Jon Contino, Illustrator
Jon Contino works with his hands. That might seem a simple matter of course given his chosen trade of commercial illustration. But in a field swiftly tilting towards the digital, a significant number of contemporary illustrators have dispensed with the traditional tools of the trade, swapping out their pens and pads for stylus and screen. At a time when the worlds of design and the visual arts have been upended and rethought in the wake of the advent of the computer, Contino is committed to doing as much of his work as he can with good old-fashioned pens and paper. In a world where everything from acne to misplaced lines can be whitewashed in Photoshop—a world in which we no longer trust our eyes—the ability to draw well is as rare as ever.
In addition to the Americana-themed bent much of his portfolio takes, Contino is best known for his hand-lettering. He creates fonts and scripts with the appearance of age; washed out phrases and words that look like they could have been pulled from an 18th century broadsheet or a ratty photocopier in some young punk’s basement. The demand for his services speaks to the creativity and ingenuity of his work, and to a vague yet persistent hunger for the tactile in modern American culture.
Contino imbues his hand-crafted alphabets, often seen accenting images from a canon of time-honored American symbols (boxing gloves, eagles, anchors), with a gritty, worn-out feeling; a ragged aesthetic that has struck a chord with a public fast developing a fetishistic relationship with physical objects. The less necessary physical objects become, the more we esteem them and those who can create them. Or, in Contino’s case, those who can render them in such a way as to make them seem grounded in the beautifully imperfect realities of the physical world.
A life-long son of New York, Contino spoke with me by phone from the city.
JC: I used to be in a lot of bands. I did our merch, flyers, etc. And I made a lot of friends who were in bands. This was the mid to late 90s, and you would see a lot of album covers that had been made in Microsoft Word. Some of those bands got better and eventually some of the label owners and art directors asked if I’d be interested in doing something. It turned into a clientele that came from nothing.
The first time I went freelance I only lasted three or four months. I had gone to school for graphic design, but ended up teaching the teachers things. I tried the cold-calling thing, sending emails, and it wasn’t working for me so I took a job with my friend Matt’s firm for a while. The grass is always greener. You want to do your own thing, then you miss out on what you used to do.
RB: I’ve read where you’ve talked about not having time for creative block.
JC: If I don’t get my work done, I don’t eat. So when I get stuck there’s no time for creative block. There are a few steps that I’ll take. I keep a lot of images on a private tumblr account. If that doesn’t work I have a lot of vintage newspapers, antique books, things like that. Those things are gold mines. If those two fail, then it’s basically get the hell out and find someplace I’m not used to.
I really like going to antique stores, vintage sales, any kind of stuff like that. Thrift stores. You find older things that have a lot of memories attached to them, things that come from a different time and a different way of thinking. If you sit on the internet now, going through blogs, you see the same thing over and over. But if you look at things that were actually produced in older eras, they have a different vibe and process that went into them. You’ll find aesthetic similarities, but the soul of each piece is different. So, worst comes to worst, I step out of 2011 and go back to another time.
RB: “Distressing” is obviously a big part of your work, and I see that concept—of creating things with an appearance of age—as being indicative of the time we live in. Are you aware of whether that has always been a part of typography, or is that a modern trend?
JC: Right now—in terms of all media—it seems like people are running out of ideas. People were always finding new ideas before, from Art Nouveau to Realism. Creatives seem to be recycling at this point. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. In terms of design in general, you can go back to the late 1800s when the first boom in graphic design happened, and see how people just went for it. Now there’s more of a comfortable feel. The term “branding” gets thrown around a lot, even on TV in shows by people who have nothing to do with it. Twenty years ago nobody knew that word. Now people are in a mindset where that’s part of the culture. They’re thinking about dollars and cents, not design.
With my drawing in general, I don’t have that steady of a hand. I had to figure out a way to make messy look good, to make it into a digestible style.
Contribution to the Desktop Wallpaper Project, curated by Bobby Solomon of The Fox is Black.
RB: I’m wondering about authenticity and the idea of posers. Do you vet your clients? Places like Old Navy or Target now sell pre-faded, “vintage” logo and band t-shirts… are there clients that seem fake, who you won’t take on? Executives who just want the cool stuff that the kids like and will buy?
