How To Design a T-Shirt: Chris Wharton

London based artist Chris Wharton has perfected the art of design to a skill level that has earned him collaborations with big brands such as Penguin, Urban Outfitters, GAP, Random House and many more. He takes his knack for design and creates bold, bright, joyful t-shirt designs you can’t help but love. We were lucky enough to chat with Chris about his art and how he executes a stunning t-shirt design.


TM: Where do you get creative inspiration, whether it be for a t-shirt design or a poster?

I find that inspiration is a fickle thing. I’m either bursting with ideas or scratching around looking for them. Most of my best ideas seem to be bolts from the blue when I’m not doing much of anything – reading, taking a walk or staring into the middle distance. I find that its best just to leave your brain to its own devices and not try and force the ideas out too much.
Naturally you need to couple spontaneous ideas with a grounding in visual culture, to be aware of trends and have a wide array of influence to draw upon. I like to think that every trip to a museum, walk in the park or flick through a book is all money in the imagination bank. It might not bear fruit immediately but who knows when it might germinate into something beautiful further down the line.

How do you come up with an idea for a t-shirt design?

With any project, I think you need to understand the arena your work is going to be entering before putting pencil to paper. Without knowing who your audience or market are, you’re basically stabbing in the dark. I design T-shirts professionally for studios in the UK that go into fashion retailers and I’m also an active member of Threadless. Both demand very different outcomes but function on the same principles; an understanding of your customers, your rivals and current trends. Threadless is a great platform for discussing and critiquing your wor. There are some very talented creatives that are willing to give you feedback and perhaps open up your ideas into places you never thought of before.

I’m not a highly technical illustrator. I don’t have insane skills that are going to shred your eyes with beauty but I do like to make a happy marriage of image and concept and produce something that will make you look twice or make you pause for thought. A good example might be a recent piece of mine, ‘Wild at Heart.’ Its drawn in a simple style but one which is fun, vibrant and accessible. The concept is also simple and together, they work harmoniously, inviting the viewer to investigate and participate. The image is a dense autumnal forest in a heart shape, on the left hand side is a clearing with a log cabin and a man felling trees. Amongst the repetition of trees you can discover birds, beast and mushrooms. The message is obvious: nature has a place in my heart as I have a place in nature.

Every artist has his or her own unique arsenal. What are your tools of choice?

I begin every project with pencil and paper. I try to let my mind wander, keeping my illustrations clean and simple. I try to draw as fuss free and paired down as I can. When I come across a good idea I’ll then draw, redraw and draw again, exploring various options and paths that it could take until I have a working draft and am satisfied with the basic proportions and composition. I will then scan the images into Illustrator and refine the drawing again with another series of drafts, adding detail. I use Illustrator to finalise the shapes and colours and then for shading, textures and final tweaks I import to Photoshop. I use an intuous Wacom tablet and an iMac.

As an experienced designer who has worked with dozens of clients you know that not every design ends up becoming a big hit with your fans or the client you’re working with. How do you know if a design is successful or a potential hit?

I can’t claim to have a Scrooge McDuck vault full of successful hit ideas, but I think I know when I’ve made something that others will enjoy. In fact I think the discipline of being self aware and critical is one of the fundamental elements of being a successful creative. Stepping back from your work and scrutinising it with something close to objectivity is vital to progression. Without a certain level of restlessness and severity I think you can end up stagnating. You have to be hard on your craft in order to improve. As the old proverb says “A smooth sea never made a good sailor”. There are times when you can work on a design for days and it flops and then something you spend an hour or two playing around with is a total smash – its not always about the time spent.

Can you briefly run us through the process of one of your designs?

I’ve attached some of my process images from (very) rough sketches through to completed image. The featured design is ‘Wild at heart’ and is mentioned in the ‘How you come up with an idea for a t-shirt design?’ section.

1. Very first impression, thoughts on potential details and characters.

2. Playing with trees. I wanted a range of trees with varying patterns that will crate a rich texture and not just look copy and pasted.

3. Sketching out other elements. I also thought about inverting the heart shaped forest so that the entire image was one vast woodland and the clearing with the cabin was heart shaped instead.

4. Taking ideas into Illustrator and playing with tree shapes.

5. Using a heart shaped background template in order to shape the trees.

6. finished image with template removed.

7. Details scattered amongst the trees to break up the image and invite the viewer to take their time spotting things through out the design.

Where can we find more of your artwork and products for sale?

I currently have 7 design up for sale over at Threadless.

I also have a Design by Humans store too.

Or if you’re a Society 6 fan I have a larger range of all my work HERE.

More resources:

Making a Living as a Graphic Designer

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