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Interview with Freelance Illustrator/Designer Sean Dockery

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If you have a passion and put in the work, the possibilities unfold. This is the story of an artist who just knew he wanted to create and found out through experiences and meeting others where his creative journey would lead him. Meet Sean Dockery, a Pittsburgh-based, freelance designer, and illustrator, as he talks to us about how he got into this line of work, his creative process, and how best to succeed.


Sean Dockery - Self-Portrait

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic background? When did you realize your passion for art?

I spent hours and hours in Photoshop and Cinema 4D when I was around 13 (online message boards are fully to blame). It all snowballed from there and I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for graphic design from 2009-2012. I didn't even know illustration was a thing until my first year ended. I didn't even learn about "edges" until a year out of school. The first painting I ever did was in a class with Mark Bender when I was 19, and I was hooked. I always drew but I don't know why I did, honestly. I just enjoyed it. I felt like that first assignment gave my drawing skills a purpose, so I kept doing it. I'm still ambivalent towards my college education, but I made the best of it.

What can you tell us about your creative process?

It's very layered. I do a crazy amount of sketching on tracing paper and in my sketchbook for every project. I tend to fill an entire tracing pad for every lettering job. For illustration, my thumbnails are done digitally, and I have a timer that goes off every 4 minutes in order to get a lot done quickly. I like the pressure of short deadlines. After a thumbnail is approved, I do a rough sketch and then a tight sketch over that. At that point, my work is inked on paper and then colored digitally. So far, every piece has been done like that, but lately, I've been inking digitally. That's all about the "how", but my main concern is coming up with good ideas and not repeating myself. It's taken me a long time, but I'm starting to be able to visualize a drawing without starting it yet. I like filling sketchbooks pretty quickly, so I think that has something to do with it.


Choke
A faux book cover of "Choke." First Palahniuk book I ever read.

Who inspires you? Are there any particular artists that have influenced your work?

I have a long list of favorite artists, but my friends and family inspire me the most. I'm lucky to have many friends from different avenues of illustration and design. I think of some of them as mentors.

What traditional mediums have you explored, and what is your favorite?

My favorite is pencil and ink. I've explored most mediums, but I'll use pastel every once in awhile. It's a great medium if you consider yourself more of a drawer than a painter.


Can You Die From a Broken Heart
A personal piece I illustrated based on an article from Nautilus magazine.
It's about how our bodies react to loved ones passing, or fighting to stay alive for one more day. Stressful events tax the immune system.

Working digitally, what tools do you use, and what do you rely on most?

Mainly Photoshop. Illustrator is used for type and design related work. I'm constantly trying to imitate my analog tools digitally, especially after I picked up pastels.

What has been your most rewarding project so far?

Probably the one I'm not allowed to show! I did a hand-drawn logo for Google in Times Square. I never thought I could work so quickly. It was fun.

Do you listen to music while creating? If so, what?

Music has been the biggest influence in my life. With that said, I need complete silence when I'm thumbnailing or figuring out a composition. Otherwise, I'm pulled out of the narrative. After the hard part is done, I love flooding my studio with music. Anything with drowned-out lyrics is conducive to a good work session. I listen to a lot of shoegaze, MF DOOM, Nujabes, Converge, or even video game OSTs (Legend of Dragoon or WoW are fantastic). I also listen to a lot of books and podcasts, too.


Topeng S
A piece done for Avondale Type Co.'s Artist Series.

Tell us about some of your favorite works, whether personal or client projects.

The "S" I painted for the ATC Artist Series was a good mix of client and personal. I'm normally given specific subject matter to illustrate, but the client let me explore my own. I've been experimenting with my own vernacular ever since that piece.

In your point of view, how important is art education for anyone who would like to become a designer/illustrator?

However you get your education, it's very important, but I'm hesitant to tell someone to take out a huge loan and hope for the best. Find a school or an atelier that's filled with good students and professors (Hard-working peers will push you to make you better). Take a year off before you go to undergraduate school, as I think you'll benefit more from the classes with a better head on your shoulders. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

What made you decide it was time to hit the freelance road?

I've been freelancing ever since I got to college, but I worked as a full-time graphic designer for 3 years until last year. I wanted to attend the Illustration Academy for a month, as I never had much of an illustration education, and so I saved up and quit. The job I left still gave me work and freelance clients were working with me more, so here I am.


Glass Goat sketch
This is usually what a final sketch looks like for any type work.

Is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't already? What would be your dream project?

I feel like I've hardly scratched the surface. I don't think about specific dream projects, but I'm steering my work into making images that are more figurative and conceptual. I enjoy making images that are representational but bending them in a way that says something more, whether it's in a character's face/pose or pushing my shape design to express an idea. I'm also much more conscious of my mark-making lately.

What are you working on at the moment?

I wish I could talk about it, but I'm working on a big poster for a fun client. I'm also doing some gallery work for a group show next month.


Jordan Vs. Magic and Jordan Vs. Stockton & Malone
A series done for The Stndrd, based on Jordan's 6 championships in the 90's facing his rivals.

What is the most important piece of advice you have received as an artist?

"Enjoy the process." I have to continually remind myself of this when I'm struggling on a piece or in-between projects. Learning to enjoy the high highs and the low lows in this career will make all the difference. It has always affected my work, for better or for worse.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in design/illustration?

Stay curious, surround yourself with people who make you want to be better, and have other interests outside of craft. Ask lots of questions and get involved in the community. This industry is filled with wonderful people, so don't be discouraged. If you're unapologetically enthusiastic and excited about your work, people will respond appropriately.

Also, necessity is the mother of invention. I find that my best work is done under a strict timeline. Set deadlines for yourself and keep making things. You will always find a way when you need to.


I want to thank Sean for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions. Be sure to check out much more of Sean's work on his website and on Instagram.

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