Character designInterview

Jared Nickerson

Ed Ricketts chats to the Canadian-born character illustrator about vector mash-ups, dark humour and deluded designers with a God complex

"It's definitely become more of a staple of my work: the cute stuff but with an aggressive, almost evil, twist on things," says Jared Nickerson of his often frantic, densely detailed character pieces. "I think it's just turned out that way. I've always liked that mix throughout all forms of arts, like my birds that aren't always happy, mushroom characters with weapons, or milk cartons with vampire fangs - random stuff, really."

The 27-year-old Canadian illustrator is now ensconced in Seattle. Working entirely with vectors, Nickerson's synonymous with a clean, crisp character style mixing pop culture references with a darker, more surreal tone, la Robert Crumb.

His style is perfectly exemplified by Daddy was a Jewel Thief, a rather bustling, anarchic image that was created for last year's BloodSweatVector exhibition - more on this later. As this was a personal piece, he had no real initial plan for it, and the theme developed organically as he worked on it.

"At the time it was one of the most complicated patterns I'd done. I just started throwing things in and seeing what worked. The overall theme was kind of rustic - the antlers and the axes and grainy textures - and mystical, with the wizards and gems. So basically I kept adding to it within that theme, although not everything in the image fits, until it took shape. So there wasn't a real plan. What tends to happen is that I use characters in a few different designs, and then in a few months I collect a load of them together and put them into a pattern."

As part of this process, Nickerson has started developing what might be called character boards, although he never uses the term himself - it's almost certainly too formal. These are simply a collection of individual elements, arranged in columns and rows, created once the piece is finished.

"I just take my favourite elements from the design, to see them in more detail and without all the stuff surrounding them," he explains. "Some of them are like their own individual pieces of artwork, separate from the main design. I think I do it for my benefit, just to solidify everything."

Nickerson's distinctive character style has developed over his years as a full time freelancer. His earlier style, he says, was much more minimal, with simplistic lines, before he adopted a more portrait-like approach - what he calls the 'editorial' style. "Then in the last few years I got into my own sort of character style, and I've stuck with that. I enjoy characters more than anything else, and it seems to be the most popular."

Regardless of subject matter or client, nearly all of his images intriguingly blend the cute with the grotesque. Mini-characters that at first appear happy are, on closer inspection, wielding weapons, while sad birds sit atop text such as "Humanity has raped my soul." Far from pretentious, this sort of incongruity is darkly amusing.

While it's no surprise that clients such as Adidas and Nike would gravitate towards Nickerson's style, he has also attracted more traditionally corporate companies, such as Microsoft. He sees no real difference, at least when it comes to his artistic approach. "As with the project for Adidas Originals, a lot of my larger clients lately have come from Behance, such as Microsoft and Nike, and I guess they see something in my work they like. Who knows what they think? Then at the other end of the spectrum there are people like Suicide Girls and Headwear, so it varies."

Does he ever have to tone down his style for the likes of Microsoft? "Not really. If a client wants me to imitate a specific style [of an artist], I tell them to contact that artist. It's hard to turn away money, but I've had a good response from clients when saying it. They respect the idea that I have my own style and I don't want to imitate anyone else."

Sometimes a client simply wants to use his existing images, as did DandyFrog, a French company that produces customised umbrellas. They wanted his personal piece Psychedelic Apples of Death, a typical pattern with the pithy phrase: 'Fuck your sneakers'. "That's not unusual," he says. "When I do personal work it often ends up paying off anyway, because it often features in client work - or part of it does anyway, as happened with P.A.D."

This ability to re-use elements of patterns easily is an advantage of working in vector illustration, he says. "It's different to other digital media though because they're just shapes - you're not drawing. So you have to approach the medium differently; it's more about organising than doing brushstrokes, and you have to gear your mind differently."

Nowadays he tends to begin a project by going straight to the keyboard. "Most people start by sketching things out, but over the years I've eliminated that extra step. In some cases I wish I still did sketch ahead of time, just for planning reasons, but overall it's fine - I'll doodle instead." He's also switched from a tablet to drawing everything with a mouse and the Pen tool. "It's probably my most-used tool in Illustrator," he reveals. "Also, people are surprised I don't use layers in my work - it's all on the one layer and the individual characters are grouped objects."

He isn't afraid to use text either - many of his pieces are scattered with punchy, sarcastic comments. "Things like, 'We don't care about your status update' are obviously just a bite at Twitter and Facebook. I use those sites of course, but I get a kick out of how personally some people take them. Then there are things like, 'Doing good, thanks', which you'll see over a lot of my work. That goes hand-in-hand with the whole 'designers are not gods' characteristics that I use."

He dislikes the God-complex and over-exposure within the art community. "It's just saturated with morons," he says, passionately but not hatefully. "I find it ridiculous; we're designers, we draw stuff with a pen or a mouse. We're not saving lives. 'Doing good, thanks' is just my way of saying, you know what, I'm doing good, a normal person, a normal guy doing what I do."

As well as illustrating, Nickerson is art director for laFraise, a European clothing company with user-submitted designs. "I do design a certain amount of graphics, like the characters on their website," he explains. "I help with the whole moderation process for submitted designs too, and create some inspirational blog entries. Character design and streetwear always work well together: mascots, advertising; everything seems to have some sort of character in it. That whole trend looks as if it will stick around."

On a more personal level, he co-founded BloodSweatVector with Brad Mahaffey, for vector artists to share work, gain feedback, and be inspired. "We wanted a place for artists we liked to post work and get feedback - it's important to have people you respect commenting on your work. It's invite-only, so if an artist wants to join we see if their work is in the style we like. We'll launch a whole resource section soon, where you can purchase wallpapers, vectors and so on."

And what of the future for himself? He responds in his refreshingly blunt manner. "Honestly? I am bored to hell. I love what I do, I wouldn't trade it for anything else, but I want to take my work to another level - whether it's animation or 3D or any other medium. My commercial work has been fairly steady, and I love doing the job for laFraise, so all those things will keep me stable. So I'm going to teach myself a 3D program and start to get into that, and go from there. I'm sure it'll be a lot more work than I foresee - but maybe in a year or so you'll see some progress with that."

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