Iqaluit illustrator brings stories to life using digital tools
Jonathan Wright finds a niche inside an Apex sealift container
His biggest clients might not be located anywhere near his home in Iqaluit, but that hasn’t kept artist Jonathan Wright from finding success as an illustrator and animator.
From his sealift container studio in Apex, Wright has produced illustrations for books, magazines, newspapers, and animated film shorts that have made it to film festivals around the world.
“I was never a true big-city boy,” said Wright, 34, who grew up in Toronto. “I like the pace here. It was a great fit.”
He joined his wife, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, also an artist and filmmaker, to live in Iqaluit in 2005 and never looked back.
Wright’s most recent success is as illustrator of the children’s book Ava and the Little Folk, his first cover-to-cover work.
The drawings bring to life a fairy tale set in the Arctic. An Inuk boy is adopted by supernatural “little folk,” elf-like beings recalled from Inuit legends, who teach him how to hunt.
Published with Iqaluit-based Inhabit Media, the work is in keeping with the self-professed fantasy buff’s style. Although his sketches may look as if they were drawn using traditional methods — ink and paint on paper — Wright rarely works that way anymore.
“Now, right from the get-go, all my sketches from start to finish – I use Photoshop,” he said.
Paint and other traditional physical media are for personal work and practice, when he’s free from deadlines.
Wright showed one example, an unfinished realist depiction of a woman, without a background or setting around the figure.
“This is my oil study from life. This takes an hour and a half,” he says. “What I can do in an hour and a half on the computer just blows this away.”
On a typical midweek workday in his studio, Wright works quickly on a sketch of the mythical Inuit character Amautalik, done on commission as part of a character-study.
The figure is a giant woman, a child-snatcher who throws unwary children into a basket of driftwood and branches she carries on her shoulders. He sketches fast with a stylus on a tablet in his lap, as the work evolves on a large flat-panel monitor.
For inspiration and guidance Wright looks to other images found online, including one of a young Inuk woman in elaborate costume and an image of hands worn with age.
The illustrator’s quick work method serves well in animation, a creative path Wright took after he settled in Iqaluit.
In fact, Wright put off artwork to earn his keep as a carpenter for his first few years in the capital.
A National Film Board – Inuit Broadcasting Corp. initiative drew him back into artistic production in 2008, when he and his wife were selected for animation workshops. The result was Bear Facts, a comical animated short set in the Arctic.
“It opened up a whole new world to me. I really enjoyed that, and the film did very well,” Wright said. The finished product won an award and was shown on Air Canada flights.
Wright has not looked, producing more film shorts with the NFB, bravoFACT of the Bravo! television network, and smaller production companies.
Animation brings all Wright’s creative skills and work tools together. None of the projects would be possible without digital tools, he said – namely Photoshop for illustrations and After Effects software to put elements in motion.
Animation projects are usually done to tight deadlines, Wright said. Frame-by-frame drawings are a thing of the past. He recalled being given just 10 days for one project with bravoFACT.
“That was unbelievably fast,” he said. “Making drawings with believable mass and motion is a totally different beast than making a pretty picture.”
If anything could use improvement, says Wright, it’s internet speeds in Nunavut.
“Now that our internet’s gotten a bit better, it really has allowed me to work from the North,” he says. “When I first came up, our internet connection was so abominable.”
Internet speeds in Nunavut still fall short of southern standards, but are at levels just high enough to allow Wright to compete with southern illustrators and animators.
That’s important, he says, because he relies on the internet for inspiration and references from the outside world.
“Ninety-five per cent of my reference is from Google images,” he says. “That’s another thing that was hampering my work before, was not being able to get references because the Internet connection was dismal.”
His animation work, which involves more than 24 frames a second for shorts of up to seven minutes, is still limited by slow upload-download speeds.
Funding opportunities offered in the territory have offset some of the technical challenges of working in Nunavut, Wright says. His commissions have grown to the point where he can almost work full-time on his art, with carpentry work to fill the gap.
Projects on the go include illustration commissions, a proposal for a new film with the NFB, and an iPad application for an interactive reading experience.
The iPad project will illustrate an old tale by Lord Dunsany, a forgotten author whose works of fantasy inspired many writers, including Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.
“It’s part animation, and partly a linear experience of a book,” says Wright.
“New media is the way to go,” he says, noting that artists are taking on digital tools to produce new styles of work. The line between traditional methods and new media has blurred, he adds, “and I find that exciting.”