Trent Call is one of Utah’s most well-respected and prolific artists. He graduated from art school in 2004 and has been a full-time artist since 2006. He defies common advice to specialize, choosing instead to embrace a number of mediums and styles. He says it’s much more fun (and it certainly seems to be working well for him).
We met up with Trent in his spacious Salt Lake City studio.
This is a cool spot.
I’ve had a studio in this [Granary District] neighborhood since 2003, but initially it was in a building a block away. I’ve been in this building for 12 years or something.
What are rents like?
I pay $460 or something. When I first moved in I was across the hall in a smaller space.
I read somewhere that you and your studio mates all support each other and it’s a place to just hang out. Is it still that way?
Not as much as it used to be. When we graduated around 2004 and 2005— a lot of us here also went to school together. We would hang out a lot together and then critique and help each other. But I’m pretty much the last one, everyone else moved away.
From the city or the space?
Most of them left the city, a handful are stillhere in town. Either because they couldn’t make it, they didn’t need an art space anymore or they had their own house and could convert a room in the house.
And for you, do you not have a space at home or do you prefer having a separate space?
I don’t have enough room for all this. And I probably spend more time here than at home. This is good. It would be nice if I owned the place, though, so I wouldn’t have to pay rent for so long.
But I like leaving the house. I ride my bike, I only live two miles away. It’s an easy bike ride, it’s flat. I just come in here and make a mess.
It’s pretty awesome. Then you can just close up and leave for the day.
Yeah, but sometimes it’s difficult to leave. That’s a problem working for yourself. Just doing your hours and leaving when you’re done working.
Right, because you’ve mentioned before you spend a lot of time working. Is that still the case?
Pretty much. Well, lately I’m trying not to work on Sundays as much, but for the past few weeks I’ll come down here for two hours and write a letter or do some computer stuff and go home. Not full days.
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
Well, it depends on what I’m working on at the time. I just started a portrait two days ago. But in the past few weeks, I did two big computer projects: a comic to explain how a medical mattress works, because it’s kind of confusing, then I did an Adobe conference booth for a local tech company. And both of those projects took three weeks.
The Adobe one was a lot of computer work and drawing. With that kind of stuff, I’ll show up and just work all day on the computer. But then for the past few days I’ve been painting because I’ve got a show coming up at a gallery with oil painting stuff. So all month I’m just gonna focus on oil painting and then fit this commission in with my other paintings.
So some of your oil paintings are commissions?
I try to avoid doing portrait commissions, but this lady was so cool and I haven’t done it for a while. I just thought it would be good practice. And it’s kind of refreshing to sell a painting. Because with these paintings, and the stuff in the hall, I’ll paint them and then never sell them. It’s kind of frustrating. Whereas a commission, it’s going somewhere. Yesterday I took photos of a model at her house, and then I have probably six city landscapes I’m gonna fit in [the art show], too.
You earned your BFA from the University of Utah in 2004. What happened next? Did you get a job?
Well, at that time I was working in a frame shop and worked there for a couple of years after graduation. Then in 2006 I quit. It was the holidays and one of the clients worked for Sysco, the food place. They somehow came up with this idea to give away a Christmas gift of commissioned portraits for some people in their company. Maybe 12 portraits. So through that huge commission I ended up quitting the job. I had enough money to live for three months. That’s basically how I quit.
How long did that commission take to complete?
It took a little bit longer than I wanted because some people would wait on it. I should have included a due date but I got the money upfront. I got really sick of doing commissions.
Okay, that was about 2006.
Yeah, and I’ve just been trying to stay afloat ever since.
So you’ve been living off of your art since then?
How does your income break down from your different sources, like fine art, murals, commissions and illustrations?
It kind of depends… Honestly, I surprise myself. I hadn’t made any money early this year, for all of January. I was like, Man, I hope I get some jobs soon. Then I got that comic and Adobe job. If it’s slow I’ll just work on painting or do my own thing, but something always comes up.
A lot of things fall through, too. Tons of stuff. Sometimes my email will get too full. And I’ll see all these old emails— so many projects that never worked out. There is a lot of that stuff. And then a lot of stuff comes from whoever knows you or references.
That’s how you get a lot of your jobs?
Mmhmm. Maybe three years ago some guy found me somehow and I did a mural for him in an office in Lehi. And I guess it’s a pretty small community down there – tech-type guys – and that led to a bunch of jobs down there.
