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Illustrator Tavis Coburn: Making the Old New Again

By Scott Kirkwood

Like some sort of time-traveler in a sci-fi novel, Tavis Coburn travels between two worlds, creating nostalgic images that appear to be rendered with ink and silkscreens, as well as modern 3-D renderings that seem to have been plucked from a video game universe. In his creations, a golfer straight out of a 1950s newsprint ad shows off a pricy new watch and a titanium driver. A hand rendered in halftones grasps a 1TB computer chip. And Matt Damon as an astronaut graces the cover of Popular Mechanics.

Coburn re-creates a classic style for clients like Heineken, Lexus, Virgin, and Volvo, all of whom want a modern aesthetic that also conveys their brand’s longevity. Ironically, magazines like Esquire, Field & Stream, and GQ, whose early cover art inspired Coburn’s style, now turn to him to create illustrations in a vintage style.

Coburn created these retro-inspired images for (from left to right) Field & Stream, Popular Mechanics, and Foreign Policy.

“Throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, that visual solution that many illustrators adopted not only clearly portrayed American life but also sold American products very efficiently,” says Coburn. “My work uses a similar approach, but I like to interject modern themes and new ideas—take an old vista and add a new car or an iPhone or an Ethernet cable—something that you might see in science fiction.” For example, art directors at Foreign Policy asked Coburn to render a futuristic Chinese bullet train in the style of a propaganda poster, and Popular Science had him illustrate a buck with pixelated reproductive organs (for a piece on deer contraception).

BORN IN THE WRONG CENTURY

“Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century,” says Coburn. “Old magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics had a huge influence on me, but that illustration style always came easy to me—I never spent hours and hours trying to figure out how those old-school illustrators painted things; it just came out that way, naturally.”

Editorial illustrations commissioned by (from left to right) GQ Germany, Macworld, and Popular Science.

Coburn’s interest in illustration started when he discovered Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin at an early age.

“I’ve loved comic books since I was young,” he says. “I moved around a lot as a kid and ended up spending a lot of time by myself. I remember picking up a copy of Tintin at the Halifax [Nova Scotia, Canada] Library and just falling in love with the pictures, the composition—each issue was just such a wild ride, with tanks and rockets and machine guns and so many crazy things happening.” Coburn seriously considered becoming a comic book artist, until an architectural illustrator came and spoke to his arts high school in a suburb of Toronto, shedding a light on the many other professions that involved an artistic touch.

“As a student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, I remember going through the collection of old illustration source books and being blown away, thinking, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ Movie posters, book covers, CD covers—the variety seemed like so much more fun than illustrating comic books.” Coburn quickly found himself drawn to the European avant-garde style. An active BMXer and skateboarder, he was also reading Thrasher magazine and surfing publications with designer David Carson’s innovative typography and unexpected page compositions unlike anything he’d seen before.

Three images from a series Coburn created for the television show Crowd Goes Wild.

A RECORD START

An art director from A&M Records came across Coburn’s work during an ArtCenter portfolio review and was so enamored of what he saw that he asked Coburn to create cover art for a CD sampler, due the very next week.

“I finished the project thinking, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever done, I’ll never work again,’ stuffed it in an envelope, and gave it to a messenger,” he says. “Forty minutes later they called me and said, ‘We love it. Want to do some more work for us?’”

It was 1998. Record companies were still flush with cash, and they needed designers and illustrators to handle a steady flow of work. LA’s record executives formed a small, tight-knit community; budding art directors were always looking to get that next promotion, and they would move from A&M to Capitol or Warner and bring all of their freelance connections with them. This community kept Coburn busy crafting illustrations for CDs, posters, and packaging. All along, he had his eye on New York publications like Rolling Stone, considered a holy grail for illustrators. But his first big editorial project came from his backyard: Art directors at Entertainment Weekly discovered his work and asked him to produce a two-page spread for an article with a science-fiction angle. At this point, Coburn was actually screen-printing all of his work, coating screens with light-sensitive medium and stuffing them into garbage cans, then removing them to burn images, pull ink with a squeegee, and photograph the final result.

One of Coburn’s many illustrations for Entertainment Weekly—this one of characters from the TV series Breaking Bad.

“It was madness,” he says. “The whole process involved so much physical work. But I was young at the time and had lots of energy—and compared to working on the computer, there’s something really satisfying about putting in a full day’s work on your feet.”

When he left LA to return to Toronto in 2004, Coburn sold all of his screen-printing equipment and started reverse-engineering the process digitally. Today, he relies heavily on Photoshop’s Camera Raw plug-in, Warp command, and Liquify filter for simple spot illustrations, and he opens up the digital sculpting programs ZBrush and Maya for detailed 3D pieces. While modeling complex 3D shapes for a person or a vehicle, he can determine how light bounces off of hard edges, just like a cinematographer piecing together a movie scene. Before locking down a final file, he’ll return to Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop to use filters, add patterns, and flatten out the image. He often uses scans of old vintage paper with nicks and cracks to inject an analog feel into the digital process.

WALL TO WALL ILLUSTRATIONS

Today, with the help of his agency, Dutch Uncle, the agency that represents him, Coburn stays busy with editorial work for Fast Company, Foreign Policy, and  Wired—and, yes, Rolling Stone. But of his many high-profile projects, the biggest—literally—is his work for London soccer club Arsenal.

Coburn created massive illustrations that grace the outside of Emirates Stadium in London, England.

“Arsenal had played at Arsenal Stadium in Highbury, North London, since 1913, and fans hated the idea that the old stadium would be knocked down to build condos when the team moved to a new stadium,” says Coburn. “So design firm 20.20 was hired to wrap the new stadium’s cement towers with images of great Arsenal players of the past.” And 20.20 came to Coburn, who spent eight months on the project, manipulating massive Photoshop files that maxed out his computer’s memory. In the end, client and agency were thrilled with the results, which gave the new Emirates Stadium a warmth and nostalgia that most modern stadiums lack. In the neighborhood of London where the stadium is, the city streets are so narrow, and the hulking stadium is so centrally located, that residents can see the images from nearly everywhere.

As it happened, the marketing director for Virgin’s F1 racing team was a huge Arsenal fan, and after he saw the work, he tracked Coburn down for another sports-themed branding project.

“Virgin wanted to be the anti-F1 team, almost like the ‘punk rock’ kid on the block—that’s the way Richard Branson rolls—so it was great to work with their ad agency, Poke London,” says Coburn. If you had asked me, when I got out of school, if I’d ever imagine myself doing work in motorsports, I would’ve said no. But in the past few years I’ve been so close to the track that a true racing fan would be horribly jealous—some really great opportunities that most illustrators will never experience.”

An illustration created for Virgin’s F1 racing team.

Check out more of Tavis Coburn’s work on his portfolio site.