Ep.128: Be a student of life with Brian Ajhar

By Iva Mikles •  Updated: Mar 22, 2018 •  Interviews

Hey, guys! In this episode, I am chatting with Brian Ajhar, a character designer, illustrator, and storyteller. His art career has spanned 3 decades and his clients include magazines, newspapers, advertising agencies, corporations, and book publishers.

Get in touch with Brian

Key Takeaways

“Be a student of life, experience and observe. There is always a story!”

“It’s not about what the character looks like, but what emotion you get from what the character is doing”

Resources mentioned

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Special thanks to Brian for joining me today. See you next time!

All artworks by Brian Ajhar, used with permission

Episode Transcript

Announcer  

Creative, artistic, happy! That’s you. There are endless possibilities for living a creative life. So let’s inspire each other. Art Side of Life interviews with Iva.

Iva Mikles  

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the next episode of Art Side of Life where I chat with inspiring artists and create various art related videos. My name is Iva, and my guest today is Brian Ajhar. And in this episode, you will learn awesome tips for storytelling in your art, and why you should show your own unique point of view in your portfolio.

Brian Ajhar  

People are getting information from the same sources and they’re not being as unique as they could be. They don’t all look the same, but there’s something about it that tends to be generic. And the point of view isn’t there. And, and it takes time to develop a point of view, it just doesn’t happen.

Iva Mikles  

Ryan is a character designer, Illustrator and storyteller. His art career has spanned three decades. And his extensive and diverse client list includes numerous magazines, newspapers, advertising agencies, corporate clients, and book publishers. His illustrated children’s books have been published worldwide in a multitude of languages, and have also appeared in The New York Times bestseller list. So please welcome Brian Azure. And let’s get to the interview. So welcome, everyone to the next episode of Art Side of Life. And I’m super happy to have Brian here. Hi,

Brian Ajhar  

Iva, how are you?

Iva Mikles  

Oh, great. Great. How are you? I’m super happy to have you here.

Brian Ajhar  

Yeah, thanks for inviting me. I’m honored to be part of all these great people you’re in your interviewing.

Iva Mikles  

Definitely. My pleasure. And let’s just dive in maybe to your background, then. I really liked this question about the childhood and stuff. I would like to know if you remember how your childhood smelled like

Brian Ajhar  

my childhood smells well. Well, I lived in an area that was known for farms. So there were a lot of cow pastures there. So kind of smell like cow pastures not too far from my house. So that was that was something that I remember. It was it was very much country, farmland in the center of town, where it had four roads going into the center of town, north south east west, and there was a blinker light in the center of town. And that’s my father had a store. He was a store owner, he built a store in the center of town. And he was a butcher. You know, he he was a butcher and grocery store. Entrepreneur at the time. And I lived in that house. We actually moved there when I was two years old. So that’s where I grew up.

Iva Mikles  

Wow. And so what’s your kind of your first creative outlet? As a child Did you have a chance to draw on walls or, or something like that?

Brian Ajhar  

I, my mother tells me that she always noticed an interest in drawing at a young age. And there were a few things that I remember when I was young. Being from the early television generation, this is in the 1960s You know, at a young age, I was influenced by a couple of TV programs. One was a showed cartoons out of Philadelphia, and was called gene London. And he was the star of the program. And what he would do is show Grimms fairy tales, and read grim fairy tales on on, you know, on his program, and he would actually sit in his drawing table and draw scenes from from the from the, from the grim. So I’d be drawing dragons and princesses and a villain and a witch and, and that was the first time that I really remember that I saw somebody make something out of his line, visually, you know, he’s actually doing it and telling a story along the way. That along with all the Disney films, that was a major influence early on,

Iva Mikles  

and it was this already the time when you decided that you want to take the art professionally or it was later.

Brian Ajhar  

Now this was I’m talking about six years old. Yeah. Okay.

Iva Mikles  

But no, like, yes, this will be my profession.

Brian Ajhar  

I didn’t look at you in line and say, I’m gonna do that. You know, I was I was like five or six and but I was I was impacted and I still remember it. And then during the Disney time, though, you know, I was growing up as probably 989. I definitely was interested in when They had the program. At the time, there were no VCRs there was no internet, you could only see it one time a week. And what happened was they every periodic periodically, every time they went behind the scenes, probably once or twice a year, I wanted to see that episode. And I was fascinated with with all the animators, and they would go back and interview Mark Davis and Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas and, and I would always sit there glued, like trying to understand what they were talking about drawing characters. And, you know, they will always have like sequences of their character moving. And I always wanted to understand how that worked, you know, so that was an exciting, exciting thing that I it’s implanted into my brain, so I remember those things. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

And so did you have maybe some books, which you liked about the artworks at the time? Or, like something maybe you found in the library or, or if you got as a present?

Brian Ajhar  

I remember, my mother used to read to me grim fairy tales. You know, some of them were very scary. Actually, really? Yeah, they might not have been the actual grim, you know, but it might have been like a storybook version of the grim. So they altered things. You know, it wasn’t as violent you know, if you read their own premises loaded with blood and gore. I remember really enjoying the, the, you know, the idea of a fairy tale. And story. So that was my earliest remembrance of, of, you know, book. Influence.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And so, when was the time when you decided, okay, you want to study art? Was it like on the high school? And then when you were deciding to go to university? Or like, maybe did you find some mentor who helped you along the way? Like, okay, maybe I want to be like, This person later on in my career,

Brian Ajhar  

right? Well, I was I had positive influences from an art in art teacher who took an interest. When I was in high school, I was never the best artist, there was always somebody there that I’ve looked at their work. And and I would think, wow, how do you do that, you know, it was amazing to do pastels and, and I would be doing, you know, pencil drawings or pen drawings, and in my notebooks, and I would get in trouble, you know, in, in class, and the art teacher said, to me goes, Why don’t you, you know, try to do some work for the school newspaper, you know, so at that time, you know, I started doing drawings for the school newspaper. And my job was, was to do caricatures of the teachers, and the athletic people, like the coaches, and I had to go round and get the, the drawings accepted by all of them. And some of them absolutely hated. Me, they would not let me even leave the room with it, you know, they wanted and other ones said, Sure, you know, but But I remember at the time, that that was the first time that I felt that people were giving me a response, a positive response from my work, other than my parents. And that was exciting to me and made me feel like, you know, geez, I’m doing something I like doing and, and, you know, people, I’m getting a response, positive thing, feedback from, you know, a lot of the students so gave me kind of an identity. And this was this was high school, this was, you know, my third year in high school, my junior year in high school. So that was the first time that happened. And that made me think about, well, I’m going to, I’m going to try to make a career out of doing this.

Iva Mikles  

And so did you find your mentor already in high school, or it was later on someone maybe who showed you like, technical stuff? Or like how it is actually the art career world? Because then social media, we’re not big all the time. So how did you find out what you can leave from basically?

Brian Ajhar  

Yeah, basically, it was after high school, I went to a two year community college. And I studied with the local painter, who had a major impact on me, you know, he helped me understand how to paint he used to do demonstrations and used to show me how to set up a palette, you know, how to work on certain colors and how to mix colors. So that technically, he he’s one of the guys that that motivated me with materials and taught me how to experiment and I’m a big time experimenter. I’ve been experimenting at a very young age mixing materials and, and, but that was a time where I was kind of developing how I painted and then when I went to man, he also suggested that I go to a professional art school, because I can only go so far with with what they had to offer. So um, he was one of the guys that encouraged me to go to Parsons. You know, I went to Parsons School of Design. And I went there for three years. And I had other other teachers there a couple in particular, that, you know, carried me on, you know, to the professional area, teaching me more about drawing and understanding story and telling, telling. You know, having your your images tell a story, and how to communicate ideas, you know that that was something that I learned there that I learned to carry on to professional.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. So what would you think was the best advice you got at the time when you were developing your art style and just progressing in your career? The best art advice? Yeah, or life advice, or whatever it was related to

Brian Ajhar  

best life advice was I had one teacher to discourage me from going to a professional art school. He was like, why don’t you go to this one? That’s kind of an inferior school, that what you would be good at, maybe you could be a teacher, right? And then the one I was telling you about, say, if you want to be professional, you go to professional school. He goes, you’re good enough? Go do it. Go after it. And I ran with it. You know, I never forgot that. And I, you know, he just gave me that advice at the right time. So, you know, and he said, You got to go to New York. At the time, that was the place to be. So I went to New York, I was there for 1314 years afterwards.

Iva Mikles  

So so how was the the getting the first job after university? Like, yeah, what was maybe the networking at the time? Or who offered you the job? Or where did they find you?

Brian Ajhar  

Well, I had I had jobs when I was going to school already. Yeah, yeah. But you know, the jobs I’m talking about was I knew it was a new newspaper, supposed to be a competitor with the Village Voice at the time. And it was called City choice newspaper. And I did the illustration. And, and there was a cover for the city, the premiere issue of the city choice newspaper. So I did city scene with all these characters going around, and all these things happening with taxi cabs and people everywhere. And, and it was a funny drawing. And so it published, and it was the the fee was 20, the fee was $15 to do the cover, and I didn’t get paid, I didn’t get paid, didn’t have enough money to pay me. So that was my very, very first cover, that doesn’t really count. But that was my first when I get out of school, you know, you had friends that you graduated with your networking. And at the time, you could actually call up an art director on the phone. And, and I remember making my first cold call, just, you know, Can I can I show you my work. And I remember, I was like, terrified, I was shaking. I was so so nervous, talking to somebody. But what would happen was, that was my junior year in high school. So over the summer, I met. I stayed in the city all summer, and I met people to show my portfolio to not going after a job but getting comments and criticism. So I must have had like 2020 different interviews as before I went to my last year in school, and they would give me feedback on my work. And I would every time I went in, I asked them if they have anybody interested, would they know anybody or any friend that would be interested in seeing this, and they would give me two names. And then I’d go to them, and they would give me two names. And then it just snowballed. And you finally had when you were out, you had plenty of plenty of contacts, you know that you could go? So that’s kind of how it’s happened.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, definitely. And after that, which are kind of like the biggest turning points, you know, where go to in your career, where you are now, you know, like, different projects you were the most excited about. And if you can highlight some of these things.

