By Susan Younger
Artwork and Photographs Courtesy of Richard Downs
Article first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 39, Issue 2, Summer 2014)
Following an unusual career path with twists and turns by his own design, the artist is always ready for the next challenge.
Richard Downs is known for his many styles—his art combines contemporary aesthetics with printmaking to create timeless images. He has worked for most U.S. periodicals and newspapers ranging from Smithsonian to the New York Times, designs children’s books for National Geographic Learning, and is a lead cover artist for Lynda.com. Besides being an established illustrator, Downs has taught art education for more than 19 years, yet his path to success has been anything but conventional.
Richard Downs had just graduated from high school, and all he wanted for a graduation gift was an airbrush.
Downs grew up in a family that appreciated art, but didn’t necessarily incorporate art or design into their lives. Richard was an average student in most subjects except art, where he excelled. His parents subscribed to Smithsonian magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and as a teenager, Downs had devoured these influences, reading every issue to learn about new artists and art. He was fascinated by the Sunday Opinion, an editorial column in the L.A. Times that was just moving away from editorial cartoons and into conceptual illustration.
It was the late seventies in Montrose, California, in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley. The hippie era was still going strong, progressive rock ‘n’ roll was in its heyday with bands like Aerosmith, Genesis and Yes, and Southern California was quickly becoming the hotrod capital of the world. A friend had just introduced Downs to the possibilities of smooth airbrush renderings, and he was blown away. With his gift of the coveted airbrush, he was all set to start his career in art.
A self-taught artist, Richard went with his friends every weekend to swap meets. Armed with stacks of blank T-shirts and their tools, they airbrushed custom designs for folks all day. It wasn’t long before his talents were noticed. He was soon painting cars and mini trucks, which had just been introduced in the U.S. He also had commissions from race boat enthusiasts.
Downs success in this arena was fast: within just a few months he had made a name for himself. He soon met “The Wizard”—a mysterious character who wore long flowing wizard’s robes, and whose actual name no one really knew. The man owned a tiny T-shirt shop on Sunset Boulevard, and he paid Downs to airbrush clothing. He could paint whatever he felt like painting, and the artistic freedom was fun.
This connection led to a significant early commission. Less than one year after high school, he landed a job to paint the tour bus of a band that he didn’t know much about. The band’s singer—Downs had never heard of him—was Lionel Richie, and his band was called the Commodores.
The Commodores hired him to paint a Frank Frazetta mural. Frazetta was a popular comic book, science fiction, and fantasy airbrush artist of the times whom Downs admired. Could he do this, they asked? Undaunted, Downs said yes. The 18-year-old had been working as an artist for less than a year.
He painted the van in an airline hangar at LAX in just one day. He was finishing up the clear-coating and was concerned about client approval. Would they like it? What would happen if they didn’t? All doubts disappeared when one of the band members—they all wore matching jumpsuits, and Downs didn’t know who he was—stopped by. “The guy did a little spin and jumped up and said, ‘Hot Damn, that is Righteous!’ It was the funniest move I had ever seen, and I was just a kid, so I didn’t even ask who he was,” Downs says.
Left to right: The World is Different, personal response to the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; Selling Power Magazine, Customer Satisfaction and when it Turns on You; Plansponsor Magazine, Hidden Agenda, what lurks behind some retirement plans; Middlebury Magazine, Running with the Bulls.
Downs was having the time of his life, but he knew he needed to grow as an artist. He also realized that living in a spray booth and breathing toxic chemicals might not be so good for the long term. And by the 80s, the popularity of airbrush art was waning. It had gained a cheesy reputation and was considered juvenile. When he enrolled in illustration classes at a local community college, he was embarrassed of his status as a teenage airbrush artist who liked Frank Frazetta. He told no one.
Downs comes across as humble, and perhaps a bit bashful about his talent. Yet he determinedly set his sights on attending the prestigious Art Center in Pasadena. He loved the artwork appearing in the newspapers and magazines, and he secretly thought, “I could do that.” But an advisor at the community college thought otherwise. After Downs had to present his portfolio, the advisor told him that he would never have enough talent to succeed, and he scoffed at his ambitions to attend the Art Center.
“He told me that I would never be a painter. How did he know that, since I had never really tried to paint with oils or acrylics? His advice that day changed my opinion of what leadership and advice means to young people, and it has formed my teaching philosophy of how to educate students and give them the right tools to achieve success. You should never tell a kid that he can’t do something. When you teach a student how to do something that they’ve never done before, they have no where else to go but up.”
