Our latest Grain Edit interview takes us to Kansas City, Missouri–the City of Fountains, headquarters to Hallmark Cards, and home to illustrator and designer Tad Carpenter. Tad’s has the clarity of a designer with the artfulness of an illustrator. His work is whimsical, fun, and smart as he uses a colorful lovable style to create a myriad of characters and illustrations. In this interview, Tad discusses some of his favorite aspects of his hometown, his influences and creative process, and provides a glimpse into his studio as well as something not many folks know about him.
Where are you from originally?
I am actually originally from Kansas City, Missouri. I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City on the Kansas side of the state line. Kansas City is a city very near and dear to my heart. As for being a creative person, it is really a special place to live. Per capita, it has a very large creative community all doing wonderful things.
What are some of your favorite things about Kansas City?
The creative community is really amazing, and I am sure this can be attributed to several things. The largest reason is Hallmark Cards’ world headquarters is located here in Kansas City. Hallmark employs hundreds of designers, illustrators, art directors, stylists, copywriters, photographers and many other creative minds. Over the years, all those Hallmarkers plant creative roots here in KC. A lot of them not from KC seem to really fall in love with this city and stay. It is really great for the KC creative community. Kansas City has several small design firms doing great things too, many of which have ties to Hallmark in one way or another. I am a good example of that, I have never worked at Hallmark but my father, an illustrator and creative director, has been there over 35 years.
Another favorite is some of the food. Everyone knows Kansas City has great Bar-B-Q and that ain’t no joke. One of my favorite things about the fall in KC is football and BBQ. The best BBQ in Kansas City is Oklahoma Joes; no doubt check it out when passing through.
Kansas City also has an amazing art museum, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. It was recently renovated and added on to. Renowned architect Steven Holl, who did an amazing job maintaining the integrity of the 75-year-old building and bringing it into the 21st century, designed it. On a cold, very cold winter Kansas City day, there’s nothing better than heading to the museum and walking around to find inspiration.
How and when did you first become interested in art/illustration?
I was lucky I guess. My father is an illustrator, so I was always around it in one way or another growing up. I can remember drawing my entire life. As I mentioned, he works for Hallmark Cards, so I literally grew up in the halls of Hallmark, which was an amazing way to grow up. I met and was babysat by some of the most amazing illustrators and artist as a kid. I have an Alfred E. Newman drawing Paul Coker (Mad Magazine, Frosty the Snowman) did for me. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind but it was not until I was a little older I realized that illustration and design was what I wanted to do.
What was your first drawing and how old were you?
My first drawings were when I was really young, but the first real drawing I did that really made a connection was when I was around 8 or so. I entered a contest with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs to draw their season tickets. I drew this football player running for a touchdown with fun hand drawn type on the jumbotron. I had so much fun working on the drawing I can remember. When I won, the Chiefs sent a Chiefs player to my school in his Ferrari and spoke to the whole school and awarded me season tickets for the year. Plus, at one game that year they honored me at the 50-yard line at half time. It was an 8 year olds dream! After that I thought to myself will people really give me stuff to draw for them? If so, I was on board!
Did you attend a traditional art school? If so, what was your experience like?
I graduated from the University of Kansas. I originally thought I was going to attend an art school. I visited several and even committed to one at one point. However, for me I really loved the diversity of a University. The design and illustration program at KU is really strong with talented people all over the world thriving at their craft. Just like most art schools, it was really intense. I really did not go out much as I was a double majoring in both Graphic Design and Illustration. Really glad I did both. Also, within my last semester, I met my wife who was also a design student. She is one of the most talented designers I have ever met. So all in all, my art school/college experience was pretty great. I am lucky enough now to be an instructor and KU as well.
Who or what are some of your influences? What contemporary artists do you admire?
As an illustrator, my largest influence is actually my father. He is an unbelievably talented artist and literally taught and still teaches me things everyday. He is the largest reason I became an illustrator and specifically started doing work in the publishing industry with clients like Simon & Schuster, Chronicle Books and Sterling Publishing. He illustrates books, and growing up watching him do that really impacted me. I knew that was what I wanted to be involved in. I tend to do work all across the board ranging from Gig Posters, children’s books, greeting cards, brand identity and so on. So, my influences are very much varied. As for illustration I am big fan of early Golden Books so artist like Mary Blair, JP Miller, Richard Scarry, Aurelius Battaglia among others. A lot of my work becomes character driven so I love the illustration work of artist like Charles Addams, Paul Coker and Jim Henson. I tend to always turn to classic masters in regards to design and illustration. People like Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Alvin Lustig. As far as contemporary artists, I love the work of Noah Woods, Calef Brown, William Joyce, J Otto Siebold, Chip Kidd and Chris Ware.
What is a typical day for you like?
