Illustrator Ian Mackay explains how “absurd situational comedy” helps lighten heavier topics in his work
Whether silly or serious, Ian manages to tackle topics in a colourful and light-hearted way.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 1 February 2022
Despite his natural talent for the medium, illustration wasn’t always on the cards for San Francisco-based artist Ian Mackay. His initial pursuit was English literature, which he studied at university before transitioning to landscape architecture for his advanced degree. It was only while working in this capacity that he realised he was drawn to the graphic side of the job and, coupled with ideas for stories and books that he had simmering away in the background, he knew that yet another change was needed. After discovering that artists were using Risograph machines to self-publish their work, he saw an opportunity to make that change. “I was lucky enough to find a print studio in the Bay Area called Tiny Splendor, where I could learn to do my own Risograph printing,” he recalls. “Now I work as a freelance illustrator and operate Hi-Bred, a small press that publishes my own comics and zines plus collaborations with friends.”
As an illustrator, Ian has developed a bright, bold and adaptable style that is perfectly suited to the potential of Risograph printing. This process lends his playful forms and two-tone colours a warmth and depth that make them a feast for the eyes. His subject matter also benefits from this rich aesthetic, as we observe the amusing antics of his characters engaging in what Ian calls “absurd situational comedy”: A gun-toting duck goes hunting for humans; a charming fitness guru megalomaniac takes over the Monastery in a small medieval town; and a helpless heart is chased through the pages of a zine by Cupid’s fated arrow. Some of these scenarios explore bigger philosophical questions, but all are made accessible and light-hearted by the absurdist elements that have become Ian’s trademark, helping to keep those weightier subjects “mysterious rather than didactic”.
Ian applies this approach to a range of outputs from standalone illustrations and animations, to full-blown zines and comics. The latter in particular makes up a large part of his practice and gives him the space to engage in more detailed and developed visual storytelling. His graphic novel Wont 2 Cant: Part I, which he made in collaboration with his friend Gavin Owens, explores their shared interest in “the history of European monasticism” and reimagines this religious way of life in a futuristic context. This is Ian’s longest work to date and he says its complexity makes it a very different endeavour to creating shorter comics, such as his semi-weekly project Duck Comics, which he began at the end of last year. This project instead utilises the immediacy of physical comedy to tell its story in the format of “light, very cartoonish, short strips”.
However, it’s his most recent work that gives the best clue as to where his practice may be headed. The 2022 Hi-Bred Calendar, another collaborative piece that was created with his friend Matt Goldberg, displays a newfound experimental style that feels distinctive within his portfolio of projects. The noticeable depth to each piece was achieved by integrating Matt’s technique of bas-relief sculpting, which was applied to Ian’s initial drawings and then sent back to be transformed into digital illustrations. Speaking on this process, Ian says: “[It] played a big role in the feel of the final images. At each step, we were responding to each other’s unique rendition, kind of like a game of telephone. We think this introduces more richness and spontaneity into the work than if it were only produced by one person.” He goes on to say: “Alongside expanding my client base and publishing a few new books this year, I really want to continue my experiments in converting clay sculpture to 2D imagery and produce some larger pieces through screen printing and painting.”
Ian Mackay & Matt Goldberg: 2022 Hi-Bred Calendar (Copyright © Ian Mackay & Matt Goldberg, 2022)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.