NNFN: Fantastic Cities – an interview with Steve McDonald

fantasticcitiesfrontcoverNon-Fiction is a hugely diverse genre and today we’re exploring a book which pushes its boundaries: Fantastic Cities – A Coloring Book of Amazing Places Real and Imagined by Steve McDonald.

Steve McDonald’s incredibly detailed line work offers bird’s-eye perspectives of visually arresting global locales from New York, London, and Paris to Istanbul, Tokyo, and Melbourne, Rio, Amsterdam, and many more – offering a 3-D take on our theme this month of Maps. We recently caught up with Steve and asked him a few questions.

FCBG: How do you define your style?

Steve McDonald: My work is all about the lines. I love drawing lines. The idea for my coloring books came from my daughters suggesting that some of my complicated aerial drawings of cities would be really fun to color in. I had a large archive of line drawings that needed a purpose. The idea of a serious coloring book for all ages was a perfect vehicle for the drawings to reach a much larger audience and hopefully be a catalyst to helping people find a creative outlet in their busy lives. The idea that tons of people everywhere could be part of a collective concept of creativity was very appealing to me. I love that people all over the world will be coloring in my drawings and hopefully becoming inspired to do their own drawings as well as appreciate and learn a bit about the different styles architecture and habitation patterns we’ve created on this wonderful planet.

FCBG: Why did you decide to draw a coloring book? And why do you think this kind of book are now
so ‘fashionable’?

Steve McDonald:I wanted to reach more people with my work. I also wanted to do something fun and current. My daughters and a few clients all suggested that coloring some of my drawings would be fun. So I started to build a body of drawings for that purpose. I had some ideas as to what the book would look like and when Chronicle Books brought me onboard the idea evolved a little more with their help. I love that the drawings are now reaching a far wider audience but also hopefully encouraging people to be more creative. It’s all just meant to be fun.

I think most people would like to have more creative outlets. The books provide a fun and stress-free activity. They are an easy introduction into drawing more. I think in the faster and faster digital world we live in everyone’s time is so precious that the books provide a quiet but productive break from world around us.

FCBG: Why architecture?

Steve McDonald:I’ve always loved drawing buildings. When I was young, I even had aspirations of becoming an architect, but ended up as an illustrator instead. While I spent years working with an art collective that was best known for travelling and painting landscapes, I was the one always trying to find a house or shed to sneak into my work. When creating a piece of art, the most appealing part for me has always been the line-work, so I’m naturally drawn to architecture for that reason. Even when I was working on a painting, the part I enjoyed the most was always the initial drawing, and a few years ago I decided to simply stop there and concentrate on making that the finished product. I really enjoy lines, and I think that shows in the work.

FCBG: Do you think there is a new interest for the freehand drawings in the digital age?

Steve McDonald:I think anytime we get to do something in an simple non-digital format that we enjoy it. Coloring is a pretty basic hobby from when we were all kids, I think giving people a reason to do it as adults is going to excite a lot of people. As far as my drawings – I use all kinds of tools to achieve my finished works. Sometimes that is ink on paper, sometimes it is paint markers on board and sometimes I use a stylus on a tablet. They are all just different tools…a lot of people will be unable to tell the difference when I publish the drawings in a book at a way smaller format that I execute them. I love line work ! In any medium. With any tools.

FCBG: Why did you focus on aerial views?

Steve McDonald:My focus on aerial views is for many reasons… It’s not people’s normal view of things so it can be intriguing for us to get that new vantage of something…it allows you to play with some really fun perspectives as an artist. I think that the aerial views cause one to reflect on new forms and shapes that you might have been overlooking before . They always seem to have more of a story happening in them. Getting to see the way buildings have ‘grown’ together from above allows us to see a unique pattern of urban growth.

FCBG: Could you share a little about your process when illustrating these scenes?.

Steve McDonald: Well, for the early part of preparation I create my work in a number of ways for the books. However, All of the images start out with small loose pencil sketches to determine basic layout and composition. I also try to sort out my perspective guidelines at this point in the process. These sketches are very loose and more like quick gesture drawings almost.

There are three different ways that I approach my work. One is traditional pen and ink on paper. These I would start with a light pencil sketch and then ink the completed drawing with drafting pens. The second is large format drawings on board. These are done with black paint markers on painted birch panels. The third and most common method is drawing on a wacom tablet ( with a stylus ) and creating the work digitally. Here are some step by step snapshots of this last process…And a few studio shots of the other ways.

Digital drawing
Step one :
Establish proper perspective guidelines.

step one

Step two :
I like to work foreground to background with my work. I usually complete 95 % of the drawing in a single pass only leaving small details and final accents for the very end.


Step three :
Middle ground gets completed.


Step four :
Background gets completed.


Step five :
Remove perspective guides and insert last details and small additions. Correct anything that I’m not happy with.

Step 6 :
Draw in a thicker weighted line to give attention to the overall forms of the architecture that I want to stand out. This line often also serves as a divider between foreground, middle ground and background.

working on board_590

ink on paper_590px

Our thanks go to Steve McDonald for sharing his illustrations with us today, and for challenging us to think about how we define Non-Fiction!


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