What sort of education and/or training have you pursued in your career as an artist? Was it worth it? What were the most valuable things you've taken away from your education or training?
I have a BFA in Illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art. I took community art classes as a child because I loved art, not because I was training to be an "artist" or had any grand aspirations. At the time, it was just fun. I would say that the training I have had has been worth it. It lead me to the path that I am on now. Also, on a side note, I met my best friends because of those educational experiences, and that's proven invaluable. A lot of artists question whether school is necessary to be successful. I definitely don't think this is true in all cases as every person is different. Some people need the structure of school to become self-disciplined. Some people need school to learn how to critique and evaluate their own work. And others just need it to find out who they are and be pushed to limits they would never push themselves. You are learning a whole lot more than technique in school. Technique will only help you so much. I really benefitted from being forced to try things I would probably not have tried on my own. If you don't invest a lot of time and energy into your education, it's unlikely you will get much out of it. I worked very hard in college, and I feel like it has all helped me in one way or another.
When did you become interested in illustration?
I think I've always been drawn to illustration, even before I knew what the word meant. Some of my most distinct memories as a kid were of looking at picture books and being entranced by the images. A few books that come to mind are "The Polar Express", "Jumanji", "There's a Wocket in my Pocket", "Where the Wild Things Are", "Goodnight Moon" and an illustrated collection of "Grimm's Fairy Tales". Even though most of these books were for kids, there were some pretty dark undertones in the illustrations that stuck with me. When I got to college, I did the requisite first year of taking lots of different classes and trying different mediums. I found that my work always seemed to lean towards telling a narrative, so illustration seemed a natural choice. I was also friends with a few people who were already studying illustration, so I got to see them working on their class assignments, which seemed fun and intriguing. I think that further fueled my interest.
How did you get your big break in illustration?
I wouldn't say there was any one single event or illustration job that you could call a "big break". If anything, it has been a long process of little successes here and there, all of which I've slowly built a career and reputation on. I think rarely does one find overnight success from a single event, although that has been known to happen...
My first published illustration was for a local magazine where I was doing a summer internship right before my senior year of college. Then from there I contacted magazines and publications via email and promotional postcards, introducing them to my work (on my website). I think having my work online in various places has helped me the most. Aside from my blog and website, I also have a flickr and tumblr account where many people seem to view my images. Having my work featured in different publications has helped too. Some magazines like Beautiful Decay have calls for submissions which I have entered, and then been featured in print. One pretty big thing for me was being featured in Elle magazine. The magazine had come across my sketchbook images online and wanted to do a feature on them. That helped me get a lot of exposure (but again, if I had not had my work online, they never would have seen it and contacted me about it). The Haste the Day album was also great exposure because the band did so much promotion for the cd, that my work got promoted right along with them. Also, I think they had a fairly sizable following. In addition to those two specific instances, I would also say that having my personal work in galleries has helped enormously. People who like my gallery work visit my website and then find out about my illustration work. So I sometimes get freelance jobs through my gallery work. It's a kind of circular effect.
What is your favorite type of commercial project and why?
Most of my illustration experience has been in editorial and package design (mainly album artwork). I have really enjoyed doing the album artwork because of the amount of freedom I usually have. There are always parameters and specs for a given project, but with the albums, I feel I can push the limits a little more. These are the clients that contact me because they are drawn to my personal work (the stuff I do for galleries), and I love any opportunity to apply that style to a freelance job. This has been the case in providing artwork for some beer labels, such as Gigantic Brewing Company, which I felt was a great match for my style.
How long have you been developing your artistic style? How did you begin to develop it?
