interview • liz rice mccray

This month we had the pleasure and honor to interview artist Christian Clayton. Over the span of 20 years, Clayton has put out an enormous amount of work, from his individual studio practice as well as from his collaborative, Clayton Brothers. The collaborative work has mounted 10 solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in the U.S. and Asia. As well as creating, Clayton is also educating. He lectures nationally and internationally in Europe and Asia. In 2016 Christian received a 20-year service award from The Art Center College of Design. In 2015 he was awarded “The Great Teacher Award” from the Art Center College of Design Student Body. His teaching credentials also include Cal State University Northridge and Otis College of Design. His work is in museums and foundations, with public, corporate, and private collections around the world including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Saatchi Gallery. Christian currently lives and works in Los Angeles County with his wife and two teenage sons. To see more of Christian Clayton’s work, visit his website at

Christian, thank you so much for taking the time to our answer our questions. We are delighted to feature you as our cover artist. It’s been many years since we first worked together so it’s great to catch up and I’m excited to interview you. Let’s start: Can you describe where you are right now so that everyone reading along can imagine the setting?
Sure, thank you for the opportunity again to talk about my work in process. My current studio is in my home in South Pasadena, California, where I live with my wife and two teenage sons, and our dogs and cat. I use my garage and backyard as an outdoor workspace and a spare bedroom to paint and draw in. It’s kind of crazy being around teenagers all of the time again. I love their frenetic energy. I have returned to my solo practice that I left behind 20 years ago, but with 49 years of life experience this time around. I shared a collaborative studio practice with my brother for 20 years — making work exclusively as Clayton Brothers from 1996 to 2016. A year and a half ago, my brother decided he wanted to end his involvement in our collaborative art practice, so we closed the doors to our studio in La Crescenta and officially ended our production, October 31, 2015. This was, without a doubt, life changing, not only for myself but for my family as well. As they say, “all good things must come to an end.” Clayton Brothers had come to an end — not how I imagined or hoped, but it was an incredible experience working so closely with my brother. He was my best friend, collaborator, and mentor. We produced a 20-year body of work that now resides in museums, foundations and private collections around the world. Nearly 1000 artworks were created (give or take) that span the disciplines of illustration, fine art, graphic design, animation, motion picture, television and music videos. I am very proud of what we were able to achieve together. I must say without the support of family, friends, and fans, none of this would have been possible. Moving forward, I’m super excited now and ready for a new beginning — focusing on gallery work, new projects, teaching, and lecturing. I continue to manage half of the Clayton Brothers estate with my family to maintain its relevance in the art world for years to come.

The scope of your work is so impressive. Can you tell us a little bit about your early beginnings as an artist and how/when you knew it was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
My father is an artist. He began his career working as an illustrator in the 1960s and then later opened a successful design firm in the 1970s with my mother that they ran together for 35 years. It was a family-run business. They are both retired now. My dad continues to focus on his passion for photography, and my mom loves to sew, knit and cook. When I was young my father traveled extensively for his business. When he returned home, he shared his travel experiences and his amazing stories. It was very inspiring to hear and see where he had been. I remember he was invited to spend six weeks in Paris with the French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, photographing him while he worked in his atelier. He also spent a lot of time traveling in the mid-west, walking the streets and neighborhoods, documenting through South Chicago, where he captured the raw beauty of urban American life in the 1980s. He would hang out of helicopters and photograph cityscapes. He photographed Uranium miners in New Mexico 3,400 feet below the earth’s surface or stand 1,400 feet up on the rooftop ledge of the Sears Tower in Chicago to photograph the city below. When I became older, I spent countless hours in my father’s studio making my own work, drawing, painting, and experimenting — using his art supplies and workspace to make art. He would give me honest feedback and direction on my work. He helped me develop a critical eye and process from his honest critiques of my work. After graduating high school, I was fortunate to work for him on client-based projects from time to time. I was able to see first hand how he collaborated with clients on projects. My brother and I assisted him on photo shoots — learning the inner workings of the 35mm camera to putting up and taking down equipment during photo shoots. He would ask me to drive his truck with all the photo equipment to various cities throughout the U.S. It was special to spend time with my dad and watch him work. My parents were always very encouraging and supportive of my interests in life — especially my desire to make art. I would not have had the confidence to take the necessary risks required to be an artist if it were not for my parents and their life-long commitment to being self made, committed freelance artists.

A question that you probably always get asked (some artists like it and some find it repetitive): can you tell us from where you draw inspiration?
Life is so unpredictable, strange and beautiful. It’s all about inspiration for me. I find inspiration in mundane everyday life experiences. I love to travel, whether it’s a walk down the street or another country. I love to spend time with my family. Listening to music of all kinds. I like to randomly tune in to whatever is on the radio when I’m driving my kids around, listening to them play their music. I connect to their energy; it is fascinating. I find music evokes an emotional state and enhances my memory. I love to go for hikes with my wife; when I’m physically moving, my mind opens up to the possibilities of art making and the inspiration sets in. I’m always aware of conversations, ambient sounds, colors, and textures when out of my studio. I love old things; art, paper, wood, metal, plastic, photography, houses, cars, clothes, thrift stores, the junkyard and the dump.

