Interview: Oli Smith on Illustration, Freelancing, and D&D

12:00 pm



Today's interviewee goes against my normal specification, but for very good reason. Oli is one of my oldest and dearest and probably most talented friends, which you'll come to learn when you read through our chat. He creates wonderful fantasy and sci-fi art, writes his own comic series, and acts as Games Master for an ever-growing set of role-playing games with his friends (e.g. me). Obviously I'm biased, but I do think he's a little bit of a genius. Find out for yourself as I chat to him about the woes of GCSE art lessons, creating your own fantasy worlds, and why D&D is probably the best form of escapism there is.


Magic & Musings:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Oli! First of all, for any readers who don’t know your background, tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do. When did you first get into art? Did you study it formally or come across it as a hobby?

Oli Smith:
Thank you for interviewing me! I’m Oli Smith and I’m a freelance artist. I guess technically I’m an illustrator but most of my work is much more sketch-based, quick, and free-flowing. I do fantasy sketches and character designs as my main sort of focus! I’ve been working freelance for about half a year full-time, so I’m at the start of my career! 

When I was little I always drew. I was the little kid with the crayons. I have a very defined memory of getting into drawing. I was very into anime and manga at the time and I must have been somewhere around 8-10. I’d be given one of those ‘How to Draw Manga’ books and I was so excited. The day after I went to school and remember going to some teacher and my friends and showing them the people I’d drawn. They were horrendous, but people liked them, because we were dumb children and accepting adults! I quickly found myself doing better than the book and then just kept on drawing.

Then there’s GSCE and A-Level Art, which if you like drawing the way I do in your own way is painful. It was absolutely not what I wanted to do and one old fashioned teacher even went so far as to say I’d never have a career in art, which was horrible. But I did good enough to go on to university. I just recently finished studying Game Art Design at DMU and while I don’t actually work in that field now I learnt so many useful things. It gave me my work ethic and figure drawing skills and most importantly skill in concept art. Now I do my own thing but the things I learnt at university are always useful.


Magic & Musings:
Which artists, if any, would you say have been influences on your work? Do you have any favourites to look at when you need a spark of inspiration?

Oli Smith:
You know, in GSCE and A-Level Art they make you research artists. Researching is alright, I can get that. But it was more than that. They make you copy their work, bang on, not even putting a twist on it. I hated it. I hated having to copy another artists work. I never saw the point. It was working backwards to me. It sounds really mean to say but it just wasn’t how I work, it isn’t how I think even now. There’s a great deal of skill one can gain by painting studies of famous paintings but, for me it doesn’t do anything.

So after all that I don’t have a favourite artist or artists. I do take in inspiration from everywhere I can, but there’s no specific favourites that call out to me over and over. It took me a long time to understand and respect Pinterest, but I actually use that as a great source for inspiration now. Instead of focusing on one talented individual, I take a trickling feed of thousands. It works better for me. You almost don’t know what you’re going to get, and can inspire you in really weird directions.

Magic & Musings:
Of all of your art, which are you the happiest with and why?

Oli Smith:
I work on a few projects at the moment, as well as a spattering of doodles and sketches. You might expect me to say my comic but actually my favourite project is my weekly Dungeons and Dragons updates. When people ask what my best work is or the best way to see my style, I say it’s this. I basically take whatever happened in my weekly sessions and paint it up. I do it very quickly, recently realising that I should embrace my sketchy natural art style, and it always ends up in a result bursting with character. It’s that character behind everything that I really enjoy. Painting up characters I know personally and can connect with always ends up with a great sketch in the end.


Magic & Musings:
What do you do if you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively?

Oli Smith:
Every creative person has to deal with slumps. It sucks. It isn’t easy. I’ve actually just climbed out of one myself. I found it hard to work and had no inspiration, no matter what I did. So here’s how I got over it: I made something every day. I uploaded something every day. It didn’t have to be much sometimes it was just the messiest doodle, but it was something. In one way it makes you feel a little better because you’re being productive. Not as productive as you want, but productive. But also showing people, especially friends, your work can be really inspiring. Just the other day I showed a close friend a spoiler for the next comic issue I’m working on and their excited reaction and questions gave me enough energy to work with enthusiasm! It’s also completely important to take it easy! While doing something every day I put as much time as I needed into relaxing and stress relief. Stress doesn’t help anything, at all.

