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Interview: Digital artist Eric Proctor

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a highly regarded artist named Eric Proctor, known to many by his online handle TsaoShin. His work has appeared in magazines, as well as many sites, including Kotaku and Smosh, and he's received the distinction of "daily deviation" multiple times on DeviantArt. His gallery on DeviantArt has received over 700,000 views, with nearly 60,000 favorites. He sells his work at conventions, primarily Otakon — where this year he'll be teaching a course on digital painting (taking a break from selling).

By day, Eric is a graphic designer, making a career out of his skill with visual media. Though the techniques used in painting and in design are different, both pursuits aid his growth as an artist.

He's shared with us some of his views on art, his inspirations, and his advice to others out there wanting to find joy in art. Let's get started:

Any text noted beside the orange line is Eric's response, while text above it contains my comments or questions.


What have you been playing, reading, or watching? Any recent things you would recommend?

I was watching Game of Thrones, which just ended its second season. I would recommend that, it's awesome. The last game I played was a game called Limbo, which is a pretty short game, but it's really fantastic. It reminded me a lot of Braid.

How long have you considered yourself an artist?

Well, I did go through school to become an artist, but I wouldn't say that after graduation I still felt like one. I think, when I was getting into digital painting is when I started to actually identify as an artist. So that was probably about 2002. (I graduated in 2001). So, for maybe about the last 10 years have I really considered myself an artist.

So you were studying art, and still didn't really feel like you were…

No, I didn't, I really didn't identify with the other studio painters that were at my school. I didn't ever feel like I fit in with the whole "artist scene."

Is that because you… got into art later in your life, or were you into it earlier?

Well, I've always kind of liked drawing, but I'd say it had more to do with the fact that they're more traditional painters, and I was really heavily going digital, and they didn't see that as "actual art". They were much more traditional than I was. And, while I did a lot of traditional painting, I didn't identify with the kind of artwork that they had. So, until graduation, I found my "safe zone" online. That's probably where I considered myself an artist, when I started seeing other digital painters and some of the fantastic work they were doing.

What would you say motivates your work the most?

Fantasy themes are probably my highest motivation. I like to create scenes that don't exist currently, or to go off on a tangent of fantasy. Fantasy has always been sort of my "go-to" genre for as long as I can remember. And in that, there's also games. So, any games where you're in a fantasy style setting are kind of an easy direction to go in. So, if I'm not doing just high fantasy that's coming from my own head, it's always fandom stuff. Especially game things like Legend of Zelda because they explore a lot of fantasy themes. Growing up, the graphics weren't always so fantastic, so you filled in the gap with your own imagination. That's kind of where I am now. Kind of re-imagining older games.

The Final Boss

The Final Boss

How does it feel to have fans?

Well, for me, it was kind of a slow growth into having actual fans, where people recognize me at cons, or just people paying attention to what I'm doing.

I think you've had fans for quite a while... in terms of just, online presence.

Well, I've had fans more intimate with me, so it seems like a smaller group of people, but when it came to a point where my artwork is being displayed in places where people are telling me that's where it's being displayed, or being published, or even just having people say they recognize me while I'm at a con… that was kind of a shock. it was a slow progression, but it always still amazes me, or surprises me when someone comes up and says "I know who you are." "I recognize this Irom so and so website or so and so publication." It always feels really good. Like, I think more than anything that's probably the biggest reward for doing artwork: seeing how people see it and recognize it and coming up and saying they know who you are.

Suppose I, or someone who isn't exactly an experienced artist, looked at one of your highly detailed pieces and said, "Hey, that detail, that one there, is completely wrong," or attempted to otherwise critique your work in a manner that shows... little understanding. How do you react?

So the person isn't really…?

Well, maybe the comment holds a little water, but they aren't necessarily someone that's informed of the decisions, or…

Well, any time you put your artwork online, or in a public forum, you're gonna get criticism. It can be something that's totally asinine, or something that's very valuable. And what you'd do is basically weigh your own self-evaluation. I feel like I'm probably my own worst critic, so no one's gonna say something that I haven't already thought. (laughs) So if I see something and I feel like it actually adds value, I might thank them, say, "Hey thanks, that's actually a pretty valuable critique." Because when you look at something long enough, you start to gloss over some of your mistakes.

What advice would you give to someone who feels they aren't improving as an artist?