And then even the guy I bought this chair from, he said, There’s this office down in Lehi and I think they need some artwork. So that turned into a huge job. Just random stuff like that.
Would you say your commissions can range from small projects to massive projects that can sustain you for months?
Yeah, I guess months. A big mural for sure. Small commissions that are $200 to $500 are usually just for friends or people I know. If it’s something too different from my style, I try to avoid those.
Over the summer this woman approached me and wanted a painting of her, but she didn’t really know what she wanted and I didn’t either. So I painted three paintings and she’s gonna pick which one she wants.
Do you factor into your pricing the fact that you’re making and spending time on three paintings when you are just giving her one?
The reason I did this is because I did it before and it seemed to work out okay. When I paint these paintings, sometimes they don’t work out very well and the painting is just okay.
Just okay in your mind or in their mind?
In my mind. And sometimes it’s just as easy to paint three as it is one because I’ll be working on them for two hours and then rotate them because they’re wet, and I’ll start working on another one. So I’ll work on two or three paintings a day and it seems to be more efficient that way than if I just work on one.
And do you also incorporate the painting time with all your other jobs?
Yeah. Well, I used to be a lot better at jumping from computer to oil painting. I could do it really well. Now it’s a little bit more difficult for me because I’ll get in a weird rut.
During the murals and my computer stuff, my studio was a mess and all this paint was out. It’s really hard for me to oil paint when it’s messy. It has to be really clean so I can walk around.
Sometimes I set up a tripod to do time-lapses. That’s another element that makes it fun for me. As fun as it is – painting – it’s kind of boring sometimes. And so adding photography, making GIFs and using the computer adds another element, it’s something fun to do. And I’m really into the idea of the process of a painting. That’s much more interesting to me than the final painting. So documenting the process is kind of fun.
What does the process look like for a painting, start to finish?
Basically what I’ve been doing lately is I’ll draw it in and then I’ll block it in with these bright colors, get more accurate color. Then I’ll probably paint one more session of oil and then make it really messy – kind of ruin it – and then come back in and draw it more accurately.
Using something else?
With a pencil. I was trying to do a new thing, just keeping it more drawing, keeping it a lot simpler.
And you just have the image on your computer and then you move it over?
Yeah, these [types of portraits] are kind of new for me, the style, the simplicity of them. I’m just experimenting with a new way of doing stuff.
Is it a personal project?
Kind of. That’s my friend [he points to a painting currently hanging in his studio]. She moved away, I took photos of her before she left. And she’s just such a good model so I wanted to try more geometrical poses with her, because I do a lot of blurry type things.
Basically what I’ll do is grid them out and then just draw it. And it works pretty well. I’ll make a big mess, almost obliterate it and then come back and redraw the face. It’s a lot of push and pull.
Is this something you learned in school or figured out over the years?
I just came across it. Maybe just being bored with the “right way” to paint. I don’t know. It just evolved over the years. I saved the painting where I first figured out this style. It was a portrait and I’d splashed so much paint on it then redrew it. Create and destroy, create and destroy. At some point, I just stopped and it looked cool.
I watched one of your time lapses and it was interesting because the painting looked finished, but then you went back and seemed to start it over again. And then it looked really cool at the end.
It takes maybe a little bit longer, but it makes the painting more interesting and it’s more fun for me.
A lot of people feel they need to find one particular style, but you’ve mentioned you don’t really understand that and have a bunch of styles.
Yeah, a lot of that comes from the medium too. People teach you, This is how you oil paint. If you oil paint, that’s it – just master that and that’s all you do. But that’s really boring because there are so many other cool ways to make art. As soon as you learn a different medium like spray paint or airbrush, your style will change most likely. It’s just experimenting and learning new mediums, that’s one of my main things.
How does that help you with getting jobs?
Well, it doesn’t, that’s the thing. It’s not in my favor because it confuses people. The cartoon stuff and the oil painting stuff, people couldn’t figure it out. And then some people even tell me, Dude, you’ve got to stick with this one or that one, or, I like your cartoon stuff. But I don’t really care. [Laughs.]
Maybe this is really what it is— I don’t think I could only oil paint. For one, I couldn’t make a living doing that, and I’d get really bored. So I mess with other stuff. I’ve got a friend in Arizona, he is an amazing oil painter, he kills it, he’s really successful. But I couldn’t do that every day. I need to switch it up and it’s fun drawing cartoons and stuff.
How do you educate your clients if they do get confused?
