Having established himself as an artist, Raymond Swanland is now busy working on films and writing fantasy. Is there anything he can’t turn his hand to?
“Part of the intensity, freshness and action that people say my work has, has come out of the desire to loosen up,” says Raymond Swanland. Intensity is the right word; the swirling, dynamic images that he creates look as if they’ve been painted in a frenzy, yet their gorgeous detail and technical mastery signify many hours of careful craft.
Raymond is the perennial example of an artist who was always drawing right from childhood – pictures, posters, you name it – but his big break came much sooner than he could have dreamed.Careering ahead
As soon as he left high school, he applied for a job at Oddworld Inhabitants, a video game company that had created an entire fantasy universe for its prospective games. And somewhat to his surprise, they took him on.
“I think I’d just turned 19 when I got the job,” he explains. “I’d just gotten into college a few months before that. So I did the job and the first year of college at the same time. By the end of that, I pretty much decided I wanted to be an artist for a living, and didn’t do any further education.”
Not that there was any need for formal education, as Raymond learnt his skills on the job from the talented artists at Oddworld. Over the course of about eight years, Raymond worked on various design roles for all four Oddworld titles, most of which were critically acclaimed. At the same time he began picking up freelance illustration work, setting him up perfectly for his current job as a full-time freelance illustrator. He has combined numerous fantasy and sci-fi book covers, as well as the US covers for the Korean comic book Priest, with extensive personal work.
Going freelance wasn’t particularly a planned career move. “I’m actually a pretty big believer in collaborating, and really my ambitions are to work in film as a director,” he says. “That is definitely a collaborative process. Video game production is not too dissimilar; there are directors, managers, art directors, and I’ve been fortunate to play at some of those roles for a while. So it’s a surprise that I’ve become an independent artist, but I’m enjoying the freedom.”
That freedom enables him to take several trips abroad every year – he’s just spent a month travelling around Spain, for instance, and is even considering moving there for a while. The trips are a mixture of holiday and inspirational sources; as he says, ”At the very least, I can take a sketchpad with me and explore ideas.” Inspiration and dedication
For Raymond, that initial composition stage, when the ideas run freely, is the most exciting part of the artistic process. “The initial stage is very abstract and is something that I still can’t tie down to a technique. I look at my past work and my sketchbooks for reference. I also listen to certain types of music and read specific books to access the part of my brain that’s wild and intuitive.”
But the actual rendering process of fleshing out his incredibly detailed and textured illustrations also has its appeal. “I find the whole creation part soothing. You become more and more confident in your technique and it becomes something like a reflex. Once I’ve made a solid composition, filling in the details is fun.”
While all of his current colour work is created digitally in Photoshop, Raymond is from a background of canvas, airbrushes and charcoal, and he still sketches profusely using traditional media. It’s something he’d like to explore in greater depth.
“I feel like that’s pretty much the next stage for me – not to go 100 per cent traditional, but to start including some of that at least in the process, even if it’s not part of the finished piece. There’s a bit of a romantic air to being a [traditional media] artist, and there’s also something very powerful about having an original. When you put that time and energy into one thing as an object, it kind of absorbs that and adds a kind of electricity to it.”
Whatever the medium, storytelling is vital – creating an image for its own sake does nothing for him. “The image and the story come in unison,” he says. “There’s no doubt my personal pieces in particular are just a slice of a much bigger story. They’re part of a whole universe and you’re only seeing a little part of it. That’s what gives me comfort in making those pieces. In all those hours of rendering, I’m able to explore that universe.” Life in pictures
While most of Raymond’s work is firmly in the fantasy arena, he actually considers himself more of a sci-fi artist. That might seem surprising until he reveals that most of his sci-fi work has been for forthcoming films – and frustrating for him, that means he can’t show any of it until their release dates. “Things might change quite a bit once these films are released and the ‘Art of’ books come out!” he adds.
Sci-fi, he believes, is, “far more broad than the fantasy realm, especially when it comes to the stories that people are writing. There’s quite a bit of repetition in fantasy storytelling, and potential too, but everyone seems to write like they want a Lord of the Rings novel.”
He hopes to change all that as this year he’s setting aside “a sizeable amount of time” for writing, including short stories, a putative screenplay, and possibly illustrated books. But, he reassures us, Raymond Swanland the artist will never completely disappear – the lure of the illustrated image is too strong: “As much as I want to go into filmmaking, illustration and painting is a joy that I’ll never leave behind.” Amen to that.