Sports and art are two very different things. And it is easy to assume that the general fan of one might not really be into the other. But that’s not necessarily so. If you’re on Instagram or Twitter, you’ve probably seen an explosion of sports illustrations recently. After a big game or an important event in the sports world, sites like Bleacher Report will have an illustrated image up almost instantaneously to engage with fans. It has become a really interesting intersection between two major industries that are both starting to realize the potential of one another.
This past weekend at Emerald City Comic Con, I met Conrad Javier, one of the most prominent illustrators in this movement. We got to chop it up about his beginnings, his process, and his goals. He’s also from Chicago, the best city in the world, no cap. #TheresAlwaysAChicagoConnection??
Conrad Javier’s Chicago Roots
Black Nerd Problems: Who or what first inspired you to start drawing?
Conrad Javier: It’s actually a funny story. When I was in kindergarten, there was this contest, whoever won would have their art go on a shirt. My brother was known as the best drawer. Older brother. 5th grade. Just super confident. So in kindergarten, I was like Chris help teach me how to draw so I can try and win this. He told me to go teach myself. I got really angry. So I spent all night doing this drawing. The day comes, judgment comes, and all of a sudden there’s actually a tie. And now my brother is angry. They said “Christopher Javier, and his little brother Conrad”. The whole auditorium went silent, and you just hear me go “Yes!” So I actually learned because my brother was not nice to me. After that it kind of led to a lot of Dragon Ball Z and a lot of comic books by like Alex Ross. That’s one of the main things that got me inspired early. And then as I grew up, I got super inspired by concept artists and the game industry.
BNP: So I initially followed you from one of your Illustrations for the Chicago Bulls. And seeing your work here, it’s obvious that Chicago is prevalent in a lot of your art. What is it about the city motivates you?
CJ: Well I went to school there my entire life. The American Academy of Art was my college. The city, first of all, is just beautiful. I was just talking to someone here about it. Chicago is a city where it’s about really learning how to work through and persevere through difficult times. But the city and the vibe— It’s got a lot of fighters. So for me personally, coming from Chicago, I always feel like I’ve got to keep going, keep fighting. That’s definitely like a mid-west, Chicago thing. To just kind of go, and not be satisfied by the status quo.
How He Got Here
BNP: Was sports always something that influenced your creative side? Or did you kind of just stumble into it?
CJ: Well I’ve always loved sports, you know. Coming from a Filipino background — Filipinos culturally love basketball. It’s like their lifeblood. They will do whatever to play basketball. I went to the Philippines for a month. I saw kids and adults wearing no shoes, running in flip flops full speed on the concrete playing basketball. That’s how much we love it. It’s ingrained in my soul. I’ve always been an artist who loves sports and I haven’t really met a ton of artists who kind of love that.
BNP: It’s definitely not the most common intersection.
CJ: It’s a really weird mixture. It wasn’t until I decided to go freelance that I kinda thought well what if I make that into like a niche market. So actually Bleacher Report were the first ones who offered me the opportunity. I really think sports illustrations are on the up and up. Like two years ago when I started, I did the Chance Grammy illustration and a mixture of some stuff with the Bulls — that’s actually what got me more work with them and Bleacher Report. Since then I was like either I haven’t known about this audience, or it’s just everyone now is starting to get into it which is great to see. So many great sports illustrators now. Sports has always been a really big thing but I never started illustrating it until recently with my own style. There’s something to be said about just having it look like Michael Jordan and then giving someone like the essence of it. I wanted to bring that.
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Huge thanks to the @chicagobulls for the awesome collaboration! I had a ton of fun working on this piece! More collabs incoming! . . . #basketball #digitalpainting #chicagobulls #chicago #basketball #michaeljordan #45 #GOAT #superman #art #Saturday #espn #breakingnews #seeingred #bullsnation
BNP: Tell me about how you got on Bleacher Report‘s radar.
CJ: It took me a long time to make the decision to jump to freelance because it’s very risky. I was scared, of course. But 2 weeks out, I drew an illustration a day and tagged Bleacher Report every day until they noticed me. But I did my research. I kind of was like “I think they would like this style. I think that would work.” So eventually they reached out with that opportunity. Then months later, the Bulls reached out and we started collabing and now I’ve been working with them for two years.
BNP: So with the illustrations for these teams or sites, how do they commission you an idea? Is it vague, or are they pretty detailed in what they ask for? How much creative freedom do you have?
CJ: With different clients, it’s definitely different parameters. Especially if say a company has a sponsorship, you’re kinda liable to using their parameters. But in general, it is kind of flexible. For the most part, art directors will reach out to you, see your availability, and then give you the brief. And if it works with you and your schedule, then you can accept it. Then you kind of go from there. I had the opportunity to gain a little bit of rapport with these clients where they let me have a lot of creative freedom because they can trust that I can get it done. And I kind of have an established style. And I kind of have a flexibility. I’ll say it’s kind of more comic-y style, more line art, more exaggerated.