I tend to wake up pretty early around 6am and go to the gym. If I don’t, I don’t feel like myself, kind of a curse and a blessing all wrapped up in one. I come home, take a shower and head to the office. I start working around 8:30am each day. Like a lot of people the first hour or so normally is answering emails, phone calls, etc. I then try to get a pretty good groove going on a project I am working on. I typically have several projects going on at once. For example, currently I am working on a Children’s activity book with Chronicle books, a Snowboard design for Zion Boards, a poster for Myspace Secret Shows and a bed sheet line. So most of my morning, I will work on the Activity book. I have sketches due for all 100 pages in a week, so trying to crank through this project is a tall order. I will probably hop over to another project for a few hours in the afternoon. I try not to hop a round too much on projects. The whole start and stop mentality is tough on me so I try to stick to each task till complete. I tend to work till around 6pm when I have dinner with my wife and hang out for a little while. We have our favorite shows like Dexter, Sunny in Philadelphia and 30 Rock, so we might catch up on Netflix. We live in the Rivermarket, which has lots of restaurants, shops and great places to go walk. We try to get out and do something in the evening as often as we can since we both sit and design all day. More often than not, I find myself going back to the studio around 8:30-9:00 and working into the night. Most weeks I put in quite a few hours but feel so lucky to being doing what I love. It never feels like work.
What was your first illustration gig?
The first few gigs I did, like a lot of designers, was work for friends bands and album art for bands. I think music and design have a natural connection that draws us all together. One of the first gigs I got was being hired by Hallmark Cards while I was still in college to do some line art illustrations for an Australian greeting card line they had in circulation. That was one of the very first “real” gigs. Crazy to think almost 10 years later I still work with them. Time sure flies.
How would you describe your creative process?
I sketch a lot. I carry with me most of the time a Canson 5.5×8.5 sketchbook. I very rarely do final art in these sketchbooks but consider it more of my idea book. I write a lot in it, I do tons of thumbnails trying to figure out composition and layout. I have a whole row of these sketchbooks from over the years. I never throw one out because if I ever hit a wall creatively I like to go to the old books and flip around and find old ideas that never materialized. Typically after I feel comfortable with an idea or thumbnail in my sketchbook I move to a lose sheet of paper to draw a slightly tighter drawing of what I am working on.
I use the tighter drawing as a road map once I hop into the computer. My hand creates a lot of the textures, lines and type, so I will draw and scan those in to use in my final piece. I like to do variations also. I love color and color theory so I play with several color versions prior to making the final piece to send to a client for approval.
Your work features various characters, ranging from people and robots to animals and monsters. What do you enjoy drawing the most?
I love character design. I try to as often as possible when appropriate for the project to include characters of some sort. I love to draw all forms of creatures from animals and birds to people and robots. But, I have to say I really love drawing and creating monster or abstract creatures. I love to create objects and creatures that don’t really appear in everyday life. When using a monster or beast of some sort in an illustration all preconceived notions that a more traditional person, animal or object may have just disappear. They can stand for anything or anyone. Any sex, race, creed, and nationality it is wide open. As fun as they can be visually they can be a even more powerful vehicles for getting your point across.
How do you know when a project is complete?
I design pretty innately so I use that to try and judge when a project is complete. I also when working do lots of variations of a particular piece. Color studies, type studies, composition variations etc. I can then look back at the options and make a pretty solid decision on which is the strongest and when and if I am completed.
You illustrate posters for a lot of bands. What 3 albums would you recommend to a fellow illustrator?
That is so hard to narrow it down to just 3 albums. I can say this when I work I really like to listen to upbeat, positive almost fast music. I feel like they really help me stay on pace for what I am trying to get done for the day.
So, the albums I would say are really great work albums are:
- Paul Simon’s Graceland - Every song is perfect.
- Talking Head’s Once in a Lifetime
- Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders
- The Swedish band Shout Out Louds newest album Work
- Edward Sharp & the Magnetic Zero’s Up from Below is a good one to work to also.
What are you currently working on? Do you have any new and exciting projects coming up?
[I’m] really excited about several projects. I illustrate children’s books, which is one of my favorite things to do. I recently had a book that I am writing and illustrating get purchased by an amazing publisher who I love working with. Not sure what all I can say but it is a really fun story and hope people like it. It is based around the holidays and will be out in 2012.
I have [also] teamed up with the people at Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and am working on some illustrations for some of their upcoming advertising. It is a really fun concept and turning out really fun. Have developed and designed a fun new line of toys with Crazylabel which we are hoping is out this year and currently finishing illustrating a really fun activity book with my friends at Chronicle books.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
As a child I loved Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. Even dressed like him. Wore a tie, sweater vest and carried a leather brief case to kindergarten and 1st grade. I went to a public grade school.