Sci-Fi Art Now Creator Interview: Neil Roberts

Neil Roberts is a freelance artist and lecturer who’s worked in the videogame industry as a character artist for 12 years before going fully freelance in October 2008. In his time he worked on games such as Colin McRae Rally, Micro Machines, Ice Age 2 and Haze amongst many, many others. 

As a freelancer, he’s currently the series artist on Black Library Publishing’s New York Times best-selling “Horus Heresy” series. He also produce covers and artwork for 2000AD and other international publishers and games companies.

SciFi Art Now: What tools do you mainly use to create your art?

Neil Roberts: I use Photoshop for the bulk of my work, I use a little 3ds Max from time to time and anything else that comes in handy – digital cameras, watercolours, pencils.

SciFi Art Now: Why?

Neil: Well, Photoshop is so easily configurable and I have all my custom brushes set up as I like them – I can paint, collage and layer effects over the top – just the sort of thing I used to do when I worked traditionally. And the ‘undo’ button is an absolute lifesaver. Also, I use 3D programs if I have any complicated objects that would be too time-consuming to draw the perspective out for. Anything that speeds up the process, basically!

A panel from the BBC’s online Sarah Jane Adventures comicReturn of the Krulius,
drawn by Neil

SciFi Art Now: What inspired you to become an artist?

Neil: Comics – from Nutty, Oor Wullie, Victor, Starblazer and Eagle. I was really into artists like Ian Kennedy, Gerry Embleton, Mike Noble, Frank Bellamy – although I didn’t know their names at the time. I came to 2000AD and American comics quite late, but I instantly loved Dave Gibbons and Colin Wilson’s work.

In addition to that, I remember in one of the 1980’s Eagle annuals there was an article about how computer games were made and that switched a light on in my head. This was quite an exciting moment for me as a young child, as it was around the time Tron came out and my family had just bought a Commodore 64, so the prospect of using computers to make pictures seemed a very real and exciting idea.

SciFi Art Now: What was the most useful piece of advice you were given when you began learning your craft?

Neil: “The Client is King” – whatever the client wants, the client gets… within reason of course!

Apart from the broad curriculum at Art School and years spent as a 3D art specialist in videogames, I’ve learnt on the job. I’ve read up on good practice and sought advice from other professionals. That’s been the fun part of the job, I am my own boss and I’d like to be the best boss I’ve ever had…!

Art for Black Library Publishing

SciFi Art Now: Which artists most inspire you?

Neil: The most inspiring artist, for me, was (and still is) Ian Kennedy. His covers and comic storytelling are positively sublime. His use of colour is bold but never gaudy. And his draughtsmanship is absolutely faultless. I bought some of his prints that DC Thomson were selling at HiEx! convention last year, they’re just beautiful. To my mind, he’s one of the best modern day British illustrators.

Also, Ralph McQuarrie was a significant inspiration– I only saw a few of his pieces when I was a child in the Star Wars Portfolio, but his work was so vivid and exciting. Even now, it never fails to inspire me.

SciFi Art Now: What’s the appeal to you of science fiction as an inspiration for some of your work?

Neil: Science Fiction has endless possibilities. I’ve always loved Sci-Fi far more than Action, War and Horror genres. At best it can be bright, fun and optimistic, and at worst it can show us our faults through the prism of the fantastical. It’s my favourite genre for books, TV, films and comics. Having said that, as an artist, you do need to look outside of the genre to get a more rounded appreciation of the world – inspiration can (and will) come from anywhere. But I always come back for more spaceships, robots and lasers.

SciFi Art Now: Do you have a favourite piece of work or project you have worked on?

Neil: A recent favourite was the cover to 2000AD Prog #1673 “Crimes of Passion” – it was such fun to work on and I really went crazy with my colour choices – 100% cyan and magenta. Plus I got to put Dredd in a humorous situation. It divided a lot of the online community, but it sure looked good on the shelves. Plus, Pat Mills was incredibly complimentary about it when we met at a recent comic con. That was a real personal high point.

SciFi Art Now: In your career, have you had any bizarre experiences while creating your art?

Neil: The most bizarre experience was the earthquake in 2008, I was up late finishing a cover listening to some loud music on my headphones and my chair started swinging wildly. I haven’t played my music that loud ever since.

SciFi Art Now: What most frustrates you about being an artist?

Neil: Not enough time in the day to work – that and not enough time to spend with my wife and children. It’s a balancing act – if you’re not working you’re not earning, but you need to spend time with your family. I’m trying hard to both have my cake and eat it 😉

SciFi Art Now: What keeps you going despite the hopefully occasional frustrations?

Neil: Knowing that the work is good and when it goes out there it gains a life of its own. I’ve had emails from around the world from people who really like my work, have all the posters and ask some really good questions about what I’ve done. That’s a vindication of all those long hours and sleepless nights.

SciFi Art Now: What advice would you offer to anyone starting out as an artist?

Neil: I would ask that they remember the Client is King.

It sounds simple, but they do hold the purse strings. So, if you can do your job – and do it well – you should have no problem getting work.

Also, be honest with yourself, if you can do better, then do better! There’s nothing worse than an artist who is always content in their work. For me, the next picture will be the best I’ve ever done.

• Check out Neil’s  online gallery at: www.skinnyelbows.com and his art blog atwww.skinnyelbows.blogspot.com

• You can contact Neil via neilATskinnyelbows.com

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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