Toby Allen is an amazing artist who is passionate about character design for publishing, games and children's book illustrations and he has worked as a 2D game artist.
In his own words, Toby “illustrates stories of far off lands and mystical realms, breathing life into magical characters and exploring the limits of my imagination. I combine both the unpredictable nature of watercolour with the magic of digital mediums to create my work and tell my stories.”
When I came across his Real Monsters series, I fell in love with the little creatures, not meant to make light of mental illness, but rather to “to give these intangible mental illnesses some substance and make them appear more managable as physical entities.”
Your mental illness monsters have so much character! What sort of research did you do for each monster as you created the images and descriptions?
I am familiar with most of the disorders I have created imagery for but I do a lot of research into each condition anyway, looking at general internet sources and finding out the most common symptoms or aspects of the illness. I also try to research real life cases and look for accounts of first person experiences to try and see it from the perspective of the people that suffer from the disorders themselves. Tumblr is a very open and frank community so a lot of my knowledge of mental illnesses comes from people’s real life experiences that are shared on their personal blogs. I try to gather information from many different sources and filter them into something that I hope everyone can relate to.
How did you come up with the idea of mental illnesses as monsters? What inspired them?
The project originated from imagining my own anxieties as monsters and finding it to be a cathartic and healing process to draw them. It made them feel weaker and I was able to look at my own anxiety in a comical way. I wanted to expand upon this idea and draw other representations of mental illnesses that could help people in the same way it helped me. I also wanted to push my design skills as an illustrator and create unique characters that draw upon things that most people are familiar with but rarely see in a physical form.
As an artist, what is your favourite medium to use and why?
I really love watercolour, whether it is traditional with a paintbrush or digital, using self made tools that mimic traditional watercolour. I love the texture it gives to an image and the shifts between subtle and intense or vivid colour. Watercolour can add an extra level of magic to an illustration but it is also very temperamental and can be a fun challenge to work with. The majority of my work is created digitally, but uses self made watercolour textures and brushes that create a blend of the two mediums that I find really enjoyable.
In the Fastcocreate article by Jennifer Miller you talk about raising awareness of mental illnesses through your art and making them more manageable. What else makes mental illness more manageable in your everyday life?
Talking! Either talking to my parents about something that is bothering me or getting me down, talking and joking with my sister or friends to lighten the mood or even having a heartfelt and honest chat with my pet chinchilla! I really think that talking about your feelings to someone you trust is a great tool for when it all gets a bit too much or you can’t get something out of your mind.
Doing something every day that you really love and that makes you feel happy also helps to make things more manageable. When I am creating artwork I don’t feel anxious or worried about anything. It makes me happy and I feel liberated from my anxiety and free from the pressures of the real world - even if just for an hour or two.
Which of the monsters that you have created so far is your favourite, or was the most fun to draw up?
I think the anxiety monster is my favourite, as it is a very personal piece of work and reflects my own experience with anxiety well. It has a good mix of cute and creepy and the light and dark colour combination was very fun to play around with. I also really liked working on the depression monster. It’s so round and squishy (its design is based on a manatee, which is one of my favourite animals) and the waterfall like tail was particularly fun to draw.
Some of the comments made about the monsters is that they are "too cutesy". How do you respond to this concern?
I intentionally made them cutesy and I agree that some are on the very cute side. The intention for the project was not to scare people, but to give people something to aim their angst toward. I think if I made them too horrible or scary, they might appear less manageable and children might find them too scary. I hoped that the work could be open to an audience of all ages and I think I have struck a good balance between scary and cute - reflecting the serious nature of mental illnesses but not making them so scary or horrific enough to add negativity to people’s reflection of their own condition.
When did you fist discover that you had generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder?
During school I became increasingly worried or preoccupied about things that wouldn’t faze anyone else and at the same time other family members having issues with anxiety too. As time went on my worrying became worse and I would have panic attacks over trivial things and have sleepless nights thinking about events happening several months in the future. At this time we began to realize that it was anxiety disorder, of which affected half of my family and we began to work on methods of dealing with it and making it more manageable.
I actually learnt of social anxiety disorder when this project was in its infancy. I quickly realized that a lot of my anxieties and worries were very similar to those that people with social anxiety disorder would experience. Through extensive research of the conditions I can see that they both affected me much before I realized that the conditions even existed.
What or who have been some good supports for you?
My family and friends have always been good supports. Whenever I am feeling down I will always talk through my worries with them and together we will work out ways of coping or lessening the anxiety. The Tumblr community and internet community in general are also very supportive, sometimes just knowing that someone else out there feels a similar way to you, can help you feel a little more at ease and not so alienated.
Is there a specific message you hope to get across to those who come across your art?
I hope that it reminds people of just how common these conditions can be and how destructive they can be as well. I want sufferers to feel that they are not alone in what they are going through and that some of these illnesses can be beaten or at least managed. I want people to laugh and smile when they see my work and feel a little less negative about themselves or their condition.
Do you have a favourite artist?
Gosh, I have so many! Cory Godbey’s illustrations have been an obsession of mine for a few years and have definitely had an influence on the Real Monsters project in particular. I have a very varied taste in art and like most visually interesting or colourful works of art, but I really love narrative illustration and character design so most of my favourite artist’s work within that genre. Other inspirations and favourite artists include Nicholas Kole, Quentin Blake and David Roberts.