1. What’s your story? Where are you from?
My name is Robert John, based in Toronto Canada. I originally went to school for Graphic Design but after working for about 3 years in a small advertising film I realized I wanted to be more independent and creative then just a cog in a machine. I went back to school when I was 26 for Illustration and have been freelancing since then. Money gets tight sometimes but I love what I do and feel like everyday is Saturday. When I don’t have a pressing deadline from a client I work the exact same hours on something personal. Basically I am lucky enough to do what I love and the line between work and play is as blurry as it gets.
2. Tell us about your aesthetic.
When I started studying design I feel in love with the aesthetic and minimalism philosophies of Sal Bass Milton Glaser, so I would say it starts there. I describe my work as retro minimalism. I use bright colours and simple, almost clip art-ish illustrations to build complex designs. I feel like the style works because the designs are usually pretty busy but because the elements are simple the final works aren’t overwhelming and can be easily understood.
3. What is your favourite medium and why?
Screen Printing. I love print making and it really dictates the aesthetic that Im most know for. I also really like animation and story telling, but haven’t done it enough to really pursue it seriously. I have plans to create a short film this fall, but even that will look like my print work. Limited but bold colours, and most importantly the overlap of shapes and layers. The little imperfections and evidence of the hand made process gives the final piece a unique feel. I think its kind of cool I was originally inspired by Sal Bass film title sequences and started making still images in that spirit, but am now slowly incorporating motion and taking my illustration style and exploring how they would look as short films.
4. What is your artistic process like?
I started screen printing mostly just as a way to stand out in school, I felt like everyone was working digitally and I wanted to do something that would get my work a bit of extra attention. I wasn’t expecting to absolutely love the process, and most of all I wasn’t expecting to totally revitalize the way I approached making work. Having to think in layers and limited colours from the beginning of a project completely changed the way I made my images. I felt like before I would over-work something, or keep adding things at the 11th hour in hopes that I would stumble on something great. But completely flipping the script and having to plan out every aspect beforehand really made me focus on concept and what are the least about of steps or elements that need to be there for the idea to be communicated. In the beginning when my printing skills were limited it forced me to create simple illustrations, and by total accident made me really understand how to communicate an idea in a successful way.
Process wise I start with the old fashioned pencil and paper. I usually use word maps and try to represent ideas as little icons. When the idea makes sense as a tiny icon Ill expand and flush it out, but make sure the original idea is the most obvious element. Then I build the whole design out in greyscale in Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator because I like to create all my figures out of basic shapes and clean line. Greyscale because its the easiest way for me to build an image and be aware of how it will break down into layers (usually 4, and Ill either try to take one away or add more in the final stages). I also feel if I add colour too early in the process it gives a false sense of completion. Sometimes the colour scheme works really well right away and I’m happy with the image, but its mostly just cool colours and not really the substance. To me when something is looking good in greyscale, I know once I swap out the different greys for colour the illustration will immediately jump from good to great. Its a fun stage to come to fairly late in the process, everything really just comes alive all at once.
After everything thing looks great in black and grey Ill export and separate the layers and create films to screen print. Id say maybe only 25% of what I do these days actually gets screen printed. In those cases Ill go through the regular process and burn the films onto screen and create the work traditionally. But most of the time there is a tight deadline or the artwork is only going to be used online. In those cases Ill scan the films back into Photoshop, apply colours and stack the layers and make the digital equivalent of a printed poster. Ill purposely offset or slightly rotate one layer by a degree or two so it doesn’t look too perfect and stays honest to the handmade aesthetic the client is looking for. This also allows me to work in RGB and keep the colours as vibrant as possible for those online only gigs
5. Who and/or what inspires your work?
Music the most. I feel like I’m always listening to music and I walk or travel a lot. I get lost in my own imagination and music kind of becomes a soundtrack I’m only half aware is constantly leading me around.
6. What role does art play in your life? How does it change the way you view the world?
Art is everywhere for me. I love signage of all kinds, but especially hand painted or traditionally printed. The letterforms and blemishes of old signs inspire a lot of my work. I love seeing non-English signs and interrupting them purely aesthetically without any connotation of their purpose. Traditional fine art has never had much appeal to me other than making me want to start painting in the first place, but seeing works in a museum doesn’t inspire me as much as walking down a street in a new county.
Also, posters for both movies and music have and always will be a motivating medium. Being a teenager and discovering new bands and all the art and imagery that came with them was some of the most inspiring times in my life. Old movie posters and album art and everything they represent had a profound effect on my when I was young – I love the idea of a complex media like a movie or music being represented by a single poster, T-shirt or cover.
7. Where did you study?
Art Instatute or Toronto for Graphic Design and OCADU for Illustration
8. Where do you see yourself in five years?
I literally don’t have my life past January figured out. And when I think of what I was doing 5 years ago to where I am now – I dont think I could replicate it. So 5 years from now anything is possible. The next 5 months I will be traveling around Europe doing artist residencies and soaking up as much experience as I can. Ideally I see myself alternating between traveling and working with my limited set up and having a large space somewhere that allows me to experiment and try everything.
9. What about in ten?
Start making films. Its hard for me to not have my hands in every aspect of something like making a film and I wouldn’t say I work necessarily well with others so I want to find a way to really create short films or stories as streamlined as possible. But the whole process of working out a story, building the world, shooting, editing and scoring are all things I want to do
10. What do you hope to achieve with your art?
Inspire the next wave of people like me. Maybe work with a band and create something that people would love so much they get a tattoo of it the same way I have dozens of band related tattoos. Or make a movie that is successful and someone else makes a sequel. I’m sure most people don’t want other people making sequels to their movies but to me that is such an under appreciated sign of respect to something that is truly great.
11. Now, tell us a little more about you as a person: what is your favourite food?
Spaghetti, easily. I probably have pasta dinner 4-5 times a week. Sometimes I switch up the sauce to keep things fresh, but even just olive oil and salt is a big favourite of mine – I call it Drysta.
12. Favourite book?
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I remember when I first read it having being a little lost because Ive never read anything like that. But once I got the hang of how to read it I was all in. His writing style is so immersive I almost felt like I was imagining the story rather than reading along. In real life I am terrified of horses but I still dream about being John Grady and traveling through Mexico and eating bean tortillas on horseback.
13. Favourite genre of music?
80s and 90s Punk. I love Rancid, The Misfits, Cock Sparrer, Bad Religion, The Distillers. While working I usually listen to something more mellow like Otis Redding, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles or Nancy Sinatra.
14. What are your hobbies?
I would still say skateboarding, even though Im getting to that age where the space between sessions is getting longer and longer and little injuries take forever to heal. I love being outdoors and active though, kind of a counter balance to all the time I spend inside working. Play a lot of baseball in the summers and run all year round. Watch a lot of professional wrestling and UFC.
15. If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?
Really hard to say, I feel like I a lot of non-art things and I would love to do them as a job, but I wouldn’t be able to do them without bringing my creativity and drive to innovate – so I feel like I would still be an artist but just a different form. I can see myself writing, directing, being a pro wrestler, making video games, playing in bands as possible careers. Being a detective looks fun in movies but probably not in real life. I guess my answer is a detective in an old movie.