Los Angeles-based illustrator, co-founder of print studio Tan & Loose Press, and co-founder of monthly newspaper The Smudge; Clay Hickson is a risograph pro, even if his studio is in his garage. Channelling the underground zine culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he uses art and illustration to make America great, inspiring others to get involved too. They donate each publication’s earnings to worthy causes including Planned Parenthood, LGBTIQ rights, immigration centres, food banks and gun safety charities… and seeing as nothing great has come out of Donald Trump’s administration, at least we have The Smudge.
I’m really excited to interview you, as I’m a big follower of your work. Could you tell us a brief summary of yourself, your work and your printing press?
I am a freelance illustrator living in Los Angeles. On the side, I also run Tan & Loose Press, a publishing project specializing in risograph (riso) printed books and posters.
I’m like a moth to a flame when it comes to colour, which is probably why Breakfast is one of my favourite prints of yours. Your colour palettes are rich, warm and sun-soaked; is this your California influence?
I suppose that has something to do with it. I only recently returned to California after spending ten years in the Midwest. So I don’t fully identify as Californian, but I guess you can’t escape your roots. I actually kind of prefer muted colour palettes, but for some reason, everything I do ends up being pretty bright.
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You post a lot of works in progress on your Instagram and you can really see the process from simple pen and paper drawings to finished risograph prints. But printing with a riso requires a certain aesthetic, so do you find yourself drawing bold and cleanly because it lends itself well to your printing method?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve been printing almost exclusively on the riso since 2012, so I’ve definitely started to design for the process. As a printing method, the riso is fairly flexible but it has so many quirks and flaws that you sort of have to give up control and accept the outcome. It’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s the path I’ve chosen.
So word on the street is that your printing press is in your apartment. I guess that means no need for a suit and tie, and you can roll out of bed whenever, right?
Yep! Well, it’s in our garage now, but we spent the last seven years printing out of a tiny room in our apartment. People would ask to do studio visits with us and I would try and dissuade them because there’s really not much to see. It’s basically just a copy machine and a bunch of stacks of paper. Doing a studio visit at Kinko’s would probably be more interesting than Tan & Loose Press. One of the main reasons I got interested in riso printing was because it didn’t require a ton of space or equipment. It’s a powerful tool because the materials are super cheap and you can produce huge editions in a very short time.
You mentioned that you reject this idea of illustrators having a ‘style’ and I totally agree with you! You’d be putting yourself in a box, as if you’re typecast in a movie with no escape – nightmare. Do you often get clients wanting something similar or identical to a previous piece of work?
Well, first, I feel like I should clarify that. I wouldn’t say I reject the idea of having a style. Honestly, I’m pretty jealous of artists whose work is immediately recognizable, but it’s something that never worked for me. Every time I start to settle into a certain style, I discover some artist I never heard of and immediately start to drift into new territories. It used to frustrate me, but I’ve learned to embrace it. It’s sort of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ approach.
But one of the drawbacks of not having such a distinct style is that it can be hard to decipher what a client wants. I may have spent the last year working exclusively with a pen but someone might be hiring me because they saw an airbrush painting I did three years ago, you know? So I actually always ask people to send me some examples of my work that they’re drawn to just so I know what they’re looking for.
Speaking of being a jack-of-all-trades, I saw the mouth-wateringly tasty ‘banners’ you did, which you posted on Instagram. Is mural painting a big interest of yours, and can we expect to see more large-scale works to come?
That was a really fun project. Those were actually vinyl banners that I had made, but mural painting is something that I’m always interested in doing. I’ve done a few and it can be really satisfying, but every step of the process gives me so much anxiety. I feel completely lost when I’m picking out paint, transferring an image onto the wall is such a pain, I’m terrible at painting and it feels awful while I’m doing it, but then, when it’s all done, I step back and somehow it all works out and I can’t wait to do another one.
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Are you ever stumped for ideas, and if so, how do you rid yourself of illustrator’s block?
