Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Interview: Ben Kling

Perhaps you've not heard the name Ben Kling before, but you may very well have seen his work. His historical figure Valentine's Day card designs were enjoyed by a whooole bunch of people back in February - first with tumblr reblogs, then jumping over to the magical world of the Facebook share button. Fortunately he'd quite literally signed his name on them, so I went straight to his website - yes, with a young artist interview request most definitely in mind - and discovered he more than qualified at just 20 years old. Below I've focused on his illustrations and the popularity of those cards, but this Bostonian's talents are numerous, and his website worth checking out for the design alone.

How much time do you spend in an average week focusing on illustration?
I sort of go in cycles, where I'll focus on music for like ten days, then I'll get bored (hopefully after finishing some things) and do a bunch of drawing and design for ten days, then maybe work on some stand up for ten days, then move on to essays, etc. Someday I might even have a friend.

Do you know how your Valentine's illustrations went viral, and when did you realise that had happened?
Actually, yeah, it was incredibly premeditated. I really started studying tumblr the year before, the way it works and the trends and patterns of content that filter through it. I made the first round of valentines (Mao, Stalin, Marx, Castro, Trotsky, Hitler) when I was in high school, for my history teacher. I posted them on tumblr on a whim on Valentine's Day 2011 and they brought in a couple hundred followers, which blew my mind. But since I released them on the day, they were only reblogged in the afternoon and then a bit in the following days with stuff like "wish I had seen these in time." So this year I did a few new sets and released them at peak hours of tumblr, which is a lot of middle/high school students - so like 3PM when they're back from school, 8PM when they've just finished dinner, 11PM when they're trying to avoid homework, etc. And they really blew up. The one thing I hadn't foreseen was that a screenshot of them would make the rounds on Facebook. Some lady shared it and it got tens of thousands of re-shares, and that was where a lot of people saw them.

A few months on from that, are you still getting recognition for them online?
Every now and then, yeah, but the spike in traffic was pretty focused around that week. I redesigned my site and cleaned everything up a bit in the month prior, in preparation for it. Like I said, it was super premeditated. I was planning to apply for an internship in spring, and I wanted them to find something if they Googled my name, so I did the Valentines. I had to buy extra bandwidth on Valentine's Eve because the traffic crashed my site, and I got a bunch of people asking me if they could purchase the cards. I didn't have the means to do that, so I just said "print em out" and offered a donation button. I'm planning to offer them in print form for next valentine's day, along with some new ones.

Has your workload increased significantly since then?
I had a ton of schoolwork this semester, so I had to turn down a bunch of requests for jobs, but this summer I'm hoping to be able to accept more. I don't think I really got (or deserve) recognition for them, because it's sort of a one-off thing; like Warhol said, "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." Memes and viral content come and go, I think, and you only deserve recognition if you consistently deliver stuff that people enjoy. I'm not there yet, but it's what I'm working towards.

Are members of your family artistic?
My mom likes scrapbooking and my dad's a carpenter, if that counts for anything. Yeah, they definitely encouraged me making stuff growing up, except they hated my computer. They'd pop in and see me on it and say I should be doing other things with my time. But I think Baby Boomers don't quite get that the computer is your type-writer, your recording studio, your canvas, your TV, and your library. 5 hours on the computer could be an hour reading Cheever stories, an hour working on a drum track, an hour learning about heraldry, an hour animating, 50 minutes checking email and 10 minutes watching porn. Since I didn't put on a different hat for each activity, they sort of just thought I was staring into a box, rotting my brain. They'd confiscate it at night, and I'd wait til they were gone and sneak into my closet because I had a backup computer in there. And now I've got this I-told-you-so thing with them, because it was in those stolen hours at night that I learned the skills that I use to make money now.

What sort of people did you identify with at high school and how did you spend your spare time then?
I wanted terribly for everyone to like me (I mean, I still do), so I had my fingers in a bunch of different pies - I floated between all these different cliques making sure they didn't hate me but never quite being a member. I had one really good friend with whom I'm still close, and we just sort of flopped around trying to make each other laugh. I would put obscene amounts of effort into stunts in order to catch her off guard. I think 90% of my time in high school was spent trying to make my best friend shoot milk out of her nose.

