Design+ Murals / Large-Scale Design
Jacqui Oakley and Jamie Lawson design murals together under the banner Vermillion Sands. In an interview with Renee Taillon Provisional RGD, they share how it all started and how it's going.
How did you get into illustration and design? Is it something you knew you wanted to do when you were younger?
JO: I always wanted to do something that involved “art” but had no clue what that meant as a career. I happened to get into Sheridan’s illustration program after visiting a friend there and seeing the amazing and varied art the students produced and being inspired by the high caliber of teachers/illustrators. (Funnily, years later I would be a teacher in the program). I didn’t really know what illustration was, but I learned it was a perfect fit. I loved the variety that illustration brought; every week I might be asked to do a book cover, an editorial piece or an advertising campaign. The boundaries of specific jobs force me to be creative, keep me on my toes and allow me to bounce off of other writers’ and art directors’ ideas. I like having a voice in the culture and not just making art for galleries.
JL: I accidentally got into design. I had never planned on this career at all. When I was a kid, I always wanted to draw comic books and as a teenager/young adult I strongly associated graphic design with advertising, which held no interest for me. It wasn’t until I dropped out of the fine art program at McMaster University that I found myself with a chance apprenticeship at a small design studio in Burlington. My mom worked in an office next door to them. I imagine the conversation went something like, “Hi, can you give my feckless son something to do? He has a decent eye, but is currently just hanging around our house listening to industrial music.”
I did discover though, that all those years spent replicating comic book titles and staring at CD and VHS covers prepared me well for this career.
Was there a big jump from design to murals? How did that start?
JL: We’ve both always painted, so maybe it wasn’t a super huge jump to murals? But it was still very intimidating! I think the first thing we did mural-wise was with the Montreal collective En Masse when they came to Hamilton to create a piece for Supercrawl. We were two of a handful of local artists who volunteered to participate.
JO: After that, I was contacted to create a live mural at a trade show in NYC. I asked if the organizers would mind if Jamie and I did it as a team and off we went. We did a big painting of King Kong wrecking the city. It was a fun challenge and we also discovered how enjoyable it can be working live in front of people — we had some great chats with vendors and attendees.
“The Garden” 2019 | McMaster Family Practice at David Braley Medical Centre | 22’8” wide x 8’ high
From that point, we started applying whenever mural opportunities arose in the city. Once we got a couple under our belt and became more visible in that world, we had clients reaching out to us for work.
What’s the process for creating a mural? How is it different from designing for something smaller like print and book covers?
JO: In some ways, it’s not so different from creating an editorial illustration, or any other kind of free-standing imagery. We discuss client objectives, review references, sketch concepts, determine colour palettes, etc. There’s a process of revision and approval before the painting gets underway.
JL: At that point, it’s maybe more like a traditional painting – or at least the way we do it! We’ll find ourselves making adjustments to shapes or techniques along the way, if the circumstances demand it.
JO: In a practical sense, we’ve found that getting an awareness of scale is a bit of a learning curve. Being able to mentally translate how a drawing will look in a larger vertical situation takes practice.
JL: In our experience, you have to plan well, but also be willing to adjust as the work is underway. As you work on rough ideas, it helps to have a sense of how you’re going to actually execute the piece – bushes, rollers, stencils, etc.
What’s the scariest part of creating a mural? Do you have any fun stories of something gone awry?
JO: Taking smaller art and going to a large scale was intimidating at first but now I love the physicality of it and the freedom of making big bold strokes on someone’s beautiful white wall.
The most “dangerous” of jobs was fending off wasps while painting outside of Hamilton’s Donut Monster right next to all their bins of sugary donut waste. I managed to only get stung once though, which I considered a triumph and the delicious treats helped tend to my wounds.
