An Evening with the Fantastic Four

An Evening with the Fantastic Four
A roundtable discussion on Traditional Illustration in t-shirt design

Author: Joe Carr

When approaching this article, I wanted to do something specific and informative. I wanted to dig up some really good insights to make for a solid read. I knew off the bat that I wanted to focus on something near and dear to my heart, namely traditionally illustration methods in t-shirt design. I also knew in order to get really solid information on my awesome subject I would need to talk to folks who knew what they were talking about. So I harassed four of the most amazing illustrators in the business, and lucky for you all they agreed to share some insights. If you notice a consistent theme of Threadless, it is because that’s how we all know each other and threadless rules. Instead of discussing different issues with everyone, We did roundtable Q&A where everyone got a shot at the same questions.

So without further delay I give you the fantastic four.

Julia Sonmi Heglund: www.sonmisonmi.com Madison Wisconsin – Illustrator / Musician / Master of space and time

Alvaro Arteaga Sabaini: www.alvarejo.com Chile – Illustrator / Photographer / Classic Gearhead

Priscilla Wilsonwww.valorandvellum.com California – Illustrator / award winning tutorial creator / wine aficionado

Photo by Randy Aquilazan

Alex Soliswww.oddworx.com Madison Wisconsin – Illustrator / Breakdancer / world traveler

The best place to start is your roots. How do you look back on your path to where you are now.. in regards to your artistic beginnings and milestones?

Julia:
I’ve been drawing all my life. When I was younger, we had a distinct brown drawing table that my sister and I would work every day on. I had a lot of art phases and subjects I drew growing up that all sort of influenced where I am now:
1.) American cartoons
2.) Sailor Moon
3.) Modern artists like Warhol, Pollock
4.) “Classical” artists like Michelangelo, Caravaggio
5.) Urban graphic designers like Graphic Havoc.

Most recently, I find myself influenced and motivated by my peers. I took lots of life drawing and graphic design courses in college that also aided in my development as an artist, though a lot of what I do has been accomplished through trial and error and relentless experimenting.

Alvaro:
I had a very keen interest in drawing since i was a child, and luckily my parents always saw that i was good at it, so i felt very encouraged. When i look back since the moment I considered myself a somewhat professional illustrator, i think that I’ve become better at it,thanks to the community of bloggers in Threadless, place that helped me in making myself noticeable in the artistic community.

Priscilla:
I’ve been drawing ever since I learned how to hold a crayon. That was two years ago. Nah, in all seriousness, I started my art career by drawing things I saw in Disney movies when I was a toddler. So I guess I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. I took some classes here and there as I was growing up and then focused more on it in high school. I kept taking classes when I got to junior college and then decided to pursue Graphic Design as a career choice. Towards the end of college I got into Threadless and I think that really helped me hone in on a more specific style and help me try to push myself to get better.

Alex:
I’ve always been into art 100% since I could hold a pencil, I never really knew exactly where I would go with it but I knew that it would always be apart of my life, right now Im doing Graphic Design and Web Development, and before threadless I would do tons of paintings and big illustration work mostly for personal work and art shows, I think after finding threadless I just became a bit more diverse and have been expanding my mind a lot more. I think I’m at a decent place with my work right now but not yet where I want to be, I want to someday be drawing 24/7 for a living.

You all have a very unique and confident style. I can spot your linework, your styles from a mile away and it seeps into everything you guys do. Like you are playing a tune you have played many times before. How did you all get so good? Is it skill? Practice? Benevolent peace and confidence? what’s that all about?

Alvaro:
All of that mixed. You can be good at it, but if you don’t practice enough you are never gonna be very good at what you do. I’m a graphic designer, so my way to relax when I’m not working is being an illustrator. It’s what I consider I’m best at, so you have to be very confident and be able to recognize your own achievements. I personally dislike people who have false modesty when they know that they are good at something. Years ago i wasn’t as good as I am know at what i do now, and I’ve become better by knowing what your faults are at Illustrating as well as your specific skills. You have to identify those points and work harder on them, it’s the only way you are gonna improve at what you do.

