The 1980s get a bad rap — the hair, the cars, the slang, the music, the greed — but James White loves that decade. He soaked up the particular vibrancy, excess, and color of that era during his formative years and can't seem to shake it.
Pop cultural references from the late 1970s and 1980s inhabit his creative zone: brawny action movies, slasher horror flicks, playful print ads for Datsun cars and Panasonic consumer electronics, and the sort of neon-glowing "art" that graced the covers of the science/sci-fi magazine, Omni. From his Tumbler feed, you can tell he loves vintage technology, such as boxy computers, cassette tapes, and old-fashioned game consoles.
James currently posts his latest works on signalnoise.com as well as on his Behance site. When he's not creating his colorful art in his studio in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, he travels around the world speaking at design conferences. I reached him recently in Toronto, Canada, where he was attending Fan Expo Canada — fittingly "one of the world's largest celebrations of all things pop culture."
Stefan Gruenwedel: You started out very young. Were you born with a pencil in your hand?
James White: I started drawing simple pictures when I was four years old. The idea of making something from nothing appealed to me, even if I didn't fully understand that concept then. I really took a shining to it — to the point of getting into trouble for drawing Superman on the back of my worksheets.
When you're in elementary school, they encourage you to do a lot of art projects. But as you go through junior high and high school, art gets phased out. Yet somehow, my interest in art stayed with me.
Gruenwedel: Did any friends of yours draw as avidly as you?
White: By the time I got to junior high, it was just my buddy, Mike. We were always drawing wrestlers and making up our own comic book heroes. We were constantly trying to one-up each other, [which] caused us to get better at what we were doing.
That was Friday nights for us. We'd go and hang out at the comic shop until they closed at 9 p.m. Then we would go back to his place and watch horror movies and draw our comic books. We were obviously the most popular kids in school. [Laughs.]
Gruenwedel: You must have soaked up a lot of TV, comics, and movies.
White: Totally. I was a typical kid of the 1980s. I loved watching Saturday morning cartoons and drawing the characters that appeared on the back of cereal boxes. My friends and I loved watching "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones." I was always drawing my favorite characters. I even drew their cars, like the General Lee from the "Dukes of Hazard" and the "A-Team" van. I still love that stuff: old-school Transformers, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, and He-Man.
I think [this fascination for me stems from] the notion of escapism. I love making something out of nothing. When I was a kid, I'd see a show and think, "Wow, somebody made up these characters. I wonder if I can do that someday, too?"
Compare that to the old "M*A*S*H" TV show, which my dad loved. It's very funny, looking at it now, but when you're five years old, everything looks the same. Everybody is dressed in green, and they're driving green jeeps. There's nothing that a kid can grab onto. It's all very realistic looking.
Gruenwedel: Who is your favorite superhero?
White: I went through phases where Spider-Man or Batman was my favorite. If I had to pick only one superhero, it would be Superman. He was the first, and he was the best.
I've noticed a weird progression of the Superman character. When I was a kid, Superman was rescuing cats from trees. My Superman was brightly colored and always smiling. He was everyone's friend. I respect my version of Superman. Now, there's this gritty, badass version of Superman. They redesigned Superman's costume in the comics. And then they put out that damn movie a couple of months ago.
I try hard not to be that old grumpy codger saying, "It was so much better when I was a kid." I respect change, and I understand that times are changing and our taste changes. Fashion changes, idioms change, and everything is different — and that change trickles down to affect comics, movies, and toys.
But in terms of superheroes, like Superman and Batman, things are more gritty and dark now. I think it's unfortunate. There's this push to make superheroes more real. To me, the reason they're superheroes is because they're not real. It's all about fantasy and imagination. That's the point.
Gruenwedel: How did you get into graphic design?
White: There were a couple of key moments. When I was 11 or 12, my mom took one of my ink drawings to work, where she photocopied it and brought back 10 copies. I was like, "Wow, you can produce multiple copies?" That blew my mind, man. It allowed me to color [my drawings] in different combinations.
Right around the same time, we got a Commodore 128 [computer]. It had a really crappy poster program on it with a little ink ribbon printer. I mixed and matched bits of clip art to make little posters of my favorite baseball players. Then I printed them out and colored them.
A couple years later, my parents got me the Super Nintendo. The first game I got was Mario Paint, an early computer art program that came with a mouse. At that point, I knew I wanted to use computers to make stuff.
Gruenwedel: When did you start realizing that computer arts could be a career for you?