I think they just kind of figure it out on their own. Or if they look at the website they can maybe tell that it’s one person’s work. I’ve never really talked to people about that too much. A lot of the time people approach me because they want a mural or a cartoon. And then when they find out I do this other stuff, they’re surprised. But as far as posting things online and not explaining myself, it definitely creates a lot of confusion with people. Some people think it’s cool.
And even in art school you’re always taught to stick with this style and paint the same thing for the rest of your life. But if you look at music and other famous artists or some famous band— if every album was the same – which when I was a kid I wished they were, because I used to be like, This is my favorite album. But it’s always more interesting to see someone evolve and change styles.
You’ve mentioned your education didn’t really prepare you for the business side of art. How did you learn the business side and what were your resources?
I’m still learning, I’ll tell you that. I still rely on my friends a lot, asking them what I should bid.
When people ask me to do logos or something I don’t know what that costs. I kind of figured out oil painting just from the galleries and doing it more. But the digital computer stuff, it’s really confusing. I recently did a digital illustration for the new airport and that was about $7,000 for just a PDF. And I thought, This is weird. Because that throws your whole perspective off on what to charge for things. Then I compare to past projects and what I’ve sold things for.
I didn’t initially start sending out official invoices. It’s probably only been the last five years. Before, I‘d just send clients an email. Another thing I started doing was writing down what people owe me because I would forget that people would owe me money. And I’d be thinking, Oh, that guy owes me some money. [Laughs.] So now I write that stuff down.
How do you write it down?
Well, right now I have a reminders list. And then I write stuff down in a sketchbook a lot. I’ll draw and write to-do lists and write things on [my hand-drawn] calendar. Keeping a list, that helps a lot. I used to do this digitally – keep lists – but then I felt I wasn’t drawing in my sketchbook enough. And I’ve always really been into sketchbooks. This is my 48th book. I’ve always used sketchbooks, so I try to embrace them even more and not use the phone so much. I used to keep the list on the Reminders app, which was fine, but then I was always looking at the phone. Sketchbooks are a big, big deal.
Is it just you or do you have any help?
Just me. But lately I’ve been writing down things I have to do, then things I did, which is interesting. But I’ll use the computer a lot too. A lot of emailing stuff. I’ll try to do all the emails at once which I used to not do. I used to check my email all the time.
Do you try to only check it once a day?
I might say that, but it depends who I’m emailing. Some people I’m excited to write to. Some people I just don’t want to deal with.
Was there anything during your time in school where they did talk about the business side?
Oh, no, none. It’s something I never even thought about, either. They didn’t even tell us how to hook up with galleries or price things. They just taught us how to draw the figure in a certain way and how to paint a landscape and mix colors and stuff. That was it. But actually how to make a living at it? Zero. I mean, money and selling stuff, how to get a gallery – that was always so confusing to me.
How did you figure that out?
I didn’t ever figure it out. The lady I used to work with at the frame shop started the gallery where I’m having a show in April. She just said, Hey, let’s show your stuff. And that led to other galleries. But I’ve never been very successful selling through galleries. If I only had that avenue it would not work because I only sell a few paintings a year through galleries, so that’s not much income at all.
What would you consider your best income sources?
Probably the illustrations and murals. And then for a while I was working for Even Stevens [a sandwich shop]. I did a bunch of work for them and that kept me busy.
Going back to school, what are some of the pros? Do you feel your education was worth it?
Well, I got a handful of little scholarships, and my parents helped me a lot, too. The scholarships weren’t just free rides. One paid for all my generals one year, so that year I took a bunch of generals. No art classes because I thought, Well, it’s free. But that was depressing because I didn’t paint for a whole year because I was doing all this general stuff. And another one paid me hourly to work in my studio.
So I came out of school with no debt, so in my mind it was fine. But I have friends who still have a lot of debt. I’m fortunate I don’t have debt. That was a big deal. If I had debts still, it would really stress me out.
But school, all of it was awesome, I was into it. I got really sick of drawing the figure, though. The school was really traditional when I was there. And that’s kind of why I started doing figure again, trying to make it cool, because it was so boring. I was really into screen printing a lot too and cartoon drawing.
I went a little bit slower than my friends. It took me five years because I would only take three classes so I could make tons of work in those art classes.
What would you say is the most challenging part of running your business?
Probably the taxes. Keeping track of things to write off and inventory. I’m still so confused by the tax side of it. I started keeping an inventory of all my work maybe four or five years ago because I’d forget where these painting are because I’d loan them to people. Mainly just keeping track of things, because when I’m painting, that’s so far from my mind.
