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Visual Strangeties: Decoding The Inner Workings Of Don Pendleton

  • Chris Cote

Don Pendleton is an American artist who’s digital and hand painted imagery has become recognizable and iconic in the world of skateboard graphics, the skate-driven modern art set best represented by Juxtapoz Magazine, and recently in the music world, with Pendleton’s work on Pearl Jam’s, Lightning Bolt, winning a Grammy for “Best Recording Package”. Don’s work has been described as “linear organic cubist, expressionist style”, but he continues to develop and branch out in the styles, colors, and forms he creates. We probed the brain of Don Pendleton in an attempt to dissect the how’s and why’s he paints and designs the way he does, oh, and we also asked him if he believes in Bigfoot.


I want to start off with your iconic skateboard graphics, you were a huge part in creating the look and feel of Alien Workshop, what drew you to Alien and what was the process of creating art for boards for them like?

I was a big fan of Neil Blender from my earliest days of skating and he was one of the 3 people behind AWS. So with his art and personality injected into it, I knew it would be a really good brand. Plus, Chris Carter (one of the other owners) is from my home state of WV. I worked at a skate shop in 1990 whenever the brand was introduced and I was backing it 100% for those reasons. Plus Duane Pitre…and Rob (Dyrdek). Just a solid team, interesting direction and cool graphics.

Doing their graphics after being a fan wasn't easy. I think the stress was self-induced but any time you're working on something where people are going to be very critical, it can be stressful. After the first boards came out and nobody was calling for my head on a stick, I relaxed and just had fun and it was very natural after that.


Alien Workshop is a brand known for a lot of conspiracy theory references in its graphics and messaging, are you a Conspiracy theory believer? If so give us an example of one that you have lost sleep over.

I think we all got worked up over a few over the years while I was there. The thing is that a lot of them are based in fact so it's never a case where it's black/white, true/false, real/fake. There are elements of all those things in the best theories and, to be frank, some of them are quite real. I think everyone becomes desensitized to it all after a while. Just the idea that William Cooper called out so much stuff that became real (UPS codes on all products, NSA gathering and collecting all communication data)..nobody can say that William Cooper didn't know what he was talking about. He was a very intelligent, informed guy who worked directly with the CIA for a long time. Information from people like that should scare people. It's in everyone's best interest to stay aware and to be concerned but it can take its toll. No lie, I've seen people lose their minds from being hypersensitive to it all and paying way too much attention to much of that world.


Element seemed to allow for brighter different color palettes, what excited you about switching it up to a brand like that?

I didn't really have any direction at Alien … I just did whatever I wanted and Mike (Hill) and Chris were cool enough to let me do what I wanted to do. In contrast, Element was a brand that was very controlled and very directed…too much so. It was a bummer. Everything that is great starts off from this origin of purity and it's important to not direct the fun and originality and creativity out of everything. I went from someone sitting at a computer doing the whole line of boards from AWS to being in board rooms with 3 versions of 3 drafts of graphics with 4 sets of eyes on them. 

By the time that process was done, there was none of my voice in the graphic. There was no fun or originality anymore. It was just a lifeless image in the end designed to sell. Broke my heart to a degree and that's why I left. Skateboarding and art…neither of them should become something that is dissected and twisted specifically for demographics and sales. It's gross just to think about, really. But that's how it was over there. It depresses me to just think about that era of my work. I never share it anywhere. I have a few on my website but that's about it.


A lot of your images appear to start with basic lines then transform in to beings, insects, etc, what do your graphics/paintings start out like? Do you have sketches before laying final paint? how many of them come from freestyle drawing?

Everything starts out as a sketch, yeah. That's the most important step in the process and I think a lot of artists try to skip that step. But I work out the shapes and forms and develop it, redraw it, redraw it again and then I might start to recognize some parts of it and those parts get developed more. Some come from very quick freestyle type shapes and lines. It's very random in a lot of ways but I think it should be pretty random and impromptu to keep it genuine and pure. I think if I tried to do these shapes on purpose, it would be a disaster, aesthetically speaking. There has to be a lot of mistakes that just work out.


Describe the business side of making skateboard deck graphic: does the company send an order for five boards in a set? Does the skateboarder get to pick his or her graphic?

It all depends on which company, to be honest. But usually it's pretty casual…they need X amount of boards and send you a list of the rider's names. Very, very rarely are the skaters involved in the process. And even though some of the best graphics have been done by pro skateboarders (Mark Gonzales, Neil Blender, Natas) it's probably best that current skateboarders aren't involved. Too much "direction" really does ruin art. Some companies are very good about it and let the artist do whatever, some companies have a little input but aren't too heavy with direction. Heroin is a company that I have enjoyed working with. Fos (the owner) knows what he wants but he isn't changing and editing all of the fun out of the graphics.


