Find David West online
DAL: Hello David, thank you for joining us at Digital Art Live, it’s nice to have you here with us. Before we get started talking about your writing, the fascination you have for dinosaurs and how you use CG to illustrate your stories, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Who is the man behind the stories and non-fiction children’s books? What is your background?
DW: I’ve always been able to draw since I was 6 or 7. So I obviously ended up going to art college and after a one year Foundation course I completed a three-year course in Information Graphics. I’m a graphic designer by training, but I’m just as happy creating illustrations and cartoons. When I left art college I was already illustrating a book on classic cars and I immediately got a part time job at the Radio Times, designing layouts.
DAL: For the benefit of our overseas readers, I should say that the weekly Radio Times is the BBC’s flagship TV and radio listings magazine.
DW: I was also illustrating for an advertising company. Eventually I ended up working for a children’s book packager. Today I run my own business creating children’s non-fiction books for the international school and library market. Our books are published around the world in over 20 countries. I am involved in all aspects and typically design, illustrate and write as many as I have time for — which can be up to 40 books a year. This, of course, means that I can choose what style of artwork to use and as art director and illustrator I am never out of work. I use 3D computer art in most of my books these days.
DAL: How did you start off in 3D?
Joining us for this special themed issue on “dino’s and dragons” is David West, a multi-talented writer and illustrator from London, UK. David uses Poser and Vue to create pictures for children’s illustrated educational books.
DW: The first program I used was Infini-D. It was a very simple program to learn, though it was very limited in what it could achieve. I was working on a series of 20th Century Design books and I was having difficulty sourcing photographs of various modern furniture pieces. I soon discovered that I could create them using Infini-D and get a high photographic finish on the render. I then started using it to create diagrams in other books.
When I discovered Poser and Vue a whole world of 3D art opened up. No longer was I confined to creating simple geometric artwork. I sourced a lot of models from free sites, and from stores like DAZ 3D and Renderosity. At around this time governments in both the UK and US were cutting back on school and library funding, which meant that there was less money to spend on books. Being able to create the artwork myself meant that I could create our books at a much lower cost. It does mean I have to work ‘all the hours’, but to me it’s not like working. If I’m not creating artwork on the computer I’m doing it on paper or I’m painting in oils on canvas. I have to be making art.
DAL: You are a prolific writer, but dinosaurs seem to have a particular place close to your heart. Have you always had a fascination with these giants of the prehistoric era? How did it come about?
DW: Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a prolific writer. I’ve fallen into it, again, to save on cost. It does mean, however, that the text and artwork works together much better. In the past I would design a layout and then brief the author and illustrator. But I never got exactly what I wanted. There was always something ‘missing in translation’. Now, of course, the text and artwork are in a true symbiosis.
As for dinosaurs, I kind of fell into them as well. I’d always wanted to illustrate a series of dinosaur books but knew that it would take far too long using traditional art methods. I then discovered some superb Poser models of dinosaurs and realised that there were enough of them to create a series of dinosaurs that covered all three prehistoric periods from the Triassic to the Cretaceous. Using Poser and Vue, and then finishing in Adobe Photoshop, I was able to create some fantastic scenes — scenes which would have taken forever using traditional methods. I have since created another four series of dinosaurs which amounts to 26 individual books. My friends ask me: “What are you working on?” When I reply, “Dinosaurs”. They laugh, and say if it wasn’t for dinosaurs I would also be extinct. They may have a point.
DAL: /Laughter/ Quite an observation! Do you have a favourite dinosaur? Can you tell us what makes that creature special for you?
DW: Actually, I don’t have a favourite dinosaur. There are many dinosaurs that palaeontologists have discovered a great deal about, such as their lifestyles and what they looked like, sometimes even to the point of what colour they were. These dinosaurs are a pleasure to illustrate and write about. Others have little information — perhaps only a small part of them has been discovered, such as a single tooth. These are more difficult to realise. The exciting thing about dinosaurs is that there are new ones being discovered every year. Which, of course, means more books!
