Visual Design

Visual Design

Artist Spotlight: Johnny Atomic, Concept & Cover Artist

How did you get started with illustration? When did you know illustration was the career path you wanted to pursue?

I started as a college art instructor. Like a lot of people, I figured it would be a good way to get my feet wet and still work in the field. My students wanted more information than the school curriculum provided, and frankly more than I possessed, especially in the realm of business. I began a quest to interview the best illustrators and designers in the country and bring back valuable data on art pricing, portfolio and interview techniques and even best-practices for new artists.

The artists I interviewed were very generous with their time and advice. Every one of them was eager to help. I was amazed by how much I didn’t know, and how different my thinking was than that of a professional illustrator. Kind of embarrassing, since I was teaching the subject.

The students loved the new information I was bringing them and I was learning by leaps and bounds. Not everything I learned was “good news” of course. Entry level pay was lower, portfolio expectations were higher, and level of industry understanding was more critical than I had thought. But the students felt far more prepared when they knew what they were really up against. Then I got more of an education than I bargained for.

Administration said that the factual data I had gathered painted too bleak a picture and, rather than raise the bar for instruction, they would not allow me to share what I had learned with the students. You see, the “academic advisors” at some of these colleges are really no more than used car salesmen. They only get paid if you enroll. As a result, they would tell the students that anybody could make it in today’s art field and everyone would have a high paying job when they graduated. The school could simply not afford to have me invalidate that lie.

But I told a handful of my favorite students everything I learned (in private) and then quit teaching. Those students are all very successful now — and I couldn’t be happier with my work or my life.


Describe your design process. How is your process different than others?

Once I started a company and had a trusted and knowledgeable business partner, I began using him as an informal “art director.” You see, art can be a lot like writing. It’s great to have total freedom, but it can make you sloppy if there is no one to reign you in now and then. Ken Chapman (League Entertainment Co-Founder) is a great storyteller and really “gets” the rules of design and layout, so even with no formal art background he makes an excellent sounding board.

Technically I start my book covers the same way video game designers do. I find reference photography that I think captures the feel of what I want to paint. I gather up pictures and then do some dynamic line-art sketches and show them to Ken. We talk about what effect we want the cover to have and if we are hitting all the bases, visually.

Once we agree on a direction I tighten up the look and do a fairly detailed “comp.” The “comp” stage is where we make picky choices about color and minute changes to layout or character posing. This is also where we start looking at the art with the book title and author name in place, to make sure everything holds together and is intriguing to the eye. This process is perfect for getting the best work, but it requires that the illustrator (me) be able to take ego out of the equation and work only toward what is best for the product. That is hard for a lot of artists to take.

Last, I just start painting. It takes about two weeks to finish a digital painting. I use the Wacom Cintq 21 as my painting platform with Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter as the primary software. The high res art is turned over to Ken, who does the actual layouts for the cover and interior. Then it’s done!


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    "Sentinels" by League Entertainment, Copyright 2015 Linn Schwab. All rights reserved. 

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    "Airships & Spies" by League Entertainment, Copyright 2015 Alyth Burnett. All rights reserved. 

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    "Summons" by League Entertainment, Copyright by 2014 Johnny Eaton. All rights reserved. 

What are some of the aspects of being an illustrator that someone who doesn’t understand the profession would never think of?

Art is a business. That is the hardest thing to explain to a newcomer. Art is made by vibrant, creative weirdoes, which is as it should be. But vibrant, creative weirdoes are usually neither equipped nor inclined to deal with money. So unless you want to be a vibrant, creative homeless person, you have no choice but to face the realities of business. You need someone to keep your financial records straight; you need someone to look over your contracts; you need someone to write contact letters for you. If you don’t happen to be a master at any of these things, then you need to find help. Any professional artist is a little tiny company and a company needs all its parts.

We tend to assume that if we create great art, we will do great business. Nothing could be further from the truth. Donald Trump is a great businessman, but you would never say, “Gosh, with business knowledge like that, he must be one hell of a painter!” It would sound pretty stupid, wouldn’t it? You must train and study for what you want to be great at. You want good art? Study art. You want to be rich? Study business. If you are just starting out in your training, trust me, your head can hold two things at once. It only sounds daunting. It isn’t. Business can even be fun (but not taxes).

The second hardest thing to explain is that despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the only way to start your new art career is just to start.

