Q&A: Jon Contino

Honestly, I don’t know what took so long for this Q&A with Jon Contino to happen. Harrison and I both love his stuff, we’ve featured him on here before, so there really is no excuse.

Anyway, Jon Contino is an amazing illustrator based out of New York who specializes in hand lettering. His work looks authentic, unique and has a vintage quality that can’t be faked. I can’t say enough good things about his stuff. Real deal right here.

Click below to check out a Q&A with Jon Contino. Also, follow him on Tumblr and Twitter.


For those who are not familiar with Jon Contino, please tell us a little about yourself.
I am an illustrator, brand consultant, and co-founder and creative director of menswear brand CXXVI Clothing Co. I was born, raised, and work here in New York, so I am as native as you can get to the area, but most people can tell you that by my accent. Hand lettering is my thing and I can’t remember the last time I set type in any kind of digital font.

Was there any one thing or inspiration that got you into illustrating & lettering?
I’ve had this love affair with illustration and lettering for as long as I can remember. I do remember getting really obsessed with mixing graffiti style with blackletter typefaces in high school though. Once I figured out that I could do anything I wanted with letterforms, it was all over from there. Illustration has always been what I wanted to do, but I could never find my niche. It turns out that I just had to take a slightly different route to get there than most people.

Seeing that lettering is a big part of what you do, were you constantly writing all over your stuff as a kid?
Oh god, I wrote all over everything when I was a kid. One of the best things would be that first night after school started when my mom would cover all my textbooks with cut-up brown paper bags. That gave me about five new canvases to work on and they were typically covered within the week. My mother used to buy me rolls of butcher paper from the neighborhood pork store just so she didn’t have to keep buying me pads and sketchbooks. I would go through those rolls like crazy too. Even in my mid-teen years when my drawing fell off a bit, I still plastered my favorite band logos over all my notebooks. Band logos and professional sports logos were always a big thing for me to mimic.

I enjoy the simplicity of your work and it’s vintage quality. Do you have a certain process you go through to create each piece, or do they all differ?
I used to feel my way through the dark when I was figuring out this style, but after some time I really developed somewhat of a signature approach to the whole thing. I lay out the bare bones of the layout in pencil — baselines and some quick and dirty letter placements — and then I just go for it. I use a few different style Microns and just start lettering my heart out. There are some random techniques I’ll use based on the type of pen I use to draw. Sometimes the thicker amount of ink can lend itself to distressing easier, so I start erasing and see what I can get out of it. Then I scan it in and play with the levels until I get that picture-perfect point of distressing. I try to make everything as natural as possible. Once that’s done, it’s just a matter of coloring it and sizing it properly. The whole thing has become pretty mechanical at this point.

Most of your work is perfectly simple and sparse, is it difficult to show restraint when finishing certain pieces? How do you know when a piece is done?
It’s funny that you describe it that way because I always feel that it’s super detailed and complicated. I think that’s probably because I put so much emphasis on every little piece of the illustration though. Every serif, flourish, and bounding line is a process that I monitor very carefully and even though it looks sloppy and random, it’s actually very calculated down to each speck of ink. In terms of finishing up a piece, it’s all about composition and balance. I know a piece is done when it doesn’t feel empty anymore.

How important is the textured/weathered/antiqued look of your stuff? I thinks it’s a HUGE plus that your stuff isn’t so computer-y (for lack of a better word, haha)
It’s not that the antique texture style is so important, but that the accuracy of the overall aesthetic is on target. You’ll notice that some of my work is way more weathered than others and that has a reason. Every time I put a piece together it really comes down to a few simple questions: What time period should this match? How would it have aged since then? How important is legibility in the final product? Historical accuracy is a very big part of my work and I think that’s what helps it stay non-computer-y.

