Mike Cressy: Illustrator, Creator of Creatures

Mike Cressy, Illustrator.

by Rasmus Rasmussen on July 27, 2010

Originally from Michigan, Mike Cressy worked, first in animation and later as an illustrator in Los Angeles before coming up north to Seattle. He has a knack for characters and strange creatures, has illustrated several children’s books and created artwork for numerous games, covers and logos. When I met Mike, his demeanor struck me both as that of a big, playful kid and a wise, experienced artist. He laughs a lot and uses his hands when he talks, which is something that comes easily to Mike.

I asked him about his work and personal projects, from his book of abstracts to the graphic novel he’s been working on. He answered with insight and enthusiasm.

AP: You’ve run your own studio for several years. How do you balance being a businessman with being an artist? How much time is spent on things other than artwork?

MC: I’ve had to put more and more time into promoting and networking. Fortunately I’ve gotten quicker in creating art over the last 10 years. I deliberately set out to do that back in the late 90s. How could I be faster at coming up with ideas and sketches, and to paint them faster or work faster with programs like Photoshop and Illustrator? Well, as it turns out there is no quick, easy answer to that.

I took a sketchbook with me everywhere and made sure I finished a page filled with some idea. I started by sketching people I saw walking by but quickly got bored by that and started making things up by watching the body language and hearing things that people would say as they went by. When I started doing this it took a year to fill up a sketchbook. Now I fill up three sketchbooks a year.

With Photoshop and Illustrator it took longer. Figuring out Photoshop took working at a computer gaming company where I had the good fortune of working with someone who knew the program better than I did. Two years ago it happened again, when I was working on a game and all the art had to be done in Illustrator. I was terrible at Illustrator, so I bought a book and picked all the great shortcuts and tools that would help me. I got better within a month and now I use it a lot.

The business part is more difficult to nail down because it keeps changing. I promote whenever I can find a venue. I’ve advertised my Art Books (“The Book of Doodles” and “Monito Hermoso”) for sale on Amazon through an ad on Facebook. I post all the time on Twitter about deals on my prints and I still put out several postcard promos every year. I use a mailing list from AdBase. Never stop promoting yourself. You never know when it will work and you hit the jackpot, or at least something that will keep a steady flow of income rolling into the old bank account.

AP: What do you do to stimulate inspiration and feed the flow of new ideas?

MC: I get inspiration from all over the place. The key is to have an open mind and let things flow in. You have to filter it to get the right combination of things that fit your sensibility. I’ll listen to something on the radio that may stick in my head visually and then I see something on TV, in a movie, online, in a magazine or book and then it evolves.

Soon I’ve got my own twisted version of that thing and I’ll do a very loose version in my sketchbook. Sometimes that will make it’s way into a painting or something in Photoshop or Illustrator. When I get an assignment, one of the first things I do is look through the assignment and pick out the most visual elements. Then I need some quick inspiration.

I’ll pick up one of my coffee table art books or look online at all kinds of art until I see a few things that kind of fit what I’m thinking about. Then I go to my drawing board and sketch out various ideas from all that inspiration. All this takes from 15 minutes to an hour and I’ll have two or three strong sketches from that.

Music also helps with inspiration. I have the good fortune to have some quirky tastes in music. A lot of the musicians I listen to have funny and sometimes bizarre lyrics that are quite visual. I’ll do sketches based on some of the music I’m listening to, but you wouldn’t put them together if you heard the music and saw what I did from listening to it.

AP: What have been the biggest obstacles to overcome in your career, and how did you do it? What are you still struggling with?

MC: The first big thing to overcome was when I was starting out as an illustrator. I had been doing animation for a very small animation group and they weren’t paying me very well. I had gotten tired of doing hundreds of drawings for a minute or two of animation — this was in the days before computer animation. It was tough work.

That transition from animator to illustrator was difficult. I got a job through a state funded program to help people transition to other occupations. The job I got was to be a graphic designer for the Los Angeles Theater Alliance. Because that group wasn’t structured very well, I had to make up my own assignments.