DAL: How did the decision to write children’s books set in the present day that feature dinosaurs come about?
DW: Ahah! You are referring to my Dinosaurs in My Street series of books. Creating books for kids is great fun. One of the best bits is coming up with an idea that will take a well-worn subject and re-invent it. Thinking ‘outside the box’ can produce some great ideas. I once produced a book called Brain Surgery for Beginners. It was, in effect, a book about the human body. With Dinosaurs in My Street I wanted to do another series of dinosaur books, but differently. Showing them in a modern environment allowed me to introduce characters to interact with the dinosaurs — which made the books appeal to a trade market as well as school and library. From an illustrator’s point it was exciting, too. I had some great models of cities and buildings and of course many vehicles and people. When I first came up with the idea not one publisher was interested — but I really wanted to do it. So I created them as e-books and published them on the Apple iBook book store as a series of six books. They even had a bit of animation. They have sold very well and print publishers have now opted to publish them as a printed single volume which, so far, has been sold into several countries.
DAL: You use Poser, don’t you? What are the strengths of this programme?
DW: Poser is a great program for people like me, who do not have time to build and texture 3D models. I don’t use it for rendering but simply to pose the models, which I then export and import into Vue. Poser is simple to use and very stable. There are a huge variety of royalty-free models which include vehicles and animals, as well as people. The one shortfall is many of the conforming clothes are not realistic enough and require a lot of retouching on folds, especially if you have characters in the foreground.
DAL: The models you use are quite spectacular. They look very similar in style. Who is your go-to dinosaur guy? What makes him a cut above the rest?
DW: I once got a free dinosaur model from a 3D magazine, it was of a Cryolophosaurus which I thought was amazing. It was by Dinoraul, and his models in my opinion are the best out there. The quality of the texture and bump map and the detail of the modelling is excellent. And just as important, they are affordable and they are made for Poser.
DAL: How do you go about deciding how to pose them? Do you take into consideration what experts say about dinosaur habitats and their potential behaviour?
DW: Dinoraul’s models each come with a set of poses and usually a variety of textures, so that if you have a herd of dinosaurs then you don’t have to make new texture sets. You certainly have to be careful when posing dinosaurs. I am not an expert but I have done enough research to realise that you have to study up on each species before posing. In the past illustrators would pose the tails lying flat along the ground. This was the view of palaeontologists at the time. Since then we have come to realise that their tails were held out parallel to the ground. Hand postures can be another potential mistake. Many could not rotate their wrists, so you have to be careful that they are not holding their prey the wrong way.
DAL: Has the idea of their habitats also changed?
DW: Habitats are another area where a scene can fall apart, because the wrong plants have been introduced. All too often I have seen dinosaurs grazing in grasslands when grass only showed up in fossil records about 67 million years ago. Dinosaurs lived between 230 and 65 million years ago. So to make a scene interesting and unusual it is important to research the time period and area in which your dinosaurs were known to be living. There might be prehistoric plants such as flowers and also insects that can be included. Many people don’t realise that birds and small mammals evolved during the time of the dinosaurs. However, you don’t have to worry about many of these considerations when you put dinosaurs in the middle of a modern city!
DAL: Some of your subjects seem prickly customers. We’ve all been to the cinema to see T-Rex and his brood tear through cars and velociraptors bearing down on their prey using those fearsome talons. How do you find working with them? They must be a handful…
DW: No, not at all. Working out a scene is a delight. Each dinosaur has its own character, which easily produced a scenario. Such as the Parasaurolophus joining in with a busking trumpet player or a Diplodocus getting its whip-like tail caught in telephone wires. There are occasions where the kids are running or cycling from chasing dinosaurs but they’re not afraid. I purposely made people, especially adults, ignore them so that the scenes took on a surreal, dreamlike quality.
DAL: It certainly seems to work. That’s great, thanks very much, David. We wish you all the best in the future.
DW: My pleasure.