Interview With Illustrator Sean Freeman
Sean Freeman is the man behind THERE IS, an East London studio that specializes in creative typography, illustration, and art direction. Freeman's award-winning work can be found in numerous magazines, books, and advertisements. In this interview, Sean discusses what drove him into his passionate work with typography, as well as the benefits of constant creative exploration.
QWelcome to Psdtuts+, and thank you for joining us for this interview! Please introduce yourself. Could you tell us where you’re from and how you got started in the field?
Hello, my name is Sean Freeman and I'm an illustrator working out of sunny East London. I was
born in Gibraltar, and as a child, travelled quite a bit due to my father being in the army. At first, like many other children, I had big dreams of becoming a police officer like the ones on television. Since both my grandparents were artists, I spent a lot of time painting with them and soon realized that the creative thrill was a much better challenge than the one of chasing criminals.
I’m a really curious person. I like to question things and observe. I’ve always been attracted to advertising, so studying design was a natural choice for me. My work tends to be typographic in its nature, and usually with a photographic element to it. What ended up triggering my passion for illustration as well as typography was somehow a coincidence. I grew up in a town near Oxford and moved to London many years later to study. I initially studied Graphic Design at College, then went onto University and studied for a BA in Graphic Design and Advertising. Although I specialized in Graphic Design, I focused my work towards illustration much to the dislike of my teachers, who were much more interested in “classical illustration” or “pure design.”
I was fortunate enough to get a job in an agency straight after graduating from the University and stayed there for about two years or so. I learned so much in those two years that it became a great foundation to what I am doing today. Alongside working full time, I'd be up all night toiling away on my own pieces where I experimented with textures and type.
Most of the things I shoot for creations are a messy business, and because I didn’t have a studio, office, or even a garden to shoot in, I often had to go onto the street to work. Laying my hoodie down on the pavement, I gathered materials and started breaking things, setting them on fire, throwing stuff around, and ultimately photographing them. I remember shooting splashes in my bath, shooting with my brother in the kitchen, and spending many sleepless nights working from my bedroom. I created these personal projects in the evenings, weekends, and whatever free time I had.
One day, my first commission came in the form of a very small piece for the New York Times Magazine. The next commission came in from Esquire, and then more commissions came in one after the other. One thing lead to another and that personal passion evolving from occasional side projects, transformed into a full time adventure. The balance was becoming tricky so I took a huge leap by leaving the security of my agency job. After the worst weeks of working from my bedroom, I moved into a shared office space with other artists. I was extremely nervous at first, but everyone was really into the work. It was amazing, a weird snowball effect from the beginning. Since then, things have grown. I founded THERE IS Studio in 2008, I now have a partner I work with, many great collaborators, a ginger cat, and we have agents from both sides of the pond. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some really great projects in advertising, publishing, and music, as well as pick up a few awards on the way. I’ve somehow settled in East London, where I’ve been living and working – a really unique, fun, and inspiring place to be. I couldn't be happier!
QYour typography work has a very organic feel to it. What inspires you to play with texture in this way?
I believe type is able to reach people on more levels than plain illustrations. They’re words, they explain something. I like to take words and add textures, combine languages and codes, and bring them to life by making them resonate with strong meanings, a form of visual storytelling essentially. I’ve always had a fascination playing with textures and seeing beauty in them--from the obvious ones like ink or cream in water, to less obvious ones like hair gel, sand, and flour. It felt natural to take the best parts of these photographs and use it to try to create something new. My eyes are always on the lookout for new and interesting textures since they can be found anywhere and I find that quite incredibly exciting. For me, it's all about experimenting with as many different materials as possible. And the challenge for creative lettering is that it has to be cool, as well as readable, beautiful and meaningful. Nail varnish, sand, ice, metals, soap, glitters, lights, and milk are just a few of the substances I’ve worked with. Explosions are really fun, dripping things too - anything that's a bit more tactile really because I like stuff that moves. Also, the realistic aspect of things remains crucial to my output. I love the idea that you could feel it – so things that are furry or even gooey are good. It's all about playing around with objects and getting inspired by how they resonate in terms of feelings, connotations, movements, and properties, and creating the associating context with words, shapes and textures.
QFrom our perspective, the execution of your works is incredibly immaculate. From all of the experimentation you’ve done over the years, which technique was the most difficult to execute into a typography design?
Every project requires different methods, so there’s no standard in the work process. The process itself relates more to puzzle making than a smooth linear affair. It’s thrilling, and brings a good balance between working with physical objects, people, and the computer. For the sake of the exercise, I’d say it’s something like one-fourth conceptualization, one-fourth physical production, and one-half computer magic. It's a laborious way of working since it involves building the artwork shot by shot, detail by detail, extracting the best qualities from the materials that will give either an edge or a cool look. It's all quite organic, and the beauty of nature is not only inimitable, it also guides designs in a wonderful way. Inevitably, when your approach is so experimental, you might start a project that just isn't going to work the way you planned. I've had some very tough times, but it's overall the most exciting part of the work too.
