The Fantasy Realism of Ricky Watts

04 Jan, 2013

Interview By Jacquelynne Ocaña

The evolution of an artist is only as dramatic as one’s range allows. For painter Ricky Watts, that boldness is especially evident in his newest works of fine illustration. At 32, Ricky Watts has been featured in galleries and publications in San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Diego. A veteran graffiti artist known for massive movement and large-scale murals, Watts is also a graphic designer by trade. This summer, his signature “Bone Shaker” piece appeared on the 40-foot stage banners at the 2012 Outside Lands Festival.    

From his studio in Sebastopol, CA, Ricky Watts invited Dig In Magazine to delve into his creative process. A true artist’s sanctuary, the foggy hillside studio was once his grandfather’s woodworking shop, and a place Ricky grew up chasing barnyard cats and fantastical dreams.

Eight intricately drawn pen and ink works stand against a wall spray painted a thousand times over.   Easily recognizable in each piece is the contrast of childlike innocence with wreckage and despair, nature and humanity colorfully imposed on grayscale brick and mortar. Explaining his methods, Watts discusses his use of color and collage, future art books, and the insanity of Oakland Art Murmur.

Ricky Watt’s solo exhibition, Destination Unknown, opens at Zero Friends Gallery in Oakland on Saturday, January 5th from 5-8pm and will be showing through January 31st

"Destination Unknown" New Works by Ricky Watts

“Destination Unknown” New Works by Ricky Watts

Ricky Watts in his Home Studio on 12/27/12 | Photo by David Korman

Ricky Watts in his Home Studio on 12/27/12 | Photo by David Korman

Dig In Magazine: Did you start all of these drawings in 2012?

Ricky Watts: “They are all started in 2012. But a couple of them I started and then put away because I got frustrated with where they were going. I decided rather than keep going and trying to force it, I just left it alone and came back to it later. That really helped me finish it, but it’s strange because the art went in a different direction while I was meditating on it.”

DIM: What was it that moved you to go from your traditional aerosols with massive movement to these intricate illustrations?

RW: “I went from very bold and abstract to these very detailed drawings. I wouldn’t say I got bored, but I got to the point where I didn’t feel challenged. I’ve been spray painting for 17 years and it’s always something I love to do. It’s very fun and I enjoy it a whole lot. But I got to the point where I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from people about my art. I wanted to push it to another level and do something that would make people stop and stare at the piece for a while.”

“I’ve always drawn since I was a kid so I kinda came back to drawing through nostalgia. It was comfortable and it felt good, and I’ve always loved creating drawings. Plus it’s cheap [laughing], that’s really what helped. The cost of doing one of these drawings is a lot less than a dramatic mural.

Each color is a different can, so it would get expensive because I was buying five shades of each color. Spray paint doesn’t really last as long as these art markers either.”

DIM: I get the theme of immanent destruction in your pieces, but how do you come up with the colorful shapes and creatures?

RW: “It was a game I was playing with myself. To see how much I could make it look like the original image. Then from there it went to taking multiple references and collaging them together, making these fantasy worlds.”


"The Vicious Cycle" by Ricky Watts

“The Vicious Cycle” by Ricky Watts

DIM: This looks like San Francisco. [Spotting the first piece of his collection]

RW: “This is a drawing I did from a photo; it’s the 1906 earthquake looking towards Treasure Island. Nob Hill is back here in the smoke. This was the very first one I did. I have always been fascinated by earthquakes and big disasters; I don’t know why I am draw to it. Originally I did the drawing all in black and white, to keep it as line art. But I wanted to create the smoke in the background and then it looked half-way done. This was the one I put away for a few months. I came back to it deciding I needed to color it to make it look complete. So it was the first one I started and the last one I finished.

DIM: And “Temporary Stability”?

RW: “This is a little fishing village in Indonesia. I did this one for the group show at Zero Friends in the summer. I did it based on the big favela drawing I had done before. I was exploring the shanty-type drawing and I came across this photo. I got kinda silly down here and started drawing these eyeballs. They are like these creepy little eyes watching you.”

"Temporary Stability" by Ricky Watts

“Temporary Stability” by Ricky Watts


DIM: Why only the buildings in black and white?

RW: “The reason I did these in grey scale was one, because my printer is in black and white, but two because I wanted to make what was alive in color. So the grey gave the brick and the stone a very cold feel and the colors really pop it. It’s kinda sad and cold but the rich colors come with life. 

DIM: How long did it take you to create “Dreamland”?