Brian Ajhar  

The biggest turning point probably being in New York and moving to New York was the biggest turning point. As far as jobs. Kind of the way it worked was you would get a job, somebody would see it and then you’d get called for two jobs. And then more people would see that and then you would get called for some more jobs. I had. I came into the business in 19 at the end of 1980. And at the time there was the economy was good. It was starting to get good. And there was an explosion of business magazines, and computer magazines. And I started to get calls from business magazines and computer magazines. And they just there was there was like an endless list of magazines that needed illustration. And me and a couple of friends. At the time, were getting work in the same areas, you know, and it was pretty constant. Peter to Seth was a friend of mine. And your we actually lived in the same building at the time. And talking about clients and you know, going out for coffee in the middle of night and exchanging ideas. And, you know, I mean, that was, that was kind of a relationship we had for like four years. In the beginning, that’s kind of, and we’re both getting work at the same time working for the same magazines and same things. And then what happened, advertising started to come into the picture. And, you know, that kind of happened. Also, I had an agent a few years out of school that didn’t work out, I had it for like, six months. So I didn’t really like that situation. And then. But that’s kind of where things started. For me, it was Business and Computer magazines.

Iva Mikles  

And did you get the hang of something like a sketchbook group or, you know, with your artistic friends, or was it mainly just with Peter, or

Brian Ajhar  

there was we had other groups, and they were all they always had. I joined the Society of Illustrators at the time, and I was a member for 15 years after I joined. And then I stopped and I went back, come back to my member again. But um, you know, they had meetings, and you can go to the shows and network and you got to meet art directors there. In that you submitted artwork to the shows, I used to get hard working all the time, in the books, it was great. And the graphic artists guild also had parties, and they had their kind of like, Portfolio Review parties. That was another organization that was pro illustration, trying to help illustrators and, and on the business side and getting young people together and, and exchanging ideas. That was another one. And I remember having portfolio reviews where we’re showing art directors who come, you know, a little young illustrator, showing my work, you know, you know, you’re you’re hoping that he likes your work. And but that happened to so that was kind of a nice thing. You know, I remember I remember meeting Sandra Viano. There, he was the he’s now the art director of Mad Magazine. I think he’s left being the art director he’s going to, because they’re moving out to California. So yeah, Warner Brothers bought down in the dirt out of New York. Interesting. Yeah. Yeah.

Iva Mikles  

If you’re thinking now about the portfolios, and character design, I’m sure you saw many portfolios, reviews and stuff nowadays. Do you see something which young people are doing, like a mistake over and over? Like, you can see more across more portfolios, if you can give maybe some advice?

Brian Ajhar  

It’s interesting, because I did portfolio reviews while I was at CTN. So I did, I almost did, like, God. And once I did 20 of them, you know, I did it for two days. I, when I started to see it all it was a small sample was that people are getting information from the same sources, and they’re not being as unique as they could be. Yeah, that makes sense. Because it’s the same thing, they don’t all look the same, but there’s something about it that tends to be generic. And the point of view isn’t there. And, and it takes time to develop a point of view, it just doesn’t happen. So that’s kind of the thing I noticed with young people. And I see that on on Instagram, too. You know, the people that the young people admire, are, are most mostly the people that develop their own vision. They have their own personality, and they’re drawing their own point of view. They know how to tell a story. It’s, that’s that’s the goal of them of a young artist. But I think there’s maybe something that happens with doing things digital that maybe makes things look the same.

Iva Mikles  

You might have more like influences in the in the same way maybe because yeah, right. Lots of people started at the same time, you know, and then they kind of influence each other and no one actually looks at like old masters or so you just compare yourself to everyone who is online. So that might be more than just the digital because I think you can create the not the same thing. But yeah, you can have the same vision coming meditatively the traditional and digital I guess, right, right. But yeah, so maybe what are the things you learn about the storytelling, which are kind of the most important for you.

Brian Ajhar  

Um, the things that I’ve learned, yeah. If I was, I teach in different classes also. And what I try to always stress is that, as you’re, if you’re a student, you can’t be living in a shell, you have to, you can’t be living in a shell, and only looking at people on the internet, you have to go out and observe life, observe things that are going on. There’s a story every time you sit down, and observe people at a shopping mall, if you’re in a bar, if you’re if you’re, if you’re somewhere at a sports event, there’s always something going on between characters. You know, always be on alert, and live your life every day. And try to find out these peculiar things that happened between people. And, and, and as you’re looking at these peculiar things, I always give an example of, you know, if you’re in a coffee shop, and and you see somebody that’s a character, and I’m not talking, sitting down in a coffee shop with a sketchbook, and within a minute, you sitting down drawing it person, I’m talking about experiencing the whole situation. And you’re sitting there observing, before you touching a pencil or pen, you’re just observing, you’re not worried about drawing, you’re just looking at the characters, you’re finding a couple of characters that you like, there’s a conversation happening between the characters, you’re noticing what kind of conversation? Is it a? Is it a joyful conversation? Or is it a angry? are they arguing? You know, how does this conversation affect the person sitting next to them? You know, what’s going to happen? If somebody from the other table who’s getting annoyed by that loud conversation? What if they get up and do something to stop that? Yeah, you’re making up stories. It’s not happening. But but, you know, you can make scenarios and envision things that happen before the act of something happened. Right? So so when you’re when you’re doing a story, when you’re telling stories, and I’ve been telling stories with illustration forever. And so it’s kind of a natural progression for me to do animation. But when you’re when you’re telling stories there, you can, you can do the act of something happening, which is, you know, somebody’s catching the ball, you can do before the Act, which is, you know, what’s the guy doing before he catches the ball? And then the after the act? What does he do after he caught the ball, and he’s flying in the air and falls? And how do the people react around him in all three of those situations. So you have to pick, if you’re doing an illustration, you have to pick one thing that best describes that unique point of view, that unique time moment in time, that best describes how you want to say, see that what you want to say that develops your point of view. You know, not everybody’s gonna pick the same thing I pick, nor what you pick, you might decide that doing the sequence afterwards is more interesting to you. Yeah. But there’s so many opportunities you have in that span of something happening.

