Interview with Kristian Donaldson

Interview with Ace Masters

By Matt Rawson
Published: 2006-05-08

After getting knee deep into Brian Wood’s fantastic writing, I picked up Supermarket #1, and found that, although the writing was up to par with Wood’s standard of excellence, it was the artwork that truly blew me away. I then scoured for Kristian Donaldson’s contact info and dropped him a line. The result is the following interview, covering areas such as his process, influences, and even some advice for all the up-and-comers out there, with a nice little disclaimer from his uncle, no less!

Matt Rawson: I once read that Jack Kirby rarely ever did prep-work before drawing a page, whereas some artists are known for an extraordinary amount of planning. How much planning do you put into each page before you start on an issue?

Kristian Donaldson: The King? No prep work? Wow. I'm very, very dependent on doing meticulous layouts. My 4x6 layouts look like a penciled page a lot of the time. Facial details, the whole deal. I scan those and blow them up, print out a light blue template to ink over on my wide format Epson, on Bristol cut to 11x17. I rarely do any penciling past that point, and usually go right to ink. It saves me a ton of time, and I find that drawing small keeps everything tight, spatially.

MR: How much, if at all, do you incorporate the computer into your artwork?

I’m trying to hone a unique coloring style that’s mine, something someone would look at and say “hey, that’s Kristian Donaldson.”

KD: Oh, very much. Before I ink a page I go through a few steps of scan and print, and being the colorist as well, I spend the last portion of work on an issue, maybe a quarter of the entire issue time, coloring for the final product. I love coloring, and truth be told, I’m probably a better colorist than I am an inker. I’m trying to hone a unique coloring style that’s mine, something someone would look at and say “hey, that’s Kristian Donaldson.”

MR: What equipment do you use, such as brush size and ink brand? Do you illustrate on Bristol or illustration board? Do you prefer Quill or Tech Pens?

KD: I use a variety of items. My main tool is a Kuretake brush pen from Japan. It’s got nylon bristles, and it takes cartridges. It looks like a fountain pen a banker would have out on his desk, it looks nothing like standard art supply fare. It’s the single greatest thing I’ve ever tried. I use tech pens for some of the architectural stuff in my backgrounds. I’ve drawn and inked entirely on hp Brightwhite print paper for Supermarket issues #2 and #3, and the last half of issue #1. I know it sounds kind of crazy. After using Bristol Strathmore for a long time, and using 4 different varieties of it with different finishes, I found the line and texture that I want came out best on plain old print paper.

MR: How much time do you generally spend on, say, an average, medium-detailed, six or seven panel page, from conception to color?

KD: Two hours for layout, four to seven hours for inks, and two hours for color. So between eight and eleven hours. I penciled and inked five laid out pages in one day for Supermarket #3. I couldn’t believe it. I haven't been able to do it since.

MR: Do you read any comics now? If so, which titles or creators do you follow?

KD: Oh man, let’s see, Nextwave is really cool. I dropped off the Losers, but I still love Jock. Ryan Kelly’s work on Local, also with Brian Wood, who writes Supermarket, is great. Local is a great book. Loveless is another good one. NYC Mech and Grounded, both from Image. Ashley Wood’s Metal Gear Solid stuff is great,and Toby Cypress on The Tourist. I’m not reading a lot right now to be honest. I catch up at cons, as much as I can, with as many trades as I can fit in a suitcase and table purchases straight from the artist.

MR: Who are some of your artistic influences, sequential artists or otherwise?

Reading [William Gibson’s] stuff keeps some part of my brain that plays director worked out and ready to go.

KD: Oooh. I’ll start with the non-sequential peeps, ’cause I always have fun talking about those. My biggest influence is William Gibson, hands down! I read his books for the first time at way too young an age, and it did something to my brain. In the last two years or so, I’ve gotten back into his work with a vengeance. Reading his stuff keeps some part of my brain that plays director worked out and ready to go.

Terry Gilliam, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Chris Cunningham, Quentin Tarantino. Kill Bill is a clinic in measuring genres and juggling tone, and I think I took some of that away with me while I worked on Supermarket. In fact I know I did.

Comic artists, I’d have to say that Brian [Wood], Ash Wood, and Paul Pope, have had the biggest effect on where I’m at right now. Mike Mignola too. I started inking with a brush after I read Blankets by Craig Thompson, and saw Becky Cloonan’s work on Demo. Also big for me was Eric Canete, and my friend Kelsey Shannon.

