As I sat listening to Neal openly share his story, the word courage continued to float through my mind. Looking back through my notes I saw that I had written it in the margins. Neal Williams, illustrator and screen printer of Epic Problems, did not use that language and had a very easy going humble attitude. But his story is one of courage, the courage to try something different and to give it his all.
Neal spent his 20s working within the realm of music with jobs that included composing or selling hard to find records. Neal is and was always playing music and is a bass guitarist. As he got older and approached 30, he felt that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do. He explains that music to him is personal, and it was hard to reconcile the music he wanted to compose with what would sell.
“There is a ton of creative freedom. I can’t imagine a better mix of like commercial art and personal art.”
Playing in bands and being involved in the music industry exposed Neal to concert or gig posters. Neal designed a basic collage for a friend’s band and through that process became interested in the artwork he was seeing. His awareness of the poster scene grew, and he developed an appreciation for the detailed artwork. He started drawing, and words of encouragement made him realize that he could pursue illustrating and drawing posters as a profession. Whereas with composing he felt like he couldn’t be creatively satisfied and earn money, illustrating was different and Neal says, “ironically, drawing ended up being so creatively fulfilling. I don’t have to dumb it down.”Concert or gig posters are the work of artists and illustrators. The poster has to convey the band’s tone, the feel of the tour and use typography to communicate relevant information. It is commercial art, and often gig posters are sought after by fans long after the show or tour has ended. Neal found the balance between creating and his profession and said, “there is a ton of creative freedom. I can’t imagine a better mix of like commercial art and personal art.”
Neal made the decision to commit to learning the trade and developing his skill as an artist. “I didn’t feel like I had time to waste. I went at it hard. I studied drawing at night, bought books. I think the first book was something about how to learn to draw in 30 days.”
Neal describes feeling “very motivated”, and that he had fallen in love with the craft. This meant working his ‘day job’ while teaching himself how to draw and screen print. “I always carried one type of work over that allowed me to explore something else,” the illustrator shares about this time in his life. Neal was determined to make it work and opted to learn to screen print to have full control over the process and keep costs down.
As he taught himself, he received positive feedback from the community, but also found himself frustrated at times because he “couldn’t match the quality” of the artwork he was seeing. He shared, however, that “the poster scene is encouraging.” He pushed himself to make every poster better than his last, and this is still something he does to this day.
“I hustled to get jobs,” Neal said about the early days. A mentor had advised him to cold email band managers and that even if only one or two replied in a week that was still a way to get his work out there. “I had a huge motivation to show people I could do it. I wanted to support myself and my girlfriend who was teaching at the time.” Neal made his way by starting with smaller bands and putting his work up on a poster forum.
The artist also made sure to be professional. He built relationships with others in the industry, always made his deadlines, and was receptive to feedback. “My favorite thing at poster conventions is to talk to the younger artists. I like to tell them how I got started. I love giving advice because people were so helpful to me in the beginning. In particular, Justin Santora was great. He told me that I could get paid for what I was doing and told me how I could approach bands,” Neal said.
“Sometimes it is the song lyrics, and sometimes it is the place. Often, I like to do something that feels like the place and the setting. I like to incorporate the feel of the music as well,” Neal shared about how he approaches the art. Neal, a fan of math rock, is extremely thoughtful about each poster he is commissioned to illustrate. For example, with a recent poster for the Foo Fighters, he researched the place and thought about the connections between the band’s name, the songs, and the history of the location.
“Expose yourself to as much culture as you can, including different mediums. Remember nothing is impossible. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline. If you try something, and you aren’t good at it right away but you love it, then work on it. I believe it is 99% work and 1% talent and the talent can be developed.”
“I just want to get better and better and continue to improve my drawing skills,” Neal said. He was recently selected as an artist in residence for Ninkasi, a Eugene, Oregon-based brewery. He designed a label for them and will collaborate on advertising and artwork for the brewery. Neal has several projects in the works and is designing a book cover. He plans to continue to illustrate posters and to do commercial work. Neal has found both passion and balance and routinely turns down work so he can have the time and space to create. Neal’s life experiences and love of music help define his unique vision for his art, and having the courage to explore a new path is extraordinary.