Magic & Musings:
Moving away from the art a little bit, I know you also DM for people's Dungeons & Dragons games. Hint, me. When did you first get into this, and what is it about this that you enjoy so much?

Oli Smith:
I have always liked the idea of Dungeons and Dragons for as long as I can remember. Growing up I was super nerdy, I just couldn’t really get into it the right way. I wanted to collect comics but had no comic shop. I wanted to collect card games but my Mum wouldn’t let me. (Wisely she thought I’d waste money on it, spoilers: I did.) It was in school I ran my first D&D game and it was terrible. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but we didn’t understand the rules or how to do anything. Roleplaying came naturally to me, I’ve been roleplaying all my life via text but we just didn’t really get it.

It was the end of my second year at university where we realised, we could just run a D&D game. My Game Art friends were completely like-minded individuals who were just the nerdiest of the nerds and it’s amazing. So when we saw the books for sale for 5th edition we pitched in together and I started making a campaign. With me as the Dungeon Master we started up that game. And while not all the people in that group stayed it became Midwinter, one of my games I keep going now, even though we've left university.

It was while discussing the Midwinter game that my friends back home got jealous and basically demanded I start off a campaign for them too, which I agreed to because I’m really nice. That second campaign, the Regents Blades, is also still going but with a completely different cast. I made the choice to put both campaigns in the same world and it’s brilliant.

I find D&D empowering in a weird way. I, as a Dungeon Master, set the scene, make a world for players to play in, and of course also act the part of the monsters and bad guys. We make a story together. A story that can have complete absurdity and craziness, but also seriousness and drama. It can have whatever we want. You can make whatever you want, be whatever you want. It’s escapism to the grandest. And I think in today's day and age, especially as me and my friends were forced into the real world, that escapism is really nice to have.

There’s something about Dungeons and Dragons, and tabletop roleplaying games in general. Everyone who plays them sort of gets a connection. It’s something I’ve noticed on Twitter but more than any other fandom I know we just get along. We can chat and joke and compare and it’s brilliant.


Magic & Musings:
I know you’ve created your own world where you set your comic series. Tell us a little about the series and Mikome. Where did you get inspiration for this from? Is this something you’re looking to expand on in the future?

Oli Smith:
I mentioned that I used to roleplay. What you do is you write a story between two or more people, but you play your own characters and write their parts. I’ve been writing stories like this for years. Mikome started because of that. I wanted a place to tell these stories, I wanted a place for my people to come from.

So Mikome was born, just over 10 years ago. At first it was a generic fantasy world, but with my own twists on it. As I got older and better at telling stories, I started changing things. The world naturally aged and went through technological revolutions and became what it is now, a sort of dark sci-fi fantasy world. And I still roleplay and write stories in it! I find Mikome very hard to describe. It’s got a little bit of everything. It has cyberpunk feel but magic and monsters, but the magic is more of a science and has a chance to kill you.

For a great example of the growth, the stories actually started in a world called Zetsumei. But that world was taken over by a hostile force and the characters became refugees fleeing to Mikome. There’s a whole universe of stories and places now, that I tenderly call the 'Extended Oliverse'.

Mikome takes inspiration from a little bit of everything I’ve ever watched, read or played. It starts off as an amalgam of ideas that I forge together and grow into a multitude of cool things. Stangely enough, the starting inspiration for what I wanted Mikome to be was based off the flowing long grasses, hills and forest lands of a Heath near my home. It always felt fantastical. I wanted my world to feel like that.

I’ve been wanting to do a comic in Mikome since it started, to be honest. It was after getting really sick during my third year of university I realised, why not? It’s what I want to do. I don’t have the expertise really or the knowledge, but why not just make it. Make what I want. So I did. The Mikome comic series at the moment focuses around a character called Gillian. She’s a high elf but the world is fairly multicultural, so that isn’t the main focus. She wants to be a hero. This is a world where adventurers used to save princesses and sometimes still do, so Gillian is literally a fangirl. She has posters of heroes on her wall, has action figures, she probably writes fan fiction and all. The whole idea of the current story arch is that Gillian as Who, her hero persona, is actually really bad at it. She has no idea what she’s doing and if it wasn’t for her engineering skills she’d already be dead. It’s a really fun story, I find.

