The Artist’s Process: An Interview with ADG Staff Illustrator Aaron Johnson
No two artists are the same, and while Anderson Design Group has had the privilege of working with several artists who appreciate vintage poster art and an illustration style reminiscent of the Golden Age of Illustration, each artist has mastered their craft in a unique and compelling way. Each artist who works with us has developed their style, talent, and signature abilities in ways that stand out in their work, ways that empower ADG to create award-winning poster art collections that weave the talents and inspirations of several artists together.
Today, we sat down with staff artist and illustrator Aaron Johnson, an artist who has worked at Anderson Design Group since finishing his internship at the studio in 2012.
Aaron’s Artist Bio
Aaron was raised in Nashville, where he dedicated his early years to drawing cartoons and making corny jokes. Finding illustration and graphic design the perfect fit for his odd skill set, he attended Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film.
In his spare time, Aaron enjoys eating strawberry-flavored foods, building replicas of TV show and movie props, watching Japanese anime, and teaching people how to use Photoshop. After becoming an illustrator (his original goal), his new life goal became to ride in a zeppelin one day.
In 2012, Aaron went for his dream job as an illustrator, designer, and staff artist at ADG since the world was scheduled to end that year, and he wanted to go out with a bang. The world kept turning, and Aaron kept producing cool illustrations! Now, he excels in illustration, vintage poster art, hand lettering, logo and package design, and fixing the studio's computers when they’re on the fritz. Aaron has done exemplary work for clients such as MCA Records, Ram Trucks, Coors Light, Uinta Brewing CO., Syracuse University, JMT Spices, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Ellusionist Playing Cards, and many more.
A Q&A with Aaron
ADG: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic background? How did you become an artist? What inspired you to be an artist?
Aaron: I liked to draw a lot as a kid and in high school. I was really into anime, too! My family encouraged me to attend art school, so after graduating high school, I went to a local school called Watkins College of Art and Design. I got my bachelor’s in graphic design and illustration there and graduated in 2012.
My Grandmother Rose was a big part of why I became an artist. She encouraged me from an early age and my earliest artworks were all things I made for her. Below is a rooster I made for her around 6, I think. The second image of the girl is from a statewide art contest I won in high school. The Governor's wife Andrea Conte came to my school and gave me a check.
ADG: Very cool. How did you come to work for ADG? Did it start with the internship?
Aaron: Yep! Joel Anderson, ADG’s Creative Director, had been a guest teacher in one of my college courses! He invited me to do an internship at ADG. But even when I was still at Watkins, I was working in the print lab, doing graphic design, and working on random freelance projects. I had four jobs at one point while still being a student, but I found the place I wanted to be when I came to ADG for an internship in 2012 and then a full-time job in 2013.
ADG: That’s awesome! Any estimate as to how many illustrations you’ve worked on for ADG?
Aaron: Oh wow, well, I make about 70 illustrations per year for ADG, so it’s got to be well over 700 by now.
ADG: Amazing. What about artistic influences?
Aaron: Hmm… I don’t have many specific artists I idolize, except for Alphonse Mucha. He was a Czech artist. He popularized the art nouveau movement at the beginning of the 20th century. He was pretty incredible, and I like a lot of the art that he created and the art that he inspired. But, I consider myself a chameleon in that I like to examine different art styles and then see how closely I can shape my craft to match that style on any piece of artwork. I look for iconic images from that style and then use those as inspiration to develop my style.
Below is an image of Alphonse Mucha's work, and an image by manga artist Kentaro Miura, who passed away in 2021.
ADG: To your point about artistic style, how do you emulate different styles?
Aaron: It's a matter of study, study, study. I try to put myself in the shoes of an artist in the 1940s, and I do that by studying a lot of art from that period. For example, art made in the 1940s will not look the same as today’s art, but it won’t even look the same as art made in the 1930s or the 1950s. Studying how artists from that period made their art and then adjusting my abilities to match that creation style is a matter of studying it. For example, Mid-Century artists might have drawn eyes and faces differently than people in a similar era. Even though both are vintage styles, there’s still a difference. So my big thing is to try to meld my craft to the craft of the time and then go from there.
Below are some of Aaron's poster creations—note the wide range of styles, rendering techniques, and color palettes.
