Joseph Toney is a visual artist inspired by the wilderness. On Instagram he calls himself a “Mountain Maker,” which is apt since his line designs typically incorporate rocky peaks from around the world.
In high school, Joseph set his sights on working in the ski industry and successfully landed an internship (and job) at Teton Gravity Research in Jackson, Wyoming, followed by a position at Armada Skis after graduation in 2013.
Now he’s out doing his own thing and he talks with us about how he prepared for the transition to being a full-time artist, the story of how he got into a Colorado gallery and a behind-the-scenes look at how artists get graphics on Armada skis.
You’re from Boone, North Carolina. How did you end up here in Salt Lake City?
I almost came here for college. I got into school at the U [University of Utah] and then decided out-of-state tuition and debt wasn’t the best path for me, so I went to school in North Carolina [Apalachian State University].
After school I got a job at Armada Skis in California and then moved to Park City when the company moved there. Since I already liked Utah, Salt Lake was an easy move for me.
By the end of high school, you said that you knew your goal was to land a job in the ski industry making artwork for skis. What were the steps you took to get that first job at Armada?
I did study abroad in Austria and during that time I met and worked with a little skateboard manufacturer and that was my first commercial work for actual products. Then I came back to America and moved straight to Wyoming to work for TGR [Teton Gravity Research] for six months as an unpaid intern. And then that kind of spun into a full-time job for six more months. I had to take more time off from school and just kind of worked nonstop in a job I wasn’t trained for and didn’t know how to do, but kind of figured it out on the fly. I think being put in that situation and the people there having confidence in me really helped me realize that I could manifest what I wanted.
How did you get that internship?
I knew a guy from North Carolina, I had met him once, and he had the internship before I did. He was leaving TGR for another job and kind of recommended that I take his role.
Sounds like a good connection. And then what were you asked to do that you didn’t know how to do when you were there?
Not necessarily I didn’t know how to do, I just wasn’t trained. I maybe had a semester of design classes in my life. I was kind of getting thrown into an actual graphic designer’s job.
Is that what you were studying in school?
Yeah, graphic design and painting.
So after the internship and full-time gig with TGR, what happened next? Did you go back to school?
I probably could have stayed in Wyoming since I had a more or less dream job working for TGR full time. I was getting paid what I was going to get paid when I graduated in two years, I was living in a place I liked and had a bunch of friends there, but my parents helped me get through college and it was the best gift they could give. If I hadn’t finished that up, I think I would have always regretted it. So I left TGR and went back to school. I still did design work for them while I was in the school.
Yeah, I worked on art directing Jeremy Jones’s film Higher while I was still in school. And once I went back to school my part-time jobs were no longer restaurant jobs or working on the ski mountain, they were just doing design work.
Did you have other clients at the time or was it just TGR?
I had a handful of different small clients. I was always taking projects from business school students and local businesses who needed T-shirts, graphics, ski trail maps — kind of everything.
How did you get those jobs?
Some were connections. When I was 16 I started working in the terrain park at my local ski mountain. They knew I liked art and doing design, so I got to start painting rails in the summer and that spun into designing posters for competitions and designing T-shirts. Later on, I would have friends go from that ski mountain to another and they would recommend me to other ski mountains to do design work. Always word-of-mouth from past positive relationships with clients.
After graduation, what was next?
I flew out to the SIA [Snowsports Industries of America] trade show and tried to solicit myself to every brand imaginable. The first trade show I had been to was when I was at TGR. I had driven out [to Denver] and slept in my Jetta in the trade show parking lot. I walked around with all my design stuff and had business cards. I was 20 and didn’t get a single email, call back or anything. I was like, Huh, that was an experience.
So I went back to TGR and got a lot more experience working and the next trade show I was like, Ok, now I’m ready. I know what I need to show people.
How did the trade shows and what you showed differ?
I gained a little more confidence and had a stronger portfolio. I’d done classes that helped get me the knowledge I needed to. I was actually a lot more experienced and interviewed with Icelantic [Skis] since they had a job opening, and then Armada still had a job opening. Armada flew me out [to California] and I interviewed with them. I was simultaneously trying to decide which job to take. Icelantic said they wouldn’t let me design skis, so I decided that was out. And then luckily Armada worked out.
So did you go to those two booths specifically, knowing they had job openings?