Iva Mikles  

And do you also, you know, kind of note down things when you are somewhere like, Oh, I really like the, I don’t know, the hair shape or props. They are, like, cooling the story.

Brian Ajhar  

Right? Yeah, absolutely. And body shapes, and the variations of differences in people, you know, if you’re, if you’re, if you’re noticing the slender woman sitting down, or walking to the mall, she has a dog, her dog is slender, and, you know, another person comes and he’s walking, he’s walking down the street, you know, facing her, and, and he’s, he’s a big guy, and he’s got a big dog, you know, so there’s, like, there’s, there’s stories to be said, you know, in everything that you’re looking at, you know, what’s going to happen when they connect, or the dogs kind of like each other, you know, it may or may not be happening in real life. But if, if you’re a student, or a young illustrator, and you start observing things at a young age, it’s going to be part of the way you see things, you won’t be able to look at things the same, like like a normal person won’t notice. Or if you’re an artist and you want to you want to develop a vision, then then you know, that’s kind of a good way to to get yourself into a mode where you’re growing constantly.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, definitely. Because then if you’re creating already a world as well for your characters, and you collaborating with others, then you can bounce off the ideas and create some other emotional situations or activities. Yeah. And so how do you kind of keep the balance of the reality and maybe fiction when you’re creating the stories? And because you want to, I guess, keep them relatable to the viewer? So maybe the how do you combine the inspiration and the fiction? How do you keep that balance?

Brian Ajhar  

The things that I make up? Yeah, in other words, I think that your fiction becomes what you do. So it becomes your reality. Yeah. Just because you thought it up doesn’t mean that you can’t make it believable in your artwork and your drawing. You know, if I’m envisioning these things happen, and I take note, and and I jot down little thumbnails in my sketchbook of what I’m thinking, and, and there’s a, there’s a professional job that comes up, that’s perfect for that situation, then I’m going to try to use it. So it’s, it’s my fiction, things of making up story, just as if somebody made up an animation. If if an animator is doing a sequence, with one of the characters, posing and doing something, essentially what Holly Johnson talked about. You know, he’s designed, he’s designed characters with movement, when he’s when he’s doing drawings of Dopey Dopey drawings in Snow White, and you’re watching him, you know, make this character do different things in different situations. He’s inventing that stuff, but it’s based on knowledge of what He’s invented. Yeah, definitely. So that’s his reality, you know, he’s making his character be as real as he can, even though it’s an invented character. Yeah,

Iva Mikles  

exactly. So it’s mostly the Yeah, so it’s mostly the emotions and the behavior of the character, which the viewer can relate to. And then the rest of the things you can adjust the shapes? And I don’t know, the other moments. Right.

Brian Ajhar  

Right. Right, you know, getting getting the essence of the character is, is the ultimate, you know, trying to what, you know, trying to figure out what that character is about, and then bringing emotion and everything into the character. I mean, that’s a different story, as far as illustrating, I’ve always been excited about gestures and expression and attitudes. And because that’s the story, when when somebody has slumped over in a chair, you know, like, sad, you know, with a drink in her hand, I want to get that across. If somebody is drinking a milkshake, you know, and they’re happy. And, you know, this person weighs 400 pounds, and he’s really, really happy. And, you know, he’s dancing around. And so I want to get that across. So I can visualize the expression I’m trying to figure out, and what haps you get what what helps you get that expression is doing the, you know, act, the act before the act, and after the Act gives you that, that it’s actually like a little storyboards sequence of what is to come. So it’s up to you to pick that perfect moment.

Iva Mikles  

Do you still work like that? When you are working on some project, then you want to communicate one visual story like one image? Do you still like sketch the other ideas?

Brian Ajhar  

Sometimes it comes to you quickly, because I because I’ve kind of trained myself to think that way. But I’m very often I’m looking, I’m looking at, you know, something I do in the article, I’m always thinking about what’s the best time that what’s the best moment in time is this illustration? What should I live in? What period should that live in? Before middle or end? And I’m always thinking that because it helps me solve the problem. Yeah, kind of resolves. You know what the best time is?

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. And then you have the stronger illustration and a better impact on the right, right, and when looking at it. And so when you’re like working on the project now, or something which is coming up in the future, what is going on in your head, when you have to decide which one to do, because you cannot do everything at once right?

Brian Ajhar  

Usually solves itself because the one eventually stands out. There’s something that stands out that says that’s it, you know, and then that’s where you that’s where you that’s what you should strive for. And maybe you have to tweak an expression or attitude or a gesture, and that’s just refining the idea. You already have the idea, but you know, your sketches will get yourself closer and closer to that direction.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, and I mean also for for a project, like bigger projects, you know, if someone would want you to work on a movie or on a book cover or something else, how do you this either which project to take? And which one maybe to say no to?

