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Tommy Kane

By Posted on 19 7 m read 4.1K views

Tommy Kane, the Advertiser Who’d Rather Sketch

Who is Tommy Kane?

My name is Tommy Kane. I was born. Went to catholic school for 12 years. Quickly learned I was going to hell. Attended art school in Buffalo. Got hired to be an illustrator for the Buffalo Evening News. Moved to New York. Got hired in one day to work in advertising. I had a dream to make a living as an illustrator. It was harder than I expected. Thought advertising was cool. Became an art director. Started to make lots of dough. Hung out with celebrities and supermodels. Somewhere along the line I forgot about my dream of being an illustrator. Made more money. Had a life changing experience and now I am getting back onto my original path of wanting to be an illustrator.

You’ve made a name for yourself in advertising. Talk to me about the difference (emotionally, artistically, etc.) between that artwork and the illustrating, sculpting and sketching you do.

Basically in advertising, the work passes through many hands. Clients, clients’ bosses, then their bosses until fifty people have had their say. And they always say the same thing: “I don’t like it” or “can’t you make it look like that Dunkin Donuts ad I saw.” When I am home doing my own work, no one has a say but me. I’m the client. I draw, paint and sculpt so I don’t get too bored or into a rut doing one kind of art. The sketch books I can take anywhere so there is never an excuse not to be doing art everyday. I also do big paintings, so sometimes it’s hard to set up and work in my 800 square foot apartment. Same with my 3-D work. I force myself to do it because I need to. No other reason than that.

If I flipped through your portfolio and your sketch journals, what would I see?

I’m very anal compulsive so I have different types of sketch books. One is just for my travels around the world. Another is just portraits of my family and friends, another just for political drawings, another for watercolors, another for large drawings of architecture done in black ink and colored pencils. I did one that was a true comic book of my life as a 5 year-old. I consider each of them a perfectly executed theme book. When people come to my apartment and flip through one, they always say, “man you should do a book” and I say, “I did. You’re holding it in your hand.”

Describe what you love about making art. Which part of the process is most fulfilling to you?

I can’t say I would use the word, love. It’s more I need to make art. To me, making art is a blue collar job. You have to roll up your sleeves each day and be prepared to get dirty, along with the aches and pains. It’s physical. If I draw or paint for a few hours, I’m exhausted. Doing my journals on the street is a constant struggle with discomfort. There’s the heat and rain, tons of people looking over my shoulder, cars parking right in front of my view when I’m only half done. The most fulfilling part is when I am finished with something and then for a fleeting moment, there is joy.

How do you know when you’re in your zone? And do you have any tricks for reaching that state?

How does a blue collar worker know when he is in a zone? He doesn’t. He gets up each day to do his work. Sometimes with a hangover, sometimes sick, sometimes feeling amazing. The trick for me is to keep going, especially on those days when I don’t want to get out of bed, or when painting or drawing something is the last thing I want to do. As long as I am physically doing art, something will happen. Change for an artist is a slow process. Day in and day out, it’s hard for me to see if I am getting any better or evolving or if I’m in some sort of zone. But when I look back at a year’s work, I see that I did progress and evolve. So to answer your question, I must have been in some kind of zone the whole time, I’m just totally unaware of it.

Talk to me about the drawing you can’t seem to get right, self-doubt, and other frustrations of trying to create art.

This question touches on the nemesis of my life. I’m a little emotional just answering this question. Something happened to me to fill my life with nothing but self-doubt. About 15 years ago, I ever so slowly started to have panic attacks. I began to have trouble being in meetings at work. I stopped going to parties. I fluffed them off as just being an isolated incident here and there, but they grew stronger and more frequent. I got call waiting at home. I was always checking who was calling, but I never answered the phone. I panicked on trains, in restaurants, on the street. It then began to happen every day, eventually dominating my life. This all took years to happen. Soon no one was calling. For five years, I never left my apartment except to go to work from Monday to Friday. While locked in my own hell, I began to paint. Before that, I only drew. My painting skills grew while I was in this terrible isolation. It’s the only thing that helped me keep my sanity. The attacks became so severe that there were times I couldn’t enter the building I worked in. Sometimes it took me hours to get up the courage to make it to my office. It was a scary time. So back to your question, self-doubt was my constant companion. No one really saw my artwork. Only me. I didn’t think any of it was any good at all. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it but I felt compared with other artists, I was terrible. I had self-doubt every time I picked up a pen or brush. I eventually got help, and haven’t had any attacks in many years now. I even got married recently. Getting all my work together to publish my own website has been a major step in my overcoming all the self-doubt with which I had lived. The great feedback I’ve received has been the best medicine of all.

How do you work through that?

