The Beast is Back: Interview with Artist and Toy Collector Christopher Lee
Last year I came across a post on Strange Kids Club about some TMNT art by an artist named Christopher Lee. I quickly reposted his work here and ordered some prints. Fast forward one year and I have more than eighteen square feet of wall space with Chris’s work, including prints of his TMNT, Star Wars, and Ghostbusters art.
You’ve probably seen Chris’s work even if you haven’t read about him online. Chris is an independent designer and illustrator and his client list includes Target, Disney, and Hasbro. If you’ve seen the cool 3D Adventure Book gift card at Target, you’ve seen Chris’s art.
Along with his girlfriend he runs the shop The Birds & the Beasts, and also happens to have a truly amazing collection of 80s and 90s toys.
After a year of buying his art, blogging about it, and
stalking following him on Instagram, I thought it would be fun to interview him for the site. So, read on to learn more about Chris’s work, influences, and his amazing toy collection.
What did you draw most often as a kid, and what made you realize you wanted to be an artist?
My dad used to have these old circle templates from a drafting class he had in college. I used those templates to draw Mickey Mouse…over and over and over. I think Mickey showed up the most when I was really young. My parents saved all of old artwork so it was fun to see the progression of what I would draw as I got older.
Originally, I wanted to be a Marine Biologist…like hardcore. I knew everything about the ocean and the sea creatures below its surface (well as much as I could know at age 9). I can’t remember when I made the conscious decision to be an artist… at least professionally. I think things started to click when I started to focus my design interests during my senior year of high school. I loved typography so graphic design seemed like the next logical step. I wasn’t any good at it back then, but I knew that’s the direction I wanted to go in. In college, I started combining my love for drawing with graphic design and from those experiments I began laying the foundation for The Beast Is Back.
Your work reminds me of Charley Harper and animation art from the 1950’s. Who/what influenced your style the most?
I definitely enjoy the UPA animation aesthetic from the 50’s, but I don’t carry that look into all of my work. I worked in the motion graphics industry for a few years and I think if there’s one thing I can take away from working in that field it’s that as an illustrator, your greatest strength is your versatility. When we pitched projects at Buck, nearly every job required a different look, feel, and style. We didn’t always go out and hire freelancers that fit those specific needs so it was up to us as the designers to research and adapt while remaining true to our individual visual voices. Those experiences really hard-wired my brain to not pigeon-hole myself into one style.
When I purchased my Cintiq early last year, my whole world was flipped upside down. Suddenly I was able to do things I could never accomplish on a standard tablet. It really revolutionized my workflow and technique and allowed me to push experimentation. Other things that have influenced my style besides the mid-century aesthetic have been my crazy talented artist friends, great cartoons like Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory and more recently Gravity Falls and Adventure Time, the paintings of Mary Blair and Carol Wyatt, Ed Emberley, Invisible Creature, and gig poster art. And then there’s the toys.
Your art is your full-time job. Do you ever get burnt out on illustrating projects for clients, and if so, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?
I don’t really get burnt out anymore. I used to get severely burnt out back when I was working my full-time job and doing near full-time freelance AFTER I got off of work. I gave up my full-time job to go 100% freelance when I realized that I was lacking real balance in my life. The upside to all of those really late nights and constant work was that I was able to build an identity outside of my job that allowed me to leave and continue on my own. These days, I only take on 2-3 jobs at a time. I don’t overload myself. This gives me the flexibility to work on a bunch of personal projects (whose list never seems to end). So in my current situation, I suppose doing art is always inspiring me to do more art (if that makes sense).
Your list of clients is impressive, but do you have a dream client? A company, product, or license that you’d love to work on?
I think at this point in my career, rather than hoping to land that dream client, it’s more about having the privilege to work on a really awesome project. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with all of my dream clients. When I say “dream”, I’m referring to the clients that, while in college, would have made me say, “Okay, I can die happy now” if I had a chance to work with any of them. But in reality there are always new and exciting frontiers to explore in design. There is always another dream job or dream client.
The only project that comes to mind that I would love to work on someday would be an opportunity to design an in-store Halloween seasonal campaign for Target. Target has been one of my main clients for about four years now and while I love the work I collaborate with them on, that Halloween campaign still eludes me.
Your upcoming TMNT poster you’ve been teasing on Instagram looks like a huge undertaking. How long do you spend on each character, and how many hours do you think you will have put in when it is all done?
It definitely was. As with any long project that tests endurance, I really had to find the will to complete the last dozen or so. After thirty characters, the world starts getting a little fuzzy and the days start blending together haha. Each character took me about 2-2.5 hours to complete. Some took a lot longer, like with Scale Tail. It took me that much time just to figure out the character design on paper.
I worked on this print for 3 weeks straight. For the complete project, I think it’s safe to assume I spent about 200 hours on the entire thing.
What is your all-time favorite toy series, and individual figure?
All time favorite? TMNT from Playmates. Second would be Star Wars, then The Real Ghostbusters, followed by Kenner’s Aliens. Individually, I would have to pick Deinonychus w/ Antor the Evil Rulon Warrior from the Dino Riders line. That figure was so amazing. A Deinonychus with lasers and this awesome brain box/skull helmet? Yes please.
What are some holy grails you’d like to add to your collection?
The T-Rex from Dino-Riders (complete with its original box) and the Technodrome (also complete with a the original box).
Is your collection mostly things you’ve bought as an adult, or actual toys from your childhood?
Thankfully, my mom had held on to a lot of the toys from my childhood. When I first started building my 80’s/early 90’s toy collection about 3 years ago, my original intent was to buy a mint-on-card or mint-in-box version of every figure I had when I was a kid. It didn’t take me long to realize that some of the toys I used to own were outrageously expensive to re-buy “new”. So as I started to make compromises, I also started to buy stuff from every popular franchise from that time period. Things got really out of hand at that point haha.
If your house caught on fire and you had time to save one toy, what would you grab?
I would probably save my packaged Egon figure from The Real Ghostubsters.
What’s your favorite cartoon theme song?
For me, it’s a battle between Denver the Last Dinosaur and the intro to Mighty Max. Both were prime examples of their respective eras. Denver the Last Dinosaur was a snare-happy 80’s pop jam and Mighty Max had the most amazing guitar riffs of any cartoon in the early 90’s.
Thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer some questions in conjunction with the giveaway of his awesome TMNT Compendium Poster. You can follow Chris on his website, Twitter, and Instagram @thebeastisback, and you can buy his art on his store.