by Grant Moser
“Years ago I made my wife cry when my business plan was ‘Be an awesome dude,’” explained Mt. Airy resident and visual artist Chris McDonnell, 32. “Let’s just say it’s in progress, and I’m hoping it continues. I’ve been focusing and refocusing my work toward just what I like to do.”
Since graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2001, McDonnell has worked on a variety of projects. He tasted a little of the first Internet bubble working at a website that created weekly flash animation cartoons. He lived in Los Angeles for two years working on a TV show called “Tom Goes to the Mayor” on Adult Swim. In the last few years, he’s been working on the design and layout for coffee table-style books for Universe, the pop-culture imprint of Rizzoli Publishing. In that role, he has worked on more than 10 different books, including the histories of Wonder Woman, The Joker, The Green Lantern and Universal Studios Horror Monsters.
“My interests growing up probably reflect what I’m doing now, which is a pretty general attack on all aspects of the visual arts and storytelling,” said McDonnell. “I always enjoyed drawing and was encouraged to draw. I was fortunate to go to schools growing up where there were good art programs. I went to The Miquon School and that was a hugely formative experience. I would make illustrated books and comics in school and at home. In high school my friends and I would make parody newspapers and magazines.” In college Chris and his friends self-published comic books. That comic collective, Meathaus, is still active today. Chris also studied animation.
“Animation is a whole other side to me, but to me it’s all related. The big picture is that I’m a storyteller; it’s just what I like to do. I feel just as comfortable attempting to work in all these different forms.”
One project that meant a lot to Chris, as well as helping launch his relationship with Universe, was “Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi.” Chris considers the famed Bakshi a friend and a mentor, ever since they met at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where Ralph was a teacher. Bakshi is an animation director who’s famous (or infamous) as an artist and cartoonist whose most famous work was “Fritz the Cat,” the first X-rated animated feature film.
“John M. Gibson and I were associates of Ralph,” said Chris, “and we said ‘There’s no book about Ralph, we got to make this book.’ He gets a really personal and improvised quality into his feature animated films. One thing he’s taught me certainly is that animation has such great potential. He’s always saying that animation’s potential is as large as any art form; where are the adults making animated features for adults, saying things that adults think about?”
But one of Chris’ favorite projects is “Sasquatch’s Big Hairy Drawing Book,” which was published last fall. “I remember part of my inspiration being any book that I really enjoyed as a child was more than just a book that you ‘read.’ I was especially inspired by the books that were interactive — ‘Where’s Waldo?,’ ‘The Eleventh Hour’ mystery book, Mad Libs. These were what I was thinking about when I went to make an interactive activity book.”
As exciting and rewarding as his projects sound, the life of a freelance artist is not easy. “A freelance, visual artist has to be a businessperson. You have to be able to market yourself, sell yourself, be smart about the decisions you make. Fortunately for me, my wife and I have supported each other through different times.”
In between all of his freelance work, McDonnell also teaches at The University of the Arts in center city. His current course is basically an introduction to computer animation.
Technology is a huge part of the visual artist’s toolbox today, but McDonnell likes to start with the basics. “I’m very much a traditional media enthusiast. That’s where I always start, and I always tell students you’ve got to start thumbnailing and sketching and drawing on paper, and you’ve got to keep a sketchbook, but my entire existence would not be possible without computers.”
As for anyone hoping to become a visual artist, McDonnell says the one thing to remember is determination. “You can’t wait for someone’s permission to do what you love; you have to just do it at every chance you get. If you like to draw monsters, just draw monsters every day. That’s what I did growing up, and that’s why I did the book (‘Sasquatch’s’) — to draw weird monsters.”
He is currently working on two more books, one for Universe about the history of science fiction in conjunction with the SyFy channel, and one for Rizzoli about the history of the Hollywood magazine, “Variety.” He’s also doing animation shorts for a new comedy show on HBO called “All Things Brody,” a semi-documentary show about the comedian Brody Stevens.
For more information about McDonnell and his work, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://mcdworkshop.com/.