I just had to keep going. Deep, deep down below the self-doubt, there was a voice that said “but maybe you really are good.” My wife said I had a fear of success. Now when I draw or paint, I feel like I have great skills. For example, when I do my moleskine drawings, I don’t use a pencil to sketch anything out first. I just whip out a pen and start drawing. My drawings are always a series of mistakes that I am trying to correct. In the end, it always looks like I wanted it to turn out that way, but the mental process is a bit rough. Working that way has given me great confidence. Now I feel like Superman.

Tell me about your travels where you’ve gone and what you learn by going away.

I travelled quite a bit for my job in advertising. I’ve done commercials and photo shoots in Ireland, France, New Zealand, Africa (went on a safari twice), and Australia. I’ve travelled personally to England, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, Austria, and the Czech Republic. When I would travel for my job, you instantly have friends in these places. It is not like being a tourist. I go to people’s homes, party with their friends and go to the places off the beaten path to really see what’s going on. That has been a privilege. I’ve learned that the world is filled with a lot of nice people. I’ve learned that the world is full of super talented individuals who have built amazing cities, painted amazing paintings, sculpted amazing sculptures, came up with ingenious recipes. I’ve learned there is a lot more to the world than Starbucks and KFC. I’ve never had a bad experience overseas.

I know you have opinions about the state of the world and the US’s involvement in it. Would you be willing to draw something about that that I can show on my blog?

I included one.

What would you like to do (artistically or otherwise) that you’ve never done before?

I would love to star opposite Angelina Jolie. I would love to model underwear for Calvin Klein. I would love to play drums for The Who. I would love to win the 2008 Democratic primary. I could go on and on.

Could you share 3 pieces of advice to other artists?

1. Draw. Because of the computer, it is becoming a lost art. Drawing everyday is a great exercise — it’s like going to the gym. Also you don’t really have to be very good to do it. It’s about the art of seeing things. We all loved to draw as little kids, but then somewhere along the way, we told ourselves to stop doing this fun activity.

2.Check out all the great websites online that showcase artists: Illustration Mundo, Art Dorks, Drawn, Wooster Collective, Juxtapoz, These sites update every single day letting you discover the best artists in the world.

3. Marry someone extremely wealthy.


Did I already say how much I adore this man?

If you’re on MySpace, make Tommy your friend and send him a nice note. And also leave your comments for him here.

I’ll see you Friday.

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  • Ellen Meister
    September 27, 2006

    Thanks for introducing us to Tommy, Sue. I’m loving his work. Glad he emerged from the hell of panic attacks.

  • Lori Oliva
    September 27, 2006

    Hi Tommy and Susan,

    Tommy, I’ve been your MySpace friend for a little while now (thanks to seeing your profile on Susan’s page) Seeing your work inspired me then, and even more so now.
    Thanks for your insight and sharing your personal story. While not to your degree, I’ve had my bout with anxiety and have known other creatives who have as well.

    Decompression is key for me. I need my time away from people with agendas…be it work related or other. But how does one exist outside that world? I don’t know, but it’s a requirement for my sanity.

    All the best, Tommy and thanks once again, Susan.


  • Myfanwy Collins
    September 27, 2006

    I found this interview deeply moving. It hit very close to home–the panic attacks, the isolation, moving through that darkness into light and redemption found through expression.

    Thank you both.

  • Joe
    September 27, 2006

    Susan –

    Thank you for introducing us to Tommy Kane and his art. It’s just the thing I needed to read today. I’m checking out his suggested links.

    From his responses, it seems that the panic attacks were only partially related to artistic self-doubt. Speaking from my own experience, panic attacks, agorophobia and the like are usually symptoms of things rooted elsewhere. Dealing with them required me to make peace with risk. If they only went away with success or the affirmation and approval of others, then they would always be lurking. The connection of artists to their emotions drives so many to self-destructive behavior.

    It’s nice to hear about an artist that has travelled through the shadow using his art as a beacon – with both ears intact I assume.

  • Kasper
    September 27, 2006

    Mr. Tommy Kane has made some of the most truthful, insightful and practical remarks about visual art I have read in some time. I like his work and its variety. The architectural drawings ( a subject that also greatly interests me) are marvelous. The personal renderings of pop-cultural icons defeat Andy Warhol’s best efforts every time for me. The “political” drawings are also very strong, as are their texts.

    I have looked over his website with some care and shall return to look again.

    Kane’s remarks about the advertising world are similar to those of old friends I have in advertising. It’s an intricately collaborative business and draining in the long run for any artist. And illustration is a noble calling, of course, but very difficult as a sole means of financial support, unless one is Drew Struzan or Mark English.

    Since, somewhat obliquely, I work in some of the same forms and with some iconography similar to Mr. Kane’s, his commentary was particularly close to my own dreams and fears. I particularly like what he says about drawing and the “blue-collar” aspect of being a visual artist.

