The latest addition to our interview series takes us to the lush green mountainsides of Portland, OR, home to Powell’s Books, incredibly delicious food carts, and one of my favorite illustrators, S.britt. I originally found his work in 2002, and it piqued my interest in the illustration we feature on Grain Edit today.
Inspired by artists such as Ed Emberley and Richard Scarry, S.britt’s work employs playful images, bright colors, and a sense of humor (aka FUN). In today’s interview, S.britt discusses some of his favorite things about Portland, his education, and reveals his interesting creative process. This is one interview you don’t want to miss!
Where are you from originally?
Well, I think that’s an elementary philosophic question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point during our spiritual and psychological development. Where am I from? Where am I going? Is there life after lunch? What happened to my trousers? I suppose the closest semblance to a bona fide geographical answer you’re gonna get out of me, would be somewhere between the moon and Denham Springs, Louisiana. Because when it comes right down to it, the best that you can do is fall in love (I know it’s crazy, but it’s true).
You currently reside in Portland. How long have you been there and what are some of your favorite things about it?
My family and I were part of a small chuck wagon gravy train following the Duncan & Heinz Pudding Trail in the late 1850s (our kind weren’t allowed to travel the Lewis & Clark Trail ’til the passing of the Apple Dumpling Doctrine in the spring of 1908). We wound up putting down stakes and pulling up turnips in what was then known as Pickleton, Oregon, on account of the town contained the Pacific Northwest’s highest concentration of drunks (and still does, God bless it!). They later changed the name to Portland during the War when our beloved town won Post’s Sugar Frosted Potassium Bits cereal contest and became the new home of Podowski’s Portholes, Propellers and Periscopes, Inc. Podowski’s has since gone under (his brick and mortar submarines never really took off or surfaced), and fearing yet another lawsuit from those high and mighty bastards at Vlasic, we decided to keep the name Portland and all the winos that came with it. Little known fact: At some time during the mid-1930s, Portland moved approximately 27 inches to the left in a failed tourism attempt, which sadly captured the interest of no one, yet cost the city hundreds of dollars. Believe it or don’t!
I guess if I would have to pick some of my favorite things about Pickleton, excuse me, Portland (I’m still getting used to the new name), I would have to say I really like the indoor plumbing, the recent acquisition of electricity (nearly 27 houses now and rising!) and the relatively low rate of hoof and mouth. Also, the good Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee promises a telephone in every other house within the next 10 years (fingers crossed)! Gosh, I would hate for your loyal readers to feel at all jealous or envious of our town’s embarrassment of riches, but it all came about through years of hard work, unwavering leadership and 89% taxes.
Perhaps ONE day, all towns will be as modern and civilized as Portland. But until then, enjoy your mud huts, savages!
Drawing — Age 6
How and when did you first become interested in illustration?
The very day my doctor told me I’d never become a dump truck. Apparently I don’t have the ankles for it.
What was your first doodle and how old were you?
That’s easy. My mother gave me a silver certificate to purchase a Get Lost card at the local five and dime for my father whose head got caught in the neighbor’s television during a particularly rousing game of Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button. I thought that if I were to make him a card, then I could surreptitiously pocket the money and no one would be the wiser! And you know what? My devious plan worked! My father wasn’t able to tell the difference (especially with such poor reception) and I used that dollar to open a chain of very successful ventriloquism schools for the deaf. I was 52.
I read on your site that you graduated from the “S.britt School of Fine Art,” which is a first-rate modern school. What was that like? Do you ever wish you attended a traditional art school?
