The DART Interview: Bri Hermanson

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday August 8, 2019

Peggy Roalf: As President of the upcoming ICON11Illustration Conference, would you tell the readers—many of whom are creatives and artists who are hoping to attend—what will set this edition apart from its predecessors?

Bri Hermanson: ICON is such a unique conference. Historically, ICON has been committed to providing a diverse forum for an ongoing dialogue that serves the illustration, design, publishing, advertising, and academic communities. Our 11th biennial conference is pushing that idea even further. This marks the first all-female executive team for ICON, and the Board includes many queer and POC creatives. In addition to highlighting advocacy, inspiration, and studio practices, this team is working to set important intentions, foregrounding inclusion and intersectionality in the content we highlight, as well as our audience outreach initiatives. I’m proud of the work we’re doing and feel grateful to serve with such a hard-working, thoughtful Board to build a conference designed for everyone. We are actively and intentionally pulling more seats up to the table.

PR: For anyone who is not an artist, designer or creative director, are there aspects of ICON11 that might be particularly relevant for the 2020s?

BH: Absolutely. I’ve seen ICON have a broad appeal to anyone with a creative practice, even outside of our industry. The messages, intentions, and inspiration inherent in our programming are overarching and connecting, not contained. My partner is a poet and fiction writer who attended ICON10 in Detroit — she found the programming relevant to her practice as well. ICON inspired her to think more deeply about cross-disciplinary projects.

PR: What is there about Kansas City that most excites you about being there?

BH: There’s so much to love about Kansas City. I have no doubt that our attendees will be pleasantly surprised when we meet in the middle next summer. One of my favorite things about KC is its thriving creative community. In our ICON planning trips, the Board has had an opportunity to get to know the folks who have built a vibrant, supportive, and enthusiastic creative community with deep ties across the illustration industry. Picture it: Hallmark, the Illustration Academy, Spectrum, one of the fifth largest AIGA chapters in the country, myriad ad agencies, and so many freelancers and creative entrepreneurs. The city in and of itself could charm anyone, but at the heart of it, it’s the people who make it exceptional.


Peggy Roalf: In your own work, which came first: the brush or the pen?

BH: Oh, the pen, for sure! I feel much more comfortable with drawing as a black and white, linear practice; it has always been that way for me. However, in my evolution as an illustrator, the brush has come to play an integral role. The balance and interplay between the two is something I’m constantly exploring.

PR: Please describe your work process—is most of your work done directly, or do you also use digital media? 

BH: I work in scratchboard. I’ll use a brush to apply India ink onto a board coated in white kaolin clay, often embracing happy accidents and ink splatters along the way. Then, the core of my drawings are made by working in reverse, using knives to cut white lines into the inky silhouetted shapes. As a medium, it’s both immersive and meditative. For some, these methods feel like working backwards, but for my brain, there is nothing more natural or satisfying. Forms make more sense to me going from dark to light. I draw much better in scratchboard than I do using any additive process. When I look at my sketches at the end of a project — pencil sketches I previously thought were decent — I’m often shocked by how flat and unfinished they feel. I use digital tools for cleaning up scans, coloring illustrations, and making revisions. For gallery-based work, I use inks and dyes to color the work and add metallic details.

PR: As an eminent scratchboard artist, can you tell readers a little about how your work evolved from using store-bought supports to the custom backgrounds you make today?

BH: I started using scratchboard while I was a sophomore at Oklahoma State. It clicked with me — once I found it, no other mediums felt right. I experimented with different brands of materials, from the student-grade scratchboard paper to professional scratchboard brands like Essdee Scraperboard from the UK, always opting for pre-inked black boards. I noticed some wild variations with quality from many different brands. Lines would scratch off in a chunky, flakey way that drove me crazy, or the material would respond in a completely different fashion when it was humid. 


During my time in grad school at FIT, I wrote my thesis about scratchboard illustration and had the opportunity to interview all of my heroes — Cathie Bleck, Mark Summers, Chris Gall, Brian Pinkney, and Scott McKowen, just to name a few. Interestingly, most of them were using Ampersand Claybord and Scratchbord, and I made the leap to that as my medium of choice as well, embracing white boards and preparing my own ink surfaces.

