Dave first made it onto my radar a few years ago when I stumbled across his work on Conceptart.org. I then later saw a piece he did for Jon Schindehette’s Art Order Challenge, and that clenched it! In just a few short years, Dave Rapoza went from “that kid to watch out for” to, honestly, one of my favorite young artists. Apparently I’m not the only one, as Dave has been working pretty regularly for companies like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing.
For me, it’s his character portraits that show off his true abilities. He turns simple head and shoulder portraits into exquisite character studies, with some absolutely amazing lighting affects. Exhibiting phenomenal edge and color control, these pictures have a sense of depth that makes them look like worlds unto themselves.
Most recently, Dave has completed a re-imagining of 15 classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters… A really ambitious project which took him over six months. Dave took a little time out of his schedule to talk about this project, and more, in an exclusive interview for Muddy Colors.
MC: I have heard that you never attended a formal art school, taught yourself anatomy, and learned to draw from life. What challenges or advantages do you think it has had on your career?
DR: Yea I never really could afford art school but hoped at some point I’d be able to do something with illustration as far as a career goes. I was pretty much convinced that I wouldn’t be able to get good without school but my dad really got me on the idea of teaching myself using online/library resources. In the beginning it was all about motivating myself and developing some self discipline. Basically I got to a point where I decided that there would never be a “right” time to start, the stars would never align and no situation would ever be perfect enough. I just had to start forcing myself to sit and study all day everyday. That was the hardest part, that and finding/taking on all the really awful commissions I had to do in the beginning. Probably the biggest advantage to learning on my own was the work ethic I developed over time. Because I’m all freelance its basically up to me how everything goes. The days are planned according to what I deem important. So making myself get into the habit of doing hours of studies everyday followed by practice work really got me in a good mind set and helped start my career working fulltime freelance. There’s nothing like fighting yourself and trying to convince yourself that studying is better than going out and having fun haha.
MC: What are your “tools of the trade” and how did you learn to use them?
DR: Well as I mentioned before I never really had a lot of money so my family never got me any sort of real art supplies growing up. Generally I just sorta sketched around and used prisma color markers from time to time. It wasn’t until I got my scholarship in 11th grade that I started really getting into “painting” in any way. At the time I had already decided I wasn’t gonna go to college so the scholarship was useless. Instead I convinced them to use the money to help buy me a Wacom tablet. After that I got into painting in photoshop and learning how to use all the tools. Took me a few years to really get serious about it though. After I graduated and started studying I really focused on getting used to the tablet and improving my work. I used to spend hours browsing conceptart.org and cgsociety.org trying to figure out how everybody did what they did haha. Once I started posting though I realized, from reading the forums, that I had to focus only on fundamentals instead of trying to mimic everybody’s finished work. Then it just came down to all the studies I ended up doing.
MC: Who, or what, is your biggest influence?
DR: Hmm, not sure if I can name any one thing that has influenced me the most. But I pretty much just try to boil down everything that I love and try and bring that into my work. That could be the mood of the music I listen to plus my favorite style film shots and whatever else is getting me excited to work at the moment. Another thing that gets me into my work is the business side of it. I get really into trying to do work that gets seen by a lot of people. Whenever I see a project that I think will be big I try and target it and do work for it even if I’m not getting paid. Awhile ago when I saw Super Meat Boy I decided to try and get their attention with a piece of work for the main character. From there they saw it and I ended up doing the poster for the game that got released later on. Things like that really motivate me and I always enjoy the challenge of trying to catch someones eye and achieve new goals.
MC: What advice do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out as an illustrator?
DR: Its funny to think about that because I’m not entirely sure I would like to give myself advice. I believe that failure is a huge part of the process. Without failure you can’t really appreciate any sort of success. Everybody can tell you about the downfalls of any line of work but its nothing like learning from the actual experience. I can think back to mistakes I made but I don’t know if I’d really know what I’m doing now if I hadn’t gone through that haha. Although the road is hard to becoming anything, and I am by no means near my goal, its all about the trip there and not the end. Without all that terrible crap I wouldn’t be able to look back and feel the same appreciation.
MC: What is your process for creating an image?
DR: Several progress pics, as well as a ton of videos capturing the entire process in real time, can be found at: http://daverapoza.blogspot.com/
MC: What inspired you to start your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series? How has it evolved?
DR: When I got started I was only going to do Bebop and Rocksteady. But pretty much immediately after I finished them they got passed around the internet so fast that I started to get pretty pumped to continue. Not to mention they were a lot of fun. From then on I made a list of characters I wanted to finish and decided it would be a test of my own self discipline. I’d never done a full series straight through like this, especially not one that was all personal work. After my 3rd image I figured I could maybe sell prints to make up for all the time I was spending on the series. When I finished April O’Neil everything really got propelled forward. The image got featured on reddit and instantly got around 100k views first day I put it up. Once that happened I decided to post up about the pre-orders. I wasn’t expecting the boost at all and basically sold out of all my prints the day after that. Since then they’ve all been selling out consistently and being featured all over which is totally awesome. I mean, its just kinda funny considering I did all this other work before but as soon as I attached myself to the turtles everything took off. Went from Dave to the guy who does the ninja turtles haha. But I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone who has helped me with these prints and helped push me to finish. Even got to speak with Kevin Eastman which was huge for me having grown up with TMNT as a kid. Couldn’t be happier.
MC: Are prints available for the TMNT series?
DR: Well, the series 1 & 2 prints are all gone from what I understand (my girlfriend handles the orders). But the last set of just the turtles should be available either when you’re reading this or not long after. All you gotta do is check the link at the top of my blog for details!
MC: Are you looking to do more commissioned work, or are you going to focus on creating work for yourself and selling prints?
DR: I’m not entirely sure just yet. Its been awhile since I’ve taken on any random commission work but I still do World of Warcraft cards and Magic: The Gathering work. Really it just depends on the job, if its awesome I’ll totally be down for it. But for now the prints have helped me stay sane just balancing regular jobs with personal work that actually sells well. Its been a big stress reliever past few months.
MC: What is your next project?
DR: Good question, I don’t really know anymore. It was going to be G.I. Joe and I wanted to tackle all the not so popular characters like Snow Job… Only problem is that I talked about it a bit too much and in doing so have really kinda killed it I think. So I haven’t really told anyone what I’ve had in mind just so that I can continue to stay motivated to start it without feeling like I’ve already set some bar for myself.
MC: If you could collaborate with any artist (living or not) who would it be and why?
DR: Don’t know if I could ever collaborate with anyone, its one of the reasons I’m freelance. I never could see myself working with anyone like that because I’m a bit too controlling when it comes to work. When I get into an idea that I’m excited about I feel like nobody can stop me from doing it or I’ll freak out haha. But just on sheer awesomeness I’d love somebody like Alphonse Mucha to paint over one of my Thrash metal monsters. Just be really good at painting terrible stupid concepts like that.
MC: If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?
DR: Thats a good question, I have a ton of hobbies. Hmm, I’d probably be skateboarding everyday, making movies with my friends and breakdancing all the time. But if I had to choose one I’d probably choose pursuing skateboarding. A lot of my old friends I used to skate with ended up going pro or right around there and I always felt a little bad I never continued to push myself in that direction. But I’d love doing what I do either way.
Be sure to check out more of Dave’s work at http://daverapoza.blogspot.com/ !