While he’s become a sought-after household name for record labels and agencies, Ewing has stayed true to the independent spirit of his art, and his style has developed over time. “At first I was just happy to get a chance to draw and work with my favorite bands,” he says of his early punk-rock posters. But with his growth from poster artist to full-blown fine artist, he’s followed in the footsteps of his heroes and mentors–Frank Kozik, Coop, Tara McPherson and many others–building an instantly recognizable stylistic empire.
Informed by everything from art nouveau to ukiyo-e woodblock printing, from the full-throttle art of SoCal’s “kustom” car culture to the dynamism and self-assured lines of comics, Ewing’s work fuses his own creative explorations of perspective, color and space with classic, beloved imagery from rebellious American youth culture: hot punk girls, totally rad skulls, and fields of color aflame. In this way, his work embraces a particular playful naïveté, which he then continues to champion even as his style refines itself and as his technique develops. Ewing reminds us we never have to give up the imagery that fired our imaginations as teenagers; his own success is a signifier for how dearly we hold our own trappings of rebellion, and how they can become a vehicle through which one can mature. With a roster of clients ranging from Metallica and the Warped Tour, to The Strokes and Death Cab For Cutie, and even The New Yorker and a number of advertising agencies, Ewing’s resume is a testament to what we love most about music, art, the allure of drama, lust, danger and darkness.
We caught up with Brian for a quick chat about his career so far and his piece Queen Bee for S&H.
Q: Hi Brian, how are you doing today?
A: Umm a little bit caffeinated right now. How are you guys? I’ve been jumping from one job to the next for the past couple of months. Today is the first day where I don’t hafta hold a pencil or push a mouse around. I also moved last month and haven’t found time to unpack so I’m living out of boxes. And next I hafta prep for The San Digo Comic Con. I’ll be at booth 4503 nudgenudgewinkwink…
Q: It sounds like you’ve had a crazy few months! So firstly we’d just like to thank you for creating such an amazing piece for us, we’re huge fans of your work here at S&H so we’re very excited to be working with you on this new print!
A: Wow thanks. After I saw the first series you published with Dan Mumford and William Exley, I was kinda like “awww man I wanna do that too..!” I was stoked when you guys wanted to work with me. Then I freaked out wondering how I’d keep that level of quality those two artists started with in the first series. I’m weird…I also don’t like cheese except when eating pizza.
Q: So how did you get into illustration at first? What led you down this path and led to the point you are at now?
A: I always wanted to be an illustrator. I grew up In Milwaukee, WI and attened a high school of the arts. Which was like a low-rent version of Fame. At the same time I was working at a comic book store. (So I was getting my education in fine art and pop art at the same time.) One day the local newspaper came to our school and interviewed a few of us about what kind of career we wanted to have when we were older. At 14, I told them I wanted to be an illustrator, even though I really didn’t know what I was getting myself in to. It didn’t help that I grew up on a steady diet of comic books, skateboarding, punk rock and heavy metal. That was the world I lived in and I never wanted to leave.
As I got older I didn’t want to be an illustrator. (Go figure.) I went to school for about a year, dropped out because the cost was overwhelming me. Tried going to another school and dropped out again for pretty much the same reasons. As I got older I wanted to be a graphic designer. (Who doesn’t? Anyone can do it, right?) Around that time I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and got hired at Hustler magazine to work on that fine piece of literature as well as other publications. I was hired to be groomed for an art director position. Then Larry Flynt’s nephew-in-law wanted a job and I got fired before I even started. The woman who hired me saw that I had the drive and and raw talent so she found me another position until something else opened up. So I started laying out the 1-900 ads in the magazines, then moved on to scheduling the magazines. During my lunch breaks and at night I’d freelance for the various titles doing illustrations and photoshop work. After the lady who hired me quit, my opportunities to be an art director left with her. I was doing rock posters on the side for a local venue called the Troubadour and started to make a few bucks with that. I began hating my job in porn so one day I quit and thought I’d give rock posters a shot. I haven’t had a day job since. To misquote Jay Adams from Lords Of Dogtown – “It’s like being on Summer vacation for the rest of my life.”
Q: Talk us through a usual creation? tell us about the general steps you take.
A: Coffee, some self-loathing and more coffee. Then I go through the brief for the project to start sketching and make notes. Maybe look to other artists for inspiration or talk the project over with a friend to get their opinion. It’s a kind of a “whatever is available” attitude. I’ll send the sketches off for feedback from the client. I don’t do really detailed sketches because I expect changes to be made. Nobody cares about a fully-rendered sketch (but they do love false bravado and I got that in spades.) Once the sketch is approved I shoot reference for lighting. I just open up the reference on my laptop crack my sketchbook open and start drawing, usually with a col-erase blue pencil. Then I’ll send the refined sketch to the client and show them where things are gonna go. If the client requests a color rough I’ll provide one otherwise I usually don’t settle on my colors until I’m actually coloring the piece. Once that’s approved I’ll print out the sketch to scale and transfer it to some strathmore bristol board (it’s actually a thick paper) with a lightbox. I’ll then tighten up the pencils by adding details and spotting my blacks. And since I’m weird I’ll scan the final pencils before I start inking. Sometimes accidents happen and a bottle of ink will spill everywhere. It’s happened…a few times. The rest is pretty much explained a few questions down.