JC: No one’s innocent of trying to jump on bandwagons. The little guys think if they jump on it it’s going to help them bypass having to build a company. But I definitely turn down clients. I’ve had people want me to use a design I’ve used for another client and just change the name. A lot of people don’t understand the concept of personalizing artwork.
Sometimes it feels like you shouldn’t do it because you don’t know how you could do it any different. But I take into consideration that people are going to who they know, and I pay attention when people are at least trying. I try to direct those companies. They say, ‘I want nautical.’ I say, ‘It’s been done to death.’ I try to push people into a direction that will become theirs, so they’re not doing clone after clone after clone.
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s hard to start. If someone has the balls to email me and say, “I’m starting. Will you help me?” then yeah, if you’ll put as much time into as I will, then I want to help you. I’m not gonna be the guy that squashes their dreams.
RB: You and I are part of a generation composed of people who are perhaps the savviest of all Web 2.0 users. Young men and women in their late twenties to early thirties who are eminently familiar with and comfortable using the internet, social media, and emerging technologies, yet simultaneously also members of the last generation to have grown up for a significant portion of our childhoods without cell phones and the internet. I sometimes find myself, and others my age, looking back with a kind of nostalgia for that time in our lives. Do you see that dichotomy affecting your art and the art of your contemporaries?
JC: I miss those days when everything was tactile. You get personality from your notebook; it’s your doodling, your handwriting, your coffee stains. If you look at some of the corporate design that’s out there now, like stuff for MTV, you feel a coldness that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Personality and feeling don’t exist as much anymore. It’s not like “they’re the machine,” but it’s so cold and clean that it feels like it’s not humans doing it. There’s been an absolute drop off in character.
I’ve hung out with illustrators that have 10 or 15 years on me. Some of the older guys are right there with us, using Twitter and Facebook to promote themselves. They’ve got their iPhone and iPad. Then you got some of them who don’t.
And some of the younger generation, they’re just copying from older guys who have been doing it for a long time. Some young designers, for example, will copy the texture of something in a way that doesn’t make sense. The typeface they’re using may not have existed until a decade after the style they’re trying to recreate. It kind of sucks.
Our generation’s on a weird borderline. I grew up with Nintendo. That was a technology the older generation didn’t get, but it still had a human element to it. Sometimes the thing wouldn’t work and you’d have to take the cartridge out and bang it against your leg and blow on it. I miss the error, that human element that makes things special. I fear for the future.
Hand-etched lighter from Contino’s clothing company, CXXVI.
RB: Your process seems to involve a physical connection with your work that not all other designers have. Is most of your day still spent staring at a computer screen?
JC: I know a lot of illustrators who don’t touch pen and paper anymore. They go straight to the stylus. Or they don’t even use that. I’ve never been that good at that, or that interested in it. I do take a specific angle. I’m not crazy old school, using tracing paper and redrawing things again and again and again. I’ll draw things by hand and I’ll draw different angles and as many pieces as I can, but I use technology.
I’ll get as much as I can done on paper, and then I’ll scan it. I try to not do things that affect a piece’s hand-drawn nature. I’ll re-center stuff, fix curves that are off, but I try to do it as little as possible, because you can tell. I scan things at different DPIs. I use the scanner the same way I would a pencil or eraser.
RB: You have what look like tattoo flash sheets in your portfolio.
JC: The guys I used to hang out with when I was coming up in the metal/punk/hardcore scene were covered. They were in and out of jail all the time. Every tattoo these guys had was representative of a time. Maybe not even intentionally. Some of ‘em were like, “Eh, that’s from when I got drunk one night and got a bad tattoo.” But every line had a story. A tattoo’s not trying to sell anything. It’s gonna age. It’s got this really cool life to it. A lot of illustration’s not like that, but I try to emulate it.
RB: You got your start doing blackletter, and you’ve talked in other interviews about being obsessed with lettering. That’s the kind of obsession you could just get lost in, and yet it’s also kind of limiting. Poets and rappers talk about how having to resolve lines with rhymes can actually spur creativity. Does that spur your creativity? The limits of having to work with words and type as opposed to pure images?
JC: If you have limitations, that’s where your brain can really run wild. The worst thing a client can say is, “Have fun and do whatever you want.” You have nothing to grow an idea off of. If you have a limitation, you know it has to be in here. Illustration, especially with lettering, is all about problem solving.
