R.J. Palmer is an up-and-coming freelance concept artist and illustrator. He’s currently a student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He arrived at fantasy and science fiction by way of dinosaurs, and he’s busy building his own world . . .
Can you tell us how you came up with the central character of “Air?” From the mechanical dragon on her hand to the feather-like belt she wears, there are plenty of details to draw the viewer’s eye.
“Air” was done as part of a project for a class last year at Academy of Art University. We had complete freedom to illustrate a character fitting one of the elements: earth, fire, air, and water. I really wanted to show air and wind through her design, as well as give her a touch of steampunk. The whole design clicked for me when I came up with the gills on her ribcage. I thought she could inhale regular air through these gills and breathe it out through her mouth as a sort of magic air that she could manipulate. Once I had this idea, I went to work thinking of ways to use this. As you can see, she can bring artificial life to her creations, like the little mechanical bird perched on her finger, as well as use this magic breath to fill balloons to keep her aloft. I added some bird-like qualities to her design as well, such as the keel-like sternum armor and the feathered belt. Of the four elemental character illustrations I did, she is certainly the most successful and unique in my eyes.
Do you tend to plan your work heavily in advance, or are you more likely to start a sketch and see where it takes you?
I do a lot of concept and idea sketching to see what sort of things I might be interested in working on next. Once I get an idea that I would like to take to finish, I try to make sure I have most of the elements of the work designed beforehand, so the actual illustration process progresses as smoothly and painlessly as possible. However, there have certainly been many times when I have a very strong idea and just jump into the first sketch I do without the numerous thumbnails; and sometimes I just pump out a sketch that I like and take that to finish.
Which artists do you look to for inspiration?
I try to look to life as much as possible for my inspiration. I spend hours and hours on Google Images and just looking around the world. Once I get inspired to work on something, I then will search out other works in a similar vein to my piece to see how other artists might handle a situation that may be stumping me. My favorite artists and art teams are: Kev Walker, Jason Chan, Wes Burt, the Prince of Persia team, and the Monster Hunter team.
What brought you to fantasy and science fiction? Were you looking to tell stories, or was the sheer freedom of the imagery more of a draw?
Honestly, I think the reason I ended up in fantasy/science fiction stuff is because of dinosaurs. I started drawing when I was three years old with dinosaurs and Godzilla. Dragons were a natural evolution from that, and then fantasy and science fiction from that. Contemporary illustration has just never really interested me very much. I guess I’m a sucker for swords and armor.
What’s your dream illustration assignment?
I would love to be the lead illustrator for a Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy, or Assassin’s Creed type of project. I just want to design creatures and characters for months and really develop a world. I absolutely love seeing my designs and ideas come to fruition.
What have been some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in your work since you started at the Academy of Art University?
My work has gotten better in every regard since I started at the Academy of Art. The greatest things I have learned in my time here are anatomy, color theory, and a much better understanding of light. This school is a magnificent resource, and I’ve learned an absurd amount here.
Are there particular properties you’d like to work on, or are you more interested in developing your own world? Would it be Arvalis, or something else?
I am first and foremost interested in developing my own world. I’ve been working with a few friends from high school on a long-term goal of developing a love letter to Japanese RPGs. One of my greatest pleasures is seeing how our world and characters have changed and grown over the years. There are, of course, major properties I would love a hand in, such as Prince of Persia, Monster Hunter, Sonic the Hedgehog, and anything featuring dinosaurs.
Can you tell us a little bit about your working methods?
I do most of my work these days 100% digital, though I do on occasion do thumbnails and concept sketches on paper. I try to get a solid composition down with a strong creature or character design prominently featured. Once I have that, I’ll move into establishing my color palette. Then, once all of the pieces lock into place, I start fleshing it out until I’m satisfied enough to call it complete . . . or I’m out of time.
Have you found any tricks or shortcuts with your own art that you’ve never seen elsewhere?
I think the greatest workflow shortcut I have come across is setting up all the brushes you use in Photoshop as tool presets on the side. Like many of my peers, I have a large number of brushes installed and it can kind of lag Photoshop when you open the brush menu. Once I set them up as tool presets, I found myself freed up to use as many brushes as my heart desired and was able to increase my speed and efficiency tenfold.
What projects are you working on right now?
Currently I have been working on finishing up some long in-progress work to get ready to send out a more polished portfolio. I have been doing freelance illustrations and private commissions in between personal work. I also have been trying to maintain a certain amount of time to do studies and try new things, to make sure my artistic blade stays as sharp as possible.