Abstract Concepts: A Conversation with Ashley Mackenzie
Ashley Mackenzie was born in Victoria, BC and grew up in Vancouver. Their family moved to Edmonton when they were eight and, other than spending a few years in Toronto for university, they ended up moving back to help their family.
Mackenzie took a year of online courses via the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, then attended the Ontario College of Art & Design University. “My thesis work earned me the program medal when I graduated in 2013 with a Bachelors of Design in Illustration.” That same year, the fall issue of On Spec featured a cover by Mackenzie. In 2014 Tor.com featured an Ashley Mackenzie piece—a quietly haunting, ethereal figure on a dark background—for original short story “Friends ‘Til the End.”
Mackenzie has worked as a full-time freelancer for nine years. “Before that I was a barista to help pay the bills during school and a deli clerk in an organic grocery store before that. I also did tattoo commissions for people since high school up through university, just the designs though, I’ve never inked anything in skin.”
Mackenzie’s work has appeared on numerous genre book covers and has graced the cover of notable genre magazines, such as Apex and Uncanny. They are even up for a Hugo Award this year in the Best Professional Artist category. While genre clients include heavy hitters like Tor, HarperCollins, and Penguin, their work has also been commissioned by important clients outside of genre, such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Scientific American.
“The only other thing I ever wanted to be as a kid was an ornithologist. I hated drawing people until I discovered anime in junior high, which ended up being my gateway into what would eventually be a much more figure-driven portfolio. I’ve always loved reading, my parents got me into school early because I wanted to learn to read on my own so badly, but writing is quite intimidating for me, so being able to use my images to help communicate people’s ideas and stories really means the world to me.”
Mackenzie also enjoys designing small pieces of merchandise and stationery, such as beautiful enamel pins and washi tape. Besides working on projects and making wonderful things for a living, they like to cook and play video games. Recent covers include Garth Nix’s Terciel & Elinor and Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow.
Were you creating art from an early age, or is it something that came a bit later?
From a very early age, my dad likes to joke that he taught me how to draw since he taught me how to hold a pencil, but I honestly can’t remember a time where I wasn’t interested in art.
You graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design in 2013. Many artists have different sorts of dreams before they go to school for their art. Before you went to school there, what were your goals, in terms of being an artist? And what are your goals now?
I was fortunate to go to a pretty great arts high school that had a weekend workshop I attended that was all about freelance illustration, which basically set me on the path I’ve been on since. At that point I’d been aiming more toward concept art since working for a studio can be a lot more stable than freelancing, but after I had the chance to visit a studio I was less invested. I do really appreciate the flexibility of schedule and subject matter that freelancing offers in comparison. During school the program was very editorial focused, which was great for developing a more conceptual thought process but miserable in terms of pay. My goals now are to focus more on publishing, maybe find an agent for larger scale projects, and eventually work toward some self-directed work.
Right at the start you had art published within the speculative industry. You had work come out with On Spec, Apex, and Tor.com in 2013 and 2014. What was breaking in like for you, how did it happen, and at what point did you begin to feel like you were succeeding in the field?
I did a lot of legwork and cold call emails at the start, finding anywhere I thought my work might fit and hunting down art director contact information. I was drawn to freelancing for the variety, and my body of work at the time was primarily editorial, so I think my first moment where I felt like I was starting to get somewhere was my first piece in the The New York Times book review, we got the Sunday edition at the Starbucks I was working for at the time, and I ran out to flip through it and find my little spot illustration. I was really proud of the work I did for Tor.com as well, the stories were all incredibly evocative. They make for really fun projects.
There were two points in my career where I felt like I’d made it, the first was when I’d been published with almost all the major editorial clients I’d ever hoped to be hired by. That was when I had the realization that editorial might not be the best way forward, since even though I’d done quite well I was still living paycheck to paycheck. I ended up diversifying a lot more from there, still doing editorial work but aiming for higher rates and pushing more toward publishing alongside some concept art and visual development contracts. That helped me reach more financial stability about five years after my graduation, I finally had a bit of breathing room.
More recently, I think the success of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao has been great to see, I loved the book and was really proud of the cover, so it’s been exciting to be a part of that, and I’m looking forward to doing more covers in the future!
Where does science fiction and fantasy fit into your creativity or your artistic body of work?
My first interest was animals, at a very early age I wanted to be a wildlife artist like Robert Bateman. Then I discovered dragons, and from there a whole host of fantasy creatures drove my artistic interests for years. My work got a bit more figurative and conceptual leading up to and during university but genre work has always had a special place in my heart. It also helps that they make great audiobooks when I’m painting out something for forty plus hours!
Are there specific artists or illustrators who have influenced or inspired you?
I think one of my earliest inspirations that sent me spiraling toward illustration was Dave McKean, first with The Sandman covers and then seeing the many different areas of illustration he was able to touch on really intrigued me. When I was starting out James Jean, Tran Nguyen, Sam Weber, and Jillian Tamaki were major influences, I was also really enamored with the editorial works of Victo Ngai, Dadu Shin, Sachin Teng, and Richie Pope. There’s so many more that have influenced me over the years so here’s a scattershot list: Rachel Suggs, Rovina Cai, Shaun Tan, João Ruas, Joy Ang, Linnea Sterte, Hokyoung Kim, Wylie Beckert, Jestenia Southerland, Kristin Kwan.
