Rory Kurtz is a highly skilled commercial artist/graphic designer who has been making a name for himself from The Big Apple to Tinseltown. Kurtz has a style which can best be described as a mix between dreamy/ethereal and hyper-real. It’s kind of like that brief window of time between being asleep and awake, when you’re not sure if you’re still dreaming. That’s kind of how it feels to gaze upon Kurtz’ glorious works. And take your pick of them – everything from breathtaking renditions of David Bowie and Humphrey Bogart, to the ‘The Driver’ from Drive and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
He’s done spectacular work for Rolling Stone, Mondo and The New Yorker just to name a few. While he works far from Hollywood, Kurtz has movies on the brain, and pours his passion for cinema into every drop of ink, and digital brushstroke of his brilliant commissions.
We spoke to Kurtz once before – when he was producing a duo of posters for Mondo in 2016 (check that out here) – and we were very happy to catch up with him again. How much has he been up to in less than two years? Well, for a superstar like Rory, a lot!
Q. Your career has really taken off recently. Give us a little back ground on your interests, your talents, and when you first realized you had a knack for art?
I’ve been working at the same drafting table for thirty years now. So you could say I’ve been at it awhile. I honestly couldn’t tell you a time when I didn’t enjoy the craft.
Q. My favorite artists are the painters who can paint something so crisp and vivid that it’s nearly photo realistic. Your work has such depth and texture; it’s like a hyper-real photograph. What exactly do you to do achieve that?
Well that’s a matter of practice really. A solid understanding of lighting is a must, and experience painting different textures is a great help too, along with a lot of man hours. I’ve heard a few people theorize that there must be some photo filter or trick to it, when it’s honestly just decades of practice and study. I’m nearly forty now, and have been at this since I was old enough to hold a pencil.
Q. Tell us about how you like to work. How much of the art is physical, and how much is digital? And who do you work with to ensure the depth of your work on the computer is translated well to a silk screen poster?
For personal work I mix traditional and digital as necessary. For client work and posters I’m almost entirely digital now. I like to have total control of color separations for screen printing, so the digital aspect is a must. I do all the seps and dissolves myself and try to give the printer a file that’s as clean as possible. It also helps to work with printers like DL Screenprinting or Lady Lazarus, who really know what they’re doing, inside and out.
Q. Variants are very popular with collectors. How and when does that have to be built into the design process? And is there ever a time in the production where you are hands off?
Variants are never a given for me, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that they are always necessary. It has to make sense for the art, otherwise it’s just a gimmick for gimmick’s sake. There are situations where it can enhance the work, like a foil version Ex Machina where the reflective substrate gets across the chrome mechanics of Ava’s frame. Or Annihilation, where I can have the duality of a daylight and a moonlight version. Drive, The Graduate, The Dark Knight, and other posters I’ve done work best simply as they are, to try and shoe horn in a different colorway or special effect paper would take away from the art.
Q. What about your work really excites you? And how do you see your work progressing from piece to piece?
I just love poster art like crazy. I collect it. I create it. I cover my walls with it. It’s such a fun sandbox to play in. I’ve always been a movie fanatic, and this so seamlessly ties my two interests together. I try to approach each poster as it’s own entity entirely, letting the film decide if it needs a conceptual or literal execution.
As far as how I see my work progressing, I’m afraid I’m too close to it to answer that. How each poster changes from concept to final is often as much a surprise to me as to anyone else.
Q. What do you do between projects to stay sharp or develop new techniques?
Well there’s rarely much time between projects, since they often overlap and run against each other. More often than not I develop new techniques as needed. Concepts pop up that I may not have the ability to fully realize, and those are the moments when I start working out new approaches and playing with different skills.
Q. The last time we spoke, you told me that if you had one great idea, it was better to work that out as opposed to doing mocks of three or four sub-par ones? How long does it take to commit to just one and move forward with that?