ADG: How else would you describe your creative process? How do you go from an idea to a finished piece of art?
Aaron: That largely depends on what we’re creating. If we’re making a poster of a real place, say for our travel art collections, I’ll study photos of that place. I’ll examine the location from several angles and at different times of the day. I’ll put together a photo collage mocking up the place. Or suppose we’re making an art piece of something fictional, say for our Legends of the National Parks Collection, Space Travel Collection, or Literary Classics collection. In that case, I’ll start by sketching different ideas to get to the point where we even know what we want to create. The concept comes before the composition. We might create 2 or 3 different variations on handling a fictional poster. Then I show my rough sketches to Joel, we pick one we like, and then we sketch a few variations. Then, we pick one we really like and start rendering it that way. It’s good to take it from a process of elimination. Start with a few ideas, then narrow down to the idea we like the most.
Below are some process shots of a Space Travel poster design:
ADG: You mentioned “we” there; how do you and Joel work together on art projects?
Aaron: Joel is the Creative Director. He has an inherent ability to see people’s strengths, let them grow into those strengths, and grant them creative agency through those strengths. Many of the beginning stages of creating a piece of art are collaborative. Joel will give me a list of art he’d like to see rendered, and then I start producing some concepts of what those ideas might look like on paper. Joel encourages the artists to come up with sketches first, and then he provides feedback on those sketches. All the art rendering is done by the artist credited on the poster, but Joel serves as the Creative Director, guiding us and advising us every step of the way. His suggestions make a huge difference, too. It helps to have an artist-and-director relationship because we envision and create art together (two minds are better than one). He also helps the artists stay on track with making marketable and cohesive art that aligns with the rest of our collections and collaborative works.
ADG: We love the level of detail that goes into your process and the symbiotic design process you have with Joel’s involvement. What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Aaron: I have three pieces of advice for folks who are just getting started, no matter their age:
1). First, try to do an internship. Seriously. Do an internship as soon as you can. As soon as you can, start doing real work for real clients. Working as an artist in business is very different from school and self-published work. Real work makes you solve problems. The meat of the job of an artist is solving problems. Everyone with some talent can make cool posters, but that’s not necessarily the kind of job you’ll get. You’re going to have to make things work for a client. You have to get used to understanding this question: “Why are people coming to you?” They’re coming to you because they want a custom solution to an idea in their head, but they don’t know how to make it. Your job is to help them figure it out and then make the art they see in their mind’s eye but can’t create with their hands like you can.
2). Get out of your bubble. Focus on doing things that are not from your original talent and wheelhouse. The more you can expand your talents and the more multifaceted you can make your abilities, the more hirable you’ll be.
3). Look at real artists. It’s easy to keep your head down, work on your assignments, and dedicate yourself to your work, which is good too! But also take some time to look at what successful artists are doing. What are they doing that is marketable? Look at what others have done that’s successful and emulate it.
ADG: That makes perfect sense! Last question: What projects are you working on now?
Aaron: I have several ongoing projects. I’m working on illustrations and posters for the Space Travel and Literary Classics collections. But I’m also designing book covers for Bakken Books, one of our collaborators. Lastly, I’m also working on a project for Old Glory Distillery. I’ve worked on projects for them since 2013, so it's remarkable to come back and help them with rebranding after having been the artist behind much of their branding for so many years. Joel just finished designing a cartoon mascot for them, and I’m helping them design the branding for the new restaurant they just launched.
ADG: Any personal passion projects?
Aaron: My wife and I have a two-year-old son, and we’re making art for his nursery. It’s heartwarming to work on those projects as a family. Craftsmanship is also very satisfying—I like to fabricate 3-dimensional items from scratch. Below is a scabbard I made for a sword. I created the woodwork and leatherwork from scratch. (I didn't make the sword). I also included a photo of a lightsaber I made from scratch.
ADG: Beautiful, Aaron. Thanks for chatting with us and giving us a peek behind the curtain!
Aaron: Happy to do so!
Art is Timeless
The great thing about art is that it lives forever, and Aaron’s art lives on in the homes and businesses of happy customers worldwide. Just type his name into the search bar to see the hundreds of illustrations, designs, and posters Aaron has created for ADG.
Thanks for coming along with us,
Anderson Design Group Staff Writer