I never liked to draw pictures. I’d love to be able to do it, but I was never that good at it. Graffiti, though, was a huge influence on me, and I was always intrigued by alphabets. That’s what has always interested me. I know my weaknesses and strengths, and I try to shy away from certain things.
I’m all about stories. I’ve always loved stories. I always wished I could write a book but I couldn’t. You make up a story and tell it and then the person you tell it to, they’ll remember it just like they remember an actual event. The story only has to be a couple words.
If someone comes to me and wants to follow a story, they don’t have to be a good writer, but they have to have a good idea. If the story is given to me in a poor way, that shuts the whole thing down. But if someone is open and willing to let the story develop on its own, even if the story isn’t one being told with words, then I’ve got something to work with.
Every story is like its creator: unique.
RB: You’ve worked for huge companies like Coca-Cola but have also represented individuals and small groups, such as when you did the lettering for the front of the recent William Faulkner reissues. How does it feel to design something that’s going to speak for an individual instead of a company?
JC: If given to the right person that kind of collaboration is so cool. It makes me think of The Shining. Steven King’s story is amazing, then Kubrick changes all this stuff, but it’s still so beautiful. I don’t understand how you can get mad at that. If someone thinks I’m a good fit for a project, it’s more inspiring than intimidating. You’re re-imagining something that’s already perfect in so many people’s eyes.
RB: If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you say?
JC: I wouldn’t want to change anything that I’ve done. You get scared and you don’t think anybody’s going to want to hire you if you push boundaries, but that’s the whole point. If you’re going to be a creative person, be creative. Be different. Don’t put restrictions on yourself because you think people won’t like you.
I’ve learned, even recently, that I didn’t need freelance work to sustain my lifestyle. But I wanted to do stuff that was more me, and I said, “I don’t care if people hire me or not.” And when I started doing stuff that I wanted to do, it started coming through in my work. People have told me my personality comes through in my work.
Run wild. You can always scale it back.
RB: Was there ever a point at which you doubted your path?
JC: Definitely. I worked with my father doing construction for a long time. I didn’t go to SVA or Pratt or Parsons. I had friends who went there. Their teachers worked at places like Pentagram and these other huge firms. They would intern there and then get a job. I didn’t have that. I didn’t get the recognition my peers were getting, didn’t get big clients. I didn’t know what to do, and there were times when I was so bummed.
I had to keep doing my thing. It was easy to feel like, “I want to go back to ripping out basements and putting up sheetrock.” At one point I thought, “I can do both. This is a good living, I’ll just draw on the side. I’ll be happy.” Every time I thought about it, though, and said, “I’m gonna quit,” the moment the words left my mouth, I didn’t believe it. Whenever I thought about giving in, it depressed me so much, I thought, “there has to be another way.” The voice in your head can be the darkest one.
I did a short internship with a guy who used to work for Sony BMG. There was a guy there who supported me. Just getting that from one person, especially a professional, was so encouraging. But all the bullshit that I went through getting started, and seeing how hard it was to even make any money, was hard. I’m glad I stuck it out through that though. How could it get worse than not having any work and not having any money? As a creative, that’s the bottom of the barrel. I’ve been there a few times.
RB: You’ve described your journey as being pretty arduous. A couple false starts before you really got things off the ground, etc. What kind of support have you received from your friends and family over the years?
My family has always told me “You’re good. If you put 110% into what you do, it’s gonna work.” My mom was an artist her whole life. My grandmother is an artist. I have drawings of my mother’s hanging up that she did when she was 12 that I still haven’t gotten to the level of. The fact that she wasn’t able to pursue it as a career was really hard for her. The fact that I was interested let her nurture that in me, and pass on ideas and passion she’d had. If I wanted to be a track star she would have supported me, but she wouldn’t have had all the equipment. She used to bring home rolls and rolls of butcher paper for me to draw on. My mom and grandmother were also huge into calligraphy. My dad was a self-employed carpenter, and I watched him build a business and support a family, which was helpful.
I never talked about drawing with friends. I wouldn’t equate my creative career with my friends. It’s two totally different worlds. But my wife has always been a big help. I call her my creative director. She has ideas like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll tell her I’m stuck and she’ll have great ideas. I’m her husband and she could say, “This isn’t working. We’re going under and I can’t eat ramen noodles anymore.” She hasn’t yet.
All work © Jon Contino