That’s a very interesting question and one that I wish I had an equally interesting answer for. Sadly, due to fact that I was raised by parents who frowned on higher education and paying for it, I had no other choice but to drop out of high school, leave the Britt family log cabin, and seek employment and guidance with an inferior syrup manufacturer in Missouri. I then began to teach myself the rudimentary fundamentals of art – imaginary angst, over inflated ego and self-importance and lastly, how to hold a paintbrush without spilling a single drop of vermouth. Of course I had to practice long and hard for many years in relative poverty and obscurity before gaining any sort of notoriety in the public’s eye (and pocketbook), so I was forced to eke out a living through various odd jobs; such as weekend mortician, paint chip taster, buckshot gargler, truant officer, miniature golf pro, catfish noodler, ferret milker, door-to-door dancer, assistant chicken and a Russian’s beard.
Make no mistake, the S.britt School of Fine Art was no sort of fly-by-night, disreputable educational establishment, no sir! Yes, it was run out of the trunk of a rusty 1974 Buick Skylark and the teacher and student had to occasionally cover for each other at times (depending upon the severity of his DT’s), but that didn’t mean I received any special treatment. Quite the contrary! From what I can recall after the accident, the staff of SbSoFA continuously pushed their students to the very breaking point. After a quick sharpening, they would continue to push until they had either broken your obstinate spirit or prized Husky pencil (the sparkly blue one, with the novelty pineapple topper!).
Did I wish I had attended a traditional art school? Looking back at my time spent at SbSoFA, I can now safely respond with a resounding Yes! I truly wish I had gone to an accredited four-year university. At least then I might have learned something worthwhile and racked up an enormous debt in the process. Now the only thing I have to show for all those years of arduous self-taught education is a house made of rubies and a highly-trained army of insects who tirelessly attend to my every whim. Care for an ice-cold glass of fresh-squeezed beetleade? It’s really more refreshing than it sounds!
What was your first illustration gig?
I can remember it as clear as those bell-shaped dungarees that all you “with it” teenagers and sailors out there are wearing these days! It was September 4, 1877 and my agent Mortie “Babydoll” Berglestein called to let me know I had been commissioned to paint what would soon become the beloved iconic Quaker Oats Man! After I was introduced to Henry Seymour, the founder of Quaker Oats and Samuel Morse’s Magic Telegraph Pizza & Arcade, he told me he wanted to create a brand of oats that represented integrity, honesty and purity, but also something the kids could relate to. Luckily for me at that time, the children of the late nineteenth century were literally foaming at the mouth for oats! The general stores and mercantiles couldn’t keep ’em in stock! So I thought to myself, “who can best represent the down home goodness of oats, while still appealing to the young extreme sports hoop-and-stick crowd?” And then it hit me – I remember seeing an unabashedly beautiful buxom barmaid down at the Pig and Plow who went by the name of Barbara “Barrel Chest” Bush. After several pints of their finest swill, I stealthfully sketched her likeness on the back of a passed-out drunk while she was busy mopping up vomit from a party of overly-intoxicated carpetbaggers. And the rest is, how they say, “all cream and no wheat!”
You recently completed your first children’s book. Can you tell us more about this process?
Well, after many years of struggling with remedial reading and basic comprehension, I was finally able to complete my very first children’s book during last Thursday evening’s bedtime story jamboree and prayerfest. I think the book was entitled Go, Dog Go! but don’t quote me on that since I can’t seem to remember anything past the part where the dog goes. However I am very excited about starting my next children’s book, Atlas Shrugged. Really, I like any book about choo-choo trains. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to write and illustrate my very own children’s books, but until then I’ll leave it to the masters, such as Seuss, Scarry, and Sartre.
As far as the process goes, it’s really no big secret. I just visit the local library or bookstore, select a tome that piques my interest, and pitch a powerful choking fit until someone eventually agrees to read to me. And if that doesn’t work, I threaten to wet myself and anything else within a five foot radius.
Who or what are some of your influences?
Raindrops on rummies and whiskers on women
Bright copper swamp stills and buck naked swimmin’
Covered in calamine, to soothe the wasp stings
These are a few of my favorite things!
Big Chief tablets and Sharpies for doodles
Schlitz and tuna fish and Top Ramen noodles
In a tattered blue bathrobe, fit for a king
These are a few of my favorite things!
