Giving Your Right Brain a Regular Workout

An Interview with Mike Perry

Mike Perry makes illustrations, collages, mixed media works, paintings, murals and sculptures, and his work has appeared on posters, prints, canvases, backpacks, tees, shoes, skateboards, billboards and even bandages. He’s also published books on screen printing, hand drawn type and pattern, and regularly produces work for Apple, The New York Times, Dwell, Target, Urban Outfitters and Nike. Recently we had the opportunity to quiz Mike on ‘doing lots of different things and working in lots of different ways’ and advice for designers and illustrators trying to make their way in the world.

You’ve described your work as ‘an aesthetic world that is sometimes minimally evocative of a gouached big bang’. Your work is often quite vibrant. Has your work always been this colorful? And is there a reason you’re drawn to such bold color?

I like the metaphor of space travel and universes being born. There’s something amazing about putting a bit of ink on some paper and hitting it, squirting it with a bottle and it explodes and you have no idea what’s going to happen. A lot of what I’m interested in comes from this desire to let the material try and be what it’s supposed to be. As far as the color goes I used a lot of colors when I was a kid but not to the same extent. I hadn’t discovered fluorescent colors.

I’m interested in making things that are happy and positive. Things that when people look at them they smile and feel a little sense of happiness and wonder. My use of colors comes from that. I’m trying to always push myself and expand my horizons. Recently I’ve been trying to push myself to use subdued colors and not to rely on fluorescent pink as a crutch. If you use that color too much it tends to be a pivotal part, because it’s a very powerful color. I’ve got to make sure I’m not relying on certain colors and that the joy I’m trying to find is coming through and is working with or without the color.

You work in a number of different mediums. Why do you think this is important and what can designers learn from expanding the way they approach their work?

I use a lot of mediums only because I’m fickle. I like the idea of doing lots of different things and working in lots of different ways. In the studio I’ll be working from one table to another with different projects happening in different stages. I try and build in time to experiment because I’m kind of a nerd with art supplies. I just really like them a lot. They’re probably the thing I would buy over anything else given the option. It’s like a bad habit but luckily it’s what I do for a living.

Even the consistency of one kind of paint versus another laid out on a piece of paper is fun. It gives you a connection to the world and helps you understand the physical traits of materials. The thing about experimenting and trying new things is that you’ll be shocked by it. I’ll try something new, get shocked, and my work opens up to this new place because I have a little bit more knowledge of how things work or how things are made. I think everyone’s got their own thing. People want to be the ‘master of the pencil’ and spend thirty years just making the pencil work for them to the extreme, but that’s just not how I work. I’m a little bit all over the place.

Do you have a favorite art supply?

I do. I use a mechanical pencil regularly. I really like the way it feels to hold it and the way the lead comes out on the paper. I use a HB so the lead isn’t super hard and it’s not super soft in the way it comes out. It feels like you’re engraving onto the paper a little bit. But it changes, I’ve been doing a lot of crazy mixed media stuff recently and that’s so much fun because you can put an oil pastel next to something that’s water resistant and it’s all over the place.

You have a seriously cool studio space. What kind of impact do you think this environment has on your work?

I’ve been in Brooklyn, New York for almost six years now. It’s been incredible. I didn’t really understand the power of having a space dedicated to being creative. I didn’t fully grasp it until fairly recently. It’s this really safe place where you come in and fuck around and see what happens. I spend a lot of time in here. It’s more of a home than my home is because it’s filled with all of the art essentials that are a big part of my existence. It’s just incredible, I mean I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s been great to have such a big space so things have been able to scale down and scale up. Because there’s so much space, we have the ability to rearrange things and dedicate an entire wall to a painting or a sculpture. So it has a life of it’s own. It’s changed so much over the years. It’s gone from empty to full to empty to full again. It’s always changing and that’s the best thing.

"I didn’t really understand the power of having a space dedicated to being creative. I didn’t fully grasp it until fairly recently. It’s this really safe place where you come in and fuck around and see what happens."

You grew up in Kansas. Can you tell us what it was like in Kansas as a creative kid? Where did you find inspiration? Did you have other creative friends?

It wasn’t one of those things that I thought about. My parents had some acreage and I would wander out into the field and it was never like I was thinking about my relationship to the place. It was more like I’m a creative person so what should I do? I was fortunate I had a grandmother who was very cultured and she would take me and my brother to the museum on the weekend and I got my limited exposure, very pivotal exposure, to the possibility of being a creative person. That was pretty amazing. I also had a grandfather who was a very eccentric person and he would pop in every once in a while. He was a big personality and he had a beard and he was always quite out there and exuded this creative energy that I’m attracted to. I always took a lot of inspiration from just the idea of him, even though I didn’t know him really at all. It was a really happy existence where I happened to have just enough people in my life to push me to do what I wanted to do forever.

"I got my limited exposure, very pivotal exposure, to the possibility of being a creative person. It was a really happy existence where I happened to have just enough people in my life to push me to do what I wanted to do forever."

We know there are a bunch of designers and illustrators on Redbubble who would love to pick your brains. What do you wish you knew when you set out to forge a career in art and design? Any advice you’d pass on to a younger or less experienced you?

I always wished I had more business experience. At the end of the day I’m making drawings and paintings, but I’m still running a small business. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for it. There’s so many business intricacies to make something like this run. I wish I had that information, as opposed to having been shocked by it. When you’re 18 or 19 and in college, you don’t give a shit about it – at least I didn’t give a shit about it. It’s also really important to keep your overhead low.  The studio I have is great, and I’ve been here for a while, but when I first started out I worked from home, I didn’t have the cash flow to accommodate that. You make the work wherever you can, however you can and then you go from there. So the business things are what you should be thinking about when you start your career.

Can you tell us about the Kickstarter campaign to get your community project going?

The book I made last year came out and I felt so honoured to have made it that I wanted to do something big and cool. I wanted to do an exhibition, and over the last couple of years I’ve wanted to find my balance between the art world and the commercial world. I’ve been in New York for a while now and galleries hadn’t been knocking down the door to do shows so I did the book.

This became combined with a really big public show in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. People could come and sit and draw, sign up for workshops, peruse the exhibition space, or do a dance performance – basically share my creative world. That was the goal and it was awesome.

The Kickstarter thing was phenomenal and really impressive. It was great to learn what Kickstarter could do. I didn’t realise until afterwards that you automatically gain a serious captive audience before you even start. It’s really exciting to have people who are excited and ready and want you to succeed. Just having those people  in your head you know you’ve got to step things up, you don’t want to let down those people. 

Could you tell us what you have lined up next? What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a few things right now. I’m in the middle of putting together a proposal for a beer festival in Cooperstown, New York, which is for one of my clients, Duvel. They’ve been really great the last couple of years, and they’ve commissioned three large sculptures to be unveiled at the festival. I’m also working on this collaborative collection with a French teen fashion brand. I’m doing a small line for them and we’re working on the whole package for that which is cool. There are some other things in the works but that’s today. Ask me tomorrow and it’ll be something else. There’s always something.

A huge thanks to Mike for taking the time out to speak to Redbubble and for encouraging us to squirt more paint about and dive into more creative experiments. We hope you’ve been suitably inspired. When you have a spare moment, don your sunglasses and go and check out Mike’s website. You can also keep up with the latest from Mike Perry Studios via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

See more Interviews