The Q&A: Jeffrey Decoster

By Peggy Roalf   Monday February 22, 2016

Q: Originally from Connecticut what are some of your favorite things about living and working in Southern California?

A: Pasadena has a massive flea market down at the Rose Bowl each month. It's like being able to snoop through some stranger's attic that’s the size of a football stadium. I rarely buy anything, rather I just keep my eyes open and make mental notes on all of the strange and unusual objects and ephemera on display, as well as interesting and eccentric types of people. There is one vendor who hides little plastic birds in her beehive hairdo, and another who keeps baby goats. I look at the oil paintings in milk crates that are 10 dollars or less and want to tell them everything is going to be okay.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? 

A: Yes, I keep many sketchbooks. I count about fifteen in different sizes and shapes and various stages of completion. They eventually take on certain themes as they get filled up according to their particular qualities. One sketchbook is with [the illustrator] Rob Dunlavey right now because we've been painting in it and sending it back and forth across the country for six years now. He paints something, then I paint over that, and then he paints over that, and so on like that, forever. 

Sometimes I'll look through one of my sketchbooks and see a drawing that I have absolutely no recollection of making whatsoever. This is a neat little surprise, as if a little gnome draws in it while I sleep, but then is a bit unnerving because, well, there's no such thing as little gnomes.


Q: What is the balance between the art you create on paper versus in the computer?

A: I'm constantly shifting the balance to explore what sorts of images can be made from incorporating analogue and digital methods simultaneously. Not for the sake of some superficial effect, but rather to exploit the tools for what they do best and hopefully solve the problem in a more interesting or unexpected way. I love the tactile quality and warmth of drawing with a real brush on paper but I also love the playfulness that the computer allows with its ability to make radical (and reversible) manipulations and juxtapositions. 

When I first started using a computer as part of my process, I thought to hide my digital tracks but I've completely rethought that. It makes more sense to me to embrace the fact that we are fully immersed in a digital culture, and the forms coming from it can be equally as beautiful as from any other time. John Hersey's work proves that for me. I have one artist friend who still thinks it's cheating to use a camera and I'm trying to get him to ride his horse over to my house so we can debate it.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

The speakers hooked up to my sound system. I have to escape my rational mind to make anything worth looking at and music helps me do that. Also, I think it's essential to capture the emotional tone of any given assignment, so I'll put on music that has a similar mood to the piece I'm illustrating.

Q: What do you like best about your workspace?

A: There is a sense of ease and functionality about the way it's organized. I'm the opposite of a pack rat because I equate a cluttered space with a cluttered mind. I'll cut a half inch off of a table end to make it fit an area perfectly, or mount a light at just the right angle, so I don't get a distracting reflection. The idea is for it be inviting when I'm not working, and for it not to fight me when I'm in a groove. I used to think these were secondary matters but it's so enjoyable to work in a space that has an auspicious feeling about it.

Q.Do you think it needs improvement, if so, what would you change?

A: I think it could use a cat. A cat that can give constructive criticism and can negotiate with art directors. I used to have an otherwise perfectly white cat that I nicknamed "Hint-O Mint" because he liked to get into the green paint. My new cat’s name will be Pablo Picatso. 

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

A: When it goes through the shredder. I take the Zen advice to practice non-attachment to material objects and to enjoy the empty space instead. If you ever feel stuck in life, create new room for action by getting rid of old things. If you are stuck creatively, start shredding your paintings. It's fun and let's be honest, they weren’t that great to begin with. I once asked a new female acquaintance to collect her old drawings and bank statements and "go shredding with me," as a date. That created some empty space in my evening.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, because I remember my mom reading it to me, and obviously it involved mysteries, dark places, hidden things and thick high stone walls you weren't supposed to climb over. I forgot what was in the garden and I don't want to know what was in there. I just like to wonder about it. 

Q.What is the best book you’ve recently read?

Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. He talks about how non-rational marks and methods can lead to non-rational forms that paradoxically have a power to register more powerfully as facts on the nervous system of the viewer. As a tactic, this way of working is perilous within the framework of an illustration assignment, in fact Bacon calls it "anti-illustrational", but I think it can stealthily exist in certain work despite a client's understandable desire for predictability.

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: I’ve really been enjoying drawing with gouache right now.

Q: If you could time travel to any era, any place, where would you go?

A: I would put myself on one of the missions to Mars—one where they let you come back. Hopefully after they've got all the kinks worked out, because I'm no good at growing potatoes. Otherwise, I might go to the North Shore of Oahu in the 50's (in a 24 year old body), before the secret surfing spots were discovered, so I would know what it feels like to ride one of those magnificent waves.

Q: What is preoccupying you at the moment?

A: This is very personal but I've been exploring certain spiritual ideas that promote tranquility and equanimity, and how those ideas dovetail naturally with art-making practice. For instance, drawing is usually a means to an end, and in the context of an illustration deadline can get fully loaded with anxiety and ego-related silliness. But I recall that drawing can also be a form of meditation where the end result is irrelevant. I've been setting some time aside to approach it in that way again, making simple, objective, drawings of nothing particularly exciting around my home.

Q: What are some of your favorite places/books/blogs/websites for inspiration?

A: Frankly, lately, I get overwhelmed with so many things that could or would inspire me, I get agitated and confused. Rather, I go down the street to Huntington Gardens and lie underneath the palm trees at a certain time of day and look up at the fronds waving in the breeze. I've lived in Southern California for 25 years and just recently figured this out. Likewise, somewhere in the Antarctica a penguin is discovering snow.

Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art?

A: It's a toss up between Christina's World (Wyeth), Twittering Machine (Klee), and Guernica (Picasso). What unites these paintings for me is that they each seem to contain the full spectrum of emotion from joyfulness to sadness within their frames. Twittering Machine is typically thought of as a happy painting with its implied motion and sound, but those qualities are in contrast to the bluish hues and bleeding watercolor, which feels like a mournful rainy day to me. I think Christina's Worldis the saddest painting I've ever seen, but there is so much open space and potentiality that it feels exhilarating as well. In Guernica, you almost don't notice the horrific nature of the subject matter because it's so graphically beautiful and painted with a kind of rapture. It's these sorts of contrasts, the ability to unlock emotion, creating realms that feel like dreams, that has always attracted me to the idea of making pictures. 

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: It would be some sort of rehydratable space beverage like Tang™ because I'd be rocketing through a time-reversing wormhole with Stephen Hawking, Camille Paglia, Louis CK, Gerhard Richter, and Regina Spektor.


Jeffrey Decoster is an artist and illustrator currently living in Pasadena, CA. Although he enjoys working on all types of assignments, he is often called upon to make imagery that communicates the gravity of serious editorial subjects including war, crime, mental illness, selfies. In  2015, Jeffrey was awarded his fourth Gold Medal from The New York Society of Illustrators for a piece that appeared in The New Yorker on the subject of domestic violence. Jeffrey has created illustrations for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Time Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other national publications. His work appears regularly in Communication Arts and the American Illustration Annuals. In addition to editorial assignments, he has produced artwork for CD packaging, theatre posters, annual reports, book covers and advertising campaigns. Jeffrey has been invited to lecture at numerous art colleges throughout the country, and has held faculty positions at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.






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