During the course of my thesis project, I also interviewed Charles Ewing, the inventor of the Ampersand products, and learned about the how he made it, which was fascinating. Not long after wrapping my thesis, Cathie Bleck asked me to help her hang a solo show in NYC. This was the first time I saw Ampersand’s panels on wooden cradles, and I loved them instantly. For a tactile medium like scratchboard, the ability to hang work without the need for glass removes a barrier for the viewer and makes it feel more immediate. They’re a great company to work with, and their artist support is terrific. They’ll send liquid clay for repairs and will also make custom-sized boards.

PR: I noticed you have brought animals—from pet dogs [especially!] to vicious wildlife and fantasy creatures—into your art. What is there about drawing animals that appeals to you?

BH: Animals bring me tremendous personal joy and fascination. I’m a very shy person, and while I avoid eye contact with strangers on the street, I talk to every animal I pass — dogs on a walk, neighborhood cats, squirrels, rabbits, songbirds — all of them. Drawing animals feels like a way to commune with nature, to understand them a little bit better. Animals make up a vast majority of my personal work, which has, in turn, led to fabulous, animal-based illustration jobs, most recently a beer can for Denizen’s Brewing. I was asked to draw a frog prince for their PGC American Premium Lager, a tribute to Prince George's County. It was an extraordinary project with a wonderful client.

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

BH: I live in Northampton, MA. It’s a small town, but brimming with creative people, gorgeous natural features, and progressive ideas. I am lucky to have a large group of creatives in my circle, from illustrators and designers to ceramicists and furniture-makers. There is room for collaboration and built-in support in a community like this. I sell original scratchboards and prints at one shop in town (Assemble) and am raising money for Planned Parenthood via postcard sales at another (Grapefruit). I am so fortunate to live in a place that embraces both my work and my values.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to—or alleviates—the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone?

BH: I am thankful to share a studio space with my partner, Margot Douaihy, in our home, a little blue house that was built in 1865. Margot uses a different space for certain elements of her writing practice. She is an immersive writer and editor, and when she is working in our studio space, she has to listen to a lot of scratching! We also have a collaborative practice, with two books published from Clemson University Press, and one new project under contract. It’s lovely to share space as we work together and chart new courses for our interdisciplinary storytelling. I do all of my computer-based work at my desk, but when I’m scratching, I prefer to work on my lap. We have a sunroom off the main studio with a sofa. The room gets great natural light and provides a cozy space for me to curl up, flanked by our two fluffy cats, Bear and Otter, and get lost in mark-making.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

BH: There are oh so many! My favorite musical artist at the moment is Shura, and I’m extremely excited for her new album, which comes out next week. I often listen to podcasts (Criminal, Invisibilia, Undisclosed, Snap Judgement, Reply All) or music while I work. It makes the experience more engrossing, but also helps me keep track of time without looking at the clock or a phone. In terms of fine art, I’m a big fan of Kiki Smith and Walton Ford. 

PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference? 

BH: I like to think of photographic reference as a tool to better understand structure, especially when drawing animals. I’ll thumbnail something, then, for instance, I’ll need to see how that creature’s leg would bend and look from that angle. It’s important to use reference sparingly as a tool to fill in holes rather than a crutch that informs every decision.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

BH: After working with a brewery, I’d like to do more illustration for packaging and products. A big dream would be to do work for a bourbon company — someone like Blanton's. Make that a dream job with bonus points if it involves illustrating a horse or other kind of animal.

Bri Hermanson is the President of ICON11: The Illustration Conference. Her inky scratchboard drawings can be seen worldwide—on book covers, gin bottles, and theater posters. Hermanson’s clients include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, SKYY Vodka, Tor Books, and Denizen’s Brewing Co. She received an MFA in Illustration from FIT in NYC in 2011.

Pencil this in for September 27, 2 - 4PM.
Lambda Litfest:
I See What You’re Saying: Poetry & Visual Arts Collaboration Workshop, with Margot Douaihy & Bri Hermanson
Naked Eye Studio, 1443 W Jefferson Blvd, Los Angeles, CA Info