Clockwise from top left: How Coyote Stole the Sun for National Geographic learning, (a Zuni Pourquoi tale for children); The Fox and the Goat for McGraw Hill; The Wall Street Journal, The CFO Academy, Corporate poaching of talent.
At the Art Center Downs excelled, and upon graduation, he was offered a part-time position to teach an open class that students attended on their own time, to experiment with different media. The class was successful, and within a few years he was teaching editorial illustration.
Right out of Art Center, Downs made inroads as an illustrator. He started doing editorial works for Gary Spieker, who was the Opinion Page editor for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. It took more than a year to get his first assignment from Tom Trapnell at the Los Angeles Times, a job he wanted since he first set his mind on college. And in this niche, he flourished.
By 1990 his style had evolved into a hybrid of painting, silkscreen, and graphic elements. But eventually he found himself doing mostly graphic design work with very little drawing and painting. It was a blue period for him—he was getting well-paid work, including a brochure for Toyota, but it wasn’t what he loved. Downs and his wife, artist Gwyn Stramler, had just bought an etching press, and he began experimenting in his spare time. He admired artists like Henrick Drescher and Lane Smith for their expressive illustration work. To be true to himself as an artist, he must do work that challenged him. He wanted to explore higher concepts, use line in a unique style, play with more texture, and add a little bit of chaos.
Once again, Richard Downs set out to reinvent himself. But with a wife and a baby on the way, perhaps the timing could have been better.
Left to right: Stanford Medicine Magazine, Using stents under the arms to perform complex operations on young patients to minimize scarring; BusinessWeek, The art of giving criticism.
Downs’ early style focused on realistic, detailed drawings with lots of color. He radically changed his style to a more expressive figurative style that was greatly influenced by German Expressionism and artists like Max Beckmann. He wanted the chance to create images with myriad meanings, and he wanted to work with a limited color palette. “I put together a fancy letter expressing my need for change and I sent it out to all my clients. I waited and waited for the phone to ring, and my career just died that day,” says Downs. “I wanted to call all of my clients and say, I was just kidding. I’m still available to do my old style.” But he had burned his bridges, and he had misjudged his relationships with his clients. “I realized that they didn’t really care about me at all,” he says. “I thought that we were friends, but I found out that we were strictly business. The art directors needed an illustration to do what they wanted it to do, that’s all.” No one was interested in Richard’s personal growth, and he had really screwed things up. He still had his teaching job at the Art Center, but money was tight.
Downs persisted with his new style, experimenting and creating etchings and monotypes that quickly became popular in a very short time. His fine art was selling, and eventually art directors took notice. He started getting good assignments from folks like David Armario, David Carson, and Fred Woodward. He was back.
One of the first, and most satisfying assignments was from Rolling Stone in 1994, to create artwork for a review of a new release by Soundgarden titled Superunknown. This was before the Internet took off, so the art director sent a cassette tape of the album for him to listen to. The music blew him away. He paired the raw, animalistic sound with an image of a caveman, which turned out to be an award-winning illustration of not only the album, but also of his new style as well. His career was definitely off and running again.
Technology brought another transformation. Today, Downs creates his illustrations on the computer, though he retains his signature style, which he calls “inky style” by scanning his line drawings and building his own library of textures. He was an early adapter of technology, introduced to the possibilities by two of his students at the Art Center. His colored etchings and monotypes take up to sixteen hours to complete, and he found himself with little spare time. The students convinced him that he could get similar results with a computer and finish faster. One of those students, Bruce Heavin, went on to co-found the tutorial training company Lynda.com with his wife Lynda Weinman, and Downs is a lead cover artist for the company. His work translates a variety of software programs into elegant images that are used as banners on their education titles.
Lynda.com illustrations, top to bottom: iTunes DVD packaging cover, CSS Core Concepts DVD packaging cover, SharePoint DVD packaging cover.
Not just content with proficiency in one style, Downs has developed and mastered several distinct styles that easily work between editorial, conceptual and a variety of subjects. He wants to ensure that his work doesn’t get pigeon holed—and it hasn’t, landing him assignments for technology and medical industries, advertising campaigns, and children’s books.
The only downside to being so busy is that he left his teaching position at the Art Center, a career move that he still regrets.
Richard has a way of jumping right into a job, even when he has little or no experience. After all, he set himself up as an airbrush artist, muralist and auto detailer in just a few months, and when he was offered his first children’s book job, he severely underestimated how much time a project like that would take. The fact that he finished weeks beyond deadline still troubles the artist, but it’s a lesson he imparts to his students—“Never blow a deadline kids, it’s not good for your career!” Recently, he jumped at the chance to create his first large sculptural installation, which he figured out as he worked.
