Takin' Five with Derek April 07 2021

Derek Yaniger was born and bred in the South, and was inspired by cartoon art all around him – on his father’s jazz albums, his mother’s recipe books, Mad Magazine, Rat Fink model kit box art. He graduated with a BFA in Illustration/Design from the University of Georgia, then moved to Atlanta to work for various ad agencies and Turner Entertainment. Feeling uninspired, Derek made his own comic book and landed a gig with Marvel Comics, then Cartoon Network, then decided to go solo with his retro-inspired art. His career spans over 18 years, and his own artwork delves into the retro world of beatniks, tiki bars and Vegas glamour.

Interview by Martin McIntosh. Photos supplied by Derek Yaniger.

Tell us little about your creative beginnings. Do you come from an artistic family?

I think I've always been an artist. Even as a wee crumbsnatcher I was obsessed with cartoon art. Whether it was the Sunday comic pages or illustrations in my Mom's recipe books, or the art on my Dad's jazz albums – I spent a lot of time in my younger days soaking in all these cool Mid-century images. I started learning to draw by tracing the Sunday funnies – I learned how to draw Snuffy Smith, Dagwood, and Dennis the Menace! Pretty soon I didn't need to trace 'em anymore. And no, weirdly no other artists in my family.

How have you coped with the past year? What’s helped you get through it all?

It's been a stone cold drag! Luckily those closest have remained well, so that's a groovy thing! The COVID lockdown deal didn't really affect me that much! I've been workin' from home for damn near 30 years! I mostly just kept my head down and worked my way through the whole thing. I did miss the cancelled conventions and gallery gigs, so that's a bring-down!

Your paintings are so appealing! One is mesmerised by your polished technique; the paint consistency and crispness, the indented outline work and the small details right down to your hand specially crafted hand made frames. The whole package is alluring! How did you arrive at this technique? Was it something that hit you in a lightning bolt moment or something that gradually formed over time?

Damn! Well ain't you the nicest cat in the kingdom! Thanks for the kind words. It gradually formed over time. I like a really tight, clean, smooth line. I hate workin' on canvas, so I started early on painting on wood panels. I used to transfer my images using graphite sheets, but then I had to go back and erase all that graphite, which I did not dig. I noticed the transfer dug indentations into the wood, so I figured I could just use those as my painting guide. And I started framing them because I want that sombitch up on someone's wall as fast as possible!

What is your perfect art-making day?

Early run, shower, coffee in the studio, rain starts (after my run), some shorty on the turntable. Not too hungover from last night. Standing at my drawing table with an empty pad and a pencil in my paw. Then... GO!

You’ve amassed quite a collection of objects and ephemera that evidently inform and inspire some of your paintings. Are there any holy grail items that you would love to add to your collection? Any recent finds of note?

Yes, I do have a lot of useless crap! Thank you for mentioning it! Admitting I had a problem was the first step. In regards to a holy grail, it's just so damned easy to find everything these days! What with the eBays and the Etsys n' whatnot. I would, however, gargle bees to get my mitts on an Underdog lunchbox! I very recently nabbed a Deputy Dawg vinyl box in mint condition for a steal! Sucker didn't know what he had!!

The abstraction and minimalism seen in some Mid-century era animation such as that UPA produced in the 1950s is something that I see certain parallels with in your aesthetic. What is it about this style that appeals to you?

I think again it goes back to all the 50s n' 60s illustrations and animations that my spongy little brain was soakin' up along the way. I was still a kid when I first saw the Disney short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. I flipped out! The adult me loves the UPA style stuff because a lot of it was for commercials so the animation had to be simple – had to get the story across quickly. I love the challenge of that. I constantly edit as I work on sketches, trying to simplify it down to only what is necessary, while still trying to maintain the energy of those very first initial sketches.

I don't know if it's my all time fave, but Destination Magoo from 1954 is a solid gas!

Beantiks often feature as subjects in your work. As much as I have a fondness for the “authentic” Beats such as Jack Kerouac, I’ve also been more drawn to their cartoon relative – the beatnik! Do you have any favourite depictions from film, TV and pop culture?

When I was a youngster being influenced by movie, TV and comic book beatniks, I had no idea who Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg were! I got nothin' at all against them cats, but it was the ridiculous way that the media parodied the whole thing that flipped my switches! My first exposure to the world of beatniks was the Beanie and Cecil episode The Wild Man of Wildsville! Crazy!

Favorite depictions? That's a real noodle scratcher! Who played "beat" best?! Maynard Krebs? Jethro Bodean? Herman Munster? I think I'm leanin' towards Jethro. That goatee was the MOST!

In your last chat with us you spoke of importance and influence of music. What are 5 musical tracks that you can recommend as audial accompaniments to your paintings?

These are all great questions, by the way! Hard to trim the list down to just five, I feel like I'm leaving someone out!

Wigglin' Fool – Jack Hammer

Martians Go Home – Shorty Rogers

Stop Whistlin' Wolf – The Maddox Bros. and Rose

Willie the Wild One – William the Wild One

Beatnik Daddy – Barbara Evans

What would be a dream project to work on or something you've been looking to experiment with further?

I've been one lucky cat and thankfully have gotten to do most of the stuff that I always wanted to do, so there is really no reason I can think of to continue. I would like to take this opportunity to officially announce my retirement from the world of mid-level lowbrow art! Okay....that's a lie. No way I'm givin' this up! And besides, what the hell else would I do?

Do you have a favourite piece from the show?
Such a Nite! But Right On is a close second!

Thanks for chatting to us, Derek!