process

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).

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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. 

Process: Swell Season at Radio City Music Hall

This is an oldie, but folks keep asking me to repost this process so I'm sharing it again. Back in 2010 I was commissioned by The Swell Season to make a poster for a show at Radio City Music Hall. Such an iconic venue required a touch of class. I wanted a light, sensuous, tactile feel, so I went with a highly ornamental design that I drew in Illustrator. I then proceeded to beat the daylights out of the design to dull the precision of the vector lines. Adding some brushy ink drawing to the background helped soften the affair even more, and the final printing resulted in a luxurious, lived-in finish that nailed exactly what I was going for.

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Scroll through the image gallery to see some of my image distressing tricks. I should have skipped the inked version and the redundant photocopies, veering straight to the xerox transfers, but I was looking for several options to pick from so I tried a few things.

The posters sold out halfway through the show, so it was a successful poster. this is definitely one of those posters that must be seen to really appreciate. I just wish I were able to make it up to NYC to see the show!

Two California Poster Artists

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A number of years ago a friend gave me some dog-eared old issues of American Artist magazine. It was a stack of a dozen or so mildewy artifacts dating back to 1968-69, largely unremarkable except for one issue that caught my eye; May 1969. 

The cover story, "Two California Poster Artists", profiled David Osborn and Charles Woods, a pair of young designers who worked in silkscreen and offset lithography. There was a good selection of their prints featured along with a lengthy interview. The broad shapes, bright colors and loose imagery were bold and lyrical, reminding me of both Matisse's cutouts and Sister Corita's colorful screen prints. At the time that I first saw this, I was just beginning to make screen prints. I loved the bold shapes and overlayed colors, but most of all I marveled at how fresh and lively they looked, even in the yellowed pages of the old magazine. I tucked it away and went about the business of making screen prints for the next ten years. 

A few years ago, in a stroke of awesome luck, I discovered a number of Osborn/Woods prints for sale on Etsy. It turns out that Charles Woods had passed on and the estate was selling a number of posters and prints from their collection. I immediately snatched up several for myself, and they are beautiful to behold in person. They show their age a little, but for the price they were a steal. Their production process was an interesting cross between screen-printing and lithography, and you can tell that these were carefully and lovingly made. 

I went back and read the 1969 article and interview in which they detailed some of their inspirations and working methods. For me it's a reaffirming read in that the relationship between the images and the printing method, between artist and printer, was a crucial and inextricable element. In design and illustration today you can see the remnants of this relationship everywhere. Off-registration, ink spread, color overlays and tactile elements that used to be the artifacts of the printing process are now baked into images that may never be printed on paper. It's a clever look in that when executed well it has a comfortable and authentic appearance. At the same time, limited edition printing methods like lithography, screen printing, and letterpress are often aped on computer screens and then overlooked in production for the robotic ease of giclee printing. So, while I first found the Osborn/Woods posters inspiring for their novelty, style and imagery, I see now that they are more than just beautiful images, they are Beautiful Objects.

Click here for the full American Artist interview. Osborn and Woods' original prints are available at etsy. 

Melinda Beck: Quicksand poster

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Quicksand is one of my favorite bands from the 90′s, as anyone who was familiar with them at the time would probably say. They came out of the NY hardcore scene and were one of those word-of-mouth bands that got passed around on mix tapes and got played on the local record store stereo where no accompanying CD was actually available to purchase. I saw them live a few times, always opening for a bigger act that was neither as cool nor present in my current record collection. (Unrelated: I coveted my radio-dubbed version of Slint’s Spiderland on cassette for three years without even knowing who the band was. I miss the mystery of finding new music.)

Fast forward to now, where we find Walter Schreifels and company hitting stages again for a romp down memory lane. Their music has aged incredibly well, and I can’t wait to see it live again. And to top it off, they have called upon illustrator Melinda Beck to create a tour poster (pictured above) to mark the occasion.

Melinda is a seasoned illustrator, also from New York, who did the cover for Quicksand’s last record Manic Compression in 1995. I’ve always thought it one of the coolest album covers from that time, and now that I work in this field I have an even deeper appreciation for the piece, and for Melinda’s work as a whole. She’s done a bit of everything, including traditional illustration, animation, lettering and more, which you can and must see at her portfolio site.

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I rang Melinda to see how she was making out with the tour poster, and she was happy to chat about her working process.

Kevin: So how did you first start working with Quicksand?

Melinda: My husband (illustrator Jordin Isip) and I met at RISD, and he is from Queens. He knew them from the hardcore scene in New York. I actually first did something for this hardcore compilation that this guy Sam put out around 1990, and Walter saw it. I did stuff for (Walter’s pre-Quicksand band) Moondog, and I’ve been doing stuff for Walter ever since.

I always loved your album art for Manic Compression. It’s nice to see them resurface with you along for the ride again. Did they give you any direction for this new tour poster?