Is your wife also an artist? I have seen some of your son’s artwork; do you ever collaborate with them?
Yes, my wife is an artist. She has incredible deep understanding of the creative process and the commitment it takes to be an artist. Most importantly, she is an amazing mom and a solid and strong influence to my sons. Now that one is in college, and the other is on his way, she is beginning her journey back into making art again. I do collaborate with my sons. Their honest drawings and approach to creating are a massive component of inspiration for me, especially now, as I begin a new chapter in my life as an artist.

Your artist bio states that the art making process starts with trusting the first line of vulnerability. Can you expound on that idea a little bit?
When it comes to physically making the art, I trust my first instinct/idea (gut reaction) when marking the paper or canvas for the first time. I don’t plan my ideas before; I just begin by making the action from whatever energy I’m feeling at that point, then I react to what happens from there. My images transform quickly in the process. I listen to the work and it tells me the next to move make. If I become too conscious of what I’m making I stop until I’m lost in the image again.

You have already touched on it but will you tell us a little more about your creative process and the mediums you work with? Do ever get to a point when you are creating and discover, “this is not working”?
I’ve always found that the work can be a bit of a struggle (in a good way) and believe this is why I continue to want to make art – working through the struggle. I love to work in a series of three to four images at once. I will take more chances with the process when I can see multiple options surrounding me. I respond to the raw energy while in the moment; it can be a bit of a fight at times but I keep it spontaneous and free as much as possible. I document the process as well to see the transformation of images; this allows me to see the work transform through many phases a little clearer. Some pieces become interesting, and others are not working at all. I have now found throughout the years that the work I don’t like, or respond to, is often the most intriguing in the end. I rarely throw anything away. I think my art process is rooted more in the action of drawing than anything else. I love the energy and possibilities of drawing. It seems to be less of a precious action than other art processes. There is nothing more satisfying for me than holding physical art-making materials in my hand — especially now, as most of our connection to art comes by way of the computer.

Your portfolio is massive. Is there a moment that sticks out in your memory as pivotal to launching your career as a world-renowned artist?
After the birth of my sons I feel I had a new perspective on life and storytelling. I began to see life through their eyes and language. This was eye opening for me and my art making process. Their innocence combined with life’s chaos made me think about the importance of children and their future. Love, caring and kindness seem to interweave with loss, despair and cruelty in our world. I became more conscious on injecting hope into my images. In 1998 I painted “Coleman’s Future Friends,” this painting of my son, as a baby, was a personal turning point for me and my career.

What kind of art do you like? Do you collect anything in particular? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an artist?
As an artist, the biggest challenge I’ve faced is dealing with the end of Clayton Brothers. It was an honor to work so closely with my brother. I will always appreciate the skills I’ve learned from collaborating with my brother on so many amazing projects. Although I started as a solo artist, 20 years later, I’ve come to realize there’s a vulnerability working as a solo artist that you don’t experience as intensively when working in a collaborative. This vulnerability makes you rely more on your personal abilities, which strengthens your spirit and confidence as an individual artist. I have great respect for artists who work and maintain their career working on their own. I worked as a solo artist for about 10 years before Clayton Brothers became an official art practice.

In 2016 you received a 20-year service award from The Art Center College of Design. You have been teaching a long time. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a teacher? 
Teaching has always been a secondary passion of mine. For me, it is important to always make sure that my studio art practice is constantly evolving at a steady pace with my teaching. I am grateful and honored for the opportunity to work with so many incredible students throughout the years. I think that being a parent has helped me be a better teacher.

What advice would you have for young people seriously pursuing art?
Make something every day and trust your first mark. Creative energy manifests in many different forms, so don’t throw away any part of the creative process. It might gain a new life or make sense later down the road. Take chances. Make mistakes. Document your life and art process.

Really great advice, thank you. Tell us, is there anything you are you really into right now, art-related or otherwise?
I love art made by kids, right now, especially the art made by my sons. I have a collection that my wife and I have saved. Unconsciously, maybe the approaching realization that my kids might be leaving home soon has reignited my love for their drawings. The drawings represent honesty, and pure expression for me. Lately I have also been drawing everyday on old book paper that has been lying around untouched for many years.

OK very last question: where can people check out more of your art?
My Instagram, @christianclaytonstudio, and my website, I‘m excited to have new solo work in a group show curated by Mark Murphy at 101 Exhibit gallery in Los Angeles. The opening is this July 21 and runs until August 26th. This July I am also traveling to China where I will be visiting three cities:  Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, to do some lectures and workshops. This October I’ve been invited by Adobe Max – The Creativity Conference to do image making workshops in Las Vegas, Nevada.