The artist has gained attention for his monotypes of romantic figures. He has always had an interest in figurative art, and his heroes of the genre include Manuel Neri and Nathan Oliveria. His first monotype transfer of a man and woman embracing was for personal expression, and he framed it and hung it in his home. A friend saw it and wanted one, so he began to make more. He has since made nearly 300 of the single edition prints, and he’s still surprised by the connection people seem to have to them. At times, he wonders if they are too romanticized, and even silly, but his fans love them. He prefers the monotype, since they are one-of-a-kind individual prints. He creates them by inking a plate, laying down Japanese rice paper, and hand-drawing the image on the back of the paper. The line of the pen picks up the ink, and he loves the odd smudges that result from his own palm accidentally touching the plate. “With the monotypes, you never really know what you will end up with,” he says. He is fascinated by how this technique takes the artist out of the equation and puts in the unknown quality of chance. He loves that—and so do his admirers. Downs has been invited to several solo gallery exhibits, but a recent show in the Bay Area was the one that altered his path.
Left to right: Couple #131, monotype, oil on Japanese paper, 2011; Couple #117, monotype, oil on Japanese paper, 2011; Couple #23, monotype, oil on Japanese paper, 2004.
Downs was working on his fourth solo show for Transmissions Gallery, in Oakland, California. He had assembled his monotypes, which are primarily black and red, and he thought the show was coming together nicely. That was before his wife Gwyn reviewed his lineup. She told him that his show would be too boring, and she suggested a large-scale painting to compliment the work. Thinking the advice was a bit harsh, and balking at the idea of painting something large (his work tends to be small), he begrudgingly painted a 48 x 48 inch painting titled The Family. Downs freely concedes that she was right. The large painting anchored and pulled everything together.
It was because of that fresh perspective that he noticed an old project of his—a wire sculpture—that had sat in his living room for more than a decade.
Richard loves line. As an extension of his line drawings, and to enhance the upcoming show, he created a series of 3D figural sculptures out of wire. The physicality of working with steel wire was full of possibilities. He developed techniques as he worked, braiding 2, 3 and 4 wires together to add different line weights. His wire medium wasn’t just about line and a simple contour, now it was about line in real space—forcing him to think differently about the human form. The show at the Transmission Gallery was his most successful to date.
Buoyed by the show’s success, Downs posted images on his Facebook page. He uses social media to keep his name “out there,” and to keep in touch with clients. To his surprise, the wire sculptures started attracting attention as soon as they went online. Within a day he had a commission to make another, and recently a collector asked if he would consider creating a 3D wire installment. The sculpture would be a statement piece that would hang from a vaulted ceiling in an executive suite. And true to his nature, Richard jumped right in.
The human figures he made are a man and a woman that stand 8 feet. To start the project, he built the figures first with cardboard, and has learned that it is challenging to create art on such a large scale. After he completed the male, he was pleased with his results. After all, it took him a lot of time to figure out how to make it, and he was planning to repeat the method on the female. Once again, Gwyn had suggestions. “Are you going to do the rings of wire like the male on the female? Because if you do, it is going to be really boring. You need to mix up the techniques for more contrast,” she told him. Richard was completely derailed, and as a stickler for deadlines, he stressed about finishing the piece on time. But she was right. The female figure now has curvier, organic lines that complement the grid-like lines of the male perfectly. The advice pushed the work into a new and better direction.
Richard Downs working on Couple #282, braided annealed wire, 2014 (private commission).
Exploring new areas where his work in wire sculpture might lead is exciting, and he was recently hired by Smithsonian to create a hybrid illustration. The concept blends painted collage pieces with wire, and is the first 3D illustration that the magazine has commissioned.
Downs now teaches at Sierra Community College in Northern California. He embraces working with kids who have little experience in art, and feels great joy when he watches a student—who had never before used acrylics—make really nice paintings at the end of the semester. “Talent is universal, and it can be found all over and in every culture,” Downs says. “We all blossom and grow at different rates, and it isn’t just the teaching and working with the kids that I enjoy, but it is me growing and improving alongside them.”
Whatever Downs chooses to do next, he’ll surely jump right in, and his work will never be boring.
Richard Downs has won numerous awards for his work. He won a UCDA Gold Award for illustration in 2006 for his collaboration with Middlebury College.