20 Questions w/ Neil Yarnal


The Makings of a Man Opening Reception is just two days away! madelife sat down with Neil Yarnal, before his group show this Saturday, for a quick discussion on his process, inspirations, and life as a creative. 

Describe yourself and your work.

I am a hot knife, cutting through the mundane, the norm & what’s been done. As I grow, I’m learning that I am a special case—someone who never quite fits in. I’ve always been the odd man out, something that took 30 years for me to adjust to. 

I enjoy asking questions, and challenging perspectives. I am a man, to some, to others I am someone who dips in and out of the creative industry, running away from brands built and cultures created. Today, I am a painter and an illustrator—standing far away from my 10 year brand and product design career. I’m a big thinker, a strategist, and someone who sees systems, errors, and genuinely feels the world. Traditional painting is what grounds me, sets me free and allows me to interpret the world for digital regurgitation. Without painting, who would I be? I would be yet another cog in this great wheel. Bold words? Perhaps, but I’m not here to do what has been done, #ever. 

This body of work is 180° in the opposite direction from my last body of work. I took a classical approach to painting, with a personal twist. Each painting exudes the energy of the men in my life who have helped me see an alternative perspective; fueling my creative freedom as a working artist, illustrator, brand and product designer, and strategist. Each man here is bold, and beautiful. As with much of my work—there is a deeper understudy with these paintings. Perhaps by bringing people together through art and culture, we can indeed introduce new ideas, and attitudes? Perhaps these men have been chosen not only for what the have done, but what they can do, together? Boulder is changing—these men have the genuine power to help it change for the positive.

Who or what has been your biggest influence?

There is a man who has always influenced me—Albert Einstein. A man who’s books I have read cover to cover numerous times, and someone who, at an early age, helped me understand the beauty of combined art & science. In fact, those who push against the grain are who I gravitate too. I am attracted to power, and those who shake shit up, leaving when I feel the pulse of energy is sustainable for them to carry.

People influence me, all of them—the good, the bad, the mundane and the radical. I often break into laughter walking down the street, enamored by the world. I see and feel everything, which can be overwhelming—forcing me back to my studio to create what I’ve felt. My community is deeply influential to me; I seek environments that support this notion of internal pride, often becoming so loyal to companies or organizations that I sacrifice health. From the trenches of my soul, I seek to be an artist, an inventor, and a theorist—creating tailored and honest beauty in return.  

How did you get started in your career as an artist?

I think many would say they started being an artist when they were 6 or 7, and while that is true for me— I did not know I wanted to be an artist until the 7th grade. I drew a badass eagle in graphite, after being enamored with the flight capabilities of this giant African Eagle. They say it could pick up a Lion.

I received my B.F.A. in Illustration from Ringling College of Art and Design, a small and industry-celebrated multidisciplinary creative college in Sarasota, Florida in 2009. Much of my time in college was spent banging my head against the wall. Although I had truly found my people; weirdos, furries, comic-con dorks, freaks, performance artists (one kid dressed as a clown for 4 years #ringling), my work was almost always an outcast. Most of my Illustration professors asked me to move to Fine Art, as my work was often sculptural (and what I would later define in my branding career, as immersive). I’ve been arguing for immersion before I knew what it was—looking deeper into each field I immerse myself in.

Sure, I look at artists— we all do. Can I point to any one artist who’s been the biggest influence? Perhaps Ron Mueck, or Jenny Saville in college… currently, though? Inventors, comedians and philosophers more than anything—Michael Pollan, Joe Rogan, Tom Segura, Bobby Lee. Looking at art for inspiration isn’t something I need to do anymore, which sounds cocky—but I assure you, it isn’t. I find more beauty in shadows, and shapes, concepts of juxtaposition, and theory… and the men in this show.  

What piece of work best represents you and why?

The painting of Fred Hart represents where I want to take my work, which I suppose best represents me. It makes me smile and stare everytime I look at it. I painted over an existing painting of my ex, which felt powerful in itself. Fred represents process—as an individual, which is something I enjoyed capturing in his piece. Process is also what I live for—and while Fred’s process for product and packaging creation is much more buttoned up, I felt as though leaving the painting undone would show process from start to finish.

