When it comes to brewing beer, the process can take weeks or it can take years. There’s often a meticulous level of brainstorming, preparation and execution required to make a quality next-level effort, whether it’s a sessionable pale ale or a barrel-aged stout, but sometimes it’s what drinkers see on store shelves that can prove to be the most valuable asset for a brewery.
Over the last several years, craft beer transitioned from bottles to cans, with the 16-ounce four-pack – which began as simply a trend – becoming the standard, replacing the traditional 12-ounce bottle. This newly accepted container proved to be an enticing way to distribute beer but, more importantly, the larger label was a blank canvas for which to better grab a customer’s attention. For this reason, the beer and art worlds have collided to create a niche cultural explosion, allowing creative people the opportunity to contribute to the look of some of the most highly-praised beer on the market and while some breweries have hired guns create their labels, others have full-time artists on staff.
Using a full-time artist creates more brand awareness, providing a brewery with a specific look – and not too many breweries have implemented a look better than Solemn Oath Brewery. For close to a decade now, the Chicago-area company has brewed award-winning beers and featured extensively complex artwork on their labels, fitting perfectly with the unusual names and the overall metal-like vibe.
This art is the brainchild of Chicago-native Jourdon Gullett, who has spent the last six years as a full-time member of the Solemn Oath team. Gullett has a variety of tasks with the company, including creating graphics for apparel and merchandise, creating labels and package designs, helping with web and social media, helping schedule events and developing Solemn Oath’s separate brand of hard seltzer called City Water, Chicago’s first locally made seltzer, which debuted 2019. But Gullett wasn’t always an integral part of Solemn Oath’s brand, it all started with freelancing.
“I worked freelance for a while and reached out [to a company] about some extra work doing photo touch-ups,” Gullett recalled. “I had to do a trial run and I didn’t get the gig, however that same person who turned me down was friends with Joe [Barley], John [Barley]’s brother who owns the brewery. Both John and Joe at the time were looking for illustrators with some design background and she tossed my name their way. Solemn Oath hired me to do three drawings in 2011 and I thought that was it. A few months later they wanted several more, then again a few months after that – and so on.”
Gullett was always intrigued by working with his hands and, growing up, art class was an outlet. Add in the influence of his father, who was a good draftsman for his job doing custom work for motorcycles and trucks, plus the fact that he learned there was side cash with those skills, and Gullett quickly took to drawing. It started in high school, with a few paid gigs here and there and led Gullett to pursue a career as an illustrator at Chicago’s American Academy of Art. After college, he worked part-time at a local print shop as well as for After School Matters, a non-profit organization that offers after school opportunities for high school-level children. At both of these endeavors, he learned and honed skills that would prove valuable in his career, such as printing processes and public art.
Solemn Oath produces about 8,500 barrels of beer each year, which translates to a lot of cans, as well as some new releases – enough to keep Gullett busy with that aspect of his job. Much like how the company’s brewers create what goes inside the can, there’s a process to Gullett’s label art.
“Usually, Solemn Oath will have the name and the hops for each beer locked in months in advance,” said Gullett. “With a lot of the one-off beers I get a lot of creative freedom to experiment with the illustration and the way the information is laid out. Other beers that have a higher visibility and production run tend to have more of a democratic approach, where several of us will sit down and talk about what we like versus what we don’t.”
While creativity can often strike at anytime for an artist, Gullett admits coming up with a concept can be either uneventful or extremely stressful, though it starts with just sitting down and putting something down on paper. Once he’s worked through several thumbnail sketches in his small notebook, the process gets easier and Gullett follows up the drawing by working on semi-transparent paper – the first layer is a really loose sketch and each additional layer becomes more refined. At that point, Gullett scans the work and edits it digitally to meet his desired look and feel.
“Sometimes an idea comes together really well and other times you really have to work through it.”
The folks at Solemn Oath give plenty of freedom to Gullett given his history with the company, but everything he does is sent to owner John Barley and Eric Hobbs, Solemn Oath’s the Chief Operating Officer, for approval or additional notes on the layout. Once the two have signed off on the label, it gets sent to print. Barely, Hobbs and Gullett have been a little more involved in detailing the new seltzer, however, with texting progress screen shots, scheduling sit-downs and creating a lot of smaller deadlines before the finished product, simply to ensure it’s on point with the brewery’s brand.
The entire process of creating a standard beer label for Gullett varies, taking anywhere between a little less than a week and a little more than three months. He’s added approximately 200 labels to his website but there’s others he lost track of, ones he didn’t like for one reason or another. With so many cans featuring his work, does the artist keep a running collection?
“I started [a collection] the first year I worked for Solemn Oath full-time,” he recalled. “When I moved, I recycled them and since then I have not kept any. A few favorites would be Nightmare Cyclist, Avenged by Vikings, White Van, Corporate Holiday Party and Starkers.”