    I have a dancer friend who wouldn’t miss class each day– it’s like a prayer service for a nun to her. If you are tuned right to art and it’s tuned right to you, it’s a “holy” calling in itself.

    Likewise, a day without some drawing in it ( painting is another thing, since I am centrally a painter) is a day missing an important devotion.

    Three cheers for Mr. Kane, and I intend to contact him on MySpace.

    Thanks for your efforts in putting us in contact with such creative people, Susan.


  • Tish
    September 27, 2006

    I just about fell off my chair reading about Tommy’s panic attacks and fear of success. I’ve been going through the same thing ever since my book sold, feeling like I was totally alone.

    “Tommy can you hear me?” 🙂


  • Greg
    September 27, 2006

    I found this interview very helpful. Invigorating.

    I’ve seen Tommy Kane’s work before, but I feel like I’m really seeing it now. Tommy, thanks for the insight.

    I love Litpark!


  • mikel k
    September 27, 2006

    I really enjoyed the interview and I think that Mr. Kane’s work is brilliant. It is a good thing that both he and Augesten Burrough’s left the advertising world!! I want to post a poem here and then ask you a question below and see if you all can shed any light on me about this subject.

    Art Opening
    by mikel k

    Each time he rides his bike away
    he gets further down the street…
    “Can I go see the twins?” he asks
    and he’s off again.
    “Can I knock on their door?” he asks.
    I say, “no,” and explain that I’ll have to
    leave soon and that he won’t be able to ride his bike
    much longer.
    He’s seven
    and as he rides
    away this time
    I realize that
    one day he may be
    riding away to college
    or to a job
    and that I won’t see
    him everyday,
    and I think
    well, maybe, I don’t
    have to get
    to that
    art opening
    on time.

    Well, the time for my son to ride away to college has come. He wants to go to Art School. The two that we are looking at are The Art Institute of Chicago and Georgia State University, here in Atlanta.

    Georgie State has a great art school, thought not on the par of The School in Chicago. If Graem went to Georgia State, he would go to school for free(books and tuition) because he has earned the Hope Scholarship offered to kids in Georgia who make the grade. I’m sure he most likely doesn’t want to live at home for college, but if he did, the “dorm” would be free, also.

    Should he get accepted to and attend The Art Insitute of Chicago, I am assuming that he will come out owing like a hundred grand,(since I owe 52 grand for an English degree Journalism minor at Georgia State.)

    My dad would only let me apply to state schools, saying we couldn’t afford anything else. Duke came to my school and said, “if you get in, we’ll help you pay for it,” and I wanted to try for it, but wasn’t allowed.

    I like the Casey Casum American Top 40 motto “keep reaching for the stars, but keep your feet on the ground.”

    I want my kid to go for his dreams and live them.

    I’m interested in your opinion. Should he live at home and get the state school art degree or should he go for the big time and head to Chicago. If you think that he should head to Chicago, do you know of any scholarships that he could apply for or any grants that he might be eligible for since his dad is broke?

    Thanks for your input.

  • amy
    September 27, 2006

    very inspiring.

  • Susan Henderson
    September 27, 2006

    Ellen – I love his work, too. Glad you stopped by in between interviews and radio shows!

    Lori – Hi. Isn’t he inspiring? And sexy! Okay, I said it.

    Myfanwy – I agree. I was moved to tears, maybe because it hits close to home.

    Joe – The ears are looking good, yep.

    Kasper – What a beautiful comment. Thank you for that.

    Tish – I’m so glad you’re here – and looking forward to your book!

    Greg – Invigorating is right. And what a relief to hear from another artist who doesn’t exactly love the process of creating art but just NEEDS to create.

    Mikel K – Brilliant, yes. And I had no idea AB used to be in advertising!

    Amy – Agreed! And now I’m going to see where your link takes me.

  • Tish
    September 27, 2006

    I’ve been here before. It’s a fabulous site. Like a literary neighborhood cafe I wish I could visit. (Of course I’d get no work done…)


  • Susan Henderson
    September 27, 2006

    That’s why I don’t open the cafe every day of the week, so we all have time to do our work.

  • Lance Reynald
    September 28, 2006

    love the art, think the artist is pretty darned swell!!

    have missed the Park….but I”ll be napping on my little red mat.

    good to see the park full.


