"I try to approach an apparel graphic as being just part of a person’s whole look, head-to-toe. I want the image to be cool, maybe funny. At the same time it should read easily while not grabbing too much attention. A T-shirt should look good as part of a whole outfit."
San Francisco-based artist Ben Walker is constantly in motion. Not in the frantic or agitated sense, but creatively – the man is restless.
He’s put together live drawing events around the Bay Area, made Westify, a photo app that lets you add Walker created Western paraphernalia to your smart phone pictures, had booths at conventions like Comic-Con, Wonder Con, APE, Emerald City Comic Con, and countless others. Walker has constantly tossed his work out there and it’s stuck.
The world that Walker creates is joyful and nostalgic, full of happy jackalopes, rifle-wielding bears, spangling cowboys and Bigfoot with the wedding day jitters.
After handling his own T-shirt production and running his own online apparel store, he’s moved those duties to Redbubble, where classic designs from his “Ben Walker’s Snake Oil” brand are available plus a handful of new ones.
In person Walker is laid back and all smiles, willing to chat and share his experiences. I’m thrilled to have had the chance to talk T-shirt design with Ben and catch up about where his art is at these days.
Chris Jalufka: I picked up a shirt and some small prints from you at Comic-Con a few years back, and since then my Ben Walker art collection has grown. At that time you sold your t-shirts at conventions and through your own site, nowadays you’ve moved your shirts over to Redbubble. What prompted the move?
Ben Walker: Life prompted the move! In 2010 I went from living in a house in the suburbs of Sacramento, complete with a garage and truck, to a small one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where car ownership is basically illegal. Dealing with massive amounts of t-shirts isn’t possible right now.
Plus t-shirts are a pain, man! I love designing them but the logistics and labor involved in lugging 400 pounds of t-shirts to a convention is exhausting. It was a huge gamble to order printing, get to conventions and hope every design is popular and that I ordered enough in each size to match people’s bodies. I kept ending up with bins of left over weird sizes. An unpopular design would kill the whole profit margin.
When I stopped printing shirts I still would get emails requesting replacements for threadbare favorites, or the design that someone saw at Emerald City and now regrets passing on. So I put a few of my old designs on Redbubble so I wouldn’t have to tell fans they were plain out of luck.
Then one day my dad visited me wearing one of my designs, a ‘Toast Boy” he had ordered through Redbubble. He had chosen a white image on a red t-shirt. Light ink on dark fabric?? And where’s the off-white box around the graphics? This was not the print-on-demand I was used to. It looked great! It looked screen-printed. That was it — I was on board the Bubble.
I uploaded everything I had done (and was still proud of). Plus now I can put designs up just to see how they do, like market research. I can do dumb, experimental designs and just have them up for a couple weeks. I can print a T-shirt that only I would have use for, like my resume T-shirt.
Redbubble also solves the issue of customers having their own shirt color preferences. So often I would hear, “I like the ‘Toast Boy’ but I only wear black,” or “Can I get the flying machine guy in brown? I never wear black.”
“Oh, sorry I only printed the ‘Toastboy’ on brown tees and the flying machine guy on black.”
“Oh, That’s OK, goodbye.”
Chris: Man, I was probably that guy at some point. It’s interesting how Internet sales can take over what live events like conventions can do; little to no cost for selling online versus huge investment and time for a convention. Do you see yourself getting back into shows like Comic-Con or Wonder Con?
Ben: The thing I miss about Comic-Con etc. is the one-on-one interactions with fans, meeting new people and catching up with the other creators.
Sometimes I might be small talking with someone as I sell them a print, ask what they do and they say, “Oh I’m the editor of Spider-Man.” “Oh, that’s cool. Can I send you some stuff?” Where else does that happen?! I do miss that.
I could see getting back into it if it meant I could show up with just a suitcase or two full of prints and books. I would love to just make an appearance at someone else’s booth. It’s like that saying, the only thing better than having a boat is having a friend with a boat.
Chris: There’s a wonderful nostalgia to your designs – Old West Americana with a loving nod to the industrial revolution. For your T-shirts you created the “Ben Walker’s Snake Oil” brand, a concept that binds your work together brilliantly. Did you set out to create a “brand,” or did it just happen?
Ben: I definitely set out to create a brand when the time came. I had just been selling T-shirts under the name Ben Walker, which not only fit the Western feel, but also is my actual name. Then having my name on the back of every T-shirt and emblazoned across 8 foot banners started feeling limiting and a bit narcissistic.
I wanted to play with the art of branding itself, create a look and feel bigger than myself. Maybe other artists could eventually contribute. I got a DBA and did all that entrepreneurial stuff. Due to “life stuff,” it didn’t work out, but I am still really proud of the branding imagery and convention booth designs I made.
Chris: Your T-shirt designs are straightforward – limited color with bold graphics and to the point. Was your style molded by the cost of colors you were working with before moving to Redbubble?
