Interview with Commercial Artist, Warner McGee
With nearly 25 years’ experience as a commercial artist, chances are you’ve seen the works of Warner McGee. His striking character imagery, toy concepts and product visualization for clients such as Hasbro, Mattel, Disney, Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop are just a small sampling of this well accomplished artist. Warner has also illustrated over 75 children’s book titles for publishers such as Random House, Publications International and Simon & Schuster. I’m a massive fan of McGee’s character imagery and was excited to get the opportunity to talk with him about his work, life as a commercial artist, and much more.
How did you first get introduced to digital art?
Early on in my career at American Greetings, I learned how to use Corel Painter and Macromedia Freehand on the job. Over time I folded in other tools such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I found that digital tools were fairly easy to learn via tutorials and practice.
Over time as my needs evolved, I picked up new tools, whether they be 2D or 3D, and used them in various ways to achieve different looks or even help me to enter into art categories such as digital sculpting that simply could not be done without them.
How did you learn your craft?
I studied illustration at university (SCAD) in Savannah, GA in traditional media (drawing, painting, airbrush etc) which has given me a strong foundation in image making. I started learning digital tools at American Greetings as a staff illustrator. The computers were slow and the software was clunky, by today’s standards of course, but it was a solid introduction into digital artwork.
After leaving American Greetings to pursue my freelance career full time, I taught myself from books and magazines. With the rise of video training CDs and streaming video over the last decade, I have found that video tutorials were the best and quickest way to learn what I was interested in. I stopped buying books and started buying and even making video tutorials. I have found that teaching something helps to solidify what you know or think you know anyway.
What aspect of the digital art process do you like most?
There are aspects of both 2D and 3D art that I enjoy.
As a lover of construction and “structural things” in general, I love drawing and 3D modeling. Texturing and rendering my 3D models is probably what I enjoy most about digital 3D art. That final image can be very sexy.
Do find time to get back to creating traditional art?
I do miss the smells of paint thinner and ink on my hands and clothes sometimes. Those things “connected” me to my work more than my Cintiq does now.
Most of what I’m interested in creating these days require digital tools of some kind to make, but traditional media still plays a part. For example; I will take a digital sculpt or model, print it out on my Form2 printer and use my airbrush or hand paint it for prototyping or just for a one off art piece. I love that my tradition materials are still useful…and I still remember how to use them.
How do you continue to grow as an artist?
To keep my creative brain fed and fit I look at and catalog a lot of online artwork. I use services like Pinterest, YouTube, Art Station and other portfolio sites as inspiration for images I like, or techniques I might want to try out. It’s helpful to see how other artists solve problems.
What tools do you have in your digital arts toolkit?
My 3D tools are: MODO, Zbrush, Keyshot, Substance Painter, Marmoset and Fusion 360.
On the 2D side I use Photoshop, Illustrator and Procreate (on my iPad with the Apple Pencil). I have custom UI’s for each of these apps but nothing too crazy. I try to pay attention to the tools and processes I use most and then I add them to my UI as needed.
What are some your favorite projects that you worked on?
I have several but some of the top ones are SHEro, Jippi Cool Kids, Lagoon Lady and the sculpted dinosaur toys I created for Jurassic World toy line.
What’s a normal work day for you like?
My day typically starts around 9:30 during the work week. I like to do my creative work before 2:00 or so. I will do some administrative tasks in the afternoon or run errands as it is my least creative time during the day.
I usually will stop work around 5:30, and then spend my evenings with my family. After everyone is settled in for the night (sleeping) I’ll go back to my studio and begin work again. I try and not work on client work at nights unless I have a tight deadline.
I work every night on something though.
What do you believe has changed the most in the industry since you first got started up until now?
Above anything else, the internet has changed my career the most.
The tools have changed so much of how I work these days. The hardware and software tools are more refined, more affordable and the methods by which to learn them are more accessible than they have ever been. That’s a good thing because the deadlines for projects are shorter and the demand for high quality work is higher.
How do you find projects you work on? Is it mostly referrals?
Yes. I do get a lot of my work via referrals, but most of my projects come from established clients. I’m very fortunate to have clients seek me out but I have worked very hard for many years to get to this point…and even harder to stay there.
I do occasionally seek out new clients should there be something that interests me. Those projects don’t always materialize straight away, but often they do. I enjoy networking with other creative people and putting my work on their radar.
What hobbies away from the computer do you have?
I train in martial arts a few nights a week and enjoy swimming with my boys. I love movies. I also like fixing up my house or because I have 2 boys, 3 dogs and 2 cats it usually ends up me just “fixing” my house.
What advice would you give someone starting out in this business?
Most of us don’t “really” know what we love (or hate) until we’ve gained some experience doing it. So I would suggest to anyone just starting out to try doing lots of different things at first: explore different subject matter, research and try new tools, do things you don’t normally do to see how you like it or if you don’t. Keep track of those things you love and discard the rest.
If you think you know what you want to do for a job or career direction, consider reaching out to other artists that inspire you by commenting on their work, sending a brief email with a short question, etc. Always be professional, respectful and courteous and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the responses you’ll get back.
In your portfolio only show the work that you LOVE doing. It’s better to have fewer samples of strong work that you love rather than many samples of stuff you “can” do but would hate to get as a job. By not doing this you run the risk of getting the work you hate which will kill the fun.
What are some of the challenges you face as a freelance artist?
With nearly 25 years of experience in commercial art I still find that generating a quote for a job is challenging.
I try to balance the scope of work, the client (new or existing), what the work will be used for and how much time it will take to do it. That kind of thinking is opposite from the creative stuff that I enjoy day to day but it is absolutely necessary to run a creative (and successful) business.
Time management: It’s easy to put off work, wake up late, leave early etc., but doing this doesn’t move my career forward, which is important to me. I’m fairly disciplined about my career but I also enjoy the freedoms that come with freelancing. It’s a balance.
Cash flow: I don’t get paid every week or on a schedule. I try and keep the work and invoices flowing out and money coming in as regular as possible but there are lean times as well as fat times. Having some “runway” for those lean times helps with the stress from the irregular cash flow.
What are three sites that you visit for inspiration on a daily/weekly basis?
Pinterest, Art Station and YouTube (various sculpting, 3D and art process videos)
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on some designer toy ideas that I hope to bring to light in the coming months. These are digitally sculpted collectibles that I will start selling to individual collectors or pitching to galleries and toy companies.
Like many character artists I’m sure, I have lots of ideas and projects waiting to be fully realized but they just take some time to complete. It’s rewarding to breathe life into an idea and watching it grow.
What is the most unique project you’ve worked on?
A few years ago I was hired by an independent toy company as Creative Director for a new kids IP. Some of my responsibilities including hiring artists, designers and writers. I managed the entire creative side of the property while creating a lot of the artwork myself.
I created the style guides, worked with printers, toy manufacturers and oversaw the entire creative operation. It was a first for me in terms of responsibilities and a HUGE learning experience. The 4 months we worked on it were exhausting, but proved to be one of the most educational experiences of my career.
When was your last vacation and what did you do?
Vegas baby! My family and I spent about a 5 days there this past Summer. Summer in the desert. Hmm…I should have thought through that a bit better. (haha) Even with the 100 plus degree days it was a memorable trip.
Big thanks to Warner for taking the time to share with us today. To see more of Warner’s work visit his portolios at https://www.behance.net/warnermcgee and https://www.artstation.com/artist/warnermcgee
Also be sure to check out Warner's "Creating a Character in MODO" training series to get a first hand look at how he create's his stunning characters in 3D.