I am in a perpetual state of ‘illustrator’s block.’ I actually always say that I’ve never had a single idea in my life. If I wait for an idea before I start working on a project, I will never start. I just have to sit down and start making marks until something starts to take shape. All the work that I’ve done so far has been the result of pure luck and just putting in the time. If I’m really stuck, I just look through my favourite art books and magazines. That almost always gets the juices flowing.
Inspirations and influences for your work are constantly changing depending on what happens to interest you that day/week/month/year. But what or who are you currently hooked on for inspiration?
I try to always find new sources of inspiration, but there are a few that I can’t seem to get away from. Most recently (and at several other points in my life) I’ve been looking through old issues of Push Pin Graphic. It was a bi-monthly publication started by Push Pin Studios in 1955. It was completely freeform and every issue is like an illustration/design goldmine. I’m trying to collect them all, but some issues are super rare and expensive.
So you run The Smudge with fellow illustrator Liana Jegers. Could you tell us a little bit about it – and how do you find collaborating with another person on a continuous project?
Liana and I started The Smudge right after the 2016 United States presidential election. There was a real sense of dread in the air and everyone seemed to scramble to figure out how to cope with this disaster. We had been talking about starting some sort of monthly publication before then and, suddenly, there was a slew of issues that we could focus on. Thus, The Smudge was born.
I’ve never been very good at collaborating (mostly because I’m too self-conscious) but working with Liana is really easy and fun. We have pretty different tastes so there’s a lot of compromise, but it usually works out as a sort of checks and balances system. Without Liana, The Smudge would be way weirder and probably incomprehensible. Without me, it would probably be way more intellectually stimulating and have far fewer typos aka charm.
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Obviously, living in Los Angeles has a lot of perks, just one of them being the huge graphic arts and zine culture. Do you find that collaborative projects, local printing presses and book fairs provide a real community amongst creatives like yourself, or do the Internet and Instagram play the biggest role?
There is a ton of people doing really killer work out here and it’s been great getting to know the scene over this last year. There’s a really amazing community that has grown around all these new art book fairs that have started popping up in every city. We’ve done a lot in the last couple years and they almost always lead to new friendships and collaborations. That being said, Instagram is probably our main tool for sharing our work. I hate it and I think it’s ruining my life, but it’s allowed me to quit my day job, so for that, I’m forever grateful.
You have such a tongue in cheek sense of humour; it’s evident throughout your work and social media. Even your Tan & Loose Press bio says, “We pride ourselves on producing medium quality, Riso printed ephemera for the tasteless art collector.” Do you think that the comedic effect allows your work to be more accessible and relatable to your audience?
The self-deprecation is probably more of a defence mechanism. It’s just my way of keeping expectations low so as not to disappoint anyone. In general, I try to keep the mood pretty light with all this stuff. Tan & Loose Press started as a joke, and I never imagined it would go on this long (if I had known, I would’ve chosen a better name). I don’t take any of it too seriously. At the end of the day, we’re just making zines and it’s not worth stressing about.
Another thing that really stood out to me is that you’re very socially and politically conscious in your work, such as the Save The Water prints, and how all profits made from The Smudge go to worthy causes and charities each month. Do you think it’s important for people with such a platform and following as yourself to speak out about current issues?
I’m one of the millions of people that are guilty of not being very civically engaged until the rise of Donald Trump. It makes me sick to think back on all the things I didn’t do to try and put out this dumpster fire before it got out of control. So, like Vietnam for my parent’s generation, Trump is the catastrophe that politicized me. There is an endless amount of issues to tackle in this country and all over the world – and admittedly, I’m not that well informed on most of them. My talents lie in printmaking, so I’m just trying to use the tools I have and give to the people that are out there doing the real work.
Do you have any other collaborative/solo projects currently in the works that you could give us a sneaky hint about?
Most of my energy goes towards The Smudge these days. We have some new books lined up that I’m really excited about, but it’s a little too early to discuss those.
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