I first met Eli when we were attending college together in San Francisco. He stood out from the rest of the art student crowd. His work really spoke for itself; you could tell from just one stroke of his pencil. He has been working for years to perfect his craft and continues to grow.

Eli Harris is an illustrator whose award-winning work has appeared on t-shirts and in print, galleries, and private collections. Eli is also an instructor at the Academy of Art University and lives in the rolling, fog-covered hills of Oakland with his wife and precocious cat.

We’ve been lucky to work with Eli on a number of occasions. In 2011, Eli was featured as one of our artists in the Bush + Leavenworth art show. He is a busy guy, having worked with many clients and on different projects. This includes, but is not limited to, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Penguin, SF Weekly, Sketchtravel, Gama-Go, California Magazine, Rex-Goliath Wines, American Legacy, Bay Area Alternative Press.

One of his most prestigious accomplishments was being featured on Skectchtravel. Skectchtravel is a unique international charity art project. Like an Olympic torch, the red Sketchtravel sketchbook was passed from one artist’s hand to another through 12 countries, over the course of 4 ½ years. Sketchtravel featured 71 exceptional illustrators, animators and comic book artists, including Bill Plympton, James Jean, Rebecca Dautremer, Glen Keane, Frederick Back, and Hayao Miyazaki.

B+L: How would you describe your creation process, from initial inspiration all the way to the finalized piece? 

Eli: I try to make my process as organic as possible. Even though commercial work is often stilted and can be over-art-directed, I still try to keep the problem solving process as smooth as possible. For all my work I start with thumbnails. I then move on to sketches and clean the idea up along the way until it fits the mental picture I have of it. I like to leave room for happy accidents as well. These are what make the work personal and unique. When I work in my sketchbook, though, I throw caution to the wind and just dive right in with ink and whatever media I’m using. The thing about ink is that when you make the mark on the page, it’s permanent, so you have to train yourself to get better and make better decisions on the fly.

B+L: When you run into a mental block artistically, what do you do to get beyond it?

Eli: It’s funny and frustrating at the same time. I feel like most assignments begin with a mental block somehow. I do a fair amount of reading and sketching on location when I have a problem I can’t get around. If a good latte doesn’t fix it I go on a long bike ride in the Oakland/Berkeley hills to clear my head and think things through. Sketching and riding — not at the same time, though it’s a thought — create a bit of catharsis for me and I really function better when I add them into my schedule whether I have a mental block or not.

B+L: We’re living in a time where we have so much access to different peoples’ artwork/blogs. How do you keep up with all the different styles around us?

Eli: With so many artists at your fingertips it’s easy to just sit mouth breathing in front of the computer for hours and never get anything done. That being said I spend a fair amount of time staying up on artists I like. The way I see it, if something is ground breaking and needs to be seen, the network of artist friends I’ve been lucky enough to build up will put it on my radar. I like that there are so many styles and artists I haven’t seen yet. It keeps the magic of inspiration and learning alive.

B+L: You have a unique style. What do you feel makes you stand out from the crowd the most?

Eli: That’s a question I’m having to ask myself all the time. I’ve become so versatile and comfortable in different types of media that I think it’s, at times, detrimental to my overall commercial success. I’m hoping that the overall experience of my work is a level of quality that speaks for itself. I do know that my comfort with a brush pen and sketching from life has been the most well received. I’ll take sketching in a book over designing on a computer any day.

B+L: Right now, if you had to choose between exclusively going digital or natural with your brush, what would you choose?

Eli: Even with all the wonderful new software that can make your work look natural on the screen there will never be a substitute for that tactile feel of natural media on natural surface. All the pressure sensors in the world can’t replace the feeling of accomplishment when you put that perfect line down on paper and it’s permanently there. Pixels can be wonderful when pushed around, but they’re the middleman. That sounds a bit absolute, but I think other artists like me understand, even those that almost work exclusively digital.

B+L: Sketchtravel combines so many great artists and talent. How does it feel to be a part of it?

Eli: On one hand it feels like I’ve reached the pinnacle and I should quit while I’m ahead, but that would be the proverbial resting on your laurels bit. On the other, I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life trying to prove to people that it’s not a fluke, I really do belong in a book with these masters. It’s a pretty overwhelming thought to think about the long the history of beautiful artwork Sketchtravel holds in its pages. In the end I just hope I can build on the friendships I’ve made from the project and hopefully continue to use this experience to grow as an artist as well as a human being. As artists we are obliged to be active members in the progress of humanity.

B+L: We went to the same art school around the same time, and it has been over 5 years now since graduation. What has been the most important thing you’ve learned since being out in the industry?

Eli: Stay in touch with the networks of friends you make from school and professionally, and be hungry and passionate about your work. The smell of disingenuous work is wicked bad and kills the soul. You earn respect by being good at what you’re passionate about and others want to be around that personality type. I can trace so many opportunities I’ve gotten to a simple reply to a comment.

B+L: Are there any shows coming up for you?

Eli: At the moment I’m just teaching at the Academy and authoring an online location drawing and painting for them. I think I overextended myself just after I graduated by having four solo gallery shows and a few group shows within a couple years. I have some ideas for new work that are in the infant stages of development right now so I’ll start shopping those around to the galleries I like to work with.

B+L: Do you have any words of wisdom for artists starting their careers – either in school or independently?

Eli: Look at artists that are better than you and learn from them. I learned how to draw by sitting next to artists that were better than me in figure classes. Also, keep a sketchbook all the time. The freedom of a sketchbook is paramount in discovering who you are as an artist.

B+L: Would you rather draw on a napkin or college ruled paper?

Eli: I really love the ephemeral quality of napkins and the idea and prospect of so many napkins telling different stories in so many different places. Capturing moments in time is something I live for.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview! Any last words?

I’m so excited to be a part of Bush & Leavenworth. I really appreciate you asking me to create something for the brand. It’s always a humbling and exciting experience to work with people I know and respect.