29-year-old artist Jacob Thomas has been putting pen to paper since he was a child, planting the seeds for what would become a full-time career. Hailing from Maryland, he did a four-year stint in the Coast Guard, where his creative talents didn't go unnoticed. He was asked to paint interiors of ships and design logos and other artwork for them, which in turn helped spur his own creative impulses. After several years in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York and developed his colorful, modern portraits which have since attracted the attention of major media companies.
His gallery opening tonight at Williamsburg's Supreme Trading is the result of his last few years spent honing his craft as part of Decozone, where he's done commissioned work for everyone from Forbes to part of a series on the Founding Fathers for The New Yorker, Continental Airlines, L'Oreal, Ralph Lauren Polo and even designed a snow globe for Bath & Body Works. Currently, he's illustrating Josh Mitchell's graphic novel Germ of a New Insanity and continues to expand his output and experiment creatively with new materials and methods. He recently emailed Gothamist about his use of bubble imagery, documenting his artistic process, and finding the right gallery vibe.
When did you first start drawing, and what's the earliest piece of art that you still have and are proud of?
I remember drawing when I was about three years old. My father, who I've only met about five times in my life, taught me how to draw a ribbon. But the earliest piece of art that I can think of, still have and am proud of, would probably be a Christmas ornament that my mom actually is in possession of. It's a small house that I drew and then made 3D with the help of some tape and Elmer's glue.
I dumped almost all of my work when I left Pittsburgh. I was carrying it around with me for so long that I got tired of it. It felt like I was only keeping it around to show other people how good I was. So what? Who cares if anyone knows that? So I dumped it. A lot of it. Almost everything I had from first grade to age 27. It was very liberating.
When did you realize this was something you wanted to do for a living?
It was never really a question of what I wanted to do so much as building the confidence to go for it. I feel like I always knew. My friends throughout my childhood always seemed to be into sports. They loved to watch football, baseball, basketball, anything, and I wasn't into that. I liked playing them but not organized sports and I definitely didn't like watching other people play.
So my interests turned towards art. I felt special. My friends who made fun of me all the time now thought I was cool because I could draw a picture. I'm sure my passion was somehow connected to the experience I had with my father, and later on with my older brother, who also taught me to draw. Creating art not only made me feel special and give me the ability to create my own worlds, it also made me feel "home" no matter where I was. It made me smile, and I like smiling.
So to answer your question, somewhere between painting the claustrophobia-inducing potable water tanks on the CG Cutter Kiska and working at an art supply store where the question "Do you guys sell art supplies?" was a constant, I decided that if I can do a job I hate, well then I can do a job I love even better. Everything from there on out was a "lesson" for the bigger picture.
During your time in the Coast Guard, you got started doing some art projects for them. What kinds of work did they have you do?
I was in the Coast Guard from March 1996 to November 2000. The day I was supposed to get out, sometime in March, I found out I had a blood clot. This led to a series of tests and ultimately me having to stay in for six more months. The doctors found out I had Factor 5 Leiden, a mutation in my blood cells that makes them clot easier than normal.
This meant I needed to take blood thinners and was no longer fit for full duty. I was medically discharged with $15,000 severance pay.
I didn't do a whole lot but whatever station I was at, I always managed to get handed some kind of assignment. For instance, while I was on the ship in Hawaii, I painted a few things on the walls of the engine room for morale. One image was the Tasmanian devil dressed as a mechanic, because my boss loved the character. Other than that, I would do t-shirts or paint a portrait of someone on the ship or a logo for a softball team. I also created the logo for MSO Pittsburgh. They ended up making a huge carpet at the entrance of their office with it.
You work for the small design firm Deco Zone, doing illustrations for magazines such as Forbes, The New Yorker, Boys Life, Vibe and other publications, as well as commercial work for L'Oreal, Bath & Body Works, and other corporate clients. On a typical illustration job, how much guidance are you given in terms of the magazine or company's vision for the project? Is there ever a clash between your design ideas and theirs?
It varies a great deal. Some clients will tell me word for word what they need done and others simply say "I need this, this is the budget, here’s the deadline, here’s the story, GO!" Followed by a starter pistol sound effect.
As for the second part, yes, there are clashing ideas, for sure. For instance, my friend Norman Huelsman, an art director at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and I, have been working together for going on three years now. We always have a fight about something. He's a good friend of mine and it has created a comfortable environment for honesty. I am allowed to say what I want exactly how I want to and it helps me, at least with him. He always manages to push me to into something new every time. I feel like it all works because everything we have tackled together thus far has won some kind of award. And, more importantly, I like the end result.
I've gotten a lot better at realizing that art directors know what they are doing. Even when I cringe at their suggestions I know that they might be on to something and I try it. They’re usually right.
What is your preferred work environment? Do you listen to music or use other stimulus to get you into the zone? Do you do your best work when you're completely alone?
I prefer to be alone with my iPod. I hate distractions. I work with two other people in the office and it's okay. They know when to leave me alone which is nice. But I still prefer to be completely alone. And I work best in the morning with my first sip of coffee.
On the website Artwanted.com, you detail some of your creative steps, such as The New Yorker cover pitch process as well as various stages of paintings such as 'The Swim" and "Different Perspective." How does photographing your artwork in various stages help you perfect it?