White: It never occurred to me that I could do this for a living. In 12th grade, I went to the guidance counselor to sort out my future. I said I wanted to be a police officer, but he said my grades weren't that great. When I said I drew all the time, he asked if I'd ever thought about getting into graphic design. I said, "What's that?" He took out a brochure for a local community college that taught a bare-bones, one-year course in graphic design.
Later I got into a two-year course called "Interactive Technology." One of the topics was website design. It seemed like the perfect time to get into that industry because everybody wanted a website. When I graduated, I was scooped up by a company in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Gruenwedel: Were you still drawing superheroes?
White: Yes, I never got [tired] of drawing comic book heroes and wrestlers. The difference was that I used computer programs to take these drawings further. It would start with a drawing in a sketchbook, and then I'd move into [Adobe] Photoshop and [Adobe] Illustrator and refine what I was doing.
The movie and comic book characters were a stark contrast to the corporate work I was doing during the day. This is going to sound really stupid, but I saw myself along the lines of a Clark Kent/Superman character. During the day, I was Clark Kent working at the Daily Planet with Perry White writing lame-ass articles. But at night, I could run around and be Superman, drawing my own stuff. That went on for years.
Eventually, the scales tipped and I gained a little bit of exposure, doing these pop-culture art explorations, so I ended up going freelance.
Gruenwedel: What made those scales tip?
White: I was really interested in what was [happening] online in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Joshua Davis was rocking with Praystation.com, and there was an explosion of all these crazy art installation websites. I became interested in building my own little corner of the Internet. I started to experiment with a lot of different art styles over an eight-year period.
I started by mimicking people like Joshua Davis and my favorite comic book illustrator, Dave McKean, who is heavily into Photoshop. I'd break down their artwork in a methodical and technical way and then build projects while trying to mimic their processes.
I was trying to bounce off of different design trends. It wasn't until late 2007 [that] I stopped caring about trends. I stopped visiting design blogs every day. I decided I needed a website that I could update all the time. So I installed a WordPress theme on my Signalnoise.com domain.
Gruenwedel: How did anyone find it?
White: I knew that the only way to justify having the blog was to keep the content fresh. So that blog was a motivator for me to just keep making artwork.
I launched that site and then started making artwork — not really influenced by anybody in particular, [but] just making little projects. I put them online and posted about how I did it. The first month, I got maybe 100 hits on the site. I'm sure 80 of them were my mom. [Laughs.]
Some people started commenting on the blog, and I realized that some of them were hanging around and following me. I thought, "What topic do I want to experiment with?" That's when I flipped right back to my childhood.
Gruenwedel: What caught your attention from that early period?
White: When you're a kid, and you're into "Ghostbusters," you don't really know why you're into "Ghostbusters." It's awesome because it's awesome. I wanted that idea to permeate my work: This character is awesome, for no reason. I just love drawing it.
So I researched design styles from my childhood and worked those into my art. That's when I started getting contacted by design blogs, like Fabio Sasso's Abduzeedo.
A couple weeks later, I got a phone call from Saatchi & Saatchi in LA to design some [Toyota] Matrix cars to look all funky and crazy with wild colors. That was in 2008. It's been going on ever since. I attribute it to the fact that I stopped caring about trends and decided to do what made me happy.
Gruenwedel: When did you start experimenting with movie posters?
White: I created a movie poster for "Tron: Legacy" when that movie was first announced and some of the first footage was posted online. I did it because I really like the Tron aesthetic — the black background and the glossy look with the lasers and the neon lights. It wasn't an actual, licensed gig. I didn't even consider it a movie poster because it's basically just a big picture of the Tron disk and the "Tron: Legacy" logo at the bottom. I posted it online and [told people to] check out this new poster.
In early 2012, I did a movie poster for "Drive," the Ryan Gosling film by Nicolas Winding Refn. I had just seen the movie, and it had a very heavy 1980s aesthetic. I thought that the official movie posters for that movie were...I'll just call them lackluster. I decided to make my own poster for fun.
I posted it online [and it] went viral unexpectedly. I ended up inking a deal with FilmDistrict, and it became an officially licensed product of the movie, which was so awesome. A limited run of the poster sold out in five hours.
That's when I knew that I wanted to get into this alternative art movie poster scene because it's huge and it could be a great outlet for me to leave a tiny personal fingerprint on these franchises that I love.
I spent about a year trying to break into this scene. I made a lot of posters. I was turning away client jobs or keeping them to a minimum, so that I had enough time to design my own posters for movies that I love.