As the comic continues I’ll move onto other characters and places and flesh them out. That’s what I know I’m good at. Making characters. It’s the same for DnD and everything else I do I can make memorable deep and interesting characters. I can also make the settings, lots of people tell me how much they like Mikome's atmosphere and the world itself. What I’m not that good at, and I can admit it, is story. But it’s just something that comes in time. Just like the art style, it’s taken me a little while to get it where I want it. I have lots of room to improve. The comic is a journey I'm sharing of me improving and becoming this comic book artist I want to be. So I really enjoy working on it and sharing it. It's fun.

Mikome will continue to grow. I’ve designed an entire Tabletop Roleplaying Game for Mikome that works off its themes and setting. It’s in testing phases now, I actually just started the first true campaign of it. Playing a game set in Mikome like this is actually like a dream come true and I’m really excited to share it when it’s finished.


Magic & Musings:
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Oli Smith:
I don’t have any kind of ritual but I have one hell of a work station. My desk is where I live. You could tell, due to the semi-controlled mess. It’s a mixture of dice, models I’m painting, notes and snacks. I have three screens. One is for work, one is for reference images, and the last one is for something to watch. I almost always watch something and it’s usually trashy TV. Documentaries about prisons and cheesy American reality shows. These kind of background shows just sort of keep me going, weirdly enough.

One thing I do often is just listen to music. I have a great number of different inspiring playlists for different art moods. You should know, we shared music all the time. (It's true!) Well, we shared music for about two weeks before we had shared all the music we could find with each other. (Also true...) Music gets the mind going. More than anything, I find.

Magic & Musings:
What are your favourite tools you use to create your art?

Oli Smith:
I use Photoshop. It’s not the only tool you can use for digital art but it’s what I was taught to use at university. It’s industry standard so it’s sort of a good idea to keep it going. Even in Photoshop I only use a small handful of brushes. I remember being taught a long time ago that good digital art can get away with only using the basic brushes! As my style focuses on sketchiness and seeing the work, its awesome! I use a graphics tablet to paint and, honestly, I get the cheapest ones I can. I also do some pencil work, and somewhat controversially I only use mechanical pencils.

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out working in this creative field?

Oli Smith:
I wish I was encouraged a bit more to do my thing when I was younger. I only had one art teacher before university who encouraged me to do the things I enjoyed doing. I almost went an entire different route because I hated art at school so much. Luckily that teacher showed me how to do the work for the systems they had and let me embrace doing my own thing afterwards.Because as it turns out, my style is pretty cool. And people actually like it!

Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song?

Oli Smith:
You’re going to hate this: I don’t read many books. (You're right, I do hate it.) It’s sad, and something I actually want to change. Weirdly I read a lot of rulebooks. For tabletop games and wargames and all sorts of things, I can sit and read those back-to-back. I think it’s the way they set the scene, that all the stories and worlds they open are made for such a specific purpose. It makes it different. I’d recommend from those Volo’s Guide for Monsters, one of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition books. Basically they go into huge detail about 5 or so types of fantasy monsters, all about their culture and religion and how you could use them in games. It is so fleshed out, it’s a joy to read!

Film-wise I will always encourage The Lego Movie. I’m a Lego nerd, and that’s why. There’s a lot more to it than a dumb kids movie, and it always makes me have the biggest dumbest smile on my face! Album-wise I’ve been listening to Everything Everything a lot recently. I’ve listened to everything! Arc or Get to Heaven are really fun listens. A mixture of fun and also kind of feelsy.

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work?

Oli Smith:
Well thank you for wanting to interview me! I know I’m not your usual interviewee. (I did make an exception to my interviewee spec purely because you're fab.)

Basically, all I try to do is make cool stuff. And I love other people making cool stuff. And I think that’s all the world needs to be! If you think my stuff is cool, check me out! I try to upload something every day on my Twitter and Facebook pages, as well as a tonne of sketches and paintings and a multitude of projects!

If anyone likes my stuff, my Twitter @Olirant is the best place to see my content! Followed up shortly by my website www.olismithart.net. And of course my Patreon, where helping me just $1 a month lets you see cool behind the scenes content and WIP gifs of my work! Oli Smith Art just about everywhere you can find me!

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