I went to Icelantic because there was a little job fair at the trade show and I knew they had an opening. And then Armada I knew had a job posting six months before. And I was like, It’s probably not there, but I just went and asked and kind of talked to their marketing guy. The art director wasn’t still there but he got my information and seemed excited about me.
And so you landed the job at Armada.
Yeah, I was still in school, so I actually started working for Armada pretty much instantly. And my senior design projects that year were designing skis for Armada, so I was getting school credit, getting paid and then designing movie stuff for hire.
Wow, that’s awesome.
And then I had a couple of other projects. After school Armada was cool with me taking four weeks off before I started full time. They were like, You just finished school and it’s not an ideal situation to go straight into a full-time job. So I took all my stuff to California then took four weeks off to travel, ski and climb around the US.
You were working with Armada full time from March 2014 to December of 2018 is that right?
Yeah, and I’m still doing freelance work for them.
What were the best parts of working with Armada?
I think what I enjoyed the most was working on apparel projects and getting to design outerwear patterns. Or working on ski graphics and having a good experimental creative space where I could just try new things and see if they work on skis. Having the support from the art director there to do what I wanted.
How did you prepare for leaving in December? How did you know it was time?
I’ve essentially worked two full-time jobs for the whole past year. I was doing freelance design, fine art and Armada. I was working more weekends than I wasn’t and kind of hoping there would be a means to an end. Then finally I saw enough lined up and enough opportunity to know I could support myself if I left, even if I didn’t get freelance contracts with Armada. So I decided the time is now.
Did you crunch numbers ahead of time?
Yeah, I’ve already estimated my salary for the year. It’s obviously not equivalent to my salary with benefits and all my freelancing income from last year, but I’m already projecting to match my salary at Armada this year. I did all the math, lined up two big contracts with decent retainers and I’ll survive after that, no problem. If I sell art or get any other jobs, which I know I could, it would kind of just be a bonus.
Who are the other companies you’ve been contracting with?
Even when I was at Armada I took jobs with tons of people if I thought I could handle it. So I still do Jones Snowboards and Armada. I also did some work with Ridge Merino, MVMT Watches and TGR too. Those are the big ones.
How do you manage all of those clients, especially now that you’re also doing your own artwork?
A part of why I wanted to leave Armada was because I was at a point where I didn’t want to design five days a week and paint two days a week or paint at night. So my goal was to leave because I have a design background and that’s going to easily support me, and then just try to make my work 50-50 — three days of designing and maybe three days painting.
How do you handle your pricing and what to charge?
I’ve just kind of been doing art for a long time. I had my first solo show in college. Design students usually don’t, but I wanted to have one. I approached a local gallery and sold myself to them. This was all outside of school at the time. I was just really motivated, trying to figure it out and produce close to 15-25 pieces to show.
Luckily I had incredible support from family and friends, so they came and were always interested in my work no matter what it was, good or bad. So I kind of had them vet what I was doing. For the first three art shows I had I just wanted to break even on my overhead.
Yeah. Maybe not right away, not opening night. But I would be like, Okay, I have $2,000 invested in this. I love making art and I want to do it, but I’m not going to spend my savings to create stuff. And so I just got to a point where I was like, I’ll keep doing this as long as I break even. And if I can start paying myself, that’s going to be an amazing day.
And you’ve managed to get solo and group shows all over the place — Washington, Oregon, Florida, North Carolina. How did you get all those shows?
I think it’s partly recognizing opportunity and having put in the hard work in advance, then having an opportunity come by and the the ability to seize the moment because you already have all the groundwork in place. Sometimes good opportunities can come by but if you’re not ready, they’re just going to keep going.
How do the good opportunities show up?
Kind of through other connections I’ve had. Or sometimes I have a project I think is really cool and I need to find an outlet for it. So I’ll apply for festivals, grants or stuff like that.
A big one last year was the Granary District Mural Project [in Salt Lake City, UT]. That was the first big grant I ever applied for and got. I heard about that one through a friend from Salt Lake who grew up here. He saw it and he’s like, Dude, you’ll be perfect for this, you’ve got to try and apply for it. I had a full-time job and full-time freelance work and I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to do this. Because when I started looking into it, I was like, Those are a lot of hoops to jump through right now. But I somehow jumped through all of them and convinced people that they should give me money to paint a big wall even though I didn’t have the experience, really.
Can you tell us more about how the proposal process worked for you? How did you figure out what to submit?