Priscilla:
Haha, I’m not sure how to answer this. I feel like I still have a long ways to go and need to keep trying to learn something new or master something new even if it’s small. I used to actually be pretty impatient with my artwork and would try to rush through as quickly as I could. When I started getting more into line work and textures, I learned how to be more patient. I have no idea where that patience came from. Perhaps it came from old age or slowing of the brain.

Alex:
I think it’s just my love for the arts that has always kept me going, I think Im good but always room for improvement I still see a lot of flaws in my work that I try to improve all the time. As far as my linework it is mostly about being confident with the linework and just losing yourself and putting everything into what you’re doing, it will always reflect in your work when you’re doing something rushed, so even tho I work fast I tend to always put my all into whatever Im doing at the moment.

Julia:
Thank you! And you kind of nailed it with the “playing a tune” analogy. Basically, when I am working on my free-hand doodles, it IS all imagery I have drawn before. I repeat lots of forms in my work, but rearrange them in new ways. One decision influences another. It’s a very peaceful process, and I can get pretty lost in the work.

How important is classic illustration technique and history in your development as an artist and your current style methodology?

Priscilla:
I think that everything an artist sees will have some sort of influence. Any artist that has gone to school for it has had to take art history classes at one point. I believe that would influence artists, including myself, whether we like it or not. I don’t typically pour through history books so I’m not sure how much of an impact it has on my artwork, but I’m sure there are some subliminal things I’ve picked up on and have used in my own designs.

Alex:
I think it’s very important, I always start my sketches with traditional tools, I’ve been trying out more and more all digital work, but always go back and try to do a few with all traitional styles, I think its almost impossible to get that same feel digitally.
Julia:
(at this point Sonmi broke out in an impromptu theremin serenade that spoke volumes on the subject, it was quite touching and meaningful)

Alvaro:
I’m glad you asked that. Knowing about the classic techniques and knowing about art history and history itself helps you enormously , because you can make easier connections on your mind. the more you things you know about, the larger the amount of brain connections and new stuff you are gonna come up with.
Knowing a lot of art history also developed a keen knowledge about what (for me at least) works visually or not. Notions about how to create an overall sketch that conveys the general idea you are trying to communicate, proportions, techniques used in the past, what are the visuals relations that can make the eye of the public go “oh, that’s a reference to this or that”.
I strongly recommend to build an interest in art history, specially if you wanna be a good illustrator.

I want some meat and potatoes, Like your favorite pencil, pen, paper type, paper size, drawing surface… lets hear the specs of your old school tools

Alex:
I don’t really have a favorite usually whatever is available, I draw and doodle all the time, so maybe lose white paper, and some regular pencils and pens.

Julia:
I fail at having any real interesting tools! But I do have a favorite one. It’s just a mechanical pencil. It has the fine tip I need tor intricate doodles, yet you never have to sharpen it! I like drawing on computer paper, because pencils don’t really smudge on there. For a drawing surface, I tend to use one of those half pillow/half table things. Do those have a name? I chill out on my couch and draw with the TV on. Usually “Everyone Loves Raymond” is on when I’m drawing. What’s with that?

Alvaro:
I love working on a normal paper (Bond 24) because when you work with ink lines you don’t want them to start spreading through the fiber of the paper. I usually work on a 11″ x 14″ paper. that way i can draw more details. The pens i like to use are the Snowman fine line ink pens, 0.8, 0.5, 0.3, 0.1.

Priscilla:
Usually I’ll use just a plain ol’ mechanical pencil to sketch things out. I use Micron pens for my line work and I use just about every size they offer. For paper, my favorite is Canson Marker Paper to get that clean look. I switch back and forth between the 9″ x 11″ pad and the 11″ x 14″ pad depending on the complexity of the design I’m working on.

Obviously you have the skillset to work completely in the digital realm, are there some situations where you prefer digital?

Julia:
I tend to prefer digital when I know I’ll have big areas that require color. It’s just a lot easier to come up with the color you want in an immediate fashion!

Alvaro:
Since i bought a decent digital tablet i can work much faster, since i have all the different strokes right there. The line is completely clear, etc. But what i continue doing by hand is the initial sketch. There’s something about the movement of your arm that you can’t get with a digital tablet. I love the tablet to get much more details in my drawing now though.

