New York is full of illustrators of all kinds, serious and silly, extravagant and minimalistic. Many grace the world’s best loved publications while others sink into obscurity. All of them have that one thing in common, they have New York as their home.
But Jon Contino is a true “New York Illustrator.” His work pulls from a history of city living and a deep knowledge of what it really is to be a New Yorker. To examine his work, one finds a love for old-style Americana, shot through with nautical themes and a deceptively casual implementation of hard-earned skill. Illustrations that could be relics from a bygone era are charged with life and hand-drawn lettering that speaks of a personal familiarity with the past, all step forth from his drawing board and into the light of modern New York City.
It isn’t by chance that his work says so much about his hometown. Most of Jon’s influences have been there, either from the people he meets or from the city streets themselves. To hear him tell it, New York runs through every aspect of his art.
What has been the driving force and influence behind your style?
It’s sort of a mixture of things. I’ve always been insanely in love with the art of lettering; graffiti, calligraphy, typography — it all fascinates me so much. That’s the foundation. Then I have a strong love for New York where I was born and raised, and the amount of signage that pretty much engulfs my environment has always been a driving influence. The last and most recent force has been my wife Erin. Her personality and interests have really helped guide my style as I’ve been pretty scatter-brained my entire life. She’s helped me realize what I like and don’t like and that’s played a major part in the development of my overall aesthetic.
Is there any ritual involved in preparing for a new project?
My first step is usually just to step back and start looking at the world around me. What makes sense for this project and what’s the best place for me to find inspiration? I go straight for that source and then basically dive right into it. At this point in my career, my whole process is pretty mechanical, so it flows very naturally. It doesn’t even feel like a ritual or anything — it just is.
Were there any early events in your life which might have led you down the path to becoming an illustrator?
My mother and grandmother are both artists, and great ones at that. They were both amazing illustrators and calligraphers and always used to sit there and draw with me from the moment I could hold a pencil. My love for drawing started from there and never stopped.
How did you first break into professional illustration?
Well, I was technically a graphic designer since my career started, but I always wanted to be an illustrator instead. It took me some time, but I finally made the decision one day to just start drawing more. Once I did that, I built up a little portfolio with more drawing and less layouts and clients began to notice. The whole thing really started picking up steam when CXXVI started since I had no restrictions. The amount of freedom it gave me really let me run wild and before I knew it, I was going full steam ahead with straight illustration work. My graphic design career has been over for about two years now and I’ve never been happier.
Your career has involved some major changes, a shift from Graphic Design to Illustration, as well as from employee to founder of two companies. What have been the motivating factors behind these changes?
I’ve always wanted to be a lone illustrator, but I knew it was going to take a serious amount of work to get there since commercial illustration didn’t come naturally to me. Commercial design however was a good way to break in, and at that point it was a lot easier to start working illustrative pieces into a larger piece of design than just going illustration the whole way.
Has your style and vision been affected by these changes?
Absolutely. I’ve had to shift the way I work on so many occasions to accommodate for the faults that were holding me back. Illustrators who had a clean style were so appealing to me, but I neither had the patience nor the steady hand to pull off such a style. I had to learn how to make quick and dirty look good and how to make it into something worth paying for.
Can you give us a little background into the concept for CXXVI Clothing?
The concept started out as this: “We hate that our clients reject our good ideas and then make money off the bad ones. Let’s do a company of only good ideas.” Since then it’s morphed into “Let’s make clothing that’s extremely wearable and appeals to us.” It’s always been about what makes my partner and I happy and it will probably be a while before that changes.
What do you feel are the most important lessons you have learned in your career?
Never ever give up. I’ve gotten shut down by major clients, I’ve been rejected by art directors, I’ve been ignored by firms I respected, but I never let that stop me. I just kept doing what I was doing with the expectation that one day I would hit my stride and figure out how to make my good ideas come to fruition and not only that, but make other people realize it too so those problems wouldn’t happen anymore.
Do you have any advice for those trying to develop their own illustrative style?
Don’t think that developing a style means doing the same thing over and over again. Do a lot of different things and do them often and you’ll soon find that there’s a running theme throughout them. Everyone has a personality and it takes time to develop it. You don’t have favorite bands, movies, and vacation spots right out of the womb — it takes time and experience. The same goes for illustration. You need to try different things, look different places, and go through the good and the bad. Your style will come, you just have to let it.
Jon Contino is a true New York Illustrator who’s art speaks volumes about his love of the city he calls home.
More on Jon can be found at http://www.joncontino.com. My thanks to Jon for his willingness to share so much and his interest in this article.