I started taking my portfolio to newspapers on the slow days at work. My first set of assignments was with the L.A. Times Editorial section and the Sunday supplement “The Calendar”, which was a big draw with anyone’s weekend back in the day. Having them accept me was a big hurdle and a huge push for me.

Another big obstacle was when I moved to Seattle from Los Angeles. I thought it would be easy to keep all the clients I had in L.A. but that wasn’t the case. I started to panic until I noticed a small ad in the help wanted section, for an artist to work at a small start up game company in Issaquah. I called them the next day and got the job, but I didn’t know anything about the biz or how to work on the computer. They liked the art I did and wanted to bring in talented people. I was very lucky that day – that couldn’t happen these days. That company was eventually bought out by Electronic Arts and turned into EA Seattle. I worked for them a while before going to Microsoft.

The current obstacles are keeping work coming in, when the economy is worse than I’ve seen in my lifetime. I’m hoping we all can make it through this time.

AP: You’ve done everything from animated characters to instructional drawings, logos and abstracts. You do everything from paintings to digital art. What have you gotten out of stretching yourself across multiple genres and media?

MC: In a word… fun! I’ve learned so much more from stretching myself than just staying in a box someone can point to and say “That’s Mike Cressy”. I try to stretch whenever I can. Sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable but that’s what stretching is all about. Getting out of one’s comfort zone allows your mind to do what it does best — figure out how to survive in this new landscape.

The one thing you can’t count on in this life is luck. It comes when it comes and it’s not always equal. Sometimes it’s just a small amount of luck to keep you going. Other times it feels like you struck the lucky gold mine. Keeping your feet moving and your mind working will keep you alive longer and help you to foster new relationships and in the process keep your creative mind working. I have several art friends from the old days who don’t work on the computer and don’t have many outlets for their creativity. They got angry with things changing and let themselves fall into a trap they can’t seem to get themselves out of. I don’t ever want to be in that trap.

I equate it with continuing to exercise every day as you get older. If you don’t continue to do that, your body starts to break down in some bad ways. Keep yourself on your toes even when it’s difficult to do so and you will thank yourself later.

Fall in love with what you do. I love what I do. The only other thing I can see doing would be either writing music or writing novels and short stories – I’m actually doing the latter these days. I’ve been at this graphic novel for two years in my spare time, and I’ve got over 350 pages of art, which I’m starting to condense for the final edit. I have about 60 or so more pages to go and then edit down.

AP: You seem particularly attracted to creating characters and creatures. What is your process like when developing a drawn character?

MC: I can’t tell you how much fun it is to work up a new creature. It’s like a buzz that comes from deep inside. I’m giving birth through my fingers.

Sometimes when I’m sketching for an assignment, I’ll get an extra thought or vision in my head about a character that I could use somewhere else; or I’ll see something and try to imagine what that would look like if it had a strange looking hat, or was child-like. If it’s a small thing, what would it be like if it were gigantic and had this tiny head. Odd juxtapositions help with coming up with characters. The process can be different from time to time but basically it’s putting things together that are never together in reality, and twisting them in some manner.

AP: All your sketches are done with a particular red Faber-Castell. Why is that, and do you have other work related habits and rituals?

MC: Faber-Castell, Dark Red #225! I buy out all the art stores in the Seattle area. Sometimes you can’t find a one because I’ve bought them all! I go through them like water and they ain’t cheap. I draw with them because they are Polychomos, which means that they are lightfast, easily blended for highlights, transitions, break-resistant, water-resistant, smudge-proof, and provide fine lines and dark dark areas of color. I’ve worked with them so much over the last 12 years, I don’t like drawing with anything else unless I’m doodling. I love the look that particular red gives me. I’m excited by the outcome, which helps to inspire me.

