May 2, 2013

Larry MacDougall revisited

This post originally appeared on my other blog, which I have just deleted as I didn't have the time to maintain it with fresh content. But I wanted to save this post, as it is a big one and I think it is worthwhile keeping. At the bottom of the post, I have updated it with some new stuff. Enjoy.

I like and follow the work of a lot of artists. I seem to be constantly discovering and re-discovering them. As an artist myself, I find new and exciting techniques and approaches in a wide variety of places.
Every once in a while though, I come across a fellow artist that makes me want to do at least one of these things-

a) Want to pile up all of my various pens, pencils, paints and brushes and create a ritualistic bonfire of submission to a higher being.
b) Want to stalk them and steal their secret skill, Sylar-style if need be.
c) Want to possess everything they have ever done, often in duplicate.
d) Study their artwork and see how I can go about making my own work better.

Larry MacDougall makes me want to do each of these things. But mostly the last option.

You may have noted that I gave this particular post a rather loaded title. 'A True Faerie Artist.' What does that mean? Well, speaking personally, I feel a true faerie artist is very certainly some things, and most definitely NOT other things.
A true faerie artist delights in drawing trees, especially their gnarled bases and outstretched roots. A true faerie artist will relish the unattractive and aged features of an old crone, or the mischievous grin of a fleeting Piskie.
And a true faerie artist will tend to shy away from flower fairies, their gossamer wings and dainty dresses flittering in the breeze. No, a true faerie artist knows that through study of Faerie Lore, one comes to see that Faeries are very rarely dainty, and not at all what Cicely Mary Barker would have you think. A true faerie artist knows that faeries are more often than not dirty, untrustworthy, and dangerous.
Give an artist a piece of paper and a pencil and tell them they can draw whatever they wish, and if they start drawing the face of an old Gnome, or a hideous Troll, or perhaps a halfling or a goblin, that's how you'll spot a true faerie artist. A true faerie artist will almost always draw a denizen of faerie if given the choice.
There are several artists today who could be called true faerie artists. Jean-Baptiste Monge is one of them. Brian Froud for sure. Larry MacDougall definitely. Here's a quote from Larry's blog (see below for more details on that) that puts my point about true faerie artists across better than I ever could...

'Even though at this very moment I'm up to my ears in free-lance work with a crushing deadline, not to mention several other smaller things adding their weight, I still find it necessary to occasionally step back and reconnect with my own imaginary world. In this case, one of my favourite places to go is an old witch garden. I imagine several acres of tangled, over grown garden behind a ramshackle witch's cottage. In this garden all manner of faerie folk and mythic beings live and cavort in complete solitude.'

I came upon the art of Larry MacDougall several years ago now, while randomly looking up Faerie Art online. Like most similar searches, one must wade through a rather large amount of rough before finding a diamond. But that is exactly what I thought when I saw his work, that I'd found a diamond.

I think that the main reason I am drawn to Larry's work is because he obviously has the same influences that I have. I grew up with Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud and a whole stack of other Faerie artists. And you can see that Larry MacDougall did too.

So I did some Larry MacDougall searching and discovered that there was a book called 'Witching Hour: The Art of Larry MacDougall.' Yep, bought that. Quickly.
This is what it looks like...

And here are the details...

Title: Witching Hour: The Art of Larry MacDougall
Publisher: Cartouche Press
Publication Date: October 2003
ISBN: 9781566346309
Pages: 64

It's a really cool book. It has a lot of Larry's early work for FASA and White Wolf, both gaming companies. In these pieces you can see Larry travelling down several artistic paths, the results of which are quite interesting and often fantastically done. I can see Moebius in some pieces, lots of Jeffrey Jones, a pinch of Frazetta. But mostly, it's all about Larry finding his own path.

The second half of the book shows off some of Larry's more painterly works, including these lovelies...

Troll Path
Pumpkin Dealer

What is very clear when looking through Witching Hour is that at some point, something artistically seemed to click for Larry. The difference in skill level from his early work to the later pieces is a marked thing.
Most artists have points in their artistic progression where they seem to leap forward in both style and proficiency. Heck, I had one this year myself! But I can't recall seeing such a massive growth as Larry's. That is not to say that his early work isn't any good, far from it. But he seems to gain a depth of skill that can really only come with a breakthrough of some fashion.
Granted, a lot of the whole getting better at being an artist is in the process of just sitting there and doing what you do. But time and practice, I feel, are not enough. At some point, most artist will just simply start to see what they are doing differently, from a slightly altered angle, and that will enable a big change in how they go about achieving what they desire.
It seems quite clear that Larry had one such leap. His colours became brighter, his detail more refined, his depth of field more perceptible, his style more pronounced and accomplished. The results, I'm sure you'll agree, are just gorgeous.

