Good Grief

We’ve all heard the line before—never submit a sketch unless you are okay with the client picking that as the one to take to finish. I‘ve found this to be painfully true a few times, but here is a quick anecdote that proves the theory out on a positive note.

A little while ago I was assigned a spot illustration by Cathy Gontarek, the superb art director of the Penn Gazette. The article was called Talking to the Bereaved 101, which provided a laundry list of do’s and don’ts on how to approach a delicate topic without offending or belittling the grief of a loved one. The writer tackled the subject with wit and honesty, and I set out to make a bit of an understated piece that spoke to the sensitivity of the writer.

Cathy is an art directors who I’m always excited to work with. She always gives me interesting assignments, trusts my process, and offers useful suggestions. I wasn’t sure exactly why she thought I was a great fit for this piece, but I set to sketching some solutions knowing there would be good work at he other end of the pencil.

I gave Cathy three quick sketches, each capturing the mood of the writer confronting or dealing with these uncomfortable situations.


Of course in a sketchbook there are all kinds of drawings happening at any moment. Warmups, side roads, notes and other bits find their way onto the page. In this case I had written down some of the things people were saying: “Everything happens for a reason,” “Try not to cry”, etc.

At the same time, I was drawing little birds for the main thumbnails, and did a couple birds actually saying the words as a little joke to myself. I sent the little doodle along with the sketches, thinking Cathy would enjoy the bit of humor while choosing one of the other conceptual approaches.


You can see where this is going, right? Cathy’s response:

Kevin! I almost missed the doodle! I love it! I want the doodle!!!
Thanks, Cathy

So, there you have it. Sometimes its helpful to include the extra little bit that helps frame your mood or idea of the piece, even if it’s not quite polished. Let your AD know where your head is at, and allow the collaboration to help shape the finish. Below is the finished piece. Thanks for reading!


Throwback: Polyvinyl CD Samplers

While fumbling around Spotify for some wakeup music this morning, I stumbled upon all three of the sampler covers I did for Polyvinyl Records. These were great little projects to work on with one of my favorite record labels. Here is how they happened.

In the 90's the Trocadero was the best venue in Philadelphia to see a rock show. At least it was my favorite. I saw my first concert there, Pearl Jam, for 12 bucks, plus scores of other bands from the era like Alice In Chains, L7, Smashing Pumpkins, Shudder To Think, Quicksand, Rage Against the Machine, on and on.

When I started making posters, the Troc was one of my main inspirations, and I managed to build a  great relationship with the show booker there. He helped me land great posters for bands like Stereolab, Low, Calexico, Built To Spill, and Sleater Kinney.

In 2006, a loose consortium of indie record labels hosted a conference at the Troc, and I got to make a duo of posters for the event (called Indies Only) that were handed out to attendees. Check em out.

Matt Lunsford, founder and co-owner of Polyvinyl Records, was one of the attendees, with a couple of his bands playing the bill. He dug the posters I'd made and dropped me a line (Tip: put your URL or a legible signature on your work!). Polyvinyl at the time was doing annual label samplers, and he happened to be looking for art at the exact time that he found my work.

Matt has good taste, not just in bands but also for design, and I'm not just tooting my own horn. Their releases always feature thoughtful, well executed design work, and the label's promo and design pieces have called on some great artists and designers (Jesse LeDoux, Andy Mueller, Chris Strong come to mind). So to be hired for these pieces was a delight.

The first sampler had not much art direction other than a call to make it interesting to look at. I mixed drawings and ink washes with some found textures and patterns, landing on this odd portrait. A bit of free writing yielded the title, which they let me keep on there as well. 2006 was Polyvinyl's 10th year as a label, and to mark the occasion they held an anniversary concert, which we converted the sampler artwork to use as the concert poster.


We kicked off 2007 with a tote bag design, featuring some fun ink-blot drawings. I preferred the full-drawing approach, but they wanted an all-over pattern on a black bag so zoomed and cropped.

We took a similar route for the 2007 sampler, but Matt ended up giving me a title to work with. Some melodramatic killed titles included Navigator and Daring Escapes.

Polyvinyl came knocking again in 2009, this time for a digital download sampler and insert that would be packed with other releases. I got to design a landing page for the download card, carrying the aesthetic all the way through the campaign.

Sampler Cover

Sampler Back

Digital Download Landing Page

These jobs were a pleasure to work on because I got to create my own imagery, put it into a design context, and see the whole thing through with a client who trusted my vision. It's been ten years since these projects, and it will be interesting to see where my creative path leads in the next decade!

Thanks for reading! - Kevin

Early Work

Everyone starts someplace, right? I was cleaning up a dusty corner of my hard drive and came across a bunch of old poster designs. These are from 2002-04 when I really had no idea what I was doing. With no design training to speak of, I began making posters using a mix of found images, drawings, scanned type from old books, and not much else.

