Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Illustrator Alex Fine is divine, and like Divine the drag superstar, a staple in the Baltimore Arts. He’s our second interviewed artist to be obsessed with drawing hair. Whether it’s Lorde’s long locks or the purple sheen of a Raven’s feathers, it’s such a treat for the eyes. His clean and retro-inspired style is perfect for his hundreds of spot-on accurate portraits that have graced the covers of websites, magazines, and weekly papers across the US. Check out his website for the full client list. Grab yourself a cold Natty Boh and read on to see what Ray Jones had to ask the Rockabilly illustrator that never sleeps.
RAY JONES: Maybe you’ve completely lost track over the years, but how many portraits have you done?
ALEX FINE: Oh man, it’s so hard to count because I’ve done so many. I’d have to say though, I know for Philadelphia Weekly I did at least one a week, and I worked for them for three years. So that’s definitely over a 150 for Philadelphia Weekly. And if you add together all the other jobs I’ve done, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somewhere close to 600 over the years.
AF: They range from celebrities to people to even just friends and family.
RJ: Is it fair to say that portraits are your favorite thing to draw or is there anything else?
AF: Well, it’s weird. For me, I used to draw portraits all the time when I was in high school and I kind of just felt like it was something I was just comfortable with? I think I have fun drawing portraits when I can incorporate something conceptual into it. If it’s just a standard portrait, it’s good money for the time I’ve put in to it when I do it for a job. I wouldn’t say it’s the most fulfilling job because I don’t get to put as much of my personality in to it sometimes. It’s different for certain illustrators, because I think they stylistically have a little more fun with it. But whenever I do portraits it’s more on the realistic end, so it becomes more of an exercise in drawing. It’s something I feel comfortable with. I enjoy doing it as far as the job goes, but I think I always have a little more fun when I can do something that adds a little bit of conceptual thinking to it too.
RJ: Who would you like to draw next?
AF: Well, now that I’ve drawn Lorde who has pretty awesome hair, I’d say it’s pretty much always somebody with cool hair, because hair is my favorite thing to draw. I guess if I’m thinking about people with cool hair… let’s see, maybe Dave Mustaine from Megadeth? [Laughs] He has cool hair.
RJ: [Laughs] Awesome.
AF: I just saw a meme on Facebook recently that had Putin + Dave Mustaine’s hair = Dave Mustaine. [Laughs]
AF: So maybe that’d be a cool thing to actually illustrate. Maybe that’d be fun. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Dave Mustaine’s politics or him as a person in general, but I liked Megadeth when I was growing up. It’d be fun to draw Dave Mustaine at some point.
RJ: Yeah, Megadeth is pretty funny. You listen to it and you hear him like “No no no no no, faster. Faster than Metallica.” [Laughs]
AF: Yeah, there’s some history there with Metallica and Megadeth for sure.
RJ: You mostly work in brush and ink, with the exception of maybe your digital art. So, what draws you to traditional brushwork like this?
AF: Well, I’ve recently started to use a Cintiq tablet to kind of emulate ink lines and I know Kyle Webster the illustrator, his brush set for photoshop is really amazing. He actually has brush pen style digital brushes. He has this one called Mr. Natural, which has the same kind of break up that you get from the ink line where it gets kind of distressed based on the type of paper you’re using, but I have to say, nothing quite captures ink the way an actual ink brush does. Whether it’s a paintbrush dipped in India ink or it’s a brushpen, the way it feels on the paper, the way it picks up the tooth of the paper is completely unique. It’s never the same way twice. You know, when you put ink to paper, depending on the texture of the paper, you’re always going to have something completely unique and something that you can’t predict. I kind of like the fact that you can’t predict what the line’s going to be like and the faster the brush stroke, the more different the line will be and it’s something that gives energy to an illustration, I think. That’s something I love about your work so much, the texture of the brushstroke.
RJ: Thanks, man.
AF: I see a lot of people do digital work and no matter how good the simulation is, it’s never quite the same as when you put ink to paper. That’s not to say anything against digital art too, because everything has it’s own benefit. That sleek smooth line, but for me I always love the rough lines. The rough lines are my favorite.
RJ: Yeah, I enjoy going analog. It’s good. [Laughs]
AF: Yeah definitely, definitely, it’s always 100% unique. There’s never been a line exactly like the line you put down.
RJ: What are the biggest influences on your style?