What do you use for your system?
It’s a Numbers [spreadsheet] file. It’s like Excel, but for Apple. My friend helped me build this document. Basically the taxes kill me.
You’ve never taken any business courses?
No, I’ve talked to some business people and they’re really shocked.
But you still have to figure it out.
Yeah, I do. Somehow. What I’ve been doing in the last while is I’ll just keep track of all my checks and put it in a Quicken file, and then have all the write-offs in there and send it to a tax guy.
So you have someone who does your taxes?
Yeah, and even doing that is so confusing and weird for me. My brain does not like that part, but I can keep track of other stuff. And partially I don’t understand it. But as dumb as it sounds, keeping an inventory and having a list of what people owe you— it sounds so simple, but it makes a big difference. [Laughs.] [Shows us a Numbers spreadsheet.] This is basically my entire paintings inventory. These are paintings that are available, and if I click this button, it will show all the paintings I’ve sold. If I sell the painting I’ll click that and it will go away.
And you said a friend helped you build this spreadsheet?
Yeah, because I didn’t know how to use this program.
And so it says the size, the medium – what it’s on – the category, the year, the price and where it’s at. All these numbers reference different paintings and a lot of these paintings are up in these racks here [on the shelves in his studio].
Then if someone says they want something, I can export a PDF of options and send it to them. And I’ve sold paintings that way quite a few times.
How do you differentiate the work you do?
I think probably the strongest thing I have going for me is my different styles. For example, the Adobe guys, they wanted graffiti, skateboarding things, and they’ve only seen my murals. They asked, Do you know how to use Illustrator? And I said, Yeah. And they were hesitant because they wanted to make sure I knew how to vectorize all the stuff and export all the files properly. I could tell they didn’t believe me right away. Stuff like that. Knowing how to use the computer helps a lot.
How did you get the Adobe project?
I’m pretty sure their offices were by the [Utah] Jazz mural I did [in downtown Salt Lake City] and they liked it.
And you said their project took a few weeks to do?
Yeah. Mainly drawing the stuff. Those jobs can be kind of hard because people have such a set thing in their mind, what they want it to look like, but I do things my style. I’ve learned the hard way in the past. If I would just do the whole thing and say, Here you go, they would say, Oh, we want to change this and this and this.
So what I do now is lay them all out in sketches and not do any color, just so I don’t put too much work into it.
It’s a lot of collaborating with your clients and giving them some creative control?
Well, with certain people, yeah.
What learning experiences created the most change with how you run your business?
Actually doing the stuff. One of the biggest murals I did was up in Park City in a tunnel. It was $8,000 for this tunnel and no one wanted to do it because they said, I’m not painting something that big for that little money. And I’m thinking, I’m all about it. But it took so long to paint, maybe a month. Partly because my design was really detailed. But just learning through doing is the best way.
In addition to selling in galleries and art shops, you have a shop on Big Cartel. What were your reasons for using that site to sell your work?
Well, they‘re local and I like to support the local people. And at the time that was the only site out there like that.
I really don’t sell much on there either, but when I do sell stuff, it’s super exciting. I’ve sold paintings to people in Europe. Any time it’s not in Utah it’s way exciting for me. I’ll write them a letter, put in extra stickers and make the package look all cool, and use my [branded] tape.
Sounds very hands-on for you.
Yeah, it comes back to the DIY, making ‘zines, stickers and graffiti stuff. I’ve gotten orders from other people and I just get this bag with the item I purchased in it and I’m like, what?! Amazon does a better job than they do.
I have friends where you order the thing from them, the thing is made elsewhere and then those people ship it to the buyer. The artist doesn’t even touch it. Which is fine and efficient, but to me it’s missing half the art part. Because for me the package and the process of ordering something, getting the item in mail, that’s the whole thing. I love getting stuff in the mail.
I write letters to people, too. It’s this physical, casual thing that says non-important stuff, but people actually read them. If I sent the same thing in an email, they’d just delete it. I put stickers in there, have all of these stamps or draw pictures. It’s just fun to do.
Have you had any mentors or people who have been pivotal to your career?
Yeah, coming back to letters, pretty much all through the 2000s I wrote letters with my high school art teacher, Pat Eddington. He lived in town here, but he was kind of a recluse. We’d write letters all the time and send drawings back and forth.
How did the letters start?
