September 10, 2007

Interview - Mike Peterson

Mike Peterson, a.k.a Halcyonsnow, is an illustrator, copywriter, novelist and photographer. Mike is one of the founding contributors to the 700 Hoboes Project. He lives in Cincinnati, OH where he takes pictures of people at airports and cons friends into wearing lucha libre masks.

You'd be surprised at how eager people are to don the mask of the Luchadore. Putting on the mask is like a little Halloween, a license to be outside of yourself for a few minutes. Then you get all sweaty and hot. If you ever get to Cincinnati, you should try it. Although I imagine you can probably find a bigger selection of masks in Texas.

Probably. Thanks for taking the time today. These questions are general and open ended. Be as long winded or curt as you like.

General Long-winded Curt, "As-you-like"
would have been a good Hobo name.

If you can recall, describe the moment or event that you realized you wanted to be an artist.

I'm still waiting for that moment. To put it another way, I don't think it was ever a question of "want." I just do stuff. I have an insatiable urge to create things, which is unfortunate, since it really cuts into my video-game-playing time. Art is an act of creation that is enjoyable, accessible and scale-able. If I had the opportunity to design and build a space station, I would do that.

Would you describe yourself as a classically trained or self taught artist? If you studied, where and was it a good experience?

Definitely self-taught. It's the only way to go. I've had friends who were brilliant, born artists, and they went to art school and came out graphic design machines that hated art. It takes a person years to undo the damage and start creating again. I think that's why so many art-school grads are into primitivist art. They like it because it doesn't remind them of school; they've been classically conditioned to associate quality with lack-of-originality.

The thing I missed by skipping art school is a strong understanding of materials. I would like to use oils, for example, but since I skipped the formal training, all of my oil experiments have been disastrous. Getting tutored on oils is pretty high on my very long to-do list.

What would you like to accomplish with your art?

The same as any artist, I guess: to be acknowledged as the greatest artistic genius ever to have lived.
Realistically, my life-goal has always been to be an eccentric, independent, recluse. I guess that makes Crumb my role-model.

Who were your biggest influences when you were starting out and has that changed?

Probably the artists (and writers) of Mad Magazine. I was particularly fond of Sergio Aragones, but I'm sure Mort Drucker and Jack Davis were just as important. I probably learned the most from "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way," which I now know should have been titled "How to Ape the Kirby Style." Either way, it was a huge help. Thanks, Stan Lee!

Now I'm a lot more catholic in my style-biting. I look at as many good artists as I can, try to see what they're doing well, where they're weak.

My two favorite illustrators right now are Ralph Steadman and Drew Friedman. What does that tell you?

Is art a hobby or serious business to you?

I try to treat everything I do as a hobby. If you don't enjoy it, what's the point?

If you could change something you do while creating, a habit or crutch, without any effort, what would it be?

Can I change two?

1) I would get rid of my tendency to over-fiddle when finishing the art, especially when coloring in photoshop. I start with confidence and finish with disgust. It's a classic 80/20 thing.

2) I would learn to love backgrounds. One of my many failings is a laziness when it comes to drawing around the subject, to the ruin of many otherwise good pieces. One of the things I admire most about Koford is the love he puts into the scene. You see that a lot in his Laugh-out-Loud Cats.

Are you a hard set solo artist or would you like to collaborate more with other artists?

Oh no, I love collaboration. That's one thing I picked up in advertising. Assuming that you trust your partner, the work you create as a team is exponentially better, easier, and more fun. It's the difference between good and great. My favorite work of fiction (the novella, Dedicat Ed, available at Amazon ) was co-written with a buddy (Eric Fleming); he blended subtleness and humanity into my bitter, heavy-handed satire. The result was greater than the sum of the parts. Plus, we wrote the damn thing in three days which is about 365 times faster than any other book I've written.

Artists are generally not happy with what they've done or how accomplished they are, but if you had to label it, what would have to happen for you to consider yourself successful?

I'd like to be able to do my own thing full time and not have to answer to anyone. I'm probably a year or two away from that.

What media are you most comfortable using and why?

Pencil, pen and ink. Pencil is great for working out the ideas and I just love the richness of real ink. I use nib pens (crow quill- Hunt 108 is my fave) unless I'm in a hurry. They really the character of my inking. I also use rapidographs a lot, especially when I'm going for nineteenth-century line work. I'm such an experimenter, though, I basically use everything but oils.

Would you rather push yourself to get a lot of work done or push yourself to perfect one piece at a time over a long period?

I'd rather do thirty drawings in a day but it just doesn't work that way for me. I need thinking time.

When you look back on the choices you made as an artist or becoming an artist, what - if anything - would you do differently?

I wish I'd kept track of all the stuff I've done so I could look back. I could be like, "oh yes, 1999, I was very into stencils that year."
Also I would have gone ahead and changed my name to something unique. You have no idea how bad it is, career-wise, to have a generic name.

Do you think it's easier to be an artist today than say twenty or thirty years ago?

Easier to make a living at it, entirely because of the internet. Ten years ago, you had to buy into the gallery system, advertising industry or magazine publishing if you wanted to have even a sliver of a chance of being successful enough to live on your art. So a handful of people were making all the who-lives-and-who-dies decisions about art.

Ten years ago, you had to live in a big city to find enough potential clients to support you; and you had to live at a big-city cost-of-living. Now you can live someplace cheap and have all the benefits of living in a city of 100 million. Kids today have it so easy!

All that said, it's just as difficult to master "art" itself, maybe moreso. And now you really get a sense of how you stack up against other artists.
It's humbling to get online and realize that some 12-year old in Finland has better line-work than you. Luckily you have a much better sense of physiognomy. That's at least some consolation.

Do you still work as a copywriter?

Oh yeah. All things considered, it's a great day-job. It keeps you sharp; you're writing constantly, coming up with ideas, solving problems, it's actually the best workout for the creative mind, better than working on your own stuff, because it forcibly exposes you to things you would never seek out on your own. And it pays good. And you work with fun people. Advertising creatives (that's copywriters and art directors for you laymen) are funny and amiable, much more so than serious artists. Plus they're almost universally humble.

Advertising, for all its flaws, is honest work. Good creatives never try to hide the fact that we're selling something... we always try to give the audience a little something-something (funny, thought-provoking, whatever) to balance that out.

That being said, I hate having a day-job. I can usually only tolerate it for about a year at a stretch. Then I take six months off, to work on personal stuff, before I go back.

Your blog says you are an award winning copywriter. What award did you win?

This question makes me feel like Les Nessman with his coveted Silver Sows. Ad awards are meaningless to the world at-large. They come in handy when you need another advertising job, though, and they can definitely speed up your career. The only ad awards worth anything at all to the public are the Clios, because they're featured on TV as "The World's Funniest Commercials." Or a Cannes Gold Lion, if you want the respect of film nerds. I haven't won either of those yet. If you're really interested, here's my ad portfolio with the awards listed (

It also says you're a "failed novelist." Is this a failure by motivation or failure from rejection?

More of a generalized failure. Writing novels is hard. Getting someone else to publish them is next-to-impossible. The big-publishing industry is in its death throes and basically has been since I started writing. There's only a few genres that are still successful and the stuff I write is what they call in the industry "not marketable." What they mean is, the industry is very conservative and will not support work that doesn't entirely sell itself either by virtue of its being by an established author or a knock-off of some other successful book. I got my scorecard full of rejection before I worked that out. The industry is so top-heavy and stodgy that they can't profit off a book that sells less than half-a-million copies. They've killed the mid-list.

My long-term plan is to start printing them myself; there's a capital outlay involved but the payback is much better. I've written (depending on how you count it) five books, one was co-written, two are completely done and ready to be reprinted at any time, two are ready to be edited by someone else, and the one that I'm currently working on is probably three drafts or so from being done. Five (-ish) books in ten (-ish) years. That's pretty good, motivation-wise. But I haven't even tried to talk to an agent or a publisher since 2001. I'd rather be creating something than trying to sell it.

Your Flickr site has a lot of varied work; graphic design, illustration, cartooning, photography, and you're also a bit of a writer. Which of these do you find the most rewarding?

They're all rewarding, and they're all frustrating. I'm pretty-good at everything I put my hand to, given enough practice. Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, polymath, whatever you want to call it. I pick up skills as I need them. I started shooting photographs just to use as reference for drawing. Now I can shoot a decent photo one-in-ten tries. That's okay, I can live with that.

Drawing is the skill I value most; it's the last thing on the list I would give up. I could quit writing, I could quit shooting, but I could never quit doodling. It's soothing. It keeps me sane. Near-sane.

You're the third person I've interviewed from Ohio. The first from Columbus and Lakewood. Is Ohio a mecca for creative people? Would you say there's a good art scene in Cincinnati?

There's a lot of young artists here in the Nati because we've got good art schools and because Cincinnati is very progressive for the midwest. My feeling is that artists have a pretty good deal here in Ohio. The cost-of-living is low, which means you worry less about paying rent and think more about art. I think you'll see more art (and writing) coming out of the middle-of-the-country over the next decade for this very reason. Call it the Scalzi effect.

Have you considered working as a freelancer photographer for a local paper or being more commercial with your photography?

I've considered it. Commercial photography is a pretty good racket, dollar-per-joule. And the flexible schedule is appealing. But I'm not interested in it enough to get into the process of learning all the technical details that separates a pro from a guy like me. Lighting, for instance. Bo-ring!

Being involved in so many creative outlets, what's a typical day like for you?

Long and tiring. It's difficult to balance work with art and writing and a personal life. I have to stay disciplined. When things get hairy at work, the writing suffers first, then the sleep, then the personal life, then the art. Cruel but true.

Do you have anything you'd like to say to your fans and fellow artists?

Dear Fans:
Hello! I had no idea I had fans. Can I sign your boobies?

Dear Fellow Artists:
Thank you. You make the world interesting.

Thanks for your time. Good luck with your work!

You can see some of Mike’s work here.

And his copywriting portfolio.

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