Each one of these has clever and interesting qualities that are slightly diminished by unexperienced design choices. I've paired a few of them below based on common visual threads. The first two below call on a kind of formalist aesthetic, highlighting color and texture as an analog to the music. In both cases a minor change to the type would have improved the whole. They both use all caps, italicized type in part of the design and it just looks unnecessary, as does the underline in the otherwise beautiful Secession Movement poster.

The one below uses hand set type scanned from an old Linotype specimen book from the 30's.

These two for The Secession Movement mix more formal type with loose illustration, and play with shape vs line. 

I rail against crappy free fonts in my classes, but here are two posters guilty of employing a few gems from the early oughts. Chinese Rocks was ubiquitous as an angular, fun free typeface, helped also by being named after a Ramones song.

I also began to distress type on my own. The next four below all use type that I set on the computer, then printed out and manipulated, then rescanned and put back into the design. The Delgados also mixes in some hand set type. This group begins to show more mature design execution. The Modey Lemon and Melt Banana posters are among my favorites. The Delgados poster was designed at the time when the US was going back into Iraq, which is why the poster's world is upside down and a white flag is signaling some kind of surrender to art and music as a healing force.

Gigposters are often devoid of concept. They are the biggest softball of a design problem, but there is also great opportunity to hit on interesting visual metaphors and take the work to a higher level. These two are taking a stab at it, with varying degrees of success. The f-hole bomb made sense at the time, but the thin outline and tiny black dot at the point of the bomb screw it up. The poorly drawn, poorly placed crown in the City of Caterpillar piece ruins the rather nice flames in the back. I missed both of these shows.

In early 2004 I decided to start drawing more in the work. i also had a thing about metal posters, that they could use no black and no skulls and still convey a sinister look. So this Mastodon poster is my first statement in all three of those aims. I also was learning about design history, so pulling in this art nouveau, Beardsley meets comics look seemed appropriate. Those hands are terrible!

It's fun to look back on your work and reflect on how your practice changes over time. I'm still driven by many of the same interests and ideas, and I'm still learning about design and communication with the same curiosity and energy.

New Habits

Earlier this year I made a series of screen prints for a show with Shawn Hileman over at Trinity Framing. We worked together on three large collage panels, and produced prints for bags, pillows, and paper. Take a look.


Show at C&P Brewing

I had a show of recent work at Crime & Punishment Brewing this past month as a part of  Brewerytown Social. Here are a couple pics of the install.

I also debuted a new screen print, Fourteen Flowers. You can get it here.

The opening was great, full of excellent strangers, students, friends and fellow artists. Thanks to all who came out and supported!

Society of Illustrators 58

The Society of Illustrators 58th annual exhibition is up in New York, and I was lucky to land one of my experimental collages in the damn thing. 

There I was, in a room full of illustrators and art directors, and I spent all my time schmoozing my wife, savoring a second plate of meatballs. Actually, it was exactly what I wanted to be doing, sharing a bit of success with my favorite person and biggest supporter. I'll bring an empty dance card next year and look forward to rubbing as many elbows as possible.

The experience was inspiring and humbling, not only because of the amazing art and artists represented, but also for the building. It was not lost on me that my piece was hanging directly across the room from NC Wyeth's "Black Arrow". Yeesh!


Here are all of the #inktober pieces I did this year. I had a ton of fun making these and I learned new things about my work and my process. If you are an artist you should consider doing a project like this where you make a pile of quick pieces in a short period of time. It's a great exercise. 

As a nice reward I landed this next one in The Society of Illustrators Annual 58. Sweet!

That's all! Oh wait, here is one late entry, and a pic of another one that got taken apart and reused for some other stuff.

Thanks for looking!

Greatest Year in Music

Check out this fun series I just wrapped up for WXPN, in which I collaborated with recent UArts grad Kuba Jennes to create baseball-card styled postcards for a radio promotion. Kuba did most of the watercolor drawings, and I did all the graphic stuff.

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration/Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration/Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration/Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration/Design: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Lettering: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Lettering: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes

Illustration: Kuba Jennes

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Lettering: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Lettering: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Lettering: Kevin Mercer

Illustration: Kuba Jennes; Lettering: Kevin Mercer

Xponential Music Festival

Since 2009 I have been working with Philly radio station WXPN on a great many projects, the centerpiece of which is their annual Xponential Music Festival. What began with an intrepid edition of posters led to entire campaigns of branding, collateral, advertising, product design and illustration. Here are a few highlights and details from last year's project, to give you an idea how it comes together. 

The project typically kicks off in January with some logo options. This year we weren't reinventing the wheel; the previous year's logo was pretty sharp and well-received. This will be an evolution of sorts, not a teardown-rebuild. My first round of proofs contains a quick look at the previous year's logo, some very rough ideas and a swipe of inspiration images and colors. This is just a conversation starter.

As I mentioned, we decided at this point to do a refresh more than a complete redesign, so I put together another round of proofs that hit on that, with a couple side roads in for good measure. 