AF: When it all started for me, I didn’t know what illustration was until I started seeing Kent Williams artwork in different magazines. He had this cool realism mixed with exaggerated figures. I thought that was cool because it was somebody that was going beyond a photograph. Before that I was really into Norman Rockwell and Wyeth and all these illustrators who were good at painting realistically and they create these great narratives, but there was something missing in the energy that people like Kent Williams were able to capture. I got really into those illustrators, and people like Roberto Parada and all these realistic painters who could add a little extra to it. Then when I got to MICA I got really into Charles Burns. That’s when I started doing inking, because when you look at Charles Burns’ comics like Black Hole or Big Baby, you see that this is somebody who inks in a way that doesn’t even seem real. It doesn’t seem like it’s possible to ink like that. There was the aspect of the challenge of learning how to ink in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible. That was always a big part of art in general for me, it being a challenge. Seeing how somebody did something and figuring out how to do it myself. I carry that over to music too. When I play guitar, I always go to shows and watch the guitar player and see how they do it, because there’s always that challenge. You see a guitar solo, you want to know how it’s done. To that extent, art and music has always been about the challenge: seeing what’s possible to do. Every time I see an illustrator and I don’t know how they do it, or a certain style, I try to figure out how they do it, so I can do it myself. Not to say I’m going to go on and make that my style! I would never appropriate somebody else’s style like that, but I do like to meet the challenge and maybe have it contribute to something that’s going to create a new style as the outcome.
Charles Burns was a huge influence on me, then Yuko Shimizu came to MICA and gave a lecture and I just loved her work instantly. She actually turned me on to Nathan Fox and Tomer Hanuka, I guess they were classmates of hers? From that point on it was all ink and I started changing a little bit from Charles Burns to get more of a looser line, but still a basis in reality, but still playing a little bit on fantasy too. So now, every time I see an illustrator I like, it’s just one more illustrator I add to the list. I teach one class at MICA now, it’s Sophomore Illustration. I don’t let any of them get through the end of the semester until they can name at least ten illustrators that they absolutely love off the top of their head, because that’s the thing, you can’t make yourself better unless you have illustrators that you admire yourself. It all comes down to raising your own personal bar, your own standard. Having illustrators that you love will do that, so for me, my influence just comes from an infinite amount of illustrators. Every day I see Tumblrs, I see blogs that have illustrators that I never see that I love, and then I try to figure out how they do what they do. I try to hopefully make that another influence that I can add to the list of people.
RJ: Great! I don’t want to go on a tangent, but you mentioned so many of my favorite illustrators there. So close to my heart [laughs].
AF: Yeah, every time I see a Nathan Fox illustration online… I love everything he does. When he came to MICA last year, it was really hard for me not to become a gushing fan because I’ve loved his work for ten years. It’s been a really long time. He’s fantastic and a really really nice guy too, which makes it even better.
RJ: Yeah! His work has such a kinetic movement to it that is just beautiful, it is watching life frozen in time. Wow.
AF: Yeah, his compositions… he gets everything, every part of the illustration. If he was a student in one of my classes, there would be nothing I could negatively critique about his work. I can look at a lot of famous illustrators and say if I did it, I might’ve done something differently, but with him, there’s nothing I can say about it. Always perfect, you know? He seems like one of those illustrators that can do no wrong. That’s how I feel about Daniel Krall’s work too. I feel like it just comes naturally, though I’m sure he has his own struggles from time to time, when you look at his final product, it looks like it was effortless. [Laughs] Enough gushing!
RJ: What has inspired you to continue to work from Baltimore as opposed to moving to a bigger city, like New York for example?
AF: I like New York and I like LA. I like major cities like Chicago, I love Chicago, but the thing is, Baltimore… First of all, I grew up in Maryland. My parents lived in Gaithersburg, which is 45 minutes up from Baltimore and it would be hard to leave my family behind, but also my wife, her family also lives in Maryland. That’s one reason to stay in Maryland, but also I love Baltimore the city, I’m comfortable here. In NY there’s a lot of great people, but unfortunately there are some people who aren’t so great that kind of make you feel like you have to fit into their standard of living, standard of fashion, standard of style in general, and it’s really hard to not get sucked in to it. I can tell you, during my visits to NY I feel a little insecure [laughs], or a little like maybe fashionably behind or something. I feel like I have to dress up when my band plays there. That could be good too, I like dressing up [laughs], wearing clothes that I think are cool, but the thing is when I go there I feel like I’m a little bit behind or moving too slow for the hustle of NY. Baltimore has lots of perks of a big city. It has great restaurants, great art, great bands, but I feel like it’s more of what I’ve grown up with, so I have to sort of reinvent myself. There’s a lot of people in NY from Baltimore who don’t feel they need to reinvent themselves; doing a service to NY by bringing a little bit of Baltimore with them, because I think Baltimore has a little bit of what NY was back in the 70s. I think NY has a lot of good things going for it now, that it maybe didn’t have ten years ago. Last time I went to NY it felt like there was a little more of an art community than when I first graduated from MICA. Maybe if I graduated more recently, I’d be interested in going to NY, there’s some better stuff going on there now than I think there used to be. Both cities have their merits, I think it’d be hard personally for me to station myself in a city where I feel so insecure. If I was more of a secure person I think I would be better in NY because I would bring my own personality there, but I would change if I went there. I have so many friends in NY, I would never say that they’ve changed per se, most of them haven’t. Most of the people I know from Baltimore that move there still stay the same, BUT I know some people who move there and get sucked into their jobs in Manhattan where they got somehow detached from who they used to be. You can’t move at a slower pace and still make it in certain areas in certain professions in NY.If you become an Art Director, it can be hard to maintain that same kind of relaxed personality from a different city.
