The creative team at FreeConference decided to reach out to some of our favorite artists, textile artists, and illustrators, asking them to redesign the FreeConference logo (the Puffin) according to their personal style. I was privileged enough to chat with one of our lovely artists, Alex Nursall.
Before I sat down at my computer to talk to Alex, using FreeConference.com, I did a little research.40 minutes down the Google rabbit hole, I realized we used to work for the same publication at the University of Toronto — their newspaper, the Varsity.
FreeConference has a one-click video conference function, but I also gave Alex the option to call-in using our Toronto dial-in number but secretly hoped she would join our conference as I was looking forward to seeing how Alex would look on our crystal clear video. She often dyes her hair in unique colours and is a complete style maven. I was nervous and excited all at once.
Alex Nursall is known as a writer, illustrator, photographer, and comic, but I wanted to know which of these titles sits first on her business card.
We ended up talking about the power of language, the need for breathing room, and why it doesn’t always pay to take yourself too seriously. Which leads me to introduce this guy.
Alex Nursalls Puffin
G: I see we have an alma mater in common. How did your experience with the Varsity get you here?
A: I started with writing, from 2005-2010, I think? I should know this, but I’m bad with remembering years. I wrote for them for a while, and worked as their assistant photo editor and then as their illustration editor for a year as well.
G: Would you say you like editing photos or other people’s illustrations more?
A: I mean, partly I enjoyed photo editing more because it’s my own stuff, and you have a bit more control. I also enjoyed working as the illustration editor because it was a bit of a change — I wasn’t sending myself out on an assignment anymore, it was me trying to track down other illustrators going “Where is this stuff? Please be finished in time.”
G: And of course you know what it would be like to be on the receiving end of that email! So it must have been easier to facilitate that discussion.
A: Yeah, part of it was that I knew the feeling. It helps now that I work in advertising, so it’s still the same type of people. They want something but they don’t really know how to say what they want. Especially with illustration, people will say, “I would like something that represents graduate school”, and I’m thinking, “I need a lot more information, that’s really vague: is it science, is it arts? What are we doing here? Are you dragging your feet or is this the highlight of your career?”. It was interesting to learn to interpret that stuff.
G: Do you think your work as a writer helps you understand and interpret other people’s wants and desires? Does it help you communicate more clearly about your own vision?
A: I think it was useful in the ways it built my vocabulary: to be able to actually, well, sort of massage out what people want. You want them to still be able to interpret what they want, and not to push them too far in your own interpretation. It’s easy to want to interpret it your way and you might get it entirely wrong, so you want to avoid leading them down the wrong path. You have to be able to offer up words when they don’t have them, but you have to know what they’re looking for.
G: Tell me about your early influences. Are you self-taught? How did this whole creative lifestyle come about?
A: Kinda self-taught- I mean, I did art classes as a kid. I think my parents put me in them for the summer so they could have time away from my brother and I. I learned how to do basic printmaking and watercolours.
My aunt is an artist, so I learned some stuff from her. A lot of it was comics, though. I had a look at the Van Gogh, and the Matisse books, you know, the stuff your family gets you for Christmas when your parents tell them you’re into art, but I read a lot of comics.
G: Any of those jumping to mind as formative inspiration for you?
A: Oh yeah, definitely Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. Far Side for tone, and C&H for art style; the guy who does Calvin and Hobbes has got an amazing eye for colour. That’s something that newspaper artists, unfortunately, don’t always have the chance to explore because understandably, it’s an incredibly limited medium.
Anyways, he pushed a lot of boundaries in such a controlled medium. In the bigger books, you can see his watercolours, and that’s really what got me into all those harsh lines and soft colours.
G: You just answered my next question, which was what you took from these sources of inspiration. Harsh lines and soft colours – perfect. What is your favourite medium to use, then?
A: Watercolour is my main sort of thing. I did a lot of work with acrylics in university, but I went right back to watercolours once I was out. It’s a tough medium; it’s not forgiving, and you have to know how negative space works because there’s no white. If you want white in the image, you better plan it out.
G: I was going to ask what the most challenging thing is about the medium but you’re beating me to the punch. Was acrylic paint just a necessary evil to you in university?