I guess if I was going to be analytical about it, I could say I’ve been developing it since I was a kid. As you grow up, you’re constantly taking in influences and things that appeal to you, and storing them somewhere in your memory. I believe all these things come back into play at some point, whether you are conscious of it or not. But a more straightforward answer would be, since college. In college, working extensively in my sketchbook (which I actually didn’t enjoy at first) really helped me form new ideas that led to my current style. Then after college, I started a “drawing-a-day” blog that pretty much forced me to keep producing work regularly. Sometimes it was good work, sometimes not. But through all that I was developing my style, and in the end it proved beneficial. I kept that momentum of one drawing per day going for a year. Towards the end of that year, I began to create works that were beginning to look more finished than what started out on the blog. These eventually led to my current body of work, which became more refined and intricate. You just need to keep doing the work and the style will follow. It’s much harder to envision what you want your style to look like and then spend your time trying to get there. That’s like swimming against the current.
How do you get illustration work?
In the beginning, when I was fresh out of college, I went full speed ahead in sending out postcards to art directors and emailing a lot of them. I would scour the websites of different magazines and news weeklies to find emails addresses. The response was pretty non-existent (as is pretty normal right after you graduate). Despite that, I continued to make work and put it online (places like flickr, Facebook, Society6, my blog etc). Gradually, because the internet works in weird ways, more and more people saw my work and became familiar with it, reposting, reblogging and sharing it with others. Also, the gallery work I began to exhibit seemed to attract more potential clients. These days I don't do a whole lot of promotional mailings, despite the fact that it never really hurts. But I think the important thing to remember is to keep producing work and making it available for people to discover. If people like what they see, they will find a way to seek you out.
Please describe a typical day?
As much as I wish I could say I am one of those artists who follow a strict schedule and starts and stops working at a certain time everyday, it's usually more varied working routines for me. If I'm on a roll with a project, and it's late at night, I may decide to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it. Sometimes I find it better to sacrifice some sleep and keep working in order to maintain my level of focus while I'm in that work mode. On a normal day, I try to get dressed before I start working, otherwise I feel kinda lazy. But I tell myself that reading emails in pajamas is ok, so that's usually the first thing I do. Then I just work on whatever needs attention, taking breaks for meals (most of the time). Nothing crazy. I usually have music or a movie playing on my laptop. I've also gotten into listening to a lot of podcasts.
Your personal work has a very mysterious, magical dream-like quality to it. Is there a great deal of work behind the conceptual aspect of how these images are created, or do they come about with a significant degree of spontaneity?
Sometimes they are totally spontaneous, but more often than not I have to take some time to develop them. Usually the essence of the piece comes out in the thumbnail sketch and then all the details are developed on the final paper during the pencil stage. A lot of erasing takes place. Not having the entire piece planned out before I start the final drawing makes the process more interesting for me.
Is there a constant narrative that runs throughout your gallery works?
I wouldn't say there is a constant narrative, although one could easily think that due to the fact that certain characters I draw seem to reappear in a lot of my drawings. More than a constant narrative, I would say there are themes that one could say are constant or prevalent. Some of these themes would include things like man and beast, anxiety, journeys, isolation, night, communication, death, magic and rituals.
When did you decide to become a professional artist?
I originally went to art school with the intention of being a professional illustrator. While I still do some illustration here and there, gallery work and personal projects have definitely taken over my working life. It wasn't a totally conscious decision transitioning into full time fine artist. I tried for many years to get enough illustration work to sustain myself, which, while not an impossible thing is a very difficult one. While I was sort of spinning my wheels trying to do that, I started to develop my personal work, first in sketchbooks and then into finished pieces. As it turned out, the world seemed a lot more interested in my personal work than commercial work and that just kind of took off around 2010. When I moved to Portland in the spring of 2012, It seemed almost certain that I would have to get a part-time job, but due to the artistic opportunities the city had to offer, it wasn't necessary. My first year in Portland was my first year as a full-time working artist. It's ironic that I'm doing this as a career now because it's probably just as difficult to do as getting full-time illustration work, but somehow it has worked out so far.
In terms of your gallery work, what is the process?