RW: “Each one has been a struggle. It’s kind of a battle within myself to keep doing it. For the longest time I always worked on six or seven different pieces all at once and I would just kind of circle around and work on them a little bit here, a little bit there. With these I’ve kinda slowed down my process and only worked on one at a time. I’ll work on one from start to finish and then the next one will come around.

“This one probably took about five weeks, the longest of all of them. This is an Italian villa on the coast, the shipwreck was in Russia and of course this is Half Dome (Yosemite). The balloons I threw in because I grew up watching the balloons over Napa and Windsor. It was this childhood thing.”

“Dreamland” by Ricky Watts

“Dreamland” by Ricky Watts

DIM: How do you structure your images?

RW: “I planned it out in Photoshop first. I find the images or use photos I’ve taken and develop this concept, move stuff around and make it bigger or smaller. I’ll then take that concept and transfer it to a cold-press watercolor board. Then I draw the outline. I take a piece of graphite transfer paper, which is used a lot in drafting, and I trace out where the shapes are so that it creates a map for me. That way I can get the composition right and make it more accurate. I’ll then take little portions of the drawing and blow it up on my printer and draw it as I see it.”

DIM: Somewhat like how you would start a mural.

RW: “Yes, but I only have a black and white printer so I have to make up the color myself. A couple of these I had to make up the colors entirely. Because the San Francisco photo was taken in black and white, I did the colors as I saw them.”

DIM: What materials do you use for color?

RW: “I do watercolor for the backgrounds and the skies. For the color I’m using Copic art markers. It’s a prismacolor Japanese art marker. They are archival so they are better for stuff like this, and they are refillable so I can keep them forever.”

DIM: Do you have to import them?

RW: “I buy them through Riley Street in Santa Rosa”

DIM: Who do you listen to when you paint?

RW: “I listen to a lot of audio books while I work. It’s very nostalgic. When I was a kid, my mom used to read to my brothers and I every night and I would lay on the floor and draw. I started revisiting books my mom read to us like The Hobbit. Then I found all these audio books on iTunes. While I’m working it takes me away to another place. The Hobbit is probably one of the only fiction books I listen to though. A lot of its non-fiction that I listen to, I like a lot of historical stuff. While I was doing the drawing of the earthquake, I listened to a book about the earthquake and fire – it put me into that period. It felt like I was a part of the drawing.”

DIM: How about the last three albums you’ve had in your tape deck over there.

RW: “Mmmm… Z-Man. He’s a rapper from San Francisco. Empire of the Sun; Cut copy is also a favorite. I like a lot of stories about baseball. I’ve always been a Giants fan.”

"No Where In Particular" by Ricky Watts

“No Where In Particular” by Ricky Watts

DIM: You spent a lot of time doing murals, where are they?

RW: “San Francisco and Oakland are the two main places. I’ve done stuff in Santa Rosa and all around Sonoma County though. The back of Dare Devils and Queens (barbershop in Railroad Square). That’s probably the only one that’s left in Santa Rosa. The buildings get sold or the piece gets painted over for whatever reason. That’s also one of the reason’s I’ve shied away from doing a lot of mural work. It gets your name out there but it’s not very permanent.”

DIM: So you’ve moved away from murals entirely?

RW: “I still do them, just not as often as I used to. From the late nineties to 2008, I was traveling all the time up to Portland and Seattle and then down to L.A. and San Diego. I was with the Lords Crew, mostly Bay Area but it’s expanded over the years. We have friends in Austria and now we have people in New York and L.A.”

DIM: When did you begin creating gallery pieces?

RW: “I starting doing works on canvas in 2004, that’s when I got serious about doing works to show in art exhibitions. Before that I didn’t really take it seriously, I just loved spray painting. Then I went to school for graphic design.”

DIM: You went to the Art Institute of California in San Diego.

RW: “Yes, but at that time I had gotten a part time job at a print shop near campus. I really liked working at the print shop and was learning so much more there than I felt I was at school, so I left after two years. I said, ‘I’m paying for this myself’, and I felt I wasn’t getting my money’s worth so I left with my two year degree instead of a four year degree. But really it was fine because the first two years you are learning the programs and then the final two years you are just building your portfolio. I had learned the programs and I was working already, so I quit.”

DIM: Are you still working in graphic design?

RW: “I still do design but it’s slowed in the past few years because I’ve been focusing on pushing my art farther. I quit my day job three years ago. I worked for various print shops for about ten years, doing pre-press and design work. But I got tired of the print shops closing – it’s a dying industry. I got tired of having to go out and look for a new job. Then six months later that shop would go under. So after the last shop closed I said this is ridiculous and went off on my own.”

