By Jason Thibault
Michael Cho is one of those artists that simply fascinates me with his ability to straddle comics, illustration, painting and while maintaining a unique and timeless style. It’s like as soon as he gets an idea a whole series of paintings or drawings result from it. I first took notice of him after multiple blogs linked to his notes about inking article. It’s his tireless passion for creating new things that will make him someone to always be keeping an eye on.
Oh and I feel like a bit of a jerk for not seeking him out at FanExpo in Toronto as I did fly 2500 miles to go there.
What inspired you to first start drawing? Did you struggle in your formative years or did it come easy to you?
I was drawing since I was about 3 years old. Some of earliest memories are of drawing, actually. Growing up in South Korea in the 70’s, I would spend afternoons doodling pictures of giant robots or things like that. I don’t know if it came easy to me, since I was never satisfied with my work (I’m still not), but I always enjoyed it and derived a lot of personal pleasure and self-worth from the act of drawing.
First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.
Well if, by professional, you mean artwork that I got paid for, then my first real job was drawing the title screen for a videogame in the 1980’s. I was 16 years old, the game was for the ever popular commodore 64 computer, and I drew it with a JOYSTICK. I kid you not. This was decades before photoshop, and years before features like “cut and paste” or fonts were introduced in software. I mapped out every pixel of a planet by hand, feathered it in 16 colours and got paid the handsome sum of $800, which was a fortune to me at the time. My best friend and I promptly proceeded to blow the entire stack on a trip to NYC three weeks later.
The first professional illustration work I did out of school was probably for a local theatre company that hired me to draw up some illos to be projected onto the set of a play. I had no formal training as an illustrator, since all I learned in art college was how to paint giant oil paintings, so I faked my way through the entire job. But when I saw my drawings projected on the set and saw how they had taken some of the items in my painting and had actually built them, I realized I wanted to be an illustrator. I had already worked on the other side, painting sets according to a designer’s plans and it seemed to be much easier and more rewarding to be working at the drafting table than climbing scaffolding.
Were you self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)
Half and half. I went to art college but I studied fine art and contemporary painting. So all my illustration and comics work is self-taught. Most of my technical knowledge today comes from studying the work of classic comic and comic strip artists like Noel Sickles, Roy Crane, Alex Raymond, Frank Robbins, Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby. I also learned a lot from the work of contemporary cartoonists like Jamie Hernandez and David Mazzucchelli.
Tools of the trade: Taking a quick glance over at your pens, brushes etc…what tools have you mainly been using over the last few years?
I’m mainly a brush guy, and I prefer to hit everything on a page with one brush, even the straight lines. I used to use Windsor Newton Series 7 brushes for years, but they’ve eroded in quality lately, so I’ve been using a Raphel 8404 for the last year or so — #2’s or #3’s. The Raphael’s are as good as the Series 7’s used to be, IMHO.
I also doodle and sometimes do finished jobs with brush pens — almost always the Faber Castell Pitt pen, which I order in dozens of boxes. I’ve also got some special brushes that I use for effects, like special drybrush brushes, which I’ve carved and trimmed to specific shapes.
When I work in pens, I usually use hunt 102’s and 108’s. If I’m feeling really confident, then I’ll use the 103, but it has a lot of flex, so any misstep in pressure and there’s a big blot on the page. But its the closest nib pen that approximates the look of brush. I hate tech-pens but I’ll use them for deadweight lines or tiny little details — usually the Staedler pigment liners, in all sizes from .01 to .07.
Other than that, my other tools I use daily are my two raised triangles, a bunch of circle templates and a lot of green painter’s tape for masking things off. I prefer to mask things than white things out afterwards. I hate whiteout and don’t even keep a jar in a drawer anywhere. I used to mix up some white gouache for mistakes, but these days I just prefer to scrape it off with a razorblade.
How has your toolbox evolved compared to when you first started out?
When it comes to art supplies, I have a simple adage: “everything you love will eventually be taken from you”. That brand of ink you love so much will be taken off the market. And the brush you love will start coming out in inferior quality. They’ll stop making the pencil you use everyday and replace it with a crappier one. So that’s the main thing that’s happened over the years.
When I started, I used smaller size brushes, inking things with a #1, but now I try to hit most things with a #3 size. I also used cheap disposable brushes for years, but as I grew, I started buying quality tools and taking better care of them. I’ve kept the same raphael brush for over a year for example. I always want my tools to be completely predictable.
A main difference is the use of brush pens. They’ve improved in quality and performance over the last few years, so I can depend on them and can use them in some jobs without a noticeable drop in quality.
Favorite brand of ink:
Higgins black magic. Its not very black, but it is pretty thin so it flows well with a brush. It also doesn’t clog nib pens. And the other main advantage is that it’s the only ink I know of that doesn’t contain shellac — which is probably why it’s not very dark, like say, Dr. Martin Black Star. Shellac will eat your brushes. I’ve managed to keep some brushes in excellent shape for 2 years, simply because I use Higgins and wash them in shampoo after use.
Type of paper:
Mostly Strathmore bristol. Series 300 is the usual– vellum finish if I’m going to do any dry brush, and smooth if I need clean pen lines.
A funny thing about paper that some friends of mine and I noticed was that when you’re starting out and your work is amateurish, you tend to use the best possible paper. Then when you get better, you draw on any old piece of scrap you can find. Like, when I was starting out, I drew and inked everything on hot press illustration board. And my work was utter garbage at the time. These days, I can’t even imagine doing anything on illustration board.
Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?
Noel Sickles, Frank Robbins and Al Williamson usually do it for me. I could stare at Sickles’ stuff for hours. And Williamson at his peak was just about the lushest inking I’ve ever seen.
Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job. Could you give us a quick overview of your process?
With client work, the first step is always reading the article/novel/visual brief or whatever they send. I usually read things through a few times. By then an idea has already come to mind but if not, then I’ll do some word association or brainstorming. Writing is sometimes a necessary component of drawing. Once I have a concept for an illustration, I’ll sit down and do some thumbnail sketches. I then take the best thumbnails and turn then into colour roughs, using markers and brushpens. I tend to hand in colour roughs since my pencil linears can be a bit misleading. Once that is approved, I then paint up the final art using either gouache and ink or markers and ink, gathering up whatever reference I need along the way. After that, there’s usually a bit of scanning and photoshop cleanup and colour tweaking before I send the final into the art director.
What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?
When I’m drawing, I usually play music according to what kind of work I’m doing. If its client work, I usually play something energetic, like the Clash, A Tribe Called Quest or some old-school hip hop. If I’m doing personal work, then I usually play something by Will Oldham, Nick Cave, Hank Williams or Cat Power.
What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?
I actually don’t have much art on the walls, not even my own. I do own a Leonard Starr “On Stage” daily that I bought a few years ago, and its utterly gorgeous — late 50’s peak work from him.
What’s the last novel you read and last movie that you saw that you’d recommend? Which movies and books do you always return to?
I don’t have as much time to read novels these days, so I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. It’s kind of fitting for comics, as its about economy of words. The last volume I read was Seamus Heaney’s Collected Poems. Film-wise, I saw David Mamet’s “Red Belt” recently and it gets a high recommendation from me. As for perennial favourites, I’ve probably read “A Farewell to Arms” a half-dozen tines and watched the entire series of “the Wire” over and over while working.
Current and upcoming projects?
Currently, I’m finishing up a slate of freelance. I’ve recently completed the cover and jacket art to the 25th anniversary edition of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” for Penguin Classics, as well as the cover and interior illustrations for Rabindranath Maharaj’s “The Amazing Absorbing Boy” for Random House. In late fall, I’m planning to shut down my freelance work for a little while and concentrate on personal projects such as a graphic novel I’ve been working on for a year, and an art book of Toronto alleyway drawings to be published by Drawn and Quarterly.
What would you tell an aspiring artist who is working his ass off but still needs and wants to break through to the next level?
My only advice is to just keep drawing and keep improving. Try and get critiques from other artists, and understand that they’re trying to help, not cut you down. In the end, cream rises to the top – if you put in the time and do the work, the rest will eventually follow.