Comic artist and series creator Don Aguillo talks comic art, favourite projects, starting his own publishing company, and so much more!
Art by Don Aguillo
Don Aguillo is a comic artist, illustrator, creator of the Rise comic series, and fan of everything pop culture! With years of experience in production design and illustration, Don has also created projects for kickstarter, designs for tabletop games and cover art for novels and comic books alike. Don's greatest passion lies in building worlds, designing characters, and creating stories! He also runs his own publishing company, IH Studios.
1. First off, the question I ask everyone: How did you become a professional artist? And what inspired you to become one?
Though I'd been drawing my whole life, I actually went to school for pre-med. To satisfy a credit, I decided to take basic drawing (having studied foundations already, but not far enough along to get into a higher class), and I pushed every project in that class to the edge of my creative capacity. It was so fun that the next semester, at the undoubted confusion and dismay (but later full support) of my parents who put me through school, I changed my major to fine art. After graduating, and realizing artists like me aren't really kept on staff for very long at all at any given company, I decided to go into freelance, using my time to work on projects that I decide to take on, instead of suffering the anxiety of constantly applying to jobs and being offered gigs that didn't pay (much). I had to learn the business of working for myself, taking on roles of project management, accounting, promotion, marketing and even sales. My inspiration used to be to eventually work in production design for film, but I realized that comic art and illustration was going to be my endgame, because full creative control over storytelling was the most fulfilling way to use my skills.
2. You’re a freelance illustrator but
you also seem to do much more than that with custom builds and concept art! What is the full scope of your work?
I'm a comic artist/writer/creator, but my bread and butter, since independent comics can be financially rocky, is illustration work. I've created projects for kickstarter, tabletop game designers and commissions for other creators' projects or fans. Essentially anything that can use an illustration or illustrative elements will help pay the bills.
3. What kind of projects are you currently working on now?
I'm working on a role-playing game rulebook layout, several novel cover illustrations, alternative cover work for other comic creators, doing the illustration for a business partner's comic as well as several commission pieces at any given time. That, and scripting and doing concept art for my own comic, Rise.
4. You also created your own series, Rise! What is it about? And where can we get a copy?
Rise follows a young girl who is the heir to the throne of a projected post-apocalypse, after being mysteriously orphaned when the king and queen disappear. She's guided by a group of warriors and mystics through the Trials of the House of Jasser, a set of tests to prove her worth as the new Queen, all at the fragile age of nine. Her journey isn't without its set of challenges, as each member of her entourage is haunted by their own ghosts, a ruling class back at home seeks to stage a coup to disrupt the kingdom, and demonic forces threaten to halt her quest to ascend the throne. This book is my baby, and though 2020 hasn't given me much time to spend with it, I'm in slow and steady course to get
back on track with it and continue telling my story. Rise is available through Scout Comics (www.scoutcomics.com) as well as through my site eventually, as it's still under construction. They've been an amazing family of creators and a wonderful company to help publish this book. I'm eternally grateful to them for giving the book a chance. Everyone should definitely check out their library of titles.
Art by Don Aguillo
5. You’re also the co-founder of IH studios! Can you tell us a bit about that?
IH Studios is another baby of mine, one that I co-founded with my partners Kim Moss and Raf Salazar. Our mission at first was to publish our own comics in-house and to advocate for other independent creators by publishing collected anthologies of their work through an annual publication called Shards. We grew quickly as we acquired a printshop to then be able to control production and distribution of said books, and began serving both fans of our work and fellow creators who needed a source for producing their books. It's been our first year as this new entity, and what a rocky start it's been. As of right now, we're trying to navigate the pandemic to see where we're at with producing our independent creative endeavors, but time will tell. Our printshop is open though, and taking on projects currently.
6. You seem to have so much going on! What does an average work day look like for you?
To be honest, these days, it ends when I pass out with my French Bulldog, Cider, with a Marvel movie still playing, awash in the glow of my laptop beside me. If I'm up I'm usually thinking about some aspect of work, and more than likely, its anxiety built around having to field questions, concerns and administrative tasks through endless emails. I realize I wasn't really built for that part of the business. I really just love creating. And that's what makes this all worth it. I watch many people in my life wake up everyday and hate their livelihood and spend whole vacations anxious that it'll have to end. But I wake up everyday really excited about what I do, that I have control of it, and that I get to create worlds to step into on a daily basis for escape, respite, or solace. Art by Don Aguillo
