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Feature Friday: Oliver Bly

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

I was at a print shop event recently and they had a few pieces hung up on the wall. Of those pieces were a few really softly, beautifully done illustrations and comics. The pieces were bold yet elegant, the line work was thin and incredibly detailed, the color was soft but thoughtfully applied in order to make the right areas pop, and the narrative of the pieces were compelling. Fortunately, amidst the small display was a business card and that’s when I discovered the work of Oliver Bly.

Bly’s work has a delicacy and whimsy to it that really makes it fun and engaging. He’ll hint to it himself but the narrative to his work is crucial and the energy it omits is one that really connects with the emotions of the viewers. Even in his single illustrations, they feel like a single moment in time perfectly captured in a world that does not exist. I got to interview Bly on his work, his narrative and his process and I truly think the final product is fascinating. It’s always nice to get a peek inside work that is so heavily driven by narrative and Bly does not disappoint. Take a deep dive into his work and enjoy this wonderful interview!

1. To start off, I always like to ask about an artists background. So, what got you into art? Any schooling? Big inspirations? Anything that has shaped you into the artist that you are today!

I think most people start off as artists, when they are children. They play and commune with imagination all the time, and sometimes they bring things back from that world, and make things - drawings, songs, sculptures, things out of sticks or mud or trash. They act, role play… they are always using imagination to relate to, transform, and understand the phenomenal world - to communicate, express, connect, reveal - they are students of multiple intelligences. It is a fact of life. Artists just don’t put that away as they age, maybe. They keep visiting that place of imagination, and dreaming, and making things. An artist is sort of a person who fights to stay open, which is painful.

Inspirations are always hard because there are a lot, and they are all over the place. A resourceful artist is a scavenger and always watching, picking, plucking, thinking, plotting, using every scrap of experience and perspective in their reckonings. If an artist is prone to being interested, then inspiration is always there.

To keep my battery charged I spend a lot of time in the Wissahickon, reading, researching, spending time with loved ones. As I get older I’ve been growing smaller. I hope to someday be the shape of a marble, a compact ball of neat energy beeping gladly in the pocket of your old coat. That’d be a good life, and a good shape, I hope my inspirations shape me into that.

2. Starting with your straight forward illustrations, you've got an expansive portfolio featuring all types of subjects. What are your big inspirations for illustrations? How do they differ? What's the process like in making them (hand done vs. digital)?

I work entirely digitally when I make an illustration or a comic, on a Wacom Cintiq plugged into a laptop. I use the Stumpy Pencil brush from in Photoshop for almost all my ‘pencil drawings’. I’ve tried other pencil brushes but for whatever reason that’s the one I always go back to. My inking brush is one I made myself.

I’ve been transitioning from an animator to a comic book writer and illustrator over the last few years. Part of breaking into the comic book industry is tabling at conventions and getting your work seen. Tabling at conventions can get expensive, so it’s necessary for me to sell prints to recoup losses and maybe make some money. So I draw a lot of super heroes, not really because that’s where my heart is at primarily, but because they are instantly recognizable and popular and people like to buy prints of their favorites. Only recently have my own characters been selling as well as X-Men characters and eventually they’ll take up more space in the spread.

3. You've also got a collection of visually stunning and fun to read comics, how do these come about? How does the narrative process impact the visual elements? Which come first usually?

Thank you, Forrest. Usually I start with narrative. I’d rather write or tell a story than anything else. So I’ll sketch a concept, or a character, or a scenario in my mind. Then I’ll start scribbling a character’s form. I draw very raw - primal - at this stage, especially when I’m drawing anything spiritual, fantastical, or otherwise not of this world. I unearth from my gut and sculpt out an idea, sorting and probing and seeing what is in my subconscious, skulking about. Later I’ll get very meticulous and approach the design like an animator, mapping out how the three dimensional form performs in space - understanding its logic. Lastly I’ll do a heart pass, giving the character a spark of life - its emotional core, what makes it relatable, or the opposite, and so on.

4. How do the processes of these two avenues of your work differ? How are they similar? Do any illustrations ever spawn a comic series or vice versa?

Sometimes. Usually illustrations come from a prompt, either for an art show, a commission, a work for hire. It’s rare I get to make something that I really want to make. My comics are usually what I want to be making, the illustrations and commercial animations are often what I need to be making to keep me alive well enough to make the comics. I keep the paid stuff off of my website, for the most part.

5. What is the print process like for you? How does a piece make it to print? How do the prints of comics and illustrations differ in process?

Hmmm - I suppose, if you’re coloring a comic appropriately, technically speaking, you have a good grasp of the offset printing process and the kind of paper your book will be printed on. Mass produced comics are often on very thin paper, so you have to watch the saturation and combination of CMYK inks or you’ll soak the paper, or wind up with muddy tones. Some CMYK color combos perform differently on the computer screen than they do on paper, and really good colorists understand this and limit their palettes accordingly. I’m not really there yet, a lot of this wisdom isn’t codified on the internet, it exists as trade secrets that are passed on. For prints, I usually just run digitals - the printer I use, Fireball, has a really nice Indigo machine that makes just absolutely beautiful prints. They also can do gorgeous ink jet large format prints but that process is expensive and not really necessary unless I’m doing something bigger than 13x19. And, well, for the most part I’m drawing weird monsters or people fighting crime in their underpants. I’m not exactly Andrew Wyeth. My prints are what they are, my art is what it is.

6. Finally Plugs! Where can people find your work? Any shows coming up? Anywhere that people can find you, let them know!

Art shows are rare. I’ll be doing some cons in 2020 but they’re not all locked down yet. I have an instagram which I update sometimes - @oliverbly

Otherwise, just check in the pocket of your old coat. With some luck, I will be the little marble of energy beeping at you calmly and with great joy.


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