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The art of Lee Carter

Concept artist and comic book talent, Lee Carter explains why happiness is a bad guy with a machine gun.

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Age: 32
Country: UK
Liverpool-based Lee is a concept artist for Bizarre Creations, who also illustrates for comic book companies.

Lee Carter didn’t want to do a ‘proper’ job; he wanted to draw the things he drew as a seven-year-old boy and get paid for it. Unlike most, this plan went pretty well for Lee.
Whether it’s for award-winning game studio Bizarre Creations or on freelance comic book jobs for the likes of Boom Studios and ImagineFX, “My commissions usually involve something cool, whether it’s a pirate comic or an illustration of a grim city street filled with zombies.” Lee counts himself a lucky man.

Lee has been a full-time artist since leaving school, “I’m 32 now,” and, he points out, “Since I started at Art College when I was 16, I have pretty much being drawing half my life.” Impressive as that sounds, it’s an understatement. “I drew a lot as young boy, mainly due to being an only child. After reading old 2000AD annuals I was hooked on comic art.”
Like many artists, Lee gravitated towards the pencil and paper pastime we all know and love: “I started copying Brian Bolland and other great 2000AD artists.” Naturally, this first love led Lee’s own work in a comic book direction: “Much of my ability is probably due to the vast amount of cool imagery I saw as a child.”
But even for one with such a clear idea of where his direction lay, there were obstacles: “Unfortunately, my art teacher at school specialised in ceramics, so it wasn’t until the age of 16 I started to paint more.” This led to a breakthrough move to Cleveland College of Art and Design in Hartlepool where Lee spent two years.

At Hartlepool Lee specialised in Graphics but, having no interest in typography,  leaned towards illustration. This led to an HND in Illustration at Wrexham. This, Lee observes, “Was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the business side of the industry.” A valuable lesson and one that many artists suffer from learning too late.
After finishing his HND at Wrexham, Lee moved to Bristol to complete a BA in Illustration. “So I pretty much had six years of studying traditional art,” he says. That’s longer than a medical degree, but up to this point, Lee was still working entirely in traditional media, “It wasn’t until I found myself employed at Bizarre that I first had a go at digital art.”
This was where Lee really found his feet as a professional. “Bizarre Creations were great,” he recalls. “They took me on with no computer training. So I started there fresh, not even sure where I would fit in.” This type of opportunity comes along very rarely: Lee knew that and jumped onboard what was at the time, quite a small ship. He’s been there ever since.

Vampire Gangs
Bizarre wasn’t Lee’s first port of call after graduation, his first professional job was for Wizards of the Coast, “I met a few editors from Wizards at a comic convention in London and they seemed to like my work. Shortly afterward they commissioned me to illustrate two cards for vampire card set.”
At this point Lee was still a traditional artist, which made everything a lot more complicated: “I had to use FedEx to send the original paintings off to America, which seems crazy now.” None the less, this was a cool first job. “Gangs of vampires fighting in the streets, what more could I ask for?”
Around this time Lee noticed an advert on TV for a new children’s magazine called The Spine-Chiller Collection. “It was a bit young for me to read” he points out, “but some of the illustrations were fantastic.”
Lee contacted the mag and sent out a portfolio, “I worked on quite a few short stories in the time it ran for. Stories about haunted planes, undead cowboys and even a possessed BMX.” The moral of this, says Lee, is that you should “regularly have a good look around newsagents for new magazines and if you think your work would fit, find the contact details and send your work off.” What have you got to lose?

True Grit
“It’s strange” Lee muses, “when I studied children’s illustration my work was very different. Lots of colour and very little grit.” It wasn’t until he went to Bristol and his lecturers insisted his work was too slick that Lee began to develop his trademark feel for the underbelly of existence.
When his tutors suggested he should “drag sandpaper across his work” Lee began to take a new look at his surroundings. “Maybe it was living in a city,” he wonders, “but I found myself drawn to the grim urban landscapes.” These became a theme; “I found beauty in decay.”
So, while at Bristol Lee’s style of work changed, “I had a more serious attitude towards what I wanted to convey. My work sort of matured with age.” Today he’s sure of his goals: “I want my work to have depth of atmosphere and detail that helps convey a place in time. And if its a character I’m illustrating, I want people to picture his backstory.” Focus makes for feeling.

Kept in the cupboard
So it was, in 1996, with this growing sense of gritty realism, that Lee began his career, and it was starting to pay off with a few pieces of nice freelance here and there, “but living back at my parents’ house wasn’t a good thing.”
But a solution was just around the corner: “A friend of mine drew a few Judge Dredd strips and then went on to work for a games developer. He told me about his new job and the new industry that was springing up since the start of PlayStation.” This sounded too good to be missed, “I started to buy Edge magazine and began checking out the job ads at the back.”
Although Lee had no digital work to show, he got right to the chase: “I contacted developers directly and the response was incredibly positive.” In the summer of 98, Bizarre Creations offered Lee a job on the strength of his 2D art.
Though there was nothing on the slate, “They decided to keep me in a cupboard until they needed someone with my skills.” It wasn’t long before the cupboard door creaked open, and Lee joined the team responsible for titles including Project Gotham and now, The Club. “The work I do now is a pleasure” he says. “I draw bad guys with machine guns all day long.”

Back and forth
A new Lee Carter piece usually starts with a series of very small thumbnails. “After I find one that I want to go with, I work on an A5 rough sketch. I scan this into the computer, resize it and print it back out.” This preserves some of the energy of the original sketch while giving Lee something to work from on the lightbox.
So the traditional materials kick things off: “I always start with pencil, grey markers and white gel pen.” After that it’s over to the computer for colour and texture, but the back and forth between digital and analog is a well-worn path: “Sometimes I print the image out and work into the printout with coloured pencils and scan it back in for more tinkering.”
This integration of the traditional and digital modes of production is perhaps where Lee finds his style. His technique is ever-evolving, though. “I really enjoyed using watercolour and building up layers of washes. I have spent a lot of time trying to capture the same feeling with Photoshop.”

So what’s next on Lee’s agenda? “I’m hoping to have time to approach 2000AD, I would love to work on a Judge Dredd strip.” This would bring him artistically full circle.
Another character which tickles his fancy is John Constantine from Vertigo comics’ Hellblazer. But these two are pre-existing characters, other people’s visions. “My big ambition would be to have a go at creating my own character.”
Lee has already tested the waters: “I’ve done this once,” he says, “with artist/writer Liam Sharp on the Necromachia strip in Mam Tor publishing’s Event Horizon books.” And it seems that this partnership may have a second outing some time soon.
With all this going on, it’s a wonder he has time to sleep: “It’s a hell of a long day,” Lee admits, “but you need to keep your hands going.”

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