Bad Kitty: An Interview With Beer Label Artist Phineas X Jones

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Look at that picture up there. It’s a kitty, all cute (his collar says “Big Hugs,”), but he’s going Godzilla on that castle. And breaking the hell out of that rainbow. Bad kitty. Baaad.

So goes the imagination of Phineas X Jones, the artist behind Half Acre Brewing Company’s most, um, distinguished beer labels. We talked with the artist about the complexities of drawing for beer snobs and the luxuries of living indoors (not all artists get to do that). Read the Q&A, then check out the gallery of some of Jones’ best work.

Paste: So, you draw beer labels. Sounds like an awesome gig. How did you get into drawing?

Phineas X Jones I always drew since I was a little kid. Then I went to art school because I didn’t have a better plan. And then I worked in non-art stuff like advertising and web design because I prefer to live indoors. And I started doing screen printing at some point, and accidentally noticed enough to believe that just making prints and posters could be my job, but as it turns out not really so much. But in the process a guy who saw one of my prints happened to run a brewery and asked me to do a label and then another one and then 50 or 70 more things and that brings us up to the present day more or less.

Paste: When you were growing up, doodling in notebooks (assuming you doodled in notebooks) did you ever think you’d be drawing beer labels one day?

PXJ: I definitely never thought that. This wasn’t a career path I took on purpose, exactly. I got offered the chance to do that one label (the 2009 Big Hugs) and over time, things just spiraled out of control.

Paste: Your beer labels are WILD. Does Half Acre let you have free reign? Or are they like, “I want a kitty going Godzilla on a castle”?

PXJ: It’s not entirely free reign. There’s a lot of back and forth, usually between me and Gabriel (who is the president of HABC). Sometimes it’s a pretty specific idea from him, as with Big Hugs destroying the fairyland. I don’t think I’d have come up with that one. Although I take credit for having Hugs smashing the rainbow. But it’s pretty wide open when we are starting out on things. We like to be a little surprising with the labels and I hope it’s something people look forward to with new releases.

Paste: Do you have a favorite label of your own?

PXJ: I’ve done so many by now it would be hard to pick a favorite. Big Hugs is generally the thing I like working on the most every year. And I’ve been really happy with the way it’s turned out the last two years in particular. And I’m proud of my can designs, because cans are a completely different thing than a full color label with a lot of limitations. So making something that stands out within all the restrictions of the medium is an interesting challenge. In most cases I’m more interested in the process of getting a thing done than I am in having the finished thing, if that makes sense. I’m interested while I’m trying to solve it. When it’s done, I need the next thing to solve.

Paste: Any artists working in the beer world that you admire?

PXJ: Three Floyds is always doing interesting stuff with their labels. In a way, they were sort of the leaders in making beer labels that were more than just retail branding. Solemn Oath has a very specific and distinctive look going these days. And Off-Color is doing sort of the opposite tack from that end, making really simple, almost naive-looking designs but they’re still really recognizable. It’s interesting seeing different places trying to establish a recognizable voice in their design now that craft beer is becoming such a crowded world and since people are actually starting to talk about design as an aspect of that.

Paste: How would you describe your style of art, in your own words?

PXJ: I probably never would do that. Lots of movements in art history, like the Impressionists, got their names in the form of insults from their detractors. So if I can manage to annoy enough of the right people, they might be able to come up with the appropriate name for what I do. Only time will tell.