Interview: Artist Eric Petersen’s Strange Design

September 26, 2014

The characters in the work of illustrator Eric Petersen inhabit an alien landscape of strange routine. These players, empty-eyed and remote, move through Petersen’s incredibly tight and eerie compositions in simple interactions — on the subway. Swimming. At a desk. His work is deliberate in perspective and its total lack of detail. He allows the viewer to write their own stories, to place themselves into his world. Petersen shows his inspired touch and unique vision in each drawing. When I see his pieces I’m immediately drawn in. I go back to them. I think about them. Wonder. There is beauty in the cold stillness of his characters — they’re not quite human, yet feel totally human and a bit alien. The placid tone of Petersen’s work is incredibly calming, yet he can turn the simple scene of two people loading the trunk of a sedan into a moment full of anxiety, wonder, and an unnameable creepiness. - Evil Tender

Evil Tender: One of my favorite pieces of yours is ‘Three O’Clock.’ It takes the event of two people in a parking lot, which is almost a non-event, and creates mystery – anxiety. It’s a wonderful example of what can be extracted emotionally and mentally from a common occurrence when seen through a new lens. How do you choose moments like it to illustrate? What attracts you to moments like two people in a parking lot, or something like ‘Tomorrow’s Sun’ where a woman sleeps on an empty bus?

Eric Petersen: My ideas come to me randomly. They are never complete ideas and are usually visuals of ordinary situations, but can change during the process. I am attracted to ideas that can produce a strong visual graphic along with an ambiguous story. ‘Three o’Clock’ is one of the rare ones I actually witnessed. There was something strange about the encounter of the two people in the parking lot. They looked like mother and son, but did not act like it – a bit cold and professional. I’ll leave it to the viewers to imagine what was really happening. ‘Tomorrow’s Sun’ was from my imagination, although I did live in NYC for a number of years and would ride the N train frequently. This was not an uncommon sight.

Are you from NYC? What made you leave New York for Olympia? It would seem that NYC is more conducive to a creative career.

I lived in NYC and the greater NYC area for most of my adult life. The cost of living was too high and I also decided to quit my coding career. It would seem that NYC is more conducive to a creative career, but for me, I need a less stressful day-to-day existence. Being in Olympia puts me in the proper mental state to do my work. I appreciate its laidback attitude and independent spirit. There is a pioneering feel here. I also appreciate the wide-open space which is apparent in my work with its vast empty landscapes.

I get that. I had to move out San Francisco for the same reason. It’s awesome that you’re able to know what works for you.Your work is able to build so much from so little. Each composition seems to be saying something, and I’m sure they each speak differently to each viewer. For me, they feel like vignettes of science fiction. Do you have your own stories behind the images? Do you know what’s in the trunk?

I always start with a visual thought. The story comes later and usually can be read many different ways. I often go back and forth about which story I want to see when viewing it. For ‘Three O’Clock’ I have my suspicions of what was really in the trunk, but cannot be sure.

Are you working from photo references? What’s your process like? Is there a lot of sketching or prep work before each piece?

I work from 3D reference. I build my thoughts in a 3D program and draw in Adobe Illustrator from the render. If there is perspective for buildings and such involved, I will create vanishing points in Illustrator to create a more accurate result (tracing alone would not create correct perspective). My goal is to remove the human touch from it. On rare occasions I work from a hybrid of 3D and photo reference as in ‘Adora.’

Read the rest of the interview at Evil Tender.