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Expressive lines and bold shapes:
an interview with Leslie Herman

Thu, Jun 01, 17 / James BDP

On occasion of the release of his 'Dead Man's Shoes' posters we sent our intern Dave to have a quick chat with Leslie Herman. Read it after the jump.

'Ween - Ashville' gig poster (2017)

'Ween / Ashville' (2017)

Dave: Hi Leslie, how are you? 

Leslie: Hi Dave, I'm doing well, thanks. A bit hungover, but really enthusiastic about my first poster with Black Dragon Press.

D: Are you ever confused with Leslie Herman, the costume designer on ‘There's Something About Mary’?

L: Not to my knowing, but I'm a big fan of their work with hair.

'Murder by Death / Chicago' (2016)

D: So what’s it like being a woman and working in illustration? 

L: It can be tough, my dick always gets in the way.

D: Oh shit, sorry.  I imagine many people expect to see a woman when they read your name. Could you draw us a quick sketch of the expression in their face the split second they realise you are not a woman? 

D: That's terrifying. 

So... what’s it like not being a woman and working in illustration? 

L: I guess it's fine. Most work is through the internet, so I'm not sure if people know what kind of monster I actually am. As a straight guy, I guess I enjoy the trope of drawing sexy ladies on rock posters.

'The Orwells / Chicago' (2014)

D: Yes I noticed that looking at your website earlier. Your style is quite rough and ready... are rulers hard to find in Virginia?

L: No rulers in Virginia. It's called American Freedom. You guys probably wouldn't understand over there. But seriously, nothing in nature is straight so why even attempt at drawing something perfectly? It can strip your work of a lot of the expression and character. Plus it's more fun and liberating to not deal with constraints that trying to recreate reality will present.

'Spoon / Boston' (2015)

D: You studied illustration arts at the Virginia Commonwealth University, is this where this style came about? 

L: Yeah, I developed it there to some degree. It was from religiously keeping sketchbooks. - No church stuff, though. - I was just in there all of the time as an escape from the stressful projects. I would draw constantly from life with a pen and just focus on dealing with all of the mistakes. The sketches developed a lot of personalty and play over time.

unnamed (2009)

D: Did your tutors try to reign you in or did they encourage you to push forward with the looseness?

L: At first I was doing a lot of highly developed, million color, mixed media, impersonal paintings for my finals whilst I was at VCU. Eventually a lot of the teachers did push me to pursue that direction, yes. I was a stubborn asshole for a while and didn't have enough confidence to accept the paintings or develop them as finals. That took a little while longer for me to figure that out. I stopped thinking of myself as and illustrator or a painter, started looking at a lot of mid-century design, and started just referring to myself as an image maker. It was somewhat of an epiphany, I guess. Once that style was more figured out, I could focus on ideas and composition, which is more important. 

'Acme Thunderer' (2010)

D: And then you went on an apprenticeship with Sterling Hundley who I’ve actually heard of! He's well good. What’s the single most important piece of advice you took from him?

L: I worked with Sterling for a while. He taught me at VCU, then I apprenticed with him afterwards, and now I teach in the same department. I think the biggest take away, besides just the stylistic push, is the concept of bridging two separate things. It's the basis of all the best focused concepts if you're thinking in terms of problem solving, mood, juxtaposition, composition, design, story telling, communication, pretty much, everyfuckingthing. Even style - expressive line and bold colorful shapes. Those are the two that bridge my stylistic decisions.

'House of Mystery' (2009)

D: You mean a person's style should or could essentially be boiled down to a combination of two things? 

L: I think so. At least at first or at the core. It keeps the process from becoming over complicated and focused. You slowly build onto it, introducing new components to evolve. Might not always work for everyone, but it makes the world make sense to me. 

D: And I see on your website that you won a bunch of awards. That must have been a surprise, right? 

L: Damn straight it was! The first time I received a Gold Medal from The Society of Illustrators, I was in the process of making a Black Velvet joke painting for a friend because that was the best work that I was getting.

'Okkerville River / Richmond, VA' Society of Illustrators Silver Medal (2011)

D: Apart from the recognition how did the awards affect your career as an image maker?

It was a huge honor, but I think the biggest effect that it had was that the awards gave me confidence that I can do this. I'm not just another failing, boring illustrator. I'm sure the credibility helps, but I didn't just immediately start getting great work from it or anything like that. It's rare that someone hiring me mentions it. It's more of a feeling of personal achievement that comes from winning even if it's completely subjective. I'm a bit competitive in a way.

'Phish / Tuscaloosa' Society of Illustrators Gold Medal (2015)

D: You just made a poster for Dead Man’s Shoes. That’s a really grim film. Why on earth did you take that on?

L: We'll I've been trying to work with BDP for a while, but things kept falling through and when James sent over the idea for this movie it sounded like something that would be up my alley, and stylistically where my work was heading. It was a nice change of pace from the tone of a lot of the concert posters I've been doing. Plus, it's my first movie poster. So I just said hell yes. But yeah, it was a tough one.

'Dead Man's Shoes' concept sketch (2017)

D: Did it pose any specific challenges? How did you go about addressing them?

L: There were a ton of challenges. It's fucking bleak, which was told to me as I accepted the gig. Despite being beautifully filmed, there weren't a ton of singular visuals or symbols that I felt really summed up the mood, and the stronger visuals were so brutal they didn't seem like they would make for a poster that someone would actually want to hang on their wall. My takeaway was more psychological than physical. I tried to get more of a summation of the tone through evaluation of a handful of scenes. I don't know, I guess I just watched it a few times, took a bunch of notes and drew a lot of sketches relating to the actual physical elements of the film and just things that I related psychologically to the mood.

'Dead Man's Shoes' (2017)

D: Well I reckon you totally nailed it. The poster has a bit of a Saul Bass vibe to it. Was that deliberate? 

L:  It wasn't necessarily deliberate, but I knew it. I love Saul Bass and a lot of the other design and illustration from that time. I think the minimal and gritty nature, the quiet starkness of the film, all of that kind of just leaned me in that direction. One large shape that can grab you from across the room. No decoration. It just needed to be a bit nastier and darker than Bass. 

'Dead Man's Shoes' Variant (2017)

D: What’s next for Leslie Herman?

L: Flowers and puppy dogs. I don't know! I love posters, records, clothing, all that stuff. Hopefully more design oriented things and physical products. What are you going to hire me for next?

D: I just make the tea around here mate. 

Thank you Leslie, it's been a pleasure. 

L:  Thank you! Let's do it again.

Leslie Herman's 'Dead Man's Shoes' go on sale Friday 02 June 2017 from our shop.