How to draw a beer

When it comes to beer and art, Berryessa Brewing Co. refuses to be boring.

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It starts with a name.

Propaganda. Free Kittens. Separation Anxiety. Couch Potato.

Berryessa Brewing Company’s brewmaster, Chris Miller, has what his graphic designer refers to as an “esoteric” naming convention. These esoteric names are then interpreted by the artists he collaborates with to design the cans.

“We don’t sit down and say, ‘We’d really like to see this and that,’” Lori Nicolini Miller, Chris’ partner in business and marriage, says of their art direction.

This creative approach to design leads to fresh looks and unique branding hurdles. Using multiple artists to design original artwork for different beers made by the same brand is so unconventional that Chris and Lori had difficulties even finding a graphic designer who would work with them.

But they knew they couldn’t take the easy way.

“We just couldn’t go with something generic,” says Lori.  “We just refuse to.”

They turned to local artists to create designs for each of their core beers. So far Wyatt Hesemeyer, Liz Harrington and Robert Armstrong have all created images for Berryessa Brewing Company beers. Each has a shared love of Berryessa Brewing Company, and each works in a unique and recognizable style that has been honed through years of self-taught practice.

“It’s always so cool,” Lori says of the artwork that Hessemeyer, Harrington and Armstrong have created for them. “I’m always blown away by their artwork.”

Getting original artwork printed on their cans hasn’t been easy.

“We had to fight for it,” Lori says. Because of the difficulties involved with designing a beer can, most designers will only work with generic images that can be easily manipulated. It took finding the right artists and the right designer to make it work.

But the artists are dedicated to continuing to work with Berryessa Brewing.

“I love those guys and I dearly love working with them,” Hessemeyer says of the brewery. From their beers, to their music to their art, “I really endorse pretty much everything those guys are doing there,” Hesemeyer says.

And though he is San Francisco based graphic designer Simon Bucktrout, who works with Berryessa Brewing Company loves to visit the brewery when he can.

“Chris has a unique approach to beer,” Bucktrout says. “It’s almost anti-corporate. It really mirrors the ethos of what they do there.”

Bucktrout compares Berryessa Brewing to the traditional English pub, a space where communities have gathered to talk and listen to live music for centuries.

“You go there and feel like you’re a part of some community,” Bucktrout says of Berryessa Brewing. “It’s almost like a public service.”

The artists of Berryessa Brewing Co.

Wyatt Hesemeyer, “Propaganda Pilsner”

[caption id="attachment_769956" align="alignleft" width="300"]blank The Propaganda Pilsner’s can , drawn by Wyatt Hesemeyer and designed by Simon Bucktrout, features a red-eyed wolf wearing a sheep skin.[/caption]

“How do you visually represent propaganda?” Wyatt Hesemeyer asks. While some names might suggest a simple interpretation, others, like “propaganda,” have so much potential that they can call up, as Hesemeyer puts it, a million different ideas.

Hesemeyer, a Winters resident, has been a patron of Berryessa Brewing Co. since they opened. He jokes that he got involved with them as an artist because he was “spending too much time” out there. Hesemeyer never attended art school, but spent his childhood drawing. He handrew their menu, and he designs the poster for their anniversary parties, where his band, Miss Lonely Hearts, always plays.

Along with the Propaganda Pilsner, Wyatt designed the can for the Winters Pale Ale.

“He really did what he felt like embraced Winters,” Lori says of the Pale Ale design.

But the Propaganda Pilsner  design was different. How do you connect a can of beer to a concept like propaganda? Hesemeyer says that it took a lot of brainstorming to settle on the final, central image: a red eyed wolf wearing sheep’s clothing.

Designing art for a beer can isn’t like drawing a poster. For one thing, the art has to read well on the can’s convex surface. It also has to include necessary elements like the name of the product, the brand, a warning label, the beer’s nutritional content and on top of all that—it has to look good on a store shelf.

This is where Simon Bucktrout, a San Francisco based graphic designer, comes in.

“Sometimes it’s like being a bit of a composer,” Bucktrout says. He listens to everybody’s input and turns that into a finished piece. While working with the different artists he has to take their different style and ideas and make them visually cohesive across the entire brand.

“It’s a challenge,” Bucktrout says, “but it’s a really unique challenge that I really love.”

Bucktrout meets with Hesemeyer and Chris whenever they are going to design a new can. He says that Hesemeyer has a skill for taking a story and turning it into images.

Hesemeyer has worked as a tattoo artist for eight years now through his business, The Line Defined. The name is emblematic of Hesemeyer’s recognizable style. In his tattoos, as well as in his commissioned artwork, Hesemeyer creates detailed images with clear lines, linear shading and pointillism.

After drawing several images, Hesemeyer sends them to Bucktrout to be modified for the can art. Bucktrout takes the drawings and pieces them together on the computer, traces them in Illustrator, then adds color in Photoshop.

“It’s almost like a really quasi painting by numbers,” Bucktrout says. He uses fill colors with textures that mimic wool and wood grain to give the design an organic feel. After all of the digital manipulation, Hesemeyer’s distinct hand-drawn style is still clear.

[caption id="attachment_769958" align="alignright" width="300"]blank Liz Harrington, painter of the “Free Kittens” design, pours beer at Berryessa
Brewing Company on weekends. Here she stands in front of the menu, hand drawn by Wyatt Hesemeyer, and a painting of Mickey Rat, by Robert Armstrong.[/caption]

Liz Harrington, “Free Kittens”

About three years ago a stray cat left a litter of eight kittens at Berryessa Brewing Company. Liz Harrington, an employ at the brewery, took one of the kittens home to bottle feed. Eventually each of the kittens was adopted by an employee. Harrington says that it became a joke that free kittens were one of the job’s benefits.

Harrington named her kitten Chicha, after an indigenous Peruvian drink. Chicha would eventually become Harrington’s inspiration for the sly, mischievous looking cat that represents Berryessa Brewing Company’s Free Kittens beer.

Harrington has been a lifelong artist. She has worked with oil paints since childhood, and currently teaches classes in acrylic painting.

She painted the sinister looking “free kitten” for The Art of Beer, a charity event that pairs California breweries with a silent art auction. The event raises money for Make-A-Wish Northeastern & Central California and Northern Nevada.

Harrington’s interpretation of the name illustrates the way an image can add meaning to a name. “Free Kittens” is already a fairly cryptic name for a beer. The image adds another layer to the story. Harrington’s image suggests that if you adopt this kitten, there’s a catch.

“It’s not totally free,” Harrington says.

Robert Armstrong, “Couch Potato”

When thinking up a way to represent the “Separation Anxiety” beer, Robert Armstrong imagined a scene that many pet owners will recognize: The sad look on the face of a dog that is about to be left at home. That idea became a robot, walking with a can of beer and a little dog that is trying to pull him back.

Like Harrington’s free kitten, Armstrong’s image adds a little bit of ambiguity to the name. Is the dog upset about being separated from its robot owner, or the beer it’s holding? Armstrong chose the robot because it isn’t as specific as a human. The robot doesn’t have a gender or race. As Armstrong puts it, the robot goes beyond that to become something that is almost allegorical.

Armstrong has been collaborating with Berryessa Brewing Company since they opened.

“He is such a true gem,” Lori says of working with Armstrong. “He’s super low-key.”

Armstrong is famous for his underground comix and his character, “Mickey Rat.” Armstrong was always encouraged to pursue his artistic talents, but was stymied when he attended art school. He says that his professors had a contempt for comic art, even at a time when artists like Roy Lichtenstein were ripping off comics for the sake of “pop art” and doing it worse (in Armstrong’s opinion).

After coming to the conclusion that the cartoonists he knew were more talented than the fine artists he was learning from, Armstrong dropped out. He started studying the practical drawing techniques that he was missing in school.

For the past 40 years he has been sharing the skills he taught himself with children at the Davis Arts Center.

“I’m the only game in town that is teaching cartooning to kids,” Armstrong says. In his classroom he teaches children what he wishes he had been taught.

Outside of his illustrious career as an artist, Armstrong has another, possibly stranger, claim to fame. He is recognized as the inventor of the phrase “couch potato.”

It began in Pasadena, where Armstrong lived with a friend who spent his days on the couch with the television on. The television was always going, even if it was muted. Another friend started calling him a couch potato, which Armstrong thought was a great phrase.

The couch potatoes became a set of characters in the Mickey Rat comics. Armstrong made some friends silk screened t-shirts for the couch potato club, and they found that people were interested.

So Armstrong put an advertisement in the back of one of his comics, inviting people to send in a dollar for a pin and official membership in the Couch Potato Club. Hundreds of people wrote in. The club became so popular that Armstrong, along with the help of other writers and cartoonists, created a newsletter called “The Tuber’s Voice” to send out to club members.

They were written up in the Los Angeles Times as well as T. V. Guide. At one point a game show called “The Couch Potato” approached him for licensing.

Three decades later, Chris approached Armstrong to create a design for their newest beer: An I.P.A. made from purple Idaho potatoes.  Armstrong agreed, and created an image that illustrates why the many-eyed potato is a the perfect mascot for people who watch a lot television.


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