What's the best compliment you ever got from a skateboarder about your graphics?

I think Steve Berra had written an article in Skateboarder about his favorite graphics and he had a lot of very kind words to say about the graphics I did for him. And he'd mentioned in the past that my graphics were one of the reason he wanted to ride for Alien. He was always very appreciative and vocal where some guys…even to this day, I have no idea how some of those guys feel about their graphics from that era. Jason Dill and Pappalardo were both good about that. I knew the guys who were vocal about their graphics and those guys always got the best ones (in my opinion). I think between Dill, Pops and Berra…those were generally the graphics I enjoyed the most.


Where do all these creatures come from? Your brain must have a large area dedicated to storage and creation of so many animals, aliens, insects, etc.

I think my influences have always changed and continue to change so it's easy for these things to keep developing in my head. There are a few that I like…very simple owl forms or heads that I will continue using…but for the most part, I'm always changing and developing different creatures and characters because it's a fun process.


A lot of your work features creatures with sharp teeth, what do the teeth say about the work?

When developing a creature, you have to develop the personality along with it so the features match and there is some expression and life. You've got the mouth, the eyes, the ears…the nose (maybe) so after playing around with those, there is eventually going to be some more evil type of creatures and I imagine those to all have sharp teeth…I imagine that idea goes all the way back to the idea of Dracula or the idea of dragons. If they didn't have sharp teeth, they wouldn't be nearly as creepy.


Do you have a certain routine for working? Do you blast music (if so what), what's the vibe like when you're in the paint zone?

With painting it changes because I'm usually painting around other projects. It's nice to get away from the computer and, in that regard, I enjoy it a lot. When I'm painting for a show, I usually find one single album and listen to it over and over and over. It's the only way for me to be in a certain, consistent mood where the art is all touched by the same kind of feeling. With this upcoming show it's been 'Disintegration' by The Cure. There's a very specific mood to the album and, in my opinion, is one of the most successful at capturing a specific meloncholly feeling. It doesn't seem sad to me or depressing, it's certainly not happy really but it's just powerful and moving at times.


Now on the to basic "believer" questions: Do you believe in UFOs? if yes, explain, if not why not?

I believe there are other life forms in our galaxy. I would never hypothesize on what exactly they might be or any specifics. But knowing and understanding the origins of man, it's almost insane to think that a very similar process hasn't taken place in other parts of the universe. And wherever they are, I hope they've been way more intelligent about how they treat their planet and their fellow organisms than we have been as humans.


Do you think alien abductions happen?

I think there would be a natural curiosity to study humans if there has been some type of contact. I can't think of any story specifically that I believe but it makes sense that there would be a level of investigation that would involve humans and cows and that kind of thing. 


Through the eyes of an artist, what do you think aliens look like?

Exactly like the AWS Believe logo: Almond eyes, large head. Probably pasty like myself from lack of sun and vitamins. 


Ever seen a ghost?

I love the idea of ghosts. I like creeping myself out, I used to really enjoy watching ghost hunting shows and reading stories but there is no way that ghosts exist, at least not in the way that most people idealize them to exist. I have seen what I thought was a ghost one time in my life but now I'm about 100% convinced that it was a perfect storm of lighting, visual noise and my brain trying to makes sense of a random shape. No…no ghosts. Unfortunately. That would make for an interesting world if the spirits of every person who has died was still lurking around on earth. We'd never get anything done…shit would be flying all over the place, TVs going on and off, lights flickering, evil laughter everywhere you go. I imagine it would get old pretty quickly. Knowing humans, we'd go from scared to really annoyed and angry in a very short time.


Bigfoot: real/fake? why?

Oh, I think most of the stuff from the 70s are fake. As we move forward as a culture, we understand things more, science allows us to explain more and to rationalize a lot of phenomena that didn't have answers before. If science would say that it's possible for a Bigfoot type creature to exist or a Loch Ness monster, then I'd buy it. But that's not what science tells us based on what we know about the timeline of existence and the period of time that those things did exist at one time. 

Again, I kind of wish they did exist…it's very strange. As humans, we have MORE than enough things to really fear and worry about. What do we do? Keep making up even more reasons to freak ourselves out. It's very strange. Embrace science. 

 Some of Don's work:

Don Pendleton Art


Don Pendleton Art


Don Pendleton Art


Don Pendleton Art



For more about the incredible world of Don Pendleton, go to Image by Don Pendleton.