Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1. I think the readers are very curious about your medium and process. Can we start from there? You use mostly watercolor, but your work is never finished without the magical last touch of Photoshop, correct?
That’s true, almost everything I do is somehow refined or added upon digitally. Most of my work starts as an acrylic and watercolour painting. It takes time to achieve darker values in watercolour, so I’ll often start a painting in acrylic, establishing dark areas and textures first. Depending on how complex the image is, I’ll paint for usually a week or two and then scan the artwork and move into photoshop. The computer is a wonderful tool, especially for refining and detailing areas. It lacks some of the spontaneity and surface that comes with work made by hand with chemicals, pigment and brushes, but solves other problems like global lighting and smooth mechanical blending very well. I’d like to think I try and let the computer help solve the problems it’s best suited to addressing. The photoshop component of a project can take anywhere from a few days to another week, depending on how finished the work is when I scan it.
2. I’ve known you for a long time, even before you started professionally illustrating. During grad school, you were a realistic painter, then you shifted to mainly drawing with ftal-ish digital color when you started illustrating, then now back to realism… Can you talk a bit about this progress? (I remember you once said “My website is sampaints.com when I don’t paint anymore”, but the website title is totally appropriate again!)
Ha, yes, I remember that well. I was painting a lot during my first year of graduate studies at The School of Visual Arts. I think part of the problem was that painting in oil, at the time at least, wasn’t allowing me to tell the stories I wanted to tell. The medium, scale, and process was something I loved but the end results where somehow failing. At some point I just became very frustrated with the whole process. I wasn’t receiving a very good response from art directors and I felt like I was just making the same type of pictures over and over again. I decided to abandon painting for a while and just draw in ink, using the computer to add colour to my work. I remember feeling very liberated. I was making pictures more quickly, and was able to draw things that I had struggled to paint in an interesting way. Most importantly of all, drawing gave me the ability to explore new stories and ideas in my work, which I think lead to clients and art directors taking interest in what I was doing. For me, a change in medium also represented an important change in subject matter. Over the past five years I’ve slowly been adding paint and texture by hand to the drawings. I suppose at some point a few years ago they kind of became paintings again, but there was never a conscious choice to stop drawing and start painting. It has been a very organic evolution since then. I’m much more conscious of ideas and the content of a picture these days, and although my work has a fairly consistent feel to it, I’m looking forward to the work continuing to change.
3. Also, recently you have added “experiments” section on your website. I assume most of the works are done for yourself for fun? I think that is fantastic. Although you are extremely busy, can you still find time to make paintings/drawings for fun? Also, only if you don’t mind… Can we ask what is it like to be married to equally successful illustrator and comic artist Jillian Tamaki?
Yes, the experiments are little things I do around the studio for fun. I’m unfortunately pretty bad about scanning and documenting them. I try and fit time in for personal work, but it feels like there is less and less every year. I’m very lucky in that the work I do for clients is fulfilling creatively. With that said, I think it’s important to set time aside for personal work, I always learn a tremendous amount when I’m able to explore my own ideas and techniques freely. My client work is always improved by personal projects.
Jillian is a really inspiring person. We were always competitive in school, and I think some of that has stayed with us. Being an illustrator can be very consuming, it feels pretty natural to come home and talk more about illustration. Vacations are important, otherwise I think neither of us would ever get away from work. There’s something about traveling that lets us relax and not think about our creative practice.
4. You are one of the founding members of Pencil Factory, now a well known illustration/design powerhouse and illustration newcomers’ dream. What does it mean for you to have a studio full of young and talented illustrators and designers around you?
Being around the other artists in the Pencil Factory is really inspiring. I’ve learned as much from my studio mates and friends as I ever did in school. To be honest, it’s actually a little funny to think that it’s become something people think about. It evolved really organically without a lot of thought or planning. While I was a student I always preferred to work at school around my classmates and in many ways my professional studio is a representation of what I liked best about the group studio environment I was lucky enough to experience at ACAD and SVA. I listen to better music, get to see more art books, and have better conversations because of the pencil factory.
5. You do very diverse types of work: political illustration for the New York Times to all sorts of magazine illustrations to sci-fi/ fantasy book covers and young adults books…. Do you have any that are your favorites to work on?
One of the things I like best about illustration is the variety of things I’m able to work on. Fantasy and science fiction books allow me the opportunity to try things that wouldn’t work in a magazine and vice versa. In the end I don’t actually work much differently from one type of project to another, and although the end result can vary greatly, the actual process is similar for most of what I do.
6. What’s on your horizon? Any current/future projects and plans/dreams you can share with us?
I’m working on another book project with The Folio Society that I’m pretty excited about, and am hoping to take a little time off this summer to work on some personal projects. My friends and I in The Pencil Factory are planning some more self promotional projects, although we haven’t decided on anything for certain yet. Beyond that, I hope my work keeps evolving and that interesting opportunities continue to present themselves. Although I love making pictures for print and web, I think it would be exciting to explore some new venues for my work: Creating something for an opera or play, boutique or public space would be thrilling.
7. You are one of very few illustrators in the young generation who has absolutely solid drawing/painting skill. I feel that it is getting lost, or importance of it is diminishing. How do you feel about this?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure. Craft can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways. I think sometimes it’s easier to see the craft and training in something representational, but that sort of thinking can be misleading. And doesn’t mean one way executing something is any better than the other. Charlie Harper’s work is as well made and sophisticated as Norman Rockwell’s. It’s the quality that’s important to me, and I think there are a lot of young students and illustrators committed to making good work, whatever form or shape it may take. Whether they create images that are based on classical drawing and painting isn’t really important at all. I sometimes wonder if academic drawing and painting skills are maybe a little over rated. They’re essential for certain types of work, and for me the pursuit is an exciting challenge, but in the end it can feel like surface if someone has nothing interesting to say or do with those skills. Students seem like they want to learn how to draw and paint these days, which is great. I’m not really worried about the importance of traditional drawing or painting diminishing. If people want to learn they will, the information is readily available for anyone who’s interested. What does worry me is the prospect of people making beautifully painted pictures that have no content or substance, because they’ve never read a book or been to an art museum.
8. Can you provide us with a one or two paragraph bio?
I was born in Alaska, and grew up in Deep River Ontario, Canada. After attending the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, I moved to New York to pursue illustration and attend graduate school at The School of Visual Arts. My studio is in Brooklyn. I’m married to Jillian Tamaki.
Clients include: Universal Films, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Tor Books, Little, Brown and Co., Scholastic, Sony/BMG, Soulpepper Theatre, Playboy, Time Magazine, DC/Vertigo Comics, Random House, ESPN, Wired, Penguin, SPIN, Flaunt, Herman Miller, The Atlantic, Business Week, Plan Sponsor, The Walrus
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