After I get that initial spark of an idea, I usually draw a thumbnail sketch (a tiny scribble of an idea). From that, I go right to fleshing out the idea on a larger piece of paper that will be the final piece. This is done with pencil. From there, I continue to refine the pencil sketch until it is pretty well defined composition-wise. Then I begin to ink over the pencil lines using a pen fitted with a nib. Once that is completed, I erase any visible pencil lines and fill in any large areas that will be black with india ink. The last step is the ink wash stage. I build up transparent layers of diluted ink and water to achieve various tones and add dimension and shading to the drawing.
What paper, pens and inks do you prefer to use?
I enjoy using Canson Edition paper, and a shade like "antique white" as I feel like it adds a warmth to the finished drawing. I'm not a huge fan of stark white paper. As far as pens, I use a dip pen holder (the kind you would use for calligraphy), fitted with an R. Esterbrook pen nib (School #1000 series). I bought these off ebay. I like using two kinds of ink for my drawings. Speedball Super Black, and Dr. Ph. Martin's Black Star Matte. The Speedball ink is good for line-work and an initial coating of large black areas. The Dr. Ph. Martin's is good for adding a second coat to large black areas and cutting down on reflectiveness.
What is it like to exhibit your personal work in galleries? Do you feel successful?
It's really nice to know people are seeing my work, even if I can't attend the shows myself. It's also wonderful to show work alongside many talented artists, some of whom I have greatly admired for a while now. I feel like success is a hard thing to measure. It's so different for every person and the definition is a relative thing. While I still feel somewhat distant from the point of success I would ideally like to achieve someday, I am grateful for the success I have attained so far.
What is your working environment like?
I work at home (which I have always done), so I pretty much have a large table set up in a room with my computer, scanner and art supply closet near me. Things can get kinda messy, so part of the table is usually covered with piles of papers, books, and coffee cups. I have a window next to me, so I can enjoy looking outside if I want to. It's a pretty contained space, but it serves its purpose. Luckily I am not doing 10 foot paintings, but mainly small drawings. It is possible to make good work without an out-of-home studio or a fancy space, you just have to be efficient with the space you have. You also have to not mind being around your workspace mess. I imagine an advantage of working out of the home would be you have less distraction. You would go to that space specifically to create, and the comforts of home are not luring you away from work.
What things inspire you?
Renaissance and Medieval art, symbolism, prehistoric animals, Russian animation, surrealism, old maps, Indian painting, ancient Greek and Roman art, astrology, German expressionism, Grimm's fairy tales, Tarot, Russian folk-tales, Greek mythology, the writings of Shirley Jackson, sea monsters, ghosts, botanical drawings, sleep paralysis, anatomical engravings, picture books from childhood, Assyrian relief sculpture, sketchbook collaborations, forests, magic, gothic architecture, the music of Igor Stravinsky, mythical creatures, ancient civilizations, alchemy….it's a pretty eclectic mix.
Who are some of your favorite illustrators?
Kay Nielsen, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Gustaf Tenggren, Chris Van Allsburg, Mary Blair, Harry Clarke, Gustaf Tenggren, Arthur Rackham, Charley Harper, Edward Gorey, Norman Rockwell, Al Hirschfeld, Aubrey Beardsley, John Tenniel, Virginia Lee Burton, J. C. Leyendecker, Bill Watterson, Ray Harryhausen, Richard Scarry, Ernst Haeckel, Wanda Gág, Charles Shultz, Beatrix Potter, Rockwell Kent...
What other artists do you admire?
William Blake, Paul Delvaux, Edvard Munch, the Brothers Quay, Eyvind Earle, Jan Svankmajer, Alfred Kubin, Kiki Smith, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Yuri Norstein, Henry Fuseli, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Khnopff, Benozzo Gozzoli, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Beksinski, Jan Toorop, Gustave Doré, Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, Heironymus Bosch, Odilon Redon, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Paolo Uccello, H.R. Giger, Yves Tanguy, Théodore Géricault, Artemisia Gentileschi, Arnold Böcklin, Henri Rousseau, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Grandma Moses, Jan van Eyck, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, René Magritte, Katsushika Hokusai, Philip Guston, Ben Shahn, Odd Nerdrum, Albrecht Dürer, Rogier van der Weyden, Edmund Dulac, Francis Bacon, Jean Dupas, Franz Sedlacek, Claude Cahun, Hans Memling, Caravaggio...
