January 11, 2016

Commercial (Un-)Versus Fine Art


Upload, 2013

When I was in art school, there was a distinct line drawn between commercial and fine art. I remember one of my painting professors telling me “that’s too bad” when he found out I was majoring as an illustrator, which was being taught as a commercial trade.  I think some of the negative opinions surrounding the illustration department came from the assumption that we were mere “ghost writers”, making art out of someone else’s style and vision. But we were asked to do much more than illustrate. We were also challenged to generate the concept, conventions, and style for every project, playing the parts of both art director and artist. This training helped me develop skills that I use now when I am producing public and fine art projects.


puma-walt-clyde-frazier-gold-02-960x640 copy

Here is a package design I directed and created for Puma. The project highlighted NBA legend Walt Frazier of the New York Knicks, for whom the iconic Clyde shoe was made.

I attended the California College of the Arts, which at that time had two campuses. The Oakland campus housed most of my fine art classes and the San Francisco campus my commercial ones. In Oakland, I studied drawing, painting, history, sociology, humanities, and took critica­­l thinking classes; San Francisco housed classes in illustration, graphics, industrial design, and architecture.

San Francisco was the “Death Star” and Oakland the “Republic”. During my time on both campuses, however, I learned a lot and met some great people. Despite some of the intended or unintended borders created within the institution by faculty and students, I remained interested in art as both an individualized practice and a potential business endeavor.


CCA San Francisco campus


CCA Oakland campus

My introduction to art was through popular culture. Cartoons, comics, and my uncle’s record collection were my design library as a kid. These commercial works catalyzed my interest in visual communication generally. In my neighborhood, I was also fortunate to encounter and eventually participate in the underworld of graffiti, which struck me as unfiltered self-expression. I spent years making graffiti afterward, and loved it. That experience caused me to become an art addict, and as time passed, I began to notice that some local Bay Area graffiti artists I looked up to — such as Barry McGee — were breaking into the fine art world. I remember seeing his work all over the streets and feeling just as excited by it when I eventually experienced it in a gallery. I didn’t need motivation to commit to art as my life’s passion, but seeing artists like McGee thrive with this dual status planted the seeds of my interest to pursue it as a career. The feeling was: do whatever you want! Today, I am fortunate to be a full-time working artist able to reflect on those days when we would risk our lives (or freedom) for little or no reward. The risks were not in vain — they gave me a strong sense of self, and instilled in me the passion to do my best at any job, big or small; I also gained a sense of curiosity and a capacity for critical thinking that I try to bring into my practice as an artist.

During and after college, I jumped in and out of both commercial and fine art, always carefully separating the two. But I still couldn’t figure out why they needed to be separate, and I realized that embracing both made me who I was and am. After all, I’m an artist — I make my own rules.


This mural exemplifies my blending of artistic interests. Zarape, 2015

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to make works of fine art that have in turn led to commercial art opportunities. Below is an example of a painting I made for my Type Faces series that led to a job with sports brand Under Armour. They appreciated the style and direction and hired me to create a piece like it based on basketball superstar Stephen Curry.


From My Type Faces series: Freedom to Speak, 2015


A poster/tshirt design for Under Armour’s Stephen Curry shoe release.

I’m happy to say that I’m not a starving artist, but rather a thriving one able to provide for his family. One reason for so many recent work opportunities is a rapidly changing art market. Today, there are so many options beyond galleries and editorial offices for an artist.

Companies have always been interested in their public appearance. In particular, partnerships with artists are trending as a “good look” these days. Brands generate custom content through these partnerships for social media based on their viewership. Social media, for better or worse, has helped to foster a larger audience for artists simply because most of the experience is visual. In my opinion, social media does for the visual what radio did for musicians. However, the challenge for a business has become placing products without interrupting the audience’s experience. Conversely, I think viewers —myself included —want to see that brands are genuine. Rather than ask an artist to illustrate a brand’s vision or message, it’s now more popular to collaborate or simply associate with the artist and his or her lifestyle. I’ve had jobs where I merely gave a company permission to publish content documenting my creative process, with little brand injection. The following video is a series produced by Complex for Miller Fortune Beer. The series also featured artists and musicians such as Common and Jhené Aiko. While the video includes some branding, it’s more about my story and my art-making process.

Here in the Bay Area, the tech industry is rife with companies competing to retain the best talent and create the coolest work environment for employees and outside clients. By partnering with local artists to amplify their credibility and persona, these companies try to show that they have their ear to the ground.

A challenge for me has been maintaining artistic integrity while helping these brands accomplish their goals. I consider myself pretty open-minded, and always welcome collaboration, but there definitely needs to be an even exchange that respects the strengths and expertise of both artist and client. For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough to be hired based on my own style, the look of which comes from my self-initiated projects and creative explorations in the studio.

I went to school wanting to be an illustrator for print media. By the time I graduated, print was almost dead. I would have never guessed that technology would help me in my pursuit of becoming a career artist; instead, tech companies are some of my biggest clients, and I continue to use tech to market myself. If artists and tech companies continue deepening their collaborations, we may begin seeing new genres of art emerging in the near future.


Artwork I directed and produced for Linkedin’s NYC office. Untitled, 2014


For more art by Samuel Rodriguez, visit: www.samrodriguezart.com

Comments (1)

  • Sam, as you know, I’ve thought your work was genius from the time I first saw pieces you created in High School. I am thrilled to have had the pleasure to meet you, get to know you, and most thrilling to work on a commission piece with you. I will continue to share what I know about you with others who love all types of art.

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