Raccoons and hobos that go through your trashes
Thirty-one bite marks and red swollen scratches
A dozen more rabies shots just before spring
These are a few of my favorite things!
When the rent’s late, when the water breaks
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad!
What illustrators do you admire?
I’ve been asked by the committee officials and arresting officers to form my many admired artists into two separate groups, so that should a fight erupt (and we do have one scheduled for 9 PM), the losses will be significantly lower, thus leaving some survivors to paint and rumble another day. So without further adoof, I present to you and the entire viewing public, my most prized doodling pugilists (or pugiling doodlists, whichever is least grammatically correct).
Standing in the blue corner: wearing their trunks pulled-up halfway to their chest, coming in at a collective 1,913 lbs – the Original Inspirations:
Richard Scarry, Ed Emberley, Mark Alan Stamaty, Raymond Savignac, Ronald Searle, William Steig, Miroslav Sasek, Roy McKie, Roger Duvoisin, J.P. Miller, P.D. Eastman, Arnold Lobel, Ellen Raskin, Ezra Jack Keats, Marc Simont, Leo Lionni, Tove Jansson, Roger Bradfield, Gustaf Tenggren, Quentin Blake, Ben Shahn, Charles Addams, Taro Gomi, Walt Kelly and Jay Ward!
And in the red corner: some are in trunks, others are in homemade animal costumes and one doesn’t appear to have a single bit of shame or stitch of clothing upon at all. Weighing in at a number that’s not suitable for broadcast – the New Original Inspirations:
Laura Park, Marc Boutavant, Joe McLaren, Chuck Groenink, Carson Ellis, 100% Orange, Graham Annable, Scott Campbell, John Martz, Flora Chang, Jon Klassen, The Little Friends of Printmaking and many more that I’m purposefully leaving out for the sole reason that I simply haven’t reached this month’s quota of angry letters and irate telephone calls. And from the look of things, the switchboard is already lighting up like a $2 Christmas ham! Let’s go to the phone lines, Mildred!
What is a typical day for you like?
Each morning as I rise at the crack of 4 PM, I stumble out of bed, exit my dry-docked tugboat and wander the streets looking for food and a fight (or scraps and a scrape, depending on how you fold your teeth). After I’ve had my fill of both, I inevitably end up in lockup or at St. Mudlark’s of Latvia, a local orphanage which I co-founded after burning the old one down. You see, I sincerely believe that each and every person has a solemn duty to give back to his or her own community. That is why I always demand my fair share of slop at St. Mudlark’s, after all I’m as entitled as the next guy (some would argue even more so!). And as demanding as my hectic schedule can be, I do try to set aside several hours a day for myself. If you can’t pamper (or huggies, I’m not particular) yourself, who will? It’s during this “me time” that I try and squeeze out a few doodles, which I later sell to passing tourists to fuel both my barge and my creativity (I run entirely on electric soup!). Then it’s off to the next seaside shantytown, where I shall rinse and repeat this pitiful pattern until either my bursitis kicks in or my liver falls out.
How would you describe your creative process?
I wouldn’t want to tell tales out of school, but between you and me, he can be a bit of a bully. It wasn’t always this way between me and him. We used to be so close, such good chums; but now every time he enters the picture, it’s all I can do to avoid starting a row. He is constantly hovering over my shoulder, telling how to do things; “Erase that line!” “Try using more ochre!” “That’s not what a platypus looks like, you clod!” Really, it’s getting to the point where we may have to seek professional counseling. If he were to just take my feelings and suggestions into consideration, I’m nearly positive we could work together in a far more harmonious state of mind. Unfortunately, with the way things are headed, I’m afraid I may have to ask him to pack up his belongings and vacate before the month’s end. If you happen to know of any creative processes out there that are in need of a down and out doodler, please don’t hesitate to pass along my information. My brain is quite spacious and has hardly ever been used (the previous owner was a church who only used it on Sunday’s, to take his little old lady for a walk). It has a fresh coat of paint (aubergine, naturally) and new shutters. The rent is considerably low because it’s located in what you could call an “up and coming” head and I should tell you that there have been reports of hauntings. Please contact me or my brain if you have any further questions or you’d simply like to kick the tires and take it out for a test thought.
