Tavis Coburn graduated from California’s prestigious Art Center College of Design with a BFA in Illustration. Since then, Tavis has created countless works for leading publishing, advertising, and music companies in North America and Europe. His clients list includes Time, Rolling Stone, GQ, The NFL, Nike, Lexus Sony/BMG, Island/Def Jam, and Universal Music. Over the years Tavis’ work has garnered many accolades, including top honors from The Society of Publication Designers, the Society of Illustrators, and American Illustration. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
TAVIS COBURN: My process is an almost entirely digital replication of screen printing. The first stage involves building the illustration using elements created in Cinema 4D and ZBrush. Those are then painted over or prepared for colour separation in Corel Painter, Photoshop, and Illustrator. The final step, when all the halftones and texture are added, involves printing the art out of my film positive printer and then re-scanning and compositing the print outs in Photoshop.
Don’t kill yourself by working in a labour intensive style…
TC: I’d say it’s the desk itself. I work at a mid-century Steelcase tanker desk that I’ve had since I graduated in 1998. It’s probably 60 years old but, in the years it’s been in my possession, it’s developed a lot of unique character. I’ve worn away the finish in areas just from drawing and typing. It’s getting kind of wobbly. But it’s still going strong and I’m sure I’ll retire before it does.
FYD: What is your favorite work tool?
TC: I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with the pace required of illustrators these days without a Wacom tablet. I used to do all my painting in gouache on illustration board, but it’s so unforgiving and time-consuming that I have no desire to go back. And there’s not a client in the world who has the extra time in their deadlines any more, either.
FYD: How long does it take to create each piece and how do you keep your time in check?
TC: The time to complete a piece varies so widely depending on the complexity of the image that it’s tough to ball park. I need a day per painted figure, minimum. If that doesn’t work with a client’s deadline, I encourage them to consider a streamlined version of their idea with fewer complicated elements and it often winds up being a stronger piece for the simplification. But time is always in short supply. I’ve sacrificed a lot of sleep over the years.
Illustrators looking for their voice need to be true to themselves.
FYD: You are a fan of the 1940′s thru 1960s; what old collateral do you sift through?
TC: I have an extensive library of vintage magazines and never hesitate to pick up books on the advertising, graphic design, and illustration of that period. Popular Mechanics and Fortune are two titles I find myself referencing frequently.
FYD: Who are some of your favorite characters from this era?
TC: I like to have JC Leyendecker and Gil Elvgren illustrations up with my reference material while I paint, to remind me to keep my brushwork as simple and efficient as possible.
FYD: What part of today’s pop culture are you digging?
TC: I like that we’re all generating our own “pop culture” these days. If I want to make a toy, I can do that effortlessly, really. In a way that’s never been feasible before. If a 12-year-old kid has a brilliant idea for a mobile app, he can make it happen. Creative entrepreneurship has never been more viable and that’s amazing. The flip side of that coin, though, is the ease with which people are able to obtain “celebrity status.” We have a hard time distinguishing between people who deserve recognition and people who are merely ever-present and declare themselves important.
FYD: Your work certainly covers the span of sports; who is your favorite athlete and team?
TC: I wasn’t really a baseball or football fan growing up. I grew up in Canada during a pretty amazing NHL era but I can’t say I was a ravenous fan. Michael Jordan seems like an obvious answer but, again, I wasn’t a hardcore Bulls fan. The athletes I cared most about were some of the early skateboarding pioneers. Rodney Mullen and Chris Miller would be the two that stand out in my mind.
FYD: How does one stop focusing on what is trendy or “of the moment” and make their work relevant?
TC: Illustrators looking for their voice need to be true to themselves. Don’t hesitate to experiment with new approaches to convey your ideas but don’t feel like you need to commit to a particular style because it seems like it’s on every other page of the latest American Illustration. Are you a bit neurotic? That comes through in the way you pull a line. Are you an uncomplicated person? That will show in the way you tend to compose images. Would you rather spend a day coming up with an idea than a day sitting at your drawing board executing that idea? Don’t kill yourself by working in a labour intensive style, then. Building your reputation on stylistic and thematic trends is risky not just because they might fall out of style but because it may never come off as authentic coming from you in particular, even when the look is popular. Find the technique that feels comfortable to you and then focus on using that to convey concepts in a relevant, contemporary way.