Craig Mullins
"My style is a combination of a lot of different things. Stuff sticks in your head – like leaves on a wet lollipop.” Craig’s description of his artistic style is almost as intriguing as his work. “How about low brow subject matter done with middle brow technique? A combination of 19th century painting, industrial rendering, and illustration? Or Brandywine meets Syd Mead?”

Digital innovator

Ask any artist who inspires them and Craig is inevitably in the top five. But why? What exactly has this nocturnal (his favourite time to paint is at night between 10pm and 6am) Hawaii-based mid-forties family man done for the world of digital and concept art? The answer? Well, pretty much everything.

A true pioneer of working digitally, Craig was classically trained at Pitzer College of Claremont, California, before attending the renowned Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (with a stint as an intern at Ford in between). After discovering digital art through Dubner Paintbox in 1987, Craig then moved on to using Photoshop and Painter – and crafted some of the most recognisable digital imagery ever. “Of course the best things about digital tools are the speed and flexibility,” he tells us, commenting on how these apps have helped him throughout his career. “It’s great for commercial work where changes can happen at any time.” But working digitally isn’t the only option for him, as he explains. “Because digital tools are infinitely plastic, it’s easy for a laziness to set in. Let’s just crank the machine up, see what it spits out and choose from the huge pile. When artists worked with pencil and paper, there was a cost associated with working. A lot more thinking went on.”

Halo, Matrix and concept art

To date, Craig has worked on some of the biggest projects going – from matte painting on The Matrix Revolutions to Halo concept art – with a sideline as an incredibly successful illustrator who has clients including Playboy magazine. Indeed, he has bridged the gap between concept artist, matte painter and illustrator. In a world of pigeonholing, that’s an incredibly hard feat to achieve. But, he says, he would still like to experiment further and have a go at some new things. “I would love to try more character work, and I’ve been working hard on that,” he remarks. “As a concept artist, I’ve straddled the industrial design and illustration fields, and I think there’s been some synergy there. That’s been a bit of a gamble. I definitely feel the pressure to narrow down my focus and refine one area of my art. If you have too many interests available, time and energy gets diffused over too wide an area, and you never reach the professional level in anything,” Craig adds, “but I’ve tried to concentrate on a wide enough range of interests that they start to support one another in interesting spills. If I’d had to narrow down I think I would’ve grown bored quickly. And that’s not good.”

Practise makes perfect

He continues, humbling us with his obvious love for ImagineFX and offering some essential advice. “Most of the people reading this magazine enjoy artists with great facility,” he begins. “To get really, really good at something you have to do that thing to the exclusion of all else. The result of this is that a commercial artist might work in one medium, one style, one subject, and do that tens of thousands of times. The best part of this is that they get scarily good at it, and it becomes almost like a parlour trick. Car designers are a great example of this. Their sketches are amazing, and that quality is the result of endless narrow repetition. Most illustrators and concept artists that I’ve seen have this pressure of facility placed on them – it’s a requirement for the job. If you think about it, it’s really the opposite of the exploration that can be so wonderful in art.”

Rorschach and fevered dreams

When asked how he crafts his beautiful environments, matte paintings or illustrations, he’s less than forthcoming – preferring to tell us that there is no one set way, and that he changes all the time in an effort to get to a different place with each piece. But when questioned further, specifically on how he comes up with concepts for his pieces, we get more luck. “I devise concepts in every conceivable way,” Craig notes. “Rorschach tests, ink spills, fevered dreams, jokes, mental experiments and so on. There are generally two ways to go about it. One, you can have no preconceptions and react to procedurally generated imagery, or even existing imagery. This is fine for doing your own work,” he explains. “For commercial work, a concept is generally given to you. That would be the second way. You have something in your head ahead of time that you need to get into tangible form. But my work changes quite a bit from beginning to end. I really try to keep an open mind about it and what it could be for as long as is practical.”

Sound advice

As the interview draws to a close, he digresses a little into how developing artists can start to build a career like his. “Focus your attention on limiting distractions,” he begins. “Artists have the curse and blessing of doing something fun for a living. It’s a blessing because it’s fun, but it’s a curse in that being fun, a whole lot of people spend a lot of time doing it, and that’s the key ingredient to doing something well.”

He concludes, “Never give up. Realise that what you like now isn’t going to be what you like in five years. Knowing this, it actually allows you to grow. The idea that you know a truth is an illusion, and you have to know it’s an illusion… or you’ll never be able to grow.”