From paints to computer programs, people can use many mediums to create their artwork. But what about an Etch A Sketch? Artist Bryan Lee Madden is taking the beloved children’s toy and turning it into beautiful artwork—and a big business. We spoke exclusively to Bryan about turning passion into profit, and how sometimes your C Plan becomes your A Plan.
Bryan, did you love Etch A Sketch as a child?
I did, but I didn’t use it more than the average kid. It wasn’t until that I was in college and randomly picked it up again. I started drawing the NYC skyline; it was what I saw everyday going into the city by train and car. I didn’t think too much of it, but when friends saw it they said it was incredible. One day, I posted it to the Internet and it got a pretty big response, so I started doing other cities, like Boston, Philadelphia, and it took off from there.
Where is it today?
Now it’s become a full-time job for me. I do parties and events. I do things for the Etch A Sketch company, too. I’ve done Toy Fair for them which was a lot of fun. I just like doing the art, putting it online, and waiting to see what happens from there.
You had said while we were shooting that you took your friends’ Facebook photos and did Etch A Sketch portraits of them.
After the cityscapes did so well, I decided to look and see how many other Etch A Sketch artists there were out there. I thought that maybe I’d be one in a million, but it turns out that I was, like, 1 in 5! For awhile I thought I would be the cityscape artist, because I enjoyed doing the fine, highly-detailed cityscapes, but I kept getting requests to do other people’s portraits. So I decided to sketch my friends’ Facebook profile pictures to start as practice, and the friends were pretty happy. After 50-60, I decided to do it professionally.
Do you have a preference for portraits or landscapes?
I’ve kind of fallen into portraiture and it’s very satisfying. It’s one of the hardest things to capture the likeness of a person, so I love it. And then, once I got the idea to paint the frames, it took it to another level. I took the Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies Etch-A-Sktech that I did, and painted the iconic box out of the frame.
So how did you become connected with Ohio Art?
I was sketching at parties as a professional artist. I began working with them recently; they had reached out to me to do Good Morning America for National Etch A Sketch Day.
Did you even know that there was a National Etch A Sketch Day?
No, I didn’t! [laughs]
So where are you now as an artist?
I’ve been all over the United States for events and I continue to do events with Ohio Art.
What has been one of the hardest Etch A Sketch you’ve done?
The hardest one was the Times Square Etch A Sketch. It took over 50 hours over the course of several months. I did the framework, the structure of the building and then I did the windows, pedestrians, cars, and billboards. There’s 20-30 of them; Broadway posters, McDonald’s. It’s almost like a Where’s Waldo of finding things. The stylus tool inside the Etch A Sketch is so much finer now, so it allows for greater detail work.
What happens when you goof?
For the most part, you only get one chance with Etch A Sketch. If you make a mistake, you have to start over again. That’s the whole premise of the toy. If I make a small mistake in a congested area, I can sometimes mask it by drawing over it. But if I make a mistake where there’s not supposed to be anything, like in the sky, then that’s it. I just have to shake it and start all over again.
I love that you sign your work as a true artist. It makes it a true art form.
It’s a fringe medium, but it’s my medium. It’s a serious way to make art and a living. I think when I did the first one, I was into comedy writing and I had written a pilot for a show that was being shopped around. That was my A Plan. I was in college, so that was my B Plan. And when I did the Etch A Sketch, that is my C Plan. Now, here I am, 7-8 years later, and my C Plan is now my A Plan. It’s amazing how life works.