Left Photo by John Schulz
Meet Nan Coffey. With a cup of espresso and headphones full blast, Nan creates bright and playful paintings from her home by the beach in San Diego. From Doc Martens to canvases that span hundreds of square feet, her colorful designs are inspired by punk and ska music shows. Nan’s stylized aesthetic graces galleries from San Diego to Las Vegas and has captured the attention of corporate suitors such as Google and Tender Greens.
We spoke with Nan about how she built up her corporate commission work and how she created a strong social media presence.
Want to see more of Nan's work? Visit NanWasHere.com.
YOU HAVE A VERY DISTINCT / RECOGNIZABLE STYLE. DID THIS EVOLVE OVER TIME, OR DID IT COME TO YOU THE FIRST TIME YOU PICKED UP A BRUSH?
A little bit of both, I guess. If you look at my older work and even my drawings as a kid, there is a lot of the same imagery, the same characters, etc. I think over time and with repeated practice, the art has evolved into what it is today. I don’t recall when I started drawing disjointed characters, but I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. The idea of these characters not being connected themselves but always reaching out to connect to other characters…I think I’ve always done that. I’m just doing it on a much, much larger scale now.
YOUR ART IS VERY COLORFUL AND PLAYFUL. DOES THIS REFLECT YOUR PERSONALITY? WHAT INSPIRED / INSPIRES YOUR STYLE?
I suppose it depends on the day and my mood. I doubt anybody that paints sunny imagery is always sunny on the inside all the time, but I do have a generally positive outlook on things and I think that shows up in my work quite a bit. I also think though that during the less sunny times, when I’m looking for answers and for a more positive outlook, that my art is therapeutic in helping me to find the path to get there. I’m largely inspired by my family, my friends, my life experiences, and music mostly. Music has always been a big part of my life. I remember my first cassette tape: Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve. I loved that tape. Still do. My parents got it for me when I was 5. I know that it is from that one tape, listening to it over and over and over again, that I developed this great love of bands.
In fact, the majority of my best memories are based around music. Like, I was in the front row at Arco Arena for David Bowie’s Sound and Vision tour. I was nearly crushed to death. It was great. And the first time I went to the Fillmore, I saw the Dead Milkmen. And when I finally saw the Beastie Boys, it was at the Hollywood Bowl. I mean, I could go on and on. But the best times are the smaller shows. I grew up in a city where there is frankly nothing to do for people like me, so my friends and I would drink a ton of beer and go to punk and ska shows in other cities. All the time. As many as we could afford. It’s the camaraderie at these types of shows that has always been a huge influence in my work and all the memories past and present continue to inspire my ideas and my work.
Right Photo by John Schulz
IS THERE ANYTHING UNIQUE ABOUT YOUR STUDIO SPACE OR CREATIVE PROCESS?
I don’t paint upright. Ever. I paint flat – no matter what the size. It isn’t that I am unable to paint on an easel like most artists, it’s that I just don’t like to do it that way. And for my large works, I unroll huge lengths of canvas across the studio floor, put on my headphones and just sort of go for it. I like a lot going on around me when I paint, but I also like to be in my own head. It’s kind of hard to explain. But I’ll put the TV on, turn the volume all the way down, put headphones on, and turn the music all the way up. I don’t know why I do that. I think it’s just how I work. Plus I drink a lot of espresso. A lot.
Left Photo by John Schulz
IN ADDITION TO CANVAS, YOU’VE TURNED CHAIRS, TABLES, AND EVEN DOC MARTENS INTO A WORK OF ART. DO YOU FIND IT CHALLENGING TO PAINT ON 3D OBJECTS?
Not really. Some objects are way easier to paint than other objects, but I don’t really mind the challenge. I’m a perfectionist, and it takes a long time to get my work to look the way it does. When I paint the objects, it obviously takes longer to paint them than it does to paint a canvas, but what I have found is that the more objects I paint and the more complicated the objects are, the faster it makes me at the other work. So I do a lot of back and forth – I’ll paint a “normal” size canvas, then an object, then a huge canvas, then a small canvas, and so on. This back and forth method of how I work seems to make me faster and faster every day.
YOU HAVE AN IMPRESSIVE LIST OF CORPORATE CLIENTS, INCLUDING GOOGLE AND TENDER GREENS RESTAURANTS. HOW DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST CORPORATE CLIENT AND HOW IS THAT EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT FROM DOING OTHER COMMISSIONED WORK?
My first corporate client was Google. I had done a private commission for my brother-in-law who works at Google (it was a set of 24 original Android paintings that were given to members of the Android team) and they went over very well, so that one commission led to others at Google. It’s all been pretty organic really and I’ve been pretty lucky. I meet people in the most random ways and one thing leads to another, and the commissions just sort of happen. I don’t really do private commissions often, so I can’t really answer how or if it is different – I just paint what I want to paint, put it out into the world and see what happens.
Photos by John Schulz
YOU HAVE A STRONG SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE. HOW HAS USING SOCIAL MEDIA HELPED YOU FIND NEW FANS / BUYERS AND STAY CONNECTED WITH CURRENT FANS. ANY TIPS FOR OTHER ARTISTS ON HOW TO USE SOCIAL MEDIA?
I’m really the last person to ask about social media. My husband Josh set up all my accounts and had to talk me into using each one. I just wanna paint. But when you make the decision to put your work into the world, you have to start somewhere and social media has proven to be a great way to connect with people. It took Josh probably about 2 years of badgering me to get me to agree to having an art page on Facebook. I was reluctant to say the least. No real reason, I just didn’t want to. But I finally caved in March and frankly, he was right all along – the response has been so positive and I’ve “met” so many rad new people from around the world that truly seem to be enjoying my work. So I would say to other artists, if you have not already, set up your social media and just start showing your work.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH CHARITIES SUCH AS THE RONALD MCDONALD HOUSE? IN ADDITION TO BEING REWARDING, HAVE YOU FOUND IT BENEFICIAL FOR YOUR ART BUSINESS?
I did a project with the Ronald McDonald House years ago. I really don’t even remember how it came about, but I painted all these pumpkins for Halloween for them to decorate one of their locations and it went over really well – it ended up that kids and their families loved them so much they asked if they could start taking them home. So of course we all said yes, so I did as many as I could in the time-frame. Hearing how happy something so simple as a painted pumpkin made someone who may have needed that little spark in their day was pretty rewarding and isn’t that what it is all about?
Photo by John Schulz
IS THERE ONE THING YOU WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD YOU ABOUT BEING A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST WHEN YOU BEGAN?
I knew before I even started that I picked a path that was not going to be easy, so I guess I was actually prepared for this long and difficult and sometimes very stressful journey. But what in life isn’t, really? I’m still trying to figure it all out myself, so I’m not the best person to ask for advice. But I can say this - one thing that did surprise me was how often I am asked why I am doing this. It’s really very weird - I regularly have people ask me things like what is this for, why are you painting that, why did you do that, who is this for... Especially with the large scale works I complete. A lot of people seem to have a hard time grasping the idea that self-satisfaction and the desire to create something can be a driving factor in someone’s life. That maybe it really isn’t about the money, but it’s about the art. That maybe there really are people that just wanna make something cool and show it to people just to do it. Just to see if they can. Just to see what it will look like. So I guess, be prepared for people to ask questions like this because it will happen A LOT.
Want to get started on social media like Nan? Check out Which Social Media Channel is Right for Your Art Business?