Gruenwedel: Sounds like a dream come true.
White: Unfortunately, that industry is incredibly hard to break into. What bummed me out the most was the process required to get licenses for these movies. I made a "Blade Runner" poster and then found out it would cost $30,000 or so to get the license. Except for the "Drive" poster, I didn't make a dime on any of those other movie posters.
Gruenwedel: Do you think that chapter of your life is over?
White: Not necessarily [but] I require a done deal before I start actually making these movie posters. I was recently commissioned by a Canadian company named Skuzzles to do a movie poster for "WarGames," the 1983 movie starring Matthew Broderick. That project was great because Skuzzles already had the license from the company. All I had to do was design the poster, and I got to do whatever I wanted.
Gruenwedel: What's your process for creating an illustration?
White: Everything I do starts with the sketchbook. Drawing by hand is always the quickest way for me to get an idea down and see if it works. [It] allows me to answer a lot of the design questions before I move to the computer. I even use my sketchbook to experiment with highlights and shadows and add a little bit of color.
Then I move into Illustrator. I create what I call a "vector sketch," using basic shapes and forms to rough out the final sketch I made in my [paper] sketchbook.
The vector sketch allows me to see a computerized, dumbed-down version of what that final composition might look like. I can experiment with basic color treatments, and I can apply colors quickly because I can easily replace colors by editing the shapes in Illustrator.
Once that's done, I figure out what process I need to reach the final state of the project. Do I build all my forms in the vector sketch, and then transfer them over to Photoshop and add all my textures in there? Or is this going to be a straight-up vector [piece], where I use bold shapes and keep them clean and crisp? Do I want to add a lot of noise to it, or do I want hand-drawn stuff? Sometimes I'll draft a really good hand-drawn sketch, scan it in, and then use Photoshop to finish it.
When it gets to the final state, I have to think about how the artwork will be printed. Is it going to be screen print, do I have to break it out, do trapping, and do multiple plates? Or is it going to be a digital print where I can just go wild with the colors, add lens flares, rainbows, and whatever the hell I want?
It takes a lot of experimentation, but that is my favorite part of the process because I keep things very organic. I try not to be stapled down to an exact aesthetic or have a very rigid representation in my mind of what this final thing will be. Inevitably I'll make what I call the happy mistake, where I try something that screws things up [but] ends up being much better than what I initially thought it would be.
Gruenwedel: What are you doing now?
White: I've launched into this new thing: Art influenced by children's book illustrations from the 1960s and 1970s. I mixed some really old animation styles with a sprinkling of Saul Bass sensibility, in terms of aesthetics.
I've adopted a new kind of illustration style [that's] almost equal parts Illustrator and Photoshop. I start with vector [art] and then move into Photoshop to add my lighting, textures, and all that good stuff: grit, background, and color flares.
My strategy worked because I was contacted by Canon [the camera company]. They were celebrating their 40th anniversary, and they hired me to illustrate three of their cameras in the same illustration style that I was doing.
Right at this moment, I'm using that same illustration style to illustrate WWF wrestlers. I know it sounds stupid, but that's what I love doing, and I wanted to create an interesting little art series so that I could illustrate the wild and colorful characters from my childhood again.
Gruenwedel: Why do you love saturated colors?
White: The colors remind me of being five years old, sitting in front of the TV and seeing that CBS Special Presentation logo with the bongos playing and the crazy colors. I remember being so excited, thinking, "Maybe they are going to show 'Star Wars' again." I would see that NBC Peacock logo animating on TV with the crazy rainbows. Every feather was a different color. The colors [I use] recapture that excitement I had when I was a kid.
[My use of saturated colors] might also be a rebellion against what I learned in school. When you're in design school, you have to choose the proper colors that are appropriate for the goal of that product or event you're promoting.
Gruenwedel: This might be a throwaway question, but "Star Trek" original series or "Star Wars"?
White: "Star Wars" all the way, man. I actually do like the new "Star Trek" films, and I have a lot of the "Star Trek" films on DVD, but that original series killed me. Some people adore it, but even as a kid, I thought it looked terrible. "That's their view screen? Give me a break."
But when "Star Wars" came out, it just blew my face off. I loved the awesome spaceships flying around, shooting at each other. Laser swords? That's just crazy. [Laughs.]
Stefan Gruenwedel is the managing editor of Adobe Inspire Magazine. He occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.