People Profile – Richard Johnston – Artist, Designer and Illustrator

Fairy story illustration

I was born in Shoreham in Sussex and moved with my parents to Godalming when I was 9 years old. I attended Busbridge school, where you could always find me doing artwork and drawing cartoons.

I then went on to attend Broadwater School, where I was inspired and encouraged by my art teacher Mr Peter Mason, to use my imagination and peruse my artistic talents further.

I believe there was a legitimate artist in our family going back quite a few generations and my mother was certainly crafty. However, my father was a banker and really clever with Maths, which definitely isn’t my strong suit!

Fishman Sculpt

It was my love of monsters that first drew me to the creative arts, I was very much influenced by animations and the monsters of Jason and the Argonauts, Jack the Giant Killer and the  animations of Ray Harryhausen, who was a hero of mine. I wanted to do what he was doing.

So, when I was about 15 or 16, I started out by making my own little citadel miniatures and war hammer type figures, then moving on to sculpt my own figures using Fimo or Sculpey, an oven-based plasticine. I would make things out of anything I could get my hands on, wood, papier mache, etc. I was experimenting all the way. Trying to make something out of nothing.

One of my earliest influences was Michael Jackson’s horror video Thriller, in which he changes into a zombie. I thought ‘how have they done that, I want to know, I want to do that’. American Werewolf in London was another revolutionary monster film that had a huge influence on me. The make up and effects for both were done by Rick Baker, who was another hero of mine.

Cardboard Statue of Liberty

From stop motion animation to model making to monster making, I always had heroes who I looked up to.

In those days there was no internet or anything of the sort, so the only way to research and discover who people were and how things were done was via magazines. I would spend all my pocket money on trips to Forbidden Planet in London, which was a tiny shop at the time in Denmark Street. Buying magazines for scraps of information on how to recreate the models and monsters I was fascinated by.

I can even remember writing to the BBC at one point to ask them how American Werewolf was made. They wouldn’t have known of course, but they kindly wrote me a letter back saying that they thought it was Yak’s hair that had been used. This of course was an absolute gem of information for me and I thought ‘right ok, I need to get my hands on some yak’s hair!’

Painting the Ninja Turtles’

So, in short, I was always looking for inspiration and ways that I could do and create my own works of art, and that’s how it all started.

After leaving school, it was very difficult to find work artistically. I went on to study Art at Godalming College and then did a foundation course at East Surrey College of Art and Design in Reigate around 1987. I really enjoyed it there and felt that it helped me to push my boundaries as an artist. Oddly it pushed me not into superior materials, but into what seemed like inferior materials such as cardboard. MVP (minimum viable product) as I’ve learnt from the corporate world!

So, I was doing a lot of cardboard sculpting, as well as doing my own latex masks and monsters on the side. However, I was still keen to specialise in something and further my education, so I attended various model making courses and started to interview with universities. In particular I was interviewed at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, where they infamously told me that some of my work was better than that of their second years. I was grateful for the compliment, but at 18 I was still desperate to be taught and develop my skills, but that was it, they wouldn’t let me in!

The Incredible Hulk costume!

At that point I was forced to go out and find work for myself. Which in hindsight was positive as it meant I wasn’t wasting 3 years at university.

I eventually got 2 weeks work at Spitting Image in 1988, helping to repair the satirical puppets. In particular I repaired Sir John Gielgud and I put the eyes in Jessie Jackson, who was an American politician and preacher at the time. Then I also worked on a children’s programme called Round The Bend, making various cartoon spoofs of popstars at the time, there was ‘Mudonna’ ‘Rick Ashtray’, ‘Dross’, ‘Swill Collins’ and so on.

However, that was only a few weeks work. The creative industry always has been, and I think still is, very closed doors. You have to literally go and knock on doors, kick doors down or know someone in order to get ahead. I found out far too late that connections are the key to getting into places and meeting people.

Cardboard heads for an opticians

It wasn’t until about a year later in 1989 that I got another ‘proper’ job and that was working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I had a few months on that and then there was the second sequel in 1990. After that was a TV series called Dinosaurs which people may remember, which had a family of cartoon type dinosaurs. I was doing similar jobs that I’d done before, which was the trimming and seaming of all of the foam costumes and bits and bobs that came out the moulds. It was a bit of a boring job but essential nonetheless.

So, these were effectively my university years.

I’ve always been self-employed, but I think it’s important to stress that I’ve not always done super well. I had a great start, but maintaining a career in the creative industry has been very difficult for me, and has certainly come with it’s ups and downs. I’ve also always had to supplement my income by taking other jobs on the side. I’ve worked in party shops, toy shops, Debenhams, Waitrose and been a waiter too. Just like a jobbing actor, during resting periods, you have to do what’s necessary to get by.

Costume Fitting with Thor – Son of Odin

The thing that kept me going was just an absolute love for the job. People always say do what you love, and I absolutely agree with that, but there are always sacrifices. You have to be prepared that you won’t always get work in what you want to do.

By 1992 I’d found work as a prop maker at the Guildford School of Acting. Most memorably making a huge pig carcass for a show set in an abattoir. After that I got a job working on the Borrowers TV series, working under William Rigby, which was fantastic. I made a giant dead mouse, giant flowers and helped to make all of the giant grass that was used.

