Interview with Curtis Allen – Steampunk illustrator

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
The Original St Valentine’s Day Cogginton card

Curtis Allen is a UK based illustrator. He lives in Birmingham and has been drawing for as long as he can remember and interestingly, even at a young age, had a tendency to draw things that were broken. In his Steampunk Journal interview, he tells us of his inspirations, aspirations and how a favourable comment from Professor Elemental (he gets everywhere) validated his work.
Tell us a little about yourself
Hello! I’m Curtis – a freelance illustrator and artist. I’ve grown up and live and work in sunny old Birmingham in England.

I’ve drawn pretty much ever since I could hold a pencil, and back then I had a real focus on drawing things “broke”. I don’t remember this, but I’m told by my family that everything I drew was drawn in one or more pieces for quite some time and that I would frequently ask people to “draw car broke”. When I was told this as an adult by my parents, it seemed just a tad disturbing and like I might have been a weird kid, but ruminating on it more, I think it was just my interest in seeing how things work manifesting. I seem to have turned out OK, anyway!

A couple of years ago I started seeing if I could sell some of the stuff I was drawing. I started with caricatures for friends, and took on a couple of commissions for publishers and events companies, and one for The MAD Museum of Mechanical Art and Design.

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
Cogginton Getting Married card

Just before last Valentines Day, I decided to realise an image that had been in my head for quite some time – the image of a robot holding its mechanical heart out imploringly – as a Valentines card. That’s how the Coggingtons came into being and the card seemed popular and sold well. Mother’s Day was not far behind so it seemed natural to produce another card and I just kept going with new cards for different days and events until we got round to this year’s Valentines Day and I produced a new Valentines card. They’re all for sale on my Etsy shop, https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/CapnDred, with cards constantly being added. The most recent is a congratulatory card for newlyweds

I currently work a full-time job at Cadbury World so it’s hard to find the time to follow through on all the ideas I have, but I realised that I could keep saying that forever and get increasingly frustrated with myself so I decided to make the time to take my illustration from a small sideline, to something more at the forefront of my life and to start treating it as a career. As such, it’s only fairly recently that I’ve started giving my website and myself as a business a real push, and only started blogging regularly a month ago. You can reach that here: http://www.curtisallen.co.uk/blog.

Is your background in steampunk illustration?
You can see from the pieces on my website, www.curtisallen.co.uk, that my styles are quite varied. For quite some time, most of what I was doing was quite comic-bookish as that’s what I grew up reading, and became quite manga-ish when I discovered manga and anime.
I’d always liked the Victorian and steampunk aesthetic but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started hearing it actually called steampunk and specifically looking into it. The first image I produced that you could call steampunk was a commission for a friend with whom I first started exploring steampunk. She asked for a drawing of her friend as a Victorian lady that was to go into a locket as a gift.
Having started drawing steampunk-flavoured things, while I won’t be producing just steampunk illustration, I certainly won’t be stopping anytime soon. I love it and it’s a lot of fun to research and draw!

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
Cogginton Father’s Day card

Where/Who do you draw (no pun intended) your inspiration from?
All over the place! Comic book artists like Jim Lee, J. Scott Campbell, and The Johnny Romitas (both Sr. and Jr.).

Other than them, it’s things like films such as A Scanner Darkly, Ghost in the Machine, Robocop, Return to Oz and so on. In preparation for watching the new Mad Max film, I’ve spent this weekend watching the old ones so I wouldn’t be surprised if that starts seeping into the next few drawings I create.

Song lyrics! They’re another one.

Sometimes I go out consciously looking for inspiration, so I have plenty of Pinterest boards set up, crammed with images and websites that have caught my attention and that I may leaf through when I’m after an idea, a concept, or a new style. Some are specifically steampunk boards, some are just art boards, and loads are other random categories like the one I have on cybernetics and bionics.

I try to walk around with an eye to be inspired every day and try to go through life looking at everything as a potential source of inspiration so things like concepts and styles on billboard adverts, promotional material I get through the door, walking through the grass or through the city, and just chatting with friends.

The inspirations for the Coggingtons that I’m aware of are quite diverse. The Studio Ghibli film “Castle in the Sky” features a large, silent robot guardian, and I very much like the idea of The Coggingtons being pretty much mute and quite inscrutable at times, but also quite expressive and empathy-inducing regardless. There’s a bit of Tik Tok from Return to Oz in there too. And in terms of style – there’s a little bit of Japanese woodblock printing, such as the works of Utagawa Kunisada in there.
At school, doing GCSE Art sometime around 16 years ago, I remember one of our projects was on art from other cultures and I did a piece on Japanese woodblock printing. It obviously stayed with me because when I designed the first Coggingtons card, I didn’t want it to look exactly like it had been printed, but was trying to get quite a flat look that had a suggestion that it could have been printed. That’s why, for the most part, I used a rather small range of colours and the shadows are quite flat with hard edges, rather than being blended, and why Geoffrey’s outline is very pale – to break the coloured blocks within up into separate areas.