No, Walter is always like “Do something cool,” which is fine with me!

Did you have an idea up front or did you work through the idea in sketches?

I always work my ideas through, I spend hours sketching. I’ve got my sketchbook out, I’m searching the web for anything to influence me, looking through art books. I kind of had a set idea with this one, but I tried the head on a bug, on different things, tried variations of things.

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Even if i think it’s a good idea, it could be so much better with just a slight change or two. So it’s worth sitting down spending hours sketching. I teach, and I always have students going “Here’s my (one) sketch…,” and I say “don’t do that!”

I like how the poster relates to the previous record cover, with the scratchboard style and odd figure.

I haven’t done scratchboard in a long time, I gave it up about 10-15 years ago to move into other media. The company in England that made the scratchboards stopped making them for a long time so that’s part of the reason I quit too.

Wow, that must have been interesting to go back to after such a long time.

Yeah, all of my tools were completely dull, so I’m really glad that I went and ordered new ones! I gave it up because I was so particular about this one brand of scratchboard – I was so nitpicky about it, like I would never use any other brand. And the company was bought out and started making this really cheap version. I was like “That’s it I’m done with that.” Fortunately they make the thick clayboard again but I won’t do it unless I can get the kind of line quality that I want.

Does it take longer to execute in this style than some of the others that you do?

Yeah. Actually my silhouette style is even more time-consuming but this is a close second.

Well, I guess if you want to make good work you have to spend the time, right?

Heh, yeah it does seem to work that way.

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The lettering has a great handmade feel and really works well with the image.

I actually went to school for graphic design, so I’m really into type. But I also love to draw, which is how I ended up in illustration after doing graphic design for a while. I like when the image and the type feed off each other, working together as a unit.

I think the handmade aesthetic adds something to the whole.

Yeah, with something like Quicksand I can be a little more abstract with the type. It doesn’t have to be super legible like something for, say, a corporation. So I’m free to do whatever I want with it, even make it more image than type.

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The other thing I was noticing was in your sketches you roughed out the fork and the spoon, and though stuff like that can be easily made digitally now you cut it out of paper anyway.

You don’t get the same look. There’s a certain way the curve has little points in it and it’s got this roughness. If I did it in Illustrator it would never look like that. I like the convenience of using a computer but don’t want it to look like a mish-mosh of computer and handmade. I cut it out in paper so I can get a certain immediacy to the look, it’s worth the extra effort.

Right. The extra ten minutes may really make the piece.

Yeah, It’s very much about the details. I may do something five different ways and pick the one that looks the best. I obsess over every detail. Especially on an image this simple and bold, every detail counts. Even the little strings that attach the type.

You have a few different styles that you work in. How did that develop over time?

Yeah, what happens is I take a style and I change a little and change a little, and before I know it, it’s become a completely different style. So what you may see on my site are the highlights and not the stuff in the middle that changed in between. They tend to look like totally different styles but each of them grew out of each other. I’ve been doing this since 1990 so I’ve had 23 years to abuse myself, and if I did the same thing for that long I’d probably be really bored!

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Heh, I’d imagine so. So then do art directors hire you based on a specific look?

Well, when you’re communicating an idea you have composition, you have subject matter, color, and each style is another one of those tools I can use. So when I can pick the style I use one that’s related to what the idea is. Like Quicksand, it’s kind of rough, very aggressive; that’s why I did this style for this piece.

Some art directors have things in mind before they call me and usually they do the same thing, picking a style that matches the article. It allows me to do more of a range of illustrations and I don’t feel like I’m ever torturing a style into something it doesn’t fit in, like I’m not trying to make the aggressive thing look happy and relaxed. I’d just use a different style for that.

It looks like you really have fun doing this, it shows in the work.

Yeah, when I’m not having fun doing a project I feel like it totally shows. Of course there are some times when I work really hard on a project and get frustrated, but if it’s a project and I’m not having fun, I guarantee it will not be as good an outcome.

It seems like such an obvious thing, that we should enjoy the work, but it’s always there.

I know, and sometimes when there is a tight deadline or a really big client I have to kind of put that out of my mind and just focus on making it look good and not freak out. Because when you freak out and panic it’ll turn out stiff.

Well, your work is great, always interesting and quite inspiring. I’m looking forward to getting a Quicksand print at the show. Thanks for taking the time to chat, I really appreciate it!

Thanks!

Links: Melinda Beck  |  Quicksand – This poster available at the merch table if you were lucky enough to score tickets for this tour. Another Quicksand/Melinda Beck poster from 2012 is available here.

Process: National Retrospecticus poster

The National Poster Retrospecticus is a traveling collection of hand-printed posters from over 50 local, regional, and national artists. With a selection of 300 posters curated by JP Boneyard, the show makes a series of one-night stops to melt eyeballs and lighten wallets across the land. I was conscripted to produce a design for one of the stops on the tour. Here is how I made it.

