I always say that if you walk into a room of illustrators, you should be able to identify them by their work,” Tavis Coburn tells me. I’ve come to visit him in his at-home Toronto studio, and it’s funny... judging by the densely hued, sci-fi stylings of his retro illustrations, I’d have pictured someone a little more, well, nerdy than him.
Coburn’s work makes you long for the days before CGI, when comic books were the holy grail of action and adventure. It’s big, bright and feels as if it is plucked from the pages of 1940s-era Captain America Comics or the propaganda posters of the Russian avant-garde. But when transported onto stadium walls or the pages of magazines, it pulses with every bit of the here and now. “It’s that reminiscing back to opening up a G.I. Joe tank and being more interested in the art on the box than the actual toy,” he says.
I’ve arrived a bit early, and Coburn confesses to being caught in his “grubby” clothes, but to me, he seems effortlessly laid back. It’s a few days after the Toronto Raptors have won the NBA Finals, and like everyone else in the city, Coburn is sporting a team T-shirt (a whimsically illustrated one at that, which features floating heads of the star players), underneath a flannel button-down. His sun-drenched home, which he shares with his partner Laura Sosin, a film publicist, and their children, is filled with midcentury light wood furniture and hanging plants. It feels very Los Angeles, which is likely intentional—the two met while living there before they relocated to Toronto.
Coburn leads me downstairs to his studio, and I’m similarly surprised by the space. I’d pictured a somewhat messy artist’s lair—the requisite strewn papers, a plethora of coffee stains... you get the picture. But when I enter the studio, the evidence of his genius is neatly tucked into one corner showcasing some of his recent projects, from a June cover of Fortune magazine to the box he designed for a retro promotional Rick and Morty toy.
“When my kids get home from school, it’s total chaos in here,” he says. But for the time being, it’s not much more than a tri-monitor Mac setup, a sound system, a TV and some skateboards. “In a perfect world, I’d be doing skateboard graphics full-time,” he says.
Coburn has been a skateboard fanatic since he was a teenager, and it’s something he’s imparted to his son, Beau, and daughter, Grey. The family frequents their nearby skate park so much that they even started their own skate festival with neighbors. “Being a skateboarder, loving skateboard graphics and reading skateboard magazines has really influenced my work,” says Coburn, who still sneaks out to the park most days. “It’s a little escape,” he says.
His first foray into escapism was, much like other kids growing up in the seventies, through comic books. “We moved around a lot, and I’d end up being in a brand-new, empty house, having to amuse myself,” he tells me. “I fell in love with Tintin, and even though I couldn’t read, I would just get lost in the pages and try to follow the story.”
Born in London, Ontario, Coburn frequently relocated around Canada with his mother and banker father before the family eventually landed in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. “I wanted to become a comic book artist, so I would ride my BMX bike to the store, grab a bunch of comic books and draw panel for panel, frustrated that I couldn’t really draw exactly the way that they did,” he says.
He kept trying though, attending Cawthra Park, a high school known for its arts program, and sketching panels constantly. Eventually, he became disillusioned with the idea after discovering how heavily collaborative the comic book process is. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t think I want other people touching my art!’” He quickly glommed on to the prospect of illustration after learning in school that it could be a full-time career. “I found an old sourcebook in the library and was just blown away by not only the diverse styles out there, but also that it was exactly the type of art that I wanted to make,” he says.
From there, it was a botched attempt at the then-named Ontario College of Art (you’ll want to remember this for later) before he convinced his parents to send him to the prestigious ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. “They thought, ‘Alright, maybe a year, see how you do.’ Then one year turned to two years, and two years turned to three years, and three years turned to four years,” he says.
Upon his graduation, Coburn was hired by the then-thriving A&M Records to illustrate promotional materials for new music. It was the late nineties, and record sales were at an all-time high. “I got really busy really quick doing record stuff, and it was such a cool way to start my career,” he tells me. The next few years were stacked with posters, CD samplers and album art for acts such as Melissa Etheridge and Lifehouse. “My portfolio turned quickly from student work to real work.”
He was dabbling in editorial too, working for Entertainment Weekly and GQ, among others. “Originally, Tavis had a kind of pop-art, Andy Warhol, comic-book style that was very lively, colorful and appealing,” says DJ Stout, who first worked with Coburn as the art director at Texas Monthly. “His conceptual thinking was clever and on point.”
Today, the two still work together on a range of projects through Pentagram, at which Stout is a partner. Most recently, Stout tapped Coburn to illustrate a cover story about driverless trucks for Drexel Magazine. “His style has evolved into a tighter, very futuristic style, and he’s become a master of technology and modern rendering techniques,” says Stout.
About those techniques... On closer inspection, Coburn’s pared-back studio setting makes sense. His process has been completely digital since the early aughts, which belies the analog quality of his work. Most pieces are a composite of work done in a number of animation programs: Maya and Cinema 4D for 3-D rendering; Marvelous Designer for fabrics; ZBrush for sculpting; and Photoshop. He painstakingly walks me through each program, showcasing the incredible magic he can do with his wireless pen mouse. He deconstructs a recent billboard he worked on for the IFC show Stan Against Evil. Bodies were sculpted, outfits were designed and a post-apocalyptic setting was built— all by Coburn, using his myriad of techniques. “I find that it’s a bit like people who can pick up languages easily,” he says. “I can pick programs up easily if I have time to tinker with them.”
It’s (fairly) all Greek to me, but that’s not for lack of his expert illumination. Part-time, Coburn is an illustration instructor at the school he once skipped out on: the Ontario College of Art and Design University. “OCAD U is a totally different school now,” he says. “I’m so proud of our department.” Teaching keeps things in a state of constant flow for Coburn. “It’s really fun, and it keeps me learning. Every day, if I learn something, I’m super happy,” he says.
You could also say it keeps him busy, but he doesn’t need any help in that department. Coburn’s current client roster is incredibly varied, from BMW to adidas to Dyson, and just as deep. “I love his style. Big, bold and graphic with a nice retro twist. Plus, he can work conceptually and nail a likeness,” says Ken DeLago, the design director at Golf Digest. The two first worked together on GQ’s monthly review column The Critic, where Coburn illustrated a range of vibrant pop images. “Tavis continues to do outstanding work for me. He’s great with tech as well as giant hogs, insects or golfers invading courses,” says DeLago.
Coburn shows me a recent favorite, a racing-themed board game called Downforce, reimagined in his signature vintage. “For me, I think it’s about taking that art from our childhood, giving it a bit of a twist and making it palatable for now,” he says. “The key is to take who you are and have that translate into your art. Because when you do that, the art will be as unique and special as you are.” ca