I recently got in contact with Larry and mentioned to him that I was going to do this post about him. I asked if he would be interested in answering some questions I had. Like the swell fellow he is, he agreed straight away. So here's my interview with the great Larry MacDougall!

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?  When did Larry MacDougall decide to become an artist and what made you want to follow that path?

Like most kids I was drawing as soon as I could get my hands on a pencil. For me it was just a natural extension of playing - make drawings and have fun. It was inevitable that I would be an artist. There was nothing else that I enjoyed more or showed more promise in. When you reach that point in school where you have to choose a career, I didn't seriously consider anything else.

What were your initial goals within the artistic world?

When I was in art school I liked everything - comics, animation, book illustration. Wherever there was cool drawing happening I was there. I didn't really have a plan. In the beginning my only plan was to improve my drawing and see what happened. Right after art school I went to work in a comic book shop in Toronto. I met a lot of great people there and established my first business connections.

Artists of our fey bent tend to wear our influences on our sleeves, so to speak. Which other artists have influenced you along the way and what is it about their work that you like?

There are many, many artists I look to for inspiration and influence. Far too many to discuss here, so I will pick just a few of the cornerstone ones.

Brian Froud - I first found Brian's art in the Faeries book, as did many, and I loved it instantly. Then I came across his first art book, The Land of Froud and loved that even more. The art in that book was then, and perhaps still is now everything I ever wanted to be or do as an artist. The drawings and painting of creatures, trolls, maidens and witches, not to mention the trees and rocks, the world he described, it all spoke to me. The Land of Froud is still my favourite art book I think. My copy has completely fallen apart. The spine cracked and disintegrated long ago. It's more like a portfolio now than a book, which seems to make it all the more precious and special. Then The Dark Crystal came out with its accompanying books and likewise for Labyrinth. There was so much to get into.

Jeff Jones - Jeff Jones is another artist from the 1970's that I still admire very much. Back then his figure drawings and oil paintings were seen by many of us to be what we ourselves aspired to. If you could draw a figure as well as Jeff Jones there really wasn't too much further you could go, and like Brian Froud, he seemed to be able to describe his imagination effortlessly to the viewer. He also had a very unique design sensibility which I still admire very much.

Disney Studio - I really love the early Disney films - The Old Mill, Snow White and Pinocchio. The style of those cartoons and the art and design that was done to create the look of those old films is still very inspiring to me now. The one I like most is Pinocchio and the extensive amount of design work they did to design his village is just amazing. Much of it by Gustaf Tenggren, but of course there were others. They went into great detail designing the shops and houses, the door frames, the window sills, the flower boxes and the roof tops. I love all of it. For some reason this really connected with me and to this day I love drawing odd little houses and crooked structures.

How did you go about getting your first gigs?

My first gig ever was an animation job where I was drawing layouts for the Care Bear Movie. The studio was crewing up for their second feature and needed a lot of new people. Some of my animation friends were already there and they invited me to join the team. My first publishing gig came a few years later for Steve Jackson Games in Austin Texas. They were doing fantasy role playing games at the time and needed illustrators to do their game books and supplements. Again it was through a friend who knew some people there. Your first and best connections will always be your friends.

Did you have a set career trajectory you wanted to move along?

Career plan? Not really. I have always just taken what comes. I will target places I want to work for and direct promo material at them, but that is always hit or miss. It's a matter of who you meet and who you get along with. There will be people that you are just dying to work with, but never will because the human chemistry is wrong. And then, conversely, amazing things you never could have imagined will drop into your lap out of the blue. I know very determined people who will stop at nothing until they get what they want. I was never like that. I've never had that singular vision that I needed to see happen come hell or high water. I can feel that starting to change though. I now have stories that I want to tell.

How did you find doing that first piece to be published and what did it feel like seeing it in print?

