I’d hoped to delve into the mind and creative processes of an illustrator next. I got a little bit more than I bargained for with Shannon Legler!
Shannon’s work regularly appears in Mad Scientist Journal and related anthologies, revealing an amazing range of styles and interpretations. From the clean, precise notebook of a scientist to tortured migraine monsters and laughing skulls, Shannon’s created them all – along with some creepy tactile cousins. I had to ask Shannon Legler about everything. How could I not? This is how it went.
As a regular illustrator for Mad Scientist Journal, you’ve produce a variety of interpretations for a diverse range of stories. Can you tell us a little of the process? Do you follow a brief from the publisher? Do you read the stories and create the image which most strikes you, or is there another method that you employ?
In the case of Mad Scientist Journal, I receive a copy of the story to read, and I usually give it at least two run-throughs: once to experience it simply as a reader, without slowing down for extra thought, and then again to actually pay attention to the imagery going on in my head. If the story is very literal, with straightforward visuals described in the text, there are usually one or two images that quickly stand out in my head, and I thumbnail from there. I have to do a bit more brainstorming and picking at sketches if the concepts in the story are more abstract – that’s when I find some music that fits the general tone of the piece and dink around on paper until images come out.
Biological details are your speciality. When did you discover this?
I’ve been fascinated with the biological world (animal anatomy, specifically) since before I was old enough to hold a crayon. It’s a little morbid, but one of my earliest memories was finding that one of my dad’s tiny pet lizards had died, and I was just so absolutely mesmerized by it. I was just a toddler, but I loved how the little limbs had these delicate joints, and I was fascinated by the texture of its skin. I stole the lizard from its tank and hid it in my toy box to play with later. Once my dad finally found it, he had to explain to me what happens to things after they die.
I remember being incredibly disappointed with this new idea of “decay,” and thinking that it was a very unfair concept.
I’m pretty sure I was still in diapers at the time, and my love affair with the inner workings of the natural world has only gotten worse since then.
You work with a variety of mediums: watercolour, pen and ink, chalk…how do you decide which medium will suit which project?
“It depends on if my scanner is working or not” is a lame answer for whether I’ll work traditionally or digitally on something, so I won’t say that. But, I will say that much of the techniques I use largely depend on which medium happens to be either annoying me or fascinating me at the time.
I experience a huge amount of frustration in the course of my art (which I think all artists do, in one form or another), so I tend to drift from one process to another.
It might be a bad habit as an illustrator, but it’s hard for me to stick to one technique for a long stretch of time. There are usually two or three processes that I’m really enjoying – and one that I’m temporarily sick of – at a time, and so I choose from that selection when deciding what to do for a particular piece. Sometimes the stories feel gritty to me, so I go to my chunky, granulating watercolours. With other pieces, I just need to play with intricate linework, so the focus will be on my pens. And if it’s got a campy, lighthearted tone, I’ll probably go with bright blocks of color. I just kind of follow my gut.
You’ve said, “I like monsters because monsters are honest.” I had to ask: Do they speak to you while you’re working on them? 😀 If so, will we get to read those stories?
I think maybe it’s because I tend to picture them as not speaking that lends to their honesty.
Monsters are called monsters by others because their ugliness is on the outside, where everyone can see. They can’t help but be honest.
Humans hide what’s inside; humans lie and tell stories.
Monsters don’t tell their stories, they simply are the story.
Stories happen around monsters simply because they exist. …But, all that verbosity aside: yes. Illustration just happens to be the way to bring monsters to life that is easiest for me, but I would love to become brave enough to branch into writing publically as well. Right now, all my stories are kind of hidden away, waiting for me to suck it up and show the rest of the world, someday.
Much of your work first appears dark, but when you look closer, you realize that the monster is hardly…evil. In fact, many have a ‘well-here-I-am-this-is-me’ kind of feel to them; some almost innocent. Is this an effect you work to achieve, or do you think it’s a subliminal effect of the honesty you perceive in them coming through?
It’s funny that you should say that, because I haven’t consciously thought about that in my work before. But, it does happen to be how I view imagination and the natural world, and monsters are where those two elements intersect.
That’s that whole honesty thing. They just are what they are, and it takes someone else viewing them from the outside to make any further judgement about them.
So, I’m glad it’s somehow apparent in my work, even though I don’t think about actually trying to portray it. I like to think of myself as a bit of a monster sometimes, so it’s nice to know that I’m being accidentally honest in showing how I view things, through my work.
I love your ‘Evolution’ piece. Tell us a little about it.
The imagery in that piece is one that I would like to rework and do again for my own purposes, outside of the parameters of a commission. The story it was for, Sweet Sand Fleas, by Steve Zisson, had to do with pilot whales remembering their landbound origins, longing to return to them, and then beaching themselves because of it. This (hopefully) fantastic reason behind whale-beaching really struck me, and I really wanted to play with the existing similarities that tie aquatic mammals to their terrestrial cousins, along with the idea of being haunted by the ‘ghost’ of prehistoric ancestors. However, because my scanner wasn’t working at the time, I had to hurry through an entirely-digital process, which I’ve always kind of regretted. I really like the theme of that piece, the idea of evolutionary memories connecting past and present species, so I would love to do a more organic rendition of that on my own time, when I can.
