Artist Interview - Zach Johnson

Feature Story

Zach Johnsen is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer, working both in the commercial sphere and fine-art world. He uses graphite, watercolour, pen and ink and acrylic on mostly 2D surfaces and by far his most trusted medium is the Micron pen. He uses them exhaustively to describe an ever-expanding world of ghouls, monsters and misfits — the shady characters in everyday life and how they expose themselves in our world. His work is frenetic and chaotic, an explosion of lines and colour influenced by infomercials, cartoons, sweets and the over-consumption of popular culture. Johnsen has lent his unique style of frenetic pen lines, jumbled character piles and explosive colour to a variety of applications. He has worked with Bulleit Bourbon, MTV, K2 Snowboards, ESPN, Nike, Gnu Snowboards, Icon Motosports, Slingshot Wakeboards and Sony/BMG. His fine-art work has been displayed across the US, in Australia, Denmark, Japan and the UK. He currently splits his time between northern New Hampshire and Portland, Oregon in the US.

Portland, United States 

What information does a solo creator need about a project so that they can optimise their performance from start to finish?

The more information the better! The most important is that needed to get started. In my case, this concerns the visual story that the client is looking to tell. I need visual clues, references (either of my own work or a visual style they are trying to achieve), colour guides and a mood that they are trying to evoke. The more concise the client can be in describing exactly what art they want me to make, the smoother the whole project will go.

What skills should a solo creator apply to minimise any waste of time or energy?

Communication and verbal skills are the most important at the beginning stages of a project. It is my job, as a hired illustrator/designer, to gather from the client all information necessary to get started on the job. I need to lead the client with questions and concerns that they may not have considered, offer alternatives and be up-front with any pitfalls I foresee. I also need to be very direct if I think the client is asking too much from me to accomplish in the time and/or budget allotted.

Otherwise, the main skill you need is obviously your training as an artist or designer. Do you have the ability to create the art the client is looking for? Can you draw jousting knights on horseback when horses in motion are very hard to draw? Know your limits as an artist before you commit to something you may not be able to produce. But also be willing to push your limits because you will become a better artist as a result.

The last main skill I employ is with the computer. In my case, I normally create the art as line work on paper then scan it into the computer to colour. Or sometimes it’s taking multiple scanned art on paper and combining it on the computer. Knowledge of and speed in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are essential in my work.

Does a solo creator have the same access to all the best resources as a large agency would? Could he/she “blame the tools” as a cyclist might if they could not afford a premium bike?

Being one man, I definitely do not have the same resources that a large staffed agency would have. I have an outdated computer, outdated software, and often (because I work and travel), a weak Internet connection for work upload and communication. I have to push myself harder as a result and make the work stronger than it otherwise might have to be. And I have my own personal art style, which can outweigh the benefits of an agency. Often, clients approach me for this unique style, which is hard to duplicate, so I work with what I have and create the strongest image/s I can. As a solo artist, I can’t afford to make mistakes and re-do the art — I have to get it right the first time.