Wicked Whimsy: ADC Member Justin Winslow

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In our new Member to Member series, ADC Member Jonathan Walsh profiles ADC Member/Illustrator Justin Winslow.

Math. Did the word make you shudder? For many creatives, the left-brain work of mathematics is antithetical to the unrestrained right-brain work of creativity. Yet, the lines, curves, and geometric shapes that make up so much of design, are, at their core, representations of pure mathematical concepts. In writing, a ball flying through the air is said to “describe” a perfect arc; “described” instead of “made” because the moment the concept of a perfect arc (y=x2) is put to paper, its perfection is compromised. The grain of our Bristol, the flow of ink from our pens, the microscopic twitches of our fingers mean that, for artists, true, mathematical perfection, is always out of reach. Or at least it used to be: the advent of desktop publishing and, beginning in the late 1980s, commercially available vector graphics editors, meant that art directors, designers, and illustrators gained the ability to bend mathematics to their will to create a level of smoothness, grace, and perfection that were previously unattainable. The spread of this mathematically perfect aesthetic is evident on televisions, subway ads, and a growing number of device screens throughout the world. But, to designer, illustrator, and ADC member Justin Winslow, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

“Who wants to see somebody perfect?” asks Winslow when we meet to discuss his work at Battery Harris one chilly evening in Williamsburg. “Who wants to hang out with supermodels all day? Because my self esteem would be in the gutter.” But, with clients that range from major brands like Vitaminwater and HBO to indie poets and a hilarious, borderline NSFW line of holiday cards, his self-esteem should be anything but low. Since 2008, Winslow, 37, has been creating design work that is perfect in its artful, stylish, and playful imperfection: “I feel like my line is a little neurotic,” he says about his work, which includes hand-made illustrations and lettering, as well as digital design and motion graphics. “I’m not doing what everyone else is doing, in a lot of ways,” he says, “I love the organic, I try to inject that into everything now, I think. That’s just what I’m attracted to, and what I like. There’s something about a non-perfected image that, I think, makes things more charming, and likable.”

“Who wants to see somebody perfect? … who wants to hang out with supermodels all day? Because my self esteem would be in the gutter.”

Winslow’s vivid line-work and rich palette are certainly charming. His cover for Michael Montlack’s book of poems, Cool Limbo (NYQ Books, 2011), captures the stillness of an afternoon by the pool, the piece’s long lines giving life to a lithe beauty reclining in a beach chair at the center of the work. But, looking closer, details emerge that add an edge that is unique to Winslow to the image. The woman on the cover, a child of the 1970s judging by her feathered Farrah Fawcett hairstyle and butterfly tattoo, is surrounded by crushed beer cans and cigarette butts; flipping to the back cover reveals a bottle of Jack Daniels laying on its side. This is all being watched by a boy, pale, freckled, and wearing waterwings as he bobs in the aquamarine water of the pool, his mouth agape. “I like work that is fun and interesting, creative and weird, or has a dirty, dark sense of humor to it,” says Winslow, “but what I hope is conveyed there is that there is humor, yes, but that there’s still a nice, compelling image” at the heart of it.

Winslow’s dark sense of humor and human touch are on full display in the invitation he designed for the ADC’s “Wicked Kitsch” Halloween Party. In it, Winslow’s playful pen-work renders a knavish devil—complete with horns, pointed ears, and sporting a Van Dyke beard—gazing out at you, the words “Wicked Kitsch” forming his fanged grin. As he does with much of his art, Winslow combines hand-drawn and digital work in this piece. “I sketched ‘Wicked Kitsch’ by hand,” he says, “and did my darnedest to make it look like the teeth. The banner with the tagline was created to work with the devil head motif and explain it as an official costume party and art show. Once this final design was determined, I traced the sketched lines with ink to make the final outlines, then I scanned the pieces and put them together in Adobe Illustrator and cleaned up all the extraneous vectors.”

This ability to create polished pieces with a human touch is one of Winslow’s greatest strengths. While he is skilled at using digital tools to create elegant, concise pieces using vectors (as he did for the Power 20 fitness app, available on iTunes), he is also able to imbue these digital pieces with a unique sense of life. His work for Vitaminwater’s “Stop Vitamin Cruelty” campaign stars cute, anthropomorphized vitamins (named “B12,” “C,” etc.) rendered as geometric, vector-styled shapes with Terry Gilliam-esque noses, ears, and other features. From the campaign’s billboards, wall art, and video screens, the characters seem to plead expressively with the viewer as they are slowly, horrifically dissolved in water. “Some vitamins … deteriorate in water,” says the ad, “Keep vitamins fresh in the cap.”

This combination of the adorable and the dark is part of the charm of much of Winslow’s work, and stems from a sense of humor that seems to have taken root early on.

