Interview: Cai Vail – Illustrator

Tell us about yourself, who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I’m Cai Vail, a 28-year-old artist and illustrator from New England, and mama to a 7 month old boy.

How did you get started doing what you do?
I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone in my family when I decided to pursue art.  My grandfather and great-grandfather were both illustrators in the advertising field (think Mad Men) and prolific landscape painters in their later years.  My whole family is pretty creative, and I grew up sketching little mushrooms on nature walks with my mom and tracing Maurice Sendak’s rough-hewn inks.  I was that kid that could draw gruesome-looking eyeballs and Lisa Frank characters and peace-aliens and all that other absurdly 90’s nonsense on demand in the cafeteria, but that was pretty much as social as I got.  Being the introverted only child of introverted parents will almost guarantee you a kid with tendencies toward drawing psychedelic fairies and scrawling cacophonously bad poetry.  I guess I just never grew out of that.

After dropping out of  high school and taking late-night figure drawing classes alongside legit grownups that didn’t know I was only 15, I attended art school at Montserrat College of Art, on the shore north of Boston, MA.  I majored in painting, because there was no ‘drawing’ concentration, and I didn’t know that illustration was far more compatible with my ambitions and interests.  I actually didn’t enjoy painting, and especially hated watercolors, as a kid, so who knows what the hell I was thinking with that life choice.  In school I took every figure drawing course I could, became entranced by esoteric mythology and religion, and worst of all, fell in love with abstract expressionism.  It took me about 5 years to figure out that appreciating something doesn’t mean you have to do it, or that you’ll be any good at it.  I spent far too long in a state of perpetual frustration, knowing that my paintings were shit, and wishing I could just draw.   I took a brief detour to study astrophysics and sociology at Harvard, (sort of – through their fantastic extension program). After school, I took a hiatus from art-making for a few years, which was miserable.  When I came back to it, I started drawing again, just for the fun of it, drawing what felt good to draw, and it was a complete epiphany.  I started a chapter of the burlesque figure drawing club Dr. Sketchy’s Anti Art School, a few years later finally taught myself to use Photoshop, and it’s all been evolving from there.  Only recently have I finally put any work out into Internet-land and numerous galleries around the US, and the response has been really rewarding and humbling.

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

How would you describe your creative style?
In my personal/gallery work, I think my style is a mix of two opposing forces; loose, abstract, and painterly, the other: precise, delicate, even fastidious in it’s detail.  The subjects and themes are feminine, sensuous, then at times, haunting or even violent.

My illustrative work is more narrative, halcyon and folk-y, but utilizes the same supplies and processes and many of the same visual muses.

What art supplies do you use?
I work mostly in watercolor and pen/brush and ink, and sometimes digital media.  I draw and paint on various brands of smooth and sturdy watercolor paper or bristol board.  I’m not devoted to any particular brand of watercolor paints, though my go-to is my crumbling Rembrandt palette.  I’m loving Sumi ink and brushes lately, in addition to fine detailing watercolor brushes.  And I have about 500 Micron pens in varying states of fray.  I most commonly use the 05, 01, and .005 tips.  When I transition drawings to digital media I work in Photoshop CS6 using a Wacom Intuos5 tablet.  And I have this harem of Moleskines forever lounging around on my desk and in purses, half-filled with sketches.

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

What’s your process like?
Usually, I begin with the concept or idea in my head and sketch out a few loose thumbnails for composition.  Then I’ll hunt down reference images online or shoot them myself, and paste them all in a document in Photoshop, along with some ideas for a color palette.  Often this reference page is only needed for a few bits here and there, as I make up a lot of the imagery on the fly.  I sketch out the piece and it sort of grows organically from there.  If I’m completing it digitally I’ll then scan it in and add color and other handmade textural layers in Photoshop.  I like the presence of the hand to be seen, even if the final product is digital.

I’ve learned that I really need to cocoon myself to get into the right creative zone. I tend to listen to drone-y or ambient instrumental music while sketching and doing the focal point details, and during the rest of the process will listen to music, podcasts, or have nature/science documentaries on in the background.

What’s your inspiration?
Slavic folk tales, turn-of-the-century fantasy and fairy tale illustration, german expressionism, abstract expressionism, 90’s skateboard/punk/graffiti culture, ukiyo-e prints and scrolls, art nouveau, gig posters, nature documentaries, Swedish cinema, magical realism.  Arthur Rackham, Robert Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith, Egon Schiele, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Aubrey Beardsley, Andrew Wyeth, Barry Moser, Albrecht Durer, Ernst Haeckel, and Stephen Gammell have all been really influential to me over the years.  My grandfather, my son.

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

How would you say your surroundings have influenced your work?
I was born and raised in New England, and spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid.  I’ve always really connected with the woods and forest creatures of this area.  Much of my childhood and young adulthood involved meandering aimlessly alone on foot, bike, or skateboard, and convening with nature in a really simple and lovely exchange.  I think that quiet reverence for the natural world comes through in my work.

What does your typical day look like?
After giving birth to my son this February, the ‘typical’ day has been redefined, to say the least.  I’m definitely in the process of learning how to balance work and family, when to give my full attention to my art and when to give it to my son.  It’s a work in progress.

