Who are you?
My name is Jay Howell and I’m a cartoonist. I hate when people say they’re an artist. I think it’s pretentious, but I’m an artist I guess. That’s how it is. I think that’s a gross term for some reason. I don’t know, it bugs me. It’s like, everyone’s an artist in some ways. You know? But I do art for a living, I guess.
What do you make?
Mostly narrative cartooning, little fun drawings. Positive, enthusiastic artwork. Seems like that.
Describe your workspace.
I work at home in a little teeny space. I don’t work very big, so I like to be surrounded in a small area. I think I work safer and better. I’m pretty hyper, so being confined is good for me. I like to drink beer so that I have to sit down. If I drink too many beers then I can’t leave in my car, so then I’m forced to stay home. Then I put on TV. I try to watch a TV show that I will get sucked into so I won’t want to get up. I literally try to chain myself down that way and it seems to work. Sometimes you’ve got to break free of that shit but for the most part that’s what I try to do. Trap myself in my little art area. I guess it’s some weird way to kind of sickly manage your personality. I don’t really give a shit about murals and stuff like that. I just like to be home drawing. My fucking favorite thing in the world is to be home drawing. Love it.
Do you have any rituals surrounding your practice?
I think so, yeah. When you’re working at home you have to have some kind of ritual or else you’re not going to be able to get into it. It’s weird to me. Sometimes I’ll fuck up all day and then get really good at night, or sometimes I’ll just sit down and be on it. Those are the days I hope for.
I guess just a studio practice is important. If I’m not sketching I’m at the framer, if I’m not at the framer I’m scanning, if I’m not scanning I’m wrapping artwork and sending it out. If I go to Blick, I’m buying new materials to bring home. Also I get pissed if things get broken up. I can’t stop once I start too - I’m very weird about it. But I’m always doing something. Doing something constantly is kind of like my ritual.
How did you develop your aesthetic?
Slowly. Super slowly. I’m always thinking and writing things down. Even if there’s no writing in my drawings, the image came from a piece of writing. A lot of times I’ll just write something funny and I’ll make a drawing based on that. I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid. But it’s just been a really, really slow process of trying to get better constantly. I hate the past. I’m a futurist. I keep thinking forward. Like - what was the question?
I think my humor and my personality was always in the artwork. I think the character work has progressed more rapidly because of more professional jobs I’ve been taking and things like that. I’m always interested in putting myself in situations that are above my head. I like to get out of it. It’s like if you’re just fighting other first year karate guys you’re not going to get very good, but if you start fighting black belt guys you’re going to get better. It really pushes you hard, you know what I mean? I try to achieve stuff that way. I’m not comfortable ever. I’m not happy ever. You shouldn’t be. You have to be competitive. In a cool way, not like some dickwit. Competitive with yourself especially. I have a “get to work” tattoo. It’s lame but it’s like get to work. Fully. Always.
My main hope in life that I can maintain my personality in my artwork through my elder years. I heard about Richard Scarry who wrote these books about a little lonely worm that rides around in the apple. He moved to Switzerland in his later years and worked until he was in his 80s. I’d like to do that, like Matisse with the fuckin’ stick from his bed. He was still doing great work. I saw a big ass Matisse at the Pompidou last year, fuckin’ got me hella emotional.
How do you come up with your characters?
I think they all look like me in certain ways. They’re all lanky and tall with big noses. It’s kind of egotistical but I think they just look really funny.
Is there anyone or anything that inspires you?
I’ll find little things that I’ll grab onto and steal a little bit from here and there, put that away, move on. If you’re not inspired by shit, what the fuck are you doing? It’s like a vacuum just coming up with stuff. That’s not real. I’ve never been afraid to tell people what I like or what I get inspiration from ever. I’m not copying, I’m just liking it. Right now I’m really influenced by Moomin, those Scandinavian books that came out a long time ago. I also like older cartoons, like this cartoon called Barbapapa, which was this French 60s cartoon. I really like the Pink Panther opening sequences, the color palette is very attractive to me. But then I’ll stop looking at that and buy old X-Man cartoons for a while. Then I’ll stop doing that and I’ll just buy Jack Kirby books and I’ll stop doing that. Or I’ll just look at old Playboy stuff or old Shel Silverstein.
I’m always really inspired by people’s success. I’m not a hater at all. I love it when people become successful. I fuckin’ love it. I love success stories. That’s why I like - it sounds funny - but I like Entourage a lot because they fuckin’ win all the time. You know what I mean? I get fuckin’ misty eyed at the end of that show - you’re like I fuckin’ hate you guys but you did it! I love people that work hard and succeed, it makes me happy. I don’t care if it’s fuckin’ dorky. It’s cool. It makes me happy.
Does the internet play a role in your process?
