The Man Who Draws Many Faces: A Conversation with Artist Austin Gilmore

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For a Kansas-born Midwesterner, Austin Gilmore’s resume reads more like a “What do you want to be when you grow up?” wish list than an actual CV. His job history includes time as a TV and movie producer, actor, animator, author, board game designer, toy maker, and art director—just to name a few. He helped create the Emmy-winning TV miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, produced the New York Times bestseller, The Explorers Guild, and toured the world as a band documentarian. On top of all that, Gilmore is a wildly talented illustrator. His new show Staring Contest opens at Gallery1988 in Los Angeles on April 2, 2021, and it will also be available to view online. I had the great pleasure to talk with Gilmore about his upcoming show, his art, and whether or not Field of Dreams is overrated.

M. Brett Smith: All right, so before we discuss your work as a designer and illustrator, let’s do the obligatory interview bio summary.

Austin Gilmore: Sounds good.

Your resume is kind of insane, so I’m just going to run through some of these questions lightning-round style. You ready?

Sure.

OK, so your name is Austin Gilmore, and you are currently the Art Director at Venn49 Creative Lab, a full-service creative boutique in Kansas City?

Yeah, that’s right. I’ve been at Venn45 for about five years. It’s a really fun place to work. We focus mostly on package design and branding, but we really do a little bit of everything.

And, before that you were a creative executive at Kevin Costner’s Treehouse Films for seven years. During your tenure there you worked on a laundry list of big-name projects, including the Emmy-winning TV miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, as well as several major motion pictures, including Man of Steel, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Draft Day, and many others.

Yes.

Can you name all the baddies?

Hatfields & McCoys looked like it was shot in Kansas.

It really does, but it was actually filmed in Romania, of all places. We basically took over this small ski resort in Transylvania and shot the whole thing there. I think of all the projects I worked on with Costner, that was my favorite.

Speaking of Costner, true or false: Tin Cup is actually a better movie than Field of Dreams?

False, and I can tell you why. First, because of the time travel sequence in Field of Dreams. And second, because of that scene where James Earl Jones admits he saw Moonlight Graham’s name at Fenway. There’s an otherworldly aura to those scenes that are unlike any other movie.

Well I never saw it, but I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. Also, thanks for ruining it for me.

Happy to help.

Now, turning to your work as an illustrator: I’ve been a big fan of yours for a long time and one of the things I love about your work is that you have a signature style, which I think is much more rare than talent alone. I could look at a thousand different illustrations from a thousand different artists and pick yours out no problem. How did your “style” come about? Was it something that just developed over time, or have you always had a similar aesthetic?

It definitely developed over time. It’s basically just a Frankenstein’s version of all the styles and characters I loved growing up. The spaced out, rounded teeth are The Simpsons. The stark black eyes are inspired by Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz characters. I hate drawing noses, and as much as I’ve tried to do it differently, I only like my characters smiling. That’s the part of my “style” that’s always been there. Looking back at things I drew in grade school, it’s all really the same: Straight ahead, smiling faces. And then it just evolved over time.

Talking about media influences: Pop culture has obviously had a serious impact on your work. Is there any deeper significance behind this other than you draw the things you like?

Honestly, I usually just draw things that I would buy if I stumbled upon them online. I’ve focused mainly on pop culture gallery shows lately, so that’s why most of my work is based on popular TV shows or movies.

The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in awesome, two-dimensional glory

I want to come back to the pop culture shows in a minute because I know you have an upcoming show, but before we touch on that, one thing I’ve always wondered is how you make your artwork. Are there specific programs or tools you use?

Oh, well, my process isn’t super complicated: I do the world’s fastest character sketch on paper, then I reference that as I build the character in Adobe Illustrator from my existing template. Change some hair, add a different outfit. Save As. On to the next one.

So you work exclusively in Illustrator?

When I started at Venn49 I was using Adobe Photoshop. All of my coworkers thought I was nuts, especially for the look and style I was trying to achieve. I begrudgingly started messing around in Illustrator and now that’s all I use. The color and stroke capabilities gave me everything I was missing with Photoshop. I can’t imagine ever using anything else. That and Adobe Color.

Adobe Color? I don’t know about that.

I love Adobe Color. It’s such a great tool. Basically it provides you with complementary, monochromatic, and shades of whatever color you’re working with, then syncs those colors with your existing libraries so you can immediately access them.

Oh man, that sounds awesome. I’ll have to check that out. Now, going back to the pop culture shows: You have a new exhibit coming out in April, right?

Yeah. It’s called Staring Contest. It opens on April 2 at Gallery1988 in Los Angeles. 

That’s really exciting. I know that you’ve worked with Gallery1988 before, because I’ve purchased some of your prints off their website, but this is your first full show, right?

Yeah. This is my first solo show. In the past, I’ve been part of different group shows, like their annual Crazy 4 Cult exhibit, and official shows for the WWE and Bojack Horseman—to name a few. 

The Knives Out "Guess Who?" board game

I actually bought the WWE print. It's sitting above my desk right now. I love it. Now, are these new prints you’re showing, or are they pieces we’ve seen before?

I did thirty-one new pieces for the show. Mostly prints, but also a game based on the movie Knives Out, some talking Plushies, and some other 3D pieces to mix it up.

That’s a tremendous amount of work. Even for something you enjoy doing, that had to be taxing.

Yeah, it's how I spent the bulk of the quarantine. But it was a nice escape, drawing hundreds smiling faces during some of those darker months.

But you’re happy with how it turned out?

I am! I did every character I wanted to do—except for the super deep cuts—and I think they turned out pretty well.

Give me your favorites. Top three, let’s go.

Favorites? That's tough. The Avengers one is up there for sure. That's my biggest piece in the whole show. It's basically every character that appears in the MCU. I really do like the Knives Out "Guess Who?" board game—I think it's super fun. Honestly, I think my favorite piece is probably my Mad Max: Fury Road Furiosa Talking Plushie. My pal Heidi Gardner did the voice of Furiosa and it’s really, really funny. Which, you know, goes without saying because it’s Heidi Gardner, but it just absolutely kills me every time I hear it. 

Saturday Night Live cast member Heidi Gardner provides the voice for the Furiosa Talking Plushie

Heidi Gardner from Saturday Night Live? Oh, that's so cool. And we can see that Talking Plushie, along with your entire Staring Contest exhibit, starting this month?

Yep. April 2 at Gallery1988 in Los Angeles, or online at their website.

You can see Austin Gilmore’s entire exhibit in person at Gallery1988 on Melrose or online at the Gallery1988 website. You can find more of Austin Gilmore’s work, including digital artwork and illustration, pins, toys, board games, and more at his personal website The Teaguery.

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