7. What about your days off? Do you have any activities to destress and unwind from drawing?
I'm a martial artist, Filipino folk dancer in a world-touring company, and I practice yoga. I'm trying to teach myself guitar, but that's been tough to find time for. I also custom build my marvel legends figures and I collect all the mutants in that series. Since the pandemic, I've actually set up a “build night” with several close friends on Sunday night where we drink, build stuff (lego sets, gundam, cosplay) and have some social time on Zoom. It's been a successful weekly little thing, and I'm glad we have it because it's important for all of us to take time out for these kinds of activities and to see each other. I'm definitely a big geek and an even bigger kid, and it took a while, but I completely embrace all of that now. Find your joy, you know? Cider, my pup, is also the best kind of therapy from the busy-ness of life. He pulls me so far away from all that, just by looking at me. So every walk with him is like a godsend after 3 hours of email.
8. Do you have a favourite project you’ve worked on so far?
Absolutely, by far, Rise has been my most fulfilling and most engaging project. My personal belief is that all creative work is autobiographical, and every aspect of the world I created for this book derives from an element of my character, memory, politics, faith or personal history. This book has also been therapy for me, being able to say and do things in it that I've always been timid to do out here in the world. It's allowed me to acknowledge things about my childhood, my upbringing, my self-image, my fears, my relationships with people, my thoughts on authority and even helped me with coming out.
Art by Don Aguillo
9. Correct me if I’m wrong; but I believe you also spent some time painting in Rome! Was this for a job? What was it like painting there?
Rome is my home away from home. If I was ever forced out of San Francisco for whatever reason, I would consider moving to Rome more than anywhere else in the US. I was there for study abroad during school, but more than a student, I felt like a resident of the city. I didn't have enough money to jump around Europe every weekend like many of the others in the program, so I combed the city many times by myself, and without a map, and really soaked in its beauty, history, modern challenges and artistic spirit. It's heaven for any artist, and to this day informs how I paint, how I render figure, and how I compose my illustrations. The biggest lessons I learned were how to render draped fabric across figures, which helped me in drawing and painting capes and cloaks in much of my comic work, just because much of the painting and sculpture there were from masters of the baroque and renaissance and were heavily and dramatically robed, it was so beautiful.
10. Do you have any favourite types of characters or scenes to draw?
The X-Men are my go-to for stress-relief or for practicing new techniques. Phoenix, Storm, and any mutants with powers that really manifest big usually make it to the digital canvas. I've recently been working with everyday faces to learn things like cultural and ethnic anatomies and facial features and though it's laborious practice, it's really gratifying to learn how to ground my characters in the real world we live in and let that speak to the ideal world we should be living in.
Art by Don Aguillo
11. What is your favourite part of being a professional artist?
For one, creative control. I get up and I'm not beholden to someone else's demands or authority (unless it's a client's, but that's really more like administrative authority, like budget and scheduling). Mostly though, it's that I've always treated my portfolio like my more talkative business partner who is constantly growing and evolving. I haven't needed a resume since I graduated, knowing that the portfolio will speak volumes for me in terms of my skill development, aesthetic sensibilities, storytelling approach and professional trajectory.
12. What’s the hardest part?
Running the business. The fine-print of rules and regulations put on freelancers regarding taxes, business registrations and all of that. I've gotten used to being misunderstood (and many times underestimated) by individuals in and out of this industry and even among close circles because I'm not “employed,” but what they don't realize is that I'm a business owner and had to figure all that out by myself, which is an entirely other job than creating the art itself. I've also been to all the major comic cons and have been in the final 10 portfolio reviews for Marvel three times in the past, with leads to let me try out or 'audition’ a script, but they sort of usually drop off in communications, be it for lack of interest or having found someone better, not so sure. I guess you get lost in the shuffle of brilliant creators they undoubtedly are flooded with, but I’m just honored and beside myself to have been considered multiple times, and will always remember that. Now, I understand Marvel is one of the busiest entities on Earth, but the heartbreak of going through that three times took its toll. As a professional, rejection can tend to just dismantle you, but I've learned to grow a thicker skin to combat that, acknowledge the valuable validation of just being on that list, keep moving, and learn to be better to get on that list again. I've learned also that companies I put on a pedestal can struggle just as much as we do and probably more, to do what they need to do. So no harm, no foul, and hope to see them again someday.
I still dream to illustrate for X-Men at least for an issue before I die, but realistically, I can dream to at least do a cover some day. Also, no one in my family or my circle of friends took on this lifestyle or livelihood, so I've had to find the stepping stones to follow elsewhere or carve out new ones myself. I guess I've done at least something right for there to be enough interest in having me answer such thoughtful questions as these!
