Casey Burns is an illustrator, fine artist and graphic designer based in Portland, Oregon. A Morehead Scholar with a BA in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Burns worked ten years as the in-house artist for Frank Heath's legendary Cat's Cradle music venue in Carrboro. His striking poster designs from this period are featured in The Art of Modern Rock, Gig Posters: Rock Art of the 21st Century, Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix; Rock Paper Show and 1000 Indie Posters. Burns moved from North Carolina to Portland, Oregon, in 2006 and his clients include Nike Snowboarding, Microsoft, The New York Times, Deschutes Brewery, Viso, North, Mutt Industries, Toyota, Vans Warped Tour, Dr. Martens, Modest Mouse, Spoon and Sonic Youth. He regularly shows work in galleries in both states and participates in numerous group shows across the US and Europe.
Large Areas of Negative Space
If you have a degree in what field is it? I have a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina. I was in the graphic design concentration within the journalism school but the bulk of my design education came from just jumping into the freelance world while still a student. For several years during and after college, I was the in-house designer for the Cat’s Cradle nightclub in Carrboro, North Carolina and I consider those years to be my grad school of sorts. I was silkscreening posters regularly, and became more and more confident in my illustration work by putting those posters up all over town. Seeing some of the posters framed and up in other people’s houses later on at parties always made me feel like I was on the right track. The town was my audience, and they were responsive. And, as it turned out, the posters launched my illustration career.
Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? I didn’t study drawing in college, but I was drawing as early as the age of three, according to my dad, and drawing all the time. Honestly, I really didn’t begin drawing the way I wanted to draw until I met George Pratt around 2000, a couple of years after I graduated. He was a favorite artist of mine, and we hit it off when he moved from New York to North Carolina. He pushed my drawing skills in all the right directions and, after only a week of hanging out with George, I became light years better. I returned the favor and taught him how to draw color separations for screenprinting and printed a really nice portfolio of prints for him.
What was your first paid assignment? When I was fourteen, I designed a logo for a grocery delivery business for $20. My next paid job was a CD cover and package design for an Athens, Georgia, music PR firm when I was 20, back in 1995. It was a compilation of bands they were working with, some of whom I still have working relationships with.
Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? Hands down, Jeffrey Jones. His pen-and-ink work is unmatched, and his painting skills rival those of N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. He’s an artist who understands design and composition like few others, and knows the power of large areas of negative space. Too many illustrators cram as much as they can into a piece, and more often than not those pieces fail to communicate as effectively as they could have if the artist understood space better. Things need breathing room. I see the same problems with designers who don’t know the difference between decoration and design; just because something looks pretty doesn’t mean it’s communicating anything.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? I would likely be working in advertising. Honestly, I’m still interested in working in advertising, and if the right agency came along, I’d jump in. Illustration can be very lonely work, and I miss working in a creative environment where people are bouncing ideas off each other all the time.
From where do your best ideas originate? People watching. A lot of my work, the rock poster work in particular, centers around people interacting in some way. With those projects, I’m always drawing from moments I see that carry the same tone as the client’s music. I treat them like a music video that only has one frame of film. Sometimes I witness something that inspires me, and other times I imagine these scenarios. Usually when I’m in bed trying to get to sleep.
How do you overcome a creative block? I go to my friend’s bar, drink a bunch, and then empty my pockets the next morning to see what sort of brilliant bullshit I scribbled onto a wad of cocktail napkins the night before.
In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment. Tidy. I do a lot of procrastinatory cleaning before getting to work. It actually makes it easier to concentrate on the job, so it’s not completely wasted time.
Do you have a personal philosophy? I’m a big fan of economy in illustration. Say what you have to say with as few lines and colors as possible. I feel that way about a lot of things in life, really... cut to the chase.
Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? When I was still in North Carolina, I played bass in a band called The Nein for several years. We put out a nice handful of records and toured the US and Canada pretty heavily. More recently, I did a month-long tour playing with The Rosebuds back in 2008. That was a great experience, they are such an incredible pop band. Since then, though, I’ve just been drawing up a storm. It might be time to start another band. I love touring.
What music are you listening to right now? Deerhunter, Archers of Loaf, Wire, Polvo, Five-Eight, Harvey Milk.
What’s your favorite quote? There was a sign on the door at the punk rock burrito joint I used to work at that read “Remember: If you don’t leave, you can’t come back.”
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Don’t stop. Even if you’re cooking in a bar for a living, keep working on your own personal projects. Just because what you love to do isn’t paying the bills yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. Be diligent, persistent and gracious. And when you do get work, always pick up the phone and call the printer on every project you are working on. Talk to their production department and find out if you are doing things the right way for the way they work. They will love you for this and you will save a lot of time and money by not trying to do the impossible.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish I had known how to be a better salesman of my work. I learned the hard way to never point out what I saw as weaknesses in my own work. I am extremely self-critical, and eventually had to learn to shut the hell up. Everyone knows you’re not perfect, they just don’t want you to say it out loud—especially when they are about to write you a check.