Johnny Dombrowski Interview
We talked to NYC based illustrator, Johnny Dombrowski about going digital, the importance of personal projects and working for the Society of Illustrators.
What's your background Johnny?
Growing up in Connecticut, I’ve been drawing my entire life. I was always that kind of kid. I enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and graduated with a Bachelors in Illustration. I’m still in the city, working as a freelance illustrator and as the Senior Designer for the Society of Illustrators.
What does your process look like? Are you 100% digital these days or do you mix it up with pencil sketches, pen and ink.
For a long time, I was working with ink and then scanning to color in Photoshop. I used to hold on to those ink drawings so dearly, refusing to go completely digital. With a growing collection of drawings collecting dust, I finally decided to try out the Cintiq and I’ve never looked back. Better drawings and at a quicker pace. 100% digital these days—from sketch to final.
Your aesthetic carries on the tradition of golden age comics, and spot illustration and texture is an important part of re-creating that feel. Was it this aesthetic that drew you to work with texture or did you always have a textural interest?
Comic books were certainly the reason I started drawing—long before I knew exactly what illustration was, so it’s always had that root dug deep into my brain. After all of this time experimenting with Photoshop, it’s finally getting to the point where I can get back to those origins. Really trying to research and understand every possible step of coloring those pre-digital, golden age comics.
"ALONG WITH THAT EXPERIMENTATION, TEXTURES HAVE ALWAYS ADDED MORE OF A HUMAN TOUCH. PUSHED IT AWAY FROM THOSE SLICK AND PERFECT EDGES. TEXTURES ADD AN UNKNOWN ELEMENT, AND THAT’S WHAT MAKES IT POP."
How did you learn to use texture in your work? Was it through deliberate experimentation or happy accidents?
There’s been plenty of pieces I’ve worked on where I’ll just play around with every 10 minutes or so, seeing what I can tweak. Does this work, does this not work, so on and so on. On the other hand, there have been illustrations where I’ve set up very strict rules. Monitoring every decision I make. Along with that experimentation, textures have always added more of a human touch. Pushed it away from those slick and perfect edges. Textures add an unknown element, and that’s what makes it pop.
You’ve worked with some truly incredible clients. Has it been a slow build to get to this point or did you suddenly find yourself in high demand from high profile clients?
Absolutely a slow build—you can’t expect that stuff to happen over night. That said, since I’ve been working with the comic book style, things have jumped a bit. People have been drawn to it just like I was, fortunately.
You work as a senior designer with the Society of Illustrators. Are there insights into the industry that you’ve gained in that role that really helped in building your illustration career?
It is an amazing place to network. There are always competitions for contemporary Illustration, and with that, a lot of chances to meet and make connections with amazing clients and art directors. Also, there’s the learning about illustration history. I would be nowhere near the level I am now without being able to study legendary artists like Norman Rockwell, JC Leyendecker and more. That and seeing a rotation of amazing comic book shows with artists like Jack Kirby, John Romita and the whole EC Comics crew. I’m a kid in a candy store.
Your regular posters and flyers for SOI’s Beers For Fears events are fantastic. What’s the driving force behind those events?
My coworker and I used to host movie nights once in a blue moon just with friends. A double feature of fun movies that had some sort of weird connection. Like a time travel night with The Terminator and Back to the Future. It was always a blast and we eventually started thinking: Couldn’t we do this for the public? Wouldn’t this be a fun thing to hang out at? It all blew up from there.
How important were personal projects and low budget yet interesting briefs to the development of your career?
Very important. Those small or personal projects can tip your portfolio into the direction you want to go. You always have to create a body of work that you would eventually want to be hired for. All of the comic book coloring techniques started as random illustrations on Instagram. Nothing but me wasting time learning how to re-create that look.
Who’s work inspired you early on and who or what inspires you to keep going now?
A lot of comic book artists to start off—artists like Mazzucchelli, Moebius, Mignola—all of the M’s. Those guys are still amazing but I’ve been looking a lot at The EC crew. Jack Davis, Johnny Craig (same name so he’s good in my book), Wally Wood and the others. All of that work just within a few years in the 50s and it still can’t be beat.
"AS SOON AS SOMETHING IS UPDATED OR “FIXED,” IT BECOMES NOSTALGIA AND THAT’S ONE THING PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS BE DRAWN TO."
Do you have any tips or lightbulb moments about working with texture that you’d like to share?
It's looking at the original product. If you're trying to recreate anything, you have to go to the source. I was recently able to get my hands on actual, original copies of EC comics, not just reprints, and it was amazing how much I learned just flipping through a few pages. Every bit of that adds to how I use texture and tweaking it to have that organic, chaotic look.
Any advice for young designers and illustrators starting out?
Like I mentioned before: try your best to create personal and client work to lean your portfolio to what you want to be hired for. No matter how specific your interests are, with how super-saturated the internet is, there will be an audience for it. Even if it's outdated halftones on rotting pulp paper. As soon as something is updated or “fixed,” it becomes nostalgia and that’s one thing people will always be drawn to.