I’m a graduate of art school. In fact, I started going to art school in junior high for Saturday classes and took summer school courses until I was able to enroll as a freshman. I drew. Painted. Made stuff. There was only one problem: It was never cohesive and there was never a moment, or feeling of, ‘this is it. This is what I do.’
I could never find the medium that I worked best in. Charcoal? Ink? Pencil? Paint? What kind of paint? What kind of ink? I tried them all and had minor successes with each, but nothing clicked for me. I couldn’t find what it was that I do. This is death to an artist. To dabble intensely but never find your voice. Your voice is critical.
These days I’m more of an observer. I love to see those that succeeded in finding their voice. It’s an incredible thing to witness someone who has control of a pencil or a paintbrush.
A few years back at Wonder Con in San Francisco I found myself drawn to a booth full of t-shirts featuring bears and cowboys, prints and posters of an optimistic old west. This was the booth of illustrator and artist Ben Walker. I bought a few shirts and a print and was on my way. I saw Ben’s booth again at Comic Con a year later and picked up some more of his work.
I was hoping to see Ben Walker at this year’s Comic Con but it turns out that he sat it out. In place of checking out his booth I went to his site to see what he’d been up to. I ordered another shirt and got an email from Ben saying that he was out of the shirt I wanted. That was fine, got different shirt. Over the course of the emails I got the nerve to ask him to play along and do a little interview with me, and he totally agreed. I didn’t ask him everything I wanted to, but everything would be a lot of things.
It was great to be able to get some insight into the working world of an artist that I admire. To see that art can be a viable, if not difficult, career path. Oh, but you have to be incredibly talented and have a voice that people want to hear. And then there’s the issue of finding those people that will pay you for your work. But other than that, go for it!
So hats off to you, Mr. Walker and I hope to catch up with you again in San Francisco at this year’s Alternative Press Expo.
And now, a brief chat with Ben Walker.
ET: I first saw your work a few years ago when you had a booth at Wonder Con in San Francisco. You also do the Alternative Press Expo (APE) and the behemoth that is Comic Con in San Diego. How does the convention scene fit into the career of an illustrator?
I read your post on creating a booth for a convention and from a few friends I know who’ve had booths at Comic Con I understand you could be out thousands of dollars to show off your wares. Are conventions like Comic Con a vital part of your business or is it more for fun?
BEN: Well, the goal has always been to make a profit from conventions but when you really do the math on it, booth fees, hotel, transportation, feeding everybody, plus the cost of printing up T-shirts and prints, any profit becomes negligible or non-existent.
So yes, the reason for doing conventions is to have fun and make new connections and fans. At this point, if someone is familiar with my work it’s probably because they saw my booth at Comic-con or whatever. It’s how I get eyeballs on my artwork.
I’ve taken a little break from cons this year in order to reset. I’m really re-evaluating what it is I’m doing with my art and why I exhibit in the first place. I’ve had great response from my T-shirt designs over the last 7 years but that’s over for now, at least at the scale I was working. It’s just not feasible for me to print, store and transport hundreds of T-shirts now.
Anyway, I hope to be back for APE 2012 with stuff that is fun and different from what people are used to seeing from me.
That’s something that you don’t think about as an attendee. All the work, beyond just the art, that goes into showing at a convention. I always see artists at these cons that I’d like to say something to, but never do. It’s tough as a fan to approach an artist you admire, even when they’re standing at a booth for that very reason. As a fan, I can say that the goal is to at least say something, to let that artist know you dig their work.
At conventions I mostly try not to stare too awkwardly or be annoying with my picture taking. I was wondering, as the artist, what’s it like on that side of the booth?
I have to say it’s nice going from being an attendee to having my own booth. People can choose to stop and check out my work or not. If someone isn’t into the type of work I do they keep walking, so I usually only hear from people who like my work. It’s cool to see attendees walk by my table and then double back to get another look. Or they might just walk by and laugh. That’s cool too.
Honestly, I always assume that someone approaching my table has never seen my work before. So even in the rare occasion that someone is “geeking out” on meeting me, I probably won’t notice. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to be nervous to talk to me. That seems silly and strange. I think any creator who isn’t a douchebag would say the same thing.
As far as dealing with other creators and professionals, there is a distinct power shift when you are on the other side of the table and that opens up some nice opportunities.
Having a booth / table just lets people who hire artists know you have your shit together enough to get that table and fill it out with stuff that you started and finished yourself. I think that alone counts for a lot these days.
I immediately loved your work. It’s fun and whimsical, incredibly well crafted but there’s also heart to it, which is rare these days. A lot of artists I see are solely going for the humor and that’s it. How did you find your style? I know when I was in art school I struggled trying to figure out exactly what mine was (never found it). What sort of process did you go through before landing on your style?
I don’t know. I’m still experimenting a lot with my style and subject matter. I look at most of my contemporaries and they seem to have more consistency to what they do. You can walk through a group show and say “oh look, a new Skinner piece!” Where I don’t know if my stuff is as instantly recognizable from its style. But I like playing with lots of different media and looks.