Brian Ajhar  

Well, right now I’m really, really interested in more movie things. You know, although I have a book that I have to do, I can’t really talk about other than it’s for Disney publishing. That’s going to be my next six months. I’ll be doing that. A lot of drawings, a lot of drawings, and, and a cover. So, yeah.

Iva Mikles  

So it’s more decision making what is closer to your heart? What do you want to kind of what is your current goal? What do you want to work on? Right?

Brian Ajhar  

Yeah, that too. I mean, fine. You got to make financial choices. I mean, there’s definitely money is definitely a something that you have to think about. Yeah, definitely. I wish it wasn’t. But I think every artist does, I guess most artists anyway. And then I think of things that are good for me. You know, am I gonna get a project that I enjoy doing? Am I gonna get projects? Correct? Can I get through I have, I usually get freedom with my work. There was a time where I didn’t you kind of have to earn freedom. It takes time. Yeah. But um, yeah, I mean, there’s there’s factors, but I like to do things that take me in a direction. That’s exciting, you know, for me to do. And at this point in my career, pretty much everybody that hires me knows what I do. They’re not going to hire me to do something that I’m not good for.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. Which made in the past, right.

Brian Ajhar  

Yeah. I mean, yeah, it happens when you’re young, because you try to find yourself, where do you fit, you know, what excites you? And I’ve had early on, I had jobs where art directors used to art direct me and say, This is what we want, you know. And what happens is, the more you do, you maybe do their idea. And then you give them five other ideas that are better than their idea. And you said, Well, here’s your idea. And but here’s some other things you might want to say might be an option. And then they’ll 99% of the time they’ll pick one of the options. Yeah, yeah. Because you won’t spend as much time on the one they want. That was that was my trick. Yeah, I won’t spend as much as I do better drawings on the other ones.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. Because like, that’s the other one is a better choice.

Brian Ajhar  

If you really want this, you know, are you sure? Yeah. So that’s, you know, kind of what you figure out at the time,

Iva Mikles  

along the way. Yeah. And so what about now? Like, what are your main income streams? What do you leave from mainly? Is it the illustration books? Or do you combine different things,

Brian Ajhar  

it’s a use, my career went like this, I was an editorial illustrator, for, you know, 90 or 80% of my work was editorial illustration, till the 90s, to like, the early 90s, I started doing children’s books, then all of a sudden became like, you know, 75% 25% books, my income level. And then, then, then, during the 90s, there was more, there’s more children’s books. I had opportunities to go into the animation world when, in the 90s, when it was chaos. And, and, you know, when everything was happening with the animation companies, people were losing, and they were looking for outside talent. And at the time, jeez, I have a book coming out. And I have another book in the making, I wanted to be a book illustrator. And I had a wife that was pregnant, and we just built a house and, and, you know, in the country, and you know, so a lot of decisions were made, and I ended up not doing that animation thing. I was doing more books time. And animation started to happen later in the 90s, getting calls. And in the late 90s. And then, you know, the 2000s, things started to evolve. And then CTN gave me an opportunity to pursue that. And that’s, you know, all of a sudden, I’m getting more opportunities. So it’s kind of nice. So it’s good

Iva Mikles  

to go for conventions. If someone would like to do something like you do now. You know, like when you are the role model. Yeah, they love your characters and illustrations, but with you kind of advise them to do or start with.

Brian Ajhar  

Well, not not so much getting job stuff, but more and more about you know, bettering your skills. And, you know, it’s so easy now to look online, and be totally blown away by all the people that are incredible. I mean, I look online, it’s like, you know, I better go back to work. And I’ve been doing this forever and I which is good, I want to have that same kind of I don’t want to be inspired constantly and, and I’m constantly inspired by, you know, young people that are doing great stuff. It’s like, it’s just outrageous. And what’s different now, and is that you have the opportunity now to, to not have that mystery of what goes on behind the animation world. You know, when I was growing up was like, I saw Walt Disney once every three times a year went behind the scenes, and I was like going berserk. And now you can call somebody up or chat with them or, or take a class with your favorite artist. And it’s, it’s crazy. I mean, I never had that opportunity. You know, it’s kind of kind of a nice thing. I kind of felt down my way by basically making mistakes and going in the wrong direction and doing this and, and just trying harder and working harder. Yeah, so it’s a totally different world. Than Yeah, so I, I experimented with, with watercolors and acrylics, and, and traditional materials. And, to me, it’s harder for me to paint on digital. You know, I do it, but it’s harder for me. Yeah, it’s a change. It’s different. It’s different. But a lot of my digital work looks like my, my work colors.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, but that’s really hard to do to make the digital artwork to look traditional. So yes,

Brian Ajhar  

I’m glad you know, but it’s, you know, it’s how I see it, I, I layer paint, you know, it’s kind of how I see things. So, you know, just better your craft. I think, totally be aware of what things are happening around you, you know, don’t Don’t bury your head into your phone and your iPad, watch, and look at the world and try to bring some of the things that you see in nature, and the world people interactions, and try to bring some of these things that we talked about before into your work, because that’s where your point of view develops. Yeah, yeah. And I think when you develop a unique vision of how you see things, then you’re bringing something unusual, that’s unique to yourself into your creative creation. And you know, I see people do fan work and stuff, which is fine, but you know, keep building up your own personality into your drawing. And the only way you do that is observation. Really? Yeah, I really believe that.

Iva Mikles  

Just to see what basically how you see the world around you. Right?

