Accolades came on early for Von. At the age of 5, he won a contest and was awarded a Speed Racer coloring book. That’s when he realized a career could be made from drawing. Nothing has really changed…Von still creates award-winning illustration and design, only now for major ad agencies, corporations and national publications all from his home studio in Salem, Oregon. Heâ??s given up the footed pajamas, but in his spare time enjoys driving like Speed Racer in his PT Cruiser.
How did you get started in the illustration field?
Ever since I was a little kid I have drawn. I remember classmates growing up asking me to draw a KISS band member for them etc. I knew someday I’d do it for a living even-though I didn’t fully understand how or to what extent. I graduated from Seattle Art Institute in 1986 and for the first ten years of my career I worked as a graphic designer. I love graphic design but when a project needed an illustrative bent that really made the whole creative process more enjoyable for me personally.
In 1996 I signed with my first art rep and over the last ten years have pursued illustration work more aggressively and it’s caused a core shift in how I work as a whole and even how I define what I do. I tell people now I am an ‘Illustrative Designer’. It’s become the core niche of my business.
How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
Growing up I was heavily influenced by my Mom who is a very gifted artist. She kind of did a lot of different things growing up and each she was did very creatively such as tole paint, folk art painting, creating faux antique pieces, Japanese style painting on custom woodwork and a ton of really unique craft projects. She always encouraged me with my own artistic pursuits too.
My style however is a good mish mash of what appealed to me visually growing up. Old RCA record cover art by Jim Flora my parents had was a huge inspiration that I didn’t fully realize until midway through my career, MAD magazine, Richard Scarry, Norman Rockwell, Sid & Marty Krofft, and Japanese cartoons such as Speed Racer and StarBlazers.
Because I enjoyed such a diverse range of styles of art in all it’s various forms as a kid I think really shaped how I view art now. Sure I have a few favorite styles I work in but for the most part I let a given project dictate what style is appropriate. I enjoy this constant stylistic migration in my art it keeps me on my creative toes and is a constant challenge to me.
What is your process when working with clients? Can you run us through a typical job?
I am pretty methodical with my creative process. I hold to it very closely mainly because I get distracted easy and need a good structure I can follow. Since many ask about it I have created a downloadable PDF that will walk anyone through it. It applies to design or illustration. You can download it by clicking here.
What is your creation process (start with sketches, etcâ?¦)?
Every project starts with what I call ‘Slow Boiling’. Just letting ideas bubble about in my mind. When it reaches the point of boiling over and good concepts are starting to form and I worry I may not remember them, then that is when I start sketching. Sometimes it takes hours sometimes it takes days. I prefer doing all my conceptual sketching out of studio though, it helps to free my mind a bit more. This and more is covered in my process pdf linked above.
How do you market/promote your work?
Most of my work comes from word of mouth. I’ve made a lot of contacts over the years and just becoming friends with those I worked with has lead to many really cool gigs and working relationships now.
That said I also participate as much as I can in collaborative art efforts. These I find fun and it allows me to exercise my creative muscle in ways I otherwise might not be able too and that has led to getting additional work from those who see it.
Over the past five years I’ve built up my own mailing list. It started with like 75 people and now is over a 1,000. Periodically I send out a promotion to that list and that has led to many assignments. One thing I’ve realized over the years is you have to be honest about your work. So I usually write about the assignment and in that I share my fears, frustrations and quirky humor.
Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
Yes. Scott Hull is my rep. About three years ago I first approached him and he basically shunned me like a punk rocker attending a barn raising. So I added him to my promotion list and over the next two years slowly wooed him until he signed me up.
Even-though I have a rep I purposely tell myself not to rely on it. Don’t get me wrong — Scott is a great rep and I work with him all the time figuring out various ways to promote and get work, but I just don’t want to depend on him like creative welfare. Some illustrators sit back and wait for their rep to call them and hardly ever pursue anything on their own. I am not that way. I enjoy researching new ways I can use my talent so I am always looking for creative opportunities.
What was one of your favorite assignments?
The past few years I’ve had many that have been a blast but the one I am currently working on is pretty cool. I’ve been hired to illustrate a set of 24 ‘Gross-Out’ trading cards for kids being produced by Upper Deck Company. Such themes as ‘Poop’, ‘Vomit’ and ‘Bad Breath’. It kind of hearkens back to my childhood and MAD magazine and my own daughters think it’s pretty funny as well.
