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Making murals with artist Joseph Brooks

US artist Joseph Brooks recently adopted Affinity Designer for iPad and took up the challenge of designing a huge vector mural. We caught up with him to chat about graffiti and tips for mural making.
How did you get into creating art?

I have been drawing since I was super young. When I was eight or nine, I had a neighbour who was really into comic books. He would let me borrow the books that explained all the characters and had a full body picture of each character. I can’t remember what they called them. But I would open that and draw every character. I was also really into shoes at the time too and would draw new designs constantly. The Bo Jackson’s had just come out and my brother got a pair, so that’s probably what made me draw shoes. Like “oh you got a nice new pair of shoes, well look at the ones I just made up that don’t exist yet!” I’m pretty sure I was 11 at the time.

Shortly after that I started getting into graffiti. Graffiti is what made me practice. I would constantly fill black books with letters, characters, everything. As I started drawing more and more, I would learn about other types of art. From when I was about 13 until probably 18 or so, I would help my cousin Dino Grisaffi paint signs at Cheney Stadium (a local minor league baseball team). I don’t think I realised how much I learned from that experience until recently as I explore sign painting.

So what have been your main inspirations?

I think I had a few inspirations at different points in my life. My cousin Dino was a big inspiration for me. He was the family “artist”. I remember he would draw hot rods and body builders. He did this big portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger from his body building days. I’m pretty sure that portrait is still hanging at my cousin Dave’s house. It was really good. But seeing what he could do made me want to learn.

I also had influence from early 90’s graffiti as well. More influence from the west coast scenes like LA and SF rather than the east coast NY stuff. Writers like Revok, Saber, Twist, and Mear One all caught my attention and inspired me to make work. At the same time I was also inspired by figures in art history like Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci as I was growing up in my teen years, trying to find my voice and learn as much about art as I could.

In my late teens and early 20’s I started following the Minimalist movement. You know the “white canvas” and “red dot” art. I love it in the context it was in. Artists like Rothko. They really had me thinking about colour and how colour is used in painting. I think I have a pretty wide range of inspiration because I’ve always wanted to learn everything when it comes to art.

Who inspires you now?

Nowadays I get inspired by my friends more than anything. Jeremy Gregory and Dave Bloomfield. I love seeing how different artists have different ways of working. Seeing them get work done makes me want to work! I’m also super inspired by sign writers right now. The sign painter Mike Meyers is on my list of inspiration. He teaches workshops across the world. I haven’t had an opportunity to take any of his classes yet, but I’ve had a couple friends go and they enjoyed them. Work by him and my buddy Craig Brown make me want to get out the enamel and practice more.

Acrylic on a toy skate deck and an oil on canvas collaboration between Joseph Brooks and Mike Campbell.
What are your tools of the trade?

I’m a little all over the place when it comes to materials. I have a thing about art materials. I love trying new stuff and seeing if I can work that in to my process somehow. I use acrylic mostly for my smaller work. I love Golden and Sennelier Abstract. Golden High Flow is amazing! I use that a lot. When I paint large scale, I use Flame Blue and Belton mostly. I used to use MTN 94, but I found that it can’t be used for canvas work because it resists most paint you put on top of it. Since I use spray paint in canvas work as well, I switched to Belton and Flame Blue. Plus the people at Art Primo are good friends and I want to support them.

As for digital work I come at digital a little different. I was never trained in graphic design, so I was looking for something that had a relatively easy introduction period but was still powerful. I’ve used Adobe products throughout the years but could never really “get” Illustrator. Photoshop was easy and intuitive, but Illustrator was not for me. So I never really used it.

When I got this project to do a large scale mural, I decided to look for an app I could use on my iPad. I had been using Proceate for a bit and I really loved it, but it would not work for large scale since it doesn’t do vector. So I searched for something that did and came across Affinity Designer. Now that’s my main vector program! It was a little rocky at first, but I learned how to make it work for my purposes and am still learning. But that’s the fun part. When I find out something that works better than the way I was doing it before it gets me excited to learn more.

“When I find out something that works better than the way I was doing it before it gets me excited to learn more.”

How did you become interested in street art?

Street art came to me as a kid through Graffiti. I’m still a little weirded out by the term “Street Art”. To me it’s a little like the world said “we love what Graff writers do but we don’t understand it. We like the pictures though!”. So from now on you can only use pictures “NO LETTERS BECAUSE WE DON’T GET IT” so lettering was stripped from graff and street art was born.

