Interview with Philip Sachs of Sheepshead Design

Philip Sachs portrait

I first met Philip when I was walking down Prince Street in Manhattan last summer, a narrow avenue where vendors sell jewelry, artwork and clothing. His screen-printed canvases of cityscapes had an understated, modern appeal that stood out from the rest. Later that year, I ran into him again, when I was working for Etsy Labs, where he teaches a popular class on screen-printing. I discovered that he had set up a successful business, Sheepshead Design, in the comfort of his own home. He stretched canvases and burned screens with a lamp clamped to a dresser drawer and created designs made with flowers and plants from a local garden. DIY to the core! Philip was kind enough to invite me over to his Brooklyn apartment for a look at how you can build a self-sustaining business on a small budget, creating things you love.


How many years have you been screen-printing?

– I taught myself to screen-print four years ago. I have always had
a thing for browsing art stores, and there was a little one within
walking distance from my apartment in New Orleans where I lived at the
time. They had a few of those Speedball kits for sale and every time
I saw them I thought it would be fun to teach myself to start
printing my own shirts instead of buying them. Seeing as how I wear a
t-shirt just about every day, I figured that even if I ended up only
making a few, I could at least make back what I invested in the kit. I
passed the kit up a few times, but one day they had reduced its price,
so I splurged. And so it began.

How did you come across screen-printing and when did you feel that you could make a living from it?

– About two years ago, while I was working for for a small record
label, a major artist that we were working with unlawfully broke a
very big contract with us, which kind of sent the company into a
downward spiral for awhile. Six months after that, I was laid off and
needed to find a new job. After months of searching and not finding
anything that I was particularly excited about, I realized that I needed
to find something sooner than later. I honestly never thought at first that
I could make a living from screen-printing. It was just something that I
could do for fun in my spare time. I started printing more and more,
and working on new designs, so it seemed natural- I’ve always wanted to
work for myself, everybody wears t-shirts, and I am talented at this.


A little over a year ago, in the midst of my unemployment, I received
a very lucky piece of mail. Apparently, over ten years ago when I was
in high school, I was pulled over by a constable in an incorporated
village on Long Island for speeding. They have their own laws, their
own 20mph speed limit, and their own police. Well, apparently, those
police are not legally allowed to write speeding tickets. Someone else
who had received one of these had the smart idea to hire a lawyer and
sue the village for unlawfully receiving this ticket. Unknowingly, I became
part of this class-action lawsuit. After a few months, the suit was settled,
and my check arrived in the mail for $758! And so I had the seed money
to buy shirts!

I bought about 100 blank tees and printed about ten different designs
on them. I hoped I could at least sell them to friends and such, and if
nothing else, make a few dollars. It was winter time and after selling a few
of them, they basically sat in the corner of my room. I had at the
same time been experimenting with stretching fabric over a wooden
frame, making art to hang on the wall. I knew that I had always
seen people selling art and shirts on Prince Street in SoHo, so I figured
I could too. I made a few more pieces so that I could have some
inventory, and if I could just wait it out until the weather became
nice, I could give it a shot. After a lot of trial and error, figuring out the best
place to set up, ignoring the old-timers who didn’t want newbies there,
picking out the things to sell that people want to buy, setting my prices
correctly and obtaining a storage spot so that I didn’t have to lug everything
on the subway every day… selling on the street somehow turned into my day job.
And it’s been the main thing that’s supported me since.


How did that lead to teaching at Etsy?

– Even though I was selling on the street fairly regularly, I thought
that perhaps this was still too much of an untraditional job for me
and that maybe I should still look for a nine-to-five gig. Around this same
time, realizing that I was selling handmade things, a friend
introduced me to the Etsy website as a potential place to sell my
things. After some initial research, I not only agreed, but found out
that they were located in Brooklyn and liked what they were doing, so…
why not just work for Etsy? After speaking to someone and receiving
the polite “no,” instead of just walking out the door, I asked about
teaching a class there. I had basically perfected the DIY home set-up,
and realized that someone needed to teach aspiring printers. Luckily,
this is just what they were looking for, so after a class proposal and
a meeting or two, the class was born.