I will think of an idea for a piece and go with the medium and style that fits the idea. If I want to do a hot babe riding on the back of a bear, I’ll want it be reminiscent of Frank Frazetta paintings; fully rendered and smokey. Then I might want to paint Steve Martin in an old ad for “Double-Strength Brain Salts”. And that has to be done in flat shapes and lines. So I don’t feel like I have “landed” one style. But I’m OK with being like a ‘Weird’ Al Yankovich or Ween of art. Every song sounds different and the consistent factor comes from something else like the humor or heart behind the work.
Sorry, did that answer your question? My advice on the process is to paint (or whatever you do) A LOT. And don’t worry about landing a style. What feels right to an individual artist works itself out when he creates a lot and feels free to experiment. Do work for fun and practice only. Copy other art. Look at what people did in generations past. If you stop feeling like everything you sit down to paint has to end up on a gallery wall or posted on the web it lets off the pressure. I still have to remind myself of this.
You have an image, or a moment that you’ve painted a few different times that focuses on the idea of flight. A boy in a wooden car trying to fly. A man with the wooden wings built from a barn, presumably his own. I love the idea of this man who broke down a barn that had a practical purpose to build wings that the viewer knows will not work, but he’s going for it. He’s got hope. I love it because it’s so successful at telling a story with just a single image. Do you have any plans for a graphic novel or comic book of your own?
Well, first I have to mention that I don’t think viewers should “know the wings won’t work.” Everything I painted during this period either showed successful flight or is left open ended so there’s hope.
It’s no shock that what artists paint is a reflection of what is going on at that particular time in their lives. Artists may not fully know it or want their thoughts and feelings broadcasted but it can’t be helped. I wasn’t fully acknowledging my own thought and feelings but yes, the themes of flight, freedom, escape and loneliness were pretty constant throughout my artwork.
I was exhibiting at a small convention a couple years back and a guy came up and told me he had a print of “Eggleston’s Boy Powered Air-Car” (the boy trying to launch in a wooden car). He said looking at the print on his wall gave him hope and encouragement while he was going through a rough divorce (rough, like there’s another kind). I thought, “Man, there it is. I communicated directly to a stranger through my artwork.
I’ve never been one to get into metaphysical stuff but the fact is I had painted this picture at a time when I was sleeping on my brother’s couch and whatever energies I was feeling came through in that image. Now it’s helped someone feeling the same things. Can’t argue with that.
I’m in an amazing relationship now and my girlfriend can look at these older paintings and read them as if I’d left my diary open. Now I’m very interested in making art that has honesty to it. We’re all people, and what we’re all experiencing isn’t as different as we like to believe.
You have a successful run of t-shirts and prints and you just released your Westify app for the iPhone. What are your main outlets for looking for work? Is there something – like logo work, that is the bulk of your business?
I’ll tell ya, It’s tough out there right now. I recently picked up a full-time temp gig in the gaming industry. It has me working with design software but it isn’t artistic by any stretch of the imagination. I’m OK with that right now. It’s liberating to make my living one way and then go home to create whatever I want without worrying about paying rent from it.
Westify has been a fun project. It’s a free app that lets you add my artwork to pictures on your phone; bear heads, guns and what-not. It was developed by the same guy who made it so you can put cat heads on people, Franky Aguilar. It was released along with apps for two other cool artists, Patrick Gibson (BrainSnap) and Alex Pardee (WayCooler). In the next couple weeks I’ll have an update with lots of new pieces to add to Westify.
How do you balance your time between work and play? I know a few freelance artists who force themselves to work from 9AM – 5PM Monday through Friday, just to have some normality to the week. What’s your work process like?
Yeah, some normality would be great! Since I’m always juggling so many different projects and ideas I’ve never had much of a routine. I just try to stay on top of deadlines while sneaking in hours to work on projects that aren’t so time sensitive.
More and more, (art) work and play are looking like the same things. My girlfriend, Amanda is the funniest person I’ve ever met. She’s incredibly clever and insightful. I love collaborating with her on ideas for painting, photo shoots, video shorts, events, whatever. I’m feeling like great things will come from our work/play projects.
As for painting process, it goes something like this:
1. I start out super-excited. I have the best idea ever!!
2. I begin by drawing thumbnails.
3. Panic begins to set in when I realize the idea isn’t as solid as it was in my head. What was the point of this concept again?
4. After I have sketched a bunch of versions of the idea I give up. This is important because then I have enough contempt for the piece that I…
5. – then have the “wouldn’t it be funny if I ____” idea. This starts as a joke, then I realize I should actually do it. This new incarnation usually has barely anything to do with my original idea for the piece.
