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Interview With Christopher Moeller

Rough Stuff, April 2009

Bob McLeod: Welcome to Rough Stuff, Christopher! So how did you first get your career started? Did you begin as a painter or did you pencil or ink some comics first?

Christopher Moeller: My first professional comic work was writing and painting a book called Rocketman: King of the Rocketmen for Innovation Comics. That was back in 1990, when I’d just moved to Pittsburgh.

Bob McLeod: Was your painting style basically the same then as it is now?

Christopher Moeller: I didn’t use the same painting approach I use now. It was a real multi-media free for all. I was mostly concerned with getting the pages done on deadline, and having them look as good as I could make them. I used everything I could lay my hands on: watercolor, acrylic, airbrush, colored pencil… you name it.

Bob McLeod: And you just did more painted jobs after that?

Christopher Moeller: After Rocketman I did a few small pen-and-ink stories, but I can’t help myself. I love paint. I’m addicted to it. I’ve had a lot of publishers ask me if I’d be interested in doing some traditional pencil/ink/color work, but I honestly can’t imagine it. Maybe someday.

Bob McLeod: Did you go to college or art school, or are you self-taught?

Christopher Moeller: I went to the University of Michigan School of Art for my BFA and to Syracuse University’s Independent Degree Study Program for my MFA.

Bob McLeod: Why two different schools?

Christopher Moeller: The UofM was very much a bastion of abstract expressionism when I attended in the early ’80’s. I remember one of my professors looking at my portfolio when I was graduating and scratching his head. He said “we should really have somebody here who can help you with this stuff.”

Bob McLeod: You had comics samples in your portfolio?

Christopher Moeller: By “stuff” he meant representational image-making. It’s funny looking back, but I actually got a lot out of the school. I decided to just focus on what they COULD teach me: about color, designing a two-dimensional space, drawing. I use those lessons to this day.

Bob McLeod: But then you went to Syracuse?

Christopher Moeller: My MFA program at Syracuse was an illustration program specifically, so I got my nuts ‘n bolts instruction there. In all, I’m grateful for the schooling I got, even if it wasn’t directly applicable to what I wanted to do.

Bob McLeod: Were you doing good stuff in school, or did it take you a while after school to get up to a pro level?

Christopher Moeller: Oh, in my mind I was always hot stuff. When I graduated, I knew I was going to take the world by storm. I was lucky enough to meet a professional illustrator called Richard Williams who offered to help me get an illustration portfolio together (the one I came out of UofM with was too full of abstract expressionism). It was an amazing experience. Richard is a fantastic illustrator… an oil painter with a phenomenal ability to compose and draw and paint and solve visual problems. He worked with me for a little while before advising me stop with the portfolio and really teach myself how to draw.

Bob McLeod: Ouch!

Christopher Moeller: I was stunned. He followed that tidbit up with the comment that it might take me a while to find work. As long as five years. I rolled my eyes. Sure this guy was good, but come on. I got my Rocketman job five years later.

Bob McLeod: Ha! Very similar to my start. The art director at DC then, the great Joe Orlando, took one look at my samples and told me I needed to go back to school and learn how to draw! I managed to get some work in comics a few months later (it was easier to break in back in the ’70’s), but it was five years before I was any good. Is anyone else in your family artistic?

Christopher Moeller: Looking forward, I believe my daughter’s going to be amazing. Looking in the other direction, my grandfather designed ladies’ handbags for Macys. And going back even further, my mother’s side of the family had a Viennese court painter called Agricola, who painted rosy-cheeked farm girls and faeries. It’s possible some of those genes filtered down to me.

Bob McLeod: I think so. I believe talent is genetic, although it can skip a generation or two. Do you always work in acrylics, or do you use oils and watercolor also?

Christopher Moeller: Acrylics is a fairly recent discovery for me. When I was starting out, as I described earlier, I worked with whatever came to hand. It’s part of the learning process, I think. At least it was for me.

Bob McLeod: Yeah, we all have to experiment to find what we’re most comfortable with.

Christopher Moeller: I didn’t have any sort of comfort level with ANY media. Every painting was a struggle, just trying to force the tools that I had do what I wanted them to do. I remember showing one of my early watercolors to Kent Williams and he commented that it looked like I was trying to achieve opaque effects with a transparent medium. He was right, but it took me another half-dozen years before I felt comfortable enough with acrylics to leave watercolors behind entirely.

Bob McLeod: And you chose acrylics over oils because oils are too slow?

Christopher Moeller: Acrylics really work for what I want to paint and how I paint. I’m impatient. I like to paint fearlessly… without a lot of preliminary work, and without worrying about making mistakes. Acrylics lets me work that way.