I set it up for about 15 students once a month, and to my surprise,
the first two classes sold out. I’ve modified the class a little bit and have
reduced it’s size, but it’s been running smoothly every month since June,
selling out many times. It’s great when former students contact me and
let me know that they’ve gotten the hang of it and have gotten their own
screen-printing projects off the ground.

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re working?

– Ha Ha. I pretty much put the ipod on shuffle and listen to whatever
comes on, skipping over the songs I don’t want to hear. Sometimes I’ll
have the TV on too. I’m not a big TV watcher, but something about the
background noise is good for me in terms of getting work done. I am
not captivated by what I’m watching, but the voices make me feel like
I’m not alone. Unfortunately, daytime TV and no cable means it’s
mostly soaps and judge shows. That’s when the TV goes off and the ipod
goes back on.


What are your favorite colors and paints to use?

– I’ve never been trained as an artist and I still have a lot of
growing to do in terms of developing a style, so I think simplicity
and my use of color are the biggest things I have going for me right
now. At first, I didn’t even know how to mix colors, getting shades
right by adding this amount of one color or that amount of another…
I’ve gotten much better at it, and it’s fun to see what colors I can create.
I tend to have a palette based on more natural colors, a lot of browns
and greens mostly. Even though there are a lot of differences in the
colors that I use, and I will try to work with the full spectrum, I tend to
stay on the earthier side of things, so everything can kind of work together,
even if you weren’t expecting it to. It’s funny, but I find a lot of
people who buy my things end up buying the pieces that are the
opposite of the ones that they initially picked up, because it’s more
about complementing the things that you already have rather than more
of the same. I think that I force a lot of people to look
differently at the the way colors interact with each other.


Where do you find inspiration for your designs?

– It’s impossible to ignore what other artists are doing, and it’s
important to let that inspire you without being a copycat. At the same
time you don’t want the work that you create to be stale. I think in
developing my style, I’m trying to combine elements of nature and
incorporate an urban feeling to them.

For me, it’s about combining the harmony of something that is pure and simple
with other elements that have been clearly thought out.

What design has given you the most joy in making?

– I have a series of prints that have come from simply picking flowers
from the community garden on the corner and literally placing them on
the screen. While I don’t want to get locked into doing the same thing
over and over, it’s amazing to burn a screen and not be quite sure how
it’s going to look until you wash it out. It’s kind of a surprise, and
usually a pleasant one. Screen-printing can be such a precise process,
and so much care can go into fine-tuning every aspect of your design.
It’s sometimes liberating to just let things happen.


What’s something you’d like to do in the future?

– I have a lot of ideas about new types of designs to print and
surfaces to print on, but a lot of them are just that, ideas that
haven’t fully been explored yet. I don’t think I want to reveal too
much yet!

What are some skills that you think are important in
making a living from screen-printing?

– I think the most important thing to realize when screen-printing
is to forget about being too precise. Being a perfectionist will take
all the fun out of it and probably drive you to madness. I am not a
machine, so I shouldn’t create art that looks like it’s been made that
way. It’s more important to make mistakes, embrace them as if they
were intended, and maybe even incorporate mistakes into the process.
In terms of making a living from screen-printing, it’s just important
to be patient. Things don’t happen overnight. You won’t be good at
printing, and your creations won’t sell unless unless you take the
time to let things figure themselves out. The other important thing is
to actually go ahead and do it. It’s always been my feeling that there
are people who have big ideas, and people who just live out their
lives without letting big things happen. And, for the people who have
big ideas, there are the ones who just think about them but never
follow through with them, and then there are the ones who take a
chance and make things happen. Even if you don’t succeed, at least
you’ve tried.


You can catch Philip’s designs on his website:
Or in person! On Prince Street (between Broadway and Mercer St.) in NYC.
Check out Etsy Labs for Philip’s classes.


~ by saguirl on March 7, 2008.

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