Meet Pat Presley, a San Francisco-based illustrator who has had an artistic hand in many franchises, including Star Wars, X-Men, the fighting game Injustice 2, and many more. Read about his views on being a professional concept illustrator, his piece in our upcoming show Parallel, and his fascinations with the Apocalypse below!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you go to school? What brought you into the art world? What kind of work do you do?
I was born in Bangkok, Thailand. I spent most of my childhood there dodging traffic and taking in a steady diet of movies, comic books and ghost stories. My formative years were in eastern Kansas where I got my degree in Interior Architecture and Product Design from Kansas State. Initially, I was studying to be a Psychiatrist because I wanted to make loads of money, but I almost flunked out because I'd rather be hanging out in the Billiard hall and playing Street Fighter. Then one day, I accidentally walked into the College of Architecture's gallery and thought "Hell, I can do this!"
Architecture didn't exactly work out as a career either. It was stressful and I like sleeping too much. So I moved to California looking for a different path. I got my first break with a game studio, Factor 5. My first project was a PS3 game LAIR, which was considered one of the "Top 10 Most Disappointing Games of the Decade". Hard to top that accolade! After that I spend over 5 years with Lucasfilm in Marin County working on several Star Wars animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels, as well as a few other SW related projects.
Now I am a freelance concept designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, working in Film, Animation and Games. I have done work for Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, Paramount Pictures, and Disney Imagineering, among others.
What does your workspace look like? What creates the perfect creative space for you and your practice?
We have a tiny apartment in The Bay Area, a hallway really. Because I like to work in a cave, my workspace is in the darkest corner of the place, and is boxed in by a large bookcase. Most of the time it is really messy. I feel like a little chaos creates a good workspace: things on the walls, books and papers piling everywhere, etc. Usually my desk looks like it's just about to spin out of control.
What is your process when approaching a piece? Do you have any favorite resources, materials, or research materials?
My main approach, which is typical for my professional work, is through problem solving. It's a simple idea of identifying problems that need visual solutions. For example, if the client asks for "a spaceship", then you start asking various questions that are pertinent to that. What is the function of the ship? What is the type of speculative technology at work? What are the story elements that take place here? What is the history? Sometimes I ask those questions to the clients, other times I just ask myself those questions. It helps me to identify a clear target. After you identify the "problems", you start doing research, which usually means collecting tons of references relevant to those questions. These early steps of the process are pretty crucial but the important aspect is to have fun with it. I draw spaceship and fantastic cities for a living, I can't take myself too seriously.
What's it like to be in the concept art industry? How do you maintain your artistic voice when working in a group of people, or is the collaborative atmosphere something you find exciting?
It is a lot of fun and very challenging at the same time. Because of my Architecture background, I find concept art to be very similar since it deals with solving problems visually. My "artistic voice" isn't so much an expression of self but a communication of ideas. It is done in a community. When you come together behind an idea or a narrative and answer to its needs, it becomes part of the satisfaction.
A lot of the work you do involves machinations, futuristic environments, and amazing structural detail. Are these things you've always had an eye for? How do you invent things for worlds and realities that have rules and cultures totally different from our own?
I guess you can blame it on my love for architecture and science fiction. Also, I’m a bit enamored with a sense of place and how it can affect you. So I end up painting things I want to see.
I can't create out of a vacuum. My output needs a lot of input. Most of the work is a reflection of things I see in the real world, and I either look at it sideways or add a twist to it.
What's your dream locale? You've spent so much time creating and exploring these new worlds, is there a specific environment that you yourself would want to inhabit?
I’ve always wanted to be on earth when it ends. I have a recurring dreams of the end of the world. So I would love to have an opportunity for a front row seat to the apocalypse. It would be really terrifying but it would be so impressive to see such a rare cataclysmic event that you can only experience once...literally. Unfortunately I think that we are in the most boring corner of the universe where not much happens.
Can you tell us about the piece you created for Parallel?
This is a piece I recently created and thought it would be fitting to submit to Parallel. The piece is titled The Floodplain, and it's actually the second piece from a series of paintings called Postcards from Asia. It's a visual travelogue of an alternate universe. I was having fun with the idea of how we are increasingly defined by our surroundings and more importantly, water. It's an imagined life in this flood area, including the strange machines and technology necessary to live in that zone.
What are some of your favorite pieces of media? What inspires you? Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
I draw a lot of influence from film and architecture. These two mediums are, in many ways, a nexus of various art and science. I also have great respect for comic artists, animators and the art form of visual storytelling. People like Moebius, Hayao Miyazaki, Otomo Katsuhiro have transcended the medium and took it to places you didn't expect.
On favorite artists front, I will always have J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, John Singer Sargent, Moebius, Ralph McQuarrie, Syd Mead and many others.
That said, there are many other bright spots out there currently. I love Nicolas Delort's work and the way he's doing things. When I first saw his pieces The End of the Road and A Rumor of Angels, I was blown away by how elemental they are. His work is classical and fresh at the same time.
I also enjoy Sterling Hundley's illustration work. His work is one of those rare breeds where it serves its function as communicator of ideas, but is also able to move you on emotional level. Somehow he is able to find that balance.
What would be an absolute dream project for you?
Outside of drawing and designing, films and reading are my little happinesses in life. Making a short film or writing a book (or a comic book) would be an absolute thrill.
Can you talk about any of your upcoming projects? Anything you’re working on that you’re really excited about?
I recently finished concept work on one of the "X-Men" films in production. I was working directly with the wonderful production designer, Molly Hughes. They’re shooting the film right now. As an artist, you're always curious how much of your work survives the final cut, so I am very excited to see that.