What is the best part about what you do?
The diversity of illustrative projects I work on. One day I may be creating an illustrative logo for an ad agency, the next day I’ll be illustrating a spot for a magazine and the next I’ll be working on a set of icons for a software company. All are illustrative design projects but each has their own distinct style and challenges.
I love working out of my home too. Being able to watch film noir movies from Netflix while I work, go to lunch with my wife who stays at home, take off with my kids during the summer or choose to work from a local coffee shop via wifi on any given day. The flexibility is awesome.
Describe your work setting.
My home office is pretty small. About 18×24. It’s comfortable though. Lots of collector toys and trinkets, a nice book case with my library, a collection of Jim Flora albums framed and hanging on my walls. And most days our cat Snickers will come in and keep me company or sit on my desk and give me the evil eye for a few hours until I go feed her some ham from the refrigerator. She has me trained well.
Do you have side projects you work on?
I am always working on personal projects. Some of them for causes I want to support creatively and others for the mere fun of it. I was just invited as part of a group of designers to create a poster design for the Urban Forest Project via the Portland AIGA which will be a lot of fun. Below are two other projects I am very passionate about as well.
I started teaching digital illustration at a local college last year. The tutorials I created for my students lead to me creating this site. In less then a year over 105,000 people have visited the site and the tutorials have been downloaded over four million times. I’ve heard from many teachers who are using them now in their class so it’s been very rewarding seeing how people have responded to them.
I’ve had a blast interviewing other creative types and talking shop. It’s allowed me to scratch an old journalism itch I had back in high-school which has been fun. And it lets me work with a fellow designer who picks all the music we play at the end of each episode. It’s been well received in the creative community with over 2,400 subscribers so far and we have a lot of cool episodes coming up.
How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?
I’ll be honest this has been a struggle of sorts for me. But working from home has afforded me a lot more time with my family and having a flexible work schedule means I can take off pretty much anytime I want so that has been cool. The flip side is I can drop into my studio any hour of the day and work so I have to watch that or it can get out of control easily.
Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
There have been days when I feel tapped out. I’d rather do anything other then creative work. I usually can’t draw worth squat on those days either. And unfortunately they seem to happen most often on the days I have some deadline to meet which compounds the problem.
So I try to just take a day off. Go see a movie with a friend or take my wife out on a date or just go goof around with my two daughters or like I did recently just spend the whole day playing ‘Call of Duty’ online instead of working. LOL
What do you do for fun/when you’re not working?
Me and my daughters like to drive around and go ‘Texture Exploring’. Looking for cool textures and taking pictures of them. I admit I just took them along to begin with when I first started doing this, but now they really enjoy it and point out textures all the time to me. This has led to a book I’ve authored which will be released by HOW Books in May 2007 called ‘Crumble, Crackle, Burn – 60 Stunning Textures for Illustration and Design’.
When I am not working I am usually spending time on my own non-business projects, or just hanging out with my family. We try to plan a big family trip each year so recently we’ve been working on a trip to Georgia where we’ll go to a gem mine and search for Amethyst jewels which my daughters are pretty excited about.
What has been inspiring you lately?
In general creation itself inspires me. Look at the heavens immense expanse, the intricate patterns of a tropical fish and the simplistic but universal beauty of the human smile. God’s portfolio trumps all.
A while back we visited an Aquarium on the Oregon coast and at it they had a tank full of luminescent jelly fish. I must have stood there and watched them dance through the water for a good half hour transfixed by their almost alien beauty. What a creative and unique creature.
Any advice for others who are pursuing creative goals?
Always try to tell a story with your art. Think through concepts and create content that has an underline purpose and message you want to relate. Let your own personal convictions shine through your art as a reflection of you.
Right when you think your art is done walk away from it and then re-approach it with fresh eyes a few hours or a day later. You’ll almost always see something you can improve upon. I call this the ‘Fresh Eyes Effect’.
Try new things, and continue to grow your talent base. Embrace technology and find ways to use it to open up new opportunities for your artwork. Let creation inspire you.
Thank you, Von!