In with the bad

My sketchbooks are filled with terrible, unfathomably bad ideas—and rightfully so. Getting poor ideas on the page and out of my head helps narrow my focus. For this poster I wanted to hand draw as much of the art as possible. I thought I might play up the “bad ideas” angle by putting a damn bird on the poster. I have lots of bird drawings laying around, so I drew a few more and put them aside. Alternatively, I toyed with the idea of a gridded poster with fancy type in each rectangle. I’d not really done it before, but I always like the look. So I set out to draw a bunch of fancy letters, finding out soon enough that the roughness of my drawing style wasn’t going to really work with the tidy design in my head.

I did a little more sketching on the type and found some classic display faces that I liked. Rather than scan them from a Dover book I drew and cut them out of paper , which would help marry them to the messier looking images that I knew were yet to come.

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I made this odd drawing of a squinting face using a brush pen.

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Photoshop work began in earnest. The scanned text had some nice texture hiding in it, so I pushed that a little. The bird wasn’t working; no problem.

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I didn’t care for the line drawing of the head. It was too busy, not enough variation in line weight, and no focal points to pull it together. But there was good stuff in there, so I began cutting up the drawing and piecing it back together. I also added extra texture by making a grid of lines, printing it out very small, and scanning the now-roughened lines back in.

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A bit more tweaking and resizing happened, color comps, slapped on the logo, and this is what the final looks like.

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Process: Justin Santora

Justin Santora recently posted a fantastic process thread at gigposters.com showing the evolution of his new art art print Bad News for Naked Emperors. It’s an 8-color screen print created without the use of a computer.

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I asked Justin to talk a bit more about the story and technique behind the print. Here is what he had to say.

Does the image have a particular story?

“I’ve been interested in architectural structures for a while now. I’m also drawn to how man made structures eventually get broken down by the elements. I’ve had an intermittent fascination with billboards for the past couple of years for this reason. For anyone who’s ever driven across pretty much any rural part of the US or Canada, the landscape contains these decrepit billboards with mismatched or missing panels, rotting wood, and peeling paint.

I like the idea that the billboard’s message is unavoidably being obscured by natural forces. It’s like the ephemeral nature of these advertisements is on display.

“In that respect, I kind of see decomposing billboards as little visual metaphors for many of the pervasive and often disheartening messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis. As consumers, we’re told everything is okay; as voters, we’re told elected officials are working for us; and as citizens, we’re told war is just and that inequality is often simply “the way it is.” Fewer and fewer people believe the story anymore.

“But all of that aside, rural decay just interests me on an aesthetic level. When you’re working in ink, it’s kind of a common tactic to use variations in density of texture to convey value and depth. Drawing old, withered wood and hipping paint is one way to give some character and dimension when working pretty much entirely with little ink lines.”

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Detail of the final print. Loving the nice transition where the grass and sign meet up.

I love that you are printing a color and then deciding what happens next in certain areas, like in the cloud shading. Does the printing process help you to develop your images, or do you already have an idea what it should look like going in?

“I always have at least a basic idea of how an image is going to look. I start the color separation process with a completed drawing, so all of the colors are going to be worked with the key line film(s) in mind. With things like clouds, I just go color by color, usually thinking about what I’ll do next as I’m printing and looking at the prints.

The printing process is very much a part of the illustration process.

“It’s fun to work this way because there’s a lot of room to improvise or correct something by adding a new color on the fly, but it can also be overwhelming. It also keeps the printing part of the process very cognitive because each color is a reaction to the previous color, so I’m constantly thinking about what the next move is going to be.”

A printer’s print.

There is a terrific blend of creative and technical mastery on display in this print. Justin used two separate hand-drawn keyline films, one for the grass and another for the exploding billboard. Here is the finished drawing, which was then printed onto film and separated into the two keylines.

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If you are not using a computer to create your screen films, the image below is probably a familiar one. Here Justin lays out a sketch on his light table and cuts the cloud shape out of rubylith, and is drawing in some details with a marker.

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After printing that layer, he drops a piece of acetate onto the printed art and draws the next layer of detail. The process continues until ready to meet the first keyline.

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The background film of the grass area is created when Rubylith is laid down over the grass keyline, followed by some fussy x-acto bladework. The keyline is then used during proofing to make sure everything lines up correctly.

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After the grass is printed, Justin brings in the next keyline and cuts the background colors.

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Looking closely at the final print below, look at how the low contrast coloring in the cloud layers backed against the sharp wood of the sign really creates depth in the piece. The dark color is not a pure black, which keeps it from looking flat. The subtlety in the color palette really makes this piece a winner.

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Check out the full process thread at gig posters.com, which has twice as many photos and plenty of witty banter. Thanks to Justin for taking the time to chat about his work. You can and should buy this print at Justin’s website!