I think the best advice is… For me, Youtube wasn't around, or wasn't as big as it was when I was getting into digital painting. The biggest thing for me to improve with is watching other people's process. And, now that Youtube is around, I think that that's probably the best thing to do to improve, is to watch other people and their method. Find someone who uses the same program as you, and watch them draw from a blank canvas to a finished piece. Just watch what they did.

There's a lot of that stuff around now, a lot of tutorials. I'd just say keep trying and don't give up. Don't do things like copying screen grabs or tracing… you don't learn anything by that. Really what you should be doing is being okay with putting up whatever you have, no matter what level you think you are, just create, put it up, and have people evaluate it, then step up, and keep going.

What would you say to someone who finds themselves with a "style." They'd call it "their style." And every drawing, everything they render is very similar, but it's kind of stuck in a less progressed form.

Well, I guess in that way, you'd have to ask yourself one of two things: Are they stuck because they're making money on that style, and it's working, so there's no reason to change? If it's not hurting anyone, just keep doing it if its profitable. Personally, I don't like that, because I'm always about self-improvement. If they were crying out for help because they feel all their faces look the same or the poses are the same, or the style looks all flat. You know, really what you should be doing is just browsing other artwork. Stop looking at things that are similar to your own, start looking at things that kind of push the envelope.

So what would you say to someone that THINKS they're constantly improving, but it's pretty clear to anyone that… they're not…?

It's always hard with art, and artists. You never want to tell someone unsolicited information about their style. If they're not aware of it, then as long as it's making them happy, I step back. It's when they give me an in, when they say, "I don't know if I've improved in a while," I might step in and say, "Hey have you ever tried…" Like, if they've done a lot of line-art drawings, then try to do more digital painting effects rather than a line art, coloring underneath sort of method.

I found myself with the same problem. It took me a long time to progress into higher platforms like Photoshop because I was using Oekaki and Groupboard. The comment I got consistently was, "why don't you use the nicer platforms for art, because your art kind of all looks the same?" It was a nice life saver that people were throwing to me but it's really about self discovery.

Do you think you improve over time?

I hope I do. Well, I do, but I hope that's true. Every once in a while, I'll do a house cleaning, where I'll look at my old art work and try to really, really look at it, and be judgmental and say, "Have I improved since last year?" "Have I improved since five years ago?" I think that I have. When I look at my older art work, it's pretty flat, and it's clear that I had a comfort zone that I wasn't willing to jump out of. The artwork I do now, I do much faster. I dropped the level of detail that I used to do, cause I thought that it was not worth it. While it could be an improvement, some people could say the level of detail was what they liked about my artwork eight years ago. But it's not about what they want, it's really more about what I think is making it better for me.

So you would say that improvement can be subjective in many ways?

It really can. Like, my artwork is not as highly detailed as it was before. I still try to capture that look and feel, but it really just takes a long time to do that, and I think in the end, it flattens the artwork. I've had people comment that the style I have now is more sketchy and loose, but personally I actually like that a lot better.

Would you say that there's still things to learn in terms of form or uh, composition, or… is there a point at which you kind of, you just get it?

I used to think that way. I used to think that once you had the fundamentals, that's it. From that point forward it's all about creativity, but having been online and drawing for the last ten years… I'd say that yeah, there's always things to be learned. I've been using Photoshop for 10 years, but I can still stand to learn more about it, for automated purposes, or making different kinds of brushes behave better than they did before. But yeah, for composition, those core elements of art, you can always improve. There's always room for improvement.

Or, at least maybe, room for stylization.

Yeah, like either, you may or may not be aware of how much your composition was choking your artwork before, until someone, somewhere, or you saw something that did something out of the box to you, and you're like, "Wow, I might try that next time."

How does media (games, books, movies, comics) you enjoy influence your art? Not necessarily for fan art, but...

Like seeing the artwork being portrayed in that, and how does that make me think about my own stuff?


Well, I know for games, any game I play is usually a journey. You get so intimate with that world, that it's presenting to you the artwork that's involved with it. It's going to affect you. Every game I play has a different style, or different concept art. It's a huge package of different ideas. Usually, sometimes, it's a little overwhelming, and I get infatuated with whatever I'm in. Whatever I play is introducing me to a new set of ideas, a new process. I might see a dragon portrayed in a totally different way than I had ever imagined before, so every little thing I see is going to affect what I do, and turn around and create.

