An Interview with Illustrator and Character Designer Daniel Davis of Steam Crow

February 10, 2012
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An Interview with Illustrator and Character Designer Daniel Davis of Steam Crow

Steam Crow is a Phoenix, Arizona studio that designs, illustrates and creates astonishingly good monster goods. Established in 2005 by artists Daniel and Dawna Davis, the firm is dedicated to making amazing and odd goods with a spooky-cute vintage aesthetic.

Design, steamcrow, interview

Tell me about your childhood, where did you grow up?

I'm from Spokane, Washington... Close to the Idaho and Canadian border. I'm an only child, so I spent my time messing around, drawing, imagining monsters, and basically plodding away in my own head. I was raised by a single mom, so she was busy working all the time. I had to use my imagination to keep myself occupied.

What started your love of all things monster?

It's kinda hard to say, really. I grew up in the 1970's - monster culture was everywhere... From monster movies, to KISS, Scooby Doo to Count Chocula cereal. Monsters seemed like they were everywhere.

I discovered Ray Harryhausen films on the CREATURE FEATURE TV show every Saturday at noon. I just ate that stuff up. Since this was pre-cable and pre-Internet, you had to work hard to find cool content.

I discovered midnight Hammer Films at maybe age 7 or 8 and watched those all summer long when I visited my grandparents in Memphis. They'd stay up with me, and I'd watch as much as I could before I passed out. Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula... They all blew my mind. And then I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, and it was all over.

Design, steamcrow, interview

What did your mom do for a living?

She was a waitress who sold hand-painted plaques on the side, along with folk-arty crafts. She pretty much worked 2-3 shifts a day at 2-3 restaurants. Hard worker... I sometimes helped her finish some of her art.

But she was an artist in some ways. That's interesting…

Oh yeah. She still is... lots of things like handmade rugs, hand-stitched quilts (no machine work), painting, making stuff out of wood, etc. She's really handy that way. But watching her work so hard for so little profit, it really informed me that I needed to make sure that I could capitalize on my efforts in a better way. So, we make things like prints instead of one-offs like she did. To make it as an artist today, you need to be able to have your work pay a little... for years.

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Most people in the creative space, almost without fail, point to an older brother who liked comics. Did you read comics as a kid?

Since my mom was so busy and I had no older siblings/friends, I wasn't so aware of comics.

Child abuse!

I did get a couple of the Star Wars comics when they first came out... But money was pretty tight. Yeah, child abuse!

I had to make do with cheaper alternatives. I didn't EVER have money until I was in my 20s working my first jobs.

Design, steamcrow, interview

So, did you go to college?

Yeah, I did go to college.

With what degree in mind?

My family insisted that I not be an artist and that I went to school for something practical like business or teaching or such. I had to lie to them and say that I was going to school to be an art teacher, though I had no intent on doing so. I got my AA at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon and I continued at EWU in Eastern Washington.

Fine arts focus, I was basically goofing off drawing, doing sculpture, pottery and all of that. But really, I was a pop-culture artist... and didn't quite know that that was possible.

I was entirely unaware of graphic design and illustration, which was too bad. Took me longer to find it and figure out my place in the world.

I dropped out of EWU my senior year. I had enough credits to graduate but needed a couple more classes. I felt like I was wasting my time, and somehow got a job as a graphic designer at a t-shirt shop in 1994. This was pre-Photoshop, so I had decent pen skills for doing hand stippled art separations. Hand cut amberlith, used a stat camera and cut designs in 8 colors. FINALLY, I was learning something!

Design, steamcrow, interview

In a previous interview with a writer he said that he consciously sees a difference between people who WANT to be in the creative business, and people who NEED to be in the creative business. You seem to fall into the latter category?

Certainly. I MUST spend my time making things or I get all frustrated. I find myself in an agitated state.

So what degree did you end up getting out of college?

