Connecticut Creatives | Eric Panke, Illustrator
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Eric Panke, Illustrator

How did you get from design/art direction to illustration?

15+ years ago I started doing digital illustration. Caricatures. Celebs and such. People said they were good. Good enough to be in magazines. So vainly, I worked up a few samples. I think it was Will Smith and Spike Lee, and, I sent them to a list of very aspirational publications. The “BIG-TIME”. Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, etc. And, god damn it, people started calling me. Like I was legit. Calling with projects. I was doing work for Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly almost immediately. EW became a regular gig. This lasted for a couple years. Me working as an art director by day, and as an illustrator by night. I spent a lot of time faxing sketches to art director. So you know this was a while ago. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to maintain business or cultivate new clients. Soon, I was just another washed-up, project-less, illustrator.

But I kept doing stuff. Sometimes incorporating it into my own work. Sometimes doing projects for folks here in the Connecticut creative community. I had abandoned my original style and was trying to find something new. Just trying out a bunch of different stuff. Nothing really took hold on a personal level. Certainly not on a professional one.

How does design influence your illustration, and how does illustration influence your design?

Well, every illustration is influenced by design, But, not every design is influenced by illustration. Which is to say, that you leverage all of your abilities as a designer when you illustrate. Structure, composition, balance, color. A good illustrator understands all those same principles. Those fundamental truths that start with good design and also apply to illustration.

What are some of your favorite / influential illustrators?

Back in the day, when I did a lot of caricature work, I really admired Robert Risko. Still do, of course. He was such a big part of Vanity Fair and celebrity culture. Throwback love goes to Charlie Harper. I’ll call him an illustrator. His work is beautifully simple. Such economy. I like the splashy, cheesy, pop art perfection of sports painter LeRoy Neiman. Amazing mustache, too. Another painter I love is America Martin. Again, bold and simple. But not rigid at all. There’s also a guy named Dave Choate working today. Cool sports and popular culture stuff. And a young guy that I discovered on Instagram, Adrian Mangel. He’s from Brooklyn by way of Costa Rica. His look is raw and in-the-moment. Worth checking out, definitely.

Can you describe your set-up and process?

I usually work directly on top of a found image, or on my own image pieced together from various reference photos. On occasion I’ll sketch with a pencil and paper. Then, snap a picture with my phone and email it to myself. I work primarily, well, maybe exclusively, in Adobe Illustrator. It’s all straight mouse work. No tablet or stylus. Just an endless series of clicks. So many clicks.

What do you like to listen to while working?

I don’t listen to particular “illustration jams”. But, I’m going to pull a “recently played” list from my Spotify. This is unedited, so no judgment. Wyclef Jean, Donny Hathaway, Duran Duran, Of Montreal, YG, Fitz and The Tantrums, Drake, The D.O.C., Depeche Mode, Matt and Kim, How To Dress Well, Maggie Rogers, Migos, Cameo, Tears for Fears, Stesasonic, Bruno Mars, The Tapes, Luther Vandross, David Bowie, Saint Motel, POP ETC, Tanlines, Generationals, Tennis, Devo, Childish Gambino, 2 Chainz, TLC, Smith Westerns, The Babies and Colonel Abrams…

Where do you get inspiration in terms of color / color palettes?

There was a period when I was addicted to brights. Especially that fresh-outta-the-can cyan in the Illustrator swatch palette. Recently, I’ve preferred a very limited palette of soft colors bordering on neutrals. I bit more sophisticated and less cartoony. No one wants to hear “cartoony”.

Every illustration is influenced by design, but not every design is influenced by illustration. You leverage all of your abilities as a designer when you illustrate. Structure, composition, balance, color. A good illustrator understands all those same principles.

As you are also an art director, what is it like taking art direction from someone else?

Based on my experience, the best art directors never “direct”. They collaborate. I like to be given some room to work on a solution. Not so much room that I’m taking advantage. Both parties need to have a mutual respect for each other. I feel the same way when I’m in the art director role. Give people room to do their thing and avoid suffocating direction.

What do you do if/when you’re stuck on an assignment? How do you get unstuck?

I once saw John Legend speak at The Connecticut Forum. A member of the audience asked him if he ever “struggled with writer’s block?” He calmly responded, “No, Never.” “What a jerk,” I thought. “What a lucky, god-damn, jerk.”

Commissions versus personal work… What’s easier? What gives more pleasure?

I try to produce as much “personal” work as possible in hopes of driving, or shaping, the commissioned assignments. You know, do the kind of work yourself that you’d like to get paid for. It sure makes the assignments easier when they are similar to the personal stuff. Fewer surprises and creative roadblocks.

If you knew you could get enough paid illustration work to equal your art director salary, would you make the leap?

Sure. Absolutely. Done deal. Next question.

What are your loves/passions outside of this field?

Number one is my wife, Liz, of course. And our kids, Charlie and Greta. And the ’86 Mets. And Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape”. And pizza. Let me clarify, really good pizza. And “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys. The color orange. Nantucket. The Olympic Games. Adidas sneakers. Season 1 of “Miami Vice”. MSNBC. Eastern European tennis players. Kennebunkport. Borg and McEnroe. And pencils. Damn, I love me some pencils. Especially, Palomino Blackwing 602s. They’re worth the investment.