6. I stop trying to plan everything out on paper and just draw directly onto my panel. That’s fun.
7. I then build up a painting to an incredibly ugly half-way point. This is when I freak out and proclaim to the world that I can’t paint and I must have been faking or getting lucky with everything I’ve done up to this point.
8. After pouting for a while, I’m told that I’m being ridiculous (or hopefully realize it myself) and get back to painting.
9. At this point in the process I sort of zone out on the work. I usually don’t even really remember this time once it’s all over. I hear the same thing happens during child birth!
10. Then I realized the piece is as done as its going to get. There’s always more I could do to make it better but nothing worth holding up the works for. Besides, I’m super excited about my next project. It’s the best idea ever!!
A lot of artists in the Bay Area will do freelance work at coveted places like Pixar or Lucas Arts. Is there a dream gig that you’re dying to land?
Yeah, like I mentioned I’m at a place right now where I don’t know if trying to get paid by big companies for my art is the way to go. I am writing more and I have a few story lines I would love to develop further.
I think you mentioned comics in an earlier question and I ignored it, ha-ha. Yes I feel like I’m ready to take on a graphic novel project. I’ve found you can tell a lot about what it is you want by what it is that you avoid most. And even by what makes you jealous.
I’ve been feeling jealous by some graphic novels and always finding something else to take on instead. That’s lame. I love working with ink and I want to take some time to tell these stories.
I was reading a bit about Pompcicle, the life drawing sessions that you’ve set up. What is it exactly?
Pompsicle is a series of clothed/costumed figure drawing sessions I started in 2007. After graduating from AAU and moving to Sacramento, I missed being able to draw cool characters from life. So I set up my own operation. That way I can control the themes, who models, the music, etc and everybody else has to pay to get in. Pretty selfish of me, really. Now Sacramento’s branch is in the capable hands of Ryan Cicak. We are looking for ways to expand the idea here in San Francisco. So far it’s been invitation-only drawing parties in our apartment/studio. An article was just released on Pompsicle here –
I just got back from New England, and being in a different region you begin to pick up on the images that reflect that particular area and culture. In Boston there’s that famous font that everyone recognizes that’s used for the Boston Red Sox, and they have the fishing and Irish culture that fuses into the area’s graphic vocabulary.
Your work feels distinctly Californian to me. It wouldn’t seem right if I didn’t ask about the old west and the bear images that you work in. What about the old west and it’s mythology draws you to it?
I’ve lived in Northern California all my life. So I’ve always been surrounded by the history of the Old West. And there’s definitely a country aesthetic that comes with small towns like Sebastopol, Sonora and Placerville where I spent a lot of time in my formative years. When I was really young I lived on a Ponderosa-esque ranch my grandpa Jim owned.
And my grandpa Walter dang-near got in a fist fight with Bob Wills after he gave the eye to my Grandmother. So yeah, I got Western street cred.
I ignored my Western roots most of my young life until I was about a year from graduating from art school. In the early 2000s trends in design were still about slick CG graphics. Film makers were just making different versions of The Matrix. It seemed like every artist was painting robots…Anyway, I was burnt on all my classes.
Then on my first day in a clothed figure drawing we drew from a male model in a cowboy outfit; lasso, spurs and the whole get-up. To go along with the theme, he had brought in a cd of the Sons of the Pioneers. Man, I was hooked on the whole thing. Then I saw O’ Brother, Where Art Thou and Gangs of New York. I know they aren’t about the Old West exactly, but these films have a warm, tangible grit to them that felt familiar to me. And soon I was just painting Old-West inspired stuff. As for the images of bears with guns, That’s just me having fun, continuing in the tradition of over-the-top action portrayed by Western artists like Frederic Remington. The “right to arm bears” joke never had anything to do with it.
Anyway, I’m feeling like the bears are pretty played out for now. Plus now with the pervasiveness of steam punk and the natural, “put a bird on it” design trends, doing old-timey art doesn’t necessarily carry the joy of going against the grain it once did. Hmm. I’m still sorting that out.
I’ve been looking at the work of Edward Gorey and Winsor McCay a lot lately. I’m really inspired by turn-of-the-century show posters and ads too. So the work I’m doing for upcoming gallery shows is looking more and more like comics or posters. I’m incorporating text multiple panels and vignettes to tell little stories.
A big thank you to Ben Walker for playing along with me on this interview. I’m always amazed at the focus and dedication that freelance artists have to maintaining a career out of something so strange, fun, and intangible as art.
I didn’t ask too many questions about the convention process because Ben already did an awesome post on his blog about how to construct a booth for a convention. An eye opener of a ‘how-to’ for all and damn entertaining.
Here’s that link again for the Sacramento Press write up of Pompsicle that you can read here.
Did I forget anything? Yes, I believe I did!
Want a shirt? A print? An original piece of Ben Walker art? Head over to Ben Walker’s store at benwalkerart.com and while you’re at it why not spend a few minutes at his blog and check out more of his work over here.
If you’re looking for some freelance illustration, concept art, or character design work Ben can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org