Well, I pulled up just short of a BFA in Fine Arts. But, the paper was going to do me ZERO good, and I'm simply NOT a fine artist. Discovering design was such a better fit, though I benefited from all that other exploration.

Does anything stand out from the college experience? Specific teachers? Quotes, lessons?

I took a year of art history and that was really terrific. It helped me find things to draw from with my work that just wasn't what was going on in recent pop culture. Instead of borrowing from the guy next to you, I could go back and look at color design or whatever from a turn of the century painter.

For example...

Mt. Hood had teachers that were from Art Center and they were really, really solid guys. They really guided me and saw that I was a kid with some promise and definite interest in illustration. I don't recall their names, but they pushed me in ways that I was never challenged at EWU.

I think that the variety of art experiences, and the wider general education was of value.

Design, steamcrow, interview

I think that's an important statement "Talent only gets you so far." Context and hard knowledge really do help.

For good or bad, it's really true. A lot of talented folks simply expect to be recognized as such, and crowned a "success." That just doesn't work these days and it probably really never did. Not at least for most talented folks.

So where did you end up after the t-shirt shop?

So, I did that for 7 years, learning about design, Photoshop, vector graphics... I really focused on vector craftsmanship, since there wasn't really anything else good about those t-shirt production jobs. But after 7 years I was still making $17k a year and working way too hard at it.

The Interwebs came 'round, and Flash soon after. Once I figured out that vector art worked in Flash I parlayed that into a job at a big Dot Com era web design firm. Shoved my foot in the door, and then was taught there how to really build websites. So, I found ways to get folks to pay me on the job to learn the tech details. I worked in web design until October of last year, when I started working for Steam Crow. Full time. Of course, I'd been working full time in both jobs for a long time before that.

Tell me about steam crow. Define it for me...

Steam Crow is the brand that I developed with my wife Dawna. Basically it's an umbrella around our creations. It has a focus on vintage-y monsters, advertising mascots, and all of that... which is just my personal focus. We make goods/products/media to make monster people happy. While it's 99% my work, I wanted to allow Dawna a chance to fit in too so that it brought us together rather than pull us apart.

What was the tipping point to make that your full focus?

Hmmm.... just years of hard work. It's all been very, very gradual. We've been doing shows for 7 years now, and we've slowly but surely built up a support base who buy our products and like what we do. There's not been any single BIG BANG BOOM moment where we go "we're here!" We did our taxes about this time last year, and realized that we'd had another big year of growth. Steam Crow got to the point where I could VERY MODESTLY survive... and working 2 jobs for 6 years was killing me.

So give me a sense of a typical day at Steam Crow?

I'm all over the place. I spend morning time connecting the social media dots, and then I work on any number of projects to get them out the door. Yesterday I got up at 5:30, worked on scripts for the Steam Crow Show, filmed from 9-2:30, took a lunch, jumped in the car and advised an artist friend on the way to a TINY ARMY meeting. So, it was a DOING STUFF day, but not a lot of art. Got home at 9. Crazy times.

I typically jump around from project to project, and try to prep for upcoming shows, and work on long-term stuff too. It's all juggling...

Give me a sense of the "typical" client-based project at steam crow...

I don't do any client work. Well, I do a little, but I really try not to.

So define "projects out the door?"

I spend my efforts designing products, planning shows, and illustrating my own stuff.

Project: exclusive print for X show, expansion of our miniprint line, developing new wooden brooches, illustrating a comic.
In graphic design terms, I'm a "design merchandiser." I find client work really, really painful in most cases.

Lets talk monsters for a minute...

Monsters!

Is there a monster design that stands out to you as the high water mark?

Hmm... you mean in general?

It's gonna sound blurry I think, but the character design of Nosferatu... the old black/white film. Frankenstein... again from film. Godzilla. Mike Mignola's Hellboy.Yeah, that'd be the one if we're talking art. Mignola is SO... SO... Good. I could eat his ink work.

I love Mike Mignola, he's a genius and Hellboy is brilliant.