Lucky for us, S.britt was kind enough to share a step-by-step view of his creative process. It’s almost good enough to eat!
A beautiful drawing is always a triumph and a delight for even the best of artists. Nowadays we can achieve this so easily with the flip of a switch and the click of a mouse. But there are still many special occasions when we like to make a drawing “by hand” from start to finish, or follow a recipe which has not yet been duplicated in an expensive electronic drawing program. For these times, I prefer to roll my sleeves up and do it the old fashioned way. Learning to draw can be fun when everything you create turns out perfectly the very first time! Follow along with me and you are sure to succeed. First, let’s begin with a sketch.
Next, gather together all your ingredients, making sure you have everything you need to concoct your first masterpiece. Choose any assortment of items you like best, just remember; nobody likes a showboat.
Combine all your liquid ingredients into a medium size mixing bowl. If you do not have a medium size mixing bowl, an old hat or ashtray will suffice. If you do not have an old hat or ashtray, I’m afraid you’ll never become a true artist.
Now fold in your dry ingredients, taking care as not to allow the crayons to come in contact with the imitation crab meat (unless of course you enjoy having your stomach pumped). Before mixing your ingredients together, it is a good idea to work in a well ventilated room and make sure all your inoculations are up to date.
Rigorously stir your art supplies until the mixture is soup-like, with the color and consistency of an exotic gastrointestinal virus. If you find the smell or taste of the batter to be unpleasant, sprinkle the mixture with a dash of cinnamon or plug your nose with a clothespin. After all, who needs good taste when it comes to art?
On a greased baking sheet, spread the mixture evenly upon your sketch and coat sufficiently with a layer of cheese. I find that most high quality art these days has a level of cheese previously unseen or unused by any of the “old masters.” You’ve got to be “with it” these days!
Set oven for hot, 475º and bake until the edges smolder and the front door is broken down by the volunteer fire brigade.
While you’re waiting for your piéce de résistance to emerge from the oven, pour yourself a glass of wine and reflect upon your special genius. But don’t indulge yourself too much, you’re certainly no Thomas Kinkade!
After the Fire Marshal has given the “all clear,” remove your drawing from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes, or until you polish off that pesky bottle of wine.
Continue drinking until all the guests arrive for the big reveal. Make sure you are properly dressed and your self-congratulatory speech has been prepared. All good artists know they are good artists because they continually tell themselves so, along with everyone else who will listen. Make sure you remember to tell everyone you’re a good artist and one day you will be!
After your drawing has cooled, use a butter knife and surgical spirit to remove the top layer to reveal the final picture. Did you ever know that drawing was so easy? I bet you didn’t! Being an artist these days is no different or more difficult than being an airline mechanic or an unlicensed accountant. Sure, some artists look funny and their parents and religious leaders may disapprove of what they do. But there’s no reason today why an artist can’t be looked upon as an integral part of society, much like a dog catcher or a truant officer. Isn’t it wonderful that today’s artist can hold his head up high and no longer be labeled a gypsy or “crazy person!”
Divide up your drawing and serve plain or with whipped cream. Makes 8 generous servings.
How do you pair a concept with your distinct style?
I liken it to pairing a gourmet meal with a fine wine, except in my case, it’s more like supping on opossum whilst gagging down pruno.
