Ideas worthy of existance

    Chris Leavens

    I recently had the pleasure of having a few questions answered by the talented Chris Leavens. Chris is a vector artist and illustrator with a truly unique style, personality and background. Growing up in rural east-central Pennsylvania, he brings a special blend of whimsical optimism to the truly imaginative and bizarre. Characteristic of his style are his lively use of color, unusual anthropomorphisms, and surreal scenes.

    Chris’s work can be seen on many sites throughout the world wide web and has appeared in numerous art galleries, magazines, television programs, films, and children’s publications. Perhaps most exciting is that Chris is currently creating artwork for Glitch, a massively-multiplayer web based game expected to launch in the later part of this year.

    I was very fortunate to contact Chris, and I love what he had to share in this interview, so it is my sincere hope that you enjoy the following Q&A as much as I have.

    Josh Mormann | von Creedy: First off, Chris, thanks so much for letting me ask you a few questions for vonCreedy.com. I was so glad to catch you via twitter, and I’m honored that you’re willing to take some of your time to share a bit about yourself and your work.

    Chris Leavens: Hey, thanks for taking the time to interview me!

    vonC: I find your rural community background intriguing. You mention having grown up in what you describe, in your Vectortuts interview, as a culturally-isolated, east-central Pennsylvania. Can you tell us more about what it was like growing up there, and what sorts of things you and your brother’s used to do to keep yourselves entertained? And how your rural upbringing has influenced your work?

    Chris: I guess first I should define culturally-isolated. The nearest large city was Philadelphia, and that was a two-and-a-half hour drive away. The largest industries in the region’s history were coal mining and timber, and both of those had long-since peaked, so there weren’t a whole lot of decent jobs. I hate to say this, because I love where I grew up and it sounds kind of harsh, but the truth is that most of the smart and cultured folks fled when the money stopped flowing in, and what was left behind was a good deal of under-educated people who haven’t done a whole lot to turn the situation around. My parents still live in the house I grew up in (on a dirt road in the country) and it’s still just as idyllic and beautiful as it was then, but more than a few of the nearby towns have declined sharply.

    Since we were lucky enough to live in the country, away from all of the decaying industry, we played outside, went on long bicycling adventures, tramped through the woods, and went sledding in the winter. I don’t know how much I appreciated it when I was little, but I know it instilled a deep love of nature and the outdoors in me. That’s something that’s definitely very present in my work. Most everything I’ve created in the past few years takes place outdoors. I hate drawing interiors; I find them oppressive and uninspiring.

    We also watched cartoons. Lots of cartoons. I’d watch absolutely anything that was animated. I’d even watch the “girl” cartoons, like “Jem,” not because I liked them, but because they were cartoons. I picked up a lot of visual and cultural cues from television. My older brother Matt and I would try to emulate the cartoon adventures with our own drawings and worlds. That’s what started me drawing and that’s where I picked up most of my bizarre humor and style cues, I think.

    vonC: You mention in your Vectips interview that you think through your ideas while running or hiking. Is that where they originate as well, or do they start elsewhere? Do you have a method, or any mind games you play for pushing the envelope of the dreamlike impossibilities and humor of your work?

    Chris: Usually I see something or hear something that plants the seed of an idea in my head and then I ruminate on it for a while. Running, hiking, walking, getting out, away from other people and distractions and just being able to think through things helps me sort of “draw” the idea in my head. I guess I create a puzzle out of it, starting with one notion and fitting strange pieces onto the first thought to build a story. For instance, today, I was drawing an umbrella for a job I’m working on, and it made me think of using an umbrella in an upcoming piece. To me, umbrellas impart a bit of a melancholy feel, so I have to figure out a way to play off that and add some complexity and humor. This is where mustaches come in. Mustaches are always funny. Did you know my younger brother was crowned the Mustache King of New York last year? Honest to God truth.

    vonC: How long between initial concept or idea, and finished piece? You mention in an earlier interview that the limitations of Adobe Illustrator often cause work flow problems. Do these issues typically add a significant amount of time to your work?

    Chris: It really depends. Sometimes everything comes together within a few hours, sometimes I nip away at it for days or weeks, a little piece at a time. There are two types of ideas that I can put together very quickly: those that are very well planned and composed before I take them into Illustrator and those that are fast improvisations created from beginning to end in Illustrator. A lot of my work falls into a category in between those two extremes, though, so I’m often caught in what I like to call slow improvisation, letting things mutate and form as the piece comes along. I work a little, walk away, think about it, and come back to it and work it a little more.

    As for working with Adobe Illustrator, most of the limitations really only cause problems for me at the very end of a project, either when I’m exporting or adding finishing touches. It doesn’t add too much time to the work, just a little bit of frustration. Usually I’m feeling pretty good about the art when I’m in the finishing stages, so it doesn’t bother me too much :)

    vonC: How did you get so good with color?

    Chris: Wow, I’m flattered that you think I’m so good with color! I focus a good deal of time and energy on choosing the right colors, sometimes dramatically changing the entire color scheme at the very end of a project. I’ve always been fond of bright colors, but at a certain point, I realized that I had to use restraint, and that by holding back and only using the brightest colors sparingly, it made them pop even more. One trick I’ve used that’s been really successful for me is to mix together an absolutely wretched color — something that, alone, would be wholly unappealing — and use it for the background. I add other elements and colors to play off the putrid one, making it all work in such a way that the ugly color becomes appealing (or at the very least, palatable!). I hate when artists say they can’t use a certain color or that they dislike a certain color because, honestly, if you’re a decent artist you can make any color work. It’s the combination, not the individual color that matters.

    vonC: You earned a BA in film and video at Penn State, and then went on to work in film and video editing for a while in LA. This seems to be a somewhat unusual beginning. What interested you in film to begin with? Had you worked with film or video much before college?