I owe my coloring to my own personal Obi-Wan, Lee Loughridge. I worked in his studio for a bit as a flatter, and came out of there a much better colorist than I went in. My palette is kind of a punk-rock, pop-art expansion on his palette, so credit where credit’s due. I wouldn’t be half the colorist I am without Lee.

MR: Did you have any formal education, or are you entirely self taught?

KD: I did go to art school, which afforded me the time and security to draw a lot and get better. It wasn’t so much the formal aspects that the school taught, as much as being immersed in one thing for 4 years without having to do anything else except hang out. I was VERY fortunate to have the experience that I did. All my close friends from college are working in art fields, and some of my best friends, including some old roommates, all work in comics now.

Like a samurai sword in a bad neighborhood, [design is a tool that] can save your life.

MR: The colors you chose for Supermarket are very bold and eye-catching. What are the reasons for your color choices? Is this a palette you normally work with, or did you choose it based on the tone of the series?

KD: The colors I’m working with now are a progression off the colors I used a few years ago on that Image book I did called Forsaken. When I started that book I didn’t know how to color — I was just pulling up swatch families at random and going at it with no focus. Then Lee, and my roommate Nick Filardi, introduced me to a proper pallete. A limited pallete with beautiful colors formulated for almost any situation, natural or artificial. For Supermarket, I use a lot of those colors straight from the can at 100% value. I’m also liable to just dump 100% Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow in there. The effect was an experiment, but it hits all the right notes with the tone of Supermarket, and it’s honestly been probably the biggest draw of the book. I’m pretty confident that there’s no other book that looks quite like this.

MR: You have a very design-oriented style. Do you see yourself as a designer as well as an illustrator?

KD: Uhm, I think I used to, but it was more of an aspiration. It was when I wasn’t quite either that I felt free to call myself both. But now that I am a full time illustrator, design is a tool I have when I need. Like a samurai sword in a bad neighborhood, it can save your life. I am a cartoonist who gets paid to draw comics that go to comic shops, so that’s what I do, but knowing how to set type and compose an inside front cover or create logos has never ever hurt me.

It’s usually updated every issue and I do a healthy trade in poster prints. So if you like the Supermarket covers, you can get them for your walls. Sex those walls up a bit — they look lonely.

Before Supermarket I did a piece in Doomed from IDW, and a piece for Marvel for Amazing Fantasy #15. I did Forsaken, but I’m trying to forget.

MR: What plans do you have for the future? Any upcoming comic projects we can look forward to, or are you looking toward other mediums?

KD: I have some things that are in the earliest stages, with some peeps. I will be vague and aloof here, because that's what makes me feel cool.

When I get some time I want to learn to paint, and get a bit better with Illustrator. Learn how to make organic textures better. Pretty much, I’d like to move to Australia and wash Ashley Wood’s car, and take out his garbage in exchange for some lessons. Why don’t we do that anymore? In the old days everyone had an apprentice that got abused for a few years in exchange for the keys to the kingdom, skill-wise. I want to do that! If you're listening Ashley, I will wash your ****ing car!

MR: Your style screams of pop-culture. Do you site any certain elements of pop-culture as an influence?

KD: I despise and feel oppressed by pop culture, as much as I love it and am totally its b!tch. It’s a strange thing. I think as an artist you have to keep your eyes open and soak in EVERYTHING, so you can’t shut out pop culture, no matter how vapid, or offensive, or wonderful. But on a more substantial level, yeah, fashion’s big in my life, and in my art. And yeah, there’s an indie undercurrent that a lot of the things I enjoy come from. With that being a big part of the makeup of my interests it’s going to show in my work. Brian [Wood] and a lot of the artists he works with are very in tune with this. It’s almost a genre in and of itself.

MR: What music, if any, do you listen to while creating your art?

KD: Oooh. Lots! Pretty much every big run of work on an issue has its own itunes playlist that gets a heavy workout. This last go-round was a mix of indie-dance stuff (We Are Scientists), some dirty Brit stuff (The Cribs), some hip-hop (The Streets, Danger Mouse, Jay Z), some instrumental (The Advantage, Mogwai), some I don’t freakin’ know (Test Icicles), and some new stuff by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Will Oldham, and Calexico.

