Art is all about communication. This axiom is particularly true for illustrators, and it’s something that Tommy Lee Edwards feels is at the core of what he does. “As an artist, the most important thing is to share your creativity with others,” he says. “To express yourself through painting, music, dance or whatever. When you’re an artist for hire, you must communicate whatever the job needs you to in the most effective way possible.”
Tommy has worked in several fields, from licensing images for big-budget films to comic art, children’s book illustrations and video game concepts. Digital tools play a big part in the way he works and the main reason they appeal to him is simple. “The ability to revise – that’s a big one,” he states. “While working as the concept artist on the film The Book of Eli, I ended up doing more in Photoshop than ever before.” It gave him the flexibility to adapt his work on the fly – something that’s essential when you’re on a film set.Back to basics
But Tommy hasn’t abandoned the traditional way of drawing and finds that each situation demands a unique approach. “I just finished drawing Wolverine with traditional ink and a brush,” he says. “Right now, I’m drawing some promotional pieces for The Book of Eli on a Cintiq in Photoshop. I still see that as drawing traditionally. I’m not using software to draw or pose the figures or anything. I’m also sketching out some ideas for a poster right now with a pen and plain old copy paper. So I guess it varies.”
Tommy likes the tactile feel of laying the ink on the paper, but he’s fully aware of the advantages of working on-screen. One of the reasons why he’s so in demand across a number of different industries lies in his thoroughness as an illustrator, which is evident whenever he begins a fresh commission.Snap happy
“The first thing for me is research. I’m starting a new project that takes place in New York during the late 20s. I’ve been reading a lot about prohibition,” he says. “I’m spending lots of time delving into books on architecture and looking up period clothing on the internet. I took a bunch of photos of cars and planes from the 1920s at an air museum in Florida. I’m always doing research. I really love it.”
Tommy uses his camera to ensure that his depictions of his subjects are accurate, but he’s no slave to photo references – they’re just another tool he uses to make his work better. He originally studied at Art Center in Los Angeles and was taught by Burne Hogarth, who’s best known for drawing the Tarzan newspaper strip, although he also published a series of anatomy books that have become reference bibles for many aspiring artists. Tommy has been an illustrator since the early 90s and started his professional career working in the same studio as the comic artist Howard Chaykin, who he met through comic conventions in California. Comic cuts
Although he has worked on movies, games and books, comics remain very much at the heart of what Tommy does, and he has a specific method of working when handed a new comic project. “I print the script out and read it a couple of times. By the third read, I’ve usually marked it up with tons of tiny sketches and thumbnail page layouts. Then I go to the Mac and start drawing the layouts in Photoshop,” he says. “Those layouts are then printed and taped to the back of my drawing paper. The lettering and balloon placement is also indicated in my layouts.
“I absolutely hate the stale look of digital comic book lettering, so the work all gets sent to my long-time collaborator John Workman. He letters the story by hand and sends the boards back to me. With a lightbox, I can see the layouts below and start drawing away with ink. This is also the point where I’ve got my reference material out and my studio becomes a complete wreck...”
Tommy has been shaped by his training, but also by his interest in movies and his wife, Melissa, who he says has been a huge influence. Being a freelance artist is the only choice for him; he doesn’t feel he would be as well-suited to a more conventional career path. “The ability to challenge myself and grow as a creative person is something that I find satisfying. I’m not sure if I could do that as well with a staff job. I also get to live where I want and work when I want. And I generally want to work all the time so that I can feed my kids,” he says with a smile.