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Let your hand lead the way – Interviewing Steven Harrington

Cheeky palm trees, flowing yin and yang drawings and caricatures reminiscent of Disney’s early days reach out from a myriad of shapes and colors. This psychedelic pop-aesthetic is synonymous with Steven Harrington’s name. Bright and playful, Harrington’s work strikes a balance between visual extraversion and deep thought. We interviewed the Los Angeles-based artist and designer to find out more about his creative process, the journey of becoming a celebrated 
illustrator, and his collaboration with OnePlus. 

Chris de BoerCan you give me a brief introduction of your collaboration with OnePlus? How do you feel about the brand and why does it appeal to you? 

Steven Harrington: I was familiar with the brand’s past collaborations and the work they had done with the French artist, André, along with several other projects. I’ve been waiting to do something with the tech world, so this project just felt right.  
I know the products are quality and from there it’s about creating the story, then breathing life into the product itself. I think that as long as the product is solid and serves a great function, the majority of the work’s done and it’s about how to visually represent that through image. 

So how do you approach a product like this differently than the other products you’ve worked on? I know you’ve worked with Coca Cola and Nike – this is a very different kind of product. Does that change the way you design for it? 

Yeah, it definitely changes. With this project in particular, I thought a lot about how earphones are something that’s placed within the ear. I also considered the role of communication and how sound serves various practical uses. So, it wasn’t only about decorating the item, but visually telling the story of sound and communication. 

You’ve given us a name: Cool Cat. Can you explain the character and what you’ve been trying to communicate with it and how it relates to the OnePlus Buds Z? 

Cool Cat is the character that I developed for this project. He’s something that I’ve been working on over the past year and a half or so. I like to develop a lot of my characters slowly and let them “speak” to me, if that makes sense. This character just seemed fitting for this project because of his form and shape.  

You said you’ve been working on this character for the last year and a half. How do you get that character design going? Do you start with this idea of ‘I want to make a character for as wide an audience as possible’ or do you just design something from the top of your head? 

I want to get in and design it in a traditional sense of character design. For me personally, it’s about letting the image rise and appear on the page. Whenever I do drawings for myself, it’s all about creating these intuitive brain dumps. Similar to how a writer would do free association writing. I enjoy letting my hand move faster than my mind and picking up on subconscious thoughts or ideas that are naturally reoccurring. A lot of the drawings that I initially create for characters, and a lot of the characters that I draw throughout my work, are first drawn in personal notebooks. I’ve never shown them to the public. It’s more about self-expression and “free-ish” association. A lot of it’s just letting the subconscious spread out on the paper, the canvas. 

How much time do you spend in your notebook with different sketches before you get to a character that you’re happy to show to the public? What is that thing where you’re like ‘this is it; this is the moment; this is the way it has to look’? 

It’s quite natural and varies from drawing to drawing. Sometimes it can happen over the course of six months to a year and then other times it can be really quick. It’s almost like it can simply happen and then other days it feels like the famous toothpaste [ad] where you’re trying to squeeze out the last drop. That’s art process forming: you never really know and I guess that’s why you can’t force it. 

How do you get into this creative state of mind? Do you have a process, something that inspires you? 

Usually, by the time I go to paint something, the images are already designed or figured out. I rarely attack a canvas freeform. I’m really into practicing the image and figuring out what the image is and what I want to say before applying it. When I’m in that moment of drawing, the most inspiring thing for me is the white page. It’s a very vulnerable state – when you’re setting off to come up with concepts or ideas for drawing, for paintings or for imagery. But I’ve learned over time to accept that vulnerable moment and to find complete freedom within it, knowing that pretty much anything I put down can turn into something cool. 

Do you ever go into an illustration with an idea in mind or is the freeform act where [the idea] comes from? 

For me, it’s always the balance of the two. When I’m working on painting imagery for myself, it’s often that freeform act, because I always consider the paintings to be closer to poetry where they can be abstract. I really enjoy the balance of taking imagery that should be illustrative, in the traditional sense where you’re illustrating an idea, and placing it in a world of vagueness and abstractions. It’s those two worlds coming together. But [when it comes to] clients, the partnerships where there’s a story to be told or product to be talked about, it’s about coming up with that idea, and having the balance between the concept and being able to cross the concept out to let myself do whatever is the most natural state of what my hand and mind wants to do. 

