Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
If you’re one of the millions of daily readers of the New York Times, you’ll recognize this week’s interviewee Chi Birmingham. His name, as Chi says is “like the energy force, but pronounced like the tea because I’m from California.” Check out his website to read the long list of his clients, which include Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Dell, and Samsung to name a few. He’s also been featured in American Illustration 32 in 2013 and 31 in 2012. Chi’s illustration style is reminiscent of original Nintendo games or simplified instructional illustrations, but really sarcastic or humorous in context. Ray Jones met up with Chi this week to see how life has been since they both graduated from SVA’s “Illustration as Visual Essay” grad program [Ray in 2009, Chi in 2011] and here’s what they had to say.
RAY JONES: So Chi, first question, do you see in 2D? Your compositions are incredibly balanced.
CHI BIRMINGHAM: Like when I look around? That’s interesting. I wear glasses or contacts right now, but when I was growing up I couldn’t see very well and I didn’t know it for a long time and I feel like that made an impressionistic way of taking in information, but when I was little I just started drawing from life a lot. When I learned about drawing big shapes, that made a lot of sense, but maybe because I was already seeing kind of big big shapes to begin with.
RJ: When did you get glasses?
CB: I got them after high school, so I was in the front of the class squinting at the blackboard until last year of high school when I got glasses, or even later like right before I went to college.
RJ: That’s funny. I was just thinking about when I was told. [Laughs] Who told you that you needed glasses?
CB: I must’ve been tested when I was in school, but It took awhile to come around to it. It was basically a style decision.
RJ: So, what’s inspired you to develop this style for your illustrations and animations?
CB: During undergrad I wasn’t studying illustration, I worked in a lot of different styles. Representationally and experimenting with anything I could get my hands on. Doing video, performance, all sorts of different things. Even my drawings were all over the place. And then when I was a senior, we all got our own studios and it was the first time I had been painting without being in a painting class. I didn’t have anything to look at and I didn’t want to start painting from photos. So I decided that I was just going to see what I could do if I only painted or drew out of my head. Some people can imagine more… or less, but that as a limitation, as soon as I started doing that, I started drawing and painting the way I do now. Making things in that sort of style, which I think came out of just trying to construct spaces and things. Little sets and props without any reference. Just sort of the outcome of trying to invent the thing instead of see what the thing actually looks like. So I would end up with the most universal version of whatever thing I was trying to draw. Like really archetypical. A television would always be the first television from the 50’s. I’d always gravitate to things that were simply designed and would fit into that little world, the universe I’m drawing in. I didn’t really start illustrating until I went to grad school at SVA. That’s when I started using vectors–
RJ: Wait, where did you go to Undergrad?
CB: I went to CCAC in San Francisco. (California College of Arts and Crafts)
CB: Grad school, in Matthew Richmond’s class, he was teaching us how to use Illustrator and Photoshop. Before that I had been working almost exclusively in gouache, but it translated over pretty well to the way I was already drawing because it was all built out of simple shapes and flat colors. When I started it took me a while to figure out how to use the computer to do that, but then once it clicked there was a pretty straight transition of the style I was working in on paper into the computer.
RJ: I read in a previous interview you use Flash for your final drawings? How did you arrive at that exactly? It’s pretty non traditional to use that software for any kind of print final illustration.
CB: I was using Photoshop exclusively for awhile and was making the big shapes using selection tools, like the lassos and I knew that if I started using a vector software, I would get to have something that was more editable. If I did everything right the first time Photoshop was perfect, but if I wanted to change something later, it was really difficult to adjust based on the way I was working. When I started learning, I guess I was learning Illustrator and Flash simultaneously. We had assignments in Illustrator and assignments in Flash and Flash, for me, is so much more intuitive. The drawing tools are very much based around hand drawing, like freehand use of the stylus. You can certainly do that in Illustrator, but there’s so much more you can do in Illustrator that I think I understood the tools of Flash. There’s only like five tools, basically. Pretty quickly you figure out the extent of what these tools can do, which I like. In Illustrator I get the sense that I can do all of the things I’m doing in Flash, but there’s so much more you can do, you will never get to the end of all the different ways you can make a shape. That’s a little intimidating, I wanted to have something that was a little bit more about not thinking of the tools as much, to just draw like I was drawing with ink or blue pencil. I still might figure out how to use Illustrator one of these days, frankly, I’m not super attached to Flash, but there’s something about the way it works. It’s very user-friendly, very tactile. …Things can be pulled apart and stacked in different ways. Once you start working with that for a little bit, it’s almost like sculpting a drawing. You draw a line, then drag it out. Sometimes when I want to make something that’s more architectural or geometric, I’m doing these things I’d never think of doing in any other medium, just because these things don’t really exist outside of the computer.