The client ended up liking 3B and 4B, and asked for another round of proofs to test out colors. We ended up landing on the final design below, which I then prepared for use in a number of formats and situations (CMYK, RGB, grayscale, Facebook profile, optimized for small and large placement).


While the logo is still in process I am working on graphic treatments that will run throughout the campaign. This includes and textures, patterns, icons, imagery, and overall concepts that can tie the whole project together.

An early request for a co-sponsored web ad yielded a direction that I would later refine into a simple treatment. Though the imagery is pretty raw, I've landed on some textures, colors, and stacked stripes that work well.

This is about the same time when the t-shirt needs to get moving for an upcoming fund drive and the announcement of the headlining acts. The shirt design does not need to closely relate to the festival brand, which offers a nice opportunity to make something fun and engaging to wear. After two rejected options we hit pay dirt with this wacky bus illustration, something that the old hippies and young hipsters can agree on. Below is the initial illustration, and the design converted to two colors for screen printing.

Because it develops in dribs and drabs over several months, a project like this requires some big picture thinking to maintain a cohesive look. The good news is that it's clear in my head, the client understands what I am shooting at, and they trust me to communicate their message. I'll follow up on the rest of the project in the next post. 

The Last Road Trip

We woke up in Tucumcari, New Mexico. This shitty roadside dive was run by a shirtless weirdo who woke us up to the sound of AM news radio chatter in the stone parking lot where he was doing his morning bench presses. I was laying on top of the covers. I flipped on my camcorder and recorded a bit of the moment, then turned on the TV to see what the racket was all about. Soon after, we were making a straight line east towards home. Our trip was over.

In August of 2001 I set out on a three week road trip across the United States with a friend of mine. Our plan was to camp in as many national parks as possible, see the sights, and look for the unexpected. I had graduated from college the year before but had not yet clicked in to exactly what I was going to do next. I also was in the midst of personal and family turmoil that I was most happy to escape for a little while. This set the stage for what became an important turning point in my life. Little did I know that it would become something much larger than that.

I brought a camcorder along for the ride, one of those brick-shaped cassette recorders that was just a pain to carry anywhere comfortably. I dutifully filmed small clips throughout the trip, just to capture small moments along the way. One of my favorite moments was when we pulled into Rocky Mountain National Park and parked for a bit overlooking this amazing valley. We patiently avoided herds of elk in the road on the way up, and I remember sitting on a rock looking quietly down, feeling the weight of everything I left behind me lift away and this new road open up before me.

The trip moved along much in this way. We hiked out over mountainsides; dove into frigid streams from rock cliffs; camped on beaches; drove across the desert at midnight; We experienced the wide landscape of our country, from Yosemite to Grand Canyon, San Francisco to Santa Cruz. Joshua Tree. The Great Plains and the Southwest. We filled ourselves with cheap food and beautiful weather, met strangers and memorable characters at every stop. It couldn't have been any better. Until 9/11.

That day, heading across North Texas on what would be a 30-hour drive to the east coast, I shot more film footage. Most of it was incidental, except this one long clip that has stayed with me for 13 years. It shows the Texas landscape, shot from the window of a Volkswagen moving at over 70 mph. The farm buildings, grass and road move by so quickly that it is hard to focus on anything for a moment. The wind whips by, but the music in the car blends in as well to create a haunting scene. 

I edited the footage into this film. It means a lot to me, not just because it shows the evidence of my trip, but it captures, for me, the feeling of the before and after of 9/11, some of the character of the day, and a little perspective of how the landscape of our country was forever changed.

Note: The music in the film is incidental and is used without permission in the interest of keeping the original context intact. The song in the end section is Twenty by Labradford, off of Fixed::Content. 

Trip Data

Trip Duration: 22 days
August 23–September 13, 2001
Miles Travelled: 6700+
State lines crossed: 22

1991 VW Golf Average MPG: 35.3
Approx. Gas Consumption: 190 Gallons
Gas Prices 2001 avg: $1.49
Est. total trip gas cost: $283-$300

Navigation: Rand McNally Road Atlas
Number of times lost: 1
Cellphones: 0

Rest areas slept in: 3 (Ohio, Reno, Lake Tahoe)
Motel/Hostels slept in: 2 (both closed now)
(Sanborn Park Hostel, Saratoga CA / Redwood Lodge, Tucumcari NM)

Trip path, totaling over 6,600 miles.  Interactive map here, via Google Maps

Trip path, totaling over 6,600 miles. Interactive map here, via Google Maps

Ryan Duggan

I was just checking out the print work of Chicago artist Ryan Duggan (Dooo-gan). He is currently making a poster every week of this year, and I can tell you people, it's not easy to do, even in editions of 15. Ryan's work is smart, irreverent and honest, and I recommend that you take a peek for and buy a darn print yourself.

But first, check out this sweet video about the dude.

Here are a few posters from the year-long POTW series. Snatch em up!