What is it like when you take that idea that you have and you present it to a client and you go back and forth on refining it and what it looks like? You’re taking it from the sort of fragile state where you have this original idea and then you’re looking at how to best implement it in this product. It becomes a lot more technical. So how do you take that concept to a product? And how do you then refine it to make sure all the pieces click, so to speak? 

For me, it’s always about working within several stages. The first stage would be opening the project way up and creating endless possibilities. The second stage is whittling that down, picking up some directions or things that are most relevant to the project or story. From there it gets to the technical aspects of ‘OK, how does the art apply to the product itself?’ The last step is figuring out ‘OK, what’s the tightest that we can print the art? How can we have it reflect the craftsmanship that I like to reflect within painting, drawing and sculpture.’ 

How does tech affect you as an artist? Just in your general life. Whether it’s through software or through the way you’re connecting with the world and the people around you or just with these earbuds, the way you listen to music. 

I’ve always embraced tools and technology because it allows us to communicate in ways that we’ve never been able to communicate before. But what’s always been most important for me is to make sure that I’m touching on the soul, the soul of the hand. For me, within art, as old as the practice is, there’s still this complete magic and mystery that’s kind of indescribable. I’ve always been interested in blending those two worlds together, embracing tech, but also maintaining the magic of the hand. Because I feel that visual imagery speaks in ways that we can’t put into words. It’s a language onto itself that’s a lot deeper than most of us even consider or think about on a regular basis. So, it’s blending those two worlds and trying to find that perfect balance. 

Tell me a little bit about your relationship with music in the way music affects the way you paint. 

Music is a big part of what I do. I listen to all sorts of stuff. My favorite music is percussive and bass driven music. I was a drummer in high school and middle school and throughout a little bit of college. I grew up with parents constantly playing music, drawn to anything from blues to soul funk. I have a gigantic collection of 45 rpm records that I’ve been collecting for years and years. In the studio it’s anything from jazz on a mellow day to rap music on a Thursday and Friday. 

Your art feels a little bit reminiscent of older rubber hose animations like Betty Boop and the old Mickey Mouse animations. Is this intentional? This style that you have, how did you develop it? 

Yeah, I’m a fan and have recently become more and more of a fan of that era of animation. I didn’t necessarily intend for my art to move in that direction. When I let my hand create images, it gravitated naturally towards that cartoon circular language. It was something that I battled with early on because I always thought it was naïve, childlike and dated. Growing up through the early 2000s that style of art wasn’t in tune. But over time I let my hand do what it naturally wanted to do.  

Can you talk a little bit about how you got your start as an illustrator, a painter and as a designer – how did it all came together, how you found your passion? 

I always tell folks that I was handed the crayon and the pencil early on. I was one of those people who never put it down. By the time I graduated, it was ‘how do I get this to work?’ So, early on I figured out that when I learned how to put my work into context – meaning placing it in a space visually, that would be when I learned to control the work for myself. I was doing everything from graphic design work to illustration work but always painting and drawing on the side. As the years progressed, I’ve gotten more and more heavily involved in the fine arts side, the “art making” side, and now the collaborative and design side. And everything has fallen into a cool place. 

I specifically noticed quite a bit of purple and teal, which are also on the OnePlus Buds Z. And of course, a lot of black and white stuff. How do you pick color and what is your relationship with color as an artist, because I know this is very important to the way you make things and the way things stay recognizable? 

In California, the sun is shining pretty much 365 days a year. The weather has a tremendous influence on color. California is all about expressing this warmth and celebration of color. I’m not very attracted to primary colors. I don’t like solid red, solid yellow, solid blues. I love all the in-between colors. It’s interesting because I just recently put that together and I don’t know exactly what it is, but I love corals and teals and beiges and maroon. 

What are things you would try to teach? Pieces of advice you would give to newer illustrators?  

I feel like the biggest piece of advice I can give is to not be afraid to “make work” and to really embrace making work. You don’t have to show it immediately. This whole notion nowadays of drawing for the sake of displaying it on social is really harmful to the creative mind. It’s about following that drive to just create to create. 

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