Part of the reason I do that is because I know what it was like as a young artist trying to figure everything out. I was always fascinated with how people did things. I just couldn't get enough when it came to learning technique. Students have contacted me several times asking me how I achieved a certain texture or are interested in the process as a whole, so I thought it would be easier to explain by posting pictures.
But also I like to take things out of context and get a different perspective. Viewing it on the computer helps me see it with new eyes. I’m no longer looking at it against the wall for hours on end. Now I can view it on my computer, make it black and white, boost contrast, change colors, anything. I even try adding things like paint splatter effects just to see what I’m getting myself into. It all just helps the process really soak into my brain and keeps my mind’s eye sharp. It helps me make the next move confidently and intelligently.
What's been the highlight of your career thus far?
If I had to pick one, I would say getting the cover of Communication Arts was a big deal for me. It was my first mainstream published piece. It really gave me confidence I needed and helped my career.
Many of your pieces feature bubbles in various colors and permutations. Does that have a special symbol for you?
The bubbles concept actually came from a job I did with Norm for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Our concept was we wanted to show a person creatively influencing other people. So I chose the bubbles to represent the thing that was created to influence others. The idea being that this was an encapsulation of the artist's voice and it would float around "moving" people. The first image for the promotional catalog has the person blowing the bubbles and the people are quite literally being moved by the bubbles. The second image, for the catalog with all of the classes information that's mailed after potential students have received the promotional catalog, shows a student being influenced by the bubbles while figuring out that he himself has a voice too. I did a few other bubble illustrations and a big monster painting.
I don't think bubbles are special or anything, I just think I was being inspired by my environment. I walk through Manhattan in the summer and you can’t go two city blocks without some guy shooting bubbles at you from a plastic gun. I saw how it affected people and it found its way into my work.
Prior to moving to New York, you lived in Pittsburgh, where you honed your art skills. How are the art scenes in each city different and which do you prefer?
Pittsburgh actually has a pretty happening art scene. There are tons of illustrators who live there and are major forces in the field. There is the Warhol Museum, which is always nice to grab some inspiration from. The Carnegie Museum of Art was always nice to check out as well. All of that said, this is New York. There's no way Pittsburgh compares to the art scene here. Pittsburgh has its charm but New York is the place for me, hands down.
You're illustrating a graphic novel called Germ of a New Insanity by Josh Mitchell. How did you and Mitchell meet, and what is the novel about? How much give and take is there between the two of you in terms of your illustration?
Josh found me on the cover of Communication Arts. He contacted me via email, then sent me the story and after talking me into it, I ran with it.
The novel is about a writer who gets inspired to use graffiti to get his message out. He becomes famous for writing one liners all over the city. The story follows his rise and fall from glory. It's really over-the-top. The content is kind of ridiculous but the way he writes it makes me love it. It has a sort of rap-influenced vibe to it.
Josh loves everything I do, which is my kind of client. It's nice because I feel like anything I want to do for this book is free game.
How did tonight's Supreme Trading show come about? What appealed to you about the space?
When I moved to Williamsburg two years ago, I started hanging out at Supreme Trading because I liked the atmosphere. I noticed they had a gallery and immediately started talking about a show. I started chatting it up with Laura, one of the owners. I told her who I was, which was basically no one at the time, and let her know I was interested. Every time we talked it was at the bar, which translates to less than sober conversation. I never took it that seriously but then one night I bumped into Laura at the laundromat. We started talking and by the time I was finished folding my clothes, I had my first solo show.
The space appealed to me because of the overall vibe. It's a lounge with an art gallery. Every time I go to openings they seem very tense. People are crammed into this small space trying not to bump up against the art. Once you look at the art you’re left with the feeling of "Okay, now what do I do?" With Supreme Trading, it's chill. You go into the main gallery and it's huge, around 2,500 square feet, there’s plenty of room. Once you’re finished checking out the art you can hang out at the bar and dance to whatever the DJ is spinning at the time or shoot some pool. The layout and style of the place are very hip.
Is there a theme to the pieces you'll be showing or any message you're trying to get across with your work?
No theme. I just want to show people some stuff I've been working on and hopefully meet some cool people in the process.
You'll be showing large fine art canvases as well as some of your other illustration work. Does working in various mediums appeal to different sides of your creative brain? Does the sheer size of some of the larger canvases you're using free you to be a little wilder in what you do with them?
I like to work in all kinds of mediums. I feel like every time I do something I'm cataloging it in my head somewhere. So if, for instance, I need to illustrate a man wearing glasses and I want some kind of texture on the lens, I might remember something I did in a painting two years ago that would fit exactly what I need for this image.
As far as the size goes, I used to get crazy with large areas. I wouldn't really pay attention to what I was doing and the paint would fly. Now I plan everything out. Of course, there are still things that I experiment with but for the most part, whether it's big or small, it's all handled the same.
Since it's the start of 2007, do you have any New Year's resolutions, and have you kept to them so far?
Not really any resolutions per se. I quit smoking a couple of months ago and I want to keep that going. Other than that, I plan on getting a six pack this year. Gotta keep your body working right. I'm close to that goal. Cross your fingers.