SPOTLIGHT ARTIST Dave Mahan
Thalo loves to promote artists and each month, we spotlight a member of our community!
This month we are pleased to have Dave Mahan as the thalo Spotlight Artist.
Thalo Team: Can you give an "elevator pitch" of your work?
Dave Mahan: My work is a reflection of 33 years of pop culture influence, and an affirmation to my five year old self that it’s ok to drink all that soda and read all those comics.
TT: What is your artwork about and what do you want people to take from it?
DM: Most of the themes that I explore in my work are based around the media that I have been obsessed with since I was a child. The majority of my projects utilize themes found in classic comics, science-fiction novels, horror movies, or heavy music record covers. Being an illustrator means that you have to work with the idea that your client wants to communicate. That being said, I am lucky that the majority of my clients come to me with themes that fit my overall body of work. It is always good to keep an open mind as an illustrator and expand your horizons, but you are (hopefully) being hired for your style and use of themes to communicate a subject. It’s important to not lose yourself to a job, and I am always happy when I get to work with themes that resonate with me. I hope that viewers will look at my work with a shared sense of nostalgia and an open mind for experimentation, because that is definitely the place I approach my work from.
TT: Which artists do you feel have influenced your art the most?
DM: Most of my current influences come from record covers, movie posters, and comics. My earliest influences came mostly from comic books. When I was a kid I read comics ferociously, and I started from the ground up with 1960s Marvel books. Later on I got into the real science fiction heavy period of DC comics. One constant across both of those periods was Jack Kirby. I always loved the simple bold approach he took to his drawings while still being completely out there. When you look at the comics that Kirby was working on back in the day it looks like something from another world. The character design and backgrounds transport you to his reality. Much later I discovered artists like Barron Storey, Ashley Wood, and Bill Sienkiewicz. They all take a more experimental approach in both art making and narrative techniques. With their work you can get lost in the non-traditional panel style, the layering, and texture of the page. Their work all takes you to another place just like Jack Kirby did. You can really get lost in all of their respective works, and that’s something I hope to achieve in my own art.
"Tomb" By Dave Mahan
TT: Do you have a preferred method of presentation for your artwork and why? (Examples: workshops, gallery shows, Instagram, etc.)
DM: These days most of my work is being reproduced on record covers, posters, and shirts. I think that is my preferred method of presentation. All of those methods require an immediate “wow” factor to draw the viewer in so they will take the time to retain the information being communicated. I used to do gallery shows more frequently, but seeing my work around town on people’s shirts brings me much more satisfaction than hanging out at an art show and talking about my work.
TT: Out of all of your creations (or bodies of work) which one did/do you find the most cathartic in creating?
DM: My thesis project at MassART was definitely my most ambitious and cathartic. We spent an entire year researching a topic and creating a body of work based on it. My topic was Witchcraft and the Occult, and I worked on it from January to December of 2013. I wanted the product to reflect my interests and current body of work, and hopefully use it to start a new chapter in my portfolio. I was really into making my own comics at the time and I was doing a ton of work for bands. I was trying to find a technique and presentation that would marry the two. It took me half the year to come up with a technique and vibe that worked for both. Once I landed on a direction I worked frantically for the rest of the year. I produced over 20 pieces ranging from 3”x3” spot illustrations to 24”x36” gallery pieces on wood panels. When the entire body of work was laid out in front of viewers I really feel like it was taking people to another place. I know I went somewhere else when I was working on it hahaha... I spent every waking moment that was not already spent on schoolwork and client work either researching or producing art for the project. There were a lot of sleepless nights, and my sketchbook for that project looked like something out of the movie Seven. That being said, I really hit a groove there for a while, and it positively influenced all my other work.
"Crushed Out Record Cover" by Dave Mahan Illustration
TT: When was your “Aha!” moment that led your work to where it is now?
DM: My biggest “Aha!” moment came while working on my thesis. Halfway through the project I was getting slowed down by a number of false starts with both technique and vibe. I had tried executing my ideas with detailed ink drawings, screen printing, and painting, but none of it felt like it fit the subject matter or my overall goals. My first 6-7 months were very frustrating. The project was spread out over two school semesters and the summer in between. We were largely left to our own devices over the summer, and I had much more time to think. In July my thesis class was going to have a meetup to go over how our projects were coming along. I had hit a wall in early June and I was totally dead in the water. A week before our meeting I was sitting at home and I spread out all my notes and concept work in front of me. I was surrounded by preliminary sketches, studies done in ink and brush, and photographs I had taken of textures and references. It hit me like a bolt of lightning when I realized I had all the makings of finished pieces sitting right in front of me. I started photocopying these sketches, drawings, and textures to see what would happen. These photocopies would be collaged together on 12”x18” illustration board, and then various media was added on top of them. The result was a series of large black and white illustrations that melded the narrative style of comics with the visual impact of a record cover or movie poster. These black and white pieces were digitally colorized, and the results were transferred onto 24”x36” birch panels with acrylic transfers. Additional texture and paint was added for the final step. The ritualistic process of making these pieces also seemed to fit the subject matter, and that helped me spiral into another place for the rest of my time at MassART.
TT: How has your work (or technique) changed over time?
DM: I have searched for a long time for a way that I can include more experimental techniques into my client work. It is hard to experiment freely on some jobs. Time constraints make false starts very costly, and it is hard to convey how an experimental technique will look when you are presenting an idea to a client. The sketches that I send to clients are always super clean and tidy, and the experimental nature of the finished product isn’t always clear from the get go. Luckily I have enough of a portfolio now that I can show a client what they can expect from my finished work. I think my process has changed over time to allow for more experimentation in my professional work. At least that has always been my end goal.
