Alex Nabaum is the first person ever to be featured on Nonslick. He's an amazing illustrator as well as a real icon to me and I'm sure many of you. I hope you enjoy learning about his life as much as i did, and please if there are any follow -up questions you have be sure to post them in the comments section. And now, enjoy!
where are you from and how long have you been illustrating?
I grew up in Littleton, Colorado a suburb of Denver. I've been illustrating for money since I was a kid, typical class artist. One difficult "client" in 5th grade, picked me up by one ankle and held me upside down after I missed a "deadline". (He was a huge kid, went on to play college football - the subject matter was, Blue Thunder the super police helicopter). I've never missed a deadline since... well I've been a few hours late on occasion.
how long did it take for illustration to become your full time job? did your career have a "big break" - if so what was it?
I've been a fulltime freelance illustrator since 2003-2004.
During high school I worked as caricature artist at Casa Bonita (of South Park fame), in Denver, and during college traveled all over the West
(as far as Alaska) during the summers drawing caricatures at state fairs, proms, rodeos and festivals. Got heckled a lot, oh the stories...
My junior year of college I got a job as a newspaper illustrator and then over the course of about 5 years developed a portfolio good enough to not be embarrassed by.
My boss Bob Noyce was great, he let me experiment and do whatever I wanted, as long as it communicated.Funny thing, last year I started getting some jobs from his son Sean who is now an art director at Newsweek.
I sent out a promotion in 2001, and got my first job from Darwin magazine. The first AD's I worked with was Kaajal Asher and Paul Lee. Then the freelance work slowly built up until I was able to quit my night job at the newspaper a few years later.
how was your experience at utah state? - did you find yourself prepared properly for the real world?
USU was a good school, I went there because I had an academic scholarship and it had a decent illustration program at the time. I could have got more of an art education there, but I was more interested in dating girls.
your work always has a great conceptual angle, how do you go about solving problems / coming up with ideas?
How do I come with ideas? It's mainly persistence, trying multiple directions, drawing alot of bad ideas but disregarding them the second I have the slightest inkling that the are bad and moving on. When the ideas aren't flowing, use a thesaurus, look at or sketch general pictures of the subject matter and if still not flowing then I'll take a 5min break to sweep the studio, pump the music and dance like Napoleon Dynamite (one nice thing about working alone), do some pushups or jump rope to get the blood going, then back the drawing board. The good ideas are out there, you just have to keep digging. If you know of any short cuts let me know.
stylistically, how did you wind up where you are now?
Stylistically was just a slow evolution, it's still going on. Sometimes I'll change my style a bit to fit the idea, more cartoony with more line or more texture and shape. Sometimes my style really helps a piece, but just as often it get's in the way of communicating the idea.
what are some major influences in your work?
Major influences were my father who was a commercial artist for a bit, Eric Carle, Ezra Jack Keats, Charley Harper, Jacob Lawrence, Chris Van Allsburg, Frederick Leighton, Patrick Devonas, Ana Juan, Luba Lukova, Kara Walker, Grant Wood, David Hockney, Brian Cronin, Christoph Niemann and every good conceptual illustrator, there are a lot, including you Pete!
working traditionally vs. working digitally
I work traditionally in gouache but I tweak the painting in photoshop bumping up contrasts and fixing things that didn't come out right, which is most of the time. Sometimes I fantasize about working completely digitally but I can't leave the charm of the paint despite it being slow and hard to control, but who knows...
do you listen to music when you work?
When I'm concepting I don't listen to anything, when painting I like to listen to books or podcasts on economics, politics, foreign policy, history, university lectures etc. But when I'm tired or on a super tight deadline I'll listen to fast music to keep me moving, all over the board there just whatever sounds good at the moment.
is it weird supporting a family as a freelance artist, like, are there ever freak out moments?
It is weird supporting a family as a freelance artist, I try not to think about it too much otherwise I might have a mental breakdown. When I have an occasional slow week, I'll freak out, but so far I've been blessed to have plenty of work. Turning down work is hard for me, but you have to in order to keep the quality high.
are you a cool dad?
Am I a cool dad? You'd have to ask my kids.... the oldest would probably say no! but in my defense, me and my boys are always shooting off illegal fireworks, and a few weeks ago my oldest daughter (10) and I ran into a mountain lion while cross country skiing....that was cool.
how important is getting out of the house and doing non illustration related activity - sports, movies etc.
As for getting out of the studio, no problem there, I've got a wife who thinks she's a professional athlete and 4 active kids, I'm involved with my church's youth group (LDS) and I'm totally addicted to backcountry skiing, Utah has abnormally light and fluffy snow that's why I can't leave , unless global warming ruins it that is... (flirted with moving to New Jersey but couldn't commit) But I don't travel near as much my associates, which I should, although I have lived in Italy and China for a time during college. I used to commute on a train when I worked for the newspaper and would sketch the passengers endlessly, I miss that now that I have a studio right next to the house.
can you think of a favorite job you've done, or AD you've worked with off the top of your head?
Some of my favorite jobs were a Book review for the LA times of Europe Central, AD was Wesley Bausmith and NY Times Book Review of "Nine" AD Nicholas Blechman and most recently a job for Atlanta Magazine about civil rights for the handicapped AD was Eric Capposela. I had an ongoing weekly piece for Newsweek's global investor column for going on 2years now that's been surprising enjoyable, AD has been Leah Purcell. Another ongoing job for over a year for the generations column with the New York Times with Peter Morance and Richard Weigand.
where do you wanna see your work 10 years from now? basically, where do you see it going? In ten years, I hope to branch out into some books, galleries and more personal work. Right now I just react to the jobs coming in, which I really enjoy, the problem is it's hard for me to turn down paying work to do personal work, but it's an investment I'm forcing myself to do.
any trends in illustration right now you'll be glad to see leave?
As for trends in illustration, I can't think of a negative one right now, I like the huge variety of work right out there right now, there doesn't seem to be a certain star everyone is trying to ape.
anything in general you'd like to see get more hype
More hype for Indian food, someone please come and start one in my little mountain town!
advice for new / young illustrators
If the work is good, it can't be kept a secret.
advice for established / old illustrators
Be insanely easy to work with.
all images credit and copyright Alex Nabaum
Please be sure to check back soon for new interviews by Mark Cabuena, Nate Williams and many many more