Do you draw from life or from photo reference or both? Do you start with sketches on paper, do you work digitally—what does your workflow look like from concept to realization?
I do use a lot of photo reference, though I love to do life drawing if there’s ever an opportunity. At this point my process is entirely digital, working between Procreate on the iPad and Photoshop on my computer. I spend a lot of the early stages reading through whatever brief or text the piece will accompany, marking down any evocative concepts or descriptions to see if I can hit on a direction before I go through references and simple gestures to try and land on a composition. I do a lot of sketching and roughs in Procreate since I find it a lot more flexible to manipulate drawings with those tools and often end up switching to Photoshop for final polish and adjustments.
How does your process change if you’re working on a book cover, as opposed to something else?
Honestly my process is not all that different except that sometimes I don’t get to read the full book so I’m working from a synopsis and character descriptions rather than the full text.
What were some of your more challenging pieces, what made them challenging, and how did you face the challenge?
I love editorial work with big abstract concepts, especially anything with science or physics, but those are definitely challenging since there’s often not many preconceived visuals to pull from so the possibilities are overwhelmingly vast. One thing I like to keep in mind is something my thesis instructor told me after a particularly rough ideation day, which is that just because an idea is simple doesn’t mean it’s stupid.
The one other piece I remember having an incredibly hard time on was the cover for Terciel & Elinor by Garth Nix. I’d grown up with the original trilogy of books and been enamored with the original covers by the Dillons, so when I was asked to make this new cover fit alongside theirs it was both exciting and terrifying trying to do it justice, but I did my very best, and I’m happy with how it turned out!
Are there themes or motifs that you enjoy, that appear in your work often, and what do you like most about them?
Anything with wings or birds I get very excited for, it’s where I started drawing and still often where I go to when I’m just drawing for fun, I think they have a certain grace that’s very appealing to me. I also find myself coming back to the threads and strings quite often and I absolutely love painting hands, since a good hand can carry an entire piece.
What are some of the ways that you feel your work has changed or transformed over the past few years?
When I started out, I was using a hybrid technique, drawing and shading everything traditionally with graphite and then scanning it and coloring it digitally. Eventually it was just too slow to keep up with the turnarounds needed for the work I was doing, and admittedly the digital tools improved to the point where I was more comfortable using them to get the kind of finish I was looking for. I do miss working on paper though, maybe one day there will be time for it again.
You’re up for a Hugo Award this year. Have you interacted with folks in the genre community much, attended conventions, or mingled with artists and illustrators who work in the speculative field?
I haven’t had a chance to mingle much in person with many of these events happening in the US and just logistically being difficult to afford the time and costs, but I’ve had plenty of positive interactions with my peers online. I think the illustration community overall is very supportive, and I’m happy to be a part of it.
Are there things that you struggle with, things you feel you’re not really good at? Are there things that you avoid, or just haven’t figured out how to do yet?
Honestly, I think color is still one of the things I struggle with the most, I tend to gravitate toward very minimal or neutral palettes and have to push myself toward more vibrant and varied color combinations. It’s always the part of my process that takes the longest to come together and is the most combative.
When you think of your work, and the pieces that you really like, the pieces that stand out for you, what are the things that you are looking at?
My goal is always to find a sense of flow throughout the composition, a strong sense of shape and a good value structure, and I think my strongest pieces are the ones that harmonize those three elements. My favorite aspect of illustration is the problem-solving, both conceptually and visually, so it stands that my favorite pieces are the ones where I feel like I found the best solutions in both concept and presentation.
What are some of your favorite pieces or projects you’ve done, whether or not in genre, or perhaps pieces or projects that you’re most proud of, and what do you like most about them?
I’m still pretty proud of my thesis work as well as the work I did for Scientific American, Quanta, and Tor.com, I feel like a lot of those pieces had a good balance of concept and execution, and I loved working with all of those big ideas and wild stories. The piece I did for The Spinners in The End and Other Beginnings by Veronica Roth ended up being one of those once in a blue moon kind of pieces where everything just falls into place to the point where you surprise yourself. I really love working on book covers, so there it’s harder to choose, but I’m so happy with how the cover for Iron Widow came together, and I’m really looking forward to sharing the work I did for the sequel!
Do you have any advice for aspiring or up-and-coming illustrators?
The biggest advice took me the longest to learn, but I do think it’s the most important: don’t neglect your physical well-being. Very few jobs pay well enough to compensate for injury, so it’s not worth risking your hands just to hit a deadline, and more often than not a regular schedule of sleep and exercise will be a huge boon to your productivity. It truly is a marathon, not a sprint.
Also, learn how to negotiate a contract! You are your only advocate so stand up for yourself, don’t be afraid to ask questions to find more equitable terms for yourself and your work. If you want to make work that’s representative of real life, study real life, build your foundations, and you’ll be more able to play within those bounds.
And lastly, fads come and go, these days faster than ever, so find whatever makes you want to make things, develop the work that you want to be making, and with enough practice and a bit of luck you’ll not only get the work you’re looking for, you’ll be ready for it whenever the opportunity comes your way.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.