TT: How do you promote yourself and your art?
DM: Most of my promotion these days is based on word of mouth from previous clients, or people seeing my work on record covers, shirts, or movie posters. It’s somewhat passive, and that means it’s feast or famine. I get about 20% of my work from new clients who came across my work on Instagram. It used to be more of an even split, but with Instagram changing their algorithms it’s made it harder to find new work that way. I used to be much more proactive about sending my work out to prospective clients, but that never seemed to draw in as much work for me. Some people have tons of luck with this method, but I think that also depends on what type of illustration work you are going for.
TT: Do you have any tips or advice for fellow artists based off of your experiences thus far?
DM: I think one thing that is important to remember is that success comes in many forms. I have seen a lot of my friends give up on their art because they didn’t become a full time illustrator right after art school. Some of them were producing beautiful work, but they gave up because of self doubt. I think being an illustrator looks like a lot of things. If you are drawing and making yourself happy then that means a lot, and potential clients can tell. They want someone who is excited to be working with them, and that starts with being excited about yourself and your work. The money will come after that, you just have to stay with it and stay excited. I work a full time day job and spend about 15-20 hours a week on illustration projects. I tried doing illustration full time for a while, but it wasn’t the right balance for me. I do better when I can be more selective about the jobs I take. It’s all about finding a balance, and that means different things for different people. Just be sure to keep drawing!
TT: What are you working on right now and why?
DM: In the last month or so I have finished four record covers/layouts, several event posters, and some branding jobs. These last couple of weeks I have been trying to produce one personal drawing every day. The client work is all super fun, but it requires me to be in a certain headspace. The drawings I have been doing for fun are to keep me loose and motivated while I work on several client projects. If I’m not happy with these drawings then I put them aside and don’t have to show anyone. These quick sketches take me around 30-40 minutes, and are great exercises.
"Pinhead Warmup" - Dave Mahan Illustration
TT: What would you consider to be your "biggest achievement" with your work thus far?
DM: The fact that I can get paid to make art really blows my mind. When I have a good run of decent paying jobs and clients are stoked on the work it is a serious affirmation. I think getting to a point where that has become a regular thing is my biggest achievement.
TT: What was your first work of art that you were proud of? Where is it now?
DM: The first record cover that I got paid a decent amount of money to do was a real proud moment for me. It was 10 years ago, but I still have the original drawing in my flat file. I sell a lot of my originals, but there are some that will never be sold off.
TT: Do you take commissions? Why or why not?
DM: I do take commissions. I have found that one off commissions are great ways to break up client work. Sometimes with a project for a client there is a lot of pressure for things to be stiff and predictable. The work you produce for the client could make or break the marketing of their product, and that’s a lot of pressure for everyone involved. I love having commissions to work on, because it helps me shift from a high pressure project to something really fun and out there. It can also stretch your brain in different ways. I often feel more comfortable cutting loose with experimentation on commissions, and that can lead to discovering some new techniques for my more professional work.
TT: What do you do when you aren't working on artwork (hobbies, job, etc.)?
DM: These days my time is divided up mostly between art and music. I have been playing guitar for over 20 years now, and I’m in two bands that play out pretty regularly. I have a surf guitar duo called The Donner Beach Party, and my main project is a cinematic doom metal band called Wolfhand.
"Mad Monk" - Dave Mahan Illustration
TT: What is an area in your work that you feel weak in that you want to improve upon and how are you going to get there?
DM: Color! Color has always been tricky for me. I used to paint much more, but issues with color would always drag me down. I started focusing much more on color studies in my sketches and that helped a lot. Color will probably always be a struggle for me, but I can definitely tell that I have gotten more comfortable with it over the last few years.
TT: How do you overcome art blocks?
DM: The most important thing about overcoming blocks is recognizing that they are normal. Some people can get shut down for months with an art block. I try to make it a point to step back for a second as soon as I see a block forming. It’s not always easy in the moment, but even taking 15 minutes to do something else like taking a walk, reading a comic, talking to my cat, or whatever helps me shift gears can make all the difference.
TT: Where do you see your work taking you in the next 5-10 years?
DM: I would like to achieve sustainable growth for my art business over the next 5-10 years. Something I go back and forth about is whether or not I want to go back to try to make art my only source of income. Hopefully within the next 5-10 years I could boost my output of work To the point where I could work less at my day job and maybe even have some “free time”. If at some point it becomes clear that I would be more happy doing illustration work full time then I will make the leap. Otherwise I’m super satisfied right now with my ability to turn down jobs that I don’t want to take on.
TT: Is there something that you would like to share with us that we have not covered, that pertains to you and your work?
DM: I think one important thing to touch on is the amount of friends I have made because of my illustration work. I have been extremely lucky to have met a great number of talented fellow visual artists, a ton of amazing clients, and a humbling amount of very generous fans who support my work. It is very easy to get stuck in your own head as an artist or to feel a lot of competition and jealousy in regards to your fellow illustrators. I would like people to see how positive and awesome things can be if you put the positivity out there. At the end of the day you are the person that has to come up with ideas, execute them in a way that you are happy with, and be respectful to clients. It’s much easier to do all of that if you stay positive.
"Ghastly Sound Cover" - Dave Mahan Illustration
TT: If you have links for your website, Facebook page, Instagram, Twitter, etc. that you would like to share, please include these addresses below.
DM: You can find my work at: