I met the uber-talented rock poster artist Brian Ewing at San Diego Comic-Con too many years ago to remember, and was instantly a fan of his work. I remember seeing the striking album cover artwork he had done for the band Brand New, and I had a print of it framed on my wall the next day.
I’ve made it a mandatory part of my convention to go see him at his booth every year I’ve gone, and he has always been as gracious toward his fans as he is talented, giving plentifully of his time, answering questions, and all around being a great guy.
He recently took the time out of his very busy schedule to be interviewed, and was candid and forthcoming with his answers. We discussed his early days as an artist, getting to work with great bands, the documentary about him and a couple other artists, and why he doesn’t do much comic work.
Actually yeah… art was something I always wanted to do. My older brother and sister used to bring home art projects from high school and I’d try to copy what they were doing. As a kid I just assumed everyone drew, especially if my own family did. I was also raised on a steady diet of punk rock, heavy metal, comic books, and skateboarding. I had a similar upbringing as most artists did – I was usually drawing to keep myself entertained while my Mom was off working to support three kids on her own. Basically I was a social retard and drawing was my way of being social. I still am and it still is. Sigh… Nobody told me to stop drawing so I didn’t and I kept at it.
As I got older I attended the Milwaukee High School Of The Arts in Wisconsin, and studied fine art during the day while I worked at a comic book store at night. So I had the best of both worlds. Fine Art and Illustration. I would also see live shows and my main mode of transportation was a skateboard.
After that I attended the American Academy Of Art in Chicago, for a year then dropped out. The cost of tuition was way too much for a kid who was paying his own way through school. My Mom wasn’t too keen on me wasting my life as a broke-ass artist. I tried to get my ass back into school and attended the the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design but that was a waste of time and money. None of my credits transferred so I had to repeat many of the classes I already took. At that point I felt defeated and decided to say “fuck it” and strike out on my own.
Oh man, I could spend all day on the list. I really loved the Misfits, Fugazi, the Accused, the Damned, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Anthrax, Overkill, Slayer and Motley Crue. Even before working at a comic book store my friends and I would walk to that comic shop a few miles away every Saturday and I’d see what I could buy with the $3 allowance I was raking in at the time. A few years later (and thanks to the lax child labor laws) I wound up working there. My friends and I would also walk down to our local record shop, Rush-Mor Records, and this guy Bill would hand us albums and tell us to buy them and we did. Because Bill worked at a record shop and in our book he was the coolest person we had ever met. We wanted to be like Bill. Mostly because girls talked to him… and we wanted free records of course. He now owns that shop and was kind enough to write something for an art book that was published on me called “Don’t Hold Your Breath”. He also showed me me what a rock poster was. He pulled out a Reverend Horton Heat poster by Coop and a Big Chief poster by Kozik. Who’d have known that his sales pitch to buy some useless pieces of paper would have put me on this road to rock posters?
We also had an awesome indoor skate park called “The Turf”. I’d break my skull open there all the time.
Some of my influences have changed. I loved Liefeld’s work and the whole “Image Style” that took over the comic industry back in the 90’s. Now it’s hard to look at. I really liked the Studio guys from the 70’s: Wrightson, Jones, Kaluta and Windsor-Smith. Still do. They allowed themselves to be influenced by more than just comics and that had a great impact on me. Now I try to let myself to be influenced by as much as possible. When I was a kid my access to the world was TV, magazines/zines, dubbing albums off a friend, and the library. Now it’s unlimited. I’m stoked on that.
Ha! Wow. I haven’t thought of that in a long time. I think I was 11 or 12 and it was through my best friend – Jason Denzer, his mom hired me to draw a beach ball and umbrella on the beach for a Summer fundraiser that she put together for one of the local colleges. I think I got paid $50 and was also invited to attend the event! I felt pretty cool. Like I had finally, after being alive for 12 years, made it as an artist.
After that I would do whatever art for money. Lots of hand-painted band logos for the stoner kids on their jean or army jackets and airbrushing nicknames and hip hop lyrics for the sistas on their jeans. I’d get paid with cans of soda and a few bucks here and there. I thought I was big time.