Art is a business. That is the hardest thing to explain to a newcomer. Art is made by vibrant, creative weirdoes, which is as it should be. But vibrant, creative weirdoes are usually neither equipped nor inclined to deal with money. So unless you want to be a vibrant, creative homeless person, you have no choice but to face the realities of business.

Talk a little bit about your schooling/training. What was it like? How did training prepare you to be in business for yourself?

I’ve been drawing since my teens but I stopped for more than ten years to pursue sports. When I was done with that I was already thirty years old. By that age most professional illustrators are finishing their advanced degrees and I had never even been to college!

My art school sucked (you can read my analysis on that here) but I was old enough to realize that I had been ripped off. Instead of crying, I started doing apprentice work with master illustrators in my city, and studying the habits of the mega-names in the industry. That is the cool thing about living in the digital age. Anybody you want to talk to, read an interview from, or watch a video of, is available to you.

My formal (in school) training was pathetic, and worse, business was not only never taught, it was never mentioned. Sadly, that continues to be the case in most “art academies” to this day.

If you know that art is going to be your life, then I recommend either attending a school that is run by master illustrators like TAD or Gnomon, or buying the instructional DVDs of those types of schools and just studying them. I learned more in six months of self directed study through “master class” tutorials than in two years of learning poorly taught fundamentals from people who had never worked in the entertainment industry in their lives.

I started doing apprentice work with master illustrators in my city, and studying the habits of the mega-names in the industry. That is the cool thing about living in the digital age. Anybody you want to talk to, read an interview from, or watch a video of, is available to you.

How much of your learning/training was hands on, once you started your career?

All of it. I spend as much time and money as necessary to stay up to date with the latest art and design techniques. Constant self improvement is a must. Right now I’m doing the Gnomon courses on background and environment paintings by Dylan Cole. I go through at least ninety (combined) days of training per year. All of that training costs me less than a grand annually. Compare that to the cost of attending any college for the same year, and learning practically nothing. Ten times the knowledge in a quarter of the time. It’s a no-brainer.

If you are in school now, start taking the extra time to do as many free, project-based tutorials as you can get your hands on. Just look for tutorials by the artists you already like and respect.


What are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis? What are some of the “truths” of the industry that a beginning artist needs to know?

It is always hard. Deadlines are a drag and must never be missed. You make good money but it comes in chunks and if you don’t chase more jobs, you won’t get any. Even the luxuries you enjoy are making life harder for you on some level. I don’t have to get up at any given time, so I don’t. That means I end up having to work into the wee hours of the morning to get my work done. Discipline is very hard to maintain when nobody is your manager. Notice I said “manager” and not “boss.” That’s because when you work for yourself, everybody is your boss. If they pay your bills, they are in charge, and they are often not very polite about that fact.

You want a hard truth? None of your clients understand the time and energy you’ve invested to develop your skills and none of them really care. They all secretly resent having to pay your fee. Deep down, everyone thinks that they could have gotten it done for less or for free, somewhere else. And they are right. They could. But they would never get the final result they wanted or even get the job done at all by going to the lowest bidder. But they don’t realize that, so they are offended (though they won’t tell you) that you want $1,000 for a painting when they have a cousin in art school who says he will do the same job for “exposure.”

I actually had a guy receive a huge discount and then attack us for having the nerve to put him on the work schedule. He believed it was a personal insult if we didn’t push him to the front of the line. He dropped the job and I couldn’t have been happier.


How do you balance the demands of art as a business?

A great way not to run around like a chicken with your head cut off is to get a “Gatekeeper,” someone close to you who answers your calls and receives your email. It should be pretty easy to get a friend, relative, or significant other to do this for you. Our profession doesn’t require constant email shuffling, but it can be a hassle answering queries from unqualified buyers when you are right in the middle of the job. Give your Gatekeeper a title like “Business Manager” or “Agent” and hand out business cards that have your artwork and your name on them — but with the contact information for your Gatekeeper, not you.

When the Gatekeeper has heard the pitch and the price he or she will tell you what’s up and get your input. If it sounds like a good deal, then you can talk to the potential client yourself. Some points:

1. Try not to talk to the client personally until there is a contract or a down payment in place. If your Gatekeeper has a pleasant attitude and good communication skills, nobody will mind. The Gatekeeper should always politely explain that you are working far too hard to answer all new client propositions personally. You would love to, but you just don’t have the time.

2. If the client starts throwing extra requests for work on you, or trying to add work to the current project without offering extra pay, always say something like, “I don’t have a problem with doing the work, but you will have to run it by (Gatekeeper) first. Do you have his/her number? If not, I can get it for you.” Always say “yes.” Always let your Gatekeeper say “no.”