A: I like painting with them, and they gave me a lot of technique practice when it came to learning things like how to layer properly. They have their own problems, which are that they’re super opaque. It’s hard to build properly – easy to build thick washes of colour, which is fine, but you have to know how those values work.
Watercolour is nice in the sense that you can build subtleties. I usually work with a piece of paper towel beside me and start really light and just keep building. I grab and dab if I need to pull the colour up cause I’ve gone too fast or too dark too quickly.
G: You’ve brought me to my next question. Routine. Let’s say you’ve just received a commission. Foreseeably, you wake up, you brush your teeth, you take a shower… then what? Walk me through it. What’s the next step when you’re creating?
A: Usually I start with pulling up referencing images, depending on what it is… You know, sort of things that give me a feel for the idea, especially if it involves figure stuff. My webcam is mostly photos of me in dumb positions, trying to figure out what an arm looks like twisted backwards and upside down.
I’ll start with that so I can understand how stuff will look, fabric and shadows and whatnot. The only real difference is something like a commission of a pet portrait, so like a dog, which I’m basing off the photo I’ve been given.
If it’s more open, mostly I sketch, and then start painting from there. Some of the subject matter for my own work comes from the very weird depths of my brain, so…
G: So how weird do some of these ideas get? I mean, have you done work for things more strange than pet portraits on request?
A: Some of them have been really weird, yeah. This was when I was in university, but someone wrote an article about a porn site and I had to do an illustration for it.
I remember this one vaguely – I had to deal with making this watercolour image by screenshotting from this porno and using the sort of, least lewd photos as references. I had this really weird night going through this very adult video and trying to sketch out this thing, and pull out this painting that could still run in public…There was a lot of judicial uses of covering stuff up with hair, and covering up certain things with the Quicktime controls as a sort of faux “black bar.”
It was one of those things where I think, “I guess this is how I’ll spend my Thursday night? All right.” It was a welcome break from “Draw me a piggy bank”. That stuff is fine, but let’s do something more fun.
G: Do you find that people come to you mostly for that smaller kind of stuff? Are there any bigger pieces you’re excited about?
A: I think right now I’ve been doing smaller commissions.. I’ve backed away from a few things because I’m transitioning jobs. I’d like to get back into the Unnatural Predators series. There’s a few things I’m still trying to get going right now. I can’t really talk about those yet, gotta keep ‘em under wraps. But getting settled at the new job is first.
G: Tell me about the new job!
A: I work at a post-production audio facility, and I just transitioned to becoming a casting director. It means I sit there and look at the actors and say “I control this now!” Just kidding. I’m really there to make sure you’re doing ok. I work with an amazing team. It’s a great group of people.
G: So you like to work with people. Why do I see mostly animals in your artwork? Are they easier to draw? Better reference photos? What gives?
A: I feel like I enjoy drawing animals, ‘cause it’s fun; there’s more freedom; I feel like because I spend so much time photographing people, when I get to drawing, I feel like I’m really tired of people.
G: You introduce yourself on your website as a writer, an illustrator, a photographer and an editor. Would you say that you based yourself primarily as one over the other? Which art form came into your life first?
A: I would say I’m a writer first. I do a lot of writing. I’d also say that photography and illustration go side by side. They all have their place.
G: Have you been working on anything fun? Do you write mostly fiction?
A: I write mostly about cosmetics, and makeup. My main area of expertise is makeup history. I did a series for Jezebel, and a series for The Toast. I just found out that The Toast is being put in the Library of Congress archives. Some really weird piece I wrote about makeup in the 2000s is in the Library of Congress, so enjoy that, future generations! I hope you enjoy my thoughts on lavender eyeshadow, cause it’s in there.
G: So if those trends come back, we only have you to blame.
A: It is coming back! Which is funny, cause it makes me feel kind of old.
G: So, about Project Puffin. How did FreeConference get in touch with you?
A: Your boss Jason Martin mentioned it to me. I did an illustration for him about a year ago, ‘cause I had done an illustration for TSN, for these goofy looking riffs on all 30 NHL logos, and I had done one for him of the FreeConference puffin, so that’s that.
