Most of my work during the 1980s was painted with an airbrush — which I'd been using by then for about six years — to create large areas of background colour, with the details added using pen or brush. I liked the airbrush as a simple and very quick method of applying colour and adding effects. It was a time-saver. One painting I did for Look & Learn had the foremast of a sailing ship shrouded in mist. All I had to do was to paint the mast and rigging in solid black and then airbrush colour over it to give the foggy effect. That would have taken days with ordinary brushes, rather than a couple of hours.
On the other hand, my comic work was mostly done with traditional brush and pen techniques, using inks, sometimes over an airbrushed background if required. It's easy to overpaint with acrylics, but you have to be more careful in the planning stage when you're using inks and an airbrush, especially in masking off areas to be left white. Generally, I'd do a pencil rough onto the board and then spray the background and large areas of colour on top, adding the fine detail by hand.
Despite its usefulness, the airbrush had its drawbacks, especially if —like me—you're not very good at coping with technical things and equipment. And the spray went everywhere, upsetting others around, particularly with some inks which stank like dead fish.
When they came around, I was often told I should move onto the computer, but in an interview of 1985 I firmly denied I would ever use one for illustrations. I found it difficult enough coping with the airbrush and I thought I could never sit down in front of a computer and fiddle endlessly with a drawing pad and the keyboard to produce the result I wanted.
In 1990 I did begin to experiment with the Apple Macintosh to produce illustrations. Enthusiasts tried me out on an electronic drawing pad, but I couldn't get on with it. It simply isn't how I draw, and the early ones were so slow and clumsy; I've never bothered again. I used Adobe Illustrator for a while, but it also failed my drawing test—far too object oriented, technical and cold.
However, where I was working at Newsfield, we had a technical journal for the developing electronic publishing market called PrePress, and Adobe sent beta copies to test and review of a new application called Photoshop. It was fantastic, even though those early versions were primitive compared to today's.
Combining pen and Photoshop
Over two to three years, I gradually moved away from inks and the airbrush until, in recent years, I've produced almost all my work on the computer. In a way it's a shame—all you end up with is a digital file, there's no physical board with colour and texture on it, nothing to frame and hang on the wall. When you paint by hand, the acrylics or the inks are never quite perfectly laid down on the paper and board. There are always tiny artefacts caused by the hand. In Photoshop everything's perfect and, because you can zoom in so close, you tend to become obsessed with pixel-perfect alignment.
To a degree I get around this problem through something that hasn't changed with using a computer—drawing. I begin with the back of an envelope and sketch out rough ideas as thumbnails. They usually resemble little more than a swirl of lines indicating the composition and motion of figures. No one understands them, but I can interpret them later with a pencil on paper at full size.
For a 'line-and-wash' illustration I scan in the pencil drawing as a lineart bitmap. In Photoshop I convert the bitmap to greyscale, then colour. The scan is still in bitmap form, so it's easy to grab and delete out the white background to transparent. After that I can colour the line any way I want, and start adding the colour detail on layers underneath. Sometimes, just naturally, the painting under- or overlaps the line, forming those artefacts of the hand-painted version. It's very small but it adds that touch of life to the finished artwork.
With halftones, I paint over the pencil drawing on paper with black ink, from hard line to the faintest wash, scan it as a greyscale halftone and convert to colour. The drawing layer is then set to either darken or multiply, possibly recoloured itself, before using Photoshop brushes to add the colour and detail on separate layers.
I think this technique sets my illustrations apart from much other computer-generated art, giving them the feeling of a lively surface texture that, in reality, isn't there. The airbrush and compressor have remained in the attic. there's no way around it—Photoshop inks don't smell like vomit, the brushes never clog up, you don't have to wash everything out to change colours and you never get dirty fingernails.
Oddly, although I'm left-handed, I work on the Mac using my right hand. When I first started using a design workstation I had usually borrowed it for a while from another member of staff and it was inevitably set up for right-handed use. So I just picked up the mouse in that hand and started painting.
Nearly all of my pictures are set in the past or the future— including the pure fantasy illustrations. The games magazines of the 1980s and early 90s provided me with both in abundance, or at least fantasy adventures such as James Bond. In recent years, I've spent more time with historical subjects in reference books.
I've never liked the Here And Now for subject matter—the Now doesn't inspire me much. All my paintings are bigger than life (in spirit if not dimension), mainly because life isn't as exciting as it can appear in pictures. I escape into the picture I'm painting. When I'm really concentrating I imagine I'm really there, looking onto the action in the painting—otherwise it's difficult to see things in my mind's eye.
It can take me a couple of hours to 'come down' from a picture—I sometimes spend an hour staring at it. I'm in an alternate reality, I suppose. To work, the picture has to be convincing to me, which means I have to get really involved in what's happening. I've always been a romantic dreamer. Ever since the games I played as a child I've been able to get totally immersed in a fantasy world. I think it says something about my psyche that I was always the Baddie, never the Brave Sheriff, always the evil and doomed SS Monster, never the War Hero.
Other than fantasy, I'm passionate about history. History may be about real people but, lacking photographs, their lives and actions have to be imagined in a believable way. I enjoy illustrating historical scenes—particularly big battles—even though it involves a lot of references. In some ways it's simpler to draw futuristic scenes and fantasy—references aren't a problem because I make it all up and it's just a matter of producing a painting that has its own accuracy and detail.
I've just bought some acrylics, inks and brushes to get back to basics again. I want to produce some more originals that have a life without the need for a computer and hard drive to exist. I see no reason why the two disciplines shouldn't exist side by side and no reason why the one won't complement the other. That's for the immediate future—back to dirty finger nails, I guess.
Using the airbrush on a page of The Terminal Man comic strip in 1984, and adding detail with an ordinary paint brush.
This unfinished picture shows the airbrushed background sprayed over the black-inked line work (painted over the pencil transfer to the board). The detail colour work has then been painted over the airbrushed background colour. At the bottom, the masking tape can be seen to keep the board white below the picture area.
From the 'quick and simple' Roman scroll bucket to a full-blown 'painting’ of a Roman publishing house — it's often assumed that painting on computer is quicker than using brushes and paint, but that's not always true at all. The scribes at work took me several days; I'd have done it traditionally in half the time. But I would have had to work at half- or twice-up to achieve the same level of detail.
Two versions of the Titanic disaster: conventional painting and computer-generated.
Computer-generated painting illustrating the use of Greek Fire for a book on the Byzantine Empire, 2006.
© 2020 Art of Oliver Frey
Three stages in a children's book illustration, from scanned line and halftone ink drawing with, below, the colour layer and finally both layers combined.