INTERVIEW: ARTIST, CHRISTOPHER TERRELL

Christopher Terrell is an 18-year-old digital artist based in Long Island, New York. He is currently pursuing a concentration in Illustration and Animation at Queens College, City University of New York.

high school graduation, June 2019

This slideshow is a sample of the cartoons he loves to draw.

Below, he shares his thoughts in a recent interview.

You have been an artist ever since you can remember, I’m sure. Do you remember how it started, when you first decided to draw something and what it was?

When I look through photos from my childhood, I see memories captured of me coloring at my kitchen table and opening new drawing supplies at Christmas. Those photos exhibit my love for art from an early age, and they depict how it has played a huge role in my life over the past decade. Yes, I have been drawing ever since I can remember, but I always used a reference. I remember buying cartoons from the 1920s, like Felix the Cat, Popeye the Sailor, and Mutt and Jeff, on DVD; and I would pause them and draw the scenes myself. 

What art interests you most, in terms of what you do, and then in terms of what you enjoy seeing?

The answer to both questions is the same: animation. It has to be one of the most undervalued art forms in the United States. I have such respect for the incredible amount of time, effort, and skill it takes to make a short animated film, let alone a full-fledged production. 

What’s the easiest part of drawing for you?

I suppose the easiest part of drawing for me, although I’m not sure if any of it is always the easiest, is coloring. Coloring can be time-consuming, but I find it to be extremely therapeutic. Studies show it has the same benefits as meditation. A few years ago, I took part in an intensive colored pencil workshop. With colored pencils, artist, Laura Westlake, taught me to recreate the rich colors and moods of still lifes and landscapes through a slow layering process with as many as fifteen layers of colors applied. Not only did Ms. Westlake help me expand my knowledge of this medium, but she also gave me a new appreciation of it.

The hardest?

In my experience, the hardest part of drawing has always been coming up with a pose. The first step is to analyze and break down the figure into shapes, then exaggerate the pose with action lines and play around with proportions. Practice makes perfect. It can be difficult; because you have to consider how light hits and where shadows should go and what is anatomically possible, among other things.

Is it difficult to draw something purely from imagination? Is that a skill you develop with time, or is it instinctive?

In his 2012 book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon writes: “You don’t need to be a genius, you just need to be yourself;” pointing out that no artist’s work is ever completely original. Trying to be completely original will daunt an artist and eventually smother his creativity. I’ve learned to embrace the inevitability of influence, to relax, and have fun with my art.

If someone said to you, Christopher, why do you draw, what would you say?

I began sketching and drawing at an early age, leaving people in awe of my talent. Growing up, I was encouraged by my family members and friends to pursue this. Every year, my amazing mom helped me put together a calendar featuring my artwork. In my aunt, author Kyrian Lyndon’s, words: “My nephew, Christopher, was about six when he gazed out the window in the backseat of the car and said, ‘I’m just afraid I will run out of things to draw.” That rings true to me because art has always had a mysterious way of making myself and the people around me happy.

When did you first consider yourself an artist?

Over the years, I dedicated hours to improving my own artwork. In third grade, I was honored by the Art Supervisors Association for demonstrating excellence in a wide variety of two-dimensional visual art forms; my artwork was showcased in the annual Nassau All-County Art Exhibition at Adelphi University. The concept of creating anything I wanted from a single thought in my head intrigued my younger self, and that fascination has stayed with me ever since, but this accomplishment sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of myself. My artwork has been selected to be showcased in many district-wide art shows; and, during my junior year of high school, I was selected for membership of the National Art Honor Society. Together, other members and I raised awareness of art education throughout the school district by hosting events like “Family Art Night.” At this event, we provided students and parents with three lessons, each based on a different famous artist. It served as an opportunity for the community to experience art together.

How would you describe your work style?

I draw cartoons, it’s as simple as that.While taking AP Studio Art in my senior year of high school, I was tasked with creating artwork that reflects my own ideas and skills, in addition to what I had learned. I chose to explore caricaturing my teachers and classmates… I had a lot of fun making comically and grotesquely exaggerated representations of them. Also, I have made the transition from traditional drawing to digital, and I now use the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for most of my professional work (from preliminary sketches to final pieces).

What techniques and tools do you use to keep yourself organized? Recently, I’ve been trying to stick to a more structured schedule, where I’m uploading new drawings to Instagram (at least) five days a week. I try my best to be consistent with it, but life gets in the way of that sometimes. 

How long, on average, does it take you to draw a picture?

Being a full-time college student with a part-time job; on average, I only get to spend an hour or two drawing a day. Sometimes, three hours if I’m working on something specific; although, I often let my drawings sit for a while, because I like to come back to them with new ideas.

What are your ambitions for your career as an artist?

At Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY

In July 2017, I enrolled in Pratt Institute’s Pre-College program, which provided me with rigorous college-level art, design, and creative-thinking courses. I chose 2-D Animation as my concentration of study. To complement this course, I was also enrolled in foundation, art history, and portfolio development classes. The program was taught by Pratt’s renowned faculty of working artists and professional designers. I actively participated in a full schedule of classes Monday to Friday, developing a body of work for my portfolio to support my admission into college. Upon completion, I confirmed that I wanted to pursue my passion for the arts in college. Eventually, I would like to work at a major studio, like Nickelodeon, Dreamworks, Disney, or Cartoon Network. I’d also love to illustrate children’s books and draw comics.

Chris with Richard Torrey

Was there a person who has impacted you the most or who has genuinely made a difference? I started taking a hands-on course on the art of cartooning at The Art League of Long Island when I was just seven years old. Shortly after, I realized that art is what I am most passionate about, and I fell in love with constantly drawing in my sketchbook. Richard Torrey, the author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, has been teaching that course for the past thirty years. He is committed to sharing his expertise in the fields of art and design with his students, and he has inspired and motivated me to follow a similar career path. As a child, I respected and wanted to emulate Torrey; asking questions, picking his brain, but also listening to and observing him. He considered me a higher-level illustrator and recommended I take his Advanced Anime/Manga class, which is more intense and takes a focused look at the Japanese style of comic art. Building upon what he had previously taught me, I was given the opportunity to work on individual skill development through the creation of my own manga comics. I learned to be true to myself and to be open to feedback and suggestions. Although it wasn’t apparent to my seven-year-old self at the time, I look back and credit art with helping me discover who I am.

Which artists inspire you or are your favorites, and what strikes you about their work?

Here are my “top three:” Chuck Jones, Walt Disney, and Hayao Miyazaki. To me, these are the greatest animators who ever lived. During the Golden Age of animation, Jones helped bring to life many of Warner Brothers’ most famous characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Porky Pig, to name a few). In July 2014, I had the opportunity to go to the “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones” exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image. It showed the process; how you get from Jones’ drawings to the finished cartoons. What strikes me about his work is that you can already feel movement in a lot of the pencil drawings he made. There’s just something about the way he draws where he’s able to capture a kinetic sense. As for Disney and his Nine Old Men, it is impossible to discuss pioneers of animation without bringing them up. One of their most important discoveries evolved into the principle named Squash and Stretch. The early Disney artists wanted to push the envelope in exploring how they could squash and stretch everything, so they used a half-filled flour sack as a simplified learning platform for understanding natural deformations in movement (without having to deal with the extreme complexities of a person or an animal). Brilliant. Lastly, referred to by many as “the Walt Disney of Japan,” Miyazaki is a masterful storyteller, and the hand-drawn animation in his films is gorgeous. The food, especially. It is fascinating to see the impact of washoku (Japanese food culture) on Miyazaki’s work and the cuisine so carefully illustrated. 

Do you admire your own work?

Yes, but admitting someone else’s art is better than yours is intellectually honest. There’s no shame in it. Good artists exist to inspire; we should admire others’ work and try to improve our own by learning from the best. That said, your hard work pays off, and you should be immensely proud of your growth as an artist. You should only be focused on improvement to the extent that it gets you to produce the art you want to create, not to legitimize yourself in the eyes of others.

Have you ever hated something you drew? Yes. This is why being an artist is incredibly humbling; it is a craft that will tear you down and build you up over and over again. Art will anger you with each sketch you crumple up and throw away. It will break your heart with every failed piece. It will make you wonder if you are even fit to create when nothing you do seems right, but it will also give you triumph when you succeed in putting your vision on the page. I view each misstep as a step closer to a beautiful piece for the world to see. 

What are your views on social media for promoting your work? As stated in an Artwork Archives blog,Social media is called ‘social’ for a reason. If you just throw up a post and never engage with your users or the post again, it’s like walking into a party and standing alone in the corner. What’s the point? I think of it this way: social media is a way to have a conversation with your customers and fans. If you aren’t participating in conversations or reaching out to other people, you’re not doing it right.” I definitely view social media as a marketing tool that can help your art business. It has given me access to wider audiences and easier sales, and it has provided me with the opportunity to do things I never myself imagined doing. For example, I’ve designed a tattoo, as well as a couple of company logos. It’s pretty wild to think about the tattoo — something I drew permanently inked onto someone’s body!