RJ: Impossible [Laughs]
AF: Yeah, NY’s so fast. [Laughs] Another thing though, most of the people I work with are in NY, most of the magazines I work for are NY magazines. That’s one thing Baltimore is lacking, a variety of publications and editorial illustration. The only publication I’ve really worked for in Baltimore is City Paper, and aside from that there’s really no one else I work for in the city. NY has a lot of great things too, it’s just for me, I fell in love with Baltimore, with MICA and I’ve just been here ever since.
AF: [Laughs] Kind of a long answer, but I wanted to emphasize how much I love Baltimore.
RJ: That’s a great answer, I feel like it’s sort of been treated like a Rite of Passage. Like, ‘Alright, go to school, go to NY = become successful.’ There’s not really that analysis of what happens between becoming successful and what happens right after you get out of school. [Laughs]
AF: It’s true, I’ve worked so many jobs in my life. I was having this discussion with my wife and one of our friends the other night. My wife works at Trader Joe’s as a sign artist. Her friend used to be a sign artist too, and now she works on the floor there. We were talking about how some people, politicians nowadays, talk about how people who are making minimum wage are just making that much because they don’t work hard enough. I told them that to me, the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life was waiting tables. The easiest job I’ve ever had in my life was being an illustrator. To me, illustration is brilliant, it’s fun, but it comes a little more natural than those other jobs did. I get paid a lot more to be an illustrator than I did waiting tables or working in a museum or working in a hotel. I’ve had so many weird crazy jobs that made me work like ten, maybe twelve hours a day, working with a whole spectrum of personalities. Some were good, some were bad, and physically or mentally draining. With illustration it’s fun, it’s stay at home and watch Netflix movies while I draw all day and I get paid more than I deserve sometimes. Sometimes less. I always hate the fact that some people will judge somebody’s skills or importance based on their job, because for me, illustration is a fun, easy job. There’s a lot of people working really hard on odd jobs that they really hate and are not making enough money. I don’t know how I got on that subject [laughs]. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
RJ: Yeah, like what’s the cost of your soul and do people see the same value in it [laughs]. You know, that kind of stuff.
AF: Yeah, I feel illustration has a lot of value, but there’s a lot of other professions that are very necessary for us to operate, that I think people don’t value enough. I think I’m on this tangent because I’ve watched this movie called “Inequality for All”, a movie by Robert Reich, ex-president of the labor department. He did this about wealth inequality in this country… [laughs] that’s all I talk about, politics. It just struck me, as an illustrator. We started talking about the time between graduation and working as an illustrator. I would have to work eight hours a day at a day job and then work eight more hours at night on my freelance job. It’s a tough thing to do, I think some people are lucky and come from families that can help them out when they first graduate. Give them a little money and let them go. If you don’t have that safety net when you graduate it’s much harder work. Then the thing about moving to NY is it’s going to be so much more expensive and I imagine it takes that much more to work that day job and then work at night on your freelance. It’s tough, I respect every illustrator who went to NY after school and made something of themselves. It’s just so hard, working part time or full time even, doing illustration work. That’s the thing I think about Baltimore, it’s cheaper. Apartments are so cheap, cost of living is not so bad… but NY has a lot of fun things to do.
RJ: What does your schedule look like, since you’re balancing being in a band and you’re a full time illustrator, so what’s your day-to-day like?