It's been quite a while since my first illustrations were published but I can imagine that I was pretty excited. That feeling however is usually followed quite quickly by a sense of disappointment as you look at your work on the printed page and notice, what you feel, are all the mistakes and things you would like to change. You think everyone else is looking at your work and seeing what you see. They aren't of course but it feels like they are.

How did the Witching Hour book come about?

Witching Hour was one of those things that just fell into my lap. It was not the kind of thing that you could try out for or promote yourself to get. It was a private project by an art director at Cartouche Press who just happened to take a shine to my gaming work and was in a position to do art books. One day an e-mail came saying "We would like to do an art book on you". He did several other books and then mine. It was a completely random event. There are no plans to do a Witching Hour 2 as far as I know.

I think that the book is a really nice first book. It has plenty of your early work and shows a great variety of styles you seem capable of producing. From the early gaming stuff and its atmospheric greys, to the almost Moebius-styled pieces, right through to what you are no doubt best known for, your faerie watercolours. Are you happy with how it came out?

Witching Hour is not the book I was expecting. Later on I met the art director at a convention and he showed me a few of the art books they had already done. Their pages were full of art and there were many, many images in the other books. They looked fabulous. With this in mind, I scanned and delivered very many of my own images, expecting the publishers to use them. They did not. I did not have any say over what images were used or how the book was designed. Witching Hour has a lot of white space in it and is lacking many of the better images that I sent them. So, on the one hand I find this to be a bit of a let down and rather disappointing, but on the other hand, I am very happy that the book was completed and published. It's out there. In fact, the book was many months late and I was thinking for a while that it would never come out, so I should probably also say that I'm happy it was published at all because there seemed to be an uphill battle on their end just getting it finished. When all is said and done, they paid me and I got a free art book out of the deal so I really shouldn't complain. Not too bad for a random event.

A lot of artists are doing annual sketchbooks these days, have you considered doing something like that? I, personally, would love to see one from you, and you certainly seem to produce enough quality sketchwork to be able to fill one of those things, with ease.

Sketchbooks. Yes, I know it is very popular these days to make your own sketchbooks and I would like to as well. It's really a matter of finding the time to put one together. In the meantime I will soon have a book coming from a small publisher in Scotland entitled The Book of Beasties, and that will be illustrated with about 35 pencil drawings, so perhaps that will serve as a kind of sketchbook until I can actually make my own.

Now for some nitty-gritty questions. Firstly, what materials do you like to use? By that I mean, do you have a favourite watercolour paints producer? Tubes or pans? Paper? Brushes?

When painting I tend to primarily use watercolour and gouache. I will start with watercolour and either keep going with watercolour or at some point will decide I want to take it the rest of the way with gouache. If it is a commercial assignment and I am under the gun, I will go straight to gouache and forego the horsing around that I'm prone to when working for myself. I'm not really one for digital painting but, will occasionally use Photoshop to put the final touches on a commercial painting or add tone to a drawing. I enjoy Photoshop and don't use it nearly as much as I would like to. It's that time thing again.

Your lush paintings look as though they involve a great deal of building up of qualities and layering on washes. Do you have anything resembling a system when you sit down to paint?

I don't have one set method for completing a painting but my numerous approaches are pretty similar so I will describe one, from which the other variations tend to stem. Once the drawing is on the watercolour paper I will then use watercolour to get a quick indication of where all the colours are going to go - just a quick, rough block in - green for the trees, blue for the shadows, yellow for sun light etc.. This does not take long, perhaps half an hour at most. Now I know where I'm going and so I begin to work at the focal point and move out from there, taking everything to a near finish but also getting looser and more free as I get further away from the areas of interest. I like to get to work right away on the focal point because that is the area that is the most fun and I can usually see in my mind how I want it to look, and so I'm trying to get there right off the bat. Then I can relax and paint in everything else, adjusting as I go and trying to keep everything working as a unified whole. The last thing I often do is make a few final marks with pencil crayon to add a little texture or tone something down.

Your work also looks as though you prefer to work with pretty dry watercolours. Very few brushstrokes are to be found. Is that the case?

My watercolour style is rather dry. I use smaller brushes and avoid the big loose wash areas often associated with watercolour. I don't stretch my paper. I merely tape it to a board, so "big brush" work would really buckle the paper. I like to paint the way I draw which is making small marks in small areas and working out from the starting point.