Without giving away too much, do you have any secrets to getting a good authentic distressed look?
The secret to an authentic distressed look comes from education. I know that sounds like a bit of a cop-out answer, but it’s true. If you can understand why and how pieces become distressed, it gets a lot easier to mimic. Sometimes I’ll distress as I draw, sometimes I do it in Photoshop, and sometimes I scan over and over again. It’s nothing that hasn’t been written about a thousand times before or perfected by the likes of someone like Art Chantry, it’s just a matter of figuring out when and why it should occur in each specific piece. If you design it properly and learn the history behind it, the distressing will sort of fall into place using whatever method you’re comfortable with. There’s no one right way to do it.

Seeing as you are in New York, are you constantly inspired by remnants of old New York, such as store fronts and aging painted stuff?
The best part about growing up and living here is the barrage of signs that are constantly hitting you in the face at all times. I’ve been assaulted by awesome hand-painted signs for just about three decades now so that whole aesthetic is just a major part of who I am at this point. Just walking to the deli to grab a sandwich is more inspiring than if I were to sit at a book store and rummage through every design and photography book in stock. New York is an amazing place and old New York is even more amazing if you can recognize it when you see it.

What is your favorite medium to work in?
I love pens and markers. The control is excellent and the graphic feel you can achieve is unbeatable.

Who are 3 of your favorite artists and why?
Wow, tough question. Over the past few years I’ve been so deep into historical design and print methods that I haven’t paid much attention to actual artists. Some of my all time favorites would have to be Egon Shiele for his incredible line work and style, Ralph Steadman just because, and a toss up between DaVinci and Michelangelo. I honestly can’t get enough DaVinci and Michelangelo. Everything about them just blows me away at all times, and that’s not just because they had teenage, mutant, ninja turtles named after them either.

If we were to look at your desk/work station, what would we see?
Well let’s see…I have a 27″ iMac right in front of me with a wireless keyboard and mouse (very stylish.) There’s a collection of HB pencils, all worn down to about an inch in height. I’ve got my selection of Micron pens that I wear out on a daily basis accompanied by a kneaded eraser and mechanical eraser. There’s a bobble-head George Washington standing atop a Wiffle Ball box that holds the ball from the first no-hitter I ever through in a fast-pitch Wiffle Ball game (yes I’m very proud of that.) I have Ghostbusters energy drink with a Lego car sitting on top of it next to an antique flask with a leather wrapping that has an awesome illustration on it. I’ve got a CXXVI scrimshaw knife, a mini anchor and anvil resting on each other, a photo of my dog who passed away a few years ago, and stacks of paper from drawings that accumulated over the past few weeks. It’s a very interesting place.

Who was your first “big” client and what did you produce for them?
I had a few record labels I did work for in my late-teens/early-twenties that got me pretty psyched, and a few small jobs for big companies here and there with a couple proposals for huge jobs thrown in, but I have to say the first client (and completed project) to really make me say, “wow, I guess I’m a professional now” would have to be Coca-Cola. I worked with Ogilvy Paris to design an insanely detailed OpenType font for a new product they were launching internationally. The entire font was hand drawn and had thousands of ligature and letter combinations to make it seem like each digital ad typeset was made my a human each time specifically for that piece of marketing. It took more than a year to complete and I still don’t know how to display it in my portfolio.

I‘m sure you spend some time on the internet, what are some sites you check out daily?
My internet usage has definitely dropped significantly over the past few years, but a site called Lookwork has basically taken over my life. It’s made by the same guys who created Svpply and I’ve been using the beta for a year or two now. Every time I come across a blog that has some great imagery, I import the RSS feed to my Lookwork collection. At that point, all I have to do is check out my Lookwork feeds for the day and every image from all those sites show up in one place. I don’t even know where they come from anymore there’s so many. It’s made browsing for the stuff I like a lot easier.

Are there any current projects you are working on that you would care to spill the beans about?
I just finished up all my work for CXXVI’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection which is really exciting. I’m also wrapping up a book cover for a very famous author who may or may not write incredibly scary and groundbreaking stories. There’s actually a bunch of fun stuff going on right now, but I’m not exactly sure how much of it I can divulge at this point.

Thanks for your time, anything you would like to add before we wrap this?
Thanks for the interview…buy CXXVI goods!