Do you have experience finding commercial work, and how have you been doing this?
I haven't really had a lot of commercial work, but the stuff I've gotten has been through connections. I go to Emerson College in Boston which is a great place for networking, because it's a bunch of ambitious young people who are trying to make it in film, TV,  advertising/marketing, etc. So I've been hooked up with some clients via classmates.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I haven't had much of one, really. I'm only 20 and I still feel 17. I guess being recognized once. Because that's not even really something that happens to illustrators. Also I got a date once with someone way out of my league because they liked the Valentines. So I got to pay for someone else's meal thanks to my work. Movin' on up.

How do you record your ideas for work?
I rarely use pen and paper at all. If I want to doodle, I use my tablet. For most other stuff, joke ideas and bits of songs, I just record tons of voice memos on my phone. Then I have this labyrinth of folders on my computer that attempt to organize them.

Do you have any special routines attached to creating your work?
For illustrating/animating I usually put on The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling. It's a really great show, but it's 3 hours long and sort of meandering, so I can't devote time to just listening to it every week. So I subscribe to the podcast and put it on while I draw. I definitely do my best work between 11pm and 4am. Wherever I'm living, my desk has to be near a window so I can see the sun rising, because that's my cue to go to sleep.

Do you remember the first piece of creative work that you sold?
The first time I made money from anything creative was web design, and I just felt guilty about it because the guy had all of these terrible ideas and I just said "okay" and did it, and then he paid me. It was the owner of a local business in my hometown. I've since realized that you have to explain certain design fundamentals to clients who don't get them, otherwise you end up with (I kid you not) a large image of the client's pet chihuahua that obscures a third of the page and doesn't move away when you scroll.

Do you feel your age has ever been a barrier in getting your work noticed?
Absolutely the opposite. Especially with web design, clients love the idea of the ~*wunderkind*~ who was raised on computers and operates them like an extension of himself. And in other areas, the fact that I'm young has always been sort of a plus. Everything you do is more impressive when you're young. I had this mini-crisis when I turned 20, because I was like - Zuckerberg was twenty-something, Ben. That's where the bar is now. What do you do? You draw pictures and write jokes, and not half as well as certain other twenty-somethings.

Do you think it's important to balance paid creative work with pieces for your own amusement?
Definitely. I'll add schoolwork to that list, because that's what's dominated my time for the last few years, to the exclusion of both paid and unpaid creative work. Summers are really when I get stuff done, and I always start my month with a project that will pay for rent/groceries and don't move onto my own stuff until that's done.

Who are your favourite creative people?
As far as illustration/animation goes, I used to animate for albinoblacksheep.com and they had a guy named Yotam Perel whose style I really love. Also Dan Meth, who did stuff for Frederator and now works with Collegehumor. My dear friend Emmy Cicierega is a constant source of motivation, because she kicks ass like it's her job (it basically is) and I have to struggle to even nudge ass. As far as professionals go, I love Loren Bouchard - I think Bob's Burgers has a perfect aesthetic going. The music, the character design, the palettes, the writing, and the talent. It's just the alt. comedy kick in the pants network adult animation needs.

This is tough because I actually have this wall in my room that's covered in a grid of  8.5x11" black and white headshots of people who inspire me. It's terrifying. Every night as I go to sleep I look up to see Louis CK and Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ames and Charlie Kaufman looking down on me, and they're saying with their eyes "Can you really afford to be sleeping right now? Alright, have fun accomplishing nothing ever!"

What inspires you?
Aside from the massive wall of famous faces?
Other people's work, I suppose. Also a crippling fear of death.

Do you have a favourite colour to work with?
#FFCC00. It's a sort of marigold. It's really offensive to the eyes after a while, but I'm fond of it for some reason.

What's the ultimate dream? And the good old cliche - what do you think you'll be doing in five years time?
The ultimate dream is to get paid for doing what you'd do for free, right? I'd love to work in TV, animated and live-action. In five years time, I hope to have a job. Preferably doing what I would otherwise do for free. I'm having a lot of trouble separating my pipe-dream fantasies from my expectations. I think that's why I'm at art school. It's an exercise in facing your superego, plugging your ears and going "lalalala I can't hear you."

Ben Kling website.
Ben Kling tumblr.
Ben Kling Facebook page.


Teddi said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

very cool & he's funny too! great interview alice. :)

Lauren said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

Very funny interview! And I LOVE the Edgar Allan Poe drawing x

samboy said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

I missed these somehow! They are great! :)

Emily said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

Very cool interview! His work is so good, i'd never seen it before!

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