Working as a designer has actually helped me exponentially in fine art because I’m used to handling clients and proposing ideas to clients that they may not necessarily come up with on their own.
The business skills I learned as a graphic designer have definitely translated into the art world. And I think in a lot of ways have given me a leg up over other artists who don’t have the business experience.
Because that Granary mural is quite large, how did you manage to fit it into your schedule?
I actually took a vacation day to do that one. I had just gotten back from the ski factories for Armada in Austria and had, like, maybe a two-weekend window. But to rent the scissor lift for more than one week went up another $2,000. So I was like, Okay, I’m not going to rent it for more than one week, I have the money to do this and I have another job I want to keep, so I figured out how to do both.
It was summer, so it stayed sunny until 9 o’clock. I had someone who primed the wall for me, took a Friday off from work, worked all weekend and then worked at night twice during the week. I got to the wall at 4 and painted until dark a couple of nights and then worked through the weekend just so I could get that one week on the scissor lift.
And did you finish it in that full week?
Yes, while working 40 hours in my day job.
You must not have slept.
I slept really well because I was working so hard.
You have a mural on evo’s store in Denver that was a collaboration with Armada. Can you tell us more about how that happened?
That was a project evo had proposed to Armada, but they had never found the right outlet or been able to allot the right amount of work and time to it. Then since I had done another big mural project at the Granary, Armada had the confidence that I could execute now. Luckily it panned out.
evo has done those types of collabs with other artists and businesses before, so it wasn’t a new thing for evo. It was just an opportunity Armada had never been able to seize before because maybe it cost too much money to hire an outside artist to paint a mural that big and fly them out to do it. But I could do it on a cheaper budget because I was working on my salary.
It was just part of your normal job?
Part of my normal job, which is really fun and cool to have that. As a graphic designer, having that outlet is unheard of.
For sure. How long did that one take you?
Three or four days.
And you had a show inside the store too, right?
We had a curated group show inside that included some of my personal work and commercial art I do for Armada. There were also artists from Brooklyn, Switzerland, North Carolina and our art director had work in it too. It showcased the behind-the-scenes process for Armada ski graphics.
What is the ski graphic process like?
So at Armada, it was either my art director or me designing a handful of the ski families and then we would also hire three artists a year to do other work. That could be a digital designer, 3D designer, an illustrator, a photographer, a mural artist or a painter. We would just find artists that we liked and reach out to them to see if they wanted to work with us — and see if we could afford to work with them — and go from there.
Armada Skis. –Joseph Toney. Photo: Daniel Ronnback
You recently did a micro-residency in Sapporo, Japan. Can you tell us more about that?
After leaving my full-time job and feeling super overworked, I just booked a month-long ski trip to Japan. But I was like, Well, maybe I should try to figure out something to do besides skiing while I’m here. And I’ve always wanted to do art residencies, but I definitely never could have while I had a full-time job. I thought, Maybe I can just have a week to work, paint and reflect on my past and then three weeks of traveling around Japan.
I went on an art residency website called Resartis.org. I’d been looking at that once a month for the past two years just dreaming about applying and doing one. I found a studio that does 3-month paid ones in the winter and has a bunch of other available spaces at the studio that you can apply for and rent for absurdly cheap, like $7 a night or something. If you get in, you can have a really cheap place to stay and a good creative environment with artists from all over the world.
So I applied last minute and got lucky they had availability. They accepted me and I had a week to do some creative research, concept planning, dust out any thoughts and talk to other artists in a similar boat as me. It was good to see that and participate.
But now that I don’t have the full-time job I think I will actually be able to facilitate some more residencies. You can search by paid residencies, unpaid, partially-funded, state, country, etc. They’re all over the world, which is kind of cool. A lot of them aren’t paid and I think the paid ones are pretty competitive. But if you have the facility to pay for yourself to go somewhere, there is almost always, it seems, a studio that you can apply for and get in. And they like to have international influence.
Did you bring all of your supplies or did they supply them for you?
You usually take what you want to work with and you have to handle getting them back or finding a place for them.
Switching gears, how do you approach social media?
I’m starting to use it more for marketing and business than I ever thought I would. After I started focusing on posting my art, that’s kind of helped me be taken more seriously and also helped people find my work. I’ve gotten a lot more sales from social media than I ever thought I would have.
Are you able to track the sales that you get through social media?