Usually the first thing I do when a client decides to hire me for a project, I run their credentials through the State Hospitals Mental Health records to see if it’s not just another relative having a goof at my expense. After I recover from the initial shock that the job is indeed legit, I then literally go to town (I’m not allowed to keep pens in the house anymore) and stock up on supplies (ink, nibs, paper, hootch, pills, matches, firecrackers, smoke bombs, noisemakers, deli trays, party hats, circus dogs, etc.) to get me in the right mood and frame of mind for the gig. I then carefully read over the notes and instructions supplied by the art director, editor or designer and chuckle softly to myself, knowing full well that their suggestions won’t be followed or addressed in any way, shape or form.
Depending on what I ate the night before and how it’s sitting in my stomach (and/or commode) the following morning, is usually how I decide what to draw that day. It’s a very simple procedure really: if I ate Beef Wellington on Tuesday, Wednesday I will most assuredly draw a very well-to-do duck with a monocle. If I ate Sloppy Joes on Friday, I will draw a French elephant with a slight limp on Saturday. Thursday’s burrito Night, so Friday gets a badger in a sports car, on the way back from a movie with his ex-girlfriend (I think it was “Klute”). So there you have it! There’s no real mystery to my process, but rather the diet that makes the doodler. Now, who’s hungry? I’ve got work to do!
How do you know when a project is complete?
Normally when I receive a cease and desist notice or restraining order, I know my work is done.
What projects are you currently working on? Anything jazzy and exciting?
Well, I’m not sure I should be letting the cat out of the beanbag just yet (after all, he’s still got a bit of life left in him), but this fall I plan on re-siding the Britt family potting shed entirely in cornflower Waternish sheepskin! My gardener Mr. Canker-Rot will surely rupture a sprinkler head when he finds I’ve gone and spoiled the surprise, but as you can see, I’m absolutely dripping with enthusiasm! I also plan on sealing the drains and gutters with old newspapers and rubber cement and replacing the expired squirrel in my attic with a more current model.
What 3 books and 3 albums would you recommend to a fellow illustrator?
It’s really hard to narrow the list down to just three books, mainly because I’ve only ever read two. But I have seen many books in my time, so here are three rather outstanding titles that you’d be a grade A moron not to own:
Giant John by Arnold Lobel, because it was the very first children’s book I can remember (not that it’s terribly old, I just have a lousy memory).
Small in the Saddle by Mark Alan Stamaty, because it was the very first children’s book that made me want to be an illustrator (so you now know who to blame).
The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry by Walter Retan & Ole Risom, because he lived the life I can only dream of; being married to Patricia Murphy, living in a Swiss chalet and having a son named Huckleberry. Oh, and he amassed untold riches for drawing an ape who’s a kleptomaniac and a worm that wears a boot (along with many other equally abnormal animals).
Basic Plumbing with Illustrations by Howard C. Massey, because if you’re going to be an artist, you’d better have a skill to fall back on, Potsie Picasso!
Now music is something entirely different altogether. Instead of pictures and words, it has sounds and words! Sometimes the sounds are nice and sometimes the sounds are not so nice. Can you think of a nice sound you’ve heard? It’s fun to think about things, don’t you agree?
McDonald And Giles by Ian McDonald and Michael Giles, because they left King Crimson in 1971 and made an even better album without ’em! Unfortunately, they were never heard from again.
Marjory Razorblade by Kevin Coyne, because this album has had a greater effect on me than any other album I can think of. And that includes the soundtrack to Flash Gordon!
Barafundle by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, because I said so, okay? No go get washed up before dinner. Mommy’s making that marshmallow and hot dog casserole that you like so damn much!
What would you be doing if you weren’t illustrating?
Breaking things. Shoving people. Writing rude messages on the elderly. Roughhousing and general tomfoolery. Selling black market kittens… you know, real tough guy stuff. Why? Who’s asking?!?
Thanks so much to S.britt for all of his dedication and patience through the interview process. To see more of his kooky fun work, be sure to visit his website. Better yet, pick up a few prints and a coloring book from him at his shop. You’ll be glad that you did!