Mike Wohlberg: A Delicate Sense Of Balance


I have known Mike Wohlberg’s work much longer than I realized….as it has crept into my brain at various points over the last couple years. After a brief conversation with him last year in NY, I really started to explore his work and it was then that I knew he needed to be a part of the MBA family. Enjoy the interview…

How did you get your first paying art job?
Technically the first paying job I got in illustration was in high school when the former guidance counselor asked me to come up with an image to go along with his Mason Lodge’s 250th anniversary. I went to a small school and not many students there were terribly interested in art. I did a portrait of the founding member along with a drawing of the lodge itself. I have no idea where the drawing went, I’m sure it’s bured under piles of papers somewhere and rightfully so. The first paid band illustration I did was for a group called Battle For Wyoming. Their drummer Robin was in another band at the time called Versoma. Versoma was a super underrated and short lived band. I got to see the band play twice, once with Daughters and Red Sparowes and then again with Isis. I did a show poster for both shows and both times the band was super nice and hung out with me at the merch table. Robin said that he was starting another band (Battle For Wyoming) and needed a logo and a shirt. I was still in art school and jumped all over the job, thrilled that I finally had the chance to work on something that wasn’t an exercise. A fun fact about Versoma: the band featured members Mike Hill who went on to form Tombs, and Jamie Getz who used to be in the bands Turmoil and Lickgoldensky and later went on to make Gods And Queens. Both of those guys are good friends to this day.

Have you always worked in your current style and if not how did you work before?
My early work looks nothing like my current work. I received almost no training in high school save for one terrible art class and an amazing portfolio preparation class I took at SVA in New York. I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator later in life, but I trained myself by copying pages out of comic books. I convinced myself that I would be a comic book artist and had a very clean pen and ink style that was super cartoony. After my first year of college I realized that I sucked at writing, hated drawing the same thing over and over again, and was far too angry to be drawing stuff that was based in cartoons. I learned a lot from the people I went to school with and started seeking out other looser styles and found a happy medium. There are times today that I still break out the clean lines and cartoony subject matter, but it’s done in a more tongue-in-cheek manner like Frank Kozik.

Who are your artistic influences?
The artist that got me started down this long long road is Rob Schrab. He created a comic in the early 90′s called “Scud: the Disposable Assassin” and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. The artists I love to study are John Heartfield and Kathe Kollwitz. Heartfield essentially contributed largly what current graphic design today is all about and was a conceptual genius. Kathe Kollwitz had this amazing style of rough somber lines that showed a lot of control while allowing itself to be very energetic and loose. Ralph Steadman was a great influence, but I never really studied him much until people started confusing some of my linework in college with his. In terms of contemporary artists I surely followed Derek Hess and Jacob Bannon quite a bit. I’m also heavily influenced by the people who surround me, namely Paul Romano, Jeremy Hush, and James Heimer, people I’m lucky enough to call friends.

Tell us about your studio space?
My studio space is the most nondescript corner in a room possible. Almost all of my work is finished on the computer, so it revolves mostly around my desktop. I have a 27″ iMac with a duel monitor display, and that takes up most of the space. I also have what used to be a computer table that I found next to the dumpster by my building that I repurposed to be my drawing table. There’s two shelves attached to it to hold all of my brushes, paper, etc. and the main table top has my light table. I also have an old drafting table that is meant for painting, cutting, anything really messy.

Take us through a typical day.
Like most illustrators I have a day job that pays the bills and gives me benefits. I wake up at 7, walk my dog, get ready and head to work. I’m a prepress operator at a CD/DVD replication plant, meaning I make sure that the art people submit is in template and fits within our specs. It’s not terribly exciting, but it’s taught me quite a bit about the production process and production capabilities, as well as offers me the chance to work with a computer that usually has the latest in design technology. After that the day is far less typical. If I don’t have anywhere to be then I generally nap for 45 minutes and eat a quick dinner before I jump back into my freelance work, which usually occupies my time until around 2 or 2:30 in the morning these days. Those days are about 14 hours of work on average, sometimes seeing as much as 16 hours. I usually have places to be after work, whether it be to a friend’s place to screen print, a show happening either here in Philly or up in New York, or even off to meet friends to blow off some steam. There hasn’t been a dull moment in my life for years now but I’m starting to physically pay the price these days.

How do you create your work? Take us through the process from concept to final.
It all starts with a lot of research and gathering reference. While I’m at work or have a free moment at my computer I’ll look into some history or gather images that I store on Dropbox so they’re with me at all times. I have a Field Notes brand book on me at all times so I can doodle thumbnails when ideas strike me. They’re always really rough and the books are beaten to hell when I’m done with them, but it helps keep everything in one place. Once I’m happy with the concept I’ll do a full sized rough sketch so that everything is in the proportions I like and all of the large pieces are in place. I’ll then scan that, clean it up using Levels in Photoshop, print it out, and go over it again at the light table to make it a bit more legible. Once the pencil lines are done details will be done on separate sheets of paper using a brush and ink. Everything is scanned in at a much higher resolution than I need and compiled in Photoshop. If I’m working on an album layout I’m kind of forced to work in the templates that the label / band provides me, which usually means I end up laying out text in Illustrator.