This may or may not be the truth but that’s how it feels coming from the graff world. So now you have all these other types of artists coming to the graff realm, rebranding it as “Street Art” and nerfing all the edges. Writers made all the tools the street art scene uses but street art cats didn’t have to do any of the leg work to get it. It’s kind of like what’s happening to cannabis in the states now. There’s still people sitting in jail for selling weed while people are opening shops and selling weed legally. I’m all for it but what about the people that did the dirt to make it, so it’s accepted now. That’s just something I think about when it comes to street art.

A graffiti mural by Joseph, commissioned for the back door of a delivery truck.
Is there a really great art community in your hometown of Tacoma?

Tacoma is great! I’m probably gonna get shit for this but Tacoma has historically been perceived as Seattle’s little brother. It has always lived in the shadow of Seattle but we have had some amazing artists come from here. Chuck Close, Gary Larson, and Dale Chihuly are from here. It’s an interesting place. Historically it was a very blue collar town. You would think the arts wouldn’t thrive in that environment, but it works here. To me that just keeps you grounded. Tacoma isn’t a huge city but it’s big enough. My girl owns a shop here called The Nearsighted Narwhal that sells work from local artists, authors, and small local clothing companies. Nowadays there is more and more of a focus on art and artists from the city’s point of view. More opportunities come from that way than before.

It’s a great town to be in right now. I do a lot of pop up markets as well and Tacoma has a couple great ones! The Downtown Tacoma Market and the Tacoma Night Market both have really great curated work from artists and makers. It’s a good environment to be around other creative people making things with their hands. Plus it gets me out in the world and talking to people. Sometimes my life can be a little solo when I’m cooped up in my studio all day.

Tell us a little about your mural project for your client Visual Options.

Visual Options has been amazing to work with. Rachelle from Visual Options contacted me to come bid a project at their shop. When I got there, they had a few different jobs so I decided to bid them separately. I got the job and started on the large scale spray painted mural on their corrugated metal shop. This piece was about 12ft tall and 40ft (or so) long. The surface was a bit of a nightmare because of the corrugated metal but it worked out in the end. Next to this mural they have a yard that is fenced in where they park vans and put pallets and stuff. They had a few break ins where people would cut the fence and syphon gas from the vans. So they wanted to put a mural over the chain link fence. An out of sight out of mind solution.

Since their business is printing and manufacturing, I proposed designing a vector mural that could be printed and attached to the fence. We decided to do that, and I was on the hunt for a vector program that I could use with my iPad. That’s when I found Affinity Designer. Like I said earlier, their was a small learning curve but I found Affinity Designer to be pretty easy to use and as I used it more I got faster and more precise. When designing a mural that is going to be printed 8ft tall by 66ft long in vector precision is key. Since I am not a trained vector artist, I had to learn how to make this medium work for me. I think Affinity worked great for this project. I did most everything in the iPad app with just a few things like exporting to EPS I did from the desktop version. Affinity is pretty powerful. Along with the tutorial videos you can’t go wrong.

What are things you need to consider when designing a mural?

I needed a program that I could translate my work in vector. Vector benefits in precision and small file sizes that can be sized up or down without loss of quality. As this piece was to be printed so large, doing a raster image wasn’t really possible. The file would be enormous.

I’m not a trained designer so I only know Illustrator a tiny bit and I didn’t see how I could use it. I wanted a program I could draw vector with the Apple Pencil. That’s when I found Affinity. It checked a bunch of the boxes for things I needed to do and how I wanted my work flow. Now that I had a vector program that I could use, precision is super important. With Affinity Designer’s snap guides and the programs ability to zoom in super close, I was able to get the precision I needed. Plus when designing a mural I need to make sure I can get the colours I want and the effects I want as well. All available with Affinity.

The mural being installed.
What things do you need to think about when outputting your design for large-scale digital printing?

For large scale printing I need to make sure I can output in a file that the printer can use. Affinity Designer outputs in many different formats. The printers asked for EPS and Designer can do that.

How did you discover Affinity and what inspired you to start using Affinity Designer for iPad?

I actually saw it on a sponsored Instagram post. After looking into it I saw some of the demo art was done by HVRB from The Weird. This piqued my interest as I follow his work. It made me think if he can make this work for his artwork, I can do the same.

“The feeling of supporting myself and loved ones from things I make with my hands is amazing.”

What are your proudest moments as a creative person?

I think my proudest moment as an artist was also one of my most vulnerable. When I left my job and decided to go full time as an artist. Life has been amazing since I took that leap. I think if you have something that you do that you think you could live off of and you haven’t made that leap to try doing it full time you are doing yourself a disservice. The feeling of supporting myself and loved ones from things I make with my hands is amazing. There really is nothing like it. This has been fun.

Check out more of Joseph’s art on his website, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All artwork in this article is copyright © of Joseph Brooks and used with permission.