13. Your pieces are all so dynamic and full of action! How did you develop this technique? Any particular tips for drawing action?
Caravaggio was my favorite artist in Rome. If you look at his pieces, you'll see an immediate inspiration for the drama I strive to infuse in my work. I have modern heroes too, like Olivier Coipel, Joe Madureira, Chris Bachalo who have all taught me in their own way how to compose and deliver. But really, it's a result of observing what I didn't like out there among creators in the industry. Namely, I made a vow to stay away from static illustration that had people just standing like they were posing for a camera that wasn't there, or totally dismissing the need for context or backgrounds. I loved figure-drawing classes in school, and I made a pact with myself to use the hundreds of hours of nude figure study to make more use of the landscape of the human figure rather than just show a body to hang cool or pretty costumes off of. There's a ton of story the body communicates without ever having to write a word, and as an empath myself, I wanted to bring that into my work as much as possible.
14. Being a character designer and working on concept art, how do you go about designing a new character? What do you look for in an effective design?
The storytelling of a character entails the development of their background and environment, but more recently, I've been paying closer attention to their needs and desires. Why do they do what they're doing? How are they clothing themselves to reflect that? Also, since comic art demands repeatedly drawing characters to exhaustion, you learn quickly to balance a thoughtful design with a streamlined enough aesthetic just for the efficiency needed to get the work done. The story is far more important than making every panel an over-thought-out masterpiece.
Art by Don Aguillo
15. Your work features characters from all sorts of pop culture! What are some of your favourite series’?
X-Men, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Power Rangers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most of the Marvel catalogue. 90's heroes and tv shows, but I can adapt to any fandom, as long as the story's sound.
16. With everything you’re working on, do you still get the chance to draw for fun?
My insomnia keeps me working until around 1 or 2am. At that point, I whip out my ongoing side projects, like this vampire piece I'm doing or world-building art for Rise, neither of which really use up neurons in an exhaustive way. The wee hours of the morning are when I get to do the stuff for fun. What's cool is that I stepped back one day last year, and after years of insomnia bursts, I seem to have amassed a vault of finished fan-art and pinups that now I'll get to sell on my online store coming this month (www.artofdonaguillo.com). That was such a great way to funnel all of that work that didn't have any pre-determined purpose other than cool-down for long days, and it's actually the work that's had people revisiting social media and checking in with me more and more this past year or two. It's been exhilarating finding at least one person out there each of these pieces can resonate with.
17. Are there any skills or areas you would still like to improve?
My comic interior art technique. I can get so experimental with my work, that sometimes, I'm open to trying new techniques, mid-book. The cool thing is that it's my book, so I can. Also, it keeps me engaged and evolving. But a comic book is meant to be consistent throughout, and I'm trying to get better about that. But then I remind myself that the medium is not governed by rules but rather guided by precedent, superseded by what's needed for the story. So I'm enjoying some freedom from that and trying to find suitable shorthand, without sacrificing the quality and thoughtfulness of each digital brushstroke.
Art by Don Aguillo
18. Do you have a patreon or anywhere we can purchase your art?
www.donaguillo.com is open for art prints and commissions, but basically anything you see on my facebook page (facebook.com/artofdonaguillo) or instagram (@artofdonaguillo) will be on sale as a print. The site will have the full catalogue up soon. My direct email is email@example.com for inquiries on commissions, prints or freelance projects.
19. Any final advice for aspiring artists?
I knew this question was going to come and in ways, it's always the hardest. It's also the strangest to be asked, because it's usually the one I ask my heroes at Comic-Con.
The sooner you stop calling yourself an “aspiring” artist, the sooner you can just be one. We all stand on a spectrum of this title that we control: do you see yourself spending your days constantly practicing, with the needed honesty to learn what and how to improve, knowing it's a life-long process? Or do you drag yourself through this industry, hating your colleagues because your hubris
keeps you from any real or meaningful self-improvement, while others are getting the jobs you always dreamed of? If you're the former, you'll find a gratifying career that will appropriately and necessarily evolve your aesthetic and skillset to meet the demand for your work. If you're the latter, your going to gnash your teeth and poison the well of hard-working professionals and be the reason we are all still underestimated, under-appreciated and worst of all, underpaid.
Keep working. If this is your calling, then put the time into learning the fundamentals, and keep learning them. Draw from life before you can trust your imagination, because that's how you connect with an audience that can't reach into the ideas that live in your head and see the world the way you do. Learn to communicate through image. Don't think of it (even the most basic sketch) as drawing a picture, but rather, telling a story. Always.
Join us next week for another Artist Interview!
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