Looking through Nate Duval’s portfolio, it’s almost hard to believe that all of his concert posters, band t-shirts and album covers (plus art for national ad campaigns, corporate identities and more) are the work of just one dude. But his self-imposed chameleonic nature is one of the things we love most about this Massachusetts-based designer, whose gig posters (for acts like Jeff Tweedy, The Decemberists, Phish and many others) favor bold colors, graphic prints and delightfully freaky amalgamations of humans, plants and animals. I talked to Duval about how he got into concert poster design, what his creative process looks like and why, exactly, he’s so fond of that cross-species Frankenstein look. — Rachael Maddux
Nate Duval: Well, I have always had an interest in arts. Not in the “I was oil painting the day I emerged from the womb” sense, but I always just liked art. I have been into music, poster art, album design and fun stuff like that all of my life and always thought doing stuff like that would be way fun. When I got to high school and finally had an opportunity to start choosing classes, I always found myself taking art right on through AP Art senior year. Graduation time rolled around and at that point of my life, I felt I should try to do something I actually enjoyed doing instead of just doing something I was good at (writing), so I decided to pursue it and take on advertising design at Syracuse University. I also knew that I didn’t want to go to an art school because, one, I wanted more of a “big college” experience, and two, my interests in art were more “commercial” than fine art, so I chose Syracuse. I was (and still am) very happy with my choice, even though I did not ever really end up working in the advertising field in a full-time or professional sense. It allowed me to get a pretty broad training in several different areas (photography, design, advertising and writing) that all come in handy with what I do now with my business. I also met my wife and fellow illustrator Jen Skelley there, so that is great, too.
Are you a full-time designer now, or do you do other work on the side?
Nate Duval: I have been working for myself exclusively for just about three years now. It’s been very surreal to turn what started off as a “Hey wouldn’t it be cool to do something like that?” idea into a full-time, successful business.
CLICK HERE for the rest of Nate’s interview after the jump!
When did you start doing gig posters for bands? Did you approach the artists, or did they come to you?
Nate Duval: I started doing gig posters the year I graduated from SU. I was working full time at Blue Q as the lone in-house designer, learning more than I ever imagined possible about art, advertising and the marketing and sales of art and was just looking for something to do in my spare time at home for a creative release. Around the same time, I came across a website called gigposters.com and had my eyes opened to this magical, seemingly mythological world that I thought only existed in my head! Knowing that there was a whole community of folks out there like myself, working with bands, talking with each other and getting paid to work with bands was all I needed to hear.
I started off by making flyers and digital prints for friends’ bands and for local promoters. I wanted to take it to the next level and turn my (then digital) posters and fliers into the screenprinted works, like so many of the prints I adored as a kid and just like my colleagues were doing over at gigposters.com. I knew that farming out the screenprinting would get expensive, so I wanted to figure out a way to do it myself. I had a good friend who was a screenprinter in the apparel-printing business for like 10 years, so I approached him to see if he had any interest in building a vacuum table and trying to figure out how to print on paper. He, of course, said yes and the rest was history.
I hit the ground running and was constantly reaching out to bands and managers to see if they were interested in working together. A year or so of this approach left me with a nice portfolio of music-related work, and with some persistence and online marketing of myself, I had soon built a network of bands and managements that liked working with me and now bands and managers were starting to contact me.
Trace for me, if you can, the general life-cycle of a gig poster. What does the process look like, start to finish, for you?
Nate Duval: Ha, that’s a tough one! My gig posters and designs come from any number of the following places: a song title or lyric; an overall tone, feeling or vibe of a band; from thin air; from the direction of the band or management themselves.
My creative process is a bit spastic and I often find myself bouncing around between chicken-scratch sketches, research and inspiration searching for styles, playing with typographic ideas or just messing with a visual thought or image that I think would be a great starting point for a print. Eventually, one of these methods produces the initial spark, and I am off to the races. If it’s a hand-drawn approach, I just start drawing and see where it takes me. If it’s a more graphic/collage approach, I usually start with image and play and manipulate until it feels like it is going somewhere. I would consider myself a “fast worker” and one of my litmus tests for a design is how quick it seems to evolve. A “good” poster for me is one that I normally begin and finish within a day or two. I find that if takes me much longer than that and I start spending time trying to “fix things” or force an idea to work, it’s usually dead in the water and I start fresh from the beginning.
Sometimes a thought begins with the typography, sometimes an image, sometimes a color palette, sometimes the city or venue the show is in and other times just the mood and feel of the tunes lead the way. But once the initial spark is found, the rest is a matter of trial and error, color adjustments and like, 15 versions of the same poster all with minor variations that I make myself choose my favorite from.
What I like about your posters is that they’re all clearly by the same artist but also incorporate elements that are fitting for the band they’re designed for. How do you maintain the balance between your own style and what’s fitting for the artist in a poster?
Nate Duval: It means a lot to me that you said that because it’s something I am very deliberate about trying to do. The main reason for this is because I don’t really think I am all that amazing of an illustrator or designer. Like, there are so many folks out there whose work I love, am in awe of and, quite frankly, can’t even grasp how they create it that I figured the best way for me to be successful would be to have a wide-variety skill-set and approach each project and client as a unique, individual project and let the project kind of determine the style I work in. A “power in numbers” approach, I guess.
I also always figured being able to work in several styles would open more doors, as it would allow my work to be more accessible to a wider range of folks. I always feared that if I had one style, I would be selling myself short because if you didn’t like that one style, you basically didn’t have a need to work with me.
I have always envied artists and illustrators who you can see ANY image they made and immediately recognize the style and approach as theirs. I never really felt confident enough about my drawing skills to really work in the same recognizable style.
Do you listen to an artist’s music while you’re working on art for them? If not, what do you listen to — or do you listen to music at all?
Nate Duval: I am constantly listening to music. Sometimes I will listen to the band I am working for when working on a poster or other merch for them, but usually only to either brainstorm ideas or concepts or get a sense of tone for my palette or imagery. Once I have a design underway, I just switch back to my “regularly scheduled broadcasting” which is a mix of jazz, blues, rock and folk tunes. (I have a “currently listening to” section in my bio on my site.) To me, listening to the band the whole time I work on the poster is a bit like “listening to the band’s CD on the way to the concert,” and I try at all costs not to be “that guy.”
You seem really into mixing up different creatures’ bodies with other creatures’ heads — you do this with animals and humans, animals and vegetables, animals and other animals. What draws you to this?
Nate Duval: I get that one a lot. It’s something I did on one of my first gig posters ever and just stuck, I guess. I think it’s probably a mix of any of the following factors: I think combining two known objects to make something new and unexpected leads to interesting, thought-provoking images; I can’t draw people or faces to save my life; I always get a strong reaction when working in that style and I like to “give the people what they want”; I have gotten very proficient on working in this style and sometimes timelines are very short.
Are there artists you want to work with but haven’t yet had the chance? What are some of your dream projects?
Nate Duval: I’ve been very lucky to get the chance to work with a lot of my “dream clients” in the music industry already — Phish, The Black Keys, Andrew Bird, M. Ward, etc. But there are definitely still a few bands left on my “bucket list” for sure. This list would include the likes of My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog and more work with The Black Keys. Then there are also “big timers” like Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney that would just blow me away if I was given the opportunity to work with them. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?