Patrick Nelson uses paper like a paintbrush to create incredible collage art. He explains how he transitioned from graphic designer to full-time artist and what inspires his work today.
Coming from a graphic design background, Patrick Nelson has been a full-time collage artist now for a number of years. He sells his work online, in galleries and through curated shops. In 2020 he was featured in the De Young Open in San Francisco, a juried community art exhibition. In June this year, he announced he was joining the artist roster at the California-based Aerena Galleries.
Describing his art, Patrick says: "I construct graphic, timeless images from hand-stained newspaper clippings, juxtaposing modern designs with old media. The results are textural snapshots into our collective memory that encourage viewers to take a closer look.
"My artwork lands somewhere in the middle of collage and mixed media," he continues. "That said, I believe they read more as an illustration or painting than they do a collage. Because I use paper like one would use a paintbrush, using smaller pieces to create a definitive, larger image."
So how did he transition from graphic design to collage artist? "After getting my BFA from Cal Poly, I spent ten years in the graphic design and advertising industry," he recalls. "I worked with a handful of San Francisco-based creative agencies, primarily in branding and identity, on a range of companies from small tech start-ups to bars and restaurants to the SF Giants and Virgin Airlines." Then, around 2017 he began experimenting with mixed media, using vintage magazines and maps he found in antique shops.
"Over a short period of time, I developed a distinct style and made artwork alongside my design career for a few years," he explains. "Then the pandemic rolled around, and I took advantage. In mid-2020, I took the leap of faith and began a full-time art career.
"It was a story of the pandemic doing some good," he adds, "by pushing a passionate hobby into a professional career when freelance design availability was slowing down. After a year of producing and selling fine art on the regular, it was clear to me I had to make the switch and found a larger work-live studio in Sausalito, California."
His background in graphic design has had a major influence on his style, medium, and process, he adds. "In that industry, I was constantly sourcing old graphics and typefaces and bringing them to life in new ways," Patrick explains. "I learned to create visuals using the sum of multiple parts, which eventually led me to the mixed medium I have today.
"Additionally, I've always had an obsession with graphics and artefacts from back in the day. I was collecting vintage relics long before I knew I'd be using them in the artwork. The act of roaming around these old shops to find 'new' material is one of my favourite and most inspiring parts of my process."
So what is it about old newspapers that he loves so much? "Years ago," he responds, "when newspapers weren't yet flooded with photographs, they consisted of large one-colour illustrations, stylized typefaces, and funky layouts. The graphic limitations of this time in the newspaper industry resulted in a beautifully simple yet expressive design aesthetic.
"These eclectic graphics play an important role by balancing out the simplified approach I take in my illustration style. It gives the work texture and dynamism. Just as a painter would create with their brush strokes, I use content from old newspapers.
"There's a multi-layered interest level to it all. I can admire the dated design aesthetics while appreciating the historical content. For example, while I wrap my head around how cheap televisions used to be in the 40s, I'm using the expressive typography within that ad to accentuate a woman's face."
As Patrick sees it, there is a sense of truth in creating images from old news articles and advertisements. "To me, this detail represents the texture of society; viewers can feel that sense of history frozen in time," he explains. "We are made up, after all, of the memories and lessons of our past. A person takes in the headlines, stories and advertisements, experiences them in the context of the collage at large, and draws connections between the two."
Many designers would love to transition into being full-time artists, but getting your work out there can often be the biggest challenge. For Patrick, social media has been the most useful tool in that regard.
"When I started out, nobody knew who I was except for a handful as a graphic designer," he remembers. "So I did what most new artists do nowadays: I posted away, got myself featured on other accounts, ran a couple of paid promotions, and tried to keep the momentum up until I had enough of a follower base to make my social media efforts worthwhile."
But that wasn't all. "Aside from social media, I also took part in several art festivals, solo pop-ups, open studios, and curated showings," he adds. "Plus, I was featured in a few local magazines. Looking back, The de Young Open in 2020 was probably the most notable of my endeavours as an emerging artist."
And he continues to grow and evolve his practice today. "I'm currently working on introducing acrylic into my artwork," he says. "I've noticed it increases the importance of the newspaper sections when they're surrounded by quieter blocks of colour. I'm also working on some pure acrylic on canvas pieces. This has been very enlightening as someone who has worked solely with paper from the start. I feel like I'm going back to school and awakening parts of my creative brain that had been sleeping."