Priscilla:
Oh, I actually don’t even own a tablet. I don’t think I’ve ever used one before either! I have, however, used Illustrator for some designs in the past (and I use it at my day job all of the time). The only times I’ve worked more digitally for my artwork was when I brought in a sketch and then traced over it with the pen tool.

Alex:
One of the main reasons I started doing more digital is because I lost some of my detail and the hassle of scanning my work etc, I usually draw pretty big and have to scan in pieces etc digital makes a few things easier as far as sizing, and you can always go back and erase.

It is pretty easy for someone who does not know or have a good process to wreck quality inkwork transferring it for digital use. What is a common pitfall that you regularly see?

Alvaro:
I scan my drawings at 300 dpi, and then i clean them up in Photoshop by adjusting the brightness in some part, as well as the contrast. Or i convert the grayscale scaned image into a bitmap so i can separate easily the black from the white and have my line work separated in one layer.

Priscilla:
It’s funny because I see pitfalls in my own work from transferring. It’s still a learning process! For instance, I had to get a new scanner because my old one died and it felt like it changed way my artwork looked digitally. It has different settings so I’m still figuring out how to get the best contrast while still retaining a smooth appearance to the lines. I actually might just get a new scanner altogether because I’m really not pleased with it. It’s an Epson Perfection V300 Photo. Do not buy.
I think the only n00b mistake I ever saw was when someone scanned in their work as black and white instead of grayscale. It came out looking super contrasty and pixelated.

Alex:
I pride myself a lot with the line weight variations I use with my linework, I think a big downfall I see is people relying on technology too much, tracing images etc it starts to lose that artistic flavor in my eyes, even tho the ideas might be great the work starts looking generic

Julia:
I totally agree! I think it’s really easy for character to get lost in one’s lines when making them digital. Especially if livetrace is involved. The charm of lines drawn on paper is that they have very subtle nuances, and especially if they are done with a bigger pen tip, can have varying line weights. I think that’s the biggest culprit for digital lines. If the line weights look slightly unnatural, suddenly the entire illustration can look very cold and digital. It’s a fine line. (Pun?)

When it comes to processing your work into digital format, do you have a favorite aspect or facet? Perhaps even a trick or method that would help other folks?

Priscilla:
I used Photoshop to color my designs and there are a ton of tips and tricks to use for that. I actually have a basic tutorial on the Threadless blogs, and if you read through the comments there are a lot of good tips lurking around. (note to readers, do yourself a favor and check out the tutorial.)

Alex:
Not really drawing it scanning it, trying to stay as clean as possibly with your linework when you put it down on paper, and be ready for some scanning and piecing together if you worked huge like me :/

Julia:
Not really! Usually if I know that my work will eventually have to be accessible in a digital format, I’ll do most of the work right away digitally. In that case, I use my tablet to create the lines in Photoshop. Otherwise, I just use standard scanner settings to scan, and then use the color range tool in Photoshop to isolate the lines in my work.

Alvaro: (was out getting beers and pizza for this question)

Do you feel being a classic illustrator in an industry predominantly populated by vector precision offers you an advantage or disadvantage?

Alex:
I don’t do it for a living right now, but I feel there are disadvantages being a classic illustrator, thats why I try and learn how to do different techniques etc but still trying to apply my own style, so it’s only a disadvantage if you let yourself be one, the more you know the better and in a way will only be an advantage to have over someone that doesn’t have that classic artistic sense.

Julia:
It can definitely be a disadvantage since a lot of commercial work tends to lean more towards clean vectors. But then again, you don’t necessarily need much artistic foundation to create some precise vector piece. I feel like the ability to sketch by hand and with only loose references allows for more creativity and experimenting, and thus can prevail in the end!

Alvaro:
I see it as and advantage (i hope i’m not wrong, jaja), since you work with a technique that can be no as popular as the one used in the moment, but there’s always a niche for it, that will appreciate what you do and will be able to pay for your designs. And i don’t like precise things…

Priscilla:
In my case, I think it’s definitely an advantage because I do know how to use Illustrator – so if need be, I could still fake my way through a cleaner looking design. If that weren’t the case, it’s certainly easier to learn how to use vector programs whereas it’s probably not quite as easy to already know the programs but have to learn how to illustrate in an analog fashion.

