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Interview with Tom Whalen of StrongStuff

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Read Time: 8 min

Tom Whalen is a talented designer and accomplished illustrator from Pennsylvania. Tom has made a career out of illustrating his passions for such things as comic books, poster art, movies, pop art, toy packaging, and more. He's as passionate about drawing and illustration as he is art and design. He's masterfully fused these passions in his distinctive poster designs.

Learn about Tom's work and workflow, shows and galleries he's presented in, also learn about the organizations that have helped him network and grow in the industry. Discover what drives him with his vector work and how he escapes the computer by creating hands on wood characters. Let's have a chat with Tom!

1. Hello Tom, please tell us a bit about yourself, where you're from and how you got started in this field? How long have you been designing and illustrating? What's training do you have and is this a path you would recommend to others?

Hi, and thanks for the invite!

Well, I hail from a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, USA called McAdoo. My grandmother owned a candy store in a nearby town when I was kid and I spent many many Sunday afternoons sitting on a weathered stepladder next to the spinner rack of comics in that store. I guess you could call that the origin of my drawing career.

Inspired by the books that I read there, I spent every hour of spare time sitting at the drafting table that my father handed down to me. I drew every obscure character from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who's Who in the DC Universe. I had no formal training until years later, when I attended Kutztown University, where my love of drawing was cultivated alongside a newfound enthusiasm for typography and design. Since then, I've always relished the opportunity to creatively merge word, design an image into a cohesive unit. If at all possible, I'd highly recommend studying as many disciplines as possible (fine art, design, illustration, sculpture) to give your creativity a chance to grow in different mediums.


2. Are there any groups you belong to that have helped you with your career? In what ways are you involved with your local art scene? And how does online networking fit in?

Two local Philadelphia groups have been influential in my progress as an artist; The Cartoonist Society of Philadelphia and The Autumn Society. Both are collectives of talented artists that serve to inspire and challenge you to create your best work.

Many thanks to the members of both groups for giving me (and fellow members) a plethora of exciting projects to work on and shows to participate in...speaking of which, 2010 should be awesome...more to follow! As far as online networking, DeviantArt has been completely crucial in helping me to get my images out there. I've been a member for a year and a half and can't begin to measure the exposure and support it has provided me.


3. What is both your favorite and least favorite thing about the design and illustration industry?

Favorite: Passionate designers and illustrators whose work inspires everyone around them.

Least Favorite: The proliferation of desktop publishing. There's a lot of bad design out there. Just because you might have access to a steam shovel doesn't mean you're qualified to use it.


4. Could you tell us about your Timberloaf sculptures? How did this come about? I love seeing the sketches and how the final art turns out, like with the skull experiments? What's up next for this project? Any other esoteric work you put your hands too?

The Timberloaf thing started on a trip my wife and I took to California in 2005. Inspired by the wealth of vinyl toys we saw at la luz de Jesus gallery, I immediately began scribbling out tiny monster designs in a sketchbook Kelly had bought for me.

I had been feeling the need to be more hands on with my art after spending most of my creative time in Adobe Illustrator, but had no knowledge of or access to vinyl toymaking supplies. That's when it hit me: my dad is a woodworker and had a shop full of tools...I could make my monster designs out of wood!

As soon as I got home, I drew up the patterns in Illustrator, cut a few out and painted them. It kinda grew from there. I've created and fabricated about 20-25 designs, but, history repeats itself and I find myself tied to the computer finishing commissions, writing tutorials and answering interviews....but I know when the urge strikes again, the Timberloaf project will be there for me.


5. What is your ideal client compared to your typical client work? How much traditional design (like logos and branding) work do you do versus unique posters or creative illustration work? What's the oddest client request you've ever received? And what is your dream project?

My typical client is the comic/movie/pop culture lover who gets in touch with me and tells me they'd love to see me take a shot at their favorite character or movie. I have to say that I love when people find me either online or at comic shows and are genuinely excited to see what I can come up with, so I guess my typical client is also my ideal client!

I think I'd have to say the couple who asked me to do a pencil sketch of Karl Marx in their sketchbook at the Pittsburgh Comicon a few years ago would have to be the most unusual request I've received. As far as dream project, I've had the incredible opportunity over the past year to create art for the Transformers Collectors' Club, Udon Studio's Darkstalkers Tribute book, and Gallery 1988's Crazy for Cult 3-D and Kevin Smith SModcast art shows, and they've literally all been dream jobs. I guess if I could daydream a little, I've always really wanted to do comic book cover work and create official movie posters for films.


6. If money wasn't an issue what would you be focused on as an artist? What are your upcoming illustration challenges? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

I really think that I'd be doing the same thing that I'm doing right now. I really love the mix of commission, gallery work and just-for-fun projects that I've had the good fortune to work on recently.

My major challenge right now is time. I've been asked to be involved in a lot of group shows and my commission list keeps growing...add to that my one year old child and time is pretty scare these days.

I see myself continuing along the path I'm on right now...great commission challenges and exploration of personal style...wherever that takes me, I'll be happy.


7. You have such a distinctive style? How did that come about? What helped narrow your focus as an illustrator and what continues to inspire you as an artist? What are your greatest influences?

I have the great benefit of working full time as an illustrator for a very creative-friendly company, so I have the opportunity to practice a lot of different styles. My "left-facing sideways profile style" had its genesis in a 2004 work project that I really enjoyed. It's been evolving ever since.

Obvious influences: comic books, poster art, movies, pop art, toy packaging. No-so-obvious influence: stained glass and religion textbooks from my childhood.


8. Why did you choose vector art as a medium? Is Illustrator your go to tool? In your tutorial "Creating the 'Samurai Werewolf' Poster," you show an extensive amount of sketching in your workflow, from producing thumbnails, to composing a detailed overall layout, to drawing precise individual key elements? Is this your standard workflow in your poster projects? Are there any other important aspects of your workflow you'd like to share?

I love vector because of the flexibility in workflow that it affords. I am constantly tweaking composition and color and I think I'd drive myself utterly crazy if I were working in traditional media. I find myself thinking in Illustrator nowadays, meaning I can get away with doing a very loose sketch (if time constraints dictate) and flesh out most of the job once on the computer.

My poster projects almost always require some serious sketching, and much to the chagrin of some clients, I almost never draw all of the characters on the same page. I find that drawing them separately without worrying about smudging the rest of the drawing or driving myself batty with composition concerns allows me to focus on each character.


9. What is your favorite Adobe Illustrator tip, trick, or technique? Any other indispensable tools in your analog or digital arsenal?

Favorite Illustrator technique: gradients set to multiply mode. yeah, I know it's simple, but see-through shadows add so much life to an image.


10. Any secrets lurking in the back of your brain? Or the front for that matter?

I've never seen Caddyshack. Top Gun is overrated. I'm a fan of Terminator 3.


11. Thanks for the interview Tom! Is there any advice that you'd like to give aspiring illustrators and designer who are working hard to grow professionally?

Vector programs are tools (and powerful ones at that) to help you realize your vision, but don't forget the basics: drawing, composition, color...that's where the heart of the illustration lies!


Tom Whalen (StrongStuff) on the Web


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