RJ: Yeah, you can’t stretch a piece of paper.
CB: Yeah! Yeah, you can just draw a line, duplicate it, flip it 180 degrees, now you have a grid, pull one square out of the grid, you have the windows of a house. Changing all the colors of half the grid make it look like that side is in shadow, then you can just erase the lines and have this perfect geometric thing. Now that I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, that all just kind of happens intuitively. I’ve figured out this weird, geometric way of drawing, which I think is fun. Part of the fun of all of this is figuring out how to do this stuff. Just learning the tools.
RJ: Name your top 3 artist inspirations.
CB: One of my favorite pieces of anything is this children’s book I read when I was little. I think it was called “Who’s Got The Apple?”, I should know what it’s actually called, but the name is so generic that I always mess it up. But it’s dutch cartoonist named Jan Lööf. The story is all taking place in this one town and you’re following this apple as it gets traded hand to hand from all of these different characters. So it’s got kind of a Wes Anderson quality, where you see the entirety of this town. It’s a book I’ve read over a 100 times, it’s a book I owned all of growing up so I’m sure I read it every week growing up. I really like this tracing of the path through all of these different connected characters. It was very sophisticated. Almost like a Tarantino kind of story structure where there’s no central character that you’re following. You’re seeing how all these different peoples lives interact. I really liked that. The way he draws is kind of a fuzzy Hergé style. Very Tin Tin inspired but goofier. I feel like when I look at those drawings again, the way he draws cities and bricks, all those details… all the stuff I wanted to do is in this guys drawings. Even in that one book.
Hergé would be the other huge influence. There’s so much to love about those, but when I think about what I would have taken from seeing those, everything is just the right amount of information to convey what the story needs to have in it. Little details to give space and reality, but nothing that isn’t serving the story. So minimal, while being pretty realistic. I really like the colors. His stories are really fun to read, real page turners but then also the craftsmanship of it. The drawings… All of the Tin Tin stories take place in different locations around the world, and my impression is he would do all of this based on photo research that other people would do. He wouldn’t go to these sites himself. He would get tons and tons of information about what cars people were driving in Morocco or what the headdress of somebody who was in this certain place would look like. He’d get all this photo reference and when you read the books, I mean they’re total fantasies and they’re full of all of this actual researched detail which is really great. They’re like teaching tools in a way. I’m sure there are problems with how they’re presenting certain places in the world, I wouldn’t stand by all of it, but you’re getting like a National Geographic experience when you read, which is pretty cool.
There’s this painter that I really loved when I was in undergrad and still totally love: Luc Tuymans. He paints these paintings… he’ll do a lot of research into political and historical events and then find photos and little bits of ephemera and paint the photos. He paints them in this incredibly simple way that they kind of are like ghost images and you don’t really know what the paintings are about, but he really captures this sort of eerie-ness of finding a clue, or a little scrap of information. You know that they’re important but you don’t know why or what the story is. Then you’ll read about it and it’ll be a portrait of one of the architects of a concentration camp or something. The way it’s painted will be like, that information isn’t IN there, but he’ll find a way to put that in there somehow. He’ll have these really loaded images that are painted in this almost child like simple way. Very effective, creepy images. Raymond Pettibon too I really love, really classic.
RJ: What do you listen to while working? I always see you at the studio with these huge headphones on. What are you in to?
