Rayaan Cassiem is one of South Africa’s most talented comic book illustrators. He heads up Black Ops Creative, an illustration, concept art and graphic design studio in Cape Town. We caught up with Rayaan to discuss his past, present and future in the industry.
G: What is an illustrator and how would you describe your work?
R: Ah, that’s actually a tough question. But an illustrator is basically someone who draws, hopefully very well. It’s basically taking in what you see around you and translating it into paper or digitally painting it or whatever medium you choose to use – paint, pencil crayons, ink, whatever takes your fancy.
G: In what forms does this express itself?
R: That’s the beauty of illustration. Like I mentioned before, you can use any medium. The world is your canvas. You can draw on paper. You can do street art (not that I’m condoning graffiti because it’s actually still illegal). There are so many different avenues in illustration. I mean it can be used in advertising as well.
G: Now I’ve seen some of your work. I’ve got to tell you that I love what I saw. I’ve noticed that in your works there are a lot of comic book characters.
R: Yeah, comics are actually my first love. It’s what I was raised on as a kid. I would get stacks of comic books and go through them panel by panel and copy what I saw. As I grew up it blossomed into something more. So comic books have always been my first love. It introduced me into the work of art and illustration.
G: I would imagine that as time went by you developed your own style.
R: Yeah in the beginning I was copying panels, but as you go along you use references to develop your own style. It’s basically like crutches that get you walking and eventually you let go and start to run on your own two feet. So taking in visual references builds up a mental library and eventually allowing you to draw what you see in your mind’s eye. I would definitely encourage other artists to use references in the beginning as well.
G: Do you have’ta have some kind of formal training in any of these methods?
R: Personally I think everyone is creative. I suppose it depends what you were encouraged to do as a kid. A lot of the time parents tell kids that artistry is not a viable career choice and discourage youth from taking it up as a full time career. But I honestly do believe everyone is creative. It’s just a matter of honing the skills. As with any other career or talent it’s all about practice. That’s how you get better and better at it.
G: I got to be honest with you – when I think of artists I can’t help but think – “struggling artist”. Does that term still ring true?
R: Not necessarily. The beauty of the time we live in is that the internet makes the world a smaller place. Before the internet you would be stuck in your room and no one would see your art. That’s all changed. The world is now your oyster. You can have a worldwide audience and get yourself out there. You never know who’s going to notice and see what you’re capable of.
G: Looking through your portfolio – some of your work is so detailed and sometimes I’m thinking, “Whoa, what’s going on in Ray’s head?” What is your thought process when you sit down to create a piece?
R: Before I would plan all my works by doing little camp drawings and thumbnails. I would sit and work out the positions of the characters and the different backgrounds. I would do a little rough sketch before I started working on a finished piece. But that’s all changed.
Lately I’ve been working in traditional mediums, using pencils, black inks and paints. And that process is much more organic in the sense that you don’t really plot what you going to do. You basically sit down and the artwork unfolds on its own. You don’t really guide it in any specific direction.
I’ve been quite surprised with some of my own work recently. When I’m done and I sit back I go, “Whoa where did that come from?” That’s basically my current subconscious process.
G: What’s your favourite piece so far?
R: Last year I got to work on the Velocity graphic novel. I was basically illustrating a short comic book story. It was actually my toughest job because, although I love comic books, it was my first attempt at actually making one. It was quite a steep learning curve. So I’m very proud of that.
I’m also currently putting together an art exhibition of my works. Some of the works are very personal to me. So that will also showcase some of my favourites.
G: So talking about comic books… Who is your favourite comic book character?
R: Ah, that’s a tough one, but I guess that will always be Batman. What makes him cool is the fact that he is a real guy just using his body and mind to fight crime. So I have’ta say hands down – Batman!
G: You’ve done some graffiti work as well. I have a question – don’t take any offense – but is it art or is it vandalism?
R: That’s actually quite debatable. I think graffiti has got a bum rap in the sense that a lot of the guys just go wild and put their names up everywhere and deface property. But there is another side to graffiti which has come to light. It’s called street art – although I’m sure you can still call it vandalism if it’s done without permission. But there are a lot of artists who do legal works – big murals and art with a positive message. And that’s basically why I got into graffiti. Not to put my name up everywhere –that’s just silly. I wanted to put up something positive up in bleak spaces that needed some colour and life. I’m not cut out for the illegal running around at night, ducking the cops type of lifestyle. I’ll stick to my sketchbooks.
G: With creative types there is always the danger of becoming engorged in your own success. How do you stay humble?
R: Wow, that’s actually a very tough question. It’s basically by staying open to learn more and sharing what you’ve learnt. A lot of artists are very closed off with regards to their techniques and working methods, which I don’t feel is conducive to seeing your art form grow. So whatever I learn I’m more than happy to share, whether it’s illustration, graffiti, or any other forms of art.
G: For those out there who are saying they would love to do what you do, how do they get to where you are? How do they become an illustrator?
R: It takes a lot of hard work and practice. Illustration is a labour of love. It’s not completely technical in the beginning. Once you’ve gotten the basics down then I would recommend studying a little anatomy. That’s always very important – the human body and structures. It’s the foundation of your art. Whatever you do on top of that is eye candy. So I would recommend visiting your local library and catching up on your anatomy. There are so many references out there on the net too. I guess it just basically boils down to you rolling up your sleeves and putting in the work.
G: Earlier on you’ve mentioned that Batman is your favourite superhero. Let’s take him out of the equation. Superman versus The Hulk, who wins?
R: I would definitely say The Incredible Hulk. Superman is a bit too much of a punk for me. I don’t know about the whole s-curl hair do and the underpants on the outside thing. So my money is on The Hulk.
VIEW RAYAAN’S WORK HERE: