Steady Discipline and the Tale of Two Styles: An Interview with Rory Phillips

There are often times when we meet people in our lives whom we know we will always remember. Rory Phillips is one of these people for me. It could be that I have a soft spot for Irish accents, or maybe it’s his boisterous voice and charming demeanor. Mostly I believe it’s his confident energy and discipline as an artist/designer that stands out. Of course, I LOVE his work, with it’s bold color and keen detail—strongly visible within the two diverse styles he creates. I’m really happy to have Rory come share his work and process with us for the August edition of sketchXchange and hope you will join us for a night of inspiration and fun!

Date of the event: Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Time: 6:00 – 9:00pm

Check-in begins at 6:00pm. Doors close at 6:45pm.

Place: The Left Bank Project, 240 N Broadway

Cost: Free, however, a $5 donation is appreciated

Registration Begins: Friday morning at 9am, July 26th

As always, space is limited. Be sure to register early!

RSVP on Eventbrite

YPE

We are excited to have you…especially in this space. You have been a big supporter of WeMake, coming to a ton of our sketchXchange events. People look forward to seeing those red sketches in their books, you know.

RP

I’m glad to have this opportunity to share my work. I feel so young in my career, especially when I see other people’s work and how much they have done.

YPE

So what are you doing with yourself right now?

RP

I’ve been doing a few things with a couple of companies in New York— illustration, animation and design work. I’m also teaching in the graphic design department at Portland State.

YPE

What are you teaching?

RP

Currently I’m teaching Illustration and an Introduction to Design. I really like the illustration class.

YPE

Do you teach old school illustration styles or Adobe Illustrator?

RP

I’m teaching both. Half the time in class I teach students the technical stuff (stuff that I didn’t learn in school) and the other half is conceptual. Josh Kenyon, who also teaches illustration at PSU suggested I have my students keep a Pinterest board. Every week we go through it as a class. We look at why they are responding to the illustrations they like, what’s working and what’s not, and why the illustrators are using color the way they do. It’s a real teaching tool for me, but we also do a lot of reading on illustration and design theory.

YPE

Are you teaching the class from a designer or illustrator’s perspective?

RP

I try to teach 50/50 because I understand that most of the students are primarily designers. I always tell them everything about their illustration studies can be applied to design. The things that are missing in your illustrations are the same qualities you want to look for in your design.  The same way you use color to draw attention, or texture, or the density of line and negative space in illustration—how you can focus the art is the same thing when laying out a page or designing.

I read something once by Saul Bass. He talked about how important it is for designers to be able to draw, because its the quickest way to communicate your ideas. If you don’t learn to draw and communicate your ideas then you’ll never learn. You’ll find a way around it, you’ll handicap yourself and get to a certain level and plateau. You won’t be able to go any further because you’ll be held back by your lack of drawing skills or you’ll feel like it’s too late. So in school I have the students do the analog work first and use a sketchbook.

I’ve seen it happen many times. You have an idea and sketch it out really quick, the client gets it right a way…because a picture is worth a thousand words. So I am trying to get that idea across in my classes. It all begins with a sketch.

YPE

How long have you been a freelancer? 

RP

Eight months. It should have been a long time ago though. This quality of life is really important for me now.  I have a daughter that just turned one, so it’s nice to be flexible for her. I can’t imagine having to work a full day, plus commute and then have to pick her up at daycare. Now, I can always grab her anytime. 

YPE

Do you have a community outside of your own head when you’re at home working?

RP

I don’t. I miss that, but I guess we’re all searching for the perfect work/life thing. I respond well to collaborative environments though. That’s one of the reasons I like sketchXchange so much because it gets me engaged with people. Twitter is good too, but it’s more like a, “get back to work Rory” thing. I see people like Meg Hunt, she’s always making tons of awesome stuff all hours of the night. (YPE: Yeah she is!)

You get this observer’s bias, at any one time someone is always putting something up.  It just seems like everyone is accomplishing more than you…that can be a motivator I suppose.

YPE

You have some great stuff on your website. What I see in your work now is what attracted me to you when you were just out of school. I really love the sci-fi stuff and the mid-century work is great, but it’s such a vast difference. What’s up with these two approaches?

RP

I have two very different distinct styles, in fact I name them—Gogo Picnic and Tijuana Picnic.

The sci-fi stuff is more adult-like and edgy, it’s Tijuana Picnic. The mid-century stuff with the flowers and birds is more Gogo Picnic or Peppermint Picnic style. (YPE: Peppermint Picnic?)

My site is called gogopicnic.com but originally it was going to be tijuanapicnic.com. I was inspired by this record cover I saw called, Colonel Sanders Tijuana Picnic. There was a time in the ’50s where Tijuana was cool, it was a fun place that meant adventure. When I saw the album it reminded me of the mid-century time where people would go to this exotic place over the border.  

People told me that Tijuana Picnic sounded like a sex act. So I was like OK, I don’t want that as my URL. But I wanted to bring it back. I wanted to bring the old style Tijuana back! I really liked the idea of using picnic in the name. It’s fun, whimsical, and a break from the ordinary.  

YPE

What do you do more of? Tijuana or Gogo Picnic stuff?

