How I Learned to Illustrate By Doing It Badly Then Slightly Better Over and Over
The Sacramento Bastille Day Waiter’s Race is a Parisian-themed street party held every July in Sacramento’s burgeoning Handle District. The centerpiece of this event is, of course, its namesake competition. What began in 2010 as a handful of waiters racing trays-in-hand around a block has grown over the years to become a full fledged day party complete with scale-replica Eiffel Tower.
Aside from 2012 when I was unable to produce a new piece and we ran the 2011 poster with updated info, I have designed and illustrated the poster every year. In 2010 I was working full time as art director for Sactown magazine, one of the event’s main sponsors and it was suggested that I take it on as a fun project. The only problem was that in 2010 I wasn’t really much of an illustrator. Sure, I had made a small side career out of designing gigposters for concerts but while very colorful and certainly illustrative, my style was more like collage and element sampling. I had yet to truly illustrate an entire poster. It was something I was interested in branching out into though and working at a bimonthly magazine afforded me time to teach myself how to illustrate while at work. With google image search as my guide I set out to teach myself to illustrate the kind of jazzy minimal French kiosk-style poster I was seeing in my head.
Needless to say, it was going to be a process with a heavy learning curve. As with any new technique, it’s very easy to get fixated on a style’s superficial details (stippling, color pallete, basic shapes) while missing the attitude. The velocity of a style. So that first year’s poster is a bit of a frenzied mishmash of styles all shrugging at each other, hoping for someone to take the lead. Not a bad first try though and it did give us a proto- version of our mascot, the as-yet unnamed mustachioed waiter with arm aloft carrying a tray of precarious glassware. Looking at the 2010 poster now all I can see is places I should have employed a bit more restraint. Still, it was an alright first at-bat and having to live with it for a year was a stinging reminder of what not to do the next time.
The 2011 poster improves greatly on its predecessor even though you can see I’m still trying to punch above my skillset and employing a few too many competing styles. Our waiter is now cemented in his ultimate iconic form and there are fewer colors and typefaces harrying the mix. Perspective becomes key and it is through extreme perspective that I will eventually find my way “in” to really getting this style. The art needed to reach out and pull you in with extreme angles to emphasize the drama of the race. I wanted that sense of exhilaration. That tension. Something I would improve upon in 2013’s poster.
2013 is much more text driven, features Bauhaus Dutch-angularity in the type stacks and an emphasis on motion and focal point. I bring in a heavily stylized falling and ultimately shattering glass to underline the stakes and really begin thinking of our humble waiter as an avatar for all the waiters. An army of similarly-clad striding waiters like something out of Disney’s Fantasia. This was an important half-step forward and it’s the next year when it all starts to click.
The 2014 poster is where I think the look and feel really begin to gel. The colors are restrained down to a night jazz palette of cool blues, hot reds and off whites to recall the French flag and the imagery overall is allowed to become an abstraction of motion. Colors swirl and build, motion beams trace back from the waiters, the type stacks begin to tower and extrude out. It’s finally beginning to feel like 1930’s kiosk art.
2015. I had read a blog piece somewhere about how the best perspective to create drama was from just below horizon looking back. At that moment it clicked in my head and I was like “of course!” It seems elementary and obvious now but at the time it was a revelation. Once I had that perspective down the concept just worked itself out. Every year it becomes difficult to find new ways to illustrate the same basic concept of waiters running down the street with trays of drinks, but at this point there were still a few tricks left in the bag. Green glass shatters, bottles break, try-colored liquids flow out at the viewer like waving banners. There’s even a flying cork blasting outward. This was going to be a hard one to top.
2016. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, coming up with new ways to present the same general ideas each year is a challenge. I jokingly refer to it as an “albatross” which both is and isn’t accurate. Usually what happens is I tell the event producers “I cant do it this year. Im out of ideas. The well is dry” before emailing back an hour or two later “okay not so fast. Something just came to me” and so it was with the 2016 poster. This is the most elaborate of the bunch and the one that took longest to plan out and design. You’re always looking for ways to make the design process fun and a challenge for yourself and sometimes that is the only way to make it happen at all. I wanted this to be an extreme poster. Thoughts of West Side Story, Jacques Tati flicks, early 20th century travel posters all converged here to create something really special. An entire world nested in the towering stacks of text. A concept in perspective that I would carry through to the next year’s poster.
The most recent piece is (of course) 2017’s, another example of “I got nothin…no wait hold on. I got this” where the year itself becomes a prime figure in setting everything in motion, in a rather Rube Goldeberg way. I thought of that flag, I thought of it chopping downward, I thought of it as the last in a series of dominos and there it was: a fresh concept for this year’s poster. All the text matches perspective to create a frame for the emerging horde of sprinting waiters to burst through, and the phantom high-rises just barely suggested in the distance watching over it all.
The temporary creative exhaustion would become a perennial theme and something of an in-joke from year to year. 2018 and 2019 both came about via lightning strikes of last minute inspiration, with 2018’s dynamic and acrobatic model playing off the numeric year built from shattered glassware (a thing I thought was obvious but seems to take others a much closer look) and 2019’s resetting of the event’s tone to a lighter, more whimsical feel. In fact, 2019 saw me finally nailing a di sotto in sù angle that I’d been trying for this entire time, but could never quite figure out how to compose. That was also the year that I’d refine our now-iconic striding waiter character to feature a greater balance and smoother geometry.
It’s interesting now seeing the progression of styles evolve over the years from the stylistic grab bag of 2010’s poster to the more tightly controlled yet still somewhat loose aesthetic of the past few years’. At this point I have little if any idea of what I will do when next year’s art inevitably comes due, but I’m sure something will come to me even if it’s only after I’m totally sure that it won’t.