He's one of my absolute favorites... I have his art all over my studio.

What makes a monster design "good?"

Are we talking character design?

Yeah.

Well, a great, unique silhouette is a solid starting point. Also, if it conveys some emotion. This is basic stuff, but it's the core I think. I like characters that live in some sort of world. I like them to be weathered from the universe that they're from. It's also nice to see something new. What's funny is that I do this cartoon-y thing... I had no idea that it'd come out this way. I mean, I wanted to be like Frazetta like everybody else. But, this simple iconic-y style just pours out.

Funny how it works out that way…

Wasn't by design, but there's no sense in fighting it. So, I just run ahead, do my thing, and let others decide if it's for them or not. Yeah, sometimes you just have to roll with your thing.

How large is the audience for this type of work, does it mix with the vinyl toy work, or is it more exclusive?

Audience? I have no idea... but it's plenty big. I do ride the line with the Urban Vinyl aesthetic... something more design-informed than simply literal illustration. My characters/style seem to have a wide appeal. It's not for everybody by any means, but enough folks like it that I can see that we can be as successful as we are willing to work hard. Our stuff appeals to both men and women, so that helps too.

Design, steamcrow, interview

A common theme among creatives is process. There seem to be two kinds of people in the creative space, the process driven type, and the pure intuitive "artist." Which camp do you fall in?

I don't focus so much on process though I am very production oriented. Dawna calls me "Captain Random," if that helps.
I have been known to be walking around the studio looking for a tool/pen/brush and then 10 minutes later I'm hip-deep on some other project. It all makes sense to me, but not so much to her I guess.

What's the single most important lesson your career has taught you?

Stop seeking perfection. Deliver. Something great will come out of making 10,000 pieces rather than trying to make something perfect out of the first one.

That's good advice and something I wish I heard when I was starting out in this business.

I've known GREAT artists who never finish anything because they don't want to ship out anything less than perfection. So nobody knows how great that they are.

What advice would you give to someone graduating from college with a visual communication degree today?

Keep working on their own body of work while they work for someone else. Form opinions, art direct your own work, and learn how to work well with others. Learn from EVERYTHING and EVERYONE. If you can't find work, invent your own.

How important is the social network to the modern designer. You and I can remember a time without it, modern designers cannot.

Yeah, it's crazy, isn't it? I suppose it depends on your focus. I won't pretend that it's not important but it's a HUGE distraction too. For Steam Crow, it's the prime way that we interact with our followers/supporters. It's super important.

But, if my focus was working in-house, it would largely be a distraction I think. I dunno... I'm so focused on our personal brand, I see everything through that lens. It's important to be seen, make connections, and get your work out there. But I also see folks that spend all their time doing that and not working on much.

The Internet has also taken out the gate keepers. 15 years ago, hell ten years ago, to get your work seen by 1,000 people would mean a lot of work and dedication. Now it's as easy as posting a screen shot on Twitter or Facebook. Does that kind of access help or hurt the overall quality and value of what we do as visual communicators?

So true. It's superb for that. I'm glad that it wasn't around when I was green. It can create a myopic view. The flavor of the year becomes the flavor of the moment. Folks tend to Google inspiration and look at what's just on the other side of the fence. It can make everyone's work look the same. BUT, one can totally educate themselves by following and learning from the masters. A lot of folks are sharing a LOT of information out there.

I say all of that, but I find it to be an amazing thing. It's lead to a revolution of creativity and commerce and style and design are being stirred and mixed internationally. So, don't take me for a grumpy old man. It's just that there's bad with the good.

Lets wrap this up with a good, old-fashion quote. Do you have a favorite when it comes to what we do for a living?

Less Ego, more Go-Go? I dunno.

I like that, good way to end the interview

Cory Skaaren

Cory Skaaren

Creative Director. Problem Solver. Thinker. Principal at Skaaren Design. Follow me at @skaarendesign.

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