It depends on the assignment. Sometimes the idea just seems to fall out of the sky ready to go, other times I work for weeks on different concepts before coming up with something that is worth seeing through to the end. Usually, I know it immediately upon seeing it, whether it will work or not as a final piece.
Q. What pieces have surprised you by being, either more complicated than you anticipated, or simpler?
They’re rarely simpler truthfully. If anything, they just get more complicated, lol. But I usually just surrender to that. The Dark Knight poster was weeks of drawing buildings and windows one small section at a time. To this day, people don’t often realize that those are all rendered by hand. There are very few shortcuts in creating separately screened art for screenprinting. Often the slow methodical path is the only one. Ex machine and Annihilation were also time consuming puzzles to create. But I know that going in, and lean into to it.
Q. When you are commissioned to do a piece for a publication, or a client, how much control do you have to create the piece you envision, or the piece they want? How has that changed or remained the same in recent years?
That depends on the client and art director. Some directors have very fixed ideas that they need me to execute, while others offer complete freedom, and all varying levels of direction in between too.
Q. What has surprised you most about your career and the industry since you started working commercially?
Well I started working commercially and editorially a decade ago now, and the biggest surprise is how much need there is for illustration. It wasn’t until I stared working in this field that I started to see just how much great work is being released regularly in ad campaigns, magazines, book covers, posters, and on and on and on.
Q. What is something that’s well understood in your profession but the public perception is either wrong or way off?
That’s difficult to say, because everyone’s perception of this field is different. I had a poster collector ask me recently who’s work I may not like. And I wouldn’t answer that because frankly from the inside of the machine I can see how hard all of these artists work, and how much of themselves they pour into it. If anything there’s a misconception that it’s somehow easy for an artist to do what he/she does, and they consider that “talent”. But really it’s just a life of commitment, practice, trial and error, dedication, and a ridiculous amount of hours spent at work.
Q. How do you keep busy, or relax when not working? And what do you usually do after finishing a project?
When I get time away from work, I love to spend it with my wife and my family and friends. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s the absolute truth. I spend most of my time happily locked away alone in the studio working in silence, so it’s important for me to step away and enjoy other people’s company when I can.
Q. Who do you look up to, and who is the top of the pyramid in your opinion? And what person, or experience has taught you the most?
That’s a heavy question. As far as other artists and their work, the list of who I’m crazy for is too long to write out in single interview. I could name a hundred off the top of my head, lol. I’m such a lover of art that I’m constantly blown away by new work. At the moment I’m following Miles Johnston, Matt Taylor, Joao Ruas, Kilian Eng, Kent Williams, Soey Milk, Andrew Hem. Randy Ortiz, Aron Wiesenfeld, and on and on. As far as who sits at the top? Who’s to say? It’s all subjective. And changes from moment to moment. To answer your second question, I can’t say that any one person or instance has taught me as much as simply time. Time working, time waiting, and time spent reaching has taught me more than anything in this craft. The work gets better with time. Never cut corners on a piece to save time. Time is the key, in a dozen different ways.
Q. Whether it was a rejected pitch, or something you haven’t been asked to do yet, what’s on your wish list? And do you have any side/personal projects do you work on?
I can’t say there’s been any rejected pitch or missed opportunity that haunts me. I go with the flow on that. And I can’t say I have much of a wish list. I just take it as it comes and try to make sure I do the best I can with the work in front of me. I do however, have a bit of personal work I’m thinking about, and I peck away at it as I’m afforded the time. But I like what I get to do at the moment, so I’m happy to stay focused on that.
Q. As fellow movie nerd, I have to ask: what are your guilty pleasures, and what do you love that other people hate?
Any sci-fi I can get my hands on. I’ll watch just about any space romp, or trippy fantasy flick that makes it’s way to streaming. And I guess I find myself in that group of people who really enjoyed The Last Jedi. I thought is was bold and original and brought some really fresh ideas to the franchise, despite the protestations from the hungry fan base.