  • Frank Daniels
    September 28, 2006

    Tommy Kane is a badass. Interesting side-note: I once got into an argument with an artist because he said that making art was no different than selling coffee, or any other blu-collar job. I hear echoes of this sort of jaded sentiment from Tommy here, but for some reason am not nearly as offended. But still am somehow. It just seems to me that if you are making art solely for the sake of art, because that’s what you DO, then your art is going to lack compared to the art of an artist who really has something clawing in him to get out. Of course, Warhol was most of the most cynical bastards on the planet when it came to making art and I (for the most part) love Warhol, so—I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. I jusrt want the art I indulge in, through whatever form of media, to have a passion behind it. Is there passion to the plumbing put in your house? As a former construction worker I can say that while there is a lot of sweating and profanity involved, there really is nothing that can be considered about that blue collar work. So art, in closing, should never be considered blue collar. No disrespect to Mr. Kane, just one asshole’s opinion.

  • Susan Henderson
    September 29, 2006

    Lance – It’s good to have you back!

    Frank – I don’t know. I found it really refreshing to hear someone describe their process this way. To be honest, I don’t know a lot of writers who love to write. The writing gets in the way of our families. We pull our hair out over it. It’s never good enough. Some days, and for some entire projects, from trying to capture your idea on paper for the very first time right up to the last rejection letter, it’s a wickedly depleting process. Why do we do anything so illogical or so bad for us. What Tommy says, we just need to. If we don’t do our art, it’s like we’re dying. You can call that need passion if you want. Spirit. Something unconscious trying to get out. For me, reading Tommy’s interview and looking at his art, it’s all about some kind of fire in the belly.

    Something I’ve often wanted to say about commissioned work: DaVinci, The Beatles – a bunch of great artists created masterpieces out of work someone else asked them to do. Ask any freelance writer. There’s the work you can’t help doing and there’s the work you are asked to do. Passion and creativity and eventual ownership can come from that work, too.

  • Tommy Kane
    September 29, 2006

    A lot of people I know who don’t do some type of art have a preconceived notion about what it’s like to draw and paint. They see an artist portrayed in a movie or television show and it looks so wonderful and relaxing. The process has never been that way for me and I was using “blue collar” as a way to describe to someone who doesn’t draw and paint, just how physical and draining it can be. Yet I am completely driven to get up each day and go do it because I am passionate about being an artist. What if I was obsessed with plumbing pipes and felt beautiful art could be created with them? What if I was a plumber and every day I was off, I spent hours using my knowledge to weld plumbing pipes and tubes together in my house so the water ran in all kinds of crazy directions? What if there were pipes running along the floors, walls and ceilings covering every square inch? What if art critics suddenly loved what I was doing? My tubes and pipes hanging in every gallery and museum. The PHYSICAL PROCESS of putting pipes into someone’s house for money and making art out of it just happen to be one in the same. It’s the results that are different. I don’t know if you are familiar with Andy Goldsworthy. He is an artist who works with nature. He builds impressive scuptures out of stones, rocks, branches, icicles and bolders. There is a big outdoor scupture park upstate called storm king. He built a huge wall there that runs through forests and under highways. A giant undertaking. There is a documentary about Andy called, “Rivers and Tides.” (I recommend everyone see it.) Anyway in the film we see that Goldsworthy didn’t know how to properly build stone walls. He hires an expert, who ends up building the whole thing himself. The expert is like the plumber you talk about. A guy sweating and cursing to build this great wall of china. So I agree with you that Andy Goldsworthy is a guy driven by passion to create a certain type of art that is in his head, but to my point the process of making that art is very blue collar. Also what comes across in the film is that the blue collar wall builder also has tremendous passion for what he does. He breaks his balls to make it perfect. He never cuts a single corner. Another artist, Louise Nevelson thought up crazy scuptures but she had a crew of blue collar workers to build it all. She didn’t lift a finger. So I wonder if the workers felt the way you did as a construction worker or did they feel inside they were building art? The point I’m making is that there is the part of me that is driven to make art. The intellectual part, struggling to concieve of what to do . Then there is the Blue collar part that has to go build it. I think Frank has opened up a whole other interesting topic that we could talk about for days.

  • Susan Henderson
    September 29, 2006

    Tommy, thanks so much for coming by! I’m fascinated by this dialogue between you and Frank, and any time you and some artists of your choosing want to talk for days, I’d be happy to set up a roundtable so the rest of us can listen in.

    Just before I got on the computer, speaking of art concept vs. the labor, one of the columns on my porch fell away from the roof of the porch and landed against the wall of the house. It felt like an earthquake. They’re really cool columns built in the 1930’s and apparently rotted now. The kicker is that they’re also structural beams.

  • […] * Terry Bain * The Man Eating Neil Gaiman * Thom Didato * Tish Cohen * Todd Zuniga * Tom Jackson * Tommy Kane * Watch Josh! * Wayne Yang * Writer’s Relief * […]

  • […] website, blog and illustration site. I’m very intrigued by him and googled his name. I found this interview and really enjoyed it. He touches on a subject that I’m currently strugling with. […]

Susan Henderson