Focus: Rob Modini Interview

Focus: Rob Modini Interview
Rob Modini's illustration, design and custom sculptures on the Nutella Cafe

Rob Modini's illustration, design and custom sculptures on the Nutella Cafe

Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.

Illustrator Rob Modini took a while to develop his style. The Colorado-based climber and artist has worked with a variety of media during his career, in both a professional and personal capacity, but only in recent years has settled into defining his approach. 

How did you develop your style?

I always find the question of style a tricky one. As an art director, I think of style as one part of a broader toolkit that can be leveraged to help articulate a particular voice or perspective; it has a function. 

As a professional illustrator, I think of style as an affectation that, over time, evolves into a more natural expression. It's like a rainshell that you wear for long enough to forget you're wearing it. At first it feels bulky and cumbersome, but eventually you find yourself climbing without giving it a second thought. (Yes, I just slipped a climbing analogy in there). When I was younger, I had such a curiosity and passion for making imagery that I enjoyed trying all kinds of things: matte painting, 3D, painterly, graphic. I was proud that I could move between these styles with relative ease. While I've always had a particular sensibility about things like color, it wasn't until the past few years that I gave any serious thought to developing a personal style. One of the reasons I resisted for so long is that I used to think of style as a crutch, a way of compensating for poor image making skills. Now I see the value in it. If you have to compose an image of a city scape, it helps to not have to think about how you're going to render a car. Having a style to fall back on frees you up to think about more interesting problems. 

In regards to the more recent work that I've been posting on my tumblr, I don't think in terms of style at all. For this type of work I'm motivated entirely by my interests. That's not to say that these images don't fit into some stylistic category, but it's purely a byproduct of exploring a particular thought or idea—not a conscious choice.

It's interesting that your view has changed like that over time. How do you approach new pieces? What process do you go through from ideation to creation?

For commercial work I think it's almost always necessary to start with some sketching. Oftentimes if we're pitching on something, this will be accompanied by doing some research and pulling some reference material. Because I regularly find myself working with a team and especially because I work remotely, sketching is a vital part of the process to help ensure everyone is on the same page. The sketch is also where I do most of the larger conceptual and formal problem solving. Since I usually feel the most creative and motivated in the mornings I like to do my sketches then, that way the rest of the day I can spend on the execution.  

For my personal work I'm not obligated to communicate with anyone so I only sketch if it's necessary to remember something. There are times when I'm getting tons of ideas but I'm not too keen on making any of them yet. I find that I do a lot of sketching and doodling in these periods but I don't actually create any finished work. I keep all these sketches, edit them down to the ones I think are interesting, and archive them. This way when I feel like making something but have no real ideas I can dive into my sketches and pick one that I'm interested in finishing. Often the finished piece will be quite different from the initial sketch but I find the sketch still critical as a jumping off point. With the collage stuff that I've been doing lately, I think the whole joy is not having any plan at the outset and allowing the process of drawing, cutting, and composing to illuminate a piece. Working in this way is much more of a challenge but also much more rewarding.

That's a fascinating way to approach your personal projects. Many people can struggle with the process of completing work. What advice would you give to people who might find it difficult getting to a final endpoint with a piece? 

Obviously having a deadline can help immensely. It's important to point out that this is a problem thats largely overcome with experience. The only way to get comfortable making that decision is to make it a lot. 

As long as you're involved in the process of making something, it continues to offer you an escape. You can always make it better, or make it different. You can always say to yourself, "This isn't the type of piece I'm making". The process of making a piece is an attempt to understand what you're making. You start off with an idea, but it's not until you start creating it that you really understand and interact with it. At some point, this process ends, and you have to accept or confront what it is you've made. I think that confrontation makes people anxious. You are worried that the piece might misrepresent your intentions, that you've miscommunicated, or that it's just bad, and so you try to avoid that confrontation. You have to understand that your practice is more important than any individual piece, and the only way to progress in your practice is to finish work—even if it's bad work. Eventually that anxiety no longer inhibits you and can actually be helpful. 


What guidance would you give to anyone looking to follow a similar path in illustration and design? 

That's a little tough because I didn't take a very conventional path. One thing I'd stress is how important it is to surround yourself with people who are motivated and passionate about what they're doing. There was a period in my life when I was a bit directionless, but I had the good fortune of being friends with a lot of really great talented people and I think that saw me through some tough times. This is true professionally too. I've been lucky to work at some top studios with some super talented people and once you experience how high the bar can be set, it's impossible to forget. 

You can follow Rob on Instagram here