Wesley van Eeden is an illustrator and muralist residing in South Africa. He has a unique colorful style that stands out, especially his large-scale murals, which can be seen in different parts of the world.
He talks to us about creating key opportunities like scoring artist residencies. He also talks about art in South Africa and shares his experience jumping into a freelance career.
Interview by Cesar Contreras
Cesar: Pencil or pixel?
Wesley: I think pencil until I can afford the Cintiq. [Laughs]
Yeah, you’ve got to start with the pencil because I find, you can just work, get your ideas out. It’s like you’re connected to that pencil and it’s on paper, It’s real. You know, like with augmented reality and all of that… for me, it’s like, why do you want to try and replicate real life? The pencil’s real life. With the pencil, you’re drawing, you can see it on the paper. Having said that, in a commercial sense, if you’ve got deadlines and you’re working fast, you know, pixel’s king.
Cesar: So, what about in the sense of, like, analog versus digital?
Wesley: Yeah, when it comes to that, I like analog. I still think there’s something special about it. I mean, I’m a real big fan of… Have you heard of RetroSupply Company?
Cesar: Yeah, a lot of brushes and whatnot.
Wesley: Yeah. I mean, I use some of them, as well, and I really dig how they’re trying to replicate some of the retro stuff, but there’s nothing greater than finding something that’s real, like something that’s been printed and you find it in like an old junk shop or whatever, and it’s like from the ‘60s and it’s real. Or, even if you take something and you texturize it yourself, or it’s in your pocket and it gets, accidentally, that weird interesting texture. It’s not forced, it’s done by accident. Those happy accidents, I guess you could create a happy accident on the computer, but I don’t think it’s as fluid.
Cesar: Yeah, absolutely.
Wesley: But, you can’t replace pixel and digital technology in terms of speed and speeding up workflow. But, yeah, I just love the realness of having a stack of papers next to me and collecting stuff, and when my kid walks through into my studio, he’s like, “What’s this?” And he can see it and it’s all tactile, but if everything’s in a box, you know, you don’t see it. You know?
Cesar: On a screen.
Cesar: Yeah, you do a lot of murals, too. You paint.
Wesley: I try and do a mix. I mean, I think one of the reasons why I went on my own is I got really irritated with just being forced to sit at a table all the time, working for someone. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with working for an art director or a company. I mean, I love it, but just having that creative freedom where if I get the opportunity to create a mural and get out… Like, last week, I did a quick three-day mural and I got to learn how to use a cherry-picker. You know what a cherry-picker is?
Cesar: No, no.
Wesley: Oh, it’s like one of those crane things, where you sit and…
Cesar: Oh, yeah. Right.
Wesley: Yeah. And the guy dropped it off and he was like…
Cesar: He was like, “Here you go!”
Wesley: Yeah, and he was like, “Do you know how to use it?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I mean, yeah, sure. It must be like a computer or like a car.” He was like, “No. No, no.” And it’s like, if you want to go up, you’ve got to push down. And if you want to go left, there’s like four different levers. And it’s like, “Okay…” And I was like, “I’ve still got to figure out how to work out how to use this cherry-picker, and then still try and draw a picture that is like ten times the size of my computer screen.”
Cesar: How was the experience, though? I’m sure it was fun.
Wesley: Yeah, it was fun, but that first hour was like, “I don’t know if I can do this mural because I don’t even know how to use the cherry-picker!”
Cesar: So, were you on your own?
Wesley: I had an assistant that helped me paint, but it was cool. It was cool, and those challenges are cool, you know. Like any business or any job that you’re working, I mean, I love challenges. I’m sure you do, as well. And that was really cool, conquering not only a big mural, but also conquering how to use the cherry-picker. At least, I can put that on my CV.
Cesar: Yeah, man.
Wesley: You know, Durban isn’t really known to be the creative hotbed of South Africa, but there is, really, quite a lot of creatives that actually come out of the city and then move. In fact, one of the founders of Studio Muti, actually, had come from our hometown, as well.
Cesar: Nice. One of my favorite studios.
Wesley: Yes and mine too.
Cesar: You’re in Durban currently, right?
Cesar: And so, we’re talking with the magic of the Internet, speaking many, many, many miles away, or kilometers away.
