Mikey Burton: Out of Print Clothing Illustrator
Want to learn how to become an illustrator? You might start by taking your cues from Mikey Burton. Through patience and hard work, he’s developed a solid career as a freelance illustrator with clients that include The New York Times, Playboy magazine and Out of Print Clothing. Check out our interview with Mikey for tips on developing your own illustration career. Read an excerpt below or find the complete Mikey Burton interview on ArtistsMarketOnline.com or in the 2015 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.
Keep creating and good luck!
Mikey Burton: “Midwesterny” Editorial Illustration by Luke McLaughlin
Mikey Burton started out as a designer. He studied graphic design at Kent State University in Ohio, learning design to make brochures and brand guidelines and logos, and ended up being an illustrator. He approaches illustration from the mind-set of a designer: “I’m always trying to make the illustration process as simple as possible, to use as minimal an amount of information as possible, because I am not an illustrator,” says Burton. Despite his claim of not being an illustrator, his illustrations with a self-described “Midwesterny Aesthetic” have found their way into the top ranks of internationally renowned newspapers and magazines.
Burton hadn’t thought too far ahead when he started his studies. “I went there for graphic design, not really even knowing what that was when I started. The end goal was I guess to make things like CD packaging, which seems really funny to me now,” he explains. While studying, he discovered typography and letterpress and decided to do a combined master’s and bachelor’s degree. Once in grad school, he started a company with some of his friends from Kent State and got his feet wet with concert posters and other work. Working with low-tech and low-cost printing technology taught him the ropes of making the most out of a few colors and simple, powerful designs.
Burton says his aesthetic is mostly informed by where he lives. He describes growing up, going into record stores, thrift stores, and garage sales and looking at old things. He was inspired by the “unsung hero” designers who designed product packaging and old textbooks. He likes old printing methods and uses some of their defects and limitations to create part of his look.
Another part of his inspiration is thrift. He explains, “When I started doing gig posters in college, I began that process of really reducing the way I work down to two colors because that’s all the band could afford, a one- or two-color poster.” He says that approaching illustration with limitations like this can almost make it easier on yourself because your direction is restricted.
Burton has also found inspiration from working in collaboration with the Salem, Ohio, letterpress company Cranky Pressman, which uses old-school equipment and techniques. He relates, “I’m always a bit surprised when I find people that are doing something creative in Ohio, I guess, so I go and meet that person and talk to them. They were doing really cool letterpress work, and it was natural to work together on a project.” He has continued to work on several projects with them over the last ten years.
Burton says he has been able to learn a lot from Cranky Pressman because it is a whole print shop with extensive knowledge of printing techniques and materials such as flexography, lithography, and more. “They always push me to do better illustration work because they will think of some old medium that I wouldn’t think would exist,” he explains. “I would say I wanted to do a vinyl sticker that was on a roll, for example, and he would say if you did labels instead of stickers, then the quality of the print isn’t as crisp and it has a little more quirkiness to it, but it is going to cost a fraction of the price.” Burton says that it is great to have an expert’s input to help with that part of the process.
Burton started his career before he had finished school. He says he took longer than he should have finishing his final project, a thesis project that he had to work on in his own time, and he had already started working. He made designs of classic book covers along with the required thesis paper, which he describes as “horrible.”
Burton tried to put the thesis project out of his mind, but this proved unexpectedly difficult. He explains, “It was really funny because I went to great lengths to forget the project and kind of put it out of my mind because it was something I had worked on really hard, and I got a bad grade. Then Out of Print Books, the company that makes T-shirts of old book covers like Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye wanted me to do a new series taking my designs and putting them on T-shirts, and I was like ‘That’s awesome, yeah!’” He says it was something really unexpected, and the work he did in college has literally paid off.
Burton says that the web and social media can help people find out about you, but that word of mouth is still very important. He explains, “I’m surprised how often art directors and other people say ‘my friend at another magazine told me you are really good at this one thing’ or something.” Burton enjoys the pace of editorial work. “I like how you have to have it done so quickly, and then it is out of your life forever,” he laughs. He continues, “It’s your chance to make something really quick. It’s fun to me. I feel lucky to get to do the work that I do now.”
He says the way to get good word of mouth is to do a good job: “I think a lot of it is just good customer service. When people ask you to do a job, you provide a lot of options and you are very nice and pleasant to work with. That takes you far.”
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Burton has also branched out back into the design world. He recently created a hard cider brand for Golden Axe Cider, an Australian hard cider. He found it interesting to work for designs that would appear on three-dimensional packaging. He explains, “I feel like a lot of the work that I do is really two-dimensional, but to think how it works on a bottle or a four-pack cardboard box, I find that really fun.” He is now in the process of creating a beer brand for the same company.
The Big Apple
Another of Burton’s dream assignments has been illustrating for The New York Times, which had been one of his goals since he started doing editorial illustration. He found the pace of illustrating for them especially interesting and challenging. “It is very quick-paced. You get an article at noon, and you have to have sketches by two o’clock, and you have to have a final by five,” explains Burton. “I thought it was really interesting and challenging, and it kind of forces you to just get it done really quickly. I always thought that was fun,” he recalls. Burton says that one of the things he likes the most about illustration is that there are deadlines that you have to meet, which force you to get things done at a certain time. Working on the tight deadline for The New York Times helped him to focus. “I am always going to procrastinate anyway, so that makes the procrastination time zero. You just have to get it done,” he says with a smile.
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The next step for Burton is to go to the sketchbook and start sketching and writing. He writes down the key words and draws simple black-and-white pencil sketches. He says he never does color sketches, because it is more about the idea than the final look at this point. He describes what he is looking for as a “visual metaphor.” He says that his sketches are boring and simple, but they are enough to give the art directors an idea of the finished product since they will already be familiar with his design aesthetic.
As he sketches and even once he starts working on the final illustration, he continues to simplify the image. “I try to simplify that down to the fewest number of circles and shapes to make it as simple and clear as possible,” he explains. He says that he looks for inspiration from old logo books with simple isometric and geometric designs.
Before he starts working on the final illustration, he will provide the client with six or seven sketches. Most of the time he is asked for only three or four, but he prefers to do more different ideas. By providing more than he was asked for, Burton is more likely to come up with an idea that the client really likes, and in the long run, that has helped him build his reputation as an editorial illustrator.
Luke McLaughlin is an American writer based in Oxford, England. Find out more about what he is working on at lucasmclaughlin.com.