Digital cameras interview: Max Ellis, Illustrator

Professional illustrator Max Ellis tells Charles Arthur some of the secrets behind the art of image manipulation
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You've already seen Max Ellis's work all over the place, although you're probably not aware of it. The Halifax ads with the photo-montaged "Howard" in a plane? He did that. And the adverts for drooling people who haven't taken Pro Plus, or the smoky forms for Robinson's Orange, among many others. When we spoke, he was dressing a supermodel in a cheese skirt. Not a real supermodel, or real cheese; just photographs in a montage. But for a national newspaper.

Yet Ellis did not come to illustration with a computer mouse in his hand. In fact, after leaving school at 17 he worked as an engineer, until redundancy impelled him towards art college, where he took a formal course in illustration. He began working in the field full-time in 1985, at a time when barely any affordable computers could do graphics. For the first 12 years Ellis's trade was plied with pencil, ink and paints. Now he may spend an entire day without straying far from the the computer screen.

The change occurred by chance, when in 1997 he was commissioned to create a cover for the CD single Real Hip Mary by Goldbug. Except the contract stipulated a computer-generated picture. That put Ellis at the bottom of a steep learning curve.

"I borrowed the money to buy a computer from a friend, bought the software packages - Adobe Photoshop and Quark Xpress [a page layout program] and taught myself as I went along," Ellis explains. "The only thing was they kept asking me when it would be ready, and I had to keep saying 'Not quite yet...'"

Now the transformation is complete, and he is completely at ease with the hybrid of hand-drawn art and computer-generated work. From hand-drawn art via the scanner, he can produce pictures that carry his own particular style. (To see a selection of his huge output, see his website, www.junk

He rarely draws with graphics tablets: "I don't tend to draw directly onto the computer. I do some drawing with the mouse and a Wacom (pen-driven) tablet, but if I want to draw well I do it with a Biro and scan it in. The trouble with using a pen-tablet is that you can't reorient the page, you can only use them one way up, and I'm used to moving the canvas around."

He finds drawing and scanning a very efficient method of getting illustrations into a computer: "There's a lot of [professional] people who are fantastic at drawing and painting on a Wacom, but whatever they do can't be as fast as using a real pen and brush."

He has tried various painting and image-editing programs, but is now certain that Adobe's Photoshop embodies all he wants in a program - so much so that he is among the first to buy new versions when they come out. That means he sometimes has to tell Adobe about bugs or inconsistencies in the program; but also that he is always finding new tricks it can do.

His advice for those planning to get serious about computer illustrating? "Buy the very highest-end machine that's available," Ellis says. "That way it won't go out of date so quickly. I upgrade about every two or three years."

His most powerful machine is a dual-processor, 2 Gigahertz Apple Mac G5, with 4 gigabytes of memory, not quite two years old. "Even though there's a newer one that Apple's announced, this is still pretty close to that," he explains: that means he can put off the impulse to buy a new machine.

Similarly, for those who want to make photographs the core of their work, he suggests buying a high-end SLR (single lens reflex) digital camera; prices are now coming within reach of the consumer. His personal recommendation is the Nikon D70.

For editing, he thinks there is nothing to touch Adobe's Photoshop image-editing software. "The point is, anyone can use it. My mother uses it to produce calendars. That's the truly great thing about it, that you can feel your way through it. You don't have to read the manual; it's really well designed for people who don't want to read books."

His parting piece of advice: back up your work by making multiple copies and save them on external hardrives or another machine. For him it's his livelihood, though for you it might be something just as valuable - your memories. His tendency to be cautious has another benefit: he can find his past work if he needs to borrow from himself. "Say I've taken a day drawing a hand and getting it just right. If something comes up where I need a hand, I can pick the previous version and use that again. It's like my personal clip-art stock."