Justin Crain

"I love to tell stories, my own or someone else's. Making comics—to me—is like making a movie. There's no limit to what you can do. You control the "camera," the lighting, even the acting."

When and where did you serve in the military?


I joined the Army right out of high school in 1995. There was no debate in my mind about it; it was always what I was going to do. I served in the 1st Ranger Battalion, Alpha company weapons platoon, mortar section. Later, I served as a squad leader in what became the 1st Ranger Battalion, mortar platoon. I spent eight years in 1st Batt and deployed to Afghanistan as a mortar asset for Alpha company early in the war.


What was it like being an artist in the military?


I think every branch of the military has its own personality. I would also say every unit, and even down to every platoon or squad, has it's "do's and don't" lists. Only being able to speak on my own experience, and on a different era than now, Alpha Company Weapons Platoon, 1st Ranger Battalion, was not the place to be the new guy waltzing in, talking about Micron pens and new paintbrushes. I would have literally been punched in the mouth. I learned quickly to cut out that part of my life and focus only on improving my professional skill sets. I'm not saying that's all infantry units—or even 1/75 anymore—I would have no idea. But being a private at 1/75 in the '90s was absolutely not conducive to producing art. That being said, I wouldn't change it for anything. Having experienced that made me a stronger person with a far greater work ethic and gave me so many experiences to draw upon when creating the images I like.


Do you feel your military experience influences your art beyond subject matter? Tone? Theme? Sarcasm? Dark humor?


For sure. I don't see myself as someone who likes to stand on his soapbox and preach my philosophies (my kids will disagree with that statement). Still, I find myself preferring to express my perspective through art. The biggest example that comes to mind is honoring true heroes. It seems like an expression we use too loosely nowadays. I have personally known true heroes—such as Darren Labonte or Marc Anderson. I cringe when I see the local news using the term hero when describing common, everyday events. Most people will never experience or witness events involving real selfless sacrifice. Still, maybe by seeing the artwork honoring them, they will read the write-ups I've written and come away with a new perspective in which to gauge true heroism. As far as sarcasm and dark humor? For whatever reason, the guys I served in Ranger Regiment with—and my fire service friends—all find the dark humor art I draw hilarious. For the most part, other friends do not understand it and wonder why drawing an innocent-looking child in an ear necklace holding a Vietnam era M16 is funny. So, I couldn't put my finger on why that is. I just know I draw it. It's active duty, veterans, or emergency service personnel that ask how they can purchase it. I'll let smarter people than me explain why that is.


Describe your process a little bit for any fledging artists who are just getting started.


Whether it's out of my ever-growing list of things I want to draw or a commissioned piece, I sit back—usually with music and coffee—and try mentally visualizing the "point" of the image before piecing it together. Obviously, suppose a client wants something based on a particular military era (which is the vast majority of my clients). In that case, I have to get the equipment and terrain correct. I have bookshelves full of historical military references but also use images online if needed to guide me. But, I also spend a lot of time drawing "out of my head." If you've personally used the equipment enough, and put in the hours drawing it enough, you eventually won't need a reference picture when drawing an M249, for example.


Lately, I've been doing most of my work with a MacBook Pro, a Wacom screen, and Clip Studio Paint. If I'm doing it for myself or need to put it down quickly (kids), I use an iPad Pro with Procreate.


As far as pen and ink work, I use a wide variety of pencils. I use Micron and Copic pens because I feel the ink remains dark after a layer of ink wash is put over it. I like Daler-Rowney Acrylic water-resistant artists ink, various Windsor & Newton brushes. I typically run tests on various papers until I find a combination that's "agreeing with" what I'm attempting.


I find the more forethought I put into the drawing, the fewer rough sketches I need to do to work the idea out. I usually will send two or three very rough thumbnail sketches to the buyer, let them know my thoughts and where I'm going with it. Then I'm off to the races. If I'm lucky, I will do all my rough sketching and my final inks (or layer of final line art if it is digital) in one sitting around eight hours. By then, I need to take a break from it, look at it again with a fresh set of eyes. If the line art is truly complete, I will start adding blotches of what I think will be my colors. I feel like I have a lot of work to do in this department (I mean more than any other aspect of the process). But when the color scheme looks correct, I begin working on shadows, base colors, then highlights. I don't know if that's the "correct" order, but that's how I'm currently doing it. I know it's done when all the previous steps are complete, or I start wishing I did things differently and start thinking I should rip it up or erase it. My wife thinks I'm crazy with the number of times she's watched me work on something for 12 hours, only to suddenly crumple it up and toss it in the trash. I don't think I'm proud of any art I've done that's more than two weeks old at any given time, so I try getting it approved by the buyer before I end up restarting it on my own.


What is the difference for you when you work in watercolors and brush pens versus digital work? Do you find the subject matter, the tone of the piece, or themes change between analog and digital creativity?


Honestly, I have leaned more towards digital artwork out of ease. I don't necessarily mean ease in rendering any particular piece, but more along the lines of streamlining my day to day life. For example, I have two energetic, always-excited children. They're home seven days a week now due to the way things have been lately. Wet paint, jars of water, and canvas laying around are a lot riskier than me being able to just shut a screen off. When I am doing commission pieces, there are always necessary changes to the design after I initially believe it is done. These issues are so much easier to correct when I work digitally. But, as far as subject matter or tone, I don't differentiate. The idea that pops into my head is going to come out, whether it's on a screen, sketchbook, or napkin.


What is your favorite source of inspiration? Comics? Other military art? Are there any other military artists you follow?


If I had to narrow it down to a favorite, it would have to be comic art. I love to tell stories, my own or someone else's. Making comics—to me—is like making a movie. There's no limit to what you can do. You control the "camera," the lighting, even the acting. I was introduced to some of the great illustrators in comics at an early age, such as John Buscema, Joe Kubert, and Hal Foster. But even now, I look forward to anything put out by the likes of, say, Mike del Mundo, Chris Samnee, or Mitch Gerads. As far as other military artists I follow, the list is very long. Social media is like any other tool; it can be a positive in your life or a drain. My online presence is geared 100% towards artwork. That's all I use it for, and the work I see on there inspires me daily. It's not only the number of talented veteran artists creating pieces that impress me but also the positive community they've built. The willingness to hire fellow veterans and promoting each other are examples of this community building. It's a great thing to see play out.


What are you doing now/have you been doing post-military?


The biggest things in my life are my best friend and wife, Kerry, and my two children, Charlotte and Frank. My kids brighten my day every single day. They are the funniest people I know and are both amazing artists. I got out of the military and went straight onto the Savannah Fire Department and have been here 17 years. Specifically, I am a Captain in charge of a five-person Heavy Rescue (Rescue 2C). We primarily ride structure fires, motor vehicle accidents with entrapment, high angle rope rescue, and scuba incidents, to name a few. I am so grateful for the job; it truly filled "that thing" I felt I was missing when I left the Army. I work with a close group of professionals who mean the world to me, and I do something that I see as actually making a difference in people's lives.