After that I was doing illustrations for role-playing games and flyers for my friends and their shitty bands. I was working at a Kinko’s in Minneapolis, MN at the time and the local venue – First Avenue, gave me my first shot at doing posters. Some of the first were for Reverend Horton Heat and Ween and Elliott Smith.
You’ve worked with some pretty incredible bands over the years including Metallica, The Deftones, The Strokes, Death Cab For Cutie, and Queens of the Stone Age. Do you seek them out, or at this point do they come to you?
Yes and yes. Once the “Art of Modern Rock” book came out more people wanted to be poster artists. It’s kind of like what tattooing has turned into – but with less money. For a while I had more work than I could handle but then more players entered the game and now it’s a mix of pounding the pavement and opportunity ringing my doorbell. I’m either contacted by the band or promoter or I actively seek them out because I really want to work with them. The advantage I have is that I’ve been doing posters consistently for over 12 years and have built up a small reputation. People in the music industry have my work hanging in their offices or have heard my name somewhere. Taking on freelance illustration jobs in comics and publishing has helped me reach a wider audience than rock posters could alone.
Your work shows a blending of so many different art styles, from Art Nouveau and comic books, through Kustom car culture and low-brow art, to woodblock printing and everything in-between. Rock posters are such a perfect medium for you. Why did you choose this particular avenue, or did it choose you?
Hmmm… At times I think Rock Posters chose me. Or it was a matter of being in sort of the right place at sort of the right time.
I started doing posters in Minneapolis, for a venue called First Avenue. I was working at a Kinko’s in the mid-90’s and they’d bring in all their flyers to be copied. Most of them were basically a band photo and a million different fonts. They were par for the course I guess. Actually they sucked. So I told them that I couldn’t do any worse and to let me try my hand at them. I had already been bitten by the poster bug and would geek out over all the rock posters Juxtapoz magazine used to champion way back when. So yeah… After getting kicked out of my first meeting with First Avenue for telling them they’re advertising sucked – I got another chance when the person that kicked me out (unbeknownst to me was also the person designing all the posters/flyers) got fired and their replacement hired me after that. I got paid in cheap Grain Belt beer and free tickets to shows. I finally topped that first job I got when I was 12. I’d see my art in all the record shops and stores all over Minneapolis. I felt like I had made it. Top of the world, Ma!!!
After a few years of that I got engaged and moved to Los Angeles. The last place on Earth I ever wanted to live. I was working in porn as my day job and doing the rock posters for First Avenue in my off time. I wanted to be an art director and not so much an artist. I took a job at Hustler magazine and was being groomed to do just that. But it wasn’t happening soon enough and I was frustrated that I had to show some of the assistant Art Directors how to use Photoshop or illustrate porno stories on my lunch break. I didn’t have a degree so that kept me from advancing in the glamorous world of skin magazines. Luckily the lady I was engaged to destroyed me and I was stuck in Los Angeles. I hit up the Troubadour in Los Angeles and showed them what I was doing for the venue in Minneapolis and asked that they give me a shot to do posters for them. (I made sure to not tell them their posters sucked.) After a while I knew I wasn’t going any further within Hustler so I quit and pursued rock posters full time. By then I loved living in LA. The Troubadour opened me up to a ton of bands and labels. I t was my office in the evenings and I’d get work by going to the shows and talking to the bands I did the posters for.
As far as posters as a good medium for me – I like having to encapsulate a band and what they’re about in one image. I appreciate the size of the posters and what you can do with screen printing. 99% of the time I don’t have an art director. I am trusted to come up with my own ideas and concepts to get the job done. Luckily screen printing is enjoying a Renaissance right now.
