Face Value

Filipino artist Ryan Melgar talks inspiration, technique, and surviving and thriving in the competitive world of illustration

Interview Patrick Kasingsing
Art Ryan Melgar

Ryan Melgar, Header: Troye Sivan

Hello Ryan! What’s on your digital canvas today?

Hello! I’m currently working on portrait illustrations for Barron’s Magazine.

I’m a big fan of your portrait work. There’s just something different and refreshing about the way your illustration style straddles that fine line between digital and traditional. How did you arrive at this approach?

Thank you so much! Whenever people ask me about my “style” or how I do stuff, I always just say “I paint what I see” because that’s what I really do (haha!). But I also think I came up with how I see or do stuff because I used to do traditional artworks. Like graphite, colored pencils, and acrylic. So maybe there are certain aspects of the traditional process of creating something that I’m still subconsciously doing while creating digital artworks.

Would you consider this a style you opt to keep, a sort of signature that potential clients will get you for, or are you open to evolving and shaking things up in terms of illustration approach?

I feel like this is what people “recognize” my art for. I’ve been using the same process since I first started with digital art years ago with a few changes. For example, my old stuff used to have black lines, but now I blend it with the painting’s colors to make it more seamless and a bit more realistic. I also hated textures when I was just starting, but now I don’t think I could live with it. Also having a little more dynamic background color than just one solid one. So… yeah. I try to always add something new or shake things up a little without compromising how I originally do my art.

Which personalities do you enjoy drawing the most?

Probably musicians and actors because I love films and music. Whenever I get portrait work with such artists as the subject, I get way too excited. Like when I did Dev Hynes/Blood Orange, Hayley Williams, Jay-Z, Reese Witherspoon, etc. I think it’s also because I work on business-related portraits most of the time, so a different “genre” hits… differently.

Sufjan Stevens for Buzzfeed News
Tyler the Creator

For the curious, what are the tools you use for your works? Any special steps or unorthodox methods utilized?

Just Photoshop. I use the default brushes, nothing special. Some of my friends were shocked when I first told them I just use the default ones; that’s all I use and it works fine haha!

 Can you give us a quick walkthrough of your illustration process? What stage takes the most time (and elicits the most procrastination?) How long do you usually take to finish a portrait?

My process starts with the sketch/line art. After I check the proportions and see that the framework looks nice, I do the base colors. Skin, clothes, hair. Just blocks of solid colors under the line art. After that, I do the painting. That’s it. It just takes a whole lot of listening to podcasts while working, sleepless nights, and patience. Sometimes a little bit of crying, too!

Apart from the hair, doing the detailing takes so much time. Sometimes I just wish I could just use filter to make them blend and look better. I usually take at least three days to finish a portrait. I work so slow, I’m sorry.

Let’s talk about clients and collaboration. Are you usually given free rein to pursue your style for your commissions?

I guess it depends on the client. Most of the time, they just want a straight-up clean portrait with no elements whatsoever. Other times, they also have a clear concept that they just want me to execute. I’m so fortunate that I got to work with amazing art directors; their ideas are always *chef’s kiss*. Although I also do suggest a different take if their initial ideas wouldn’t really vibe [with me] or if another approach would work better.

What would you consider your biggest and most challenging commission?

Honestly, anything that needs to be submitted in, like, less than three days hahaha! I’m a bit of a perfectionist and get so obsessive about the smallest details that I tend to spend a lot of time on my paintings.

Nice White Parents cover for The New York Times

To follow, what’s a dream commission you wish to snag?

ALBUM COVERS! Especially Taylor Swift. Man, I love Taylor Swift. It would be a dream come true!

Do you choose the clients you work with? Where do you draw the line where you have to serve out a definite no to a commission?

I guess it depends? If the budget is way below my minimum fee, I have to unfortunately decline the offer. Or sometimes if I know I wouldn’t be able to deliver a great output, I try to recommend the client to my other artist friends to do it. For example, there was a time I was asked to paint a very landscape-heavy painting, I had to decline it because I know that I wouldn’t be able to deliver the best output in a very short time since I’m not really that good with landscapes.

Do you draw full-time or have a day job? While you have been blessed with both the talent and a stellar set of clients, the reality is a lot of artists in this country are still criminally underpaid and a creative path still something looked down upon as opposed to more lucrative careers. What do you think is needed to banish this dated mindset?

I draw full-time! Yeah, that’s true. Especially for the older generations, they always think like “walang pera diyan” (there’s no money in art) or “walang ka-kwenta-kwentang kurso” (“useless degree”). Man, I wish I know the answer to that. But if the government has more ways of supporting the art and culture community in the Philippines, I feel like it would make a lot of change to our current career climate.

How do you take in criticism for your work?

When I was younger and a little naive, I took things way too personally. If the client didn’t like my ideas or outputs, I’d think of myself as trash. Then I’ve slowly learned that sometimes, you don’t always have the best ideas [and that’s okay].

Having a strong portfolio can make or break an artist; how did you go about constructing yours? Did you do a lot of passion projects or self-initiated work for your portfolio?

Yes. Because when I was just starting, I didn’t have much client work so I used my free time to create personal projects. I still do it now whenever I’m free!

The advent of social media has made it easy to share one’s work with millions of people; however, this has also led to widespread plagiarism, credit grabbing, and other unsavory practices. How do you protect your creations?

I… kinda don’t. Like, I don’t do watermarks and stuff, so what I just do is to make the illustration sizes I upload a little smaller. And even if I do put watermarks, there’s a lot of ways people could do to actually remove or cover them up. I just hope that in the near future we’ll have stricter rules when it comes to plagiarism and such.

A fixture in many an artist interview, but always a relevant question (especially in this pandemic): How do you stay inspired? Do you have other hobbies or interests that keep the creative juices flowing?

I watch movies (particularly Asian cinema) that I haven’t seen yet and listen to new music. Whenever you do, see, or hear something new, you get new ideas that you could use for your current or next project/s as well. Sometimes, I just go to our terrace, try to get some sun, and chill. Most of the time, I just play games just to relax a little haha!

For readers interested to take the same path as you, what advice can you give to succeed as a full-time illustrator?

Always do your best in whatever you do, most especially when you get the opportunity to work with other people. Sounds cliché, but always treat your current project like it’s your last! •

Illustration for Stylist France

The portrait of the artist over at @melgz

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