Julian Gray is an illustrator and comic book creator. His art has been featured at a number of exhibitions and events, and weaves in themes of equality and representation, featuring minority characters that are rarely seen in mainstream media.
We spoke to Julian about developing rounded characters, creating movement in still images, and the rare joy of seeing representation that doesn’t affect a storyline.
How has your art style and content evolved since you began drawing?
Like many artists, I don’t remember a time I wasn’t drawing. I think every kid draws and then they get to an age where they decide to give it up – sometimes that’s into their late teens. I’ve watched some of my old school friends stop drawing, and it makes me a little sad. I’m entirely self-taught. My parents weren’t keen on me studying a creative subject, so I did psychology at university. I drew on the side – it wasn’t until I was 22 and dropped out of university for health reasons that I really looked at art as a career.
I think when you approach art from a professional standpoint, you start pushing your skills in a way you wouldn’t from a hobbyist standpoint. I stopped drawing my original characters for fun and started looking seriously at what viewers like to look at and consume. I also started the long process of filling in the gaps in my basics – anatomy, lighting, composition; things that you’d be forced to learn at art school, but that you have to guide yourself as a self-taught artist.
“I want to see stories about fantasy worlds, space travel, mysteries – all of that – where being queer, trans, disabled, or whatever, is incidental to the story.”Julian Gray
What do you love most about drawing?
Simply put, translating an image in my head into a form that other people can see. As my drawing skills have improved, my ability to put an image in my head down onto paper has gotten better. The main frustration I get from drawing is when I can’t get it to look like what I have in my head!
When I drew as a teenager, I drew my characters. I used to roleplay with my friends, and I wanted to depict my characters so my friends knew what they looked like. I didn’t always get as close as I’d like. Now when I draw, I like to think my teenage self would be chuffed with what I can produce. I’ve even gone back and drawn some of my old characters, to achieve the things I never could at that age.
That’s really what I love about drawing. The better I get, the closer I get to being able to come up with something in my head, and a few hours later, be able to show people exactly what I meant. That’s honestly amazing.
How do you keep yourself motivated to keep drawing?
This is a tough one! I have ADHD which wasn’t diagnosed until 2020 and motivating myself to draw regularly has always been difficult, but medication has helped me. Everybody is different in how they get motivated, but I find I really thrive off showing the different stages of my process and receiving positive feedback from friends and family. Sometimes when you spend a day drawing you don’t end up with a finished project at the end of the day, and that can almost feel like you’ve not ‘accomplished’ anything, so showing the drafts to people can help reassure you of that progress. Some people really enjoy seeing the process behind the creation of artwork!
This isn’t something I do daily, but I also find it helps to immerse myself in good and bad media, books, and other art. If it’s something inspiring it’ll get my creative juices flowing and I’ll want to draw what I see in front of me. If it’s something I’m critical of, that can actually inspire me to think, “I can do that better!”
What other creative work have you been inspired by lately?
I’ve recently been reading webcomics again after more than 10 years! Now that I’m uploading my own webcomic to Tapas, it gave me the motivation to check out other comics on the site, and there is some truly amazing work on there. It’s especially mind-blowing to think that so many talented artists put their work out there for free, so if there’s anything you enjoy and you can afford it, do consider supporting them with a couple of pounds here and there. Anyway, I would highly recommend the webcomic “Drugs & Wires” by Cryo and Io, a cyberpunk-style webcomic with comedy moments that had me laughing out loud. I’d also recommend “Kingfisher” by Skulkingfoxes, a 1920s occult mystery webcomic. They’re both available on Tapas.
“We have to understand who a character is to know how they would dress, or stand, or style themselves, and what effects that their life may have had on their appearance.”Julian Gray
What is the process of making a comic like? What aspects do you have to consider, and how do you approach them?
Different creators have different processes, but mine is pretty simple. I come up with an idea and write the script for it. I then draft the pages by first figuring out panel layout, then sketches, inks, and finally shading and colour.
One of the most crucial aspects I have to consider with my comics is how I’m going to turn my idea into static images. Normally I have this visual in my head of a moving, flowing scene – how do I translate that into panels and create that flow and movement without just drawing arrows all over the page? The answer lies in looking at how other comic artists have done it, and looking up reference photographs and videos.I’m currently working on a comic called “The Witch and the Warrior”, a wlw romance one-shot between a female knight and a witch she’s sent to kill. Sword-fighting makes up a huge part of the comic, and figuring out how to depict a dynamic fight in a static image has been a new challenge for me. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to go to YouTube and look up sword-fighting videos and take my own screenshots as reference images. That way, my drawings will be true to life but capture that motion of someone mid-step or mid-swing.
I see a lot of comics – even by professional artists – fall prey to having stiff figures. With comics, the sense of motion is so important. Use reference images and look at how the experts have done it; that’s my advice for just about anything.
How do you explore and develop the personalities of the characters in your art?
I’m a very character-oriented creator. You can tell some people are invested in the world first and the characters second – writers like JRR Tolkien, for example. I’m very much the reverse.
I nearly always begin a story by thinking of a character or characters who interest me, and build the world around them. I think if you’re not interested in your characters, you can’t understand their motivations, and that stifles a story. I’m not just talking about comics; the best illustrations have stories behind them that can be read and understood through just that one image.