Wesley: It’s amazing. Yes, we use kilometers.
Cesar: What are some of these challenges that you just mentioned?
Wesley: I think… I mean, the great thing about… I’ll start off with the positive, is the one thing is, we have the Internet now, which is really changing the world, which I’m sure you know. Like, you’ve interviewed some great people from all over, as well. So, that’s the positive, that I do work with people from all over the world, which is amazing. But, yeah, the negative is that we live, geographically, that’s the first thing, we’re so far away. So, if I want to do an exhibition in London or wherever, it’s a little bit more expensive to get there. And then, also, you know, we have quite a dark past, obviously, with Apartheid.
Cesar: For those that aren’t familiar with Apartheid, can you explain what it is?
Wesley: Yeah, I don’t want to delve too much into it.
Cesar: Just kind of a general…
Wesley: Yeah, but basically, there was the political party of the time in the ‘80s and ‘70s that they had kind of like a regime where they separated people of color and kind of didn’t really give them…well, they didn’t give them equal rights, so you have that huge class divide, which I’ve experienced when traveling, as well. You know, I only really traveled outside of the country after, like in my early 20s, and I was like, “Wow! There’s such…” You have huge wealth, and then you have huge poverty, living right almost next to each other, which is pretty, pretty intense.
But, the one thing that I really love about South Africa is, for me, I feel like I’m alive every day. I feel like, I mean, I definitely don’t take my life for granted because, you know, you always hear of something bad happening to someone on a weekly basis. Like, either they’ve been robbed or their car’s been stolen. Not everyone, but you always hear of something somewhere, that something has happened. You know, there’s that realness where it’s not, everything is all clean. You feel like this is real life, like you’re experiencing life. It’s not like you’re walking through a movie. You’re seeing rich people, you’re seeing poor people, you’re seeing people that are struggling. And, yeah, I mean, one of the things that really influenced me is kind of like the roughness of the city that I live in. You know, you get like that thing you call a pop-up shop?
Wesley: You’d have these kind of African guys that, they’ve been doing it for ages. They’re like the inventors of the pop-up shop, I think. They’d have like their own little hair salon on the street. They’d have a tent kind of thing. But, the cool thing is, growing up, is they’d have this guy… I can’t remember his name. I think he’s actually moved now, but I think he was a Nigerian, or I stand corrected, but he moved to Durban and he started painting these different hair salon hairstyles, like the different hairstyles that you could get cut in these kind of pop-up hair salons on the side of the streets. And I don’t know if you know Margaret Kilgallen, the artist, Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee…
Cesar: Barry McGee, yes.
Wesley: Barry McGee’s late wife from the San Francisco Mission, whatever, she did those really… Well, even Barry McGee has those kind of like really outland kind of portrait kind of faces. That’s probably the closest thing that I can describe it to you, and growing up, that really influenced my style. Like, “Hey, this is really cool. It’s not like…” Because growing up, it’s kind of weird because, our TV, we would have like… Do you remember Full House?
Cesar: Oh, yeah. So you guys would watch that over there, too?
Wesley: Yeah, I mean, it was totally… I mean, in many ways, we were like so Westernized in many ways. You know what I mean?
Wesley: And then, when you grow up, you’re like, “Actually, you know, Durban isn’t America, in a way.” You know what I mean? Like, obviously…
Cesar: You guys have a lot of the American shows airing.
Wesley: Yes, yes.
Cesar: Is it mostly American shows? I mean, I’m sure you guys have a lot of local stuff happening, but…
Wesley: Yeah, we have local stuff, but I mean, I actually don’t have like, what do you call it, like satellite TV or cable TV. We usually just download shows or whatever. So now, with the Internet, we’ll just download whatever we like. So, you know, if it’s stuff from Germany or wherever, we’ll get it, you know?
Wesley: But, yeah. I mean, like on a Saturday night, on the…what do you call it…like the basic South African broadcasting network, you’ll have like Arnold Schwarzenegger or something, like on a Sunday night. You know what I mean? The Sunday night movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or some typical American movie, you know. So, it’s, yeah, it’s pretty weird.
Cesar: You mentioned a lot of sort of the social issues that you experience, that you see on a daily basis at home. How does that play into your work? I’ve noticed a lot of your work is pretty much in that realm.
