Interview: Being Precisely Creative

An interview with Graham Erwin, Master of the Line and Curve

Graham Erwin is a Columbus, Ohio-based designer/ illustrator and creator of Infinite Totem. A specialist in linework and creating precise designs, Graham took inspiration from ancient religious art in designing this collection. We spoke with Graham about his background and creative process.

NeonMob: We first spotted your work on Dribbble and wanted to get your work on NeonMob because your illustrations are whimsical but extremely precise at the same time.

Graham Erwin: Absolutely, that’s a very accurate description. Although I build all of my illustrations in Adobe Illustrator, I prefer to figure out much of the composition ahead of time on paper. My intention is to have an image where the shaping is loose and fluid, while at the same time very clean and exact.

NeonMob: Your attention to detail stands out in comparison to so many digital artists out there. Your linework in particular is very impressive. Why put so much effort into linework?

GE: The attention to detail is something I am very conscious about and am constantly trying to push. My idea is to create images that have a “Where’s Waldo” quality, where you can constantly find new details and easter eggs hidden for those that take the time to look.

Especially with printed material, this creates an incentive to purchase an actual poster or magazine instead of just dragging the jpeg to your desktop. This also makes living with the piece on your wall more enjoyable since the viewer can revisit the illustration every day and find new things to enjoy that may have been overlooked at first.

As for my interest in line work, much of this comes from my interest in graffiti and street art growing up. There is a formula when drawing graffiti where line work is very important. Much of the fun I had when using spray paint came from the ability to “cut back” or erase edges of lines to make them sharper, or more exact. Once I began to play around in vector programs, I couldn’t resist using the line width as much as possible, paying attention to the “shape” the line itself has.

Sun, by Graham Erwin

Sun, by Graham Erwin

NeonMob: There’s a recurring theme of symmetry in your artwork. What about symmetry appeals to you?

GE: Humans are drawn to symmetry, much of what we would label as beautiful has a lot to do with symmetry. Symmetry also has a very psychedelic quality, which I enjoy. The process of drawing half an image and mirroring it is very interesting because it often allows for happy accidents. Sometimes I draw half a face blindly without knowing exactly how it will look after it’s mirrored in photoshop. There can be a lot of surprises when working this way, which is unique to this digital process.

Candlegoat, by Mat Miller

Candlegoat, by Mat Miller

NeonMob: Psychedelic! You’re absolutely right — psychedelic yet mathematical, in a sense. Are you drawn to psychedelic art anywhere else?

GE: Oh definitely, of course I enjoy a lot of psychadelic 2D art, but the interest really bleeds over into the music I enjoy. I like a lot of ambient and drone music, which by nature is extremely abstract, repetitive and psychadelic. I enjoy the hypnotic effects of this kind of music, and I hope to bring a bit of that feeling into the artwork I do.

NeonMob: So what inspired the totems you designed for your NeonMob set?

GE: I have always found ancient religious art fascinating. Egyptian art, Mayan mythology, and Native American ceremonial masks served as inspiration for this set. I can relate stylistically to many of the shapes and patterns these cultures used, but I also love how bizarre and surreal the depictions of their gods and deities are. I had a blast coming up with my own myths and monsters.

Cooz, one of the totems in Graham’s collection “Infinite Totem"

Cooz, one of the totems in Graham’s collection “Infinite Totem"

NeonMob: When people collect this set and spend time with it, what’s the feeling that you hope people get?

GE: I hope the set allows the viewer to tap into the same sense of mystery and awe I had when looking at the ancient religious art I was inspired by. There was one afternoon I visited the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh where I spent a significant amount of time just staring at Native American ceremonial masks and figurines. I was really struck by how the deities were at the same time humorous in their bizarre stylization, while maintaining a sense of surreal beauty. Hopefully a bit of the feeling I had that day in the museum can be felt by people viewing this set.

NeonMob: Your presence online straddles the digital designer and traditional illustrator communities. Do you consider yourself a designer or an illustrator?

GE: I would consider my myself an illustrator first, but design is very important to me. I went to art school and my major was Illustration, but it shared many classes with the graphic design majors. The main difference between the two majors being the emphasis on drawing. In the next couple of years I hope to continue to push my portfolio in the “design” direction (less characters, more focused on typography and communication) but honestly I think both fields are complementary and should overlap.

NeonMob: What about typography is more interesting to you these days than characters? How do you develop your typography skills?

GE: Something about finding proper structure with letter forms is a bit easier for me than creating a likeness with a character. It feels like I am just playing with shapes when working on type, yet I can still inject movement and personality. It has a lot to do with the interest I had with drawing graffiti in highschool and college. I love the structure of typography, it feels like more of a craft, where you are building something that has to work functionally. It’s not that I don’t enjoy drawing characters as much, it’s just I don’t think my portfolio fully expresses my interest in lettering at the moment.

The letter M, by Mat Miller

The letter M, by Mat Miller

NeonMob: You don’t shy away from bold colors and we must say, you use color excellently. Where do you get your color inspiration, and how do you choose the colors you use in your different pieces?

GE: Thank you, I appreciate that because working with color is probably the most unpredictable part of the creative process! Color ties so much in with creating a mood and an atmosphere, and often subtle hue shifts can make or break a piece. When fleshing out illustrations in vector form I always start with a monochromatic color scheme, keeping the value structure as the main priority. After everything is filled in, I start playing with creating accents in a complementary color, and I slowly branch out from there. Even the most complex color schemes start simply at first. Sometimes I go into Photoshop after an illustration is complete, and play with the hue and saturation sliders to find odd complementary color schemes.

NeonMob: Aside from Totems what’s your proudest work ever?

GE: I am very proud of the officially licensed Wizard of Oz poster for Mondo I created earlier this year. Formally the poster has elements of everything I enjoy doing: character design, hand lettering, tons of tiny details etc. while paying homage to one of my favorite movies of all time. I might have spent more time on that poster than any other illustration this year, I spent sixteen hours one day doing only color separations for the screen printing process.

Graham’s Wizard of Oz

Graham’s Wizard of Oz

NeonMob: We love the poster, especially cute little Toto, but it’s unusual for your portfolio. Unlike a lot of artists who do fan art or homage work, your portfolio of work contains little of that. Why is that?

GE: I’ve done my fair share of “fan art” and homage work, but I’m trying to steer away from that a bit. It’s not that I don’t enjoy working with pop culture references any more, I just want to keep things officially licensed and studio approved, and to really improve as an artist you need to tell your own stories, with your own personality and characters. When working on other people’s properties, there’s so many restrictions that point the work in a specific direction. Often you need to make art for art’s sake just to open up new directions for the next commissioned piece.

NeonMob: Where are you from and when did you decide you wanted to be a professional artist?

GE: Honestly, I have never had another career path in mind. Ever since I could hold a pencil I have drawn, and finding time to create art has always been my highest priority. In a sense I gave myself no other choice than to become a professional artist. I am from Columbus, Ohio which honestly isn’t a huge artistic hub. There are a couple large schools here, but I have to say there isn’t a huge professional illustration community which is a double edged sword. On one hand I don’t feel like I’m competing with the guy next door which I love, but it is also hard not having people to bounce ideas off of.

NeonMob: What else do we not know about you that we should?

GE: Although most of my illustrations are cartoony, bright, and colorful, many of my personal interests are quite the opposite. I am obsessed with horror movies and the darkest music and art I can find. This might be a surprise to people that don’t know me personally, but it might also explain a bit of the creepiness hidden in some of my work!

NeonMobThanks Graham!