What are some of the things people should know before they go into business for themselves? 

Last question first: There is always hope. There are as many fans of art as there are artists willing to do the work. Don’t worry about someone being better than you, because someone always is. You are obligated to be the best artist you can be, nothing more.

I’m going to give you a secret that will start you out head and shoulders above your peers. Start out living in someone’s basement and working for free.

That’s not some snarky joke.

When you have just started, you need to prove that you can complete a job, not that you know how to draw. So get any job that comes to you at any price. For example, I did several comic books for the amazing fee of $200, including cover. But I was forced to make hard deadlines and draw 8-10 hours a day without a day off. I literally produced hundreds of images in a 30 day period. That was factors more than I produced in two years in college. In 90 days I was easily twice as good as I was when I graduated. My wife was paying the bills and I worked my butt off, but it was the most valuable thing I could have done with my time.

Proving you are a good artist is easy… and basically valueless. Lots of people can draw. Proving you can get the job done is priceless.


What do aspiring artists need to know about marketing and self-promotion?

It’s very hard. In fact, if you are considering art as a lifestyle because you think it will be easy, you have already failed. The good news is that the more you work, the more work you get. You can get a lot of jobs by having jobs out there. A finished job is worth as much as a month of letter writing and door knocking. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be doing those things as well, but finished jobs are gold for finding more work. It doesn’t matter how big the client is.


How has art impacted your life? How is it a lifestyle for you? What kind of background helps you succeed in art as a career?

That is a really cool question. Lifestyle and background are kind of the point, but nobody brings that up. Use whatever you like doing or have a skill at to form a worldview that you can apply to art. You see, if you are great at anything, you can transfer the benefits of that thinking to your new career.

Whatever you already do or like is still useful to you in terms of the successful strategies and behaviors it taught you. This collection of behaviors, strategies, and perspectives is called a paradigm.

So if you love World of WarCraft, don’t give up your game paradigm for “real life” thinking. Rather, use your “game think” to make life more like WarCraft. Get it?

For example; I think in terms of fighting because I used to fight in the Bad Man competitions (these brutal fights were the forerunners of the MMA, but had almost no rules and no weight classes). I consider everything in terms of “taking a hit,” “slipping a punch,” “leading with your face,” etc. A football player might think in terms of making a “Hail Mary” pitch to an unlikely client, being in “overtime” during a negotiation, or facing a “third and long” in terms of job completion. Video game players may concern themselves with “leveling up” their skills, getting an “extra life” in terms of a big check, or joining a “guild” of like-minded illustrators.

Life will get harder, but that is just the nature of growing up. It doesn’t have to be fundamentally different in terms of how you think and what you enjoy. So that’s pretty cool.


What advice would you offer to students pursuing an art career of any form?


Quit right now and get a real job. You’re not as good as most artists out there and you never will be. The pay is low and so is the respect. I mean, seriously, to even have a chance of success you have to be a great illustrator, designer, 3D modeler, accountant, marketer, lawyer, and more, and who the hell has time for that? You really think you’re that smart? Just stop now and spare yourself the pain.

Still here? Good. I just listed perhaps a third of the reasons people will give you (and you will give yourself) for not doing what you want in life, no matter what that might be. As an exercise, I could easily put together a list of one hundred reasons you can’t make it in the art field.

But the reality is, while there are a hundred reasons not to do anything, you only require one reason to do it. If you can just come up with that one reason, you will do fine, and you can spend your career popping holes in the hundred reasons why you shouldn’t have tried.

For me, it’s all about time. I want power over my schedule. I want to go to Disney World in the middle of the day on a Thursday for no reason at all. I want to make it to every single one of my children’s birthday parties. I want to sleep in. I want to take my wife on long walks after a fine dinner just because she’s there. And I want the time to communicate with everyone out there who is reading this and looking for some hard-knocks, real-world advice. That is the lifestyle I want and it is the one I have.

I wish the same for you all. Good Luck!

Follow Johnny on Pinterest and Twitter and his company League Entertainment on Twitter.


  • Johnny Atomic
    Johnny Atomic

    Illustrator, Concept & Cover Artist, & Writer | John Jackson is the Chief Creative Officer for League Entertainment. He is most often recognized by his signature name, Johnny Atomic, and for his work as a concept and cover artist, which has been seen by millions.