After that point jobs became fairly erratic. In 1994 I got another job through William Rigby making a Cactus Costume for Bjork for the MTV music awards, which I later found out was for the camera man! I actually found a video of it being worn recently on Youtube.

Model design

By 1996 I was working in Manchester, sculpting at a company called Mackinnon and Saunders and Saunders, who are quite well known in the industry. I worked on various things, adverts, animations, characters and maquettes’ .

I was also in Bristol for a while working at Aardman Animations who are the Wallace and Gromit people, and was working on adverts for brands like Quavers and Monster Munch and then infamously the last video that Spice Girls did, which was called Viva Forever. They were represented as these tin toys. I thought they were horrible at the time, but everyone loves them now!

However, by 1997 I was back in Godalming living with my parents.

Gangster Cats Illustration

Then, I got the call to work on Star Wars. At last this was it, I thought. After all of the work I thought ‘this is it, I’ve made it finally, I’m at the top!’.

It was for The Phantom Menace, which was the first of the prequels, and I was in the creature’s department, doing the same kind of jobs as I’d done before on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dinosaurs. It was factory line work, a bit boring, and not entirely skilled, but I got talking to people and managed to get onto a different crew, which was helping to puppeteer the puppet of C3P0. It wasn’t a man in a suit at this point.

It was an enormous number of hours and the job really took its toll on me. I had a 2-hour commute either way to the studios in Watford (which is now the Harry Potter Tour). I had to be there at 7am in order to be let in, and wouldn’t leave until between 7-10pm at night. It was truly exhausting.

3D Model design

I experienced a lot of great things and put a huge amount of effort into networking and getting ahead. However soon after the job ended, I was working full time in Debenhams warehouse. It was awful, but I had to do it. I had no other work, I was living back with my parents, and had no money.

At this point it was my dissatisfaction at the jobs I was working in that spurred me on in my creative pursuits. Even whilst I was at Debenhams I would be constantly drawing and making things out of the old cardboard boxes!

By 2000, I’d managed to get some work at the National Archives, doing some exhibition work for things like the Hearth Tax, and the Missing Dimension, MI5 Files, Victorian Christmas etc. and following that, I was commissioned to make a big dragon costume, for English Heritage.

Various cartoons

I’m not good at business, and one of the reasons I haven’t quite managed to make a career in the art world is that I’m no good with money. If someone says I’ve only got £50 for a job I tend to say yes, because I need the work. Whereas in reality, it might cost 100’s of pounds to get the job done.

I then moved into theatrical work and smaller prop making. I made a giant 6ft tall Hound of the Baskervilles for an outdoor theatrical production and an 8ft Skeleton puppet costume for the Youth Music Theatre of the UK, for Roald Dahl’s production of Mort in 2007/2008. I had a studio space in Godalming where the old fire station used to be.

Next, I got a job with Lionhead Studios in Guildford who were making computer games, most notably, Fable 2. They required some physical sculpts of character’s faces for workshops and meetings etc. Again, I thought to myself ‘I’ve made it! I’m in!’ I decided I would take my traditional skills into the digital world and retrain.

BAFTA award made from card

However unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and after a few weeks making the sculptures, they no longer required my services.

By this point I’d had to diversify my skills so much that I had become a Jack of All Trades and Master of None. Digital retraining was something I put some time into, I attended courses, and went to see a top digital firm. They said they could see that I had the traditional skills, but I was then told that I was 2 years behind a graduate in that field.

It was simply so hard to keep up.

Wolfman Luke Illustration

By 2011, I was doing work for a company is Haselmere called Bang Creations, who were a worldwide product and toy design company. I was designing and sculpting toys and kits. The most successful thing I made was a card folding kit called Rivetz Kits. There was a car, a dragon, a wasp, a stealth fighter, all sorts. I had to design the prototypes which where sent to China and turned into a kit. It was the first time I’d seen something I’d created in a shop. I saw them in Hobby Craft, W H Smiths etc, and of course people then say to you ‘Oh this is great, you must be doing well, and getting royalties off this’. But in actual fact, it’s a tiny amount of money to do one job, and then that’s that.

From 2011, I gave up prop making all together. It was killing me. I was 40 something by this stage, struggling with money and just couldn’t keep up. The passion I once had for the job had well and truly vanished.

I started working for a corporate communications company called DPA. Doing everything from sketches to video editing, to cleaning and sticking labels on CDs! In turn they introduced me to the word of corporate events, and even asked if I could sketch at some events. Which thankfully turned out to be a lot better paid than the majority of similar previous jobs.

Toy model making cardboard designs

Since then I’ve worked for brands like Sony, making giant phones to hang from the ceiling at their events, as well as doing live scribing during talks, where I draw the theme and topic of the talk, so that it becomes a living moving environment to help engage and inspire the delegates.

So here I am retraining myself again for the corporate world, using all my traditional skills, imagination, and innovation.

In terms of my future aspirations, I would like to return to my first love, which was always stop motion animation.

Giant model making designs

Technology has moved forward now in such a way that it’s so much more accessible. I’ve always struggled with the concept of working to bring someone else’s ideas to life in a factory line scenario.

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to jot down all of the mad ideas that I’ve had and characters that I’ve come up with. My ultimate aspiration is to utilise my imagination and bring my own creations to life.

Working on Star Wars set design

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

Cranleigh Magazine