Cycling, Creativity and Coronavirus
With the Coronavirus Pandemic heavily impacting freelance creatives worldwide, we chatted with Casey Robertson about how he found ongoing work and human connection by experimenting his way through tough times.
Who is Casey Robertson?
When I close my eyes, I imagine myself as a cowboy, spiritual guru, subcultural revolutionary, and an amazing singer. When I open them, I’m a cyclist, a high-caliber domestic partner, a visual designer, and a shitty singer.
My work is graphic art — primarily digital — through which I aim to maintain a fluid visual alloy of all the things in my life that really move me.
Designer-Cyclist or Cyclist-Designer?
That answer is like the opposite of a photo finish. (A photo start?) I was drawing like crazy at about the same time I learned to ride a bike, and I never really put down either. A notable part of my interest in cycling has always been the aesthetic.
As a younger kid, it was BMX logos and that kind of alt-sport outsider aesthetic — studying and mimicking the things that made those styles so alluring. I moved on to road cycling in high school, and my notebooks were plastered with hand-duplicated logos of iconic cycling brands. Mostly European ones. So from illustration to typography, cycling and hobbies have been a part of my design language from the beginning.
"MY COMMERCIAL WORK DRIED UP RAPIDLY. I WAS LIVING IN A VACUUM OF SORTS FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS, WONDERING WHAT I MIGHT DO IN ORDER TO AVOID DORMANCY."
Since Covid-19 turned our world upside-down you've been illustrating portraits of fellow cyclists. How did this come about?
Well, my commercial work dried up rapidly. I was living in a vacuum of sorts for a couple of weeks, wondering what I might do in order to avoid dormancy. Knowing that I wouldn’t be looking at any long-term projects for a while, I thought portraits would be a great “product” that I could generate relatively quickly at a price that worked well for everyone.
I have a contact, also a cycling industry illustrator (Richard Pool, aka Bicycle Crumbs). We bounce work ideas off of each other regularly, and he liked the concept of quick, affordable portraits.
I whipped up a portrait of Richard, and he posted it along with a very honest sentiment. He said something about how despite the inherent competitiveness of not only our trade but our primary environment (cycling), we can gain so much from helping each other.
It was really unexpected and kind. It felt like a good buddy buying the first round after a really hard day of work—some kind of really practical karmic blessing. We have a lot of power as individuals, but it really shines when we can share it with others.
The work itself is fantastic but what's equally impressive is how an experimental portrait of an industry pal grew into a steady stream of work that extends beyond the cycling community.
It’s turned out to be wonderful in many ways. The amount of work that it has generated jives really well with my nature. I like working hard, I like being busy. I like cranking out the jams. I like earning my money.
What has the impact of this project been on a social level?
The thing that bowled me over was the amount of human connection this project reveals to me. A lot of the portrait commissions are gifts or a celebration in some form, even a celebration of self. If there’s a subplot to the current time — and we see this everywhere — it’s that humans are tribal, and we care deeply about each other.
You’re using our Debaser Low-Fi Comic Coloring kit in a really unique style. Did you develop this style through deliberate experimentation or did it happen more organically?
I’d say a little of both. I’d like to think I came to Debaser with my own style parameters, and that this product facilitates to my urge to knock the polish off of things. I have lightly labeled my style as Dust Tech, which I couldn’t achieve easily without a lot of the built-in textures and actions of Debaser.
"I FIND THERE’S DEEPER SENTIMENTAL OR EMOTIONAL CONNECTION WITH DIGITAL WORK THAT INCORPORATES PRINT-PRODUCTION TEXTURES; THE TEXTURES CAN HELP TO PLACE AN IMAGE IN YOUR HEART OR YOUR HANDS, RATHER THAN JUST YOUR EYES."
Do you see this aesthetic becoming part of your client practice as the economy recovers and the world returns to normalcy?
It’s what I’ve really been after for quite some time.
What does your process look like? Are you 100% digital or do you mix it up with analog methods?
I still sketch a lot for composition and layout, especially when working on branding. That’s such a vaporous beast, so sketching really helps to nail down a visual quickly. I also sketch when I can just to honor the gift of being born with some art skills. All that said, these portraits are 100% digital. The price doesn’t really allow for a complex process, so I keep these all on the screen.
What drew you to start using texture in your work? Was it there from day one or has your use of texture evolved over time?
This kind of ties back to my roots mentioned earlier. Studying the graphic process has been important to me from day one, so I’ve always tried to be conscious of the relationship between how something looks and how it’s made.
When you look at a produced graphic, the substrate is part of the image, the technique used to apply the graphic is part of the image, the age of the production piece becomes part of how it’s perceived.
In the digital world, much of this is bypassed. I find there’s deeper sentimental or emotional connection with digital work that incorporates print-production textures; the textures can help to place an image in your heart or your hands, rather than just your eyes.
"THE THINGS YOU’RE GOOD AT ARE WORTH SOMETHING TO OTHERS."
How did you learn to use texture in your work?
Years ago I was making halftone files in Illustrator the hard (dumb) way — like, every dot. Then I moved on to photographing textures like orange-peel wall paint, concrete, paper, splatters, wood, etc… and seeing what I could do to utilize them in an authentic way. So I’ve always been trying to modify things to achieve a little more visual authenticity of some sort.
Do you have any advice for other creatives sidelined by the economic realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic?
Sheesh, I feel like I barely snuck through a closing door myself. What helped me was staying fluid. Creative people are usually creative in many ways, especially freelancers.
Put down the axe and the water buckets. Sit and think sometimes. Ride a bicycle, stare into the woods, go get some air, whittle… do things that encourage your mind to wander. Mostly, value yourself. The things you’re good at are worth something to others.