“I was one of those kids who had asthma, who couldn’t go outside because I had too many allergies and couldn’t play, one of those tragic kind of cases,” says Winslow with a laugh, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Tall, broad-shouldered, and square-jawed, he looks as though he could have been his high school’s quarterback. Born and raised in Atlanta, Winslow says he was always encouraged in his artwork. “My mom, she paints all the time—I think, she’s a frustrated painter,” he says. “We’ve discussed it, she supports me.” This encouragement helped propel him to Baltimore, where he attended the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“I loved the school,” Winslow says, “but art school can kind of beat the creativity out of you, in a way. They force you, academically, to do so many things in so many certain ways that they stifle your creativity.” Winslow remained in Baltimore (a “really weird, charming place”) after graduating, until “the city sort of kicked me out of it,” he says. “The universe was saying, ‘you just don’t belong in Baltimore,’” he adds, laughing. “[I was] almost mugged, had my car towed a few times, had my car window broken a few times—it was just time to go. I went back to Atlanta to sort of regroup, to kind of lick my wounds in a way, and kind of undo what art school did.” It was there, Winslow says, that he was able to find his creative spark again.

“I think my time in Atlanta was the phoenix kind of rising, in a way,” he says. “It was great. I was back in Atlanta for six months and landed this great gig at Primal Screen, who do broadcast work. They had a great design aesthetic, and their creative director just loved me and my work, and I ended up staying there for five years.” In addition to campaigns for Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, it was there that Winslow created his designs for HBO’s “Perro Y El Gato,” a children’s program designed to help children learn Spanish and English. Much like his more recent work for Vitaminwater, the characters in “Perro” display the smooth lines and solid blocks of color we’ve come to expect in vector-based animation, but with a level of expressiveness and personality that is often erased in computer-assisted design. Following his time in Atlanta, Winslow moved north to New York, where he began his freelance career in earnest.

“Since 2008 I’ve been mostly freelance, and have been really enjoying it,” says Winslow. Balancing creativity with the constant need to self-promote, however, he says can be challenging. “Freelancing does take a lot out of you, but it’s exciting, and I think my personality does well with it,” he says. “I get so bored with things so easily, and kind of need to move on and do something new, and creative, and challenging, and that’s what freelancing is.” In terms of finding the right mix of the provocative and professional, Winslow cites artist Gary Taxali as an inspiration. “He’s one of those illustrators who has an aesthetic and a visual language that works well both commercially and in the fine art world,” he says. “That’s what I admire about him: he has that duality. I think every New York designer or illustrator tries to do that.” But that, says Winslow, can get at the crux of the challenge: “Because sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes you have to draw the line and know where to stop, be professional and not go too dark or perverse, not go to the inappropriate or obscene.” Though he loves the subversive, Winslow always makes sure that none of his pieces give the impression that, “oh, this person is incapable of doing something professional, buttoned up,” he says.

 “I definitely have a tendency to overwork sometimes, and I have to listen to my gut and say, ‘okay, stop! Don’t overwork this! If you overwork this, it blows the whole thing.’”

Worrying about this, however, can be taken to its own extremes, Winslow says. “I definitely have a tendency to overwork sometimes, and I have to listen to my gut and say, ‘okay, stop! Don’t overwork this! If you overwork this, it blows the whole thing.’” Blowing it, in this case, means that, “if you step away from it and that initial spark is gone, and it’s muddled,” he says. “That’s why I think being instinctual is important, and working spontaneously to try and capture those perfect moments, and that’s not always easy to time. I think creatives have a hard time doing that: what they try to draw from is kind of instinctual and raw and primitive, and they’re trying to put it on a schedule. Balancing both of those worlds is really difficult, and I don’t think many people can do it.”

That balance is the sweet spot that Winslow strives for; finding a place somewhere between the left- and right-brain work that creatives need to master to make it professionally. “I feel like I do more high-profile jobs so I can do the things with heart in-between, because they obviously don’t pay as much,” says Winslow. But the challenge, he says, is worth it. If he weren’t an artist, he says, “I think I would be dead. I think I’d be so bored, and not satisfied, and unfulfilled, creatively, with life.”

“I think you definitely fly by the seat of your pants more when you’re a freelancer,” says Winslow. “ It’s been a really weird journey, but it’s been fun, and I’ve been loving it.”

If you’d like to see more of Justin Winslow’s work, please visit justinwinslow.com

If you’re an ADC member and want to share your story, upcoming event or a new project, or would like to tell another ADC member’s story, contact membernews@adcglobal.org for more information!

Jonathan R. Walsh is a writer living in Brooklyn. He rides a 1984 Schwinn Tempo, and wears a denim jacket.

A sketch of Jonathan by Justin