Brian Barber Q&A

April 27, 2020
Brian Barber draws animals better than anyone.

“There are always times when you feel stuck on a project. I’ll go from editing video to illustration to drawing. The variety helps me.”

How early on did you discover you loved to draw and design things?

Probably fifth or sixth grade. I think that’s when most people start to get self-conscious about drawing or art things, and worry if they’re good at it or not. I don’t think I was any better than anyone else, I just kept drawing because it was fun, and a couple of friends and I would make the stupidest drawings to entertain each other. I can remember studying and copying Don Martin characters in MAD magazine, we thought that was the funniest stuff.

How much did growing up in Nebraska influence your sensibility?

I don’t really know. I’m sure it had some influence, but I don’t know if I could point to anything specific. More than the place, the people probably set me on a path. I knew a lot of people doing weird and wonderful things in music and art.

Did you teach yourself at an early age or were teachers guiding you early on?

I had plenty of art teachers from junior high through college. As you might imagine with art, each one had their own style, things they were passionate about, and different things they brought to teaching.

When did photography come into the mix?

I took a beginning photo class in college as an elective, and I can remember struggling with it the first semester. A history of photography class opened up a lot more interest for me. After seeing work by Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and “street” photographers, I started shooting lots of film of almost anything, and then picking out the interesting, usually accidental shots from contact sheets. The “spray and pray” method. When I graduated, I had taken pretty equal parts illustration, design and photography. After school, I knew my haphazard way of using a camera wouldn’t be a good way to build a commercial photography career, but always loved shooting. So design and illustration were safer routes for me to make a living. With digital photography and video, I could immediately see that I got the “good” shot for client work, but still do some weird, spontaneous, or experimental stuff too. In the last few years, I’ve dusted off the film cameras, and have been shooting with them and developing the film. It’s such a different feeling shooting film than digital.

How did you end up in Minneapolis after college?

I knew I wanted to go somewhere. I almost moved to San Francisco right after graduating, but realized how expensive it was, and chickened out. I had a friend from Lincoln who was living in Chaska with his girlfriend, and said I could stay with them. I stayed there for a couple weeks, driving into Minneapolis every day to apply for jobs and look for an apartment. I got a job at a screen-printing shop in Loring Park and an apartment downtown right next to the convention center. My place then became the crash pad for several other people who made the move from Nebraska to the Twin Cities.

You spent many years as an art director at such agencies as Russell Herder before branching out on your own. What kind of work do you like to take on these days?

I like the variety. I like building a relationship or a little history with a company or person and building on that with each project. It can be hard to start from scratch with a new client, but it’s also interesting to learn about each new business. But when you find clients that you work well with, that makes the projects go well, that’s really valuable.

You’re an award-winning illustrator, designer, animator and photographer. Does having all these creative outlets help your overall creative output?

I think so. There are always times when you feel stuck or maybe burned out on a project, and I’ve always got something else I can turn to switch things up. Each thing takes a different kind of concentration and brain space. If I spend several weeks editing video, and then I switch gears and do illustration, it takes me awhile to get into a groove for drawing again. But that variety helps me a lot, I think.

How important are beautiful natural surroundings to you and your work? How does living in Duluth help your work?

Duluth is great. There’s a lot going on here, a lot of people doing interesting things. I feel lucky to have been able to make a career in art here. And a lot of other people have done the same. For some events or businesses it would be nice to have a little more critical mass and support up here, but overall, there’s a lot of inspiration in other people and obviously, the surroundings are fantastic. I walk four blocks and I’m on a trail with cliffs and waterfalls. Or I look out the window and see Lake Superior. I loved being in Minneapolis, but have never regretted the move north.

Your animations often remind me of Terry Gilliam. Was he an influence? 

For sure. I just watched Holy Grail a couple nights ago to see if it still held up after watching it so many times in high school and college. It does. They influenced so many things.

I’ve always loved how you sketch animals, particularly frogs. What’s the secret to sketching an animal?

Figure out the right simplified shape for the face or body, add some big googley eyes, and usually a deadpan expression in the mouth. That’s the starting recipe.