Before you jot down your mind to the technicalities of being an artist, you need to niche down your individuality. Philip Sue, an Environmental designer from New Zealand, is an excellent example of the amalgamation of one’s heart into art. Take a look at this interview for an insightful sneak into the world of an illustrator who is carrying his intuition against all the competition.
Hailing from the Kiwis or New Zealand, Philip Sue is an Environmental and landscape illustrator. He has worked with clients such as Adobe and Sony Music. His most recent work is Disney Pixar’s LightYear which was released in 2022. Completing his graduation from Universal College of Learning, Philip Sue has garnered hard-earned success which reflects on the struggle he had to face while being an amateur in the world of art and illustration. Along with being a freelancer, Sue is a content creator and curates his self-defined portfolio. Appearing at Ted Talks in 2022, Sue culminates both the passion and perseverance to pursue a career that does not follow his streamlined notion of his.
The world of illustration offers atypical categories of creative trials. Why did you focus on landscapes and environmental illustration?
Philip Sue: I find for me, personally, there is a whole lot more to explore in environments and I find it to be a more interesting way to express myself and my stories. Though I love character art and I do find myself creating them on some occasions.
Whenever I say to myself ‘okay, time to do some drawing!’, the first idea that I start with is the environment; it’s just an instinct now. Early on, when I started to draw seriously, it was environmental art that captured me and inspired the heck out of me so I guess I was just drawn to them from way back then.
In your Ted Talks, you share your confidence in choosing arts over mainstream career choices. Though you have spoken about starting late then your academic peers, how did you strategize your resources smartly to learn the technicalities of illustration?
Philip Sue: I only had a slight interest in art when I was younger and didn’t take it seriously until it was time to decide what I wanted to do for my tertiary study. My academic grades were too poor to have any chance at a mainstream career choice, so my next best bet was to do art – not because I was any good at it, but because it was the only thing I kind of wanted to do.
During my first year of tertiary, as a 17-year-old with little to no drawing and art abilities, I started to learn more about what possibilities there were in the art industry; learning about digital painting, and even about what a Wacom tablet was! I was super inspired by a lot of concept art I’d see online and this was the turning point from having a little interest in art to having a passion for it.
Of course, I was behind all my art classmates in terms of drawing skills, experience, and grades as the majority of them had been drawing in some form or another since they were young. Basically, I needed to even out the playing field and play catch up to get their level of experience! It was so simple, right?
So whenever others would draw for 2-3 hours a day, for example, I’d do double that amount or more (I needed to do this). I remember I would draw and work on my assignments till 2-3 am most nights (not healthy but I knew it was something I had to do). I needed to learn shapes, forms, perspective, colors, values, and all the fundamentals as well as the technical side of the software required for digital painting.
As the year passed, I would see myself getting top grades during my 2nd and 3rd years of tertiary and would also feel my passion for art growing more and more. I knew that this was the career that I truly wanted to pursue and the rest is history.
Pixar’s LightYear is your most recent work of last year. From a young 17-year-old starting out all by himself to getting a star-studded client list like Disney and Adobe, how would you define this evolution?
Philip Sue: I am quite fortunate to have industry giants such as Disney, Adobe and Sony Music approach me to do artwork for them! It’s not something you get every day so these are moments to reflect on and be proud of.
I think it’s a big nod to my younger self, especially, because I started late and had my fair share of battles with my lack of confidence in my abilities back then. I would simply say that the years of grind have paid off and I am glad I put in countless hours into bettering my art skills and gaining that confidence. Though I am not always a quick learner, I am willing to put extra effort into learning which I believe is what helped me get here today.
So how would I define this evolution? It’s simply to: find a goal, believe you can get there then put in the time and work to actually get there.
Philip Sue: I can’t speak for everyone but I am sure many different aspects may click with the general audience. I do read a lot of comments on my posts that my environments could be places they’d love to visit or it gives them certain fond emotions when looking at my artworks.
I think at the end of the day, if my artwork can create some sort of emotion or feeling in my viewers – it’s a win. Everyone reacts differently to different things, not all my artworks will click with some people and some artworks may not click with anyone at all. I suppose it’s just part of the creative journey of an artist.
The Strategic Sue: I also think it’s all about sharing knowledge. How do I present my work on social media in a way where my audience can also benefit from it? It is easy to post artwork and have your followers just look at it for a few seconds – but what else can you share that could help them? If you provide something with value, it will stick with your audience.