What materials do you use? How much if any is done on the computer?
I try to keep my overhead super low, so I use pretty cheap products on the traditional side. I stick to mechanical pencils, Staples brand computer paper, Higgins Black Magic ink, and synthetic brushes. All of my drawing, shadows, highlights, and splatter are done by hand and scanned into the computer. All of the finishing is done on the computer however. I just bought a new computer this last year, so I dump all of my money on the digital side. Like I said I have a 27″ iMac, Adobe CS5 Design Standard Suite, a medium sized tablet, and a Canon scanner that was handed down by my dad.

Do you use reference materials or does all of it come from your head?
Always always always do I use reference. I certainly admire artists who have the ability to create from their head with no reference needed, but I am not one of those people. Scouring for the right angle of something takes up quite a bit of time during the process. Despite this, I intentionally do my best to change proportions and make mistakes so that it’s not a straight copy of the reference that I gathered.

Do the bands give you any direction?
That always changes from job to job. Sometimes they approach me with the exact idea that they want and I just design as they specify and don’t really take much creative leeway. Other times I’m asked to just come up with something with absolutely no direction. That’s when I have to pour through lyrics, song titles, album titles, etc. to get a better idea of where to start. Somewhere in the middle is typically what I prefer: some sort of starting point with some sort of limitations but full creative freedom to expand upon that.

Do you listen the band’s music when you work on their project?
Usually I’ll start off by listening to the band to get a feel for the sound, especially if it’s a band that I’ve never heard before. When I’m actually in the middle of the project I’ll just listen to whatever I’ve been hooked on at that moment, or if I’m at the computer I’ll have a movie or TV show as background noise on the second monitor.

What are you currently working on?
I have a few projects right now. I’m putting together a print for Rosetta to take with them on their tour to Australia. It’ll be a 12″ x 12″ two color print to compliment the poster I did for their European tour. I’m also doing layouts for A Life Once Lost and Stomach Earth (Mike from The Red Chord’s solo doom band), but no illustration for those. I also have a City of Ships shirt as well as Ancient Shores merch to do. I’m doing my best to whittle down what’s currently on my plate so I can take things one by one and ease up some of the stress I have on a nightly basis.

Have you ever turned down a project?
I’ve turned down several projects. When people contact me they often have the idea that I’ll work in any medium, draw in any style or work with any subject matter. Not only that, but they want it done five minutes ago and for super cheap or free. It’s been getting better as of late now that there are a bunch of bands that I’ve done a lot of work for and I have a good rhythm with, but there’s always someone who comes out of left field asking for something crazy. I was once asked to draw a shirt that was a woman whose hair turned into the beach and jumping out of the ocean was a humpback whale who was jumping over the entire universe. I am not exaggerating in the least.

Do you have any dream projects?
The dream at this point is being able to work freelance full time. I’m happy to work with whatever band or company that I can, but there are times that I sigh at the prospect of being able to work until 6 AM and not have to worry about waking up late and pissing off the boss. The only boss I want is my dog.

What are your favorite bands of all time and what bands are you listening to right now?
Hands down my favorite band is Minor Threat. Out of all of the music that I listen to they were the band that had the most direct effect on my life and it’s a shame that I will never get to experience them live. Trash Talk is my current favorite live band. They bring out the absolute worst in me when I see them live. Lately it’s been a mix of different things. I was just turned on to this band called Deaf Center, an ambient duo from Norway and it’s super not metal. The new Burning Love album has been getting plenty of spins lately, anything Chris Colohan has been a part of gets a thumbs up from me. Ghoul was on repeat for almost two weeks. I saw them play at MDF and it was one of the most fun sets I’ve seen while still being brutal. Wugazi and Death Grips have started off the summer jam picks. I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll remember something else and it’ll consume my attention for the next week.

Any advice for artists that want to work with bands?
Understand that what you do is a business and no matter how much you want to be a nice guy and help people out you need to help yourself first. When people start out they fall into the trap of doing things on the cheap or for free. I’m no better, I did that for far longer than I should have. You’ll realize that people will respect you far more when you are strict about your costs and don’t screw around when it comes to your craft. Sometimes saying “no” helps out far more than you’d expect. Unfortunately this is something that you have to learn from experience rather than from advice. We work in a field with very little money to start with and the illustrators and graphic designers are usually the last thing on peoples’ minds when it comes to pay day.

Who would you like to see featured on MBA?
Friends. I’d love to see Paul Romano on here. No matter what he doesn’t get nearly enough respect for not only what he does but the amount of work that he puts into it. There’s also Jeremy Hush, even if he’s on more of the punk side of things. There’s also Brendon Flynn, who is one of the guitarists in Freya and does some really amazing painting. He’s an amazing painter and an equally amazing guy. I’m also big into Adam Hunt. He’s the drummer for Graf Orlock and does all of their packaging which I honestly feel is the most unique stuff out there right now.

About Vertebrae33

Through hard work and dedication, Vertebrae33 has established himself as one of the most prolific and exciting illustrators on the scene today.  He has received much acclaim as of late for his innovative designs, attention to detail, and wholly unique, raw style.