Bob McLeod: Yeah, I can see that in your work. That spontaneity really shows through.

Christopher Moeller: With watercolor you have to preserve your whites. With oils, you have to let things dry. You have to prepare your painting surface. Too many rules. With acrylics there’s none of that. The one limitation is drying time. They dry incredibly fast. But for me that’s just another bonus. I don’t want to have to wait. If the painting needs something, I like being able to mix up a new color and begin throwing it on immediately.

Bob McLeod: Very interesting. I asked because I’m still deciding what medium I prefer. I do love the lushness of oils.

Christopher Moeller: I love looking at oils, watercolors, digital paintings (though I don’t have a desire to make them). Acrylics suit my personality.

Bob McLeod: What’s your process? How tightly do you draw on the board before you start painting?

Christopher Moeller: Very loose. It goes to what I said about painting fearlessly. Right now I’m working with nothing on the board at the outset. No drawing, no under-painting, just a big white board. It forces me to think, right from the start.

Bob McLeod: Yow! That’s bold. Have you been doing that all along?

Christopher Moeller: The way I’ve worked until now is more careful: I use an opaque projector to enlarge my drawing, then “ink” it with black acrylics to preserve it once the color begins being tossed around. But it’s begun to feel a bit like coloring by numbers.

Bob McLeod: Yeah, I can see that could get a bit boring.

Christopher Moeller: I’ve been painting long enough now that a large amount of what I do is instinctive. If I want a particular effect, I know how to get it. It’s a lovely place to get to, but dangerous too because that’s when your paintings tend to get stale and workmanlike. So I’m trying this new approach, and so far it’s exciting me.

Bob McLeod: I’ll bet! I really admire you being that daring.

Christopher Moeller: Any time you remove tools from your toolbox, it’s un-nerving. It slows you down and makes you think about how you’re going to proceed, but it also clears the way for growth to happen and that’s what keeps me passionate about what I do.

Bob McLeod: What kind of brushes do you use?

Christopher Moeller: Acrylics are hell on brushes, so I use cheap white sable watercolor rounds. I’ll go through two or three every painting.

Bob McLeod: No kidding! I’m glad to hear that. I was afraid I was doing something wrong, wearing out my brushes so fast.

Christopher Moeller: Robert Simmons makes a very serviceable, affordable brush for acrylics (series 785). I tend to use two sizes: size 4 and size 1. I also use bigger flats (Grumbacher Bristlette #4’s) when I’m moving large areas of color around.

Bob McLeod: And what paper or board do you prefer?

Christopher Moeller: My board of choice is Strathmore 240-2 white illustration board. It’s white on both sides and very tough. I like having a little bit of tooth on the surface.

Bob McLeod: Me, too. How is your studio set up? Do you work on an easel or a drafting table?

Christopher Moeller: I work vertically. I like to move back and forth while I paint… getting close up when I need to, but able to step back easily and see what’s going on. I like to move my arm freely most of the time. I’ll get in and rest my wrist on the board when I’m doing detail work, but otherwise I’m back off the board a bit.

Bob McLeod: How large do you usually paint?

Christopher Moeller: Before I could scan my work, I generally did covers at 20″x30″ (comic book pages at 11″x17″, the standard size). I love, LOVE to work big. It’s so freeing. Painting is a sensual, physical activity. It’s messy and alive and passionate. It’s the main reason why digital painting doesn’t appeal to me. It’s too removed. Too clean.

Bob McLeod: Yeah, I painted a wall mural of some clouds in our living room. The freedom and looseness working on that scale was fantastic. But have you tried any digital painting? It seems to be more and more what everyone is doing.

Christopher Moeller: There is some gorgeous work coming out digitally. Justin Sweet, Jon Foster… great stuff. Working digitally isn’t my bag personally, but I see it as just another medium, no better or worse than any other.

Bob McLeod: Right. You also don’t have an original piece of art working digitally, which I really don’t like.

Christopher Moeller: Once I got a scanner, I began to scale my work down to accommodate it, so I’m not usually working more than 22″ in any direction (that’s two scans at the most). I love being able to scan work and submit it as a digital file. There’s nothing scarier than packing up a painting and shipping it out. The downside is that I’m working smaller and that doesn’t really suit me. I should probably invest in a good digital camera. I know a lot of artists are doing that now, and it frees them up, size-wise.

Bob McLeod: Yes, I should do that, too. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about shipping original art. Not to mention a Fedex truck that burst into flames right in front of my own house! The driver asked if he could use my phone because his engine was overheating. Next thing you know the whole front end of the truck was on fire! Then the firemen came and shot their firehose straight through the windshield, soaking the entire contents of the truck! I hate mailing artwork. So, anyway, do you work 9-5, or do you like to work in the middle of the night?

