In­ter­view: Paul Scott Canavan

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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!”

eclec­tic work

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

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