Artist Interview: Jim Zahniser of Red Robot Design & Illustration

Okay, campers, rise and shine.  It’s Artist Interview time!

Music aficionado and Koolkat jewelry artist, Samantha Bower, stumbled across some bold and colorful poster-style portraits of Rock’n Roll, Blues, and Country musicians while browsing online one day.  Turns out that these “Icons of Music” were created by Forest Hills illustrator, Jim Zahniser.  We were immediately struck by his strong design sense—his superb line quality, his masterful manipulation of positive and negative space, and his dynamic color and pattern choices.

Koolkat Artist - Jim Zahniser of Red Robot Design & Illustration

Koolkat Artist – Jim Zahniser of Red Robot Design & Illustration

With a little sleuthing, we were able to track Jim down, and were delighted when he joined the Koolkat artist family in October 2011.  Since then we have been continually impressed with Jim’s ability to capture the likeness, energy, and je ne sais quoi of some of the world’s most renowned musicians and movie stars.

“Jim is the quintessential unassuming but secretly madly passionate artist.  It’s been a pleasure to help introduce his work to Pittsburgh and to work with such a talented and hardworking individual.”  ~ Kate McGrady, Koolkat’s owner

Jim’s work was an instant hit at both the store and our booth at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.  In addition to art festivals and craft shows, Jim also sells his work at Wildcard in Lawrenceville, the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and online. If you book and stay in the Rat Pack Room at the swanky Orbit In Hotel in Palm Springs, California, you’ll see his portrait of Ol’ Blue Eyes hanging on the wall.

Jim's Johnny Cash at the Johnny Cash Museum gift shop in Nashville, Tennessee.

Jim’s rendition of The Man in Black at the Johnny Cash Museum gift shop in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Please introduce yourself and tell tell about your handmade business. 
I’m a graphic designer and illustrator from western Pennsylvania. I graduated from Thiel College and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and have been working as an artist/designer for over 20 years. My full-time gig is as a graphic designer in the marketing department of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Red Robot Design & Illustration is my freelance business that keeps me very busy with side projects. I live in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh with my Seattle-born wife, Carrie, and our two cats, Bear and Bailey.

What’s the story behind the name “Red Robot”?
After doing freelance work for about five years, I decided to re-brand in 2009 and come up something that better fit my interests and design style. I also wanted to attract work that fit those interests. I love old stuff and I collect space toys, so Red Robot came from those passions. It seemed like a good fit, and I was able to create a strong look and image with the robot being the focus. I think when people visit my site, they have a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from and what I like to do.

How did you come to be an illustrator?
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always liked to draw, and up until I entered college, I thought I wanted to draw comic books, but once I was exposed to other areas of the “commercial art field” (that’s what they called it back then) I got into other areas of the art/design world.

Describe your working space for us.
I have an office at the house, but I don’t really have a “studio.” I usually just draw wherever – on the couch, at the dining room table. My set-up for drawing is pretty basic — a light small table, some markers, and paper. Most of my work is on the computer, so I can do that anywhere.

Icons of MusicHow did celebrities—icons of music and film—become your subject matter?
The first Icon image I created was my Beatles poster, 1964. It was for a Beatles-themed Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators show. I liked how it turned out, so I did a few more – I think Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Bono were next. I love music, so this was something I was just doing to please me, not a client. [To view more of Jim’s Icons, visit his website at]

How do you decide who to draw next?
None of my subjects are perfect people, but I usually admire some aspect of who they are or what they did. I have a list and I just try to work my way through it.

Can you walk us through your process when you’re creating a portrait?
Once I find an image for reference, I draw the portrait with black markers called Penstix – if they ever stop making them I’m in trouble! The thicker tipped markers have a brush-like quality. Then I scan the drawing and finish it in Adobe Illustrator. That’s where all of the color, type, backgrounds, etc. are created.

These are the Penstix technical markers Jim uses when illustrating his various subjects.

These are the Penstix technical markers Jim uses when illustrating his various subjects.

Why vectorize? 
Vector artwork is different than pixels (Photoshop). It turns the drawing into “objects” that can be made to any size and never distort or become blurry.  That makes the artwork very easy to re-size or change. Once I scan the drawing and turn it into vector art, I spend a lot of time refining it, almost like sculpting it.

What do you get out of real media? digital media?
I like both and I think both are valid forms of art, just different tools. But I also understand the value of stuff you can actually touch and feel.

In traditional promotional work, much of it was screen printed. Do you feel a relationship to that heritage? 
I love screenprinted posters and a lot of my inspiration comes from that form of art, but I just don’t have the desire to invest the time and knowledge it takes to master that end of the medium. I would like to have some of my portraits created as screen prints though—maybe someday I can find someone that will help me with that.

