Friday, February 19, 2010

Interview with Russell Walks

How did you get involved in sketch cards/What was your first sketch card job?
My first sketch card job was for Topps on the Star Wars: Heritage project. I think I did, like 200 cards.

How do you feel about working on such a small surface?
I'm not crazy about working on such a small surface. For one thing, my eyes aren't what they used to be, and it's seriously hard for me to see that tiny! Additionally, I work fairly tightly, but still like to see evidence of the process - brushstrokes, pencil marks, etc - and I've found that when I'm working that small, it can be difficult to achieve both of those goals.

How do you feel about the entire process?
Although I've been approached by the other companies, I've limited myself to working for Topps, I guess for no real reason other than time constraints and familiarity. For me, working on sketch cards is a good way to sort of "cleanse my pallet" between projects, and I try to fit in one or two a day. When the deadlines are short, that can be a problem, particularly since I've never missed a deadline (which is a point of pride with me). That being the case, I've definitely spent some late nights working on sketch cards, listening to music and keeping an eye out for my studio ghost.

Do you have a lot of contact with collectors regarding your cards?
I think so. I feel very lucky that there are so many people who appreciate my work, and I'd be the first to admit that I should show MY appreciation for THEM by doing a much better job of returning emails and responding to personal messages.

How do you feel about some collectors wanting more detailed cards versus what sketch card artists are paid to work on the cards?
I know this is a touchy issue. This is my point of view: I want fans to be excited when they pull one of my cards from the package. I want the piece they pull to be recognizable as my work, and I want to know that I did my best on it. If I can't meet those goals, then I don't want to do sketch cards. I know there's an issue with pay, and I know that I'm lucky enough to be in a position where with my returns I can make back in money some of the time I spent working on the cards. However, I'm confident that if I were in a different place in the sketch card/illustration timeline, and was just beginning my career, my philosophy would be the same. I think that if you always do your best, and if you always do what you love, you will eventually be rewarded.

Has your career as an artist benefited from doing sketch card work?
I think, particularly in this economic climate, that anytime an artist gets paid for doing work that he or she loves, one's career is benefited. I'm not sure, though, that my sketch card work has led to other, more profitable jobs.

What was the most difficult sketch card set you have worked on to date?
Each set has presented its own challenges, particularly as I began to spend more and more time on each card. I did a LOTR set where, because I was spending a couple of hours or more on each image, and because I was backlogged with other work, I was only able to complete somewhere around 10 cards. I wasn't happy with that, because it obviously limited the images available to collectors, and it was after that series that I began to think about changing my approach.

Can you go into more detail about how you approach your cards in terms of artwork/media and art style? Do you approach each sketch card set differently?
Currently my approach with regard to sketch cards is to try something a little different every time. I've played around with ink, watercolor, hand-colored, manipulated photocopies, colored pencil, rubber-stamping, laser-cutting, gold-leafing - pretty much anything and everything that occurs to me. Sometimes, I play around in a method similar to that used by whichever artist or movement appeals to me at the moment (the hand-colored photocopies I did on Galaxy 4 are an example of this. I was thinking about Pop Art, and the idea of mass production as original art.); other times I try out an idea I've sort of had simmering in the back of my mind for awhile (The rubber stamping I did on the 30th anniversary set, for instance, or gold-leaf stuff on Galaxy 5). In addition to the gold-leafing, I'm also trying something else on Galaxy 5 that I think is completely new in the sketch card world: Performance Art. (Stay tuned for details). Ultimately, while the goal is always to have a finished piece of which I'm not ashamed, these days it's also about the journey.

You did a series of foil cards for Topps, correct? Can you explain what those are exactly and how you went about them?
The foil cards I did for Galaxy 4 were simply pencil images that Topps processed. I'm not sure of the procedure, only that it's important that the image have contrast. This was also what I kept in mind when creating the foil puzzle for the LOTR (was it Masterpieces?) series - Color and contrast.

You have done base cards as well, right? What exactly are those - for anyone who is not sure - and do you approach those differently than 'regular' sketch cards?
Base cards are simply painted illustrations that are printed and included in the set as "commons". Although in each instance, I've been allowed to come up with the concept, the base cards are much more art-directed than sketch-cards, and are usually approved three times: At concept, initial sketch, and final painting.

Are there any cards that you are particularly proud of?
I'm extremely proud of the two Joseph Campbell based sets I did for Galaxy's 3 and 4. In each of those instances, I both wrote and illustrated the cards and tried to talk a little bit about what it is that makes Star Wars so special to so many of us. I won't take the time or space here to talk about it, but here's a link that provides a little more information:
There's an interesting story behind the Galaxy 3 set: After pitching the idea of exploring The Hero's Journey to Topps and getting approval to begin work, I got a call saying that Lucasfilm had pulled the plug, and that they had decided against exploring the Campbell/Star Wars connection in a series of trading cards. I wrote George Lucas a letter and tried to explain why I thought talking about That connection was important; I talked about how Star Wars had changed my childhood, and how discovering Joseph Campbell had changed my adulthood. I included a painting I'd done of my 6 year-old son as a young Jedi, and basically asked him to reconsider. He did, and I got a phone call from LFL telling me so, and complimenting me on the painting. Cool denouement: Not only did my son get a GIGANTIC box of Star Wars toys from Lucasfilm for Christmas (from the wonderful Julia Russo and amazing Stacy Cheregotis) he was asked to audition for the part of Anakin. That was pretty cool...

Some companies provide return cards for working on sketch card sets. Do you keep any of the cards returned to you? What are you planning to do with them?
While I'd like to keep my returns, financially, it doesn't make sense. I put so much time and effort into every one of my cards that it's just not feasible to hang onto the limited number of returns I'm allowed.

Do you see yourself continuing with sketch card sets?
I think I'll always be able to fit the occasional sketch card series into my schedule, particularly if the subject matter interests me.

Is there any advice you would like to give to people wanting to break into the sketch card ‘biz’?
Draw everyday, and only send out your best samples - Remember, it's NOT enough to able to draw better than the worst cards out there, you have to be able to consistently draw as well as, or better than, the best.

Can you tell us what future sketch card sets you'll be working on?
None on the burner right now.

What are you currently working on?
I'm currently working on a couple of secret Star Wars related projects that will come to light this summer. Also a screenplay with a writing partner, a children's book, and a few personal things.

Where can people see more of your work?
There's always my website:

Thank you so much for your time, Russell!

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