I think secretly I see myself as a more fine artist in a weird way. If you go the route of Society6, you make yourself ultra accessible. You’re just a fuckin' internet illustrator, you can print on demand. It kind of lessens the worth of the work, no one is going to buy your originals. Society6 artists can’t sell a fuckin’ $10,000 painting. You have to think about that shit. No one’s going to pay you good money for your artwork unless you make them believe that it’s worth it.
But you just learn things from certain people or certain galleries you deal with. At a lot of art shows at lower level galleries, artists will show 25 pieces and sell 5 of them for the gallery. But they’re selling 10 more on Instagram DMs to people outside of the gallery. So they’re cheapening themselves and also disrespecting the gallery. But I also understand, it’s hard to make money as an artist. I’ve had zero dollars in my bank account before, I know what that’s like. Now I’m in a good situation and it’s easier to say when you can afford to do shit.
What is the most challenging part of your process?
I don’t know. I mean, making money off of art is a super big challenge. And, you know, marketing yourself correctly or getting the right money you want for certain things is a challenge. You have to ask yourself how this is gonna help you in the future? How’s this gonna to make you look? Is this gonna push you forward? Your time is valuable, no matter what stage you’re at. Your time is always valuable if you’re working.
Where do you find the most ease?
I just like being drunk, listening to music, being inspired by something. Like the other night I was watching Mission Impossible, drinking beer, and drawing for Playboy. I’d never been fuckin’ happier. I was in bliss. It’s like ecstasy, that’s my favorite shit. That’s like a drug to me, literally. If I could do that before I die I’d be in fuckin’ heaven. Seriously.
Does music have a big influence on your work?
Absolutely. At night I’ll be watching CSI and drawing, I’m like yeah fuckin’ murder! Then, at a certain point after I’ve had a couple drinks, I turn the TV off - I don’t even know why - and I’ll put on music. And then my drawings will be way more emotional. For sure, always.
Right now, I’ll listen to house music full blast, but I go through phases. My record collection alone is pretty wacky. Everything from ABBA to bird sounds to the craziest punk you’ve ever heard in your life. I’m blessed with really good taste unfortunately.
Do you have a preferred medium?
Drawing on skateboards is the most exciting thing to me ever. When I was growing up, skateboarding was like my fuckin’ bible. I’d go home at watch these videos of skateboarders and then I’d dress like them and try to skate. Now I work with these guys that I watched when I was a kid. It’s a really weird situation to be in. I can’t believe it’s happening. I hate when an older man likes his childhood because it’s kind of like a sick thing to think of. I don’t know, it fuckin’ bothers me. But being able to still work with skateboarding makes me very fuckin’ happy. So something’s wrong with me also I guess.
How did you get involved with Playboy?
I was painting pictures on top of Playboys and I was just tagging Playboy on Instagram posts. They saw those and contacted me. It’s one of the most iconic American things ever. Ever. Their history of illustrators and writers and stuff is super influential on me, so to be a part of that legacy is fucking mindblowing. Now I contribute comics and drawings, and I also contribute artists for them to put in the mag. You could call it an unofficial cartoon editor. Because Hugh Hefner is the cartoon editor, but that’s what I will hopefully be doing in the next couple of months. Working for Playboy is awesome. It’s a weird thing, but I love it.
How do you feel about the commodification of art?
I love it. Absolutely. One hundred percent. I’ve never been afraid of being a commercial artist. I love making commercial things, mass-produced things. I have no problem with that whatsoever. I don’t do art fairs. I’m not represented by anyone. Really I’m not an artist, I’m a cartoonist. I make skateboards still, happily. I love that shit. If they wanted me to do a Lucky Charms box, I’d be like fuckin’ ay right. I’d be on it. I love that shit. That being said, I turned down Urban Outfitters the other day because they have a bad standing with gay people. So I will turn shit down that’s big. I have my own sense of rules, you kind of have to.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I mean good advice is to take advice. To be open to listen to people and willing to make changes. I see people make bad decisions all the time who just won’t fuckin’ listen to anybody.
What has drawing taught you?
Not patience, for sure. If I stop now it’s like I’ll die. It’s frightening in some ways because I know there’s no retirement. And I know there’s no ending. People always say like “Oh you did Bob’s Burgers man you’re set for life!” They don’t fuckin’ understand anything. That’s not how things work. What else am I going to do? When I was younger I’d have odd jobs and have panic attacks like I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Thank god it worked out. I mean I worked in a coffee shop until I was 31. But it worked out.
People are scared to fail and I have zero fucking fear of that whatsoever. I will contact people out of the blue like companies I think are cool. I will show them stuff I’ve finished. And if they say no, I’m just like fuck it and move on.
How has your practice shaped your hands?
I know I’m working good when my blister returns on my thumb. I’m always happy when I have this blister over here, because it means I’ve been fuckin’ working. That’s a good moment for me. I like knowing that I worked hard even if it’s just drawing, which is like, not work. In some ways it’s important. I don’t know, shit guys...
Jay Howell in Los Angeles, California on August 27, 2016. Photos by Julia Girardoni.