Brian Ajhar  

Right. How would you answer a problem? What, what’s going to happen next, when you’re looking at something happening in real life? Yeah, play stories, you know, make up stories. If you want to be a storyteller, then you gotta be thinking about telling stories all the time. And these are something that happens once in a while, when you have a job. It’s not something that happens when you get a job. And you’re thinking, geez, now I got to tell a story. It’s, you know, you get the job, and then you know, what you would do? Yeah, you know, based on things that you went through and saw and in drew in past jobs and how you think that’s, that’s how it evolves. That’s how your work evolves into something that’s special, you know, it’s different.

Iva Mikles  

And when was this aha moment for you? Do you remember? Like, when you were like, Okay, I really have to create stories in my illustrations.

Brian Ajhar  

I mean, I think, I think that happened, like in your early 80s, I think that happened in school. Yeah. I had a drawing teacher that used to stress. And I spoke to him spoke about him before, at Parsons that used to stress, you know, getting to the essence of what you’re drawing, getting to the drawing the model, but it’s not about, you know, so much. And he said this before I learned the other things that animators say. He was saying, you know, it’s not about what the character looks like, as much as the emotion you’re getting from what the character is doing. And, and, you know, certain things stuck with me. And it’s just like, it’s just different things that he said, is being repeated throughout every learning process I had throughout my career. You know, like Ollie Johnson would say, it’s not about what the character looks like. It’s, it’s, it’s what it’s about what the character is thinking. Yeah. So, I mean, if they said, if you can answer that question, then then you know, you have that character somehow. So you’re trying to get the essence of that character. And it’s kind of a different way of saying what my my College drawing teacher said just a different way. And you know, all the best character designers now understand that and they do it. They’re not doing just the look of the character in a stiff pose. They’re making a gesture they’re doing every little, little, little tweak, little subtlety that the character has, whether it’s holding up a pinkie, or a gesture or, or little tweak of the eyebrow has to do with who that character is. So it’s all complete into one. And all the best understand that I’m not really saying anything new or unique. I’m just, I’m just saying that that’s an integral part of, of developing your point of view is to study that.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, it’s always good to remind also ourselves, right? Because sometimes we I mean, at least like when you’re starting out, you’re kind of stuck with like, oh, I want to have these like, perfect. They want to have a good anatomy good colors. And then you can forget about, you know, like, actually the expression if you don’t start with it right away.

Brian Ajhar  

Right, right. Right. Well, I think that if you if you at a young age, if you develop if you start to develop your thinking on a positive direction that you’re never pleased with. You never if I’m never pleased with things, I never look at my work. And I say, Wow, that’s it. That’s the ultimate drawing, I always see things that are wrong, always. And I think that if you can, you can have that quality that, that you’re always looking for something that’s better, or the next thing that you can outdo the other thing. And you’re looking at life like that, when you’re observing people, I think you’re always on a path that’s going to be an upward trend. It may not be that kind of trend. It might be like, slow and steady, which is what you want, I think.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, for sure. I totally agree. Yeah. Have you ever felt like lost or something when you were like, Okay, I’m not sure if I’m on the right path, or kind of like a struggles in your art career.

Brian Ajhar  

Lost, I don’t think I was ever lost so much. You know, I was always pretty busy. So I didn’t really have time to think about being lost.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, kind of, like if I’m in the right career path, you know? Well, I

Brian Ajhar  

did during the time animation went to animation, you know, the animation in the 90s moved on. Because I had, there was a like a turning point where I had a time, I had friends that went toward the animation people I knew, and, and I stayed with the book and illustration world. And I remember, I remember sending my work just to fill it out. Because everybody was doing the feelers and sent my portfolio. And I did you know, I had a phone conversation with a recruiter at Disney, it’s like, could have gotten a job at Disney at the time. But I’d have to go there. And she said, if you can give me if you could come here, you know, we’d have something for you. And, you know, I remember the phone call. And I couldn’t do it at the time, you know, I had changed in my life, all this stuff happened. And and, you know, kid on the way I just had my wife, she’s had a baby. And so I couldn’t make that move at the time. But they’re all grown up now. So I’m trying to do that. Yeah, never, ever. Yeah. So what else?

Iva Mikles  

If you have some, like struggles along the way that you’ve felt like, okay, maybe there is some learning from this or like a takeaway.

Brian Ajhar  

Just, it’s really hard to make all the right choices on everything all the time. So, I mean, there’s been different times where I’ve taken the wrong jobs, you know, that weren’t right, or whatever. But as far as career path, I’m comfortable with the way it’s kind of a slow growth that happens. You know, I mean, I, I’m happy to say it wasn’t a flash in the pan. I’m still working and and it’s a steady thing. It’s a steady growth, even now, with animation. It’s, you know, every time I go to CTN things happen. You know, it’s just a steady, persistent thing. And, and I don’t get tired of it. I mean, I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the next thing, the next project.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah. So how does your normal day look like now you know, like, maybe how many hours a day do draw or do you do something daily, which contributes your success? Like, I don’t know, nature or meditation or something like that?

