The Papersmith Series - Graeme Zirk | Vancouver

The Papersmith Series - Graeme Zirk | Vancouver

You may have spotted a new design adorning our windows and it's all thanks to Vancouver-based illustrator, Graeme Zirk! He tells us all about life growing up in the prairies, early inspiration from comics and candy packaging and his advice for budding illustrators.

Hi Graeme! Can you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us about your journey.

[GRAEME] I’m an illustrator with a background in graphic design. I went to a modest art and design school in a small town that nobody has heard of. I live in Vancouver but I grew up on the prairies. I like to draw stupid little things with bigger ramifications.

How would you describe the style of your work in three words?
[GRAEME] Imperfect. Naive. Clean.

Your illustrations have such a fun and satirical feel to them. We especially love how you introduce your humour into your drawings. What do you hope people take away from your work?

[GRAEME] I’m glad it comes across that way. If what I do makes someone laugh, that’s great but I never really try to be funny. I think it’s just how I grew up. Self-deprecating humour and satire are the love language of my family. It’s how we communicate and as a result is pretty much my default for connecting with new people. It totally opens the door for bigger, crazier, sadder, scarier and more challenging ideas.

What I do now feels a lot like how I’d try to crack my friends up by passing stupid notes during a boring class. I’m glad if my work makes someone happy and warm, but I’m really glad if it prompts them to question and explore the why behind those feelings.

What do you wish you’d have known starting out as an illustrator?

[GRAEME] A big one would be, “Stop posting so much garbage on Instagram”.

Before I started approaching art and illustration as a discipline, I spent a good chunk of time focusing only on graphic design and art direction. I was rusty and really relied on likes, comments and approval because I was insecure. I also hid behind a shitty unrefined style as opposed to owning the fact that my stuff looked like someone who forgot how to draw. It’s not to say that peer validation isn’t nice or that everything needs to be flawless; there’s something to be said about personal quality control.

If I could go back I’d make a point to think less about Instagram, and more about what I want to get done. I’d work on my own timelines and expectations and only post what I deemed to be a winner. Not for the sake of posting “content” and feeling warm for a 7 minute window.

We heard that you grew up on a steady diet of comic books which influenced a lot of your work today. Where else do you draw inspiration from?

[GRAEME] Visually it’s mix of the stuff I grew looking at and the esoteric garbage I took in during lectures and museum visits. I love candy packaging, skate graphics, flea markets and Mad magazine as much as I love Nordic ceramics, Japanese commercial art, Polish posters and the High Renaissance. It’s 50/50.

I also get a lot out of stuff that isn’t visual. I love stand-up comedy, documentaries, Philip K Dick, AA Milne, Tolkien and wimpy, fuzzy rock music from the late 80’s-early 90’s.

Tell us about your ‘hood in Vancouver. Name your favourite hang-out spots in west coast Canada.

[GRAEME] I inadvertently ended up living in a gentrified, yuppy part of Vancouver. My neck of the woods is known for curated coffee and restaurants with chef inspired menus. This was not by design or choice. It’s cool and all, but it’s not really my bag. I’m looking for something to do, it usually involves leaving my ‘hood.  

Vancouver is great because it has so much built-in accessible fun. You can easily fill a day just walking around. You could make a day better by hunting for used books on Main St. or Commercial Drive, getting onigiri and hot canned coffee at Konbiniya on Robson, ogling sweet souvenirs at Half And Half in Chinatown, eating dirty tacos at Budgies in Mount Pleasant, playing pinball at The American or sneaking secret ciders at Spanish Banks and gawking at where the city abruptly ends and the ocean starts. Contrary to what you may have heard, you don’t need big plns or a lot of cash to have fun. Just come hang out.

How does stationery play a part in your creative process? Do you have any must-have tools in your pencil case?

[GRAEME] I am obsessed with stationery. I think if there was a pie chart of my take home earnings, at least a quarter would be devoted to it. I have simple taste but I will absolutely ball out on stationery. I think it’s because I do a lot of finishing work on an iPad. I do all of my ideation on paper. I want all my ideas to stay humble and do-able.

I’m not super fussed on sketchbooks. I’m not one of those people that has finely organized volumes. I’m not a linear thinker or a precious sketcher so my process is a mess. I usually have several books on the go, all varying in size. Some grid, some blank, and sometimes even lined if I’m desperate enough. My only rule is: No coated or toothy papers. I don’t want any surprises, smudges or bleed through.

I’m keen on mechanical pencils because I hate pencil shavings. I like a fat-ish barrel and a fine hard led. The centrepiece of my pencil case is my 3mm Koh-i-Noor lead holder (that my wife brought me back from your store when she was in London for work). I love that it’s too big to be called a pencil. It’s a beast. It’s like drawing with a police baton. It’s blunt and forces me to keep my ideas very simple.

For pens, I buy Paper-Mate Flares in bulk (the felt nib, not that gross plastic nib one) but I also love a good Muji pen. Also Poscas. Must have Poscas.

Alongside being an illustrator in the day, you’re also a stand-up comedian by night. Can you tell us a stationery-related joke?

[GRAEME] This is a bit of a misconception. I did stand up for a couple years but I haven’t been on stage in a long time and don’t really have an interest in doing it anymore. I don’t want to give the wrong idea, I was by no means a working comic. I just did little alt shows with my friends. I didn’t turn it into a career, but it did teach me how to write jokes and take an ego thrashing without crying. It was good training for what I do now but ultimately a pretty odd time for me.

I didn’t think much of my abilities as a visual artist at that time. I knew I could make people react in a positive way, but I didn’t realize that getting on stage and saying stupid stuff into a microphone wasn’t really the best medium for me. I think what I do now makes a lot more sense for who I am, what I value and how my sense of humour translates.

That said, my process/rules for drawing goes directly back to writing jokes. Don’t be a hack, do what makes you laugh and be ready for your new ideas to suck for a long time before they’re any good.

But more importantly, what’s the deal with Moleskine? It’s not mole, it’s not even skin.  (see why I gave it up?)

What does the rest of 2019 have in store for you?

[GRAEME] I have a solo show in Portland, OR at Land Gallery. It’s on May 3rd. That’s going to be occupying every aspect of my life until it’s done. I have some commissions and commercial jobs coming down the pipe after that. In my spare time I’m working on a little ongoing journal/zine about my relationship with technology.

I’d really love for 2019 to be the year I find representation. I’m young, dumb, hungry, industrious, have no children, never get sick and am married to someone who works in the industry and gets the gravity of a deadline. If you’re a rep and still reading this, get at me. Was that subtle enough?

Thank you!

Follow Graeme Zirk on Instagram.

Portraits shot by Gavin Hartigan.

Shop our hard enamel pin designed by Graeme.

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