    Chris: Like I mentioned earlier, for better or worse, TV played a large role in shaping my likes and dislikes as a kid. I liked cartoons a lot, but I also loved comedy. The stranger, the better. Starting at a very young age, I studied what made comedy work and when I got into high school, I began infusing comedy and bizarre humor into many of my projects. I didn’t really do much film and video work in high school, mostly because the resources just weren’t there. Here in LA, when a high school kid wants to get into the comedy scene, they start taking improv classes. Where I grew up, no one knew improv classes existed. So when I started explaining that I wanted to find a way to get into comedy, people sort of scratched their heads. After speaking with a few counselors, they suggested that film school might be my best option. In hindsight I realize that they had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, but I don’t have any regrets. I learned a lot in film school, including Photoshop, which led me to where I am today.

    vonC: Can you tell us a little about the kinds of projects you worked on during that first act of your career?

    Chris: I started out taking any non-porn film job I could. I worked as a production assistant on a bunch of awful film projects until I landed a staff position at a small studio. There I created motion graphics for and edited exciting things like career college commercials. But in addition to the more mundane work, the studio was also in the midst of putting together a feature film, which gave me the opportunity to be a little more creative. While I was there, I also directed a feature documentary about actor Jack Nance, who starred in David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” It was moderately successful by documentary standards, but I’d say it was only OK as far as I’m concerned. What’s strange is that there are a bunch of people who had absolutely nothing to do with it who tried to make money from it well after it was finished. I mean I didn’t even see a penny from it, but here are these weird hangers-on whom I had never met during the course of the movie’s production or subsequent film festival tour and they were attaching themselves to it years after the fact. It’s pretty pathetic and off-putting, and honestly, it was only an OK documentary to begin with. In addition to that, I created motion graphics for a few TV projects. For one of them, I got to draw vector airplanes which was pretty cool.

    vonC: In other interviews you mention that a general incompatibility with some of the attitudes and personalities in the film industry, is what lead to your career change. Some people stay in the wrong industry their entire careers. What was the breaking point for you, and how did you go about making your escape?

    Chris: I probably could have stuck it out a bit longer and been moderately successful. I had agents calling after the documentary was released. Two things primarily drove my decision to leave. One was that the majority of people I dealt with who were working at my level, people I would’ve been dealing with for years, were doing what they were doing to climb a class/social ladder. They had no real interest in what they were producing and in fact showed massive contempt for their audiences. I looked at my career path and thought it might take a lot of time and effort to break away from that atmosphere. For me, especially at the time, it wasn’t the healthiest environment to work in. The other primary reason I decided to make a change was financial stability. I didn’t grow up poor by any means, but my parents heavily stressed the idea of being financially stable. Where I grew up, because of the job market, people struggled a lot. Having a steady income was a real blessing for a lot of the people there. I guess in that way, I’ve always been pretty safe. So when I was presented with a steady graphic design job, I decided that making the switch would be good for a variety of reasons.

    vonC: The reason I’m interested in your early foray into the film industry, is in how it might relate to your new interactive project “Glitch.” What has that been like for you? Has your experience in motion graphics played a roll in your work on “Glitch” at all? How does the game development industry differ from the film industry? Is it a more comfortable fit for you?

    Chris: “Glitch” has been a wonderful project to work on. In the film industry, I met a handful of people who absolutely loved movies and loved what they did. Those were the people I wanted to work with. The crew heading up “Glitch” reminds me of that. It’s a really great group. They’re very positive and happy to be creating something new and different. They’re also open to unconventional approaches to the creation of artwork. I finally got to meet them in person a few weeks ago and that was really nice.

    Game development certainly has a lot in common with film making, but I think one of the major differences is that it’s nearly devoid of the fame and celebrity associated with film and TV. I think because of this, you get more people involved who are truly passionate about what they’re doing. I’m sure that’s going to shift and change as the game industry grows, but right now I think it’s a good thing to be involved in.

    vonC: Aside from your work itself, I think the most inspiring thing I’ve read about you, is that you started doing your own creative work again after a 7-year period of professional burnout. Most creative professionals never recover from burnout. You mention your wife played a roll in encouraging you. To have such a supportive family is truly invaluable. Do you have any advice for others struggling with creative (for-hire) burnout? or any words of encouragement?

    Chris: My wife’s been great about everything. I really owe a lot of my recent success to her patience!

    My biggest piece of advice is to plow through your block, your burnout. Force yourself to work, and regardless of how crappy the output is, keep pushing through. Eventually you’ll see the light of day and you’ll be stronger and better for it. I guess what I’m saying is that it all comes down to brute force, pure and simple. For me, breaking through that giant wall of inactivity, frustration, and self-doubt unleashed a flood of creativity and ideas that I’d been holding back for years. I never would’ve tapped into that without persistently attacking that wall.

    Visit the following links to learn more about Chris Leavens and his work:

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    Written by Joshua Mormann