You mention in Witching Hour that the Niagara Escarpment features in your work, at least to some degree, quite a lot. Do you reference much for your work? I don’t think it looks that way, as your art really looks as though it is from a vivid imagination.

I do my best to not use photo reference. I occasionally need to for animals or bugs that I'm not familiar with but would really rather not. If I know that I'm going to need to draw a horse or tiger that day then I will warm up by drawing horses or tigers from reference to familiarize myself with their forms. Then, when the time comes to make the real drawing I can do so without needing a photo to go by. My style of illustration does not depend on me being able to draw the perfect, most realistic horse or tiger. The world I create comes from my head. I received my training in an animation school where they taught us how to draw and create and design from our heads. We learned how to draw and think structurally and how to use anatomy to draw figures from your mind. This is the approach I like best and the artists I most respect seem to believe in this also. The worlds that John Bauer, Arthur Rackham and Frank Frazetta create cannot be found in photographs. The masters can draw from their heads the things that they imagine. Heinrich Kley, N.C. Wyeth, Ronald Searle - they all do this, and I aspire to this as well.

What is an average day for you? Do you work to a scheduled and allotted time or do you draw when you have the urge or when a deadline is looming?

I'm a morning person and do my best work first thing. I like to get up early and work til lunch. If there's nothing pressing I'll use the afternoon to get non art/creative stuff done and then probably back to work for an hour or two after dinner before landing in front of the television.

Are there any projects you would love to be given? Any books that you would be interested in illustrating?

I would love to work on a film like the Dark Crystal or MirrorMask. Be a member of a really great art team and design a fantasy world from top to bottom. I dip my toe into the film business every once in a while (at the moment I'm doing some design work for a stop-motion piece being done here in Canada) but I would really like to take the plunge and get into a really good feature project. Or video game for that matter.

Are you one of those artists that has your own story ideas tucked away somewhere, just waiting to see the light of day?

I am starting to develop some story ideas that I flirt with on my blog occasionally, but my stories tend to take the form of documentaries or reportage, rather than narrative fiction. I think this comes from too much of the History and Discovery channels.

Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring artists, or perhaps you have some well-hidden secret formula that you’d like to unburden yourself of?

My only advice for younger artists is to learn to draw as well as possible. After that, everyone is different and will have to find their own way.

So there you have it, an all too brief look at the artist Larry MacDougall. I really cannot recommend tracking down both Witching Hour and his other work highly enough. The great thing is, he has a large amount of work out there. Here's just some of the things you can find-

Magic the Gathering Card Art
Larry created quite a few cards for the trading card game 'Magic the Gathering,' especially for the Lorwyn block of sets. You can see them in card form over here, and here are a few of them in their original form-

Drove of Elves (An awesome card for an Elf deck)
Disturbing Plot
Toil to Renown

Larry has a long history of illustrating books, here's just a few of them-

Larry produces quite a high volume of paintings, here's some of my personal favourites-

Hill Giant
Sleeping Troll
I think that Larry is one of the greatest sketch artists around. His pencil work has such a whimsical nature to it and he manages to do so much with so little. Here are some particularly nice ones-
Gnome Witch

Crow Witch



Lastly, I thought I might link to a few places where you can find Larry's work-

I hope you've enjoyed this look at Larry's work. My thanks go to Larry for being so generous with his time and thoughts.


When I conducted the interview with Larry late last year, I also purchased a lovely sketch off him at the same time. It's actually the Gnome Witch piece shown above. Unfortunately, the Irish Postal Service are such a bunch of half-witted imbeciles and they decided to leave the package in what must have been a very large body of water for an extended amount of time. By the time it got to me, it was drenched, absolutely soaked. I managed to somehow salvage it, but the paper is warped and stained and the pencils, through the expansion of the waterlogged paper, aren't as crisp as they were. I threw a hissy fit, let me tell you!
I mentioned to Larry what had happened at the time, and he said that he would send me another piece, free of charge. There was no way I was going to let that fly though, it wasn't his fault, and he shouldn't have to pay for it.
And we left it that.
Then, today, this came in the mail, with a post it saying "Hi Jay, I didn't forget, Larry."

What a guy, huh? I swear I fell in love with him a little more after opening up that parcel.
Thanks Larry, you're of the highest order of beings.

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