Wesley: Yeah. Just a little bit of my background, like at the school that I went to, we didn’t have art at school and I didn’t know what graphic design was, and we didn’t have anyone that could really even tell us what graphic design was or anything. And, growing up, I actually was really bad. I remember my dad saying to my mum, “We don’t know what we’re going to do with Wesley because he can’t do math.” I was just really into drawing and skateboarding, and my counselor was like, “There is this thing called graphic design.” I was like, “Okay, cool.”
I won’t get into it too much, but it was a real struggle to get to where I am now. A lot of my work, really, I want to do something that has, I know it sounds cliché, but a positive message.
Wesley: I see a lot of… You know, I did some teaching, as well, with one of the private schools that actually had an outreach in a township called KwaMashu, which was like a previously disadvantaged area, probably about 25 minutes out of the CBD, and a lot of these kids, like they come from homes that the school actually gave them money every month, like a stipend, to help them kind of make ends meet every month to pay for supplies, and that amount was actually more than what some of their parents were actually earning. A lot of their parents were unemployed. And when you’re in that scenario, you can’t really see a way out, you know. You can’t see more than what’s around you.
Even in my own personal experiences and the things that I’ve gone through, when you create a picture or if you write a song, it’s like you’re creating something that’s out of your head. And then now, with Internet as well, when you create something and you put it out there, you have the ability to impact your life and other people. That’s what I do. You know, it’s hard to change the world, but to do something that will, hopefully, influence other people in my area, if I create a mural, if I do a design and someone feels good about it… I know it sounds cliché, but I mean, music has inspired people to do amazing things and I believe art can, as well, and that’s why I do it.
I said to my wife when I met my wife, when we were dating, I said, “Hey, there’s something I’ve got to tell you. I have to do personal work. Obviously, if I have to get a job, like a full-time job, well, I’ll have to, but the one thing is, even if I had a full-time job, I have to find time to do personal work.” And it’s that longing that’s somewhere deep inside that I have to do something that will… It’s not about, for me, it’s about doing something that will hopefully impact people around me, because if it’s just for me, I don’t know, I don’t feel that great about myself.
So, I think, growing up in the area that I’ve lived in, seeing things that I’ve seen in my community and the things that our country has gone through, yeah, I just want to try and create work that has a positive message. Looking at things around me and looking at how the architecture and how people dress, and how people walk, the culture of how people talk, the slang language and the African languages, and stuff that we have here, looking at all of that and trying to create something unique, you know.
And when I look at all my favorite artists overseas, like Jessica Hische, Darren Booth, or other artists like Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, and I look at all of these brilliant artists that have influenced me, I’m like, “Well, now, where do I come from? Do I just rip off those guys, or where is my voice?” You know?
Cesar: And that’s a tough question to answer.
Wesley: I think everyone struggles with it, you know. But, it takes time, and I think for the listeners that are listening, I’m sure they know the same thing. Like, it’s about finding something within you, you know?
Cesar: Who are your current influences? You mentioned a few just now, but I mean, anyone that, I don’t know, anyone that hasn’t even been on the show, but some of those that really get you going.
Wesley: Aw, man, there’s so many. Well, sheesh, I’m just trying to think of, looking around me, of who has influenced me. Well, my favorite artist, one of my favorite artists, is actually a friend of mine because I still think human connection is important, you know.
Wesley: And one of my favorite artists, I was actually thinking about him the other day. He actually inspired me. He’s an artist in Cape Town. He’s not a graphic designer. He’s more of like a visual artist. His name is Paul Senyol. I think it was when I was about… I’m 36 now. I think we met, maybe, when I was about 24. I entered a shoe competition and the judging was in Cape Town. They flew me down, and I knew of this artist, Paul Senyol, and I just knocked on his studio door. And like, in Durban as well, there isn’t really a big art scene, or there aren’t that many artists that are like super-visible.
Cesar: Would you say that Cape Town does, though?
Wesley: Yeah, Cape Town, I think, really has a really strong hub because I think it’s like the number one destination, international destination, in Africa or South Africa, so I think there’s like a need to, or there’s like a need for artists to be visible for tourists and things like that. And, anyway, he was super-inspiring because he was like, although his style is completely different to me, he was actually doing it. I was like, “Wow!” He actually really motivated me to be like, “Okay, wow, I can actually, maybe do this myself.”