Philip Sue: It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of burnout or overworking especially if you are freelancing because you don’t get paid if you don’t do the work. And to add extra pressure onto that, you need to either source your own work or have clients come to you to have that work. You will usually need to do all your finances and scheduling too! All these little extra tasks can be overwhelming, collectively, at the start, but turn them into a routine and it becomes as easy as brushing your teeth in the morning.
Usually, when I notice that I am super booked up with work for 2-3 months consecutively I will reserve a month for myself to not take on any more work and just focus on relaxing and doing personal work. I think since implementing this process, I find myself having so much more balance in my work and personal life!
One of the benefits of being a freelancer is that I can structure the way I work to the way I like it in a way that works best for me.
Duly confident that the present version of Phillip Sue has no reason to regret his career choice. Yet, if being an environmental illustrator would not have been an existing choice, which career field would have been the perfect alternative?
Philip Sue: Definitely no regrets here and I love what I do today.
An alternative career field? I wouldn’t mind working in the fitness industry! As I enjoy going to the gym and working out as part of my daily schedule, I find it super helpful for my energy when I’m working. I also enjoy playing around with different meal plans etc. and seeing what kind of results I could get for my body. I do think this is quite a contrast to being an artist but one of the main side hobbies I enjoy!
You have stated interest in working on your own and having your kind of team, since the beginning. With other freelance projects, how do you organize your day to not miss anything?
Philip Sue: I have a really simple process. Before I finish up my work day, I always write down a ‘to-do’ list for the following day in my notebook. Usually, this will be continuing from where I left off with ongoing projects and also adding brand new tasks. I like to be able to see what is on my task list. Also, being able to cross things off on the day brings a great sense of achievement! When it does get really busy, I would also set reminders on my phone in case I miss anything or forget.
Creators often work in a hot mess, jam-packed with scribbles, colors, and doodles across the floor reflecting the ambitious chaos of their minds. Do you relate to this? What is your most suitable workspace – mess or less?
Philip Sue: I can definitely relate to this! My desk is, usually, quite messy and even when I clean it up, it goes back to a messy state real quickly! The mess consists of quick reminder notes and extremely rough sketches for ideas I get while I’m working on something else when I can’t tend to them immediately. Deep down, I appreciate the minimalist working space but I think the creative side of me likes the clutter in some weird way. (Maybe it’s just an excuse to do less cleaning…)
Which is your favorite illustration that you have created so far in this journey?
Philip Sue: This is tough! I actually have a piece I have finished recently but haven’t released yet which is so far my favorite! If it’s out of my released work, it will be my artwork named ‘Sphere’.
Philip Sue: I am quite fortunate that the majority of my clients come to me specifically for ‘my work’. At most, they will give me a few requirements that must be included but even the rules are not rigid in the context of my creativity. They would let me run wild with my ideas.
Personally, I don’t mind either way, as I think it is a good mix and balance to have both. I do a lot of personal work at night after I am done working on client projects which allows me to run wild with my ideas. So if all my clients, suddenly, turned around and gave more strict briefs, I would still be okay with it. I like working closely with my clients and they are usually really open to my contributing ideas and additions. In return, I ensure that I communicate my reasons to my clients.
When it comes to drawing inspiration for your portfolio, which sources do you consider?
Philip Sue: For personal work, I find that it is of the most important to create what is in my heart – An idea and artwork that is so unique to yourself it can separate you from others. I believe that by doing this, you will naturally be able to create a unique portfolio that breathes YOU through it. We, as individuals, have different experiences and complex emotions within our hearts. So it only makes sense to use this to our advantage as creatives. Drawing upon ideas based on our individual experiences will allow for more unique and original work to be produced!
Who has been your true mentor along this journey?
Philip Sue: I have had a couple of mentors help me immensely during the earlier stages of my journey to set me on the right track.
But the true mentor? I would have to say it’s the ‘constant challenges’ presented to me whenever I’m creating. Encountering problems that require creative problem-solving whenever I’m working on a new piece of artwork is a good example of this.
Which exciting projects are you looking forward to in the year 2023?
Philip Sue: I have got lots of exciting client projects booked up for the first quarter of the year but I can’t say much about it just yet!
I am also super pumped to just sit back, relax and power through some personal work as usual and just see what comes out of it. Going with the flow!