Brian Ajhar  

I don’t, I don’t really do things that are habitual. You know, there are times where I’m working and I just work, I’m constantly working. And then there are other times where, you know, I don’t have to have a job or work. And I go golfing, you know, I, you know, I used to ski, I have a bad knee now, but I used to ski a lot, go for hikes and do that travel. You know, two things that are based around some of my work things. Like right now I have a busy period coming up a lot of things happening. And I know, I’m going to be here for six months, just focusing, and then my ritual is going to be basically working as much as I have, too, to get done till I’m tired. You know, I never I don’t say, I’m working nine to five, I can’t. I’ve never been somebody to do that. I wake up sometimes in the morning, and usually my work time is better if I start at 10 Rather than eight. But I started at eight, you know, I just don’t get as much done. I get more done when I know that I’m motivated at that particular time, I could do more in three hours than it would 24 hours at that right frame of mind. You know, to get there. I don’t have the answer. Just sometimes it doesn’t happen. Other times. I you know, it’s like, I’m ready. You know, I I feel like doing it now. I’m ready. And you know, I wish I wish I had the answer. You know, I’ve never had I’ve never had that schedule thing that made me think of my best time. When I was younger. You know, you’re getting have a lot of work. And I remember my my record. My record, I tell this to my kids, you know, they’re like, yeah. My record for staying up. Not sleeping was three consecutive days. Yeah, so I honestly, I mean, you know, these are these are like, you know, doing, like magazine covers. And I remember one time I was doing Baron Barron’s Magazine. That was the last job at the end of the three days. And I remember doing it, I was, like, loaded up on coffee hallucinating, but I did it and it came out and I saw it on the newsstand a week. Let you know, a couple days later, I was like, wow, that was that’s pretty good.

Iva Mikles  

Like, you know, your brain is not functioning anymore. Oh, I did that. I don’t remember.

Brian Ajhar  

Yeah. But you know, you do what you have to do. I can’t do that now. I mean, I would, you know, physically, I just I would get tired. You know, but um, I used to be able to do that. And I look back I’m thinking, Yeah, it’s crazy.

Iva Mikles  

deadlines. Definitely. Because then, yeah, when you get more tired, right, then how do you keep on going on? It was just because you wanted to?

Brian Ajhar  

I don’t know, you just did it, I guess the motivation of knowing that something was due. And you know, I went through, you know, a few years like that doing as much work as I could. And it didn’t happen like continuously. Like, that would happen. Maybe uh, you know, there’d be a week here and there that were, you know, you didn’t want to turn down the money. You didn’t want to turn down the job because it was interesting. And you didn’t want to turn down the exposure. So you would do the best you know, maybe you would catnap a half hour here and there. But, but yeah, I it’s probably a lot of illustrators that do that, too. Yeah. When you do it now. But back then there were back when I’m talking that were, there was just a lot of work. You know, everybody had a lot of work. And you know, it’s a little different now, because the internet took some of that work away from the artists. So

Iva Mikles  

do you have a or a studio in the house? Or do you travel somewhere?

Brian Ajhar  

I have a house over there. Over there. And it’s connected to the studio. And we I built the studio in 2001.

Iva Mikles  

So it’s still quite new.

Brian Ajhar  

I moved into Studio 2001. Yes. Still no. 17 years. So yeah,

Iva Mikles  

yeah. Well, I mean, it’s still like,

Brian Ajhar  

yeah, yeah, I built it. Like before. 911. Yeah. Right. Like right before 911 happened feels like yesterday. Yeah, yeah. And if it happened after 911 Because at that time work dried up for a while. Yeah. Okay. For a lot of a lot of artists and, you know, I remember being out of work for three months at that time. And I know people are out of work for a year. They didn’t just couldn’t get work. And, you know, things were just in chaos. And so if I didn’t do it before that wouldn’t have had the studio. Oh, by the way, I mean, the new book, The studio book with Greg Preston.

Iva Mikles  

Oh, perfect. Yeah, I haven’t seen them forget.

Brian Ajhar  

Yeah, yeah. So I’m in their studio. Oh, nice.

Iva Mikles  

I Do you have other books you would recommend? Like, maybe with your art and aside of your books, of course, something you would give as a present to like artist or like, this is a book you cannot live without?

Brian Ajhar  

Oh, you’re an artist, my number one. It’s really motivational book to me. And I’ve had this book for, I don’t know, 30 years. 2025 years. It’s Ronald seral. Basically his life, you know, during the time where he did his war drawings, and it’s called from quiet and back, you know, around the circles work. Right. So yeah, these are his drawings he did when he enlisted into the, into the art the Royal Army, Royal Army, British Army, and then he was a prisoner of war. He was an art student. 19 years old, he had enlisted 20 years old, he was captured. It’s just a very inspirational book because it shows you His, his path that kept them alive. Basically, his drawing kept them alive. During during the time he was in, he was in pow. And he used to smuggle drawing used to draw and everything and, you know, hides the drawings, because he was his life was in danger. Somebody caught him. It’s just incredible, you know, but you understand how how his drawings changed over that period from when he was a art student, to when he was captured in that period, kind of helped him find find a voice, you know, it helped him focusing on on that really dark thing that he kept on seeing throughout his career, you know, so it’s, it’s, it was a horror horror that he was able to, to benefit from. And it’s just, it’s motivational, inspirational. I never met Ronald Searle, I would have loved to have met him. I was almost originals, but I’ve never met him.

Iva Mikles  

So that will be definitely on my list on books. I haven’t get that one yet. So yeah. And what about your future project? And I would like to know, like five to 10 years, but with UVC yourself, like working on what would be your dream scenario? And also, what would you like to be remembered for in like, 100 years?