His left eye (your right) makes me tingle and shudder. I captured something there that I can’t quite explain past the idea of true immersion. As a trained Illustrator, I never actually thought I’d be a professional illustrator. Not because of talent or lack of admiration for the craft—but because I am a generalist, someone who is interested in many fields of application. To have found my voice in a painting, is a real gut punch. I painted this painting right after I quit my last job… my head spinning from theory and software development. We were working on a new medium, a digital interface unlike anything you’ve witnessed before. Immersion. Rather, Fred received much of this unconscious thought—both in paint application and life. We worked together right after I quit, my brain still raw and abstract. Fred is the poster.  

How do your materials influence your work?

How do they not? As a trained master of traditional mediums—materials are what keep this curious man moving forward. As I write, I am looking over a sea of mediums; pens and markers, brushes of all sizes, bookbinding bone folds, spray paint, ink, acrylic and oil paint, sand paper and sculpey… I know it all. And what I don’t know, I experiment with—understanding the systems behind application, technique, and failure.

For this body of work I chose oil paint, a medium I have run from since college. I was shit at oil painting in college, it’s fluidity and composition made no sense to my learning mind. Yet, my peers excelled at it. How? With 10 years of distance, knowledge, and understanding— I picked it up once more to conquer this body of work. Each painting uses mixed media, with 95% of the basis being set around oil; a medium built around light and energy, intent, and play.  

Where do you go daily / weekly to get inspired.

Coffee shops. Currently I am hooked on Ozo, though many people know me from Boxcar. I’ve made friends, business deals, brands, and illustrations here. Coffee shops represent something called Third Space—not our home or work, rather, a third space that allows us to play and release stress. What better place to find inspiration?

The streets of Boulder. For the last 2 years I have lived without a car. At first this was unintentional— I worked at lower and lower salaries to truly understand the importance of local design needs and startups. After year 1 I realized living without a car was a blessing. My body became strong, and my mind inspired. My brands reflect that. If I am my brands, why wouldn’t I do whatever it takes to soak in my immediate community?

My mind. This has been an insightful few years— I’ve learned so much about who I am in this community, and why alternative approaches to brand creation can yield beautiful results. I speak a lot about brands in a questionnaire that should be focused on paint application, yet I now see them as one. Without painting I could not understand the physics behind kinetic application—and how to show it. Without drawing, I could not understand the biology and chemistry behind brand immersion—why we are attracted to the simplicity of shapes and concepts. Without conceptual thinking and narrative thought, I could not understand brand systems and architecture. I fought for years in the brand industry for the idea of “Who we are matters,” now we are seeing a massive shift in media, pushed by advertising, pushed by design, pushed by designers. We are in the era of You—perhaps you’d like to step inside my mind? I have all the answers.   

What have you learned through creating that has surprised you?

Everything. I cannot learn unless I do it. I am both a kinetic and visual learner, to an extreme degree. In fact, I grew up with a learning disability, something many know not of. I do not know what a verb or a noun is, and quite frankly, I could give a shit. I see and feel everything—reading, math, science, you, your thoughts, your desires, and my wants.

What has surprised me is my ability to change minds—at a massive level. I nearly failed my senior thesis, begging the question “what is a narrative?” A former closet became a magical world, an illustration you could step inside of. Instead of the F that I could have received, I had to pitch to the chair of the Illustration Department to argue my case. I won, and I think I changed some minds during that talk; unplanned and off the hip—how I pitch brands, from my soul. By asking questions and challenging perceptions, we can create the worlds we are after.  

Describe your work routine for your artistic practice.

I have no work routine, a true blessing, and an act of commitment to the idea that play eats work. For many years I created brands, designs, illustrations, and strategies from 9-5…but I became increasingly late to work as the years progressed. Why 9-5? Who says that’s the most creative time? In fact, I would argue that by giving artists time guidelines—we are massively stifling their output, who they become inspired by, and their ability to interact with the world. That’s a whole other thing.

I work when I feel inspired. I break my life up into necessary time slots, calculated by color and feeling of the week and month. This month, for instance, has been a heavy work month–so I built color based parameters in my head to explore and lock-in on must-do’s. I allot myself wide swatches of time for creativity and play, keeping tasks such as meetings and “adulting” to a minimum. Rather than trying to do everything in one day, I often give myself entire days to be creative. Those days are often spent outside or in coffee shops in the morning, and in my studio in the afternoon. I must be alone to build brands, and surrounded by people when I paint. I enjoy the energy of pouring my soul out in public, feeling peoples wonder and amazement as each brushstroke falls into place.