I don’t track it, but I can look back at commissions and projects I’ve gotten, where they saw my work, and figure it out.
Where is your money coming from right now? For example, what percentage is fine art versus graphic design work?
Last year it was probably 70/30 — salary job versus fine art sales. This year I’m hoping it’s 50/50, but it’s kind of hard to estimate fine arts sales.
What are your outlets for finding work? Is it your website, galleries, social media or something else?
New design clients are strictly word of mouth — I don’t even have a design website. They usually want to see some design work from me, but I’ll just reference stuff that’s out there in the market that they can currently look at.
For painting I have one gallery, Slate Gray Gallery, who represents me in Telluride, Colorado. They sell work every couple of months/ I’m usually selling a piece and making a new piece for them.
I do some private commissions too. I just did a big commission for someone in Steamboat who used to live with a friend of mine from high school and works in a ski shop that sells Armada skis. So that was an easy connection.
How did you get into the Slate Gray Gallery and how have they helped you?
So my last big solo show was for Mountainfilm in Telluride at the Telluride Art Center. It was definitely the best space I’ve ever showcased my work and the best audience I’ve ever had and the most financially invested I’d ever been for an art show — driving to it, getting a trailer, paying $2000 – $3000 of overhead for that one show. But I thought, Okay, this is a self-investment, it’s going to pay off.
I didn’t really go in knowing what my pricing should be.
I asked the guy who was curating it to lend some insight and he helped, but I still didn’t quite know where my pricing should be and I was already pricing it higher than I’d ever priced anything. So I was a little hesitant to price stuff as high as it was recommended, I was like, I just want something to sell while I’m here. If one piece sells in the whole show, I’m usually pretty stoked. So it was hanging for 3 days, so it was a decent investment to have a 3-day window to break even when it’s maybe only open for 8 hours a day. I got lucky that I sold three originals.
Then when I was breaking down, a woman was walking by with the woman who ran that building and they were peering in. The door was locked, so I unlocked it. She came in, seemed to really enjoy the work and mentioned she had a gallery. I was like, Oh, this is cool. She started talking about how she liked it, and I was like, Well, I’d really like to not take this back to Utah, considering a lot of the mountains in the art are Colorado. And she’s like, Okay, well come meet the curator at my gallery right now. So I did, saw the space and the curator came back and just picked three paintings off the wall to put in the gallery. I was like, No way! And she was like, And this is the price you’re going to sell it at. They take 50%, which is more than the space I had just shown in which was taking 30%. So because a bigger chunk of it was taken, I had to also increase the price because I need to think about how much I need to get paid for one of the paintings and then I double it.
Have they sold those pieces?
Yeah, all but one of them sold and I’ve put in other work.
How many pieces do you hang there in general, on an ongoing basis?
Right now it’s been no more than three. I think there’s opportunity for more, I just haven’t had the time to make paintings fast enough.
How long does it take you to finish one painting?
Depends on the painting, but anywhere from 30 to 60 hours. A lot of times I kind of stop tracking my time because I don’t want that to influence the work, even though at the end of the day I need to look back and make sure I paid myself more than $10 an hour.
What does your commission process look like? Is there a lot of collaboration or do they just give you free reign?
It really depends on the situation. I have a couple of painting processes that I’m working on now, so I can show different ways to finish the painting, different styles that I can combine to make one for them. Right now the subjects are mostly mountains and I can work off of certain mountains.
The one I did for Steve [our mutual friend], he has a space in his house he wanted to use, so I looked at it and figured out the size that it should be. Sometimes they go, I want this size on the wall. I’m like, Okay, well, let’s measure it, and I’ll tell you whether it’s going to look too big or too small there. We’ll then start with the size and the content, and sometimes it’s not the size they originally imagined.
Steve knew he wanted Mount Olympus, so I was like, Great, I’ve been waiting to have a reason to draw Mount Olympus, so this is perfect. I thought it would be a 6’ x 4’ one-piece painting but decided a three-piece triptych could work really nice in there instead. So that was a fun challenge, definitely. A little more work with three panels, but they worked out really nice.
The one in Steamboat, Colorado, he kind of just trusted me to do what I wanted. But I don’t just start working, I want to make sure they’ll be happy with the final product. So I propose the idea, show them what I’m thinking and try to explain to them exactly how it is going to look before I even get started.
Have you had any turning points or “Aha!” moments?
