The editorial illustrations of Daniel H Gray

Published:  December 2, 2015

All year long we’ve been featuring the editorial illustrations of self-taught Sydney freelancer Daniel H Gray, whose work bursts with humour and an easy vibrancy.

Here, we chat with Gray about turning ideas into images.




Tell us about yourself and how you got into the illustration game.

I originally studied medical science, thinking I would end up a doctor, but came to the realisation that I didn’t have the passion for it. I wanted to do something creative. I got my start [as an illustrator] when I was asked to make gig posters for the pub I was working at. In my spare time, I would learn about illustration and the industry, how to get commissions, teach myself techniques. It’s gradually built up from starting as a hobby to becoming a real career.

What tools and materials do you use for your work?

I use a mixture of traditional and digital media: 2B and 3B pencils, graphite sticks, pastels, Chinese ink brushes. I often combine pencil and ink with digital brushes. My lightbox, scanner and Photoshop are essential as I approach my work with a printmaking attitude – lots of layering and texture.

From the 'Desktop Dead Dictionary' - a glossary of obsolete design terms, April/May.

From the ‘Desktop Dead Dictionary’ – a glossary of obsolete design terms, April/May.

The editorial illustrations you’ve produced for desktop this year often deliver their humour by representing a very literal interpretation of the article’s topic or theme. For the article titled ‘Digital Craft’ you gave us small men in overalls chipping away at a computer with primitive tools, and for a piece on copyrights in the digital realm, you placed the computer like a precious jewel in a laser-screened glass box. With this witty literalness, you manage to create something absurd. Is there an organised process behind this distillation? Do you have to work at developing these ideas, or does each one appear fully formed the first time you work with it?

If I’m lucky, the ideas appear fully formed but, as most creative people will attest, often you have to really work at them. I start with some word association and I use that to research imagery and see if any interesting ideas or visuals result. I like to be open-minded and keep the ideas diverse, even abstract at times, but in the end it comes down to what connects or communicates the best.

What do you do if you get stuck, if the material you’re responding to doesn’t present any clear points for you to work with?

I try and do something completely different to clear my head. I ask my partner   – an outsider’s point of view can be a refreshing change of perspective. I take a break, do some exercise, then have another go. Sometimes if I sleep on it, I’ll wake up with ideas in my head. I save interesting images I come across on the web in a reference folder on my computer – looking through these can trigger ideas. If it’s not a very visual topic, it could be a chance to think more abstractly and outside the square.

Know your Digital Copyrights, from Desktop June/July.

Know your Digital Copyrights, from Desktop June/July.

'Quiet Time' in the studio, from Desktop August/September.

‘Quiet Time’ in the studio, from Desktop August/September.

Do you aim to carve out a consistent style across your client list, or do you want to explore different directions for each?

I try to keep things consistent in terms of my approach, even if the technique or medium varies a little. It helps to make your work recognisable, which is the aim. I also want my clients to feel they can rely on me and know what they will get. In saying that, exploration and experimentation is important to keep growing as an illustrator. Sometimes this is embraced by a client. You just have to know when the client trusts you enough to do it, or leave it for your personal work.

What criteria do you use to critique your work, or to measure its success?

It’s hard – often illustrators are their own worst critics and I’m definitely no exception. The most important thing is that the work communicates an idea and makes the viewer feel something. If I can achieve that with a piece that is also visually interesting and appealing, or clever and unexpected even, that’s a successful piece. Of course, there’s a level of skill and quality to aim for. I’d like to create work that could sit alongside the work of illustrators I look up to. I always try to push myself in terms of composition and technique to create better illustrations but, in the end, the ideas are key.

We all look back at our old work and cringe, but all of your past work served a purpose at the time and helped you to get to where you are now. If my work is helping me to learn and move forward, I would say that also makes it successful.


Digital Craft. Desktop February/March.

Digital Craft. Desktop February/March.

What publications are using editorial illustrations in a way that excites or inspires you?

My favourite publications are ones that not only like to use lots of illustration, but also give their illustrators lots of freedom. The styles and techniques are varied and they’re not afraid to use abstract or interesting ideas for their pieces.

Part of me has always been a scientist, but sometimes science publications can be a bit dry. Nautilus magazine actually makes me want to read about science, their illustrations are so engaging and fresh. I’m also a sucker for The New York Times and The New Yorker, they’re always inspiring. Lucky Peach, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, MIT Technology Review and even local publications Meanjin Quarterly and Smith Journal are using lots of interesting illustration.

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