G: So when he asked you to draw it again, you were thinking ”Yeah, we are pretty well acquainted. I’ll do it.”
A: Yeah, exactly.
G: What did you come up with?
A: I was pulling from the style I had used to the TSN stuff. It was based off a goofy image of the Toronto Blue Jays logo that got some traction. It’s a flat, loosely done image, the eyes are kind of silly, bugged out — they’re meant to look bad in a good way, so…
G: Bad in a good way. Explain that to me.
A: They’re done – like roughly, not poorly – but you don’t look at them and think that’s professionally done. You look at them and think “What? What’s going on here? Did someone get paid to spell this wrong?”
I allow for the looseness in the lines in the colours…I like the breathing room in the images.
G: Do you try to represent what you’re doing on paper with your life? Breathing room?
A: I’ve established a tone in my art, and in my life. There’s a tone to my life. The goofiness is what you’re getting – “alright, that’s weird, but in a nice way.”
G: Alright. So there’s a not-so-serious tone. Does that translate to everything? What’s your living space like?
A: It’s actually clean. I’m pretty fastidious about that. It’s an older building with really tall ceilings and a chandelier in the living room. A lot of the furniture is… I would say it’s a mish-mash, but we have some decent stuff. My mom found a 110-year-old chair and she refurbished it for us. There’s a ton of art: we can’t buy any more art, there’s too much art.
G: So the walls are well-covered. Good to know. What’s your favourite knick-knack? I won’t judge you if it’s a shot glass collection.
A: Ok, let me think. My partner is from Liverpool, and over there they have these things called Superlambbananas. They’re all over the city, these lamb banana hybrids. They’re statues that combine a lamb and a banana, and we have a red one sitting on our mantle. I like our lambbanana statue.
I also made a tray once, from some old stained glass I cut into tiles. It says “Party Naked” on it, and that’s in my kitchen. It’s been there for 12 years. I feel like people come in and they look at it but, you know, no one’s taken it as a directive yet.
G: 12 years.. Quite a time for a party tray to last. Speaking of the past, can you think back to any children’s books you can see yourself illustrating?
A: Do you mean ones from my childhood or things I’d like to make myself?
G: Definitely answer both of those questions.
A: I feel like I would wanna do something goofy about makeup, just pulling from my daily life, I would do a book on the history of cosmetics for younger kids. You know those Go The Fuck to Sleep books? I’d love to do one about advertising or marketing, I feel like there’s a lot to pull from there.
As for books that exist, there’s a book that I used to read as a kid, and it’s way out of print, and I’ll probably never be able to find it again, but it’s called Whisper in The Graveyard and it’s a book of scary stories. I just feel like… It’s so outside of what i normally do, I would be really into it. It’s definitely a spooky book for kids, and I do like doing ink work. I would love to do creepy inkwork for that.
G: What kind of paper do you use typically?
A: I use a fine grain, cold press watercolour paper. I don’t like it when the paper gets too pebbly, because then my sketches look like garbage, so I like the fine grain.
I have a ton of notebooks full of other types of paper, too, though. I use every-day paper, printer paper, origami paper if I need to sketch something- it’s going on something! I jam it all into a bunch of notebooks. I even did one on a receipt. I often consider handing the rough one in instead, thinking, “The final’s gonna be terrible, I’m sorry, this is the best it’s gonna get”.
G: Have you ever had any disgruntled clients? Have any people come back to you with a pet portrait and said: “This doesn’t look like my dog at all!”
A: No, no, nothing like that. People love their pet portraits! There have been a couple people who’ve hired me and disappeared off the face of the Earth, you know, “here’s your art” and they’re like “Goodbye forever!” and you just want to say “Come back and pay me the money!”, but that happens, unfortunately. Luckily not super often, but everyone has that client who vaporizes and I just feel like sending “ Thank you for totally sucking.”
I had one client come back to me with a drawing of a dinosaur and said it was “too feminine”. I don’t know how to make this less feminine… I was like “it’s got bigger legs now? I don’t know, I’m lost.”