Besides that habit, these days I like covering whatever I’m going to paint on, be it canvas, masonite board or whatever – first gesso it, then cover it with the color ochre or raw sienna to give the painting warmth, even when using mostly cooler colors on top. Sometimes you can see a warm glow from an object I’ve painted. That’s from putting down those colors first.


AP: You are working on a graphic novel. What is it about? Do you write and draw everything yourself?

MC: This first graphic novel was created not only out of passion, but the story itself is a true story and only I know how it goes. Nobody else could write this. At the heart of it is a love story. This woman in the story has incredibly oppressive dreams that open each chapter, but transition into what is her current life. Ultimately it has a very tragic ending. I liken it somewhat to “Tender is the night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I first wrote it for Nanowrimo in 2007. I did something like 200 pages in that one month. It started me off on thinking that it might be better as a graphic novel. It took me 6 months to figure out a way to do it, and I struggled with it over the first year, but for the last year it’s just been flowing. I’ve gotten much better at doing the work. Now I look forward to doing all the other stories I’ve got inside me. I could be at this sort of thing for decades to come.

I’ve done an outline of the story and work off that. I’ll look at the outline and think how a scene should play out. Thinking of angles and how to graphically make it work so that it pushes the reader forward. It’s hard coming up with panel after panel but I’m really enjoying that part of it.

Then I do a rather loose layout with circles and blocks, where I want the people and things in the scene. After laying out a few pages I’ll go to a coffee house in the evening and detail the pages. I’ve been going to one place for the last two years and they know me there and ask how the graphic novel is coming. I’ll show them the progress. Beside them, I only show the pages to close friends. It helps inspire me to finish the story, knowing that some people were intrigued by it. Hopefully there will be a market out there for this graphic novel. It’s not superhero oriented. Nor is it an extremely weird or bizarre made up story, but it is a true story and I think that comes through in the art.

Want to know more? Check out Mike’s website and blog or follow @mikecressy on Twitter. Finally, check out his books The Book of Doodles (Volume 1) and Monito Hermoso: Collection Of Paintings (Volume 1).

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicola July 27, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Inspirational. I found particularly useful Mike’s remarks about Illustrator, a program with which I struggle, and his comments about luck, persisting and challenging oneself. All very sound advice for a career, and life.

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Rasmus Rasmussen July 28, 2010 at 12:38 am

Nicola, I’m glad you liked the interview. Mike is a cool guy with lots of experience, and it really shows in his answers I think.

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Susan Straub-Martin July 28, 2010 at 10:10 am

What a great interview with Mike. I have had the pleasure to know Mike over the years here in Seattle. His art is fantastic! The greatest thing about Mike is he is very generous in supporting other artists, he is always willing to help and he does so. Thank you for such a great write up.
Susan

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Kyle Shold July 28, 2010 at 10:37 am

I had the pleasure of working with Mike all too briefly at Big Top Games. Watching him sketch and work was a huge inspiration to me. It was a challenge to keep up! Great interview and insight. I’ve always wondered about those red pencils!

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Rasmus Rasmussen July 28, 2010 at 11:07 am

Susan and Kyle -

Good to hear from people who’ve worked with and know Mike. Your comments definitely support my impression of him, from doing the interview.

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Cindy July 28, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I’ve never met Mike but admired his art online. He’s kept that sense of fun and creativity that most people lose as they grow older, and has honed his skills to the point that his creatures seem believably alive. Cool work Mike.

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Tom T July 29, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Rasmus,
Great article, thanks.

I ran into Mike in an art store a few weeks back and he walked over to the coffee shop at Elliot Bay bookstore and talked. He showed me one of his sketchbooks filled, and I mean FILLED, with frame after frame of one of his graphic novels in that crazy red pencil/pen/crayon thing he does. Holy crap–where does he come up with those characters and their antics? He seems like such a normal person on the outside…

Click on the “sketches” link on his website and you’ll see what I mean.

http://www.mikecressy.com

Thanks again,
Tom

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