But sometimes I just can’t deal with music when I work, ’cause it can push and pull you when you’re trying to focus. That’s when I spend some time getting my news from podcasts and trying to wash cable news out of my mouth. Democracy Now is pretty great, as well as a lot of the KCRW programming. I also dig Penn Jilette’s morning show.

I’ll work with Brian [Wood] any day of the week on anything. His style is just so cool and casual, and perfect for me.

MR: What writers are you planning on, or would you like, working with on future projects?

KD: I’ll work with Brian [Wood] any day of the week on anything. His style is just so cool and casual, and perfect for me. If there were a perfect writing style, and scripting style that suits me, it’s Brian’s. He puts in beats that I can hit. He’s awesome. I’d love to work with Brian Azzarello or Andy Diggle. I also really like Brian K. Vaughn, and then there’s the king, Warren Ellis.

MR: Do you ever plan on writing a series or graphic novel? If so, would you also provide the art?

KD: You will definitely see an original story, illustrated by me, in the future. It’s a certainty.

MR: Two artists, style-wise, that I would group you with would be Paul Pope (Heavy Liquid,100%, THB, Batman: Year 100) and Jim Rugg (Street Angel). You all have a very fluid, loose approach that conveys a great sense of motion and none of you confine yourselves to “staying within the lines,” so to speak. Care to comment on this opinion?

KD: I enjoy both of those artists a lot. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Paul, and he’s a very nice guy. I respect his work and his place in comics a lot. He’s a vital piece of the puzzle. Like, without him, comics as a whole would just be a little different, and a little less cool. As far as careers go, he’s a great role-model to emulate. And yeah, I guess there’s no way I could read Heavy Liquid or 100% and not be influenced.

MR: How did you get your first gig in comics?

KD: Well, my first gig was behind the scenes, flatting for Lee [Loughridge] at Vertigo. I flatted on a lot of Vertigo books. It was fun, feeling like I was a part of comics. I remember picking up the first thing I ever worked on, Bad Girls #1, on vacation in New York in ’03. It was cool.

After that, I met this dude who became the writer on Forsaken. Forsaken was cool, because I got to create all these characters who were visually intense, from scratch, and then play with their design, give them new outfits from scene to scene. These were Kevlar-style heroes that shopped at Gucci basically, so I was on my fashion game big-time with that one. I think like in 3 issues, each character had about 9 costume changes. Sadly that book didn’t work out, and I had to make the choice to jump ship for Supermarket. I reinvented myself for Supermarket, and started inking with a brush, and just changed my overall approach.

MR: How did you get on Supermarket? Were you contacted by an editor, or were you chosen by Brian Wood?

KD: I was chosen by Brian, and then we pitched it as a team to the guys at IDW. Let me just say here, that the experience with IDW has been wonderful. They are the absolute coolest bunch of guys, and they’re a pleasure to work with and for. I don’t know if things can get cooler for an artist. I’m a lucky mo-fo.

MR: Any advice you would like to convey to all the starry-eyed, up-and-coming, yet-to-be-published, creators?

KD: Hmmm. My Uncle, always says “Now, consider what you paid for this advice” when he tells me things, so I’ll borrow that disclaimer from him now.

But let’s say someone has the drive and the potential. They got some skills, but they’re like 20 years old, and new to the whole idea of conventions and the business of comics. All I can say for starters is WEBSITE WEBSITE WEBSITE. The single greatest tool any artist has is his website. As for when you first start stepping onto that convention floor, or start networking online, it’s very hard to navigate, and can be frustrating and circular. Achieve a balance of being open and available to the right people while avoiding the wrong people who are just going to waste your time. For every writer, fledgling studio, and fellow artist that is there to be a real comrade and friend, there are just as many who are willing to take advantage of you. Don’t give too much of yourself away for free. I made that mistake, and wasted a lot of time I could have been focusing purely on myself as an artist. Get sh!t in writing, and don’t be afraid to talk about money. Seriously, it’s business, kids. Other than that, just be cool, be sociable, and do your best to stay visible in a positive way. There’s no gimmick to it. Just show up and be yourself. Now like my uncle says, “Consider what you paid for this advice.” =)

MR: Thanks very much for all the insight into your process, and best wishes for all future projects!