Sep 22

Aaron Horkey: Midwestern Heart Interview (Part 2)

Posted by Justin Norman in Visual Art, Writing.

Note: This piece was originally written for and published by Hi-Fructose Magazine. This version includes high-resolution versions of many of the images. Just click one to enlarge it.

Aaron Horkey’s posters are the product of multiple hand-drawn layers, each meticulously detailed with micron pens – all scanned, composited, and screenprinted to create a finished product. At his recent “Midwestern Heart” show, fans got a rare opportunity to see original ink drawings and finished color posters hanging in the same vicinity. Afterward, I was able to ask Aaron about the process of creating one of these posters from start to finish and he was kind enough to explain in thorough detail.

Can you take me through the process of designing a concert poster from start to finish? I’m particularly curious how much bearing each band’s music has on the design, and how involved you are with the screen printing process.

The music is of utmost importance – there have only been two or three instances where I was unfamiliar with a band’s output prior to working on their poster. It felt a lot more like work and the resulting prints clearly reflect this. As for the process, I’ll walk you through the Genghis Tron tour poster from 2008. The band and I had been in touch for a couple years but the timing didn’t work out for a print until late in 2007/early 2008 when they were planning a record release tour for their sophomore LP, Board Up the House. I had an opening in my schedule, the record was incredible and the band understood my “no art direction” policy, so all systems were go.

Once I start in on a rock poster I don’t listen to that particular band until the prints are signed and out the door. I feel like something’s going to be compromised if I do – some literal visual translation will occur or some such spanner will be thrown. This is where being acutely familiar with the band’s discography and outlook comes into play.

For this poster I knew going into it that I wanted to at least partially explore a merging of mechanical and organic textures to somehow mirror the music these guys create. I already had fairly fleshed out sketches of the antique microphone housing apparatus from an earlier, aborted project and thought they might mesh well with an insect of some kind. At this point I start gathering all my reference and, if photos are needed, (in this case the nail and dust covered, debris-strewn foreground) I’ll shoot and print multiple angles of whatever the project calls for. By the time I start drawing up rough comps I’ve usually already pieced the poster together in my head, turning over each aspect of the final composition again and again until I’m as familiar with its basic “ghost” as possible so it’s just a matter of stumbling through sketches until it all matches up on paper.

I typically put down 6-20 tiny, rough comps until one clicks and I’m able to build the final illustration from this loose idea. In the case of the Genghis print, the main foreground illustration and background lettering are drawn on separate plates but interact with each other on the final poster, following a basic line of movement up and away from the horizon line. Because of this I needed to draw one final refined sketch with both elements present, splitting up the lettering and illustration when it came time to transfer the art to the final paper for ink. My final pencil rough [sketches] typically include about 90% of the detail present in the finished ink work but may be only half the size. Similarly, the finished inks may be only a third or half the size of the final print, so the process from initial sketch to printed poster may involve a 500% enlargement. This is why it’s so important to ensure the composition is solid from a very early stage. It really reduces headaches – especially with a deadline looming. It usually takes a good 4-5 days to get the inked drawing somewhere approaching acceptable [quality].

Once the ink work is completed I’ll reduce it back down via Xerox and work up a color composite using watercolors, markers and gouache. This gives me a good idea of how many additional layers I’ll need to draw for highlights, shadows, etcetera, and what color of paper I’ll need to order for the prints. In this case I needed to draw two layers of highlights: a fill layer for the foreground illustration, and the “Genghis Tron” lettering that appears behind the insect. Additionally, I still had to draw the information text for the tour itself – dates, cities, flourishes – that would appear in the lower portion of the poster beneath the main illustration.

I ended up designing two separate text pieces for this poster as the first attempt was absolutely awful and really had no redeeming qualities. Once all the art is complete, everything is scanned in and assembled into a digital mock-up to ensure the various plates line up and nothing is terribly out-of-whack. Film is then output, screens are shot, and ink is mixed. I try to be present for at least part of the printing process if at all possible, either to sign off on colors or just to help rack prints, but I don’t remember being around for this one until it was time to sign the band’s copies. Ben LaFond handled printing duties on this one and absolutely nailed it as usual. The custom-mixed metallic green ink and split fountain lettering really turned out well on the dark brown stock, band was stoked and it was on to the next one.

You’ve made posters for a pretty wide range of bands. Does any of them stand out as particularly inspiring to design for?

Most all of them have been an absolute pleasure to work with. I’m very lucky to have been able to contribute something, however insignificant, to the visual histories of quite a few of my favorite bands. Isis, Andrew Bird, Converge and Boris are some of my repeat clients, all of which have inspired me for many years, well before I started working with them personally. Getting to work with Cable was a dream come true as well, I thought I’d never have the chance, but when they reformed in 2008 for a handful of shows I had to throw my hat in the ring. Two posters and an album cover later and the rest is history.

I’ve noticed that you’re also a musician under the name Jack Spaar and even released an album back in 2005. Do you continue to write and perform music?

I designed and issued the Jack Spaar record as a historical document via my 420X10 imprint but, despite rumors to the contrary, I’m not Jack. There have been a small number of unsubstantiated accounts of his continued existence but he’s presumed to have died in a mobile meth lab explosion outside Fulda, Minnesota in the early years of this century.

After years of designing for all sorts of surfaces – skateboards, clothing, shoes, belt buckles, album and magazine covers, toys – what’s been your favorite material to work on, and why?

LP covers and skateboards are tops for me. My heroes growing up all had either album art or skateboard graphics (or both) in their portfolios so naturally that was the goal.

In June, your company, Dead Arts Publishing, released the first of a series of six sets of prints depicting your black-and-white original drawings. Can you tell me a little about the series and when we’ll get to see more?

The letterpress series has been years in the making and every force in the known universe seems to be conspiring against its completion, but we are planning on announcing the contents of Suite 2 early in October of this year. The prints included in the series are 1:1 scale, 1 color letterpressed reproductions of my original drawings released in 6 sets of 3 prints each over the course of the next year or so. The prints are available individually or in lavishly packaged suites, which include an exclusive bonus print available only with purchase of the set that will not be reprinted elsewhere. Including bonus prints there will be 24 pieces total in the series: 18 standard edition pieces and 6 bonus prints. Each round of prints are available as an open edition during a specific ordering window and the edition size is determined by the amount of prints ordered during this window. Anyone interested in receiving updates and/or further information regarding the series can subscribe to the mailing list at

Lastly, what’s next on your slate? Any new projects we should keep an eye out for?

So much backed up on the desk, now that the show is open I can get back to work. A couple new movie posters for Mondo, a new collaborative print at the Bird Machine with Jay Ryan, portfolio exchange in conjunction with the MAPC 2010 conference in Minneapolis, letterpress bonus prints and incidentals, painting commissions, more Japan-exclusive items to be released via Mega•Fauna, some shirts, look through the Jaime Hernandez art book, mow the lawn, ride my bike, change some diapers, wash some dishes, etc.

Thanks a ton for taking the time to answer my questions! I really appreciate it, and I’m sure your other fans will as well.

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