Marketing Wiz Turned Pop Artist : Blake Jamieson
Written by Jerry O'Mahony
Blake Jamieson is the premier portrait artist for athletes right now. His street-art style takes photographs of the players at their best moments and creates them into pop art. Blake is also AHA’s Spotlight Artist, and he took some time to talk to us over the phone from his studio.
AHA: Hey, Blake. Thanks for talking today. Just to get us started, can you tell me a little about your art?
Blake Jamieson: Sure. I would say that my style of art is pop-art, and I paint a lot of portraits. I work with a lot of athletes and celebrities. They’re kind of my focus.
I didn’t go to art school, I went to UC Davis to study economics, and always had art as a passion—a side project—and decided on my 30th birthday to pursue art full-time, and use my marketing skills from my previous career to promote my own work.
AHA: How and when did you make the jump from marketing to art?
Blake: I put in my notice with the company I was working for on my 30th birthday. I had just gotten to a point where the career wasn’t challenging and the work wasn’t fun. I wasn’t looking forward to Mondays anymore. So, I knew it was time for a change.
When I left that job I didn’t know immediately know that I was going to go full-force into art. I just knew that I wanted to do something else that made me happy. After I quit that job, I made a trip to Barcelona in Spain, and while in Barcelona—they offer a lot of free walking tours and history lessons about the history of the city, and one of them was a street art and graffiti tour. Barcelona has an awesome cultural history and importance, globally speaking, in the graffiti scene.
That was really inspiring, and I went home that night to the hostel I was staying at and I saw that there was an art store across the street. I figured I would buy some supplies and start painting—I mean, start painting again. I had done it a lot in my life already. I started painting, doing street art in Barcelona and got a lot of really good feedback. People seemed to be really receptive to what I was putting out there, and when I came back to the U.S after that trip, I decided that art was going to be what I put all my efforts towards.
AHA: What got you into street art in the first place?
Blake: I’ve always been drawn to that style of art, but I’ve never painted in street graffiti before that trip. So, I’d say that trip and that tour definitely inspired me to actually drive in and try. When I came back to the US, doing graffiti in the street, unless it’s commissioned by a building or a company is not legal. I wanted to do something as a sustainable business, not something that would get me in trouble. So I did that same kind of art, just on canvas in the studio. The rest is history.
AHA: What drew you to sports portraits?
Blake: Honestly, I’ve always enjoyed both playing and watching sports growing up, but the reason I ended up in this niche of painting professional athletes was kind of by chance. I was delivering some art to a client in Las Vegas, and I met this guy who was an NFL agent—he was also an ex-NFL player—and he just really liked my work and he thought that his clients would as well.
He suggested that I meet a couple of his clients for free to get my foot in the door and have them promote it to some of their teammates. Then it took off—a lot. The built-in business-development side of that niche I that those guys are really competitive, so that if one guy gets a painting, the other guy wants a bigger painting.
AHA: So that worked out.
Blake: Yeah, it worked out. And also, they also have so many amazing photographs of them doing ridiculously crazy things. All these athletes are almost superhuman. They make these moments that are turned into a photograph and then I can make that into a painting. I think that by using paint, rather than just using a photograph, you get a to express a little more of that energy and that movement.
AHA: What’s your process when you’re in the studio? What kind of materials do you use for these portraits?
Blake: All my art is created using hand-cut stencils. I’m printing out a large-scale photograph on a large format printer, and then I’m taking an exacto knife and cutting parts out of that photograph to make a stencil. That allows me to paint through wherever I cut out. Typically I’ll cut two different stencil layers, a white layer and a black layer.
Those are cut from just regular large paper, and then once the stencil is cut, before I pull it all up, I put it on this mesh on top. It’s called lypotape, and it’s usually used for patching large areas of drywall. It’s sticky on one side, it holds the stencil together and gives it a little more rigidity and and helps it last. You also end up with a grid pattern that you see through all of my stencils, almost like a grid pattern. I like that it almost looks like it’s pixels, almost like it was digital, but everything was done analog, so you end up with this hybrid look.
AHA: Did you ever play with making these portraits digitally?
Blake: I’ve never done too much with digital. When I worked in marketing, that required me to do some graphic design stuff for web content. I know my way around Photoshop, but when I started painting full-time, I was pretty set on doing it by hand. When I very first started making my stencils, I was using Photoshop to help me create the stencils. I got away from that pretty quickly, because I wanted to make something that wasn’t easily replicated by someone else who knew their way around Photoshop.
AHA: Have your skills from your time in marketing helped you out finding clients?
Blake: Yeah, I think that my marketing skills are more important than my painting skills. I can always get better at both, and I try to, but [marketing helped me realize] I need to choose a niche and focusing on the athlete portraits above everything else, and that was an important step to carving out a foundation to a solid business. Beyond that, it helps with the creative ways to market the business. I don’t mind giving free pieces away to potential clients as strategic gifts. I build that into my marketing plan. And on the back end, those guys are getting those paintings with the preset expectation that they’re going into share it on social media and they’re going to tag me to help promote my business. I’ve got marketing built into the process in as many steps along the way as I possibly can.