JL: Aside from the general fears associated with messing up someone’s nice wall, there can be real mortal terror as well. I was working solo on a mural at the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal a few years ago. It was a very hot summer and the pure physical strain and heat-fatigue was no joke! I was painting an irregularly-shaped structure that was about 20 feet high. I definitely made some dodgy decisions at the top of a ladder that I wouldn’t have if Jacqui had been around. Almost bailed off the top rung once or twice. Safety first, kids.
“Connect” 2019 | Orbis offices | 8’ wide x 3’ high
Where are your favourite places to find inspiration? I know Jamie is a big music fan, do you have any albums you throw on for a creative spark?
JL: Yeah, We both definitely find a lot of inspiration in music, among other things. But yes – if we’re onsite painting a mural I’ve often got something in my headphones. What I’m listening to varies, but it’s usually some combination of noisy psychedelic music, synthesizer tunes, soundtracks, weirdo metal or the like. Right now I’m loving this great album by the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra, who do covers of classic electronic music and soundtracks using just Stylophones. That and a lot of Gnod, who are an experimental British psych/rock/noise/what-have-you group.
JO: When I’m conceptualizing I find it hard to concentrate so I tend to listen to quieter music, often soundtracks… Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, “Fantastic Planet”…. But yes, as I get inking and in more of the meditative part of the work I love podcasts. Some of my favourites lately have been “You’re Wrong About”, “Songs that Explain the 90’s”, “Stuff the British Stole”, “You Are Good”, “Imaginary Worlds”, “Drunk Women Solving Crime” and “Twenty Thousand Hertz”. I love the ability to learn as I work and to feel connected to the larger world as I’m holed up in my studio and also to have a bit of a laugh and get out of my head.
Where do you see Vermillion Sands in 5 years? What about 10 years?
JL: I like to think that we’ll be doing much of the same, really. Books, posters, murals, art shows, etc. But maybe bigger, more elaborate versions of all the above. And in many diverse locales!
JO: Maybe artist residencies too. I love that we meld commercial work with art and would love to spend more time pushing our work in different directions with personal work and being inspired in different areas of the world as a family.
How do you attract new clients for mural projects?
JL: We’re the beneficiaries of a lot of word-of-mouth! We’ve been very fortunate to have had lovely clients who have recommended us for projects, particularly Jasmine at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, who has facilitated some great partnerships for us.
JO: We’re finally finishing up our website, so our intention is to start being a bit more proactive in pursuing new mural work. Hopefully in the future we can also find some more opportunities for travel – it would be great to take a trip to do a mural elsewhere again someday!
Do you have a favourite mural you’ve designed?
JO: My favourite is “The Garden”, a mural we painted at the McMaster Family Medical Practice in downtown Hamilton. It’s a composition I really like — sort of abstract, psychedelic vegetation and bizarre organic shapes. It was fun to design and execute, but also the staff who work at the clinic were marvellous to be around. We got such a boost from their enthusiasm. That’s one of the really great things about painting a mural by hand in a space where you can interact with people – you can have some really fun exchanges with people you’d maybe not otherwise meet.
“Pollinators” 2019 | Orbis offices | 47' wide x 9’ high
JL: Ditto. There were also some really challenging bits to that piece, which pushed our work forward a lot, I think.
What advice would you give a designer who is interested in mural design?
JO: Go for it! Be ready to learn as you go and know that every new experience can be a bit intimidating at first, but ask for help and be open to learning.
JL: Yeah, do it! Also, I’d reiterate what we said above about the differences between more standard design or illustration work and murals: plan well, but also be ready to learn. This will help with your confidence and agility.
We always try to end with something fun. If you had to eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
JO: Does Indian food count as “one food”? So many flavours!
JL: Licorice? No!… Ice cream… No!… uh… pizza?
Under the name Vermillion Sands, Jacqui Oakley and Jamie Lawson (Poly Studio) partner on a broad range of projects from fine art, illustration and design to murals and live art. Separately, they have designed for clients such as Rolling Stone, National Geographic, The New York Times and Amazon. Together in this new collaborative venture they have worked with TD Bank, The National Ballet School, Downtown Hamilton BIA and many more.