Over the years, climbing has competed for a place in line with my creative output. It creates the same feeling as art, in many ways—solving a problem, visually and kinetically. I often smoke a bowl and go climb at the Spot or in the Flatirons to crush a painting or illustration project. Now that I don’t work 9-5, I work when I’ve truly sharpened my creative knife, ready to slash through with style and intent.

I always carry a sketchbook, my journal, and a bag of drawing tools on me—ready to capture a thought or sight. I can’t imagine not having my tools on me all the time—a cowboy without a holster. I am definitely slow to start in the morning, finding my creative expression comes best between 1-4 pm. I only work late at night if I feel the inspiration to do so… something I am learning as I grow up.

Tell us about any recent collaborations, why they worked or didn’t.

I haven’t collaborated with anyone in a long time. I see the beauty in it—but don’t find the desire in my work to share a canvas, wall, or gallery. Art feels singular to me—my collaboration is done with my career. Never say never, though—I’m always open to change and alternative thought!

How do you balance being an artist and making a living?

I think, if you love what you do—and the intent behind what you do is felt, you can be a working artist from the moment you decided that is so. Believing in yourself is key. I called myself an artist while I was making a living illustrating chalkboard signs in San Francisco, as much as I call myself an artist today, as much as I did in the 7th grade.

For many years I thought of art and career as separate—yet being an artist was always how I made my living. I deeply believe that one can be an artist in this modern world and make a living. I see my career to being a working artist in the traditional sense as a cone, tapering off to a tip—where career and art has merged, and become one. Perhapst the next stage will be tapered, or perhaps it is a mirror, only to reflect on the other side. Like a conversation, two tapered variables aqueous into a single point—which side is correct? Perhaps both.    

What is your process for coming up with new work?

Life. I don’t plan. I just do. I never saw the importance in planning—it wastes time and doesn’t allow for true energy to be captured. I don’t draw sketches, I don’t do color studies, I don’t create wireframes for Ui. I create living, breathing documents, and paintings. Creations that grow and expand from a single point of creation. I introduced this idea with the last company I worked at—creating life cycles of a brand based around time, space, and human characteristics. Allowing for both failures and wins to propel a body of work forward.

I write a fuck-ton. I write nearly every day— in my Shinola Detroit notebook. The paper is silky, one that accepts the ink of my fountain or BIC pen, well. When I was in my career, I would use google docs to write down every morsel of information I learned about the brand—using field research as a catalyst for creation. Writing helps focus me, though I never look back at what I’ve written. Putting words on paper allows me to download it from my subconscious into my conscious. Complete.

I must go and see before I can create. This is why a 9-5 becomes boring to me after a while. I become bored of habits and patterns. I’ve lived here 5 years and worked at 3 firms, with stints of freelance in between. I simply can’t sit still when my mind is bounding forward, always.

Why do you believe art has value?

Art is life. We are living, breathing creations of art. From the cave paintings in France, to your next iPad Pro creation, or the brand of socks you are wearing, art is part of our DNA, even if we are unaware of it. Why do we love Pixar films? Art. Why do you feel hungry when you look at McDonalds? Art. Why do you feel better shopping at Whole Foods (fuck Amazon)? Art. Art, as I believe, is the one thing that we all understand at a core level. Art holds value because it is value.

What is playing on your stereo these days?

Fucking Spotify—sometimes it’s full records, but that era is gone, maaaaan. Oddisee is a game changer for me— his lyrics cut through the bullshit, building a future for men like me to act with respect and honesty. I’ve been jamming to a lot of Afro-Cuban shit these days, Fela Kuti for life. Nirvana has been creeping back in—with some heavier feelings. I have a new playlist called Culture Machine that I’m groovin’ on these days, so much is captured in the names of our playlists, what’s being done with that data?

What are you reading right now?

Y’know, I normally don’t read. Not because I don’t like to—but I have severe ADD when it comes to focusing on a book. My mind often wanders halfways down a page, falling offen—enamored by a passing car, or bug. You caught me at a good time though! I’m reading Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind. 

As Michael Pollan so eloquently says:

“Our everyday waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

I’m looking forward to diving into this book a bit more on my vacation to Scotland!

Where is your favorite place to visit?

I’m leaving for Scotland tomorrow, I gotta say this is up there on my top 3. I grew up travelling the world, so this is tough. Spain has gotta be my number one. I think so much can be learned about people through food—and if paella says anything about the Spanish people, it’s that they are warm and grounded—happy to share and indulged… while probably taking a bit of a slower afternoon to prepare.