It depends on which day you ask me. I wasn’t too conscious of how my style evolved. I just focused on getting better with every project I worked on. I have art heroes and I wanted to be as good as they are. In the beginning I wore my influences on my sleeve. I love Pushead’s work so I tried to draw skulls as well as he does. I love Adam Hughes’ work and tried to draw as amazing as he does. I love Tim Bradstreet’s work and wanted be as good with a brush as he is. I could go on for days with examples. Over the years I tried to make my own style out of all those influences. “Everything is a remix” as they say. But in the beginning I was naive by trying to ape their styles and learned a tough useful lesson. Art directors would tell me if they wanted to hire whatever artist I was copying at the time they would just call those artists and hire them. I didn’t get a lot of work because of that. After that I didn’t want to be a second or third rate version of some other artist.
The rock posters have been my art school. I’ve learned so much on the spot with each poster. My goal was to always try and improve each time. Big strides or baby steps, it didn’t matter as long as I could improve. I’m still in that mindset and am always thinking about what I haven’t tried yet or what I think I could be better at. These guys just finished a documentary on illustration called “Making It” that focuses on Eric Fortune, Andrew Bawidamann, and myself. One of the things I learned from being a part of the film is how differently I view my career, personal style and how different my outlook is compared to Eric’s or Andrew’s. It’s had me thinking about everything you’re asking in this question.
Lately I’ve been working with a new style and I don’t know where it’s going to take me. It combines photography, collage, illustration and a few poor man’s printing tricks. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. Like dating a new person who’s a bit unpredictable. Either they’ll have their lifestyle subsidized by their parents and stab me in the face because they’re off the meds, and then dump me because I don’t make enough money and I have a scar on my face or will end up being pretty cool and have a job and be awesome.
The style you have been developing over the last year or so is really different than anything else I’ve seen out there in the realm of rock posters or fine art prints. Is this something you’ve been working towards for a long time? Do you feel you’ve perfected it, or is there still work to be done?
Wow thanks! The style started out of frustration and happy accidents. Necessity and moms and inventions and all that jazz. More bands have less money to pay for posters. And more artists have lowered the art fees by doing work for free. Ugh… Some clients put the artist in a situation where it’s “pay to play”. They allow the artist to make an official poster and sell it but the artist has to cover all the printing costs and give the band a cut. Other bands will cover the printing and give the artist a set amount of prints to sell themselves and make their money that way. Because of that and deadlines I had to simplify my style so I could get a poster designed faster and recoup my costs.
Some days I think I know where the new style is going and other days I wonder if I’ve overstayed my welcome. Lately I’m wondering where to take it next and on what projects I should use that style. I don’t know if it’s perfected. I definitely feel like I need to take it further or at least push myself more. I’ve been enjoying the collage stuff that I’ve been adding. It’s fun to find all the pieces and make them fit within the theme in some abstract way. As soon as things start to become easy then things get stagnant. Throughout my art career I worked towards a style, reached it, hit the proverbial ceiling as to where to take it and then moved on to try something else. Like Galactus – eating one world at a time and then moving on.
You have a foothold in the world of comics, one that few other poster artists share, with notable exceptions such as Tara McPherson. Why do you feel your work so resonates with fans of comics?
Tara’s awesome! Frank Kozik, Derek Hess and Coop have also done comic work. We all grew up reading comics and are influenced by them. To me the format of the rock poster and the comic book cover are pretty much the same. Basically a poster is just a larger version of a comic book cover. It serves the same purpose and it’s the first thing a person sees before opening the doors to the venue or opening the pages to a comic book. The technique I have with drawing and designing a rock poster is based on comic books and studying comic book art. The only difference is how I prepare the art to be printed and that the posters are much bigger.
I first met you many years ago at San Diego Comic-Con, and it seems that every year you are there, your booth just gets more traffic. Have conventions been good to you? Any funny/weird convention stories you’d like to share?
Conventions are great! It gives me a chance to interact with people who I only talk to online and to give folks a face to put with the artwork I do. I’m able to create relationships with people and clients that last far beyond the convention weekend. I have a “Con Family” in most cities I exhibit at. The family is made up of friends that help work my booth or let me crash on their couch. I only get to see some of these people once a year so we make the most of it.
It’s also a bit overwhelming too because I spend most of my year locked away working on projects barely talking to people, then for a weekend I find myself surrounded by thousands of people. Thank God there’s always a bar nearby within walking distance.
Ha! Ain’t that the truth.