Many of your works seem to be influenced by art from the Renaissance era. Can you explain this influence?
Renaissance and medieval art continue to be inspirational to me. I pretty much love it all. Not just the paintings and drawings, but the tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, architecture, ornamentation and sculpture. I’m drawn to the attention to detail, the compositions, often bizarre perspectives and intriguing use of symbolism. Mysticism, magic and alchemy were prevalent in those ages and I enjoy the fact that this comes through in the imagery of the time.
Have you ever considered transforming your art into an animation?
There have been a few instances in which this has happened, but nothing major. I know it would be labor intensive, but I would love to see a hand drawn animation of my characters, even if it was just a few seconds. I might tackle that someday. It would be a whole new thing trying to figure out how the characters would move and sound.
Would you ever make a graphic novel or illustrate a children's book?
Possibly. I think if I did either one of these things, I would want it to be my own story. My only real experience with graphic novels/comics so far is when I created one page for a collaborative comic. However, I would say that comics are not something that come easily or naturally to me. As far as picture books, I am much more fond of the idea of one that would appeal to all ages, perhaps even without words; purely images.
What is your most frequently used medium when it comes to your gallery work?
I primarily use India ink for my gallery work these days. I began working with ink in college, but it really became my main medium several years after graduating. I went from using micron pens to dip pens with nibs (most likely I wanted to experiment with line variation and also save some money by not buying micron pens). So in using the dip pens, that is where the India ink came in. I used to just do line-work with it, but now I have developed a technique of applying ink washes over the line-work that helps give my drawings shadow and dimension. It is basically the same sort of technique that you use with watercolors. It's a combination of wet-in-wet technique and dry brush I would say. I use a watercolor palette and fill each compartment with water, then apply various amounts of the india ink to each compartment. Basically, I give myself a whole gradation scale of tones to work with and then apply with the brush to my line drawing.
Why do you work primarily in black and white? Do you ever feel limited in doing so?
I actually don't think of it as "black and white" because to me that sounds exclusionary of the whole in-between spectrum of grays and sepias. I prefer the terms grayscale and/or monochromatic. The reason my work is grayscale is because india ink is my main medium. I love the way the inks dry and the luminous quality you can achieve using this medium. While my work is limited in terms of the colors, I have a multitude of tones I can utilize within that gray spectrum. That said, ink is definitely not a forgiving medium if you make a big mistake, so you have to be very careful about the process to prevent unintended drips and drops of ink on the paper. I've been doing it a pretty long time now so it's not as stressful as it once was. I would say it’s fairly easy working in grayscale in that I don’t make decisions about color schemes or what hue will compliment another hue. However, because I don’t have colors to help define one element of the composition from another, I have to be particularly careful about having a variety of tones in the works (ranging from very dark to very light). In retrospect, I feel like the grayscale look has worked out pretty well for me. Many people have told me they feel it compliments my imagery, and although I would agree with that, it was never my reason for going that route. At the time, I was just experimenting with ink and did not foresee what was to come.
Have you ever used color in your work?
Yes, of course. Believe it or not, I used to be quite bold and bright with my colors. I went through a whole period of making these crazy pastel drawings at the end of high school and into the first year of college. Then as my illustration courses began, I was often using colored inks, acrylics, colored pencils, cut paper and all different kinds of materials to complete my assignments. It was a time of great experimentation, minus my rather unsuccessful foray into oil paints. *shudder*
What memorable responses have you had to your personal work?