Yeah, I think TGR was probably a pretty crucial point. And then working on Jeremy Jones’s films. I think I designed a T-shirt graphic for Jeremy. We were flipping through my sketchbook and he just saw that they were really drawings, not just something digital. And he was like, Wait, we should get you to do a snowboard graphic. So I was talking to his art director and told him how much I wanted to get paid. After that was probably the first time I got a personal phone call from Jeremy. He said, We never paid someone that much for a snowboard graphic, and even when I was at Rossignol and paid people pretty good money, we never got that high. I was like, Well, you know I’m in college, I don’t really know what I’m doing [Laughs], so how can we work around this? Can I put my name on it? Just tell me what you can pay and I’m still happy to do it.
So that was an “Aha!” moment. It was the reality of what the standard was to get paid. I probably paid myself $10 an hour for that first snowboard I did, which is not very good for a designer and illustrator — it should be like $50 to $70 an hour. It was definitely eye-opening. I said to myself, Okay, I can do this work and get paid for it, but since this is the rate I’ve got to figure out how to do the same quality work, but work at a speed that pays myself something that I can live off of.
Jones Snowboard Design. –Joseph Toney
Do you charge a flat rate or hourly for projects?
I’ll estimate it and charge a flat rate for almost everything. With design I’ll allocate 2 or 3 revisions in depending on the project, and if we go over that I’ll have my hourly rate. But that’s a last resort.
Do you have contracts with your clients?
Yep. I think another big part of why I’ve been able to have some success in freelance design and fine art is by approaching it very systematically and very much like a normal business and not just like, Oh yeah, I’ll paint that or I can design this. No, we’re going to have a contract, I’m going to maintain rights to this and I’m going to get paid 50% to start and 50% after for design.
For paintings I just take a deposit to cover my materials and then they’ll pay the rest when it’s done. And that’s with people I don’t know. If I know them, the terms are a little more flexible.
So you have multiple contract versions?
Yeah, I usually read the situation. If it’s for someone I’ve been working with for a while, I don’t have contracts. I’m not too worried about it.
Did you use a contract template from somewhere or did you put it together yourself?
I’ve gone through quite a lot. I think my most recent one I pulled from another designer online. He just put it out there for other people to use and I just modified it to fit what I needed.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Yeah, I was super lucky to have quite a few, actually.
I had my dad. He’s a business professor, so even when I was a little kid we would go to a new restaurant in town and he would always be like, Do you think this place is going to stay in business or not? [Laughs] And then he’d say something like, This place isn’t going to work out.
So I was already able to read business success from a young age. I didn’t take business classes but spent a lot of time in the business department, in clubs and going to extracurricular activities at the business school, like if there was a speaker I wanted to go see, talk to or listen to. Which is different from a lot of people and it’s definitely not something the art school recommended, but something my dad recommended. It’s definitely helped me stand out in the work I do, compared to most people.
There was a footwear designer from my hometown who lives in North Carolina, maybe 15 years older than me. He was probably my first mentor. He was an art history major from my school and it was cool that he was in action sports, but is now a product designer. I think I met him in high school and I was like, Oh wow, that guy is cool, he’s doing cool stuff. That’s kind of what I want to do. He worked with my dad, so I’d occasionally see him and we now have a good personal relationship. When I got my job at Armada, I called him first and I was like, What do I ask for on salary? What should I be doing here? He’s definitely someone who has helped me know the standard and what I could charge. Someone I have reached out to any time I had a question so I didn’t completely miss out on a proposal or something.
Another one is my friend who got me the job at TGR.
Yeah, people make a big difference.
For sure. A lot of people don’t have those mentors or know that they would be helpful.
What are your dreams for the future?
Having a dedicated art studio, more murals, art residencies, getting into more galleries, making a living working on projects I want to work on and not working on stuff I don’t want to do.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim.
- Armada Skis
- evo – online and brick and mortar action sports retailer
- Gallery 81435 – Telluride, CO
- Jeremy Jones – legendary big mountain snowboarder
- Jeremy Jones’s Higher film
- Jones Snowboards
- Mountainfilm – documentary film festival in May
- MVMT watches
- Snowsports Industries of America (SIA) Trade Show
- Teton Gravity Research films
- Ridge Merino apparel
- Res Artis – worldwide network of artist residencies
- Slate Gray Gallery – Telluride, CO
- T.F. Brewing – Granary project mural location