Mike Heath (Magnus Creative) is a veteran in the creative field. He is currently a full time freelance illustrator who has produced work for some highly established clientele. We decided to take a deeper look into the life and origins of this talented illustrator.
Hi Mike, start by introducing yourself to us! Where do you come from? What do you do? Where/How did you study for your skillset? Where have you worked and where do you currently work?
I was born in southern California in 1977 where I eventually resided in Poway, California. My childhood was filled with adventure, sports, art and a solid foundation in the Christian faith.
I’m currently a freelance illustrator represented by Shannon Associates (shannonassociates.com) and have been so for the last 9 years. My work is in the publishing and advertising world. I’ve done close to 400 book covers for all ages of readers. Before that, I was an art director for a few magazines geared toward teens. These were the days where I diligently studied design, photography and illustration in an attempt to discover a style that might be marketable. I was fortunate enough to be given a chance with Shannon Associates and it’s been a great ride since!
My skillset is a combination of 3D art, photography and traditional drawing skills. They all come out when I’m working on an image. Nowadays my work is 85% 3D as I like the control I have over an image with this tool. I’ll still photograph models in the studio when need be, but I’ve been exploring 3D characters a lot lately. Tool bag wise, I’m currently using Cinema 4D, Zbrush, Substance Painter, Photoshop, Daz Studio, Marvelous Designer and more.
What are your earliest memories that began an attachment to wanting to become an illustrator?
Drawing has been an important part of culture making for me since the age of 6. I remember sitting down and drawing my pet Cockatiel and loved it. I drew things ever since. I drew everything I could look at. I mostly drew from life but did my fair share of comics including my own comic strips featuring Spider-man and Batman. Comic art was HUGE in teaching me about anatomy and dynamism.
Who became your first inspirations for working as an illustrator? Any people/studios/movies etc. in particular?
Many people have influenced me from great illustrators like Alex Ross, Todd Mcfarlane, Brian Bolland, Frank Frazetta to photographers like Dave Hill and even matte painters like Dylan Cole. The 1989 Batman by Tim Burton was amazing to me in the way that Tim brought a comic character to cinema in a completely legitimate way-I was obsessed with that movie for a long time before and after its release (I was in love with the costume design of that movie!) Michelangelo was also a huge influence as a high school kid-his figure work is amazing to me!
When did you first know that this is the career you wanted to pursue, and how did you go about pursuing it?
I honestly didn’t think I had what it took to be a full time, freelance illustrator but always worked hard at developing my style and I remember a point where I presented my work to an agent at Shannon Associates and she flat out told me that my work wasn’t good enough. I value that honesty SO much because it drove me to become better and six months later they came back to me and were ready to represent me! I’ll never forget which image turned their heads and changed their minds. It was a Red Riding Hood image. At the time, I was mostly a photo compositor. I took all my own photographs for locations and characters-I NEVER used stock as I felt it was cheating. I wanted to go ‘earn’ those images through hard work. I remember a project that was sci-fi in nature and I needed some spaceships. I took a starwars model kit and put it together wrong and photographed it backwards to ‘make it my own’. It worked great! This was all before I got into 3D and realized that I could make anything in the computer (if I worked hard enough😊) I dove into 3D in 2008 and have never looked back. I began using Vue which was largely a 3D environment software, but it was a great first step into the world of polygons, lights and textures!
You have done excellent work for some highly established clients. What is it like to be an illustrator? What motivates you the most about what you do for your clients and yourself?
Thank you! Being an illustrator is a wonderful job. I take pride in creating book covers that people want to pick up because we really do judge books by their covers in this age. I’m highly inspired by story as I’m not an artist who makes up worlds by himself-I really need a great story to latch onto and put my spin on the worlds and characters I read about. Ultimately, it’s easy for me to work in an industry that promotes reading-I can’t think of a better way to spend time than to read and grow in knowledge, belief, and wonder through them!
I stay motivated by my incessant drive to be better. I’m highly aware that there are many, many artists out there who are better than me and this keeps me on my toes to grow and improve daily. I credit my father for teaching me about hard work and discipline because, let’s be honest, if you’re going to be a freelancer you must be EXTREMELY self-motivated. There is no boss looking over your shoulder making sure you’re staying productive. It’s just you and the deadlines given by your clients. I don’t miss deadlines and I don’t make excuses-getting things done for clients in a timely manner is HUGELY important.