My other favorite artist is an American artist called Jim Houser. And then, my favorite, favorite artist, completely different style to me, is a guy from New York. His name is Jacob Hashimoto. I actually discovered his work by chance when I was in Finland, when I did an artists’ residency. We were just looking, going around looking at all the galleries, and he does these amazing circular shapes made out of bamboo, and then on top of these circular shapes were abstract screen printed patterns, but then the amazing thing is he’d do like a square with all of these circular kind of bamboo disks on different layers, but tied onto kind of like fishing wire. So, you’d have all these layers of these different circular disks with these abstract patterns on them, and he does these crazy installations, and it’s just like, “Whoa!” It’s just mind-blowing.
Yeah, those are some of my favorite artists at the moment, completely different to kind of like what I’m doing, you know.
Cesar: You have really brightly colored illustrations, really brightly colored work, and I love that. Would you say that it’s pretty common in South Africa or is this something that you’re just drawn to, in general? And the reason I ask that, because for example, let’s say Studio Muti, I’ll see their work and they also have a lot of brightly colored artwork, and off the record, we were talking about Kronk, one of my favorite artists from… I followed him a long time ago.
Wesley: Wow, amazing! Yeah, he’s really good. He’s really good, yeah.
Cesar: Yeah, he also has pretty brightly colored artwork. Is that something that’s very, I don’t know, kind of like ingrained?
Wesley: I don’t know if it’s… Maybe it’s just because I live here and I don’t pick it up, but I mean, you definitely… I mean, I’m always looking at African patterns and repeated patterns and African garments. And, well, for example, like I was talking about those pop-up hair salons. Their tent, that kind of thing that they set up, is normally bright yellow. Whether they’ve done that on purpose to pick up your…because it’s one of the most noticeable…well, it is the most noticeable color, or it’s just because they love bright colors, yeah, I don’t know. But, for me, personally, I try and use popping colors because I’m trying to have a positive vibe, a fun feeling.
Also, where I live, in KwaZulu-Natal, it’s quite a tropical place. It’s very, very tropical. The one thing about South Africa is, every different place or city you go to, it’s kind of different. If you go to Cape Town, you’ve got different kinds of nature. You’ve got a lot of what they call fynbos. It’s very lush. Like, there’s lots of… It’s very bushy. If you’re driving down the highway, you’ll see loads of different types of trees, and it’s very diverse and there’s lots of color, especially in the summer, which is pretty rad.
That’s actually something I noticed, as well, when I was in Europe. I was in Finland when we did our artists’ residency a couple years’ back, and they kind of just have the same kind of tree, like copied and pasted, along the landscape. I’m like, “It’s really pretty,” but I’m like, “Wow, it’s like the same kind of tree over and over and over,” kind of thing.
Wesley: Whereas, you travel all over S.A., a lot of people that come here are like, “Wow, it’s so diverse!” You know?
Cesar: How do you get these residencies and jobs and gigs across different countries? Because you’ve been here in the States, you’ve done some work here, you’re talking about Finland. For those who aren’t aware of how to pursue similar opportunities?
Wesley: Yeah, I actually discovered artists’ residencies by trans. There’s one website that is pretty good. It’s TransArtists. They list pretty much every artists’ residency in the world. I guess not every one, but it lists quite a lot. I actually went on there and I applied every day for a month for an hour. I woke up early and I was like, I had my CV and I had a proposal, and then I just went through. I actually was like, “Oh, I need to go to America!” And not one residency in America got back to me, but I got like four applications returned from Finland, and they were like, “We want you to come.” And I’m like, “Where is Finland?”
Cesar: So, did you go to Helsinki?
Wesley: Yeah, Helsinki, about an hour outside of Helsinki. Yeah, I mean, so I applied. I found a residency. I looked through the sites and I just looked at ones that really appealed to me, and I was like, “Well, the Finland one is free housing and you get a free car for three months, and materials, well, this is supplied anyway, wherever that place is.” And then we went.