I backpacked with my sister at the age of 15, she was 17, across Spain. My parents were cool like that. Trust was something we were equipped with at a very young age, sometimes to a fault. We took trains across the country, staying in hotels and hostels. We got drunk and lost, and found ourselves. We learned the power of “the gods of travel,” becoming lost in a sauce of ‘change’ and ‘different.’ Something I find to be imperative for a young mind.  

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your creative career?

In the 7th grade a man by the name of Doug Sweetland came to our middle school library to talk about his role in an up and coming company called Pixar. Doug was the Head of Animation at the point, and created and animated Woody. I fell in love with computer animation in the 7th grade, the same year I drew that damn eagle.

Several weeks after Doug visited our school, I did a little research on him, and cold emailed his email address. To my surprise, he responded. For the next 10 years we kept up an email correspondence. He even invited me out to Pixar in the 11th grade, “for lunch.” He gave my father and I a tour of the playful studio, equipped with people riding scooters, and paper planes flying around. Each department wore a different concept—like Westworld. Play was everywhere.

Doug bent my ear at one point, as he was showing us behind the scenes footage of the Incredibles that he was animating, and said: “Don’t go to college for animation, go to college to learn how to draw and paint. You can learn any program any day, drawing and painting is the core of everything—study this and it will open up worlds.” His advice actually pulled me out of Savannah College of Art and Design, and into Ringling College of Art and Design—1 day before final applications were accepted. I almost didn’t take his advice, studying computer animation at SCAD. My gut told me RCAD was the answer—and I got in on the skin of my teeth. It’s how I met a very talented artist, Kyle McCullough— I was the third roommate in a 2 person room. We made it work and became best friends and artists who pushed against the grain. Doug is now the Director of Animation at Sony, I shook his hand when I graduated in 2009, after flying out for an interview with Pixar. I decided against this internship, ultimately—following his advice to draw and paint for the rest of my life, instead.

Which new (or newly discovered) artist is currently inspiring you the most?

Hmmm… this is a thinker. I’ve been really inspired by a comedian Bobby Lee, recently. He hosts a podcast called Tigerbelly, and was on MadTV back in the day. The way he thinks is fascinating to me. He’s a weird fucking person, which I gravitate towards—yet he’s humble and open. I appreciate when people don’t hide behind any one understanding or concept.

I find a lot of inspiration in comedians, actually. Joe Rogan has created an empire from his voice, shifting the way people are thinking about media and receiving information. I adore when change comes from the most unexpected places—that to me feels like true inspiration.

I never really look at art for inspiration. I would say I’m quite selfish on Instagram—often looking at hilarious videos, or what my friends are up to versus scrolling for inspiration. The occasional thing pops in—Aryz, Alex Kanevsky, women who are changing the game, but no one person.   

What’s the best thing about your studio/ workspace/ workshop?

The light. It used to be my ex’s and I’s bedroom—but when my roommate (Brandon, who I painted), moved in, we both felt it was a great studio space. We both work out of here—looking over our big backyard, a rare Boulder commodity. Light is another rare commodity for artists—finding natural light is like finding a 4 leaf clover, something worth smashing into a book and saving forever.

What do you do when you hit a block?

Rest. Let it happen — forcing work often feels counterproductive. When I don’t create as much, I’m writing a fuck ton. Building and cultivating my next wave of creation. Palms up, I meditate a lot during these times—often seeking nature and mind expansion as much as possible. Like in Tai Chi, if you resist, you will fall—if you roll the energy, the opposing force will fall.

What’s the best part about being an artist?

That I can write all of this crap and you can either take it as insightful information or absolute shit. Being an artist has allowed me to be who I am for the last 10 years—pushing against social norms, and industry standards. I wear bright and ridiculous clothing a lot of the time, I am covered in tattoos and piercings, and generally represent alternative views.

Inside my head, it allows me to see the world differently, and report as such. I used to work tirelessly to explain my point of view on the world. Now, I work with extreme intent—finding true balance in working versus playing. Being an artist allows you to see what I mean, rather than me trying to explain it to you. These 20 questions are an example of telling rather than showing—a medium that is peculiar, yet incredibly satisfying. My friends, those who know me, often tell me I talk too much—when those who don’t know me tell me I’m too shy. I love being an artist because it allows me to move through a life of contrast and simplicity… building a language we all understand, on some core level. Why?


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