What is your favourite project that you’ve worked on? Discuss why this is your favourite piece of work.
This is a hard question. Whenever I make a new piece of art it’s intensely important to me until I finish it and then I move on. But during the creation process, I’m electric about it! I do everything in my power to make it great and to illicit a good response from the art director. I’ve found that the creation process, especially the first round of creative before showing the client, is where I find the most joy in this job. And each job is such a unique journey. Each one has stories behind it about the creation process, its challenges and puzzles. So if I had to pick one, It’d probably my image portraying the Resurrection of Jesus.
This was for a client but also very personal to my life and I wanted to put a new spin on this moment in history. I feel like the old renaissance images of this moment felt too static. I went in the opposite direction and made it like an explosion of life! I’ve been so pleased at all of the reactions to this piece-it has really connected with people and that’s what art is all about I think-it can awaken different aspects of our humanity.
What parts of your work do you enjoy the most/the least?
I already answered the first part of this question, but I’ll elaborate on what I don’t like about this job. Art is an opinion. It’s your take on a subject. When an art director or marketing team come back to you and tell you that your opinion is wrong, it can feel like a personal attack on you. This is a valid feeling, but it’s not rooted in truth. As a commercial artist, I am creating a PRODUCT not a personal expression. I remind myself of this fact daily. Commercial artists should never be defensive of their work because it’s a major headache for the art director (I know because I’ve been on both sides of the job.) Even with all of that said, the hardest part of the job is to pour yourself into a project and then to tear it apart and make it something else. This is why personal projects are so special to me as they allow true freedom of expression.
Having been an illustrator for over 17 years, what would be your advice to anyone looking to pursue a similar area of work as yourself? Is there anything you’d like to say regarding being at the early stages of illustration & publishing? Are there any tips you’d like to give for people aiming to achieve such a high standard of work?
I’ve been in the creative field for 17 years and 9 of those are as a full-time illustrator. My advice on being a freelancer is to be an incredibly hard-working team player. Art directors can hire anybody and their options for illustrators are PLENTIFUL. So be a clear, humble, ‘can do’ personality to work with and it will take you far. Make every job your most important and give generously to it. Get your work done on time and be accommodating with revisions. Become an expert on the subject of each project. I think learning as much as you can about the subject is half the fun! Finally, I highly recommend making a few artist friends but not too many (keep company with non-artists too so that you don’t place too much importance on what you do.) Those friends can allow you to bounce your ideas of another artist mind before sending along to the client and you can keep each other inspired.
Do you have any future aspirations as an illustrator, specifically, are you looking to develop your work into other potential fields?
I’m always trying to grow. I’d love to do more work that involves characters-perhaps playing cards, film poster, or even video games. You’ll notice on my artstation page that I have a lot of new, character centric, personal projects (like Tarzan, Spider-man, Snake Eyes & Storm Shadow etc). These have been so life giving as of late. I grew up drawing the figure in heroic ways and I’m most at home doing this type of work. I have tons of ‘I really want to do my take on this character’ ideas.
Mike loves to indulge himself in plenty of personal work. Here are some of our favourites from him!
Spider-man: Before You Go…
“Personal work of my second favorite super-hero. Same process as usual for this one. I began with basic Daz poses, sculpted on top of them in Zbrush and arranged the final scene in Cinema 4D and rendered with Octane.”
Tarzan: King of The Apes
“A personal work inspired by my reading as of late-what a great book this is! Everything was posed in Daz and then I sculpted on top of each figure as they were very basic placeholders. One element that pushed me a lot was the fact that I put all of this hard work into the characters and the lighting scenario that worked best was to put them in shadow-pride will get me if I’m not willing to step back and ask what serves the image best. Additionally, I believe it adds a nice sense of mystery to the image-hopefully makes you want to lean in and imagine the details.”
ROM Space Knight
“A personal work made for my brother. His favorite Marvel character was ROM so I sculpted an updated design for the character.”
Water & Fire: Snake Eyes Storm Shadow Art
“Were these brothers not the coolest characters in the G.I. Joe universe?! This was a blast to concept and create. Sculpting was handled in Zbrush and renders in Cinema 4D and Octane Render. One of the strategies I’m taking in Zbrush is to only sculpt what the camera will see which is why that initial sketch is so important. This saves a ton of time since these are ending up in a 2D image.”
Where can people find or get in contact with you should they want to get advice/have any questions? (websites, portfolios, social medias etc)