I've had people embrace the work and love the world I've created, and I've also witnessed the complete opposite reaction. One show in particular comes to mind. A couple years after graduating college, I hung a bunch of my art up for a month at this local cafe in Baltimore. I'd always had some pretty good responses to my work in art school, so I had a rude awakening when I stepped outside my college bubble and found some of my audience to be pretty critical of my work. For some crazy reason, I thought it would be a cool idea to have a comment book for people to write feedback about the art in. Some people misunderstood the point of the book and wrote comments for the cafe, while others wrote some pretty negative things towards my work and even me personally. A bunch of people wrote that it was unsuitable for the venue, calling it "demonic" and "satanic", which was not really what I had in mind when I created it. One guy stated that I must have had a really messed up childhood and called my mind a "ruined and mangled place." Sounds a bit overdramatic to me. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was pretty taken aback by the response. I guess like most negative experiences, it helped to toughen my skin in a positive way. Generally, I feel that getting strong reactions, even negative ones, is preferable to getting apathetic, non-reactions. It means that the work is still making an impression.
How would you describe your personal work?
Introspective, intuitive, narrative, mystical, ominous, otherworldly and emotive. My answer to this question changes a lot.
Do you ever go through periods of disliking your work and making nothing?
Yes. Sometimes a piece just isn't coming out the way you want, and you have to accept that you might have to scrap it and start over. Sometimes that's for the best though. Creative droughts are tough too, but they always pass. I haven't found any particular way to bypass a creative blockage like that. You can't force yourself to be inspired and that's frustrating, but it's all part of creating. For myself, I have discovered time is the only answer.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist looking to enter the art world?
As far as tips on establishing yourself, I guess I would say a few things. 1.) Be persistent to reach your goals and don't get discouraged. It's really easy to get discouraged and can be difficult to be persistent. I have experienced this and went through some years where I wondered if I chose the wrong career because it was so difficult to get work. But I knew I loved making art and really didn't know what else I would do, so I stuck with it (took me about 8 years post graduating to feel like I was getting anywhere!). You have to trust your gut. 2.) Follow your own unique vision. Don't go against your natural artistic inclinations to follow trends. If you're not engaged or interested in the work you are doing, it will likely be obvious and that will effect the work. 3.) Stay focused and don't compare yourself to others. It's really easy for that to happen when you work in the artistic fields and it doesn't make one feel good or ever help you in the end. You need to refocus that energy on meeting your own goals and feeling good about the work you are doing. 4.) Keep making art and show it to people frequently. Both very important. If you keep producing and showing it to people, it is bound to help you in some way eventually. Whether it's posting your work on the internet, exhibiting in galleries, sharing your sketchbook, making zines or whatever, just make stuff and put it out there for people to discover. No one will ever know about some amazing thing you made it you keep it all to yourself.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of creating art?
One of the most challenging things is attempting to visually recreate on paper, the images I see in my mind. This is very difficult to do and I rarely feel like I succeed at it. The result always deviates from what I had envisioned, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. One of the most rewarding aspects of creating art is when someone really connects and relates to one of my images. It's usually not what I had in mind when I created the piece, but that's what I appreciate about the power of art; it can trigger diverse reactions and mean something entirely different to each individual viewer.
What other types of jobs have you had?
I've sold Christmas trees in blizzards, been an office assistant, stocked produce in a grocery store, worked in a retirement home kitchen, been an art museum security guard, ushered at a symphony hall and been a gallery assistant in a contemporary art museum.
Can you design a tattoo for me?
Only on rare occasion have I done this. It's not really my cup of tea. People do seem to like getting existing works of mine tattooed on themselves however, which is fine with me.
What music do you listen to?
Some of my favorite musicians/bands/composers include Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Elliott Smith, Donovan, Sigur Rós, the Smiths, Nat King Cole, Bear's Den, Belle & Sebastian, Igor Stravinsky, Bach, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Vince Guaraldi, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet.