Judging by some of Sebastien Millon‘s artwork, you might think the local artist and T-shirt designer has a very twisted mind. There are murderous cats, drunk bears and psychotic bunnies who pepper his digital artwork. But the 31-year-old Paradise Valley resident is quite kind in real life, an artist who wants to help out his peers in the scene as much as he wants to share his sinfully funny, yet still super-sweet, art around the world. After starting to produce his digital art full-time four years ago, his T-shirt line earned a headlining spot in Phoenix Fashion Week, and he’s traveled to comic and art conventions around the country, selling his shirts, prints, greeting cards, and plushies. Millon plans on launching a Kickstarter campaign for a book of his illustrations, and check out a show of his at Hava Java in Phoenix in October. Millon talked about what kind of work goes into becoming an artist full-time, and you can hear him say five of his favorite reasons for living in the Valley below.
What brought you to Arizona?
I moved here with my parents when I as about 12, when my dad’s job in pharmaceutical management at Eli Lilly brought him out here. I was born in Belgium. My family is originally French, and we moved around a lot. We moved to Germany, then Puerto Rico, then Indianapolis, then to Japan, then here. I went to college in Chicago to study econ and art.
What is your first memory of being interested in art?
I always loved drawing, even as a little kid. I would draw a lot of animals. We had a German Sheperd, so I loved drawing German Shepherds. Also, when we first came to the States, that was during the Iraq War, so I loved drawing war planes, which was kind of weird, and cities.
What do you think sparked your interest in art?
My mom painted a lot. I saw that she enjoyed that, so I thought, “Oh, this is a worthy thing, since my mom loves it.” I liked putting energy into drawing and painting, and it was fun and natural.
What has your career been like since you graduated college?
I graduated college in ’04 and got a job working at an art store in retail in Chicago. I did retail work for about a year while painting on the side, which is really exhausting, working full-time and trying to produce work. I moved back here when I was around 23 to be with my folks and focus on art full-time. I got pretty sick for quite awhile, with a malaria-like illness, and that’s when I kind of rediscovered my imagination and got into the cartoony, silly stuff. I’ve been getting different treatments and am getting a lot better, especially since the last three-four years.
You were in Phoenix Fashion Week in 2011. What was that like?
That was a cool opportunity for me, because I learned a lot about clothing and how to run a brand. It’s very hard to make money making T-shirts, which is one of the reasons why I do a lot of paper products, like greeting cards and prints, because I can manage inventory a lot better. The shirts, I have to sink a certain amount of money into, and I have to hold onto that inventory.
When did your Sebastien Millon business officially start?
I did a small T-shirt line at the end of 2009. Mainly, my work is digital illustration-based. I have a notebook with my ideas in pencil sketches, and then I’ll scan them into the computer, and then I do coloring in Photoshop. When I was in Chicago, I was doing detailed portraiture, still lifes and landscapes. I don’t do much of that today, but I’ve been trying to incorporate the landscape stuff into the cartoons.
Do you miss painting?
In some ways, yes, I miss the physicality of the medium, but doing stuff digitally gives you a lot of room for error. It’s very versatile. You have to modernize sometimes. I’d love to go back and experiment with watercolor.
How has your line evolved?
The first thing I did was bears, Drunky Bear and Lightening Bear. I liked drawing bears because they’re both cute but dangerous. I thought the idea of doing T-shirts and having people wear something I had made was a cool idea. When I was sick, I decided owning my own business was what I wanted to do, since any work I create, I own the rights. I wanted to pursue my own vision, which is a big-time luxury for any artist. I’ll do some freelance work every once in awhile, such as for “Phoenix New Times,” but it’s really not my favorite thing to do. I’d rather just own my own thing. I would rather business-wise never be dependent on freelance work. I’m doing a licensing thing with PAPYRUS, so that could be steady income, but I do like maintaining control over the work.
When did you start introducing the other products?
What inspires your characters, and what do you hope people take away from your designs?
I’m inspired by “Looney Tunes,” because it’s a wacky humor with animals and really silly. I always loved “Calvin and Hobbes,” as well, which is sort of snarky but also really sweet and a magical world. I always had a love for that kind of stuff. For me, the creation of these characters was a way for me to escape with my health. Now, the main reason why I do it is it’s fun for me. I really like to make people smile, even if it’s a little dark sometimes. Sometimes, I feel like it’s healthy to laugh at the darkness.
Where does the darkness come from?
I think a lot of it has to do with what I went through with my health. I never want it to be mean, I just want it to be silly, and hopefully people can laugh at it. Life can be hard, and it’s good if you can laugh at the hard stuff.
How many designs have you done?
I don’t know. Around 1,000 — I’m relatively prolific. I try to make the most of it because I have the luxury of getting to do this full-time. Running a business takes a lot of time, but I would never want all of my time to be eaten up because of day-to-day operations. My goal is to create content. That’s where the value is.
I’m doing three to five designs a week. I’ve been doing some multi-panel designs, and I’m trying to get better at telling a joke or a story. I want to get better as a creative and keep pushing myself. I hope I don’t ever fall in the trap of ever repeating myself.
Do you ever get drawer’s block?
Oh, yes, there are days when you feel uninspired, like, “Ohmigod, I’m never going to get another idea again,” which is a little scary. I do look at a lot of art and look for inspiration, even on Pinterest. That keeps me inspired.
What artists are you inspired by?
I really love a lot of purely illustrative work, including a lot by this one artist called Pascal Campion, who always does these beautiful landscapes with this beautiful quality of light and composition. It’s very painterly. I enjoy a lot of web comic stuff that is less artsy and more about the humor in it. One of my favorite ones is “Nedroid.” The humor is never very R-rated, and that’s why I love it. It’s very witty without ever being grotesque. It’s fun and whimsical.
What inspires your humor in your art?
A lot of times, it’s meme culture or jokes you see online, that are very punchy or silly.
What do you hope people take away from seeing your art?
The number one hope I have is that it makes people smile. That’s even when I get a comment, where someone was having a bad day, and my drawing made them feel better. That’s a cool feeling.
What’s your favorite T-shirt design?
I did the “Booby” one recently. It was, “I touched a booby once. It wasn’t nearly as arousing as I’d been led to expect.” It’s a real bird and sort of goofy-looking, with a blue beak and blue feet.
Besides ‘Looney Tunes,’ why feature animals in your art?
I’ve always had this deep connection with them. There’s something magical about them, the way they exist, the way we connect with them, and how diverse they are. There are so many different kinds.
What are your vision and goals?
I’d like to take this as far as I can. I don’t want to all of a sudden find myself blown up out of nowhere. I want it to grow organically, for people to become fans of it because they enjoy it, and not because it’s everywhere and is jammed down their throats, because things can fade out really quickly, too. I hope I can build it on quality and people connecting with it on their own.
I’d love to do a little video game off it, it just depends on working with the right people. I don’t want to do it just to do it — it has to be done well. If I could connect with the right people to expand, then cool, but I can’t do it on my own, because my time could get sucked up with all that. My thing is always about the content, and then if I can meet the right people, see what else can be done.
Why do you continue to sell on Etsy even though you have your own site?
I really like Etsy because it’s a great community. Even if someone doesn’t know my work, but they search “bear,” they’ll come across my things. It’s a cool community and good people. There are people who run legitimate businesses and sell all they have on Etsy, but they may be a little unprofessional as a brand if that’s all you have. It just depends on the look you’re going for. I love it, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave it.
Why is staying local with your operation important to you?
Just in helping other younger artists and people interested in creating their own thing is important to me. It’s really awesome when it’s local people, because I want to see other people do well. If I can help an artist, and they grow up, that’s so cool. I got to be a part of that and help them be on their way. It’s good to see other people succeed.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to be a professional artist?
There are so many things to say, but try to maintain the discipline of drawing every day and creating every day. Look at different work, and try to network. Go to shows, and try to meet other artists. A lot of artists want to help each other out and see the cool art get out there.
As a business owner, what advice wold you have for those who want to start their own T-shirt company?
Start relatively small, because you don’t want to make big money mistakes. You might get excited, but you really need to test it out. Maybe start at 15, and if you’re getting a great response, then say, “OK, I’ll print 50 of them.” That’s an easy mistake to make, is to think you could move a lot of stuff quickly and get overly ambitious.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges to owning your own business?
Money is always the biggest challenge. You need to be prepared to survive the hard years, which is the toughest. You have to be careful of managing your money, which you learn as you go along. I believe so much in the creative side of things, I’ll always sacrifice making money for the creative content.