Put simply, Ben Brown is an Australian punk music and surf art icon. Not only was he at the heart of the local surf art movement, working alongside other luminaries like Reg Mombassa (Mambo) in the process, he was also the lead singer for The Hellmenn, a legendary skate-punk/pub-rock band from the 1980s.
Known for his vibrant/dark poster art and cheeky nods to bogan surf culture, Brown designed Nirvana’s poster for their only ever tour in Australia, as well as posters for Pearl Jam. We did say legend, right?
We spoke to Ben recently to get his take on art, creativity and to pick his brain on how to ensure the final product and prints are as good as they can possibly be.
Tell us about what you do creatively and how a typical work day may unfold for you?
“I work on a daily basis as an illustrator, designer, visual mercenary and conceptual actualiser. Doing illustration and design work is my bread and butter. I’ve been working as a freelance gun for hire for about 25 years now. I have a studio at home, and also a small studio I share with some friends, not far from my place, which gets me out of the house and mixing with other humans.
“A typical day for me is getting the household organised – kids off to school – grabbing a coffee and getting stuck into work.
“Most days my schedule is pretty hectic and I’m juggling about half a dozen jobs to keep my head above water. My clients generally tend to be music promoters, bands, clothing brands, record companies, media outlets, surf and skateboard companies.”
How important is printing and copying to your day-to-day work?
“I like to build up artworks by continually re-drawing the same image and re-working it. I start with a rough drawing and then scan it into the computer where I vectorise the image to line work and make it 14% cyan/pale blue before printing it out and working over the blue line in more detail.
“I repeat this process several times. It’s a trick I learned in my pre-digital days working as a young fella in a screen printing company’s art department. We would draw in blue lead and then ink black over the top of the blue. When the art is photographed by the bromide camera, the blue is not picked up in the finished B&W image. Only the black ink.
“The same principal applies when scanning images into a computer. The pale blue lines can easily be discarded using threshold in Photoshop. I sometimes like to work on large scale images – A2 and A1 size – when I’m inking using this technique, and often zip down to my local Officeworks with my vector images on a jump drive and output them there.
“Once I have inked large scale art I will return to have the image scanned. Once these finished images are scaled down to size, they look very detailed and tight.”
What are some of principles of design that you adhere to and how do they influence your work across the variety of creative mediums you explore?
“I like to emphasise a really visual, almost confronting style. I grew up around screenprinting, designing a lot of posters and t-shirts. Design for me is capturing the viewers’ attention. The use of line and colour is important to me.
“I am very influenced by comic art, posters and general post-war pop culture. I like images that really pull you in, and convey the feeling and the message quickly in an exciting explosive way. A good idea needs to be executed well, be balanced and measured and just generally fit in with the medium I am working with, whether that’s a poster, record cover, t-shirt or editorial illustration.
“I want it to look immediate, well crafted and like it should be where it is.”
Tell us about some of the indispensable tools you use to produce your work and any ‘secret’ tips for getting the most out of using them?
“I work mostly with ink on paper – Artline 210 pens – and sometimes with ink and brush on paper. I also like drawing with brush pens. There are quite a lot on the market, and recently I found a good Sharpie brush pen. Thin sable style brushes are what I use when inking by brush. Number #2 through to #4.
“Regular Bond paper, about 80gsm, is my preferred paper. I also like drawing/inking large format A2 or A1 size on thicker cartridge style paper. I find that drawing larger format really tightens drawings up when they are reduced down in size.
“I start with an idea and sketch it up in pencil – 2B lead in a Staedler clutch pencil. I use the thin paper so I can see through it easily and put it on a lightbox and continually trace and re-work the images as I build them up before I move onto inking it.
“Next, I take the image to Illustrator and use the trace tool to vectorise the image. From there, colouring and finishing the image will depend on what I am trying to achieve.”
Where are some of the more unique places online and offline that you get your creative inspiration from?
“I often wonder what I used to do for references and research before the Internet. It is all at your fingertips and your ideas know no bounds.
“I listen to a lot of music while I work and it can really set a mood and a feeling. With streaming services, I can listen to anything I can possibly think of. A recent favourite is the soundtrack to the 1951 film ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’.
“Surfing, seeing live music and hanging out with like-minded friends always provides good inspiration.”
What trends have you noticed in your creative mediums that particular interest or excite you?
“I do notice the evolution of the way we work and that is exciting. The last show I did was a collaboration with good friend, Sydney-based artist Kentaro Yoshida, where we created images together by emailing digital files back and forth between each other and working on the same canvas, so to speak.
“Once we were happy with the work we had made, we painted them on large canvases in a traditional fashion. Then we had the show – which sold out on the night – and now we will be selling prints of the digital images we created. I would never have thought of doing a show like that five years ago.”
What advice would you pass on to aspiring creatives looking to break into your field?
“Remember why you are doing it. You have to love it, and always be amped about creating. Always work on alternative projects that appeal to your own personal dreams, ideas and interests. The more you are invested in what you are creating, the more time, effort and passion you will sink in to it.
“That is how you create the best work you possibly can.”