What is your favorite part of your arts process?
When it’s finished!

What’s the difference between a digital print and a giclée print?
A giclée is a very high-quality ink jet print. It creates very even and vivid color distribution, and they can create pretty large prints. The giclée inks and paper are usually archival. My digital posters are created by a more commercial-type press. Commercial printers use digital presses for smaller, affordable print jobs.These digital presses are like color printers on steriods (they about the size of a car), and they give very high quality results for the price point. Some of these machines use a toner-based process, but my posters are printed on a press called an Xerox Igen that uses actual ink. They are also printed on acid-free paper. With digital posters, I can get a quality image and still keep the price low. I still offer giclées for my larger limited edition prints though. Sometimes people refer to giclée prints as digital prints, so the terminology can be a little confusing.

It's your friendly neighborhood Jim & Spider-Man!

It’s your friendly neighborhood Jim & Spider-Man!

Do you ever suffer from artist block? How do you get through it?
I think it helps to go back to the stuff that inspires you. Although for me, laziness is a bigger problem than artist block.

What inspires you?  What do you do when you need some inspiration?
Old stuff – ads, posters, graphics, logos, photos, signage, etc. Although I recently read a great quote from artist Chuck Close, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work.”

One of Jim's Roadside Attractions photographs —DINER in McConnellsburg, PA

One of Jim’s Roadside Attractions photographs —DINER in McConnellsburg, PA

Tell us about your Roadside Attractions.
I just like old signs – they don’t make them like that anymore, and they also represent a different time and attitude in our history. I’m not much of a photographer, but once in a while I get a shot from the right angle at the right time of day. In a way, it’s also about documenting and preserving them, since many of them are disappearing. There’s a whole movement out there dedicated to preserving these relics.

You have an alter ego, Milo.
Hey – how do you know about him?

Haha.  We have our ways…
Actually, me and my friend Matt Texter have played music together for quite a while now. At some point we started calling ourselves Cephas and Milo as a joke, like an old blues duo, and it kind of stuck. We try to do a road trip once a year, and we call it Cephas and Milo’s Rusty Strings Roadshow.

Cephas & Milo's Rusty Strings Roadshow

Cephas & Milo’s Rusty Strings Roadshow

If people could only take away 3 things from your work, what would they be?
As long as they like it and it makes them happy, that’s fine with me. It’s nice when people see the influences in my work too.

What was the first thing you ever sold?
Not sure, but I think it was a watercolor painting of some Pittsburgh Penguins when I was a teenager. My brother-in-law bought it.

Favorite local artist. What do you love about their work?
Too many great artists in Pittsburgh to pick just one. Mark Bender. Dave Klug. Toby Atticus Fraley. If you Google them, you’ll see why I like them. There’s also a woman named Jill Zieglemeier that does these awesome handmade folk art dolls. Her company is called Creative Primworks.

Favorite artist living or deceased. What is it about their work that resonates with you?
That’s a tough question – my favorite artists always change. I love N.C. Wyeth and Jack Kirby. They both worked hard and were insanely prolific.

Jim's rendition of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather

Jim’s rendition of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather

What is your favorite thing about Koolkat Designs?
[Koolkat is] very supportive of local artists and artists in general.

How do your values impact your process/work?
I try to keep the subject matter positive I guess. There are subjects that would sell that just don’t make me personally comfortable or happy, so I haven’t done them. Although, I’m not sure how my portrait of Michael Corleone with dripping blood fits into that philosophy. 🙂

What does it mean to you to have someone buy your work?
That’s the best. I love it when someone looks through a ton of choices, online or in a store, and spends their money on something I made.

What advice would you have for someone hoping to take their work from hobby to business?
Try to observe successful people and try to get involved in that community of successful people. Ask the successful people lots of questions.

What art festivals, craft shows have you participated in?
Shadyside Arts FestivalThree Rivers Arts Festival through Koolkat, and a few I Made It! Markets.

What are your art goals for the coming year?
Sell more stuff! Actually, do at least 6 more posters, get into Handmade Arcade in December. Stay employed.

Describe your life ten years from now. Where would you like to be?
It would be nice just to be still making a living doing art. But I’m open to doing other things — you never know what God has in mind for your life. Maybe the Cephas and Milo thing will take off!

Guilty Pleasure?

One question you’d love to have answered?
Why are there no flying cars yet?

Favorite book? movie?
Groundhog Day.

BING!  We always drink to world peace.  And that concludes our interview with Jim.  Follow Jim’s Red Robot on Facebook and Pinterest

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