"I like it when I can get people to think about something they would not ordinarily think about. I believe that is one of the beauties of art. I love it when people tell me what they think it means. I am often surprised by other people's interpretations."
Eric Petersen has an ominous love affair with his designs. Dark and psychological, they’re hand-drawn insights into nightmarish scenes that have walked straight off the pages of 1940s noir comics. With a strong filmic influence, these artworks look like they’re shot through a lens. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with the Washington-based artist about his brilliant, challenging work and got into the aesthetic of instructional manuals and his love of classic comics.
Beth Caird: This may seem like an odd question, but could I ask you about location and locality in your illustration? There is this expanding sense of space in the pieces that makes the negative space, or “empty” space around your figures seem like a huge part of the word. I hope you know what I mean over email. How does space, or architecture inform your illustration? How do you decide about spatial composition in your artwork?
Eric Peteresen: The spaces in my environments all support my desire to create strong graphics. I think about my 3D environments like a 2D design. I like to make illustrations that are composed like photographs and have strong compositions and unique angles. I use empty spaces because they don’t distract the viewer from constructing a personal narrative. I feel like adding too many little details will suggest a story too specifically.
Beth: Your color palette is gorgeous and quite muted. Can you talk about your attraction to the colors you use?
Eric: Thank you. A few years back I was only into black and white or monochromatic colors. Once I decided to take a risk and just experiment with color, I really loved it. The colors I start with are pretty much anything that pleases me. I am not too concerned in the beginning because I know they will change. I am constantly playing with them through the use of transparent gradients and how they react with the underlying texture (a benefit of using a computer). I aim to create something different with my colors each time.
Beth: I’m really interested in the way you’re influenced by instructional graphics and video games. What is it about the dead-end quality of these works that you enjoy? I like that they are this monotonous part of our lives (instructions, direction, illustrated advice, etc.) that is rarely ever questioned. We could live our entire lives under the influence of these kinds of direction.
Eric: I think the fact that instruction manuals are not questioned is very interesting. Obviously when building something, questioning doesn’t seem very useful. I like the idea of taking something that is very “matter of fact” and opening it up to various interpretations and stories. The fact that I use people without expression in my art also allows the viewer to project emotions on to them that are not really there. I’ve always loved this about video games.
Beth: Can you tell us about why your artwork often has a psychological or theatrical feel to it? It works wonderfully and I wonder if you’re asking the viewer to construct their own narratives? Kind of like imagining or projecting their own stories onto the artwork?
Eric: This is exactly what I am attempting to do. I like it when I can get people to think about something they would not ordinarily think about. I believe that is one of the beauties of art. I love it when people tell me what they think it means. I am often surprised by other people’s interpretations.
Beth: You have a very consistent body of work and style. Please tell us about how you found it, or noticed it, and when you came across your own aesthetic?
Eric: I started my style with the idea to create a look that was computer-based using lines from Bézier curves and get away from the human quality that pencil or traditional artistic tools bring. The very first piece I consider to be what started my style is “Oscar” (a portrait of my son) which I did spontaneously in about 30 minutes. This had quite a bit of wavy hatching which I stopped using shortly after as I felt it was adding too much detail and becoming a distraction. I also became interested in scenes which would invite stories. This is my only piece that had irises in the eyes. I want my characters to be blank.
Beth: According to your website, I noticed you’re doing commercial work — what’s been an interesting challenge you’ve faced working with clients?
Eric: The editorial illustration I have done so far has not been too different from what I typically do in my personal work. I have had the opportunity to create my own ideas and images without a lot of direction. An interesting challenge is coming up with 2-3 completely different ideas based off of the writer’s story and not my own spontaneous ideas. On my most recent editorial project, I made the visual without reading the story (which was not ready). Instead I was given a one-sentence description of what the story was about. It was fun to work on a project given so little information. I love risk-taking!
Beth: Which comics or graphic novels have influenced you the most? Have there been any other illustrators that have impacted upon the artist you’ve become?
Eric: I like the look of 1930s and 1940s Action Comics and Adventure Comics with their simple lines. I don’t really look at a lot of art for inspiration. I think original art comes from within. Having said that, some artists that have impacted me are David Hockney, Henri Matisse, and Edward Hopper. I was really into their art during college.
Beth: And who do you like especially from the 1940s artistically? There is a real sense of film-noir in your artwork, which is an interesting intersection between the psychology of cinema and your illustration, could you talk about this?
Eric: I appreciate the works of Jack Burnley and other comic artists of the 1930s and 1940s for their simplicity. I like the strong graphic quality and innovative viewpoints of Rodchenko’s photography. Movie directors such as the Coen brothers have had an impact on me for their compositions and dark humor (Fargo and Barton Fink are among my favorite movies). I think the cinematic quality of my illustration comes from encouraging the viewer to create their own narrative based off of a single image which allows their minds to wander. The visuals that I imagine seem like movie stills in my mind.
Beth: You’ve been sent to Alcatraz to be imprisoned forever (sorry). You can only take 3 art tools with you to make art. What do you take?
Eric: All I need is a computer. So my other two are a water bottle and a beach chair.