Illustration Friday interviews Ward Schumaker



By not becoming a ‘fine artist.’ Here’s what happened: it was 1965, I was 22 years-old, and judges had awarded me first place in a competition in my native state of Nebraska. I needed the money to pay the tuition for my last semester at college. But others (including the governor) decided my painting was pornographic. I finished school, bought a car, and got out of the Midwest as fast as I could. I moved to San Francisco, got an apartment a half-block off Haight, and became a paper salesman. I wasn’t going to mess with art anymore — way too dangerous. Instead I lit a lot of reefers and tried to block out the inane rock-and-roll coming from up the corner. (I hated hippie music; I was more into classical and serious electronic stuff like Stockhausen.)

But 8 years later I’d had a son and I didn’t want him to grow up with an unhappy, stoned salesman for a father; so I quit my job, quit smoking grass, and snuck back into something related to art: graphic design. Then, when I hit 35, I went into illustration.


How did you get started in the illustration field?

I spent years stippling newspaper coupon ads, which would have seemed like hell to anyone else, but compared to being a paper salesman, it was heaven. Still, it was never my taste. I referred to stippling as Presbyterian Purgatorio. On the day I hit forty, my divorce papers arrived; I found myself a single father, in debt, and depressed. To bring myself up, I decided to print a self-promo with an illustration I actually liked: a pencil drawing of Lotte Lenya. It turned my life around. Not that pencil drawings became my style, but because people soon realized I could do something other than stipple. So, basically, I never did an illustration I liked until I was past forty! For the next few years I did just about anything and everything, trying out whatever people asked for. Then one weekend, Véronique Vienne needed a rush magazine cover; we only had about three hours so I did a quick pencil rough, copied the lines in ink, added a few swashes of color and turned it in. That became my style for years to come: inked line with flat color shapes. Minimal stuff, really. The opposite of stippling. In the past few years I’ve gotten rid of the pen and picked up the brush, so my line is now done with that. Still, flat and minimal is what most of my illustration work is about. A few years ago I started actively trying to get work that involved calligraphy — using the term loosely — and now many of my jobs include that. I love working with words, as words.

What is your process when working with clients? Can you run us through a typical job?

Three sketches, revise one of them, then do finish (with revises if necessary) in Photoshop.

What is your creation process (start with pencil sketches, etcâ?¦)?

First: words. I write down everything the story reminds me of. Then I make connections. Then sketches.

How do you market/promote your work?

I used to be the postcard king. But today emails seem to work better. Limited emails, that is. And getting in shows. That’s where much of my work comes from. Especially, Print’s Regional Design Annual. That’s been good for me. But word-of-mouth and repeat customers are my best source of work. I pride myself in clients Iâ??ve had for a long time; I’ve done over 70 illustrations for one of them.

Do you have a rep? Why/why not?

I have reps in France and Germany. I don’t speak a word of German; and my French rep can get me through doors I’d never be able to open on my own — like Hermès.

What was one of your favorite assignments?

Doing limited edition books for The Yolla Bolly Press: great authors (Gertrude Stein and M.F.K.Fisher), handmade paper, freedom to do what I thought right, letterpress printing, and best of all, two literate and brilliant clients, Carolyn and Jim Robertson. If Jim hadn’t died (which led to the closing of the press) I’d still be working for them. The closing of their press led me to do my own books, one-of-a-kind, hand-painted. But I’d love to find another client even half as brilliant as Jim and Carolyn.

I’ve also always enjoyed working on logos, especially those that don’t take themselves too seriously. Like Mr. Toasty, done for Columbus Bakery Cafe. Or Moose’s Restaurant in San Francisco.

And nothing made me feel better than being asked to illustrate a brochure for San Francisco’s Japanese Cultural Community Center. Like many artists, I hold Japanese aesthetics in the highest esteem.

And animals. Gotta love drawing animals.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Not being a paper salesman, not working in an office, and working alone. Also, I like swinging a brush. Spilling ink. Getting dirty. And working weird hours.

Describe your work setting.

I’m married to illustrator Vivienne Flesher and we together work in a house on SF’s Potrero Hill. She works upstairs, I work downstairs, we meet for lunch in the kitchen. I have one room for drawing, one room for computer work, and one room for my personal work: The Dirty Projects Room. If you look at my personal work, you’ll quickly understand the aptness of that name.

Do you have side projects you work on?

About ten years ago, Vivienne and my son Matthew encouraged me to return to painting, after a 35-year hiatus. Painting has again become a huge joy for me, and I’ve begun to show: galleries in Nashville, Shanghai, San Francisco. All the shows have been offered me, unrequested; I’ve never gotten one I asked for. And surprisingly, the work sells! Most of the work is on paper –hand-painted books and large works for the wall — and most of it contains words, stenciled or cut from paper. Currently (February 2008) I have a show at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco. In March the show moves to UC Berkeleyâ??s Townsend Center where it will hang thru the end of May.

How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?

I don’t. Work, play; play, work: it’s all the same. All joy, all pain, all the time.

Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?

Not slumps so much as tumbles, pratfalls, deaths and drownings. At first I mostly complain, kvetch, and cry. Then I decide to meditate and after about three-hundred hours, I wake up and realize I’m swimming again. I never understand any of it. Except this: when I’ve given up meditation, I always go into the pit. Not that I’m a good meditator. But some form of meditation (and I’ve tried many) seems, for me, necessary.

What do you do for fun/when you’re not working?

In the past few years we’ve traveled: to Costa Rica, to the jungles of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela, to central Mali to stay with the Dogon tribe, and of course, to Paris. This spring we’ll go to Cappadocia and Istanbul.

What has been inspiring you lately?

The sculptures of Elie Nadelman, The Confessions of St. Augustine, the Bhagavad Gita, ArtForum… and younger illustrators â??â?? who are a marvel to me.

Any advice for others who are pursuing creative goals?


Thanks, Ward!

Life images:

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Posted by admin on 02/21/08 under Interviews
No Comments

  • Mer

    Fantastic interview. I love his work, the loose of the line…just perfect, thanks!!

  • studio lolo

    I always love reading artist’s interviews and getting their perspective. I enjoyed stepping into Ward’s working world and absorbing his images and words. His passion for what he does comes through loud and clear! Great interview…thank you both!

  • Kate

    I really enjoyed this interview because his career wasn’t a straight arrow. So often I read about how right after college an illustator got into the New York Times and they’ve been illustrating ever since. His experience seems so much more real. I often meet people who feel that if they haven’t accomplished something by the time they are thirty they are a failure. This is an excellent example of how it may take a while to figure it out but once you do, it’s awesome.

  • Corinna

    Fabulous interview. What an inspiring way to start the morning in my studio… I was unfamiliar with Ward’s work… and I love it. I love the energy of the lines and the vibrancy they bring to all that georgous white space. Whimsical, sophisticated… and fun!

  • Gabriela Irigoyen

    Thanks for the great interview with Ward Schumaker! It is inspiring and encouraging. I love his work.

  • Corinna

    One more word… FYI….the link to his website doesn’t seem to be working, or the website is temporarily down?

  • penelope

    Unfortunately, it seems his website is indeed down. :(
    I hope it comes back soon so you all can see more of his lovely work!

  • Bethany

    Great interview, inspiring work. I live in SF and will have to go check out his work at the Meridian. :)

  • Bethany

    Oh gosh, I just realized the gallery is across the street from me!

  • turcios

    fantástico blog!
    un abrazo

  • Regina

    Thanks to Ward for sharing his journey – quite a story!
    I found it inspiring and encouraging as a middle-aged person who has always loved art, but taken other paths for most of my life.

  • Hanna Whiteman

    Great interview, has inspired me to get my brush and ink out again. His work is simple and fresh¡

  • Kristin Elder

    What beautiful, beautiful drawings. I love how he uses the ink, makes me think of Matisse. I especially love the woman in the chair and the pair of heels. Lovely!

  • Indigene

    Wonderful interview! It’s very inspiring. I loved the peek inside Ward’s studio and his responses to the questions. He keeps the over 40 crowd inspired!

  • eli edmundson

    I have to agree with Kate’s comment, I love to hear stories of people making a career later in life than 20′s. It seems many people never find their passion, but I think it’s never too late, the Mama of Dada comes to mind…

    The energy in Mr. Schumaker’s lines is just fabulous, I really enjoyed this interview and seeing his work, Mr. Toasty especially, though I’m not sure about the moral implications of his caring a baguette home to enjoy, or is it his baby?

  • kelly

    Yes so so inspiring. Thank-you so much! And it seems Ward must live around the corner from me. I would love to invite him over for some coffee and hear what else he has to say.
    Thanks Again

  • Lisa Rivas

    It’s facinating to see the human-side and the how of a Master!
    Very eloquent your work, the shoes and strawberries showed me your sensitivity for the small stuff.
    Many thanks to you and Illustration Friday for the interview. Wonderful!

  • Carla Sonheim

    Yes, so inspiring that you started illustration “late” in life… thank you for inspiration and great art. I want to see your painting room!

  • Tracey

    What a great interview – good to know that at 31 I’m not beyond doing what I want with my life! And I SO need a messy room like that, wow.

  • mark

    awesome work! Thanks for sharing.

  • Erin Carolan

    You are an inspiration to me! (I’m 34 and just getting started)Very cool work, Love the move to brush work.

  • ward schumaker

    It’s really pleasant for me to receive so many kind responses. Thanks!

    Our website was down yesterday, but now it’s up again, so feel free to visit:

  • Maggie Summers

    Certainly one of the most interesting interviews I’ve read and I’m very much an admirer your work and the very “human” qualities of your path in life to illustration and it’s blossom. Your brush work is incredibly unique in that it takes on a life of it’s own.

  • Steve

    Superb interview and artwork here! Thanks for putting this together.

  • pRiyA

    oh i just loved this interview. and the work! the mess!! way to go!!!
    its inspiring!

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