Ricky Watts at "Outside Lands"

Ricky Watts at Outside Lands


DIM: You were featured on last spring, how did that happen?

RW: “I’ve always been a fan of Juxtapoz and dreamt of being printed. I would send my stuff through their artist submission page but never heard back. Then a friend of mine started dating the girl that did the blog, so that was kind of my foot in the door. I got to know her and they did a little feature on the website. It really took off when my “Bone Shaker” drawing was the scrim banners at Outside Lands this year. Juxtapoz had a booth and I stopped by, met the editor, and established a connection. It was surreal seeing as the drawing was 40 feet high with 50,000 people in front of it. And it was my birthday.”  

DIM: When did you become involved with Zero Friends Gallery?

RW: “I’ve known Alex Pardee for ten or twelve years now, through graffiti and spray painting. When they formed Zero Friends, it was originally based around Alex’s art. Then when they wanted to expand and bring in friends, one thing led to another and I moved a few prints through them. They recently acquired the space last year in Oakland and started doing art shows.”

DIM: [Checking out his art book library I pick out a copy of Alex Pardee’s illustration book put out by Upper Playground.] Do you have any plans to put together a book?

RW: “Yea, Alex is the hardest worker I’ve ever met. He’s one of those people that can function on very little sleep. He can work for 20 hours a day and get up and do it all over again. It’s very inspiring to see all the stuff that he does. I’m still producing work though. It will happen eventually. Zero Friends is putting out a book so I’m contributing works for that right now. But at some point, I’ll have enough images where I can do it.

"Preoccupied" by Ricky Watts

“Preoccupied” by Ricky Watts

DIM: Do you think you’ll include your whole portfolio or stick to one theme?

RW: “I would probably do the whole thing, just to show my range as an artist. I could break it up into different sections, have some design stuff in there, some of the different t-shirt graphics I’ve done.”

DIM: Tell me about the group show at Zero Friends last summer.

RW: “They do a group show every summer because they go down to San Diego for Comic Con. It’s always so crazy during that time of the year; instead of trying to squeeze in a show they just do a group show. It’s kind of a tradition every June or July.”

DIM: Have you ever had a show at First Friday’s Art Murmur?

RW: “This will be my first big show. Art Murmur is insanity; it’s the craziest thing ever. It’s exploding now. The street that Zero Friends is on, they’ve closed down the street completely. It’s just this giant street fair on 25th and Telegraph and Zero Friends moved right in the heart of Art Murmur. The show gets a thousand people on the first Friday night. And because it gets so big, they don’t even have to promote it. People are gonna come anyway. Since First Fridays is the event, the following Saturday is when the gallery does the artist’s reception. The show will be up for First Friday, but it’s just a preview.”

"Oakland" by Ricky Watts

“Oakland” by Ricky Watts

DIM: So are you excited?

RW: “Yea, this is so crazy because I’ve never been finished this far in advance for a show before. Usually I’m working on three pieces a day before the show is supposed to open and it’s always this crazy mess.

But I’m a firm believer of supporting local business’ so I use Riley Street for my art supplies; I use the frame shop inside Riley Street to do all the framing. Because the show is right after Christmas and they take off two weeks at the end of December each year, I had to have all my pieces to them before December 15th. That was my deadline. So I’ve been done with the show for the last week and half. I feel almost guilty that I am not still working on it. It’s almost like I really don’t know what to do with myself. But it’s been great because I’ve been able to work on the promo and the marketing.”

DIM: Lastly, how did you come about the show’s title, Destination Unknown?

RW: “The pieces are very fantasy and kind of fun. There’s this whole thing that  we don’t really know where we’re going but you know we’re gonna have fun along the way. So it’s really like, I’m not sure where this is going to take me, and I know it’s going to continue to build, but I’m not sure where it’s going to go from here. I am definitely going to keep doing these drawings though.”


About the author

Cindy Maram

Cindy Maram is Founder, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Dig In Magazine. She is an accredited film journalist for Cannes Film Festival in the South of France, Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival and CAAMFest, as well as fashion & style photographer/blogger for London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week, professional sports photographer/writer and art critic. She is a writer, vlogger & social media community manager possessing a B.A from UC Davis and a M.A. in Mass Communications + Popular Culture Studies emphasis in Film/Marketing/Writing from Cal State Fullerton.

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