A look inside the creative mind of Zack Johnsen

A look inside the creative mind of Zack Johnsen

Posted on Jan 11, 2011 by in INTERVIEWS

I first met Zack only a few months ago, but the positive impression he left on me was huge. He’s one of those guys who you meet, and your instantly bummed that you haven’t known him longer, because you know you have been missing out. He is one of the most sought after illustrator’s in the “Industry”, having designed graphics for K2, Arbor, Osiris shoes, and Mountain Dew to name just a few. He’s got “Live Free, Or Die” tattooed on his forearm… and that’s exactly what he seems to do. He’s about to embark on a half year tour to Australia and Japan showing his work, so before he takes off, I decided to catch up with the Portland local and find out what makes him tick.

Would you call yourself an artist, illustrator, painter or designer?
I consider myself a bit of all of the above.. I am kind of traditionally “trained” in communication arts (aka illustration) but this same vocabulary to me applies to design and painting as well. 
I learned the computer and commercial graphic design through Tank Theory, a t-shirt design and apparel company I founded and art directed for from 2000 to 20008.  And now, i’m dabbling more into graphite and acrylics… so i’m all over the place!

Where is your studio based?
My studio is here in Portland… in the North Coast Seed Building in North Portland.

Would you say that Portland is a supportive city to live in as an artist?

Personally, I find that I get a lot of enthusiasm for the work I do.  And the support is there too.. insofar as getting inclusion in art shows or getting a wall to paint.





The only problem is actually making a living off selling art in Portland.. oftentimes the support part doesn’t include the money making part.

Did you study art/design in college or are you a self taught creative mastermind?

I received a BFA in illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.. 1997 to 2001.

How did you get started working on the creative side of things in the snow/skate industry?
I’m trying to remember exactly the order of events, but it revolved around this creative agency in NH called Circus Media and a friend of a friend who worked at Line Skis, I believe a division of K2?  Both my fine art work and the design work I was doing at the time for Tank Theory was starting to get noticed and I was offered to design a couple ski models for Line. Wanting to break into the “action sports” design world, I jumped on it.

So yeah, although I’m more of a shred the gnar type of dude, my first industry item to design was a pair of skis.. And that set the stage for skate and snowboard decks down the line…


What is your preferred medium to work in?
For a long time, my preferred mediums were pen & ink (micron pens) and watercolor on paper.  I loved the mix of energetic and sketchy pen work with loose and splashy watercolor.  Now though, I’m moving away from exclusively working in pen and working more with graphite and with paint.. really i’m just starting to experiment more…

What is your process when working on a skate or snowboard graphic?
It all starts on paper.. usually some rough ideas in the sketchbook then a bigger working version on a separate piece of paper.  Often times, I’ll have characters on one piece of paper, additional elements scattered in sketchbooks, verbage/type elements on another piece that all get scanned into the computer and composed, tightened and colored on the computer.

What are some of your favorite projects that your most stoked on?
Although it’s been a while since it’s release, I’m most stoked on Death Metal Buckles, the belt buckle company I started with a friend of mine in 2007.  We paired up with another MassArt graduate in sculpture who creates 3D models of designs I either draw out or design on the computer that we then get made into limited edition 100% bronze artisan belt buckles.. It’s totally unique.. the process is really fun and the end product is knock out.. Check out Death Metal Belt Buckles to see more on that.

What’s it like riding a board that you designed?
It’s kind of embarrassing actually.  I’m stoked to design my own graphics, but i feel kinda like a goober rocking my own shit. Ideally, I’d like to keep all my own boards on a wall for the ol’ portfolio.  But hell, when you’re broke and you get sent a brand new deck in the mail.. you kinda can’t help but ride it! 

What do you do to stay inspired creatively?
All I have to do is turn on the tv.  I get inspired by watching the “beautiful” people on tv and by commercials strangely enough.. the whole twisted culture of reality tv, infomercials, and consumer culture gives me plenty of ideas.. Most of my work centers around the monotony of everyday routine or the ignored energies that surround us all the time.  Basically, I like to point out that, for the most part, we are all wearing blinders.