AF: Mondays are my tough day, because I have a weekly assignment for a newspaper where I do five spot illustrations, usually one a night. I’ll do that on Mondays, but I have to teach the next day. So I’ll do the City Paper job, I’ll start it before my class starts, then I teach my class for six hours and then I come home at ten o’clock and finish up my City Paper job. That’s like doing two jobs in one day. That’s pretty stressful and tiring, but then the rest of the week I usually have about three freelance jobs a week, so I’m usually juggling those depending on what they are. I have some steady clients, I do a lot of work for a few different clients. I do stuff for NY Magazine for their website “Vulture”, and I’ve been doing stuff for this magazine called “Capital New York”. There’s City Paper once a week, then there’s always random assignments that come in. I’m really lucky to have a rep right now that’s based in NY. My rep, her name is Kat, she works very hard to find me new clients. Between that and the clients I have randomly email me during the week, it’s been good. I’m actually in a position where I can turn down work now, which is always a good feeling. My week after I teach on Mondays is usually Tuesday-Sunday nonstop work. It gets tough because I usually have two band practices a week, with two different bands, and I play at least one show a week. There’s always a lot of chaos in my life, I guess I could say, but I figure, I’m only 34 now, which isn’t young and isn’t old. I feel like I can still get as much fun stuff done and finish my illustrations while I can still do it. Probably once I reach 40 it’s going to be a lot harder to stay up all night working or play a show until two in the morning. Right now, it might sound crazy and stressful chaotic, but it’s something I’ve been doing for the last however many years. I figure I’ll keep doing it until I physically can’t do it anymore. For me, playing in a band is almost like a vacation from work. It’s something I do to kind of get the stress out. I remember you saying you were a drummer right?
RJ: Yeah, yeah I used to play in a metal band a few years back. [Laughs]
AF: I bet that’s a good thing when you’re stressed out from a job or an illustration, it’s just good to bang on the drums, same as being on guitar. If I’m really going crazy at a show on stage, it’s probably because I had a hellish week and I’m just getting it all out on stage. It’s pretty therapeutic to be in a band, especially if you’re playing in a punk band. I’m in a band right now with my friend Nolan, he used to play in the band Double Dagger. We started a band called Pure Junk, kind of an 80s hardcore punk band. Playing shows he goes crazy on stage, we all go nuts because we’re all artists in the band and we all deal with the same client issues and stuff. Clients are great, but every now and then you get a bad one or you get someone who over art directs you, or makes your life just really difficult. I think having that opportunity to just go nuts on stage is very therapeutic, makes you feel pretty good. I work at home, watch Netflix movies and my parents HBO Go account. Being an illustrator is the perfect job for binge watching a whole series of a show. It’s background noise, but you still get invested in watching. My day to day life is watching lots of tv, eating lots of snack cakes and drawing until my hand doesn’t work anymore.
RJ: [Laughs] That sounds awesome.
AF:[Laughs] If I could sum it up, those would be the main things I do.
RJ: Last question! Which of your favorite bands from high school would you be embarrassed to listen to now?
AF: It’s hard because I have very little shame when it comes to music. I will admit to the whole world I used to play in a ska band and ska has a terrible reputation now because of bands like Reel Big Fish. The thing is, the music, the ska I listened to was a lot of awesome british bands like Madness and Bad Manners… so I feel like I still love those bands and since playing with my band, we’ve actually played with all of those bands. We played with all the old 70s and 60s ska bands. I remember opening up for the Skatalites at University of Maryland. There’s really not much I can say I’d be embarrassed about. I listened to Green Day when I went to high school in the early mid 90s. I have to admit, they got me into all those Lookout Records bands that led me to other punk bands. It’s tough. I’ve never really been embarrassed of any bands, they’re always stepping stones. I can probably take it back to before high school… where I would be embarrassed of certain things. In high school I was listening to the Ramones and bands like that, but in junior high… I have to admit I had some Bell Biv Devoe cassette tapes and I listened to those in middle school, they were a hip-hop group in the lightest sense of hip hop [laughs]. They had a song called “Poison“. Then there was this a capella band, they had this song “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday“… [laughs].
RJ: [Laughs] I think you’re talking about Boyz II Men.
AF: [Laughs] You know, the early 90s, 1990-92… I listened to a lot of really bad radio hits. [Laughs] Bell Biv Devoe, MC Hammer, that’s what I listened to in middle school, I guess. When I bought a guitar it all changed, but yeah… [laughs] the one thing I’d be guilty or feel shame about, that’d be it. The early 90s were such a dark age for rap and hip-hop… I could’ve listened to less bad stuff, but instead I listened to that. [Laughs]
AF: I kind of followed whatever was popular, then I got into punk rock and pretty much lost all my friends and became the only one listening to punk rock at my high school… yeaah, yeah that happened.
RJ: Good times… [laughs]
AF: [Laughs] That’s when my parents started to ask if I was okay, because they’re like ‘You don’t hang out with people anymore.’ I was like ‘Well, I found The Ramones.’ The Ramones are all about being huge dorks and eating pizza, playing videogames. I don’t know. They like to think that punk rock ruined my life, because if I didn’t get into punk, I wouldn’t have gotten into art. I think they’re changing their tune now, since I’m actually making a living as an artist. [Laughs] I think they were afraid of what my future was going to look like… and they blamed punk rock, they blamed The Ramones, The Clash, whoever else.