Yeah, I mean, that really helped my career in terms of when you do a personal project. I think you may have heard that many times before. And when you do it, you don’t really understand it, like if it’s the first time, and it was really the first time I was taking it seriously. I’d quit my job, my teaching job, in 2009 I think, and in 2010 we went, and we were doing this project. We were interviewing people in the community, in the town, and then we would illustrate their stories, and basically asking them five questions and finding out things like what’s important to them, what makes them happy. And out of that project, we did the exhibition in Finland. I sold one piece, but the intention wasn’t to sell.
When we came back and we got an opportunity to exhibit in my hometown, and we sold one piece there. And then, we went to Cape Town and the guy that organized the exhibition, he was organizing bands, and it was a dress-up party, and it was a pirate-themed party, and everyone was like, “No one is going to buy paintings at this thing. It’s going to be like a big drunken party.” I sold pretty much all my work, which was awesome.
Cesar: Wow, at the party?
Wesley: Yeah, at the party. And there was one guy, a professor from New York, who was quite drunk and he was one of the only people that was…
Cesar: That’s the only time you could get anyone from the States, man. We have to be drunk.
Wesley: He was dressed up as a pirate, and he said, “I really like this painting and I’m going to buy it.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And he bought it.
Wesley: And so, that was pretty cool, and he was the professor that invited me to come over to New York to paint the project last year, which was insane. That personal artists’ residency has helped me so much going forward, just people seeing the work. And although it’s more artistic and I do more commercial work, it really has a ripple effect, you know?
Cesar: Absolutely. And like you said… I don’t know if you said this when we started recording or before, we were chatting just a little bit, but you mentioned it’s about those personal connections. You had that personal connection in that moment, and that opened the opportunity for you to come over to New York and do something really cool there.
So, when did you know when it was time for you to quit your job? When did you know, “Hey, this is the perfect opportunity for me to do this”? Or, did you just say, “I’m going to do it.”
Wesley: Good question, and I think there’s a lot of good advice out there, and I also think there’s a lot of bad advice. And, also, a disclaimer to the listeners out there, don’t just take my advice. You know what I mean?
Cesar: It may not work for you.
Wesley: But, I read quite a few articles before going on mine. The first thing, I think, is having a real desire. Like I said, when I met my wife, when we were dating, I said, “You know, there’s something inside of me.” I know it sounds cliché, but, “There’s something different,” you know?
Cesar: Not at all. I mean, that’s true, though. It’s something that you just feel. I don’t know, like you said, it’s kind of cliché, but you feel that energy and sometimes you just have to follow it.
Wesley: Yeah, so there was that desire, that desire inside. Like my dad always said to me… He read this book. I think it’s Think and Grow Rich or one of those other books where he says, “You’ve got to have a desire. There’s this burning desire!” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He was like, “You’ve got to learn math! You’ve got to have that burning desire!” And I’m like, “I can’t do it!” So, that’s the first thing. You’ve got to know that this is it, that this is what you really want to do.
The other thing which I really… The biggest advice is having at least three to six months’ savings as a buffer because people are never going to pay you on time. Some people won’t pay you on time. That’s one thing that I…
Cesar: So, this is you going from quitting your job to becoming a freelancer.
Wesley: Yeah. So, I saved up enough so that I could have a nice buffer. And then, when I was teaching, I managed to wean myself. I kept saying no. They were like, “Do you want this position? Do you want to do this and this?” I’m like, “No, give me less work.” And I started becoming part-time, so I used to teach then, eventually… I used to teach five days a week, and then I went down to like three. And I started getting work that paid more than my teaching, and I was like, “I love teaching and I’ve done it for five years,” and doors were opening.
I think that’s the other thing. I think doors should be opening. If you feel like you’re getting an opportunity, if you think things… I wouldn’t force something. If I’m like, “I want to paint these dark, angry graphics, but no one wants to buy them,” then you’ve got to be realistic, you know?
I think, also, there’s a difference between me and like a weird fine artist, is that I am a commercial artist. There is a commercial side to it. So, I’m not trying to say I’m some edgy, crazy artist. I do try and do interesting things, but it has a commercial slant to it, you know. And that’s when I kind of really knew, when I started making more money than the teaching, that I was like, “Okay, this is kind of feasible.” And as it started becoming more continuous, then I was like, “Okay, this is a cool time to give it a go.” So, it wasn’t just literally like jumping into a cold pond and being like, “Ahhh!” You know, I think it’s really important…
Cesar: Sink or swim.
