The following is an interview with video game and comic book artist Michael Penn. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Penn about what inspired him to become an artist, how his work differs from gaming to comics, his experience in working with Heavy Metal Magazine, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: We recently had the pleasure of meeting at Long Beach Comic Con, and your cover artwork is truly phenomenal! What initially inspired you to become an artist?
Michael Penn: It was literally like a bolt of lighting. I remember the exact moment. I was six years old and I was paging through an illustrated medical book that belonged to my parents. Something about those illustrations inspired me so much that I decided that I had to be an artist. My love of comics and Saturday morning superhero cartoons didn’t hurt either.
From that point on, I became the kid who was always drawing, and art class was the only thing I really excelled at in school. (Well, that and English. My mother was an English teacher who was constantly correcting my grammar.)
Of course, ‘life’ happened and my plans to be the next Frazetta were put on hold when, at the age of 23, I found myself married with kids and had to start looking for a ‘real job.’ So, I ended up as an advertising art director for more years than I care to count and did very little illustration work during that time.
Around 2002 I rekindled my love of comics and comic art and had been watching what was happening in digital mediums for some time. I had been using Photoshop in my advertising work for years, so in 2005 I bought myself a Wacom tablet and got to work. I dabbled in traditional oils as well, but it became pretty clear that programs such as Photoshop and Painter were becoming standard mediums for many commercial illustrators. So, I sold my art supplies and committed myself to going strictly digital.
BD: What can you tell us about your experience working as an artist in the gaming industry, and how would you describe your creative process?
MP: Working in gaming has been an unexpected pleasure. My original goal was to do book covers and other types of entertainment promotional work in the vein of Frank Frazetta, Ken Kelly, or Boris Vallejo. But the market had changed quite a bit during my years designing ad campaigns, and some of the best genre work is now being produced for a variety of game platforms.
The advantage of games is the diversity of the themes. I’ve done everything from Steampunk and sci-fi to history and fantasy. The variety of themes keeps it interesting.
When I get a commission, one of the fist things I do is start collecting images (using Google searches or from my own image library) that I feel will help me better visualize what the client has in mind. The client will usually provide a basic idea of what they’re looking for but generally prefer to leave the heavy lifting to the artist. I really try to immerse myself in the subject matter of the theme, especially if it involves science or history. Even though I specialize in fantasy, I think authenticity can really bring a painting to life.
The next step is to sketch out the basic design for the client to approve. This can be done in several ways. Usually I just start with a loose sketch directly in Photoshop (I rarely use paper and pencil anymore.), refining the drawing until I have something I’m satisfied with. If I’m doing something that requires a lot of perspective or precision work like vehicles or robots, I’ll use a combination of SketchUp and Adobe Illustrator. I rarely provide more than one sketch unless the client specifically asks for thumbnails. I’d rather put the time into doing one great sketch than providing multiple half-baked options.
Then, it’s on to the painting process. Digital art allows you to do things that weren’t possible with conventional methods. I like to take advantage of that by trying out new techniques and brushes to create effects and visual styles I’ve never tried before. This keeps the process from getting stale and puts a unique visual stamp on the work that the client will hopefully appreciate.
BD: In addition, you have worked in the comic book industry, having contributed cover art to Heavy Metal Magazine. Do you feel that your approach to comic book art varies from your approach to your artwork in gaming?
MP: I haven’t worked on as many comics as I’d like, but on the few occasions I’ve had to do cover work the approach is fairly similar. The illustration for the cover of Heavy Metal #274 was something I painted for fun that was licensed by the publisher. But when it’s an actual commission, such as the Wizard of Oz series by S.D. Stuart, there’s usually a longer lead time for completion than there is with games. Game illustrations generally require fast turnaround and there are multiple paintings that need to be completed for one project. For example, I’m working on a historical card game that requires 140 individual illustrations.
BD: Do you feel that there is another medium to which you would like to adapt your work, if given the opportunity?
MP: As mentioned before, I’d love to do more cover work. Books, comics, etc. I’d also like to get involved with film and video game concept art; however, it’s been my experience that most video game companies hire full-time staff rather than using freelancers, so I haven’t had much luck cracking that nut. I haven’t ruled out a full-time position but for the time being I’m strictly freelance.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
MP: At the moment I’m working on a sci-fi card game that involves massive battling robots. I can’t say too much about it just yet, but it’s been a lot of fun and has provided a new challenge for me. Hopefully, players of the game will enjoy the artwork as much as I enjoyed creating it.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about your work?
MP: I’m on several different websites but including DeviantArt, ArtStation and CGSociety among others. And, of course, my personal website, michaeljpenn.com. My email address is mpenn1017 (at) gmail (dot) com. Here are the links to some of my pages and sites: