An Interview with Illustrator Leon Active (Oniphoenix)

Hello! In this blog post, I’m interviewing a very special guest – Leon Active, also known as artist Oniphoenix. You may have seen me crediting him for the work he’s done for me. So far, Leon has designed both covers of The Christmas Goblin, the creature concept art for Phobetor’s Children (which gave me a genuine chill) and most recently, Babajide and Philip Latimer for the cover of A Salmonweird Sleighing.

I met Leon in a freelancer forum about 5 years ago and approached him about a new version of the cover for Dead Heat. We discussed some potential work, but I ultimately didn’t hire him that time. But he was at the back of my mind for release of The Christmas Goblin due for release a year later.

But enough about me, let me proudly introduce you to Leon…

Photo by TY: visit photographer’s portfolio here

Hello Leon, please start by telling us a little about you – the person, where you grew up etc?

I’ve always been an introverted person since childhood (but my friends would tell you different, once I get to know you, hahaha). I was born and raised in London, and grew up between Wembley and Stonebridge, my whole life. I’ve always been a creative type in some shape or form, turning something into something else. Yep, I’ve always had wild ideas that I wanted to explore!

Tell us about your background as an illustrator. Do you have formal qualifications or are you self- taught?

Mainly, I’m self-taught, and the qualifications came since school (GCSE Art), to college (Art and Design), and University (BA VCD Illustration degree…and Art history, but that feels a bit sketchy to me now, hahaha).

As most of my influences came from Anime as a kid, there was nothing to find on learning how to draw that style, as it was brand new to the UK in the early to mid-90’s. So, I had to pause the VHS tapes my brother and I collected, at certain frames to practice sketches of the characters at various angles, expressions, hairstyles, eye shapes, etc. (yes kids, we had VHS tapes back then)! Eventually, I was able to draw my own characters from my own imagination.

My style evolved from videogame and comic book influences, so this was also before the internet and Photoshop. Art at school was learning the basics such as anatomy, light and shadow, colour theory, Life drawing and traditional media. College was advanced traditional media of all kinds and more design and art history, plus my friends and I being introduced to Photoshop (it was MS Paint at school before that, hahaha).

University was learning the industry of Illustration, understanding client briefs, delivering projects to a deadline, learning traditional media in Illustration (etching, screen printing), the 3 main sector of Illustration (Editorial, Publishing and Advertising), working in a team with other creatives (Graphic designers) or under an art director, and using more software tools like Photoshop and learning Adobe Flash (I’d say Adobe Flash with gritted teeth, as it was a headache to use, hahaha).

But I felt I learned a lot more in the real world after graduating, and learning many new techniques to help push my work further.

Without giving away your trade secrets, can you give a general insight into your creative process?

For me, I like to visualise in my mind on what I’m going to create or based on a discussion with a client, rather than purely from reference images (I have a vivid imagination but references do help and definitely should be part of any creatives process, hahaha), before I do my initial sketches. As I mainly use Photoshop, I want to keep my files as editable as possible to make necessary changes where need be, at any stage of the process.

When working with clients, I break my work flow into stages, so that they can see my progress as I go along, and share feedback to help shape the project to their brief. Also, I feel it’s really good for clients to feel part of the process from start to finish and experience the project coming to life, more like a collaboration, rather than a “here’s what I did earlier” cooking show style without steps.

What would you say is your greatest strength as an artist?

Designing characters! I’ve been drawing characters since childhood! It’s like second nature for me to come up with a character from my mind, just on the fly. They would have a personality, a backstory, symbolisms or set theme that I try to convey visually. In some cases, I liken them to actors/actresses playing a role in a narrative. I love movies, T.V. shows and animation, and practically any storytelling medium that has inspiring character development, which helps me to visualise my creations (admittedly, I should read more novels, hahaha. Good thing I know a writer, who has provided me
with his own material wink).

On the flipside, what do you feel is your greatest weakness as an artist?

I’d say technical illustrations like vehicles, full on architecture, and other such highly technical images, are my greatest weakness. It’s an art in of itself, that I didn’t learn much of whiles studying. I would need tons of references and lots of time to produce something unique or made up, yet believable and functional. I’m always envious of technical illustrators/designers, as I’m always in awe of how they know how and where to apply the details, and why it functions the way it does. Very calculated work, and currently, I’m just imitating that kind of imagery.

What would you say sets you apart as an artist, stylistically, from other artists?

My style is like a fusion of eastern and western influences, animation, with a bit of cinematic atmosphere. My college tutor referred to me as an Auteur, which stuck with me. Plus, I do like to hide Easter eggs in my work depending on the project. (Note from Matt here: look at the beer names on the pumps near Babajide on the A Salmonweird Sleighing cover – they should look familiar)

I’ve yet to see my style being closely related to many other artists. But, I’ll leave it to others to be better judges.

Who inspires you and your artwork?

Too many to name, hahaha! But to narrow down the list; Director/Animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri and character designer/Animator Yutaka Minowa, George Lucas, Hideo Kojima, Christopher Nolan, Mamoru Oshii, Former comic studio Dreamwave Productions (since reformed as Udon Comics), and Capcom.

This was a hard list to narrow down, hahaha!

What’s your favourite piece of art from your portfolio?

I think it has to be my Buddha Statue Illustration. It always reminds me to stay inspired always.

Writers get writer’s block. Do artists get artist’s block? If so, what do you do to overcome it?

Yes. I don’t know the artist term for it, hahaha, but its more common when we struggle to find inspiration (funny thing is, I’m listening to ‘At the speed of force’ track from Zack Snyder’s Justice League as I answer this, hahaha)!

We’re visually driven as artists with our thoughts and feelings, so going through a rough day or a difficult time can affect our creative spark. I would say the best way I’ve overcome that block, or struggle is to relax, and look at the things I enjoy viewing, whether it is another artist, music, movie, game or whatever is thought-provoking to me. I then feel like creating something afterwards, even if I just make a note of an idea to do later.

What’s your biggest frustration with clients looking to hire you? I’m going to go out on a limb and assume it’s “can you do it any cheaper”? But is there something else?

Yes, hahaha! I’d say its respect for the profession as any other profession. Yes, certain professions such as the emergency services have a priority, and even today they have a strong case for being underplayed themselves. It takes years of practice to create the imagery and visual ideas to the level and skill that can’t be done in 5 minutes by a 5 year old (don’t get me wrong, level and skills can vary), but it’s been the perception even before my lifetime, that creatives are less than, and the chosen few are in the elite tier to be the exception. I’m sure many out there wouldn’t even dream of accepting below minimum or living wage, in the more ‘high status’ professions. Why should we?

I don’t mind coming to a compromise on a fee for a small project that I’m really interested in doing, so long as it right for both parties, but I would highly recommend anyone in the industry to not sell themselves short, which has also played its part into the stereotype. Clients that know your worth are the ones you should build a relationship with.

The other thing that can be frustrating is being contacted by potential clients, who want you to do something outside of your expertise, hahaha. Apparently, because I do art, I can do any art, hahaha.

Sure, I can do it, but not to the level of someone that specialises in that area of art. There are a lot of categories in art and design, but fair play; some clients are legitimately unaware of where to look for who is a better fit for their project.

What advice would you offer to people considering freelance illustration?

The route to being a freelance illustrator is different in recent years to how I started. There are so many tutorials, remote working sites, creative professional sites, and social media. You don’t have to be young to have a career in illustration with all these resources online to learn from to make a career change. Anyone can be an artist with practice and dedication. Some just learn faster than others.

I’d recommend working on your own self-produced projects as a freelancer, and build an audience on social media or online store sites to continue to build your business. Collaborating with other artist is great too. Depending on who you wish to work for, they most likely would seek people who have had a few years or more, working in the industry on similar level projects. So seeking independent, small, up and coming studio is a good way in, plus you grow as that studio grows. So definitely research into
the business, company or studio you would like to work for.

Finally, where can we find you on the web?

You can find me on these links:
Artstation: https://oniphoenix.artstation.com
Creativepool: https://creativepool.com/oniphoenix
Society6: https://society6.com/oniphoenix
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/oniphoenix
And my personal site: https://www.oniphoenix.co.uk

Thank you, Leon! It’s been a pleasure working with you. I know I’ll hire you again for future work, such is your broad range of talent and dedication.

Published by MG Mason Creative

I'm Matt, a freelance writer, writing mostly about education, early career recruitment, tech, B2B and professional services. Dabbling with landscape and nature photography too. For this content , please look at my main site linked below. I'm also a self-published author, creator of the quirky crime comedy book series Salmonweird. If that's what you're looking for, then good news! The village has its own website listed below.

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