He just started writing me letters. He wrote a lot of people letters. He wrote letters to pretty much every famous artist he was interested in. That’s just how you’d communicate back then. Everyone from Brian Eno to Robert Crumb. He was friends with all the comic artists through writing letters.
How many murals do you have and how long have you been doing them?
Let’s see. Less than 20, more than 10.
I don’t even remember the first mural I did. A lot of them were in this neighborhood because it’s just where I’ve been working for so long. I probably didn’t start doing the murals ‘til the late 2000s.
Do you consider yourself successful?
Well, I have to always remind myself I can do whatever I want, all day, any day. It’s been that way for more than 10 years. A few years ago I worked on a movie set for a week, 12-hour days. That was pretty cool. I learned a bunch of stuff and the art director was awesome. But after working there I realized how fortunate I am that I can come here every day and work and not be that stressed out. And honestly, the murals were the most stressful things for me.
Well, I guess whenever I do stuff for other people and there is money and time involved, and expectations and efficiency, it’s kind of stressful. Even dealing with the lift company. Because once I cracked the sidewalk really badly, which is part of the process, but for some reason it stressed me out.
Would you consider your freedom of time one of the most rewarding things about your work?
It’s kind of a double-edged sword because as much freedom as I have, all I do is work. I think it’s pretty common for someone who owns their own business. They work, work, work. So I never do anything else, which is kind of boring and not really interesting. Because I have friends who have [traditional] jobs and they’d say, Oh, it’s my day off, and they’d just be hanging out. And I’m like, What do you do? You just hang out? [Laughs.]
That’s the problem. I work too much. No free time. But then at the same time I can leave, depending on my projects. My girlfriend has a pioneer house down south and all the time we’ll just go down there for three days. Whereas if I had a job, I couldn’t do that. Tons of freedom, but I’m still working and worried about what’s coming up next all the time.
Was there any instance where things didn’t go as expected?
I guess I never expected to even get this far, because you never know what’s gonna happen.
How about a time when a project didn’t work out for you?
Usually whenever something doesn’t work out, which happens all the time, I always have something else to fall back on. I might get ready to do this thing and it just drops. But then I have something else on the side that’s ready to go, so I can just jump right in.
How do you manage your cash flow if the jobs are coming and going?
Well, I’ll get a bunch of money sometimes and then not spend much of it. Sometimes I just buy new things to make more art.
I bought this pounce machine for $700 last summer. It’s another tool to make art. I didn’t need it, but I’ve wanted it for years, so I bought it. And as soon as I got it, I got two big sign projects and it instantly paid for itself. That’s what I spend my money on, stuff like that.
My money goes to rent, computers, beer and food. That’s it. I don’t really spend much money, I guess.
What is something you learned the hard way?
I sold a painting to a guy in Quebec, Canada, and it was so hard to get the painting across the border. They don’t like shipping paintings over the border. That’s a learning curve – shipping stuff.
When it comes to communicating with fans, are Instagram and social media valuable for your business?
I can’t tell anymore, it used to be. When Instagram first came out, I was so into it and I used it as another medium, as my photo medium. And then it turned into only art stuff. Lately I haven’t been posting that much at all.
How important has SLUG [Salt Lake UnderGround Magazine] been for your career?
They have been super influential. Angela [Brown] saw one of my Swinj ‘zines, then we started talking. I must have been 18 and she had me illustrate a West Memphis Three piece, kids who were wrongly convicted of killing some people and were in prison forever. I illustrated that which was so cool.
Then from there I did a comic. It was my first comic. I always wanted to be a comic artist so it was such a big deal to have a published comic in a magazine. Since then, I’ve done something for them pretty much once per year. A cover or a logo or something. They’ve had a big influence on me. They’ve been supporting tons of local Utah artists.
What are your future hopes and dreams – what’s next?
Oh man, probably to keep making stuff I like and to just stay afloat. Making more cool things.
Trent Call’s Gallery
All text + images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
Nothing goes according to plan. This was a 2-color letterpress with the orange printed transparent. Brainstorming for this print exchange theme was so much fun! I really felt like I got somewhere with this one. I was so excited for the 2 value dots to line up perfectly in the shadows and the two colors creating the darker brown line. (Which went exactly perfect according to plan.)
- Murals by Trent Call: “Here is a map of my murals. A handful are Even Stevens and one of them does not exist anymore. My most recent 3 or 4 walls are not included. I need to update it.”
- Big Cartel – what he uses for his website
- Brian Eno
- Robert Crumb
- SLUG Magazine – a big influence on his career
Interview edited for length + clarity.