T-shirts are pretty commercial things, used to be like soda cans and cereal boxes gimmicks and slogans. How did fine illustration end up making it into the equation?

Julia:
I think fine art sort of became the rebellion to what a t-shirt should be. They don’t need to sell or mean something, instead they can just be there for purely aesthetic purposes.

Alvaro:
Cause people stopped being attracted to t-shirts with a huge logo on it (the 80′s and 90′s), and wanted more original stuff, stuff that the big companies might offer, but multiplied by millions of shirts with the same motif. So when people wanted to be more unique, the niche of more “exclusive ” apparel started to appear, and sold t-shirts that was basically offering the buyer a more exclusive product, assuring he wouldn’t bump with another person wearing the same that easy. For me t-shirt design is an art on it’s own.

Priscilla:
I think it made it into the equation when Andy Warhol entered the scene and showed that anything could be art. Or even Duchamp proved that everyday objects could be art when looked at in the right way. T-shirts could be art or they might just be a billboard for somebody’s logo. It’s all in how you look at it, and what the designer put into it.

Alex:
I think it’s all about the money and the opportunities it brings, stuff like soda and cereal boxes only use illustration to an extend and have relied more on more digital and graphic design techniques, were as in tshirts, everyone wears a t-shirt, yet there is just such a more open market to a ton of different styles and ideas

Do you have a favorite t-shirt that you have done?

Alvaro:
Murphy’s Law is my favorite t-shirt I’ve done, because a lot of people in Threadless helped me and gave me their opinion, suggestions, etc. I loved the idea from the first moment and it was a fun job.
VIEW HERE

Priscilla:
One of my favorites would probably be Seven Swans. It was simulated process so I was able to use lots of colors and gradations!
VIEW HERE

Alex:
My favorite would probably be bird migration, since it was sort of a turning point for me, and it opened opportunities and gave me more attention to be able to showcase my work.
VIEW HERE

Julia:
I think it’s my Threadless select, “Believe It”! It was fun to be able to do what I wanted, both in shirt placement and symbolism within the work. It also served as sort of artistic milestone of aesthetics I was into at the time.
VIEW HERE

In your opinions what does the future hold for traditional illustrators in the apparel world?

Priscilla:
I think there’s a saying that goes, the only constant in fashion is that it always changes. I think there will probably be waves of popularity for traditional looking illustration on shirts. It might be more trendy looking one year and then look dated the next. As long as the artist attempts to evolve with the trends, there will be room for analog media in the apparel world.

Alex:
I think it’s very strong, I just don’t think there is a replacement for that traditional style, but maybe trends will return and traditional work is used more often, not just in the apparel world

Julia:
I think there is definitely a market for traditional illustrations in the apparel world, but it’s all about balance. If there is an abundance of t-shirts with vector graphics, there will be people wanting traditional illustrations. If there are too many shirts with traditional illustrations, people will want more vectors. The only thing that traditional illustrators should keep in mind when designing for shirts, though, is to keep the shirt’s canvas in mind. Often I have seen amazing illustrations that just don’t make sense being placed on a shirt.

Alvaro:
There will always be an space for us, since there are too many people out there, and you’ll always find a huge amount of persons who like having a t.shirt with a classic illustration on it.

Ok, last question: If you guys could communicate with yourselves way back before you started drawing t-shirts and making awesome wearable.. what would you say?

Alex:
I would direct myself to start doing this sooner!

Julia:
I used to be terrible at color theory, often using too many colors in one work and thus ruining it. I would probably just stealthily place the “Hang in there” cat next to my desk.

Alvaro:
In 2000 i would have said to myself “Hey Alvaro, there’s this new site called Threadless”. I would have made a lot of dough.

Priscilla:
I would tell myself, “You’re going to get a ton of free shirts in the future. Buy more pants.”


  • dunz0

    So many amazing artists all in one interview. Love it!

  • dunz0

    So many amazing artists all in one interview. Love it!

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