BNP: The one you did for the NFL playoffs with the Saints and the gumbo, that was hilarious.
CJ: That illustration was crazy because sometimes they allow me to stream on Twitch while I’m working, and I was telling my Twitch community that as an illustrator I’ve never thought of drawing people in gumbo. And I was just telling them, have you ever drawn anyone in gumbo? That was a piece where I hadn’t really done a lot with them for a little bit, maybe a couple of months, so I really wanted to kill that one. There was a lot of really small finesse things in that one.
BNP: So the Chance piece, was that the first illustration of yours that really blew up?
CJ: Yeah, that one was insane because when they approached me they said have you heard of Chance The Rapper, and I’m from Chicago so I’m like yeah, of course. And I know the image of Jordan holding the trophies. That was the first one for sure. I had no idea it was gonna blow up. It was shared everywhere. The original illustration had two trophies on it because nobody knew he was gonna win three trophies that night. So actually Bleacher Report reached out to me and was like hey can you make an edit to this but what they didn’t know was that I was already doing the new trophy because I was watching. So yeah that was the first piece that really put me in the limelight so to speak.
BNP: What’s the general turnaround time that you have to work with?
CJ: That’s a tough one because it varies. But at the same time, I’d say I’m a little bit faster than some others. That definitely comes from having that strong traditional fundamental background of like going to school and oil painting and learning life drawing. So likenesses are kind of my strength, and portraits. So I mean, I would love—everyone would love multiple days, but it really depends.
BNP: Well, I know in terms of sports, these accounts sometimes have the image up almost instantaneously. So when we’re talking about the outcome of a particular game, I’d imagine you’ve got very little time to work with. In those instances, do you have to draw two different pictures?
CJ: That’s a common question I get. You know one of the most common posts on Bleacher Report is like “You guys are too fast!” So generally what happens is they’ll approach me with just one, and I think another artist will probably have another. I did a World Cup illustration, and I did both. So that one was like hundreds of fans, and I basically just had to switch out the players. If you plan it right — luckily that’s where the illustration foundation comes in — it’s not that bad. It’s a totally different thing, though when you have to make two different illustrations
BNP: At least it’s not like back in the day when they made NBA Championship gear for both teams and then had to ship the losing team’s team’s overseas.
CJ: Yeah exactly. And the art directors I work with, they understand that. They know like you have three days, we don’t know whose gonna win so let’s maybe make the composition slightly similar. I did the Superbowl illustration and that’s what happened. I did both. But that’s not always the case.
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It's always an honor to paint a ? Check out my latest @patriots painting I created for @bleacherreport ! @tombrady wins his 6th Superbowl! AD: @bbourhis . . . . #superbowl #football #patriots #tombrady #goat #sports #sunday #ram #la #champion #editorialillustration #illustration #sketchbook #artoninstagram #draw
Looking Forward, Looking Back
BNP: What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you were first getting started?
CJ: I think in general, the one main thing that doesn’t really get talked about a lot is the mental aspect of the creative process. You learn about technique, you learn about working with clients. Even taxes aren’t really talked about which I think everyone should talk about more — the financial aspect of freelancing.
BNP: It should be a class.
CJ: It should be a class for sure. Just talking about how to organize an invoice and all that.
CJ: But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned looking back after these two and a half years is keeping your mental self in check. A year after freelancing I was just kind of sad. At the end of the year I was like I don’t know what’s up. I kind of feel weird. Kind of feel discombobulated. I wasn’t really feeling well. And it was because I was just sitting in my room all day. Just drawing. And that’s fine, I get it. But I’m an extroverted person, and I just feel like you have to feed that energy. And as soon as I started doing that, like seeing more friends, my work just started to be more natural. It’s kind of like what they say in fine art where if you’re an artist that sits in your room and paints all day, you’re paintings are gonna be about you sitting in your room. But if you live a good life or an experienced one, or even if you’ve had some trauma you’ve gone through, that’s what you’re gonna be drawing. So mentally, that’s what I’d tell myself. I’d say hey it’s okay. Because I go hard. I really am a man of extremes. But keeping that balance is so much more important.
BNP: What would your ultimate career goal be? Something that when it’s all said and done, you could look back and not have any regrets?
CJ: That’s a tough one. I’ve been thinking about that lately, too. I feel like I’m at that age. I’m getting more clients. Like the dream clients that I want. I think I would love to have created something that’s like my own. Something from the ground up. And to be able to affect as many people as I can. Whether it’s sports or — my big thing is like maybe one day I’ll own a company. Like a TV company or something and I’ll have stuff that’s geared towards kids and something in learning. I just wanna create, man. I wanna create the biggest thing that reaches the most people. And it’s not about me. That’s a big goal, but if we’re talking smaller, I think it would be to just continue doing what I’m doing. But just more. More, more, more, more.
Click Conrad’s Instagram page to have Conrad’s jaw-dropping art bestowed upon you.