Which social network worked best for you?

Instagram, by far. In my opinion, it is the social media platform for artists. I’ve witnessed it launch careers firsthand. Instagram has changed the game; it eliminates the need for big-name critics to call the shots, and it helps artists connect with buyers across the globe.

Besides drawing, what are your interests?

Spending quality time with my family and my beautiful girlfriend, Emily; idyllic fishing trips; listening to rock music, and going to concerts (Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin are some of my favorites); and traveling to beautiful destinations around the world. So far, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon are the most breathtaking places I’ve been to.

If your friends or family members were asked to pick three character traits that describe you, what would they say?

Determined, ambitious, and stubborn — definitely stubborn. 

If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?

If I could travel anywhere in the United States, I would go to Hawaii. Outside of the country, Italy would be my choice… Right now, my girlfriend and I are planning a 2020 trip to Ireland. First, we will be hitting up Dublin, Cork, and the Cliffs of Moher, then we are going to Northern Ireland to see Giant’s Causeway. I’m very excited.

What’s the best movie or show you’ve seen in the last year? Joker was fantastic; its exploration of the psychological aspect of the DC Comics supervillain was an interesting take. Also, the acting was phenomenal. (Joaquin Phoenix gave an Oscar-worthy performance.)

What is your favorite film or show, and why?

Cheers, but The Sopranos is my favorite non-comedic TV series of all time. It was every bit about personal growth as it was about goombahs, baked ziti, and mob hits, as Tony Soprano is perhaps both the angriest and most sensitive television character ever constructed. That’s what makes The Sopranos so entertaining to me. Whether it is his panic attacks, destructive relationship with his mother and uncle, or the very nature of his work, which puts him in the crosshairs of law enforcement, he can explode at any minute. 

Chris with his parents on prom night

What would you do if you won the lottery?

First and foremost, if I won the jackpot, I would put money aside to fund the college educations of my future children. I’d also take care of my parents, financially, for the rest of their lives. I would travel to all the places on my bucket list (including but not limited to Iceland, Italy, Spain, France, and Greece). I definitely wouldn’t be one of those extremely wealthy individuals who buy an over-the-top, huge mansion that they don’t need. I’d buy something appropriately-sized, probably by a beach somewhere.  I’m sure I’d do more with my lottery winnings, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. I’m cautious about donating to charities, as there are a lot of fake ones looking to scam people out of money. I’d have to ensure I was donating to legitimate and trustworthy nonprofit organizations, like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

What is your favorite memory from childhood?

Chris with Stan Lee

I had the honor and pleasure of meeting the great Stan Lee at the 2016 New York Comic Con. I was fifteen years old at the time, so it’s not exactly a childhood memory; nevertheless, it was a big moment in my life that I will never forget. He was amazingly caring and supportive of every single fan. I showed Lee a drawing I did of him with some of the Marvel Comics characters he co-created, including Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the Hulk. It wasn’t my greatest work (my skills have improved a lot since then), but he encouraged me to draw comics and showed such joy as he was looking at my art. I am so grateful to have met “The Man.” Flash forward about 70 years. I can only dream of being the one sitting in that chair, as someone shows me a drawing they did of me and my characters. Another notable memory: I had the rare opportunity to take an animation class with Pixar artist, and Brave co-director and screenwriter, Steve Purcell, while on a Disney Cruise a few years back. That was a really cool experience, as well. Mr. Purcell gave me a lot of great tips that have helped me, going forward with my art. I also received helpful tips from Bob Camp, creative director of The Ren & Stimpy Show, when I met him at a local comic book convention in 2015.

What makes you laugh?

Chris and Emily prom

My girlfriend can make me laugh until my tummy aches and make my eyes wet with happy tears. I thanked God for bringing her into my life since the very first moment I met her.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists?

It makes absolutely no sense to come out of school burdened with insane amounts of debt. It’s hard enough to deal with the cost of living without having that extra heavy anvil on top of it. You don’t have to go to one of the cookie-cutter schools to become a success in the field. Yes, a degree is important, but not as important as talent and drive. It really comes down to desire; to have what it takes to forge a path to whatever it is you want to do. It takes showing up every day and going at it.

Fager’s Island, in Ocean City, Maryland

You can check out Christopher’s artwork at https://www.instagram.com/cterrell_art/. He is also looking for more freelance opportunities. For business inquiries, send him a direct message on Instagram: @cterrell_art.

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