We met Southern California native Robin McCormack, owner, and artist for Thunderbird Design Studio in Los Angeles. Inspired by natural wonders, Robin creates phenomenal digital artwork and pledges his time and profits to support conservation initiatives. Read more about Robin, his artistic philosophy, and his conservation-minded business below.
Flylords: What were your first experiences in the outdoors?
Robin: I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California and my parents took our family on many camping trips over the years. My first really memorable camping trip was to Sequoia National Park. For a kid from the suburbs, the Sierra Nevada Mountains became a magical place where you could wrangle garter snakes, catch wild trout, and see black bears. These were the kind of exciting experiences you could only get by spending time in the forest and I was hooked.
Flylords: When did you first learn to fish and what does fishing mean to you?
Robin: I can relate to those of you who also suffer from last cast syndrome and from the compulsive disorder that forces you to look down at the water every time you cross a bridge. I enjoy all types of fishing but the most exciting fishing for me is sight fishing on the fly.
My first experience fishing was on those family camping trips. I remember using pieces of marshmallow on a huge bait hook and waiting impatiently for a fish to strike. We never caught anything but it resulted in dad taking me to the closest fishing shop where I asked questions and flipped through pages of Fly Fisherman Magazine. That started my fly fishing journey because whatever those guys in the magazine were doing seemed to be working.
There’s a popular Thoreau quote that goes “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
Fishing has become about the moments of clarity that come with peaceful solitude. It’s also about laughing to tears with friends after a few too many drinks. For me, the most memorable parts of a trip often happen off the water. I realized that catching a fish was just an excuse to have all the other parts of the trip. I really appreciate those moments when life feels like the water and just flows easily, free, and unrehearsed.
Flylords: Where does your interest in art come from?
Robin: I was lucky to have a lot of creative people in my family. My older brother Kevin was a big influence early on and I copied everything he drew. My grandfather was a photographer, my father was an art major, and my mother did pastels.
In college “street art” was the big scene and artists like Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Dalek and Jeremy Fish were among my favorites. When I started my work as a graphic designer my first Creative Director, Marco, taught me tons about design but also introduced me to Filipino Martial arts, philosophy, and how your life experiences and interests translate over to your work. Over the years I’ve been lucky to work with so many talented people and the majority of my learning has been through them.
Flylords: When did you first consider art as a career path?
Robin: Before I knew what career path I was going to take, I knew I didn’t want to work in business and sit behind a desk all day. A friend of mine was taking design classes and that sounded interesting to me. In those art classes, I rediscovered the fun I had created as a kid. I graduated and got a job at a little design shop in town. Just so you know, I did end up working long hours behind a desk in an office and I also wish I took some more business classes.
I’ve been creating digital art for over a decade now and it’s now second nature. With that being said I’m interested in the idea of revisiting painting and experimenting with some new materials. There will be some exciting projects planned for 2023.
Fylords: What sparked your passion for conservation work?
Robin: There’s a place called Stoney Point. It’s a 400-foot-tall stack of giant sandstone boulders that is popular with hikers and rock climbers. As a kid, I remember scrambling my way up to the top looking for lizards and hawks. A few years back I revisited Stoney point and was disappointed to see its sad condition. Boulders were covered in graffiti and trash littered the trail. At the top, there were broken bottles and bullet casings scattered all around. It’s such a bummer to see people flock to places that we all agree are great and then fail to see that their inconsideration is destroying the thing that drew them there in the first place. This was the first time I saw the condition of a place drastically decline firsthand.
Flylords: What led you to start Thunderbird Design Studio?
Robin: The seed for Thunderbird Design Studio was planted in 2016 when I struck up a conversation with a grey-bearded Park Ranger at the base of a 900-year-old cliff dwelling site near Sedona, Arizona. Sensing that my trip was a soul-searching one, the ranger asked me about work. I told him I was a graphic designer working in advertising, but fishing and being outdoors were what I loved to do. He challenged me to find a way to combine the two, and the idea kept bouncing around in my head.
Then, in 2020, the pandemic shut everything down and, suddenly, I had all this extra time. I started to make artwork for myself and I posted my illustrations on social media. The more illustrations I did, the more people seemed interested and that’s what really gave me the traction to start the business. It took six years and a long string of events starting with a broken engagement, changing jobs, and a failed side business to get to the point where Thunderbird Design Studio came to life in April 2020.
I knew I wanted TDS to be a vehicle for good and it just made sense to focus on giving back to the wild places and animals that inspired me to begin with. That’s how “Conservation by Design” became the motto for the art.
Flylords: Where does your artistic inspiration come from?
Robin: The inspiration comes from a fishing and upland hunting obsession. When I think about why fishing is so captivating, it’s easy to believe that it tugs on a deeply ingrained relationship that is important to the survival story of humans. The excitement of landing a fish must be some ancient reward system that’s hard-coded into our DNA. I don’t recall making a conscious choice to make fish art but it kind of just happened.
I feel that the single-line illustration is a great match of style because it resembles a fly line so well. The free and loose feeling of the line work also represents the flow of the river—always changing in expressions and form. I aim for the artwork to be minimal and tell the story with as few words as possible.
Bruce Lee said, “It is not daily increase but daily decrease, hack away the unessential.” I subscribe to this philosophy and try to apply this lesson in art and in life. That idea of finding the kernel of truth in each subject is such a fun way to approach art, and I feel like it leaves you with a unique interpretation of the subject. I enjoy the challenge of portraying something we’ve all seen in a new and unique way.
Flylords: Tell us about TDS’s 2% For Conservation certification.
Robin: 2% For Conservation means 1% of your Time + 1% of Money goes to conservation. Being involved in 2% has been great in connecting with businesses and other like-minded people who share the same values when it comes to conservation and the outdoors. I think the certification is important because it builds community, shows what we feel is important, and spreads the word so that more people get involved and more resources go toward conservation. Shout out to Jared Frasier for starting the 2% movement.
Flylords: Which organizations does TDS donate to?
Robin: TDS has made contributions to Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, BackCountry Hunters & Anglers, Trout Unlimited, and The Ocean Cleanup. These organizations stood out because they are run by passionate people who are actively and effectively making a difference in the world today. From legislation to boots on the ground, these organizations are fighting the good fight and doing the much-needed work to preserve and improve what we have for future generations.
Flylords: What challenges and successes have you experienced in starting your own business?
Robin: Running your own business means you wear a lot of hats. For an artist, some hats just don’t fit very well. Another challenge is finding quality manufacturers in the U.S. That’s a big one. I want TDS to transition to all U.S.-made goods. While some of our products are already made in the U.S., fully transitioning is taking a lot longer than I want.
Successes have come in many forms. My first was a snowboard design for Gilson. It was an awesome project because designing a board was always a bucket list item for me. The cherry on top was that proceeds from each board sold went to Trout Unlimited. A more recent project I really enjoyed was designing the poster art for “Pheonix,” a Fly Fishing Short Film by the Braker Brothers—shout out to the force of nature that is Eric and Andrew. I’m constantly surprised by the support that comes from the fishing and hunting communities.
People have reached out about how the art makes them think about personal memories of lost loved ones and some have gotten tattoos because it reminds them of their time on the water. Having people share with me the personal experiences they’ve had because of the artwork is something I never imagined. It’s definitely fuel in the tank for me. It’s such a bonus to be able to connect with people over the art and it makes me happy to think it’s bringing people a little happiness in some way.