AHA: So you got commissioned to work for the Topps 2020 Project making redesigns of classic baseball cards. What does that mean for you?
Blake: It’s awesome, man. I grew up collecting baseball cards with my dad, and I fell out of the hobby for a long time, but fortunately have a pretty good collection from my childhood. So when Topps reached out, it just first of all felt like a natural thing since I was already focused on the athletes. I was looking to increase my business, and the way I was doing it before was painting one painting of one player, and then I was moving onto the next client. While that’s a decent way to make some money, it’s not like a super-scalable thing. Working with Topps, I’m painting one painting and then they’re licensing that image and putting it onto thousands of baseball cards, getting my art into thousands of homes. It’s just a really exciting thing. It’s also reignited my love for collecting baseball cards and other things. It’s been fun getting back into that hobby and engaging with that community. The card-collecting community and the art community have a lot of overlapping people, but also overlapping mindset in the way that they think. The marketing [to that community] comes naturally because I’m already used to marketing to art collectors.
AHA: What do you mean they have an overlapping mindset? Like, they’re looking for similar things in the pieces they buy?
Blake: No, it’s just art is only worth whatever someone will pay for it, right? Any given piece of art, some people will think it’s good and some people will think it’s bad, and that’s okay. Baseball cards are basically the same. There are some cards that people love, they’ll say, “This is the best card of Jackie Robinson ever,” and other people will say “No, this card sucks, this other one’s great.” At the end of the day, there’s a market for it, and there are people who are willing to pay money for both art and baseball cards. I think that to the collector’s mindset, it doesn’t matter whether you’re collecting art or baseball cards. You’re building up this story behind this thing that could be an art piece or a baseball card, and because of that story that you tell yourself, it has a certain amount of value to you and you’re willing to pay money for it. So that translates really well.
AHA: When you’re not doing commissioned pieces, do you focus on doing pieces of athletes who have a really big myth or story?
Blake: Sometimes. Most of my athlete work at this point in my career is commissioned. Im working on a Jordan and Kobe piece right now, which is kind of also timely in terms of The Last Dance being so popular and obviously Kobe’s passing earlier this year. That has a lot of story and emotion and stuff behind it. Usually, if I’m not working on commissions I’m not working on sports stuff at all. I actually like to paint portraits of the artists that I love, like Picasso. I’ve done a bunch of Basquiat portraits, Frida Kahlo... I tend to end up painting artists’ portraits when I have free time, but it just depends.
AHA: Do you have any more modern influences? Artists you work with now, or really admire, that kind of thing?
Blake: It’s cool that in the Project 2020 Topps, it’s 20 different artists all reimagining iconic cards. So there’s a couple artists in that group of 20 that I’d always looked up to. And now that we’re both working on the same thing, it’s kind of brought us closer. A great example is an LA- based artist named Gregory Siff. His work is amazing. I’ve loved his stuff—I’ve followed him for years. Working on [Project] 2020, we’ve gotten close enough that we’re talking about our own practices, art, and ideas. So that’s been really, really cool. There’s another artists for stencils, specifically, who I think is just amazing. He goes by the name C215. Apparently, “C215” was his, like, jail cell number when he was arrested for the first time doing graffiti when he was a kid. He’s from France, his name’s Christian [Guémy], he’s extremely talented. I’ve never spoken to him, but he’s been a huge input on stencils. Also, I look up to artists for technical reasons, because I love what they’re doing artistically, and also for branding purposes. Andy Warhol—obviously not modern, current, but huge impact in terms of what he did to build his own brand. A more recent example of that would be Shepard Fairy. I think he’s done a really good job of taking street art and making it mainstream, putting it in a gallery, and selling some pieces for tens of thousands of dollars. I also just love Shepard’s work. Stylistically, he’s also had an impact on me and the way I create stencils and portraits.
AHA: You said you have a really big baseball card collection, do you have a favorite one?
Blake: Yeah. Mark McGwire was my hero growing up, so his ’85 Topps Team USA card--which people are kind of considering his true rookie card—was my favorite card and still is. The Mark McGwire that we’re painting for the Topps 2020 set is his 1987 card, which was his “official” rookie card. So I’ve got some ideas for when I paint that, where I’m going to have a little tribute to what I would consider his real rookie card, but doing it in a way where Topps is approving of it.
AHA: So, last thing, you have a really active YouTube channel. Is that part of your marketing angle, like finding a niche?
Blake: It’s been a fun thing keeping me painting every day and keeps me caught up on the business side of stuff. It keeps me creating and it’s a way to engage with fans of the Topps project and let them feel like they have some power. Not only like a behind-the-scenes look into my studio, but a little bit of say in terms of like some creative decisions that end up making it onto a Topps card.
Jerry O’Mahony is a freelance writer based out of New York, New York. He covers science, art, and anything else that lets him justify his Liberal Arts degree. You can find him on LinkedIn or on Cabin Fever Dispatch, his blog covering the science of the coronavirus pandemic.