From an outsider’s standpoint, the visual elements of a character are what tell you about that character: their features, clothing, the way they hold themselves. From a creator’s standpoint, we have to understand who they are to know how they would dress, or stand, or style themselves, and what effects that their life may have had on their appearance. Sometimes you get a sense of a character while you’re drawing them, rather than starting out with an idea in your head, but in my experience you always end up knowing the kind of person they are by the end of the picture.
You weave themes around equality and minority rights into your artwork – why do you feel that this representation is important?
I tick a lot of the minority boxes – I joke sometimes that I would win the “oppression olympics”. I’m queer, trans, disabled, neurodivergent, and a person of colour. It’s nearly impossible to be who I am and not have those themes work themselves into my art, because every artist uses their own experiences as a reference. Not only that, but as a member of those oppressed groups I often begrudge how little representation there is for people like me out there.
When I sit down to think of a story, I think about what I want to read. Most mainstream representation of LGBTQ or disabled stories is about the identity itself, whether it’s a tragic story about someone coming to terms with their disability or a heart-wrenching tale of a trans person coming out. A lot of us are tired of this kind of content. I want to see stories about fantasy worlds, space travel, mysteries, all of that, where being queer, trans, disabled, or whatever, is incidental to the story.
Thanks to the internet, we’re seeing creatives like myself putting out their work with these themes. They don’t need to rely on a publishing house or a big studio to take them on to get it out there. And I think the more this kind of indie content gets lifted up and noticed by audiences, the more the mainstream studios will start to pay attention.
“My goal is to get people to care, and to bring them into this world I’ve made, and if they learn something along the way, all the better.”Julian Gray
What do you want the impact of your work to be on its audience?
I really honestly love when people are invested in my work. I love seeing people react to my work, especially my comics; they feel sad when they read a sad scene, they feel joy when something good happens, they rage against the unfair circumstances facing the character. I find that amazing! I made them feel that way. I made them care about the characters I created, and through that, they often learn something about the realities of minority life they may not have thought about.
My goal isn’t to educate. For some people it is, and more credit to them, but I would quickly find that boring. My goal is to get people to care, and to bring them into this world I’ve made, and if they learn something along the way, all the better. My current comic, “The Invalid’s Valet”, is a romance between a disabled Victorian aristocrat and his valet. It’s inspired by my own experiences with chronic illness. I’ve already had a couple of comments from people who, through my comic, have expressed sympathy about how hard it must be to live with a chronic illness. The comic wasn’t made to educate people about chronic illness, but because they put themselves into the shoes of the main character, they learnt something. And I think that’s amazing.
Do you have any tips on getting your creative work in front of an audience?
There is an element of luck to getting noticed out there, but there are a few things you can do to make yourself look more professional. Come up with a handle and use it consistently across all social media. Make sure you have a portfolio. There are many free websites that’ll host portfolios for you, but if you can at all afford the £10 or so to buy your own domain for a year, do that. It really makes a difference to your professionalism. Even if you’re using a free hosting service, at least have a website address you can point people to. And for the love of art, make sure it’s well organised and easy to read; people won’t bother if it’s not easy to access.
I wouldn’t recommend entering competitions. Most of them are just ways for corporations to take advantage of free labour, and it’s very unlikely you’ll get noticed. Instead, engage with popular art challenges or hashtags, like the “draw this in your own style” challenge or the various Inktober-and-related challenges. Join Facebook groups for artists and share your artwork there. Don’t be afraid to re-share old work on your social media from time to time (just be honest about its age); nobody can produce a new piece every day and it’s unlikely people will even remember that piece you did from a couple years ago.
“There’ll always be someone better than you, and there’ll always be someone worse. But you are running laps around the person who never even got off the couch.”Julian Gray
For people who either want to start or get better at drawing, what would your advice be?
My advice would be this: first and foremost, welcome constructive criticism. Yes, it can feel like a personal attack, and it can take time to divide yourself from your work enough that you can accept that criticism without feeling destroyed by it. But I honestly cannot overstate the value of having other eyes on your work. Even if the critics aren’t artists themselves, they can often have some useful feedback because the human eye is excellent at detecting discrepancies in visual artwork. Think of it as a customer eating at a restaurant; they may not know how you made the food, but they know it tastes damn good. If you can manage it, especially seek out critique from professionals, as they will be able to notice things a layperson may not notice. There are Facebook groups where you can post your work and ask for feedback.
Secondly, study the basics. You have to learn to walk before you can run. Practice anatomy, buy anatomy books if you can afford them. Websites like Line of Action can help you practice poses in a rapid-fire exercise. Study perspective. Take classes and follow YouTube tutorials; there are so many free resources out there if you look. Draw from life, whether that’s a nude model in front of you – not feasible at the moment for obvious reasons – or just sitting in the park and drawing what you see around you.
Finally, draw what you enjoy. So many creatives, myself included, get sucked into this idea that you have to draw what will be popular and what people will like to see. I’m still training myself out of that belief! If you draw for other people, then art will become a chore. You need to enjoy it or you’ll never keep going with it, because art is not an easy thing to do and you never stop learning and improving. Remember, there’ll always be someone better than you and there’ll always be someone worse. But you are running laps around the person who never even got off the couch.
You can find Julian on Twitter and Instagram at @JulianGrayArt.
For more of Julian’s work, visit https://www.juliangrayart.com/.