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
Cogginton Get Well Soon card

Do your ideas for an image come easily or do you have to massage an initial spark of an idea?
The ideas for many images usually come quite easily, as a result of daydreaming, reading the news or a good book, or a magazine article, or having a good old chat with someone, then I massage the details out of them; usually whilst driving.
I like driving. I drive about an hour to work and an hour back most days. It’s one of those few times in the day where I can just be alone with my thoughts and not feel guilty about not doing anything else. In the car, I can’t feel guilt about the fact that since I’m sitting down I should be drawing, or doing the washing up or something else. I can just rest easy that there’s some time where I can just be with my thoughts and there’s no pressure to do something else….well, except keep an eye on the road, of course!

For the Coggington cards, the ideas are a little harder to come by because rather than just having to have an idea, I have to have an idea that involves the Coggintons that is also relevant to an occasion. A good drive usually sorts that out though!

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
Cogginton Birthday card

How have the Coggingtons been received in steampunk circles?
So far pretty well, I’m pleased to say. It’s still quite a small scale thing I’ve got going on here and so trying to make people aware of them is quite hard. But when people have found them, they seem to have warmed to them. I’ve had quite a few comments that they’re cute and a couple saying that a card like that was just what they were after – quite cutesy, but in a steampunk way.
I was most happy when Professor Elemental shared a link to the cards on his Facebook page and said he liked them. I’ve been a fan of his for a few years so that felt like something of a validation.

Do you ever stand at events?
I have only sold at one event so far. It was a craft fair and I borrowed the corner of a table off my girlfriend’s jewellery stand (www.jicsisjewellery.co.uk).
I would like to start trying to hold more stands when I have a larger range of products to sell so check back with me soon and hopefully that will be happening…

Do you get many people writing to you about your images?
In truth, not so many. I do get a few comments on my Facebook page and Instagram but they are usually quite short. They have always been positive so far though.

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shooting

Some of the images you’ve done have political or personal motivations, what are your aspirations for the Coggingtons long term?
I’ll be staying with them for a while yet. I would like them to become something of a mascot for myself which is why I’ve sometimes taken them in a more personal or political direction. People respond to images well and they are the most recognisable image I have at the moment so I like to use them in that way. However, I don’t want them to become a mouthpiece for myself. That would run the risk of alienating people from the Coggingtons because they were getting to mouthy.

I’m trying to develop some ideas for an ongoing, fairly light-hearted comic strip featuring them where I actually flesh out a backstory and ongoing adventures for them. That, however, is one of those ideas that needs massaging and I’d like to have a few ideas in the bank for that before I begin publishing them so that I don’t lose momentum just after starting.
Very far back on the burner, simply due to being quite short on time, space, and material, but an idea that I would like to do when I can is crafting a stop-motion puppet of old Geoffrey Coggington and making a short film or two.

What is a typical response when fans of your art meet you?
The only fans of mine I’ve met in person so far have been people I already know. Their responses have been lovely, especially because for some of them, The Coggingtons have been the first introduction to my drawings.
While I know I have some loyal customers who I don’t know personally (I’d feel weird calling them fans… fans are for celebrities, no?), I’ve never actually met them. I’m very friendly though! I don’t bite if you meet me!

Copyright Curtis Allen, used with permission
Reaction to Robin Williams’ death

Will you branch out to more steampunk work or will it just remain within the Coggintons?
There will definitely be more steampunk work! Possibly more steampunk cards other than The Coggingtons, but certainly more other, larger pieces. I’m working on a large steampunk piece at the moment. You can track my progress on it here: http://www.curtisallen.co.uk/the-unearthing.html , which is part of the the Works In Progress section of my website .

Are you involved in any sub-cultures?
I’ve been a rock and metal pub and club DJ around the midlands for the last 8 or so years, and a rock and metal fan for about the last 17 years so I’m rather into that scene and got to DJ at Download Festival a couple of years ago.
I also enjoy the electro-swing scene. Jess and I went to swing dance lessons for a few months which was fun!
We went to Swingamajig Festival for my third and Jess’ second time a couple of weeks ago. It’s a great electro-swing and gypsy punk all-day festival held right in Birmingham’s city centre. The chap-hop artist, Mr. B. The Gentleman Rhymer, The Correspondents, and Electric Swing Circus were the highlights for me this year and, unsurprisingly, there are always quite a few steampunks in attendance at these events so that was a jolly good knees up!
Finally, though I’m not as active in it any more, I was for a while quite involved in the circus scene and worked for Area 51, an events and circus entertainment company for some time as a stilt-walker and performer and even got to do some events with them as a steampunk stiltwalker!

You never know: if you should ever see a 9 foot tall steampunk with a big afro, there’s a fair chance that’s me!

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