As far as wearing blinders, what do you mean exactly? 

I feel like we all get caught up in our daily routines and schedules and ways of operating and we tend to shut out some of the possibilities all around us.  And by possibilities I mean, energy flows and variety of living.  You’ve heard the expression, “stop to smell the flowers”.. well i mean that but in a different sort of way.  I feel like we are limiting ourselves by not experiencing as much variety as we possibly can in our lives.  If you drive, then bike.  If you bike, then walk.  If you walk on your feet, try walking on your hands.. or backwards.  If you eat fast food, try eating a dandelion… basically, look at life through different lenses and perspectives and I think it will be greatly enriched.


Are you referring to how we are all being effecting by mass marketing even on a subconscious level?

Oh yeah, that’s definitely a big part of it.  TV and mass media has turned our brains to “conveyor belt” thinking.. Eat, work, buy, fuck, sleep.. alarm clock, repeat.

In a weird way, that’s also what creating anything graphical is contributing too. It’s ultimately an attempt to make a piece of plastic, or metal an item that someone wants to buy. Yea?
Indeed.. I have no illusions about how I contribute to this consumer culture.  That became really apparent when I started art directing for Tank Theory, we soon became a bonafied company with impact in the market place (albeit small), we were using resources, advertising, creating waste… doing everything a normal company does and that really bothered me.. I realized we were contributing to this global buy/sell marketplace.

Then, like every hippie turned yuppie, I stopped thinking about it and went about business as usual.  I took solice in the fact that our impact was small, we were promoting art, and we were creating something fun that was also fun to work on.. It doesn’t make much of a difference, but in my mind, i hit the switch and kept on truckin.


Now that I run my own studio and don’t really work with Tank Theory anymore, I’m bringing it back to my hippie roots.. wasting very little in my studio or in my work.. bringing my work back to commentary on society and waste and all that.

What other designers/illustrators influence you?
Currently, I’m being influenced by a number of painters actually.  There is a swiss painter named Leopold Rabus who is creating amazing paintings!  Lucian Freud, a more figurative (non traditional) british painter.. I really enjoy the fantastic painting work by Phil Hale.. a contemporary.. Also, James Jean.. an amazing illustrator now turned painter.. has made a really big impact on me.

You sell alot of posters as well right?
Yeah, i sell a fair share of art prints of my work on my website and at select shops in town.

Do you do them all silkscreened?
Many are silkscreened. I also sell digital reproductions of much of my fine art work.

That’s probably a pretty good way of being able to sell art at an affordable price right?
Right.  Most people, don’t have the $600 to $1200 I ask for an original.. And of course i can understand that.. Neither do I!  But people usually have the $25-65 for a nice print or reproduction of that original.

How many do you sell on average in a month?
Um, this all depends.. When I get a new print and do an email blast and all that, I usually sell about 40-50 prints that month.. i’m guessing?
On the average month I don’t have a new print, orders usually trickle in and i get 10-20 orders?

What plans do you have for 2011?
My girlfriend and I are heading over to Australia for 4 months. I have an artshow in Melboure schedule that I am super excited about as soon as we get there. Then while were in Australia I will be working on a new series that I am scheduled to exhibit in Japan. We will go there after Australia.

If your interested in seeing more of Zack’s illustration and board graphics, roll on over to his website here.

4 Responses to “A look inside the creative mind of Zack Johnsen”

  1. Mikeg

    12. Jan, 2011

    Rad, I’m stoked on this guys work and glad I bought some prints before the interview came out because he might sell through some.

  2. Landon

    12. Jan, 2011

    Yea I got the Junk Baby set. So sick in person! Going straight on my office walls!!!

  3. Ashlee Martens

    12. Jan, 2011

    fuckin loving this. keep up the good work!

  4. Ol Bed'

    13. Jan, 2011

    Sweet art. Must be fun to design all that stuff.

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