Christopher Moeller: I’m a 9-5 guy, mainly because I’m a dad. The minute I had kids, my lifestyle changed. I wanted to have time for them, and it’s so hard to leave your work at the office, when your office is in the home. So I decided early on that I was going to keep my work hours limited to allow for solid family time.

Bob McLeod: Yeah, me, too. I used to work all night and sleep all day when I was single, but I’ve raised three kids and have tried hard to stay on a normal schedule. How long would you say a typical painting takes you?

Christopher Moeller: It depends on the size of the piece, how complicated it is, and how comfortable I am with the subject matter. If it’s something I’ve painted a hundred times before, it goes a lot quicker than if it’s something where my toolbox is limited and I have to slow down and figure out how to make things work. My comics work, when I’m in the middle of a project and all’s going well, is two days per page. That’s pretty much the bare minimum I need to get to the level of finish I feel comfortable with. It’s slower than pencils and inks, but it’s pretty fast for a painting.

Bob McLeod: I’d say that’s pretty fast. I know a lot of artists are spending two days just on pencils now, and some pages can take two days to ink as well. I’ve noticed that you sometimes use an outline in your paintings. How do you decide when to draw an outline in paint, and when to just let color contrast hold the form?

Christopher Moeller: That’s a great question. My relationship with line developed along with my graphic novel work. I needed to solve two problems with my paintings, as a storyteller. First, I had to paint fast. I had to do a painting every two days, and I had to do hundreds of them. Second, comics have word balloons all over them which are very graphic, hard-edged objects.

Bob McLeod: Yeah, the balloons have an altogether different graphic look that doesn’t exactly blend in.

Christopher Moeller: On painted artwork they tend to pop off the page, visually. I wanted my comics to “live” in the same world with them to the extent that I could. I cultivated a graphic quality in my paintings that would welcome the word balloons and not fight against them. In my first couple of books, I painted in the sound effects as well, as an attempt to bridge that gap between painting and graphics.

Bob McLeod: I see you use outlines on non-comic art, too, though. I’m not at all against the outlines, I’m just trying to understand your thinking.

Christopher Moeller: When I’m painting outside of comics, those needs disappear, but I can’t reinvent myself. I try to limit my use of line more in those pieces, but it’s part of how I see the world at this point. It’s always in there somewhere.

Bob McLeod: Who were your major influences?

Christopher Moeller: My earliest influences were the fantasy painters that were doing cover illustrations when I was in high school: Frank Frazetta, Michael Whelan, Boris Vallejo, the Hildebrandt brothers.

Bob McLeod: All the usual suspects.

Christopher Moeller: I would go into my local bookstore and buy the art books that Ballentine was putting out in those days. I distinctly remember walking in one day and spotting a copy of Richard Corben’s “Neverwhere” on one of the shelves. I’d never seen painted comics before, and this was painted comics on steroids… naked, shaved, super-endowed men and women in glorious technocolor.

Bob McLeod: I’ve got that book! It’s so outrageous. Corben is incredible.

Christopher Moeller: My shop was a shopping mall Waldenbooks…. How a copy of Neverwhere got onto their shelf I’ll never know, but I snatched it up, took one glance at the interior and fell in love. Soon after that I subscribed to Heavy Metal magazine. To my teenage mind, Heavy Metal was a kind of mecca… tons of beautiful painted art plus stories all for a fraction of the price of one of the art books. That was my introduction to painted comics.

Bob McLeod: There wasn’t much else available early on. Those early Heavy Metals were cherished by all of us.

Christopher Moeller: In college I began to branch out more. American painters were doing more storytelling work: Jon Muth, Kent Williams, Scott Hampton. I bought all of their stuff. I also became very interested in children’s book illustrators. I love to write, and the idea of combining art and writing appeals to me.

Bob McLeod: Sure! I wanted to do children’s books for years, but was always too busy in comics. It’s only lately that I finally got around to doing one, and I’m now doing more. I never thought about writing comics, but I’m writing my children’s books.

Christopher Moeller: Children’s books and comics allow both if those interests to be expressed, so they’re natural places for me to work. I actually had two portfolios that I was working on after college, one for kid’s books, the other for comics. The comics one took off first, so that’s the direction I went.

Bob McLeod: Well, I’ll look forward to your first children’s book someday. Do you do any art outside of comics and gaming and cards? Magazine or book illustration? Landscapes, portraits?

Christopher Moeller: I’ve done some personal pieces in recent years and I love to do on-site paintings, but games and comics are my stomping ground. I can easily spend every waking hour working in those fields and never have a dull moment. That said, there’s no knowing where the future will lead.