Every year is a struggle to try and keep up with the previous year or to top it. A lot of it is location and who you’re housed next to. I try my best to promote where I’ll be <coughcough booth4503atSanDiegoComicCon coughcough> and to have new and cool exclusives for the conventions.
I think last year is going to be difficult to top, for three reasons. I got to do a set of official Walking Dead/Weezer posters and that was kinda crazy. It was to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Walking Dead comic book series. So Skybound got Weezer to play a private show and got me to design the posters for it. A few hours before the show I did a signing with the band at a record shop a few blocks from the convention. It was overwhelming. I had never met the guys in the band but they were all equally really cool. We cracked jokes and kept trying to guess the music that was playing while we signed posters. Their drummer Pat couldn’t make it to San Diego because of family matters so they were telling their fans that I was the new drummer. It was really surreal. Then later that night they played the private show and I got to take my friends to it.
I also started a toy company with my buddy Justin Jewett called METACRYPT and we did our first toy release – “Shub Zeroth” at SDCC. That was crazy because we spent a few years getting the toy made and weren’t sure how it would be received. It sold out within a day. So I guess we did a’ight!
So on top of having prints I am now exhibiting our Japanese vinyl Sofubi toys.
I have a ton more funny/weird/whatthefuck stories but I can’t repeat most of them. I’ve been doing conventions for almost 14 years now. So there’s a ton.
You are a self-professed comic fan, what exactly is it about them that grabs your attention? What do you feel makes a memorable comic, something that has lasting power like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns?
I came from a generation where comics were NOT COOL. I used to buy comics off the spinner racks at the local drug store until my buddy Jason took me to a comic book store. Same shop I eventually worked at. I had no idea comic book stores existed. This was in the 80’s during the independent boom. Miller’s Dark Knight had just come out. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weren’t a household name. I was always and still am attracted to the artwork.
I guess what makes a memorable comic book is great art, concept and writing. Also something that defies what the general public limits a comic book to. Nowadays comics aren’t taken seriously unless there’s a movie/TV show/video game being made about it. I’m seeing more and more creators not limiting comics to just superheroes with big muscles or boobs. They’re becoming more personal or going beyond the typical subject matter to tell different stories. That’s exciting. It’s like people are finally catching up to what publishers like Fantagraphics have been championing for a long time.
I know you’ve done some work with Marvel Comics, and you had Don’t Hold Your Breath: The Art Of Brian Ewing published through Dark Horse, as well as your fantastic cover for The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Are comics a medium you’d like to work in more at some point in the future?
I started out doing covers for DC. My first was Detective Comics 776 and then a few Nightwing covers.
Prior to that I was doing color and design work for Dave Johnson on The Spectre, Spiderman, 100 Bullets and various Batman titles. Most of it was uncredited, which made sense, because I didn’t draw any of it. I was executing Dave’s requests for color and design. Dave paid me well and was generous with helping me solve my own design problems on my own jobs. That was a really important time for me because I got to see how another artist thought and worked. Dave influenced a lot of my coloring and design choices. He still does. I always joke with him that too bad we’re friends or I’d have ripped off his style years ago. His work is great. I hate him!
Becky Cloonan lobbied for me to do the Killjoys cover. We’ve known each other for years and had collaborated on a High On Fire poster prior to that. I saw the opportunity and tried to do the best job I could. I was really happy with how it turned out and surprised by how well it was received. I tried to make my cover way different than what the other artists were doing. So when placed next to the others or just sitting on a rack in a shop – my cover wouldn’t get lost. They just published a nice hardcover collecting the whole series and published my sketches and process in the back. That was awesome!
I’d love to do more comic work but I know my strengths and weaknesses. My strength is doing cover work and my weakness is with interiors. As to why I’m not doing more work… I dunno. I think rock posters have been a blessing and a curse. I think most people associate me with music only and don’t realize it’s all just illustration. Yet I only get hired when an editorial or comic book job is music-related. Blessing and a curse.
I’m doing more conventions and art shows this year to show people I have more range than what they’re seeing with the current rock poster work.