Sean Hipkin is an illustrator and member of 3 Fish Studios, and a recent graduate of CCA's Illustration program. I recently had the chance to visit his new home and art studio in San Francisco to ask about his work. In my mind, his home had much of the same charm as his illustrations. Thrifted furniture and wall art occupying each room. Small plants found on tabletops and in nooks. Bikes stacked against the wall. And his studio, a little room with big windows looking out to the city.
Isalina Chow: First question. How did you first find yourself coming into art and illustration?
Sean Hipkin: I guess anyone who’s creative has always been that way, since they were a kid. I was way more interested in making and building things when I was a kid than in toys, so I was always making stuff, not necessarily seriously.
I didn’t know about illustration probably until a couple of years ago. I first started getting into it when I was working at a skateboarding shop called Metro, in the East Bay. And I still didn't really know what illustration was. But because I worked there and it was a "No Rules" kind of place, I would help my boss make T-shirts--fudge our way through Photoshop and screenprinting. We would do anything we wanted to do, just bootleg everything, make patches and stickers. I helped design a lot of it. That's where I started getting into it. I dabbled in a lot of different things, all sort of illustration-based. It wasn't until probably right before I started at CCA that I figured out illustration was the direction I wanted to go.
IC: Is that what caused you to go to CCA, for Illustration?
SH: I started at a different school, for one semester. It took me seven or eight years to get through school. It took forever because I was actually at another art school for printmaking but I decided that printmaking wasn't the major I should be pursuing. I went through all these other schools at an older age just trying to figure out which school I wanted to go to, and I found CCA for Illustration. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was really an amazing program. It gave me hope I guess like this is what I should be doing.
IC: What was it about this program that was like, "This just feels right," compared to other things you did?
SH: I do a lot of personal work, but it gave me a purpose to make things. Because I don't really make anything unless I have to. You know, there are some people who doodle, they're drawing constantly, always making things. I'm not like that at all. I only make something when I have a reason to make it. So when there's a project, and there's an art director for example who says, "You need to do this thing for this company," I want to do that. They tell me I need to make this thing, and that's awesome, I can go through the whole process. It was a very structured program at CCA.
IC: And structured was good for you.
SH: It was really good because I'm not a very loosey-goosey artist. I'm pretty process-driven. CCA was very structured, and it was really hard at certain points, but I learned a ton.
IC: Do you have other outlets? It seems like bicycling plays a big role in your life.
SH: Bikes are huge. Before 3 Fish Studios, I worked at a bicycle company called Rivendell, which is a niche specialty bike company in the East Bay. I was doing illustration work for them too actually, without even really thinking about it. Bikes have been a huge part of my life. I've made so many contacts, and so much of the illustration work I've done has been in the bike industry. It's such a tight-knit group of people who are all do-it-yourselfers. We all support each other.
IC: It's like a community space.
SH: Totally. It's like my community is bikes. Just being outside is my other outlet. I spend a lot of time outside. I just started getting into running. Every year I'll go on a bike trip that's many days long, just go off the grid for a while.
IC: These other outlets, like biking and being in nature, do they tie into your creative work at all? Do they feed off each other?
SH: Yeah. Totally. I almost can't do one without the other. With illustrating, I've always been pretty solitary about it. I spend so much time in here just working. I have to get out and get some fresh air, go on a bike ride and see some people. There's a direct influence for sure. You can tell in some of my personal work. There's always a hint of a bicycle or a camping scene. They completely feed off each other.
IC: Your work is very whimsical and fantastical, but at the same time it feels like it has a personal touch. Do you feel like there are other parts of yourself in your work?
SH: Definitely. I think anyone who makes personal work, they're going to be showing a little bit of themselves in it. I feel like my aesthetic is very much in my artwork. If I'm going to do a house scene, it's going to be a super cool homey house.
IC: Like your dream house maybe.
SH: Yeah, like my dream house. When you're making, you have this whole world in your head, and your way of getting it out there is through your artwork, especially your personal work. I definitely see myself in everything I make.
IC: Can you tell me a little bit about your process? How you come to ideas, and when you decide a piece is finished and to move on.
SH: I'm very process driven. I'm super structured in how I make things. Kind of like how I don't make things unless I have a reason. When I do make them, I have a very main structure. I learned how I do it back in high school, I was working in a lot of tattoo shops and apprenticing--that was something I was interested in early on. That process was: sketch, more detailed sketch, final line work, and then to take it to final. I've pretty much done that ever since I learned how to. I go to a rough sketch and then I do a more final sketch, then final. And a final is not always a final art piece or a painting. It's often a compilation of little paintings where I digitally composite everything so I can edit things later.
