Liam McKinnon: Portrait Artist

Wielded with a Pilot pen, Liam McKinnon draws the imagined characters in his mind to life. 

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A conversation with 22 year-old artist Liam McKinnon, a video game design student in St. Louis Missouri.

What medium do you usually stick to?

Pretty much pen portraits. Sometimes I use pastels, but I haven’t used charcoal in a very long time. I use Pilot pens, mostly just because they’re cheap. You could get a pack of them at Walgreens for like $2. I can get very graphic with them. Pilot pens also don’t smudge, so I can start anywhere. They don’t get darker or lighter, so the dots and lines look very uniform.  

What compels you to do art? 

I find the human form very interesting. More specifically I like how faces can look very similar, but they’ll always be slightly different. I get really drawn to people who have unique looks, or their face is uniquely shaped.

I have in my mind eight different groupings of how people look based on the bridge of their nose and their eyes. A lot of people’s facial structures don’t vary that much, so when I see someone who’s different I immediately want to draw them because it’s something I haven’t drawn yet.

It’s just very satisfying to draw faces.

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“Adam” Pen on paper

Was there ever a time in your life when you felt an emotion and you just had to draw?

I generally don’t use my emotions to draw because then it doesn’t end up looking good. When I’m drawing while sad it just ends up looking sloppy. Once when I was mad–frustrated over detail work– I took a Sharpie and attacked the page.

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“Untitled” Pen and marker on paper

Did you still draw at the hardest point in your life?

I actually didn’t draw for two months during that period. It was a really hard break up with someone who I had been seeing for almost three years. Even though it wasn’t really my fault, I’m the type of person who blames myself for a lot of stuff.

I had no motivation to do anything. School sucked, I was still living with my parents, but then I moved out in 2017 with my best friend since seventh grade, and we’re still living together. I’ve been better overall. I lost sixty pounds. But I can honestly say that I’d never want to go back.

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“Smoke Break” Pen on paper

How long did it take to draw “Smoke Break?”

The face took about an hour and a half. The detailing for all of the suit probably another two hours. The background only took about an hour.

Who is the man in “Smoke Break?”

I have no idea. The only thing I referenced was a picture for his face, which was cut off by a hat. I made him look a little different in terms of hair and facial structure, and then I gave him a cigarette. Everything else I randomly created. I didn’t know how I wanted to do it, so I drew random pieces here and there and hoped it would work out.

How did you learn to draw?

Obviously I’ve had some instruction, but most of what I learned in class was more or less refining what I had already taught myself. I didn’t have someone show me any technique.

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“Saturn’s Stare” Pen and marker on paper

Do you draw real people or make up your characters?

I do a lot of commission work, either by word of mouth or social media, so I usually just draw what they ask. A pizza man saw the art in my room and paid me to draw him a picture of Kanye West.

Why draw if you’re a video game design major?

I’ve been drawing most of my life because my parents always encouraged it. My mom’s an artist and my dad’s a science teacher. My mom would try to get me to draw everyday.

I didn’t get serious about [art] until my sophomore year of high school, when I really started pushing myself. I don’t think I benefited a whole lot from any of my classes except AP Art, because I had a really good teacher.

A lot of it was just drawing on my own because I wanted to. I would go on binges when I was younger and draw a bunch of one thing. [Art] was just a hobby that transformed into something that pays my rent now.

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“Celestial” Pen and Sharpie on paper

What do you hope for your career?

Ideally, in the next two years I’m going to be a tattoo artist. I get a lot of comments like ‘I want this on my body,’ or ‘you should start doing tattoos.’ My style is very transferable: dots, lines and black shading.

It’s a lot easier to make money that way. Not everyone wants to pay $50 for a print to put on their wall, but a lot of people will pay $300 for a tattoo.

I would like to make art my ‘whole thing’ that I could make money off of, but if I ended up getting on some video game design team, then I would be just as fulfilled. I’m not so interested in the coding and stuff like that, but I am into the design.

Follow Liam on Instagram

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