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What It’s Like to Illustrate for Star Wars

A digital painting of many different Star Wars characters

Lucasfilms’ Star Wars illustrator Brian Rood gives us a glimpse into how he got started in illustration, what it’s like working in the Star Wars franchise, how his creative process has evolved with the digital age, and what he’s working on now!

Maker Spotlight: Brian Rood

How did you get started as a professional artist?

I didn’t have a fancy art degree — I just went to one of those little colleges in a parking lot. I was going for an associates degree in graphic design when I decided to try out a traditional airbrushing class. I met a group of guys in that class who brought me along to the Wizard World comic book convention in Chicago.

I didn’t even know that comic book conventions were a thing. I quit reading comic books when I was a kid after I got interested in cars and girls. But when I walked in the doors of that convention, I was like, What is this whole world?

It took me about ten years of traveling all over the country exhibiting at sci-fi shows — big conventions, little conventions. Going to those shows and networking was how I started my career.

Lucasfilms' Star Wars illustrator Brian Rood  works on drawing Stars Wars art.

Tell us about the storybook gig you did with Lucasfilm.

Originally, it started out as 20 illustrations per film for the first three movies. I thought, Alright 60 illustrations, I have a year to do that, no problem. It’s going to be crazy tight, but I can do it. And then they changed their mind and said they actually wanted 80 illustrations per film in the same timeframe.

All I could do was jump in, feet first, and go for it. Some of the storybooks, like for Episode Seven, were done simultaneously while the movie was being filmed. It was a very behind-the-scenes, confidential process.

Those storybooks are the most extensive illustrated retelling of the Star Wars franchise in history. I’ve been able to dive really deep into the Star Wars universe and discover aspects of the story that I didn’t realize existed. Lucasfilm Press publishes the books internationally and turns them into every facet of a storybook product: from the little read-along books for kids, to coloring books — all kinds of stuff.

Besides the crazy deadlines, what are some other challenges in your job?

Waking up every day and trying to be creative is hard. There are certain days that are way better and other days that are a struggle. It doesn’t matter how the day is going, I have to wake up every day and try to create something that’s going to turn out cool. That’s my job and I love it. Even on the bad days, it’s still an amazing gig.

My normal day is about 12 to 16 hours of drawing and office work. I’ll do a solid 8-hour day, then get a little family time in, and come back down to the studio after that for another couple of hours of work.

Luke Skywalker holds a gun in the air while aliens surround him.

Has your style evolved, or has it stayed pretty consistent?

It’s been all over the place. I have a very high-polished, detail-oriented, photo-realistic style with acrylic paints. And then I have a much looser, more fluid style with watercolors. My digital style merges the acrylic and watercolor looks. Working digitally allows me to get my work done much faster compared to traditional mediums.

How much of your studio is setup for traditional versus digital work?

My studio literally has two sides to it: I’ve got the big messy side where I throw paint and get all the overspray from sealers and airbrushing. And then I have the side that stays clean with all of the computers.

On the digital side, I have an iMac setup with a 27” Wacom Cintiq tablet. I also have a 44” Giclee printer. Oftentimes, I’ll do a digital painting, and I can’t stand the fact that I don’t have anything physical to mess with at the end.

So, I’ve been printing off my work and then finishing it with traditional mediums. I’ll print a digital piece on canvas or watercolor paper, and then finish it out with airbrush, acrylics, pastels, or colored pencils. I’ve really enjoyed merging the traditional and digital worlds.

Lucasfilms' Star Wars illustrator Brian Rood  basement and work studio.

How have you seen creative tech evolve over your career?

You really have to go digital now. It’s what everyone’s doing coming out of school, and it’s kind of killed the market for traditional painting. I could make more money on an independent gig ten years ago, like a couple thousand dollars to do a nice book cover. But now it’s just a couple hundred dollars from the same publisher, simply because everyone is cranking out digital work. The rates have fallen considerably because one piece no longer takes three or four weeks to complete. Instead, it takes just three or four days.

There are good sides to this, but it also puts unrealistic expectations on artists. It’s like McDonald’s, where everything needs to be super fast. They’ll say, we need this in a day and a half. But to do something right, it really takes a couple of days to sit down and come up with the concept. Even if you’re working digitally, there’s not a button you can just push that makes it all illustrious and beautiful.

Hana Solo kisses Princess Leia

How do your iPad Pro and Astropad fit into your workflow?

Instead, of always sitting in an office chair and hunching over a computer, I can sit upstairs on the couch. I swear to you I use Astropad everyday — I’ve been utilizing the heck out of it. I love the fact that I can get out of the studio and spend the evening with my family. If it wasn’t for Astropad, I would still be tethered to the office and studio. It’s great to watch a little TV with the family in the evening and simultaneously get a little bit of work done if necessary.

Last night, my kids were decorating the Christmas tree, but I still had a bunch of work to get done. So, I brought out the iPad Pro and I was sitting on the couch, having a little bit of family time while I was still working on a deadline.

What other tech have you tried? 

I’ve screwed around with all sorts of mirroring and second display apps for the iPad, but they just weren’t working, especially with Photoshop.

But with Astropad, the incorporation of the hotkeys is complete awesomeness. And the WiFi feature is amazing… no other app works over WiFi — they all require you to be tethered. So what’s the point?

A lot of artists are feeling abandoned by Apple. Who do you think will come out ahead in the creative tech industry – Microsoft or Apple?

I honestly don’t know. I hope it’s Apple, but they need to start making computers again. I like all of their products — they’re fantastic — but I need a new setup and they don’t have anything I can buy.

I need something more extensive than a laptop — either a brand new top-of-the-line iMac with all the bells and whistles, new graphics cards, and new platforms, or a new Mac Pro — and they don’t have either of those right now. So it’s hard to say how Apple can continue to capture the creative market.

Three storm troopers run into battle with guns drawn.

So what’s next for you?

I’ve got some pretty cool stuff in the works… A lot more Star Wars on the immediate horizon, including some great stuff for the Star Wars Celebration Convention this Spring in Orlando. There are some really exciting projects I’m working on to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

And some new art ranging from fine art reproductions to something amazing for a San Diego Comic-Con exclusive this year. I’m also doing a new line of collectible art with skateboard icons from the X-Games. A lot of skate art that merges my work with skateboarding legends and pop culture icons like Steve Caballero and Elliot Sloan. 2017 is going to be a crazy-busy and exciting year!

OK, last question: if you could be any character that you’ve illustrated over the past twenty years, who would you be?

Ooh, it’s a toss up. Either Han Solo or Boba Fett. Those two guys seem to have it going on. But I think Han lives longer, so we’ll go with Han. 

See more of Brian Rood’s portfolio on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @broodone, or on Facebook at Official Brian Rood Art.

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Luke Skywalker rides a tauntaun.