Ben: Well, I try to approach an apparel graphic as being just part of a person’s whole look, head-to-toe. I want the image to be cool, maybe funny. At the same time it should read easily while not grabbing too much attention. A T-shirt should look good as part of a whole outfit.
I have always been attracted mostly to one color tees. It’s a timeless, classic look. What does Old Navy, Levi’s or Lucky Brand sell? Weathered one and two colored tees. They can afford to print whatever they want. So why are their designs so simple? Because the graphics are clear and read instantly. The colors and amount of contrast is subtle enough that the tee will look good with the rest of the clothes in these stores.
That said, the more colors you include in a screen-printed shirt the more it will cost. So the expense either has to be passed down to the customer or you end up only making money for the printer.
Chris: Could you see yourself creating sprawling and colorful graphics for a T-shirts?
Ben: No, The more experienced I get, the less I am interested in doing “sprawling” colorful artwork. I am much happier when I go with minimal colors.
Chris: Is your process the same for creating a T-shirt design as it for a traditional illustration piece?
Ben: I would say yes, especially now. I used to do all my t-shirt designs in Illustrator, although the subject matter was usually based on things I had painted.
These days I’m taking more pride in doing work by hand with brush and ink, scanning it, and that’s about it. I’m all for adding color digitally. It’s faster and saves money on paint.
The thing that would happen with designing in Illustrator is you can just keep moving things, changing colors, saving out a thousand iterations of your concept. And how do you know when you are done? It can become a time-suck compared to mindfully creating a piece by hand that is 95% done before it goes digital.
Chris: This might be an absolutely nebulous question, but what makes a successful apparel design?
Ben: I have a nebulous answer. All apparel graphics communicate something about the wearer. If they didn’t, we would just wear white undershirts or paisley button-ups.
People wear graphic tees because they want to start a conversation (or at least get an approving nod). Do you want to make your friends laugh, or strike up a chat with a potential love-interest?
Just know, your Street Fighter II/Dune mash-up T-shirt doesn’t just convey the literal message of “I love video games and Frank Herbert,” it may also communicate to people, “I probably don’t own a pair of shoes I could wear to a job interview.”
Anyway, I’ve dabbled in pop culture references and it left me feeling cold and lame. Are you buying my shirt because I did a great job illustrating it or because you really love The Muppets? I don’t actually have anything to do with The Muppets.
Chris: How often are you working on new t-shirt designs?
Ben: I am making it a point now to put up at least one new design on RedBubble every month. It really is a risk-free way to put designs out there and see what sticks.
Redbubble sales can be some nice “mailbox money” and a good portfolio might even prove you are someone worth hiring for a design job. And by you I mean me. Hire me for a design job.
Chris: You’ve recently been focusing on two new series of illustrations – “Doggies in Jalopies” and “Varmints in Garments.” Both are exactly what their titles suggest and both have that Walker touch of warmth and humor going for them. Are there any plans to release T-shirts or prints of these?
Ben: When I open my sketchbook to a blank page it’s often hard for me to come with something to draw. Having a running theme can really help in those times. That’s how “Doggies in Jalopies” started.
My fiancée and I adopted a dog a few months ago. He’s my first so suddenly I’ve got dogs on the brain. And I just love old-ass cars, especially chain driven racers from the early 20th century so I just started drawing different dog breeds sitting in old cars, like a kid in a push car. It makes me laugh.
People seem to dig them so I’ve started taking commissions for pet portraits, always in jalopies of course. They would make pretty good shirts come to think of it!
“Varmints in Garments” is a project I’m working on in collaboration with writer, Jonathan Kiefer. It’s a kid’s book concept he got me in on, since I already play a lot with the theme of animals in clothing. We’re working on getting it developed so I’ve been teasing a few pages on the Instagram, @ArtofBenWalker.
Chris: I have a few of your originals, T-shirts, and a handful of prints. Now there’s potentially a book. Is there a final product that you feel displays what it is you do the best?
Ben: Not really. I look at all my projects as being their own things, independently. I feel like I probably spread myself out too much that way but I can’t help it. I want to do everything that interests me. And everything I take on, I want to knock out of the park, which is a baseball reference but whatever.
You’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit — finding new and interesting projects, like pet portraiture, live painting, or doing portraits at the Edwardian Ball. Do these events take over the social aspect that Comic-Con and other conventions had? How important is it to meet your fans, or potential fans, face to face?
You may be right about that. It really is important to meet people face-to-face. Opportunities are all about whom you know, and you don’t know anyone until you’ve talked to them a few times in real life.
“Internet-meeting” doesn’t count as much as we would like to think. This year I’ve made it a point to get myself out there as a live artist/cartoonist as much as possible. And I’ve been getting other artists out from their studios and into social, artsy situations.
I’m hosting live sketching events at Zerofriends store in the Lower Haight and I’ve restarted my costumed life drawing sessions too!
[Header image: “Bad Bear – Dark” by Ben Walker]