Interview: Paul Scott Canavan
The concept artist turned freelancer talks art criticism, mixing his painting methods and the importance of social skills.
From getting his ‘butt kicked’ on art forums to striking out on his own projects, this artist tells Beren Neale he's seeking variety in his work and honesty in the online community
Paul Scott Canavan has seen digital art change a lot since opening his deviantART account in 2006, in his final year of university. “I’d been dabbling with digital painting for a month or two and remember seeing some astonishing work there by artists such as Danny LuVisi and Jason Chan,” he says. “At the time I had absolutely no idea how it was being created, but that inspired me to figure out what they were doing so I could work in video games and films, too. What followed was a mess of tutorials, studies and some truly dreadful art.”
The dreadful art didn’t last too long, and with the open, welcoming world of dA, plus the more professional, crit-orientated world of ConceptArt. org, Paul started getting serious with his creations. “CA was very much the place to go to get real critiques and meaningful feedback from industry pros. I learned a ton there and enjoyed getting my butt kicked a bit,” he remembers. An example? “I think the time my friend Jason Rainville told me (politely) to stop mindlessly speedpainting and actually spend time rendering and finishing a painting was one of the most significant,” says Paul. “It changed the way I approached my work and I’m eternally grateful to him for that.”
Another result of posting work online was that over time Paul ended up becoming good friends with some of the people who had inspired
Jason Rainville told me to stop mindlessly speedpainting, and actually spend time rendering and finishing a painting
That’s the ace thing about this community – the more you get involved, the more integrated you become
him initially. “That’s the ace thing about this community – the more you get involved and share your work, the more integrated you become, and it’s encouraging for young artists,” he says.
The next logical step was Facebook. “That’s created some interesting communities. The challenge-based groups, such as Daily Spitpaint and Virtual Plein Air, really appealed to me and I think the site has allowed the art community to become even more tight-knit than before. It isn’t a great place for feedback – we’re still missing a good space to engage in that – but I do love the way it’s brought the digital art community together and enabled us to express ourselves as individuals,” he continues.
building a career
After leaving university, Paul got work from some of the small game and film studios that had stumbled across his work on deviantART. Through that he learned about dealing with clients, deadlines and working to briefs. But it wasn’t all positive. “During that period, I also foolishly worked for an online studio for an entire year under
the promise of pay that inevitably never arrived. From that, I learned to always ask for 50 per cent of the payment upfront, and to be somewhat wary when meeting clients who don’t have an established reputation.”
Eventually, Paul became lead concept painter at Blazing Griffin, before recently going freelance. You’ll often see him at regular annual digital art events, such as London’s Industry Workshops, Portugal’s THU or the Croatian event IFCC – whether he’s conducting a talk, or propping up the bar. But on meeting Paul, it’s hard not to be impressed by his combination of warmth and professionalism. He’s always generous with his time and insight, while being frank about his drive to excellence. He’s also very clear on the contradictions of the job.
“As commercial artists, a lot of what we do centres around selling a product,” he says. “This can mean selling our work to the public or pitching our portfolios to prospective clients, but it also means selling ourselves as a brand to be bought into. ‘Networking’ is a gross term, but that’s what I’m referring to: expanding one’s network to reach more eyeballs and thus become more successful.”
This is all standard, says Paul, if you’ve got a business background, “but for artists – the anxious creatures who lurk in darkened bedrooms clutching a stylus in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other – it can be quite an alien concept, and can be difficult to manage, especially early on.”
How can you strike a balance between wanting to befriend an art hero without it appearing like a veiled networking move? “This is certainly something I struggled with over the years and it can still affect me today,” says Paul. He does have some tips though. “Enjoy learning as much as you enjoy creating: read books, play games, watch films. The more interests you have the better, as they all feed into your visual library,” he says.
“And learn how to talk to people! Most of us are a bit awkward, but social skills are super-helpful when you want to attend an event… Oh yeah, and attend events! They’re a great way to make friends and find inspiration, both of which are hugely valuable.”
staying mentally strong
Easier said than done, you might be thinking, and Paul would agree. “I suffer from an anxiety disorder, which can make social situations stressful and tiring,” he reveals. “Luckily, it never affected me too badly when I was working in-house as I would just take a short nap or go for a walk if I felt overwhelmed, but it’s easier now that I’m freelancing.”
Learn how to talk to people! Most of us are a bit awkward, but social skills are super-helpful
Mental health issues are extremely common in this line of work, he says. “It almost seems to go hand in hand with the creative mindset, and I’ve found it very helpful not only to see a therapist, but to reach out to friends in the community and share my experiences. I’ve picked up loads of helpful tips this way and it helps to know that many of the people you respect suffer from their own issues.”
Freelancing brings with it strange working hours, but Paul has imposed a strict ‘work-free weekends’ rule and thinks having other interests is essential in keeping stress levels down. “I like to lift weights at the gym three to five days a week, to ensure that I don’t actually fuse with my computer chair,” he says. “Weightlifting is incredibly cathartic for me because it equates to constant improvement, something that can help during periods of stress or depression, and there really is nothing quite like picking up a hunk of metal to make you feel accomplished!”
Take a look at Paul’s online gallery of work, and it becomes obvious that the artist also relishes working in different styles and projects. The die was cast at school, where Paul was encouraged to experiment with all kinds of projects, including using oils, life drawing and sculpting in clay. This was followed up by four years studying 2D animation.
“Honestly, I just need to work on a variety of things or I get bored! I’ve never categorised myself as a character artist or environment artist, or even specifically a concept artist or illustrator. For me, the appeal of being an artist is being able to draw anything to some degree,” he says. “After all, it’s all simply a series of shapes and forms that are being affected by light.”
It really helps to know that many of the people you respect suffer from their own mental health issues