RP

I think it’s about 50/50. I know you’re not supposed to have two different styles as an illustrator so art directors know what their getting, but I feel as a designer you don’t specialize in one style. When I look at the mid-century style illustrators I admire, I see that they evolved and rolled with the times. I take a lot of inspiration form that. I get bored really easy having to do just one style, so I bounce back and forth often.

It’s more of a continuum, sometimes I don’t know what style it is. I’m really influenced by Mary Blaire and that really graphic mid-century work or Swiss and Scandinavian style. On the other side it’s pulp covers and artists like Boris Vallejo. Maybe there’s a duality in it.

YPE

So do you listen to heavy metal when you’re in the sci-fi mode?

RP

I listen to punk rock when I do sci-fi and and stuff like French Ye’ Ye’ music when I’m doing the Gogo style. Look in my Pandora list and you would see this really weird mix of music, like Roots, Reggae, and The Specials. Then there’s old mid-century bluesy pop and fun Cambodian music form the ’60s. Music has always influenced me. I did gig posters for friends starting out. It was some of the first design I ever did before I really knew what design was. 

YPE

Let’s talk about your history. You’re from Northern Ireland and then you came to the US and enlisted in the Marines. They just let anyone in?

RP

They begged me to join. They definitely shanghaied me a bit!

YPE

How long were you in the Marines?

RP

Six years. I got out and started bartending but I was always doing art. You know, everyone has their own unique voice–something original inside. Something that makes you who you are. It can inform all the decisions in your design. I see it all the time. Everything about my life from growing up in Belfast, coming to Portland or the Marine Corps., all have taught me stuff. I bring that stuff everyday. A lot of people don’t think of the military this way but in the Marines, especially my MOS, really valued the mantra: Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.  Creative thinking was really valued, and I bring that. I was a good problem solver and they fostered it in me. I use it all the time.

The bartending was great when I was young, but I wanted to have a family and settle down. When we were in London, my wife and I were kind of like ships passing in the night. It was time for me to make a change in my life. I had some opportunities left over from the military that allowed me to go back to school. I had already gotten two degrees, one in Zoology and one in History. I never worked in the fields. I went right into the Marines out of school.

I was also pre-med, but I didn’t want to go to med school.

YPE

What? Back it up. BA in Zoology and a BA in History. And then you thought med school?

RP

Yes, I was accepted to a few colleges. (YPE: I bet your wife wishes that you went to med school.)

I didn’t want to go to med school, and I didn’t want to go back to Belfast, but I had an opportunity to join the military and I did. I really loved the Marine Corps. but I got injured (non-combat related) so I didn’t make a career out of it.

After Key West, Poland, Nantucket, Philly, then London I came to Portland.

YPE 

Why did you come to Portland?

RP

The internet told my wife and I to do it. We were in London and wanted to come back to the states, so we took a quiz online. (YPE: Ha! yes, we did that too! I totally forgot about us talking about this!)

Our other choices were Austin, and Boston. Clearly our answers were a bit hipster. Even though I don’t consider myself a hipster.

My wife and I did everything from London. She got a job, we bought a car, got an apartment, and I enrolled in school all online. Then we rolled into our internet life in Portland and we have been here ever since. As far as I know I think we are going to stay. It’s the only place where we both have lived, where we are not talking about the next place we’re going to go.

YPE

Tell me about your sketchbooks. You told me that you used to throw away your sketchbooks. Why?

RP

I moved around a lot and at first didn’t really think that they were important to bring with me. When I was in the Marines I couldn’t have a lot of personal gear so they got pitched. When you’re young you don’t think of too many things as being precious. I also never carried a camera with me. I had this idea that I would rather live life than view it thru some aperture. But now I wish I had some photos from when I was younger.

YPE

So when did you stop throwing the sketchbooks away?

RP

When you asked me if I would do a sketchXchange last year. 

YPE

Shit, really?

RP

I had made a conscious decision to stop throwing them away but hadn’t really stopped until a few months before. Traveling around you can’t carry them all. Recently I was going through one and saw a bunch of ideas that I didn’t even remember doing—they were good ideas. This is valuable. When I was young I never forgot anything…but now I usually always have three or four sketchbooks going at one time. I do everything in them, bills, thought process, to-do lists, final stuff. I see a lot of value in them now.

YPE

Do you paint?

RP

Yes although since I’ve been designing I haven’t really painted that much. I’ve gotten more into screen printing as a production method. When I was painting I would charge $500-$600 per painting, but I don’t think the people who purchased them really valued the work.  With screen printing I can sell prints for $20 bucks and lots of people can have them. I might be a marxist guy at heart. I want art to be for everybody, and for the people.

Please join us for a night of inspiration and fun with Rory, Friday August 2nd at The Left Bank.

Date of the event: Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Time: 6:00 – 9:00pm

Check-in begins at 6:00pm. Doors close at 6:45pm.

Place: The Left Bank Project, 240 N Broadway

Cost: Free, however, a $5 donation is appreciated

Registration Begins: Friday morning at 9am, July 26th

As always, space is limited. Be sure to register early!

RSVP on Eventbrite