Q: you’re known for creating pretty iconic posters for bands and have got a very distinct style when doing so, do you find this pigeon holes you in any way? and have you ever had an urge to move in a completely different direction because of it?
A: Yes and no. In the beginning of your career you WANT to be pigeonholed for something. It brings in more work and more exposure…faster. The work you do then gets you more work. And all the while you improve as an artist. At least that’s how I played it.
When people hire me it’s usually music-related because I got known for doing rock posters. For instance, when the New Yorker gives me an assignment 99% of the time it’s an article about music. I know I can do more and my interests go far beyond music, but that’s all people pick up on. I used to think “if only they gave me a chance to draw other stuff I could show them what I’m capable of as a dancer!” I mean “…as an illustrator!” I realized that to get what I want I need to club people over the head and do my own projects to show them my range. If I’m bored or unhappy (i.e., pigeonholed) then it’s up to me to change it.
I’ve been doing more non-music stuff in the past few years. Using different materials and learning more about printing. I’m more picky when I do rock posters now too. I’d like to do more art prints and start elaborating on the world I’ve been creating over the past ten years. I’ve been slowly and curmudgeonly doing a little more painting. I’d like to find more time for that. I dunno.
The hard part is staying focused. Since I left NYC I’ve become more foused and am producing more work than I used to. It’s kinda rad.
Q: What are your Inspirations, what do you often look to when feeling a little drained of ideas?
A: Talking to my friends. Pretty ladies. Getting out of my environment and soaking up what’s out there. I have a book addiction. When I moved last month I had over 50 boxes of books. Then there’s tumblr. I just try to not limit myself to being inspired only by other poster artists. I look at a lot of fashion, movies, music, design, comic books and so on. Same crap that everyone else draws their inspiration from.
Q: Tell us about the piece you did for Skull & Heart, how did Queen Bee come to exist?
A: Hah that piece almost killed my hands when I was inking it! After discussing with you guys about what you were looking for – a bunch of ideas started bouncing around my noggin. I had been wanting to draw a portrait of a woman with Victorian hair. Plain and simple. Then the idea of the antlers came from more talks with you. I also had to figure out how to work with only two colors. So from there I was able to find a rhythm. I had changed my mind a bit from the sketch to the final. I kept wanting to cram in as much detail as possibe but it wasn’t feeling right. Originally there was supposed to be keys and pocket watches dangling from the antlers but that kept looking too busy. I had also intended to have a monkey on her shoulder but ended up with a Moluccan cockatoo. I like it when an idea changes and grows into an even stronger piece and that happened by talking to you guys and getting feedback from friends. I learned to let the idea change to fit the project instead of trying to make the project fit the idea. I added the bees because they’re fun to draw and I keep feeling like I can do a better job drawing them. But they also represent industry and royalty. Bees have a queen and different levels of society. Kinda like the world that the Queen, in the portrait, lives in. The bees live inside her wig and do her bidding. Her wig is like a hive and hives are seen as an indutrialized society. Plus bees were seen as a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Yeah… I’m a dork. Stop laughing…please.
After the sketch was approved, I then found reference for the hair, the bird and the bees. I did a final pencil version that I then inked with a windsor newton series 7 #2 brush. For the less organic shapes in the drawing I used a micron pen with some templates to get the desired effect I wanted. So all the drawing is done by hand. I then scan the art and drop it into illustrator. I don’t convert it to vectors. I just have a bmp file sitting there and then I put color underneath. The reason I don’t convert the art is because it always looks like crap. I rely on the uniquness of every brush stroke and the texture of the paper to make what I do look like I did it. (Plus it makes it more difficult to ape my style…muwahahahacoughcoughhahaha.) From there I color it by using the pen tool and import textures I’ve made with spray paint and scanning old sheets of zip-a-tone. The idea to make part of the line art blue came late in the game. I wanted the piece to not be so busy. So I did a color hold on the line art and saved myself some time. I’d seen it done all the time in comic books but never tried it. I’m happy with the result.
Once the artwork is colored I then export each color to photoshop and in channels I do my color seps for screen printing. Then the file gets sent to the printer. Exciting huh?
While I was working on this print I documented the process and will be writing a tutorial soon…like in a month or so that will be on the S&H website. Once I find time to breathe and get a haircut.
Q: Can you tell us about any future projects you have coming up?
A: Yes…and noooo. And more Yes. I just finished a snowboard design that’ll come out next year. That was awesome because I’ve never worked so big. The final was over 5 feet tall. I just designed a small press book showcasing the sketches and final art from projects I did to follow up my first art book “Don’t Hold Your Breath”, that came out in 2010. Basically it’s work that I did after that book was published. Umm I just did 4 new pieces that will be released as art prints throughout the year. Oh and my buddy Justin Jewett and I designed the world’s most gnarliest Kaiju toy (it’s got six tittays!) that’ll be debuting at my booth (#4503 morenudgenudgeandmorewinkwink) for Comic Con this year. You can find more info at meta-crypt.com . I also have a 13-color art print coming out as soon as my printer finishes it. I’m excited because I made a video to go along with it and have been dorking out with final cut pro.
So yeah..no rest for the retarded.
Then there’s some other stuff coming out that I can’t mention yet due to superstition of jinxing everything.
Q: Skulls or Hearts?
A: I heart skulls.
All available artwork from Brian Ewing is available to purchase in our online store. Please click the images below to be directed to the item you are interested in.