Wesley: Yeah. I think it’s really important. And, I think there’s nothing wrong with working for a company, and one of the reasons, actually, I went on my own is, actually, there were no companies in my city that I really wanted to work for, that I could see myself being happy with. And I think if I got offered a job somewhere that I was into, maybe I would take it, you know. So, I’m not opposed to it. It’s partly because of lack of opportunities and trying to create an opportunity, and try and create something that I want to do. You know, sometimes they say, “Build it and they’ll come.” I think, yeah, those kind of things would really help if people are thinking of going on their own, like really just try and get those things and make a calculated risk.
The other thing is, also, keeping your overhead low. I mean, we don’t drive a fancy car, you know. I’d rather have money in the bank than have huge amounts of debt. So, keeping your overhead as low as possible. And we’ve just bought a house now, which I’m really excited about, which we’ll be paying off for a number of years, but we’ve…
Cesar: Congratulations on getting it.
Wesley: Yeah, thanks so much. It’s been a mission. But that’s, again, that’s another calculated risk and I never would have done that five years ago. So, I think everything needs to come at the right time, you know, and it takes time. Don’t rush things, I think. Another thing, is really just taking your time, and working hard, and doing something that you enjoy, and thinking where your work fits into the market that you want to work in, thinking about, where can I see my work fit in where people would want to actually use my work and if there’s actually a need for that work.
Cesar: On that note, what other advice, like if you have one specific… You’ve given a lot right now, but if you have one really concrete piece of advice that you would give, what would it be?
Wesley: Be honest and build friendships, not networks. Find people that you relate to in any business, and just be yourself and build honest connections. I always feel I should put out what I’m looking for, and I’m always looking to find people that are honest and authentic. I find that those relationships bring back so much. There’s value in that. It’s like someone saying, “I’ve got $100 and I need to buy so much food,” and they buy all these different pieces of like junk food, and one of the things is like they bought an apple. And the apple is awesome, but the pack of fried chips and all that has got so much crap in it. I don’t know if that’s a bad example, but you know what I mean?
Be honest and build friendships, not networks.
Cesar: No, I like that. I like that. It’s good.
Wesley: And rather, invest in one juicy packet of bananas or something, you know what I mean, and the return will be much better. You’ll be stronger, you know. So, I think that’s, besides all of the other stuff, working hard and being honest, and having a good portfolio, but also just being down to earth, because it’s about who you know in the networks that you make, as well. Just trying to find people that you can resonate with and that they can resonate with you, I think that’ll definitely help your career.
Cesar: Yeah. Hey, I forgot to ask this question, but what are your tools of choice? I know you mentioned it earlier when we did the whole pencil versus pixel, but what are your favorite go-to tools you like to use?
Wesley: Yeah, I keep things pretty simple. I use Illustrator and Photoshop, you know, the Creative Suite. When I paint murals, I don’t use graffiti, like spray cans and expensives… I use a lot of just casual normal wall paint, mural PVA wall paint that you can get from a hardware store. And that’s specifically, actually, because a lot of the street… There’s a lot of street signage, you know. Like Jon Contino does a lot of hand signage. He needs to come here and check out hand signage and be like, “Wow! This is…” Like, he’d be into it, you know?
That’s also coming back to like, “What’s my aesthetic?” Like, “Hey, let me take something that is local and bring that into the work that I do.” So, when I’m painting murals, yeah, I’m definitely trying to replicate that local feel, and just using normal brushes, flat brushes, and hardware paint, keeping it pretty raw and simple.
Cesar: Keeping it simple.
Cesar: Well hey, man, I really appreciate you taking the time, and thanks for being on the show, man. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and really learning from your experience and what you do, and hopefully, a lot of people out there check out your work, and I will definitely give that information out. But, anyways, thank you, Wes.
Wesley: Hey, thanks so much, Cesar. It was really awesome talking to you guys, all the people on the Inter-Webs.
Wesley: Hey, have a great day.
Cesar: Thank you.
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