It’s quite tricky to say which one was the most difficult, as every treatment comes with its own set of difficulties. I’d say the “Cannabis” eye was a particularly trying one. It was my first big job, so the pressure was high and the art director wanted it as real as possible. I had to find a way to work those hair-line-thin veins, get them to look like actual veins in huge resolution, and bend them to make the lettering. It was tough, but I'm quite pleased with how it came together in the end. Seeing it outside on billboards and the backs of London buses made the late nights all worth it.
QThe Green Day Gig Poster is a piece exploding in rich, vibrant colors. Could you walk us through the process of this piece?
Pleased you like it! This piece was actually very experimental and a touch out of my comfort zone aesthetically, but it ended up looking great while getting amazing feedback. This piece was all about playing with color and trying to get the most fun and vibrant outcome as possible. As it was Green Day, it seemed fitting to do a piece bursting with these juicy, mega-vivid colors to match the energy and the vibe of their music. We wanted to create something really intense, but also quite graphic and different from what you’re used to seeing in terms of artwork for these kinds of bands. A lot of my work has also been black and white, so whenever I play with color I treat it in a special way.
The treatment was created with real paint, brushes, and knives. After selecting our palette with a crazy mix of neon, pastel, and primary colors, we created big plates of all sorts of chromatic interactions. We blended and mixed the paint, swirled it around, all the while photographing it from above so that I have a great library of references to play with. Then I turned to Photoshop and started piecing it together; choosing the parts that best fit both the letters and the composition while keeping a rich tactile effect. I added into the mix some spray paint, a few messy strokes, masked layers to enhance the geometry, then finished it off by neatly typesetting the details on. A subtly textured grey background helped to boost the contrasts and make the letters really pop.
QHow do you stay inspired, and which resources do you look to for inspiration?
Most of my work comes from a mix of curiosity, challenge, experimentation, and mad scientist luck. My love for working with different materials always brings something new to the table to discover and that makes my work evolve. My computer is like a giant scrapbook of all sorts of things that I photograph for both commercial and creative purposes. On top of this, I always shoot loads of different things for which I like to keep a little bank of and it’s always a great way to spark off something. Once you've got it in the library there are plenty of things you can do with it. I like finding interesting objects in my travels, and writing down lyrics that I like. I also find that the pace of the work keeps me inspired, almost forces it. We have to come up with solutions quite frequently and in a limited timeframe, so that pressure keeps things lively.
When I’m not doing commissions, I've got files full of nice type that I look through, ones with textures and inspiring shots, and other ones for random things that look cool. Although I don’t dislike a touch of routine in life, I have to admit I don’t enjoy working repeatedly on the same things for a very long time. I feel a visceral need to create new pieces and play with new treatments. I’m very passionate about the work, so whenever there’s a chance for novelty by working on personal projects, or creating something new, I jump on it. With that being said my personal creative to-do list is quite extensive and constantly growing.
QWhat do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a designer?
Have a reason for everything. Someone once told me this advice a long time ago and it kind of stuck with me. It's helpful to question every step of your creative work, with an emphasis on, “Does it NEED it?” It's helpful even in my own head, to justify why I might put something in a certain position, or set it in a certain way. Only then will I be able to come to the conclusion that a piece is finally complete and achieves what I had in mind.
QWhat is one moment you are proud of in your career and what are some hopes that you have for your career as a designer in the future?
I'm lucky enough to have had a few very special moments like winning awards, getting a commission from a person or company I really like, but I think the one that comes to mind fastest was when David Letterman was holding up my Gomez album cover. I still remember taking screen grabs and making a gif to send to my mum, with big bold type saying “Look Mum, I'm on TV!” That was a nice little moment.
I'd like to gradually expand the studio and the practice as the years go on, exploring other avenues too, such as moving images and other kinds of crafts to integrate into the work. I also want to continue to collaborate with more amazing artists, and hopefully with that vibe, I'll live happily ever after.
Thanks again for the opportunity to interview you for Psdtuts+! Are there any final thoughts or words of advice you have for our readers?
I believe setting personal challenges is the base of creativity – both artistically, technically, and on a personal level because it makes you look at things differently. At times, it's quite a stressful job, but it’s one like no other and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. The work can be quite overwhelming, so it’s important to keep that inner flame and passion alive by always making time for personal projects and exploration.
Inspiration is everywhere. The possibilities are endless. Here I am after all, and I wouldn't change it for the world. Thank you!