Artist Interview: Cole Lemke and Going Un-Mainstream

Cole Lemke is the man behind Oceanopolis and the latest release, Desertopia. We chatted with him about being an artist in Santa Cruz, his early influences, and what success means to him.

Cole Lemke

Cole Lemke

Describe your path to becoming an artist?

I've been drawing all my life.  In school, I never listened to any of my teachers. I would draw through every class.  My parents grounded me a lot, which in my family meant being confined to my room with no form of entertainment.  I would pass that time drawing.  I spent a lot of my childhood doing silly little drawings.  

When I grew older and started getting my act together, I went to a community college for the first two years and took a lot of art classes.  I got good grades and made the Dean's List several times, but I did poorly in all my art classes. Even though I got bad grades in art classes, I still decided to go to an art college.  I chose to learn 3D design, because 3D design always seemed like an impossibility to me and I wanted to challenge myself.  I knew squat about computers, so I chose an art form that was technical and computer heavy. It turned out to be a great choice, since being an artist that knows how to use a computer opens so many doors.

After I graduated, I got an entry level contract job at a video game developer, Cryptic Studios. They did not renew my contract.

At the time I was disappointed, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It lead to me starting my own business specializing in illustration and graphic design.  In a nutshell, my business started off doing art for friends for free, then as word spread, doing art for friends of friends, then art for friends of friends of friends.  I slowly started adding a price tag to my work. When I started having strangers contacting me, I finally started charging a reasonable price for my work.  

It seems like challenging yourself and not choosing the easy path is a theme for you.  

I wouldn't say that's entirely true.  I saved a lot of money being a transfer student from community college, but it still costs an arm and leg for two full years of college, so I took the harder road to learn as much as I could and get the most bang for my buck.

But I do avoid taking the easy road when possible.  

From my experience, the harder that task, the greater the reward, so I try to not fear failure and push myself.  

If I do fail, at least I usually learn something and will do better on future attempts.

Absolutely. Was there an “Aha!” moment when you decided that you wanted to focus primarily on art?

I always enjoyed art and wanted to do something artistic, but I didn't have an exact idea of what I wanted to do. I think the thing that pushed me the most was visiting my buddy Shaun after not seeing him for a while.  His room was covered with posters and the artwork he had created. Shaun and I grew up drawing together and have known each other since elementary school. We would draw side by side, sharing ideas and our work with each other.  When I saw his posters and artwork on his wall, I remember saying, "Man, this looks just like the art we did in high school… do you get paid to do this artwork?"  He said, "You bet!" and that just hit me like a slap in the face.

What was your first official art job?

My first paid job was probably something I did for a friend, but I just can't say for sure.  I guess I didn't care to mentally record the day I sold my soul.  

I take no pride selling my art.  

I do not like business side of being a professional artist one bit.  But I had to get over that in order to survive off doing what I love.  If it was up to me, I would just create artwork that makes me happy and hoard all of it for my personal viewing.  

It's bittersweet when your passion has to double as your form of income, isn't it?  Did you worry about how you would support yourself financially once you decided to pursue art professionally?

When I first started I was living with my folks and working full time at the video game company, so I had a lot of money saved up. That was nice. I didn't have to worry about anything when I was getting started. I was just making mistakes and learning.  Now things aren't so easy.  I live in Santa Cruz, California where the cost of living is extremely expensive.  I would be fine if I moved away to almost anywhere else in the U.S., but every time I move away I tend to get homesick after about two years, missing family, friends, and the wonderful environment, and I move back. I do worry a lot about supporting myself financially, so after a few years I decided to get a weekend job.  Now, I work my business on the weekdays and work weekends at a Tennis Club for that little extra security.  I do pretty well for myself, but every once in a while I do get a bad month where it is nice to know that no matter what, I have some form of income.  The great part is that my weekend job has a lot of downtime and the shifts are only 5-6 hours.  Quite often I just bring in my artwork and get paid to get paid – it is truly wonderful.  Since getting the weekend job, I haven't had to worry too much, but I do miss having weekends free.

The difficulty of making a living as an artist is a refrain we hear time and time again.  We think the internet has the power to change this, but it remains to be seen.  Have you had any mentors along the way?

Yes and no.  I have never had a mentor in the traditional sense.  However, at times, my peers play the role of a mentor.  Most artists seem to be friendly, willing to share information, and answer questions.  We help each other out when we can and share advice so we can all grow as a whole.  It's quite beautiful actually, and I feel blessed to be in the company of such great people.

How does where you live impact your work or creativity?

Santa Cruz has a lot of skate art.  Skate art has a distinct style and that style was drilled into me at an early age.  Jim Phillips was a well know Santa Cruz skate artist and while growing up his stuff was everywhere.  I remember one night when I was very young, I was staying at a buddies house and I couldn't go to sleep because his brother's Rob Roskopp skate deck (designed by Jim Phillips) was staring me right in the face and freaking me out.  Anyway, I feel skate art like Jim's raised me as an artist (as well as every other kid my age in Santa Cruz). Aside for the skate art, we have a lot of nature.  We are a little strip of land between the mountains and the ocean. We have trees, mountain lions, deer, squirrels, coyote on one side.  Then on the other side we have ocean sunsets, beaches, cliffs, squid, seals, sea lions, crabs, otters.  I like nature and drawing trees, animals, sea life, and whatnot.  I spend a lot of time on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, which is very rich in nature as well.