Do you ever, say, read a scene in a book, or play through a particularly poignant part of a game, and say, "Oh wow, I want to capture that somehow."

Yeah, that happens a lot.

Does that usually spawn fan art, or does that spawn something unique, or could it be either?

It usually spawns fan art, if not something that's a finished piece, then at least doodles. Especially if it's from a book. A book — you're filling in all the visuals with your own mind, and you can't help yourself, when you read something so amazing that you wanna portray that visually. And like I said with old games, there's so much room for filling in the blanks, that it's kind of a natural progression to try and do fan art of the scene you're into, or the characters, or any number of things where you feel like you have your own spin on it.

Hiccup's Treasure Map

Hiccup's Treasure Map

How many things are you drawing that people never see?

I'd say the ratio for what doesn't get seen versus what is seen is probably 4 to 1. For every one drawing that you see on my DeviantArt page, there's probably 3 others that never make it. They either get to a point where I just don't have time, or I don't like the way the idea is going, and they kind of just go unfinished.

So this is beyond just doodles, this is pieces you plan.

Yeah, pieces that would have possibly gone up and been finished. Doodles, yeah, there's countless amounts of doodles.

Why do you love cats?

(Laughs) What's not to love about cats? They're amazing creatures! First of all, they're easy to have as pets. I'd like to have a dog, but it's not realistic for me. Cats are actually a pretty big source of inspiration for me. A lot of the fantasy creatures I come up with, or creatures that I take and reduce to cuddly, they're all coming right out of cats. Like, the things they do, or the way they look. Especially my cat Grendel, who looks like a monster himself. I love cats. I probably have toxoplasmosis.

What's that?

It's that parasite that cats carry that makes people love them. (laughs)

(Laughs) Okay. That's depressing. (laughter)


The coolest cat ever, Grendel.

How is graphic design different from traditional art?

Oh, wow. Graphic design is a big box of things, not just what I do, it can be a number of stuff. Between graphic design and traditional?


Well, I'd say that graphic design kind of started traditionally, but, and people are going to hate this definition, but I find that graphic design is more advertisement-based than traditional. Traditional, you think immediately of things that are decorative, or things that say a statement, whereas graphic design is something that's selling something, or advertising something, or making a brochure look nice or...

Would you agree that graphic designers are chronically undervalued and often underpaid?


What advice might you give an aspiring graphic designer trying to get work, or trying to be valued?

Never take speculative work. And never take work where the person is saying, "I'll feature you, or I'll publish you, or I'm gonna do all these things, but I'm not gonna pay you." Don't do those things. Don't ever undersell yourself.

So that would be speculative work?

Yeah, basically never take work where you're never going to get paid. Your time is as valuable as anyone else's. Always demand payment, never do anything for free. At the same time, never be unreasonable. If you can find a job, especially in the economy right now, then take it. Once you have said job, even if you don't think it's paying you what you think you're worth, it's still experience. Work where you're getting paid is experience, but work where you're not getting paid isn't really going to be good for you career-wise.

Once you have your job, remember that, as a designer, you're offering a very unique asset to your job. Not everyone can sit down and design. Not everyone can sit down and draw. It's work that's needed. Everywhere you go, you see graphic design. So, once you land that job, that's when you start to make yourself valuable, and don't be complacent with doing one kind of design. Start thinking about picking up 3D, or start picking up motion graphics, because those are kind of the directions that graphic design is going. Once you make yourself valuable, you can start making demands on your pay, or taking jobs that you think are going to go in the direction you want.

That's the end of my questions. Do you have anything you want to share about your personal experience as an artist, as a designer, as anything?

I feel like, design-wise, yeah you're gonna have to get out there. Design is very different from what I do at home. When I'm illustrating, that's all for me personally. The success I have there is all because I keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it. What I would say to people that are getting into digital painting, and getting out there, and doing fandom, and trying to get popular, trying to get their work out there so people can see it, or going to cons… just keep trying.

I think the best way to share your artwork is all there, online. I think DeviantArt is the obvious first step in trying to get out and promote your artwork to people. That's the best thing to do. Then as far as graphic design goes, school is important. It helps you get in, but experience is also number one. Take the jobs you can, and make yourself unique, make yourself valuable.

The header image is "The Duel," and can be found here.