I’m also learning the value and importance of self-care, and finding that exercising and getting outside in the morning makes me more productive throughout the day.   I’m often up quite late working on a piece and mainlining some Netflix.  I change a lot of diapers and drink a lot of coffee.

How do you keep motivated?
Cheesy as it sounds, nowadays my son is my motivation.  Before him, I was seeking the same artistic and professional goals, but it sort of felt like, hey, I’m young, I’ve got all the time in the world.  I’ll work on that later.  Somehow I thought my dreams would just come true ‘down the road’, in the ambiguous future where I was finally taking life seriously.  I was not taking care of myself, I’d stay up all night partying and schlep exhausted to my underpaid day jobs and I really wasn’t happy.  Sometimes people just need a kick in the rear to get their shit together, and my son is that for me.  I want to succeed and achieve my ambitions to show him that it can be done, you can turn your passion into a good and worthy life.

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
In college, I worked as a magician’s assistant in a sort of Vaudeville-inspired stage magic show.  That sounds improbable, but it was actually even more bizarre and exalting than what you’d imagine.  Anyway, a big element of the show was our attention to detail – all of the costumes were hand-embroidered, the huge stage curtains intricately designed and hand-sewn, the stage props and illusions all painstakingly painted by hand; all by the cast members, who also doubled as crew.  After one show, another performer’s parents had come to see her and remarked afterwards about how great she was in one of the scenes.  She explained that they must’ve been confused, she wasn’t in that scene at all.  I was.  We were about the same age and height, but surely this girl’s parents could recognize their own daughter versus a different young woman they’d never met before, right?

As we cleaned up the stage and put the props away after the show, I commented aloud to no one in particular that it was a shame we had put so much attention to detail in every element of the show, when apparently from the audience people couldn’t so much as recognize their own child.   Clearly no one is able to appreciate the minuscule handiwork on this prop, or the work we put into our stage makeup before every performance.  Holding our hands just so and staying in character even in the background when the attention was away from us.  What a pity, I said, that it’s all for nothing.

The lead magician, who I had not realized was listening, piped in.  “Far from it.  Sure, they might not notice the detail and the work that went into it.  They might not realize the extra effort that we put into it to make it special.  But you know what?  If we didn’t put in that extra effort, they would notice that.  It would missing that uummph, that magic.  So we give it all that attention and respect, and whether they know it or not, that’s what makes it such a memorable, extraordinary experience.”

For weeks this idea followed me around, and I learned that it applied to almost everything.  Certainly in my artwork, I know that it’s unlikely anyone will notice or appreciate the unique little details, the extra efforts made, the decision-making that goes into choosing colors or placement of tiny, stray hairs in a drawing, but if I didn’t put in that effort and consideration, the difference would be palpable, and it would be lacking.  I think this is excellent advice to keep in mind in our field, where the most minute and seemingly convoluted decisions can go unappreciated, but make a massive difference no less.  There’s no pride in half-assing your job.

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

Interview with Illustrator, Cai Vail on Jung Katz

What are your thoughts on art school?
Oh man, I have enough thoughts on art school to fill a shitty art school zine.  What it comes down to, I think, is that it’s a personal decision to go to art school or not.  It’s certainly not ‘necessary’, nor will it plop a job in your lap upon graduation.   In fact, the majority of my classmates from art school are not making art for a living, or even in particularly creative careers.  And many of us, myself included, carry a prohibitively heavy financial burden that bought us a degree that means next to nothing in the current job market.  Not to mention some considerable issues with the way our society regards creative professions, and with many creative institutions teaching to an outdated model of the art world that is no longer viable – there is a lot of catching up to do.

That said, my time at art school was very formative and memorable, and I met some of my very closest friends there.  My professors were passionate and cared about their students, and the atmosphere of a tight-knit creative community, with friends across every subject of concentration, was inspiring.  I wouldn’t take any of it away, despite the student loans and years misspent pretending I was an abstract expressionist painter.  No regrets.

Any words of wisdom to aspiring artists who want to pursue a similar career?
Don’t be afraid/ashamed/too cool to put yourself out there.  This is a job.  It’s statistically very, very unlikely you’re going to find success by being that asshole that’s ‘above’ marketing themselves to a gallery or client, or being that shy martyr that assumes their work isn’t good enough, so they never release it into the wild.  You need to have thick skin and a strong work ethic, otherwise art is probably better off as a hobby.  Seriously, if you don’t feel compelled by the universal spirit to make art, do ANYTHING else.  It’s a tough, not very lucrative or inherently rewarding job most of the time.  You have to dedicate yourself entirely and work, work, work at it.

Have any future aspirations that you’d like to share?
I’m excited to start a new chapter with my work in the coming months and years.  I’m going to be easing off from gallery-type work a bit and isolating my fine-art-oriented personal works from my illustration work.  I’ve done so many group shows this year!  I love it but it isn’t the best use of my time.  I’ve got an ambitious series of personal work I’ve put on the back burner for years and would love to get started with.  And I’m especially looking forward to taking on some new applied illustration projects – surface pattern designs, book illustrations, product illustration, and a coloring book for grown-ups that I’m really loving in the process phase already.  It’s going to be a big year, there’s a lot of new wonderfulness percolating.

Follow Cai Vail on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s