That makes total sense.  I would describe you as a California-inspired artist.  How would you describe your style (artistically or otherwise)?

In its most basic form, my style is skate art with that classic screen printing approach.  Over the years it has evolved, and I had other influences than just skate art, but it still uses minimalistic colors with a huge focus on ink and line work.  

As for my technique, when doing my traditional artwork, I’m not sure what you would call it. People call them paintings, but they aren't.  I have a process that I’ve learned over the years through trial and error and trying to find something that feel comfortable and natural to me.  I haven't seen anyone else do it, at least not yet.  Here is a video of my process.

Basically, what I do is a combination of using ink, dye based markers, and watercolors on wood panels. I also add a coat to protect it from water and sun damage, but the coat saturates the colors so it does have an artistic purpose.  It’s an extremely unforgiving method, but it’s what I enjoy the most.

Inspirations. Who or what are yours?

Most my inspirations came from my childhood. Growing up, the comic book industry was booming. I would collect comics for the sole purpose of viewing the art. I could have cared less about the stories or resale value. Video games was another booming industry, and I loved the way characters were designed in video games.  I would read through Nintendo Power Magazine and see all the character drawings.  I always thought early video game characters were so creative and unique.  Then there were Saturday morning cartoons.  Cartoons had been around for awhile, but some channels started becoming completely devoted to cartoons for kids.  

I learned more than I am should admit by simply watching cartoons.  

There was graffiti.  Graffiti as a form of art spread quickly when I was young.  Although I never did graffiti myself, I was inspired by it and enjoyed seeing it.  I remember someone painted a Darth Vader piece, and I loved seeing it every time I drove by. I was sad when it got painted over.  From time to time, there’s a hint of graffiti style in my art.  Also, there was a huge boom in the skate industry, but I mentioned skate art enough.

Tell us about Desertopia, the collection you created for us.

Desertopia is a follow-up to my last collection, Oceanopolis.  Instead of the theme being underwater creatures, the theme is creatures you would find in desert or warm climates.  Each creature is given a silly characteristic; sometimes it relates to the habits of the creature, sometimes it’s a silly pun, or sometimes it's just completely random.  I like giving animals human characteristics, not just because it's a silly and fun thing to do, but because I really disapprove of the hierarchy where humans are considered more important than everything else. I doubt I am saving the world or anything with these drawings, but I feel good depicting a world where animals are on the same level as us and where people can relate to them personally, hopefully.

The cover art for Desertopia

The cover art for Desertopia

I think your animals are very relatable, that's why so many people seem to connect with the characters.  Now tell us about some work you've done that you're proud of.

I did a skate deck for the skateboarding company Creature.  I was extremely excited about that. When I first started my business, my one and only goal was to do a deck for them. I had my eyes set on Creature from day one. They were the first place I submitted my portfolio, and I never heard back.  Over the years, I tried a few more times and never heard back.  After about four years, I finally got their attention.  

I took pride in this job because I continually failed but never gave up, completing a goal in life.

Here is a photo of the skate deck Cole made for Creature.

Are you creatively satisfied?

No.  I beat myself up all the time.  I am getting there, but I think I still have to a ways to go.  A lot of times, after viewing a piece for a while, I think to myself that I can do better.  The day I stop thinking I can do better is the day I will be satisfied.

What kind of advice would you give to a young person starting out as an artist?

I always find it hard to give advice.  In the past, a person’s advice to me has become a handicap. Everyone experiences life so differently that it’s no surprise one person’s success story is another person’s downfall.  The whole reason I’m here now is because I did the opposite of what people told me to do.  And while they had good intentions and were trying to be helpful, their advice turned out to be a roadblock.  

So I guess my advice is to take advice with great caution.  

If a teacher or fellow artist says, "Never do such and such," I say do it and find out for yourself.  Never be afraid to learn things the hard way and make mistakes.  Mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve yourself.  You should welcome mistakes instead of trying to avoid them by sticking to someone else's advice, experiences, and theories.

This, a million times. It's all about what you do, not what you say or tell other people to do. Finally, what does success mean to you?

I think wealth and fame would be great.  It would be nice not to have to worry about anything.  It would be also nice to be able to hire a few people to do all the busy work, so I can just focus on art.  But I tend to be very anti-mainstream.  That isn't by choice.  I just think for the most part mainstream art, music, movies, etc. are repetitive and lack deep thought, though there are always exceptions.  With that said, I think if I ever do see true success, that would mean I am doing something very wrong.

I think the day I consider myself successful is the day I can just do nothing but the art that makes me the happy and finally relax.

Thanks for chatting with us!  You can find more about Cole at his portfolio site, Facebook page, and Instagram page

Thanks for making me a part of NeonMob!

Night Owl, by Cole Lemke