book writer. But I had so much trouble finding artists that could finish stuff I decided to start learning to draw the stories on my own. I'd always sketched since I was a little kid, but I would have been the last person you thought would be an artist when they grew up.
After producing a half dozen or so self-published mini-comics when I was 19 or 20, I started trying to sell them at arts and crafts fairs and flea markets and wherever I could in the small town I live. But no one seemed all that interested in buying them. I did, however start getting mom's asking me to draw their kids as "spider-man" at these fairs. I gave it a try and found myself making a couple hundred bucks at each event just from doing caricatures. Eventually that led to people wanting me to do illustrations for them, and that led to steady clients. And after a while it was enough that I was able to go freelance on my own.
The decision to become an illustrator really wasn't a decision at all. It was just a convenient way to quit my job in order to free up my time to do what I loved. Honestly, if I had KNOWN I was going to be an illustrator I would have gone an entirely different route, haha! That or I may have gotten over-whelmed and given up way too soon. Luckily I was naive and stubborn enough to make it through.
Who do you look up to? Who are your heroes in the industry?
In comics I am a huge fan of Jeff Smith, who created the comic books Bone and RASL. I love Jeff, not just because of his art and writing, but because of how ingenious a business man he is. He was one of the first creators to keep his work in print with graphic novel collections. It was just a gimmick before he came along. He and his wife Vijaya completely changed the business model of how comics are made and read. I honestly don't know where the medium would be if he hadn't followed such a clear vision.
In animation I am huge admirer of Marcelo Vignali. He was recently the lead designer on Hotel Transylvania, but has had a hand in creating the look of some of my favorite movies, from Lilo and Stitch to Surfs Up. He has mastered turning cartoons into life with the way his work is rendered. Not only that but he has also mastered how to use design in life-drawing. From landscapes to figure drawings, all of his work is crafted with a clear design in mind. Its something that I will spend the rest of my life trying to master. Also, even at the incredible level of talent he is at, he is so humble about his work that it adds even more to my admiration for him. He's also completely in love with drawing! Which I hope I never lose myself.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
When I first started out in comics I was almost completely self-taught. I would build a portfolio and go to conventions like San Diego Comic Con, or any little show in Texas I could drive to, just to find an artist to give me a critique. It was a slow way to learn, but eventually I met wonderful teachers, like Brian Stelfreeze, who really was my first mentor as an artist. And Michael Turner who was super patient with all my millions of questions. But it was a very slow way to learn. I would work for 6 months just for a single day of lessons. And then I would feel like I had to unlearn everything I'd been learning, haha!
Eventually I moved out to San Diego, CA. And went to an amazing school there called the Jeff Watts Atelier. Jeff was the most inspirational teacher I've ever had. He really taught me how to fall in love with learning, and how to teach myself. Between him and Ron Lemen, one of the other teachers that was there at the time, I found a whole other level of potential talent within myself. I had something to really aspire to. It wasn't bullshit fantasy in my head anymore. I really had new heights that I could push myself to. That was the real problem with being self-taught for me. It was too easy to lie to myself and too easy to not push myself hard enough. But when you've got teachers that can look over your shoulder, and tell you what you're doing wrong, and more importantly "WHY", you just can't beat that kind of education. I had been to a university in my home town, and took every art class and figure drawing course that they had to offer, but I could never escape the feeling that these teachers were just as full of it as I was, and it wasn't until California that I could see what it REALLY took to reach my full potential.
What was even more amazing about my time in San Diego, I was working as a caricature artist at several theme parks there. I was constantly surrounded by other cartoonists, all at differing levels of talent and passion. It was the first time in my life I actually felt like I belonged somewhere. Between the parks and the school, I learned how to learn, and was able to grow more in that one year than in all the time I had been trying to teach myself.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
I sketch people in public every chance that I get. I had always heard that was something that artists "do", but it was only being around other cartoonists in California that I actually got to experience what that really means. Its not just sitting down and drawing a few people every once in a while. Its a discipline. I sketch EVERY time I go out now. But it really took me about 6 months of doing that regularly with a friend of mine before it felt like fun. But now its one of my favorite things to do. I love capturing characters in their natural habitat. And it keeps me loose, and fresh, and allows me to have fun with other artists.
What are some of your current projects?
Right now I am producing a 5-issue comic book series with Antarctic Press. I am creating the series with Stephen Phillips, a guy I started out doing comics with 10 years ago. Its been a lot of fun. I do the art mostly, and some of the story stuff, but Stephen brings it all to life with his dialogue, fantastic characters and wonderful delicious plot twists. The series is called Owls of the Ironwork Isle. Think of it as Sherlock Holmes meets 007. It's a steampunk adventure/detective story set in Victorian England. For anyone that loves my cartoony people sketches, they'll probably enjoy all of that in this story as well.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
Really I am most proud of Owls of the Ironwork Isle. It feels like every aspect of my passion has finally come together into one project. Humor, high-paced light-hearted action, and drawing facial hair on funny looking people. Its a story with a lot of heart and it makes me excited every time I work on a page. Hopefully everyone else will enjoy it as much as I do.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
I have been training myself to be a storyboard artist. I've tested for a couple shows on Nickelodeon, but I feel like I'm probably another year of training away before I get hired onto a show. Its similar to comics in a lot of ways, but different enough to accept how much I still have to learn. My life-long goal is to be a great storyteller. Whether that's in comics, illustrations or animation. Every choice I make as an artist has to move me closer to achieving that goal.
Any advice to the novice illustrator?
Draw from life as much as possible. Its the only truth. ANYone can look at a face, or a hand, or an eye, and know it looks "off". They might not be able to tell you why, but they know it doesn't look right. You can make stuff up all you want, but unless its informed by reality, it will never look right to your audience. They always say you have to know the rules before you can break the rules. Its very true. And if whatever you're doing looks "sort of" right, but NOT right... that's probably why you're not getting the response you want from people. Go back to basics, and get that right, then do whatever you want to do.
What makes an illustration successful?
Does it tell a story? I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I do a LOT of sketches in my sketchbooks, but the ones that people actually respond to are the ones that tell a story. Even if its a small story. I love Peter De Sève, it seems like he doesn't do a sketch unless it makes him laugh. I've really been pushing myself to do that more with my drawings. When I sit down to draw someone I see in a coffee shop, I'm now starting to make an effort to pause for a moment and ask myself "what is the story here?" Its usually only an extra few moments of thinking, but it goes SO much farther in what you get out of a drawing.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
I try not to think too much. Ray Bradbury once said "Thinking is the enemy of creativity." And its true. If I let my brain go on and on as it wants to, thinking and over-thinking, it kills the creative process. I start to worry about the results instead of having fun with it. You have to really learn to fall in love with the process instead of the results. There is so much involved with doing a good illustration, or a comic book or a storyboard. And the results are sometimes disappointing. But if you're making yourself laugh, or fascinated with the content, you will find yourself doing it just because you love doing it. Success is a side-effect of having that kind of attitude.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't an illustrator I would have been a..."
If I weren't an illustrator... I would have been miserable. I may not have always known I wanted to be an artist. But there has never been a day that I didn't dream of creating other worlds. Once I found out you could make a living by sharing those worlds with other people, there's no way I could ever do anything else.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
I don't own a TV anymore. They make me allergic to deadlines.
Copyright © All text and images are copyright their respective owners