G: If they wanted it to be less feminine, they should have just given it a raise! *wincing because wage inequality is a massive problem and not just a good punchline*
A: I was just thinking to myself, I want to make this more feminine. You know? “Fine, now it’s got a big wig on! There!”
G: You could also just draw a glass ceiling over it and say there, now you know exactly what it is.
A: I almost want to give it a picket sign now! That’s great material.
G: Ok, a couple more things for you. If you could only take one thing with you to make art on vacation, what would it be?
A: Is a camera included in that list? I’m gonna go with the camera. At the very least, I’ll bring my camera.
G: Digital or film?
A: Mostly digital. Film is just cost prohibitive. I do mostly weddings and stuff, and it’s just tricky with film. It was always very meditative in the dark room, until someone opens the doors.
G: So they let light leak into your film? Do Not Disturb is not a suggestion!
A: Yeah, it’s all fun and games until somebody ignored the sign on the door. It was part of a film photography class I took, and we developed black and white prints.
G: Do you remember any work you really enjoyed during that period?
A: I did a project on landscape photography in the older part of a small own, the mining district. So that was dilapidated and a bit time warped. I also had this series of portraits I took of my friends just waking up, so everyone just looks super rumpled. There’s nothing better than waking up to someone pointing a camera in your face at 7 in the morning, right?
There were a couple good ones of people not thrilled with me. It’s a bit harder when you’re not living in residence. Now that everyone I know lives a 20 minutes subway ride away, I’d have to stay at your house to catch you sleepy!
G: There’s a dark room available for the camera club at Harthouse if you’re looking to get back into developing. If you know, you have two hours to spend smelling like chemicals. My partner uses it for his work and I’ve spent time waiting for those precious silver rolls!
A: Yeah, I think that’s why podcasts were invented. So you can have a private podcast session, in the dark. I got used to people ignoring the signs on the darkroom, so I started wearing my earbuds over my shoulders, a little bit like a cape and jacked the volume so that I could still hear it around my neck, but I could stop anyone from coming in if I heard them approaching. It felt a bit like a tiny mink stole, made of episodes of “How Did This Get Made”.
G: Podcasts, huh. Any recommendations?
Recently I’ve gotten into “Grown-ups Read Things They Wrote As Kids”, which is biased as I‘ve performed at it. There’s also “The Nod”, which is produced by Gimlet. There’s a great episode where they broke down a crazy conspiracy about Solange having Beyonce’s baby and how the Illuminati made them do it… it was nuts.
When it comes to painting, I can’t watch new stuff while I’m working, so I leave on old shows when I’m in the zone because I can’t get invested. I don’t need to pay attention; it’s not like Westworld.
I also find that I can’t watch anything too scary or close to reality because the world is terrifying enough. I can’t watch Black Mirror, it’s too intense. I find myself watching the news and reading the papers, and by the time I get home, I just need a break from the horror.
I think that’s why I watch so much old Futurama. That future isn’t so scary: I understand it, you know? I can get behind this. “The robot’s a drunk! They’re just like us.”
I just can’t watch the episode with Fry’s dog, though. I skip it, it makes me too sad. I don’t have any pets currently, but I’d love one.
G: If you could have any pet, no holds barred, what would it be?
A: I would want a small to medium sized dog that doesn’t bark too much.
G: You could have had a pocket-sized lion and you went for a beagle?!
A: No, beagles bark too much. I want like a dog that like to walk when I want to walk and sleep when I want to sleep.
G: So basically your soulmutt.
A: Yeah, pretty much. I feel like I would name it something ridiculous too, like Senator, so I could go to the dog park and be like “Senator, stop humping that guy’s leg right now!” I just really want to hear that happen.
G: I think it would start a lot of political propaganda if you tweeted about him.
A: It would devolve quickly, for sure.
Alright, I think I’m gonna go make some banana bread and slog through whatever I have left to do tonight. I made the mistake of bringing baked goods into work and so now my boss leans into my office every so often and says “you know, there are some extra bananas in the kitchen..” and I’m thinking “you just want me to make your banana bread!”
If I want to be known for something at the office though, it would be nice to be known for baked goods, not bad jokes.
G: Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thanks for your time. I hope your banana bread turns out well, and not Bad in a Good way.
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