Bob McLeod: Any as yet unrealized goals for your career?

Christopher Moeller: My most rewarding moment was having the Iron Empires comics published: Faith Conquers and Sheva’s War. They are entirely my creation, from start to finish… the art, the characters, the story. That’s just incredibly gratifying. If I can continue to publish those books I’ll be a happy man. There are a thousand stories I’d like to tell before I die, but I’ll only get to tell a few more if I’m lucky… each one takes so much time and finding publishers willing to take a chance on creator-owned work right now is tough. I want to make those few stories count.

Bob McLeod: What’s your favorite subject to paint?

Christopher Moeller: Well, beautiful women, of course, with landscapes coming in a close second! Honestly, one of the joys of being a comic book artist is that you’re asked to paint EVERYTHING. That’s really wonderful. Being able to paint those odd little details that don’t make it onto a cover painting… a hand raising a tea cup, or flicking a cigarette away.

Bob McLeod: That’s a very good point, and one I’ve never heard anyone mention. Do you read comics? novels?

Christopher Moeller: I read comics, not as heavily as I used to, but I try to get into the shop every month or two.

Bob McLeod: What about novels?

Christopher Moeller: I also usually have three or four books going at the same time: either novels or history books. I’m a military history buff (wargaming is a favorite hobby of mine).

Bob McLeod: Do you play video games; watch tv? Do you have a favorite movie?

Christopher Moeller: Unfortunately, since I have two kids, time is a tough commodity to get hold of. I don’t watch TV, though I like to get television series on DVD. My daughter and I are currently watching Battlestar Galactica. Favorite movie has to be The Lord of the Rings films. And if my arm is twisted enough to have to pick one of them, it would be the first one, the Fellowship of the Ring.

Bob McLeod: Do you collect any art by other artists?

Christopher Moeller: I love trading art with other artists. I have pieces by a dozen or so artist friends. There’s nothing better than that. I have bought a few pieces over the years. There’s a page from Mike Mignola’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series hanging in my studio. It was the first piece I ever got from an artist and holds a special place in my heart. I got it from him at MidOhioCon for $75. That was big money for me in those days.

Bob McLeod: What other art do you have on your walls?

Christopher Moeller: I have mostly landscapes. One by Bob Dacey that was given to me as a wedding present. I have an artist’s proof by Burt Silverman. A pastel by Scott Hampton. A couple of prints and pencil/gouache pieces that my grandparents brought over from Austria when they fled the war.

Bob McLeod: What projects are you working on right now? How far ahead are you scheduled?

Christopher Moeller: My pipeline generally runs two or three months ahead. Right now I’m working on some Magic cards, some World of Warcraft cards, a cover for DC Comics, a special Iron Empires project, a personal commission, and my next Iron Empires graphic novel. So things are always hopping here.

Bob McLeod: What do you think you would have done with your life if you couldn’t draw?

Christopher Moeller: It’s so hard to imagine. I think I would have gone after some sort of writing job. A novelist, perhaps? A poet? Words and pictures are such an integral part of my life that I honestly can’t imagine life without one or the other (preferably both!). Something I’m feeling drawn to at this point is teaching. I love my craft and love talking about it. I think you learn so much when you teach someone else.

Bob McLeod: I can attest to that. Doing my Rough Critiques for this magazine has made me very conscious of everything I do subconsciously. And I also started teaching part time a couple years ago at the PA College of Art & Design in Lancaster. I like it a lot. What artwork are you proudest of, Iron Empires?

Christopher Moeller: Sheva’s War is a book I’ll always be proud of. Everything kind of came together for me in that book. JLA: A League of One is a close second.

Bob McLeod: What art do you wish you could go back and incinerate?

Christopher Moeller: As for incineration, I take a philosophical view of my failures. There’s always someone who comes along and asks me to sign those pieces and I have to bite my tongue and smile and say “I’m glad you enjoyed it!” Because they DID enjoy it, and who am I to say otherwise?

Bob McLeod: Any parting advice for young artists hoping to do what you do?

Christopher Moeller: The one thing I always tell young artists is hang in there! Remember how my mentor Richard Williams told me I might have to wait 5 years before getting published? I laughed at him, but that was a very long five years. There were times when I was totally broke, panic-stricken, wondering where my next month’s rent was going to come from. I’m convinced those five years are when most artists drop out of the race. It’s totally understandable. You need to live. If you have a family, you need to support them. But if you can hold on, even if it’s by your fingernails, and if you can keep yourself ready to act the moment an opportunity comes up… that’s what it takes. Opportunities will present themselves. When they do you have to be ready and able to pull the trigger.

Bob McLeod: Thanks very much, Christopher! I appreciate you taking the time for this interview.