I had to ask: What’s with those creepy-arresting avocado seeds? Why avocado seeds? I’d have thought they’d be difficult to work with.
Firstly, I need to mention that I’m from the Midwest, and I hadn’t tasted a ‘good’ avocado before I moved to Seattle two years ago, let alone seen an avocado pit up close. And secondly, one of my great loves is preserving and working with natural materials. So, when I finally saw an avocado pit with my own eyes and held it in my hands, I could not believe that people actually threw these things out. I thought they were just the coolest things in the world, and that there had to be something artistic I could do with them. It turns out that they’re an absolutely fabulous material to work with, and I am now completely in love with them.
The fact that they are seeds naturally lend a sense of life to them, and they all turn out completely different from one another as they dry out and cure.
Because of this, I felt that they needed a ‘face,’ and I just happened to have a bunch of taxidermy eyes lying around… so, putting those two elements together just made sense to me, I guess. By the time they’re done with their few weeks of drying out, after I’ve carved them and given them eyes, I get to know them and the personalities that they seem to portray to me. I just love them.
Your tactile work is amazing – creepy, but amazing. How did you get into that field?
I think I started there, actually. The original compulsion that I chased as a kid was just to ‘bring creatures to life.’
This impulse first led to me wanting to get into movie special effects and sculpting as a career. At first, two-dimensional art was just the easiest means to an end, when my true love was whatever would be as close to real, living, three-dimensional creatures as possible. Sculpting (the art of simulating natural phenomena), and actually preserving it (there are a lot of feathers and bones in my home), have always been obsessions of mine, but I don’t get to indulge them as often as I do my two-dimensional creating.
Athena immediately reminded me of the creature effects in Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans. Would movie creature effects be a future move for you?
I have so many feelings about monster movie effects, it’s not even funny. Anyone who has gone to the movies with me will tell you about the heartfelt, soul-deep rants I will go on afterwards. As I was growing up, I’d been sure that I was going to go into that field, but the shift from physical effects to digital ones kind of threw a wrench into that plan. So, I chose illustration instead, with the intent to get into concept art, which is as close to designing movie monsters as I could get. As time has gone on, however, the thought of not owning my own work or being able to design my own creatures keeps me freelancing instead. If I could be magically plopped into a movie or video game art team and given a ridiculous amount of control, I would take the reins in a heartbeat. But, until that happens, I’ll be over here making monsters on my own time.
I had to ask: Mollusks? Is it the spiral that draws you in,or perhaps the differences in texture?
One word: snails.
I adore snails. I absolutely love them.
There are many invertebrates that hold special places in my heart, but none of them can compare to the inexplicable, unconditional affection I have for snails.
That’s it. I wish I had a deep, artsy answer for this one. But my brain is just full of snails.
Snails, snails, snails.
I was interested to see your migraine drawings. As a migraine sufferer myself, there’s a certain period there where I can jot down the craziest ideas and often find a way to make them work. I always reason it’s because a different set of synapses are firing during an attack. Do you find that your migraine work is a pleasant surprise when you look back on it?
I don’t know if “pleasant” is the right word, but it’s at least cathartic. I feel like I lose a lot of my ability to communicate clearly when I’m suffering a bad migraine, so it feels good to be able to successfully get something out of my head. I do feel bad for them though, in a way. When I go back and see the things I drew while rolling on a migraine, I can’t help but think “you poor bastard. I feel better now, but you’re stuck like that forever.”
I had to ask: Do you accept commissions for little tactile monsters?
Not officially, because I tend to underestimate the work that it’s going to take to complete, and I end up either going way over my estimate, or underpaying myself. I also hate trying to come up with a standard pricing system. I love the idea though, and would love to have something like that set up sometime in the future. In the meantime, though… I suppose I’m open to taking requests on a case-by-case basis. ;D
About Shannon Legler:
A creature native to Chicagoland, now transplanted into the strange world of the Northwest, Shannon makes a living out of populating imaginary worlds with monsters. Illustrating for publications such as the Mad Scientist Journal and processing documents for a local band of archaeologists and historians makes for a solid day-job, but the rest of the time is spent figuring out new ways to build three-dimensional monsters. Shannon’s home is full of critters with skin made of laquered paper, flesh of felt and clay, and faces of dried avocado seeds. Though a normally reclusive being, if you start talking about biology, animal behavior, genetics, or anything having to do with dinosaurs, this monster-maker will talk your ear clean off.
Find Shannon’s work:
Lend Me Your Bones
Buy at Etsy
My thanks to Shannon Legler for taking the time during this hectic period to answer these questions. And now it’s over to you. No links, please just comments. Thanks
I’d like to know:
Do you ever glance back to the cover art or story illustration whilst reading? Why?
Have you ever bought a novel/journal primarily for its cover or illustrations?