Brian Ajhar  

100 years? Why? Why? Well, now I’m working on a book that’s going to be due and I think six months or eight months. It’s for Disney publishing. It’s, I can’t talk about it. So NDA agreement. Can’t talk about that. Yes. And I did. A few months ago, I did drawings for an animation studio. Probably shouldn’t mention the name. But they’re, they’re working on one project. If it gets greenlit I was told I’d be part of the team, doing character work, and, and they have four big projects on the berm, you know, ready to go that they want me to participate in but but you know, that’s, that’s now and you never know. And I met, I met somebody at CTN, from China, who’s developing projects in China, that is very interested in my character work, oh, no, those, those three things are four things are happening, or who knows, if they’re gonna happen. You know, editorial work, I have an agent that does my editorial work and advertising. And that’s only a portion of what I do now. You know, I used to do strictly editorial and a lot of advertising. And now it’s just comes in when it comes in. And that’s kind of how I deal with that. And as I said, I was doing a children’s book, but that’s basically where I am now, with work. And then a bunch of things that I want to do, I want to get back to doing more original paintings, rather than digital, you know. So, you know, I brought up my old drawing boards, I’m ready to stretch paper and staple it and in arches, my Arches paper and ready to get back into that just have to make I should like, have a schedule. Maybe it’ll work this time. It hasn’t worked yet, but maybe it’ll work this time. So that’s something a goal to

Iva Mikles  

about 100 years, you know, the epic question like What would you like to be remembered for?

Brian Ajhar  

Now, I don’t think anybody’s gonna remember me and I don’t know. If I’m remembered by my family, that’s great. You know, I’m happy to be a good guy. And, you know, my kids liking me and, you know, a good family guy. That would be that would be pleased me enough, as far as artistic. You know, we’ll see I’m not finished yet. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully, there’s better things happening in the future. I mean, I mean, a couple of books are art books, probably more than a couple, but one in particular. It’s, um, it’s like the history of illustration book. I mean, in that during the 1990s, like Artisan made an impact and 90s. So I mean, they’re, I don’t know what it means, but and whatever else happens, you know, I’m supposed to be donating artwork to Society of Illustrators. So, so they can put their artwork in a room that nobody sees, I guess, you know, for a long time, so I’m kinda, I’m not sure what to give them something good, but I don’t I don’t know what because I’m, I finished looking at some of my good things. Yeah. Hi, Joyce. Yeah, so I gotta figure that out. I’ve only been bugging me for a couple years.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, I’m looking forward to see your future projects. Definitely. Because yeah, I’m sure I will see you more around as well, as you mentioned in animation, and let’s see, you know, where in all the credits, you will be at that I would be like, yeah,

Brian Ajhar  

yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s exciting, because I’m never, there’s always a growth opportunity somewhere. You know, and I think my work is getting better all the time. I don’t think I go backwards. And, and just, you know, seen all the excitement meeting all the younger people that are in animation. It’s just motivating. It’s inspiring to me. And when I get when I go to CTN, and walk around and mingle and, and meet new friends, and you know, it’s just, it’s just so much fun to see all that energy. It’s exciting.

Iva Mikles  

Yeah, definitely. And before we say goodbye, and finish the interview, maybe you can share, like last piece of advice, or key takeaway, and then we will slowly finish.

Brian Ajhar  

Last piece of advice to somebody who is not as to a younger illustrator, or animator would be to be a student of life. Definitely. Don’t close yourself off to just looking at what’s online. You know, travel, experience, things in your life. Be observant, you know, look at people look at characters constantly make up stories, as you’re looking at them. You know, play play with things. You always say to yourself, you’re looking at a scene or a crowd scene or conversation, what if something else happens to react to make these people react to something else in the conversation? Back to the idea that I was talking about earlier, you know, there’s always a story, when is the perfect time of the story is the beginning is that the part where the action happens in the story is that the part before the action happens is the part after the action happens. You know, your your decision will make will help you develop your point of view perspective on how you see things. And always look, absorb and work hard. It’s about it.

Iva Mikles  

Definitely. And yeah, it was so great. And so inspirational. So thank you so much, again, for joining us here

Brian Ajhar  

for inviting me. It was great. It was really nice. Oh, thank

Iva Mikles  

you again, so much for taking time from your busy schedule. And yeah, so lots of really great useful tips. And thanks, everyone who joined today and see you in the next episode.

Brian Ajhar  

Thank you. Bye.

Iva Mikles  

Hey, guys, thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate you being here. You can find all the resources mentioned in this episode at artsideoflife.com. Just type a guest name in the search bar. There is also a couple of free artists resources ready for you on the website as well. So go check it out. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher so I can region inspire more artists like you. If you want to watch the interviews, head over to artsideoflife.com/youtube. Continue to inspire each other and I will talk to you guys in the next episode. Bye.

Announcer  

Thanks for listening to the Art Side of Life podcast at www.artsideoflife.com

Hi, I am Iva (rhymes with “viva”). I am an artist, illustrator, founder of Art Side of Life®, and Top Teacher on Skillshare. Since 2009 I've worked as an illustrator, character designer, art director, and branding specialist focusing on illustration, storytelling, concepts, and animation. I believe that we are all creative in infinite numbers of ways, so I've made it my mission to teach you everything I know and help either wake up or develop your creative genius. Learn more about me.

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