IC: Was there a particular artist or person that inspired you to make the work that you make now?
SH: Oh man, there's so many. The Provensens are a good children's book duo that I'm really influenced by. I look at some fine artists. Peter Brook is one of them, he's a 70's painter and does a lot of landscape paintings. I love how flat and graphic a lot of it is, how he separates space and value.
And then there are Disney concept artists. Like Eyvind Earle, if you saw that exhibit at the Walt Disney Museum, it was unbelievable. And Mary Blair. Anything that's 101 Dalmatians concept art is the best thing ever.
But I try to look at older work. If you look too much at the newer work, you start to get influenced by it. I'm just very influenced by people, so I try not to look at it too much.
IC: Is there a work that you've made that you're especially proud of or attached to?
SH: The one that was a real lightbulb moment was the Sleep Outside piece I did for my Senior Thesis project. My teacher was pushing me really hard to mess with more value and understand it. So I was like, fine, I'll do the most value thing ever and just make a glowing tent in black dark space. And, I don't know, it just worked I guess. It was a very dynamic piece, and I learned a lot from it.
IC: And that's recent too.
SH: That's recent, that was just before the holidays. And then, I just did a drum head for my friend. No sketch or anything, I just kind of went for it, and that's so unlike me. Every time you do a piece, you learn something from it, and it becomes your favorite piece for that reason. Then you move on to the next piece. When I make something, it's done, and I'm never going back to it.
IC: So you also work at 3 Fish. Has your time working with the artists in that space influenced you or your work at all?
SH: Yeah, completely. It's such a creative environment. To have such a tight knit group of people, just Annie, Eric, me, and Orlie, and now we have a new person named Maddie working for us. They're just so amazing.
Annie and Eric have shown me so much about the business side of being an artist, and how to make a living being an artist. You don't have to succumb to the "starving artist" thing, you just need to know how to do it. They've been such a resource for me in learning how to do that. You can't not be inspired being around them. Annie is constantly painting. She did 49 paintings in the last month, for the 49 scenic mile drive. She just never stops, it's unbelievable.
Orlie and I are both illustrators, and we just bounce off each other when we have questions. About contracts, learning something, a certain medium, how you did this thing, digital stuff. We can ask each other constantly.
We're very open. It's like a little family.
IC: One of the words you use to describe your work is "narrative". Is there a general narrative or message that you want people to take away when they look at your illustrations?
SH: Just to look at things in a bit more of a magical way. Don't just see things as, for example, "Oh, this weather is horrible. It's raining fog on me, and now I'm wet and have to go to work." Think of the magic of going through that. Always the bright side of things, the little bit of whimsy in everything that we do. It's a childlike perspective about everything. It makes things interesting.
IC: Is there anything that you're currently working on, or anything that you have planned for the future, that you're really excited about?
SH: I just graduated.
IC: Big change.
SH: Big changes. My girlfriend, Eden and I just moved into this apartment, and that's a huge change. That was the same time as I was graduating, so it was just bonkers. So much happening at one time, and it's just starting to mellow out. But I'm excited to just try to do more of the work that I want to make.
IC: Because it's not structured by school.
SH: Yeah, it's not structured by school anymore. I've been illustrating for the last two years when I'm not in school. Even when I was in school I was illustrating a little on the side. I was able to do all these different projects, taking everything I could get my hands on. You learn from that: "I don't want to do a project like that again," or, "That's not really my thing."
Now I know that I want to do more literary work. Over the last year or two, I was talking to a couple children's book illustration agents and just learning from them. They've been helping me with some portfolio work. I'm excited about that, because that's the direction I want to go in: children's book, picture book, young chapter book illustration. I also have a show at Faye's Video in the Mission. I'm going to do four little paintings for that show.
Just being able to get a new perspective on illustration right now. It's really exciting because of all these new opportunities, and being done with this big years-long thing. Now I can keep doing what I was doing, but in this whole other way.
IC: In the way that you want to. It's totally self-driven.
SH: Yeah. Exactly. It's totally self-driven.
You can find Sean's whimsical illustrations at either of Rare Device's brick and mortar locations as well as at 3 Fish Studios.