CB: I’ve been listening to books on tape recently. I just got into the Hornblower books which are books about English nautical history. They’re fiction, I think they’re based on actual naval battles, but they’re kind of compressed and simplified into this story of one naval officer going through his career. All of his ups and downs. They’re written in the 20s I think, about the late 1800s. They’re about the Napoleonic Wars. Not positive when they’re set, but those are awesome. I’ve been getting into that recently. Mostly what I listen to is podcasts. I really like “Comedy Bang-Bang”. I just love it. There’s a lot of interview shows, there’s one called “The Q&A”, where this guy Jeff Goldsmith interviews screenwriters and talk about their screenwriting process. I really like hearing different people talk about how they make their work. Listening to people talk about how you structure a story, and also how you structure your day or life so you can make something that time consuming is really interesting. There’s the Marc Maron interview show [WTF with Marc Maron] where he interviews stand up comics, that’s interesting. There’s a show called “How Did This Get Made?” which is about terrible movies, they’ll just pick a different movie, like they did “Congo”… which I haven’t even scene, but you can listen to this podcast for an 1hr 30mins just talking about how terrible “Congo” is and it’s hilarious. I’ll listen to that sort of thing, I’ll listen to music occasionally, but mainly I’m listening to little stories.
RJ: Drawing on the G train: what are some of your favorites?
CB: Oh man. The way I was working on those was so fast I can’t always remember them? I’ll remember like the last one I did. I think one of the last one’s I did was like a office chair that has gun turrets on it? But it wasn’t that funny. I just remember drawing it. I don’t know if that’s my favorite but it’s in my memory. Sometimes I like them because I’m standing up for them, because other people didn’t seem to respond to them that much. [Laughs]. There’s one with a water tower with a little house on top of it, instead of a house with a little water tower on top… and I remember when I made it I was like, “This is what these are all about.” It felt like the perfect expression of what this little project was. Wasn’t that funny, but it was this little encapsulation of what the sensibility of the whole thing was. I haven’t done those in awhile, probably like 6 months since I’ve been doing those drawings. I’d like to put them all out together as like a little zine or something.
RJ: Wait. Do you ride the G train now? You moved, right?
CB: Yeah, I was living in Park Slope which is why I was doing them. I had a 45 minute commute, so I was in the G train a lot. When I was doing that I was drawing like 6 of those every day. It would usually take me a lot longer to come up with a caption than it would take me to draw them. So I’d set them in a folder and wait until I have a good title for them, I just had a ton of time on my hands. I’ve been working on comics recently in the same way I was working on those. Not doing them as regularly, but just trying to find a little bit of time every week to tell a little story with pictures. I’ve actually only done two, I’ve been a little busy, but I think this season into next year I want to be doing those in my free time.
RJ: What is your strangest subway commute story?
CB: There was a guy on the subway just recently, who was playing music really loud, which usually I wouldn’t like. Something about the music he was picking was making everybody on the subway really happy, kind of in spite of themselves. It was like everyone was having the same experience. He was playing 90’s R&B dance hits, and he’d do this thing where it’d be really quiet when the doors would open. So you walked in, kind of heard somebody playing music, like they were playing on their phone. Then as soon as the doors closed, he would blast it and DJ a little set until we got to the next stop. As he got warmed up and closer to his stop, he started dancing and singing. It wasn’t the best performer I’ve ever seen, but he was enjoying himself, the music he was picking was spot on and not anything I ever would have thought of playing. Goofy stuff, like some Mariah Carey song… all over the place. A total middle school dance situation. Everyone is like looking around, checking with each other and usually people are actually annoyed, but everyone was enjoying it. It was fun, not the weirdest, it was nice though.
RJ: Tell us about your best Halloween costume effort.
CB: Oh man, I’ve been such a slacker the last couple years, but two years in a row I really went for it. And I feel they both had their own merits. One year I was a space robot and I made these cardboard gloves kind of like Hulk hands but they had little cardboard loops for the fingers so that I could move them around with my own fingers. It was just big enough that they were ridiculously big, but small enough that I could actually control each finger. I had one hand that could hold a beer and the other hand was like a high five hand. It was like a poseable hand. I was so proud of these things and I remember basically at some point I threw these gloves away. I was like ‘ah whatever if I really like them I’ll just make new gloves in the future’, but I wish I kept those gloves. They were really cool. I could throw them on the wall and have them forever. I was really proud of that, then I think the next year or the year before I went as… I really dug that “Master and Commander” movie and I wanted to make an old style, English, navy outfit… so I was a commodore basically. I made a jacket that from far away looked really good, but up close was not that well constructed, but I was really proud of this jacket. It had lapels and tails, and I made a vest and some more collar, a big paper-mache hat. That was pretty sweet. Those are some of my best craft efforts for Halloween. Since then I’ve been kinda lazy, I’ll get like a fake mustache or find someone famous who has a mustache and that’s who I am. Maybe next year I’ll pull it together.