Sci-Fi Art Now Creator Interview: John Malcolm

A cover for Markets Media Magazine
by John Malcolm
The format of SciFi Art Now – out this October – is such that it promotes the art of the creators, but there’s not much room to tell you more about them and their work. We’re publishing interviews with creators here to redress the balance. 

Artist John Malcolm lives in Paisley, Scotland. His “proper” job for the past 17 years is designing adverts for a newspaper group – which is where he got his first exposure to Photoshop. Digital art began as a hobby a while back...

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

John Malcolm: I use Painter 11, Photoshop CS5 and Artrage Studio Pro. I use an Wacom Intuos4 Large tablet with my desktop PC, and have and older, smaller Intuos3 that sometimes gets used with a laptop.

SciFi Art Now: Why?

John: Artrage is great for starting things. It’s just a very nice fast program for sketching. Being able to flip the canvas instantly by simply holding one key down (H or V) is a trick Adobe and Corel should learn from. It’s also very affordable.

The vast majority of my work is carried out in Painter 11 however. Even with Adobe adding the Mixer Brush and Bristle Tips in CS5, Painter is still far superior, especially in terms of blending.

I still feel I have a lot to learn about Painter and that I could get more out of it – at the moment I use a tiny fraction of the brushes – but that suits my technique at the moment.

Photoshop CS5 always gets used in my workflow as well. I often save PSDs from Painter and jump back and forth. I use Photoshop for masking, image adjustments like levels and colour balancing, path drawing and I prefer Photoshop’s transformation tools to Painter’s – as well as stuff like Liquify and the new Puppet Warp. These last two are great for fixing drawing errors. I find that Photoshop and Painter compliment each other. They both have strengths and weaknesses.

I don’t know what to say about the Intuos4 — I just can’t imagine not drawing with a tablet. This is my third Wacom tablet since I first got a tiny Graphire2 about nine years ago. That tablet is still working perfectly and lives in comfortable semi-retirement in my workplace. It still sees daily use.

The Intuos4 is my favourite though. I love the size and extra sensitivity. I think using a larger tablet has enabled me to loosen up my drawing a bit. It’s far easier to work when you can move your entire arm to make fluid drawing motions rather than using tiny cramped finger movements.

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

John: I’ve always loved drawing and painting. I was considered “good” at it as a young child. Sitting losing hours day-dreaming and drawing was one of my favourite activities. I’ve kept a love of fantasy and sci-fi art from those early days – I used to drool over books of fantasy art I’d borrowed from the library.

I kept art up as a hobby, but it was only around 10 years or so ago that I began to explore digital art but it’s only in the past three or four years that I began to properly start learning and practising in earnest, and investing in the expensive tools listed above.

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

John: I can remember various pieces of advice from one of my art teachers at school, Fergus Hall – most of which I ignored at the time. He was a great art teacher and inspiring artist called Fergus Hall, who painted the ‘Witches Tarot’ cards that appeared in the James Bond film Live and Let Die.

He used to rant a bit about a couple of things. He hated students using black paint. He encouraged us to keep our palettes clean: “Clean paints are happy paints, and happy paints sing”.

Finally, he encouraged us to work as big as possible – something I was guilty of ignoring at the time. Another thing he discouraged was shading with the side of a pencil.

Those lessons he taught me long ago are finally starting to sink in!

SciFi Art Now: What was your first paid commission?

John: My first commission was a series of covers for a New York-based financial magazine, Markets Media Magazine – which was a bit strange, yet fun – they wanted things like superheroes representing various financial institutions. Doing these made me more confident about my illustrating and I’d like to thank them for having more confidence in me at the time than I had in myself.

Art by John for Digital Artist

This helped when I was offered some work for the magazine Digital Artist. I knew I could do what was asked of me and have been lucky enough to get more work for them.

SciFi Art Now: Which artists most inspire you?

John: Rodney Matthews, Frank Frazetta, Brian Bolland, Angus McBride, James Gurney, Simon Dominic, Paul Bonner, Jason Seiler, John Howe, most of the guys at ConceptArt/Massive Black, and a whole host of others too many to name.

That’s the great thing about the internet – it’s so easy to find and see great art these days.

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

John: Science-fiction appeals to me because we are limited only by our imagination. We might struggle to find the right technique or way of describing visually what we imagine – but these limits can be overcome with practice.

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

John: I’m not honestly sure I have a favourite. In common with many artists I think, once an image is completed we become slightly obsessed with the next one. I often find that most ideas for an image seem to come halfway through working on something else.

Steam Gent by John Malcolm

I still have a soft spot for one of my oldest digital images. It was part photo-manipulation, part illustration, and was inspired, and based on, a good friend who loves Steampunk. It’s still the image most favourited by people on DeviantArt.

It was also the image responsible for bringing me to the attention of Digital Artist magazine – from whom I’ve had several commissions. I’m tempted to see if I could develop something with the same character, but with the addition of the experience I’d developed over the past couple of years.

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

John: Nothing I can think of. Cats wandering over my Wacom tablet is a daily occurrence I’m afraid. I have two lovely cats, Pepper and Pickle – but they know the best way of getting my attention when I’m sitting at the computer is to sit on the tablet right in front of me.

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

John: Perhaps not being able to convey in an image what I see in my head…. that and cats sitting on my tablet!

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

John: For commissions, the money helps, but more importantly the satisfaction of a job well done. For more personal work then nothing makes me happier than people getting drawn into an image. I love putting details in images which perhaps encourage the viewer to use their own imagination.

If I can put something in an image which causes people to ask questions and then provide their own answers then I’m involving them in the image. That makes me happy.

Steam Ships by John Malcolm

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

John: I’m actually slightly jealous of youngsters just starting out – the amount of resources, inspiration, training and tools available to them are awesome. The obvious advice is practice as often and as regularly as possible. Also take full advantage of the resources mentioned above. There are loads of affordable video tutorials available – it’s the next best thing to standing looking over someone’s shoulder. Finally, seek out and act on any constructive criticism you can get.

• For more of John’s work visit: To contact John email

Categories: Science Fiction

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