Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1. You had a interesting start. You were an AD at Miami New Times and (kind of) forced to create your own illustration because of the budget cut and could not hire illustrators? Can you tell us a bit about that?
You know, I’ve told people about that and I do think it was true to some extent, but I think it really had more to do with my own desire to create layouts that were more conceptual than decorative. I really resisted relying on industry default solutions like perfectly aligned text columns and grids. As soon as I stopped assuming that page templates were unbreakable, my layout approach became very illustrative. Headlines and text blocks were treated as objects along with scanned found objects.
I also was doing these layouts in very tight time constraints. I often didn’t have a headline until an hour or two before the pages were due, which makes wanting to create these conceptual spreads even more tricky. I think it was through this process that my work just slowly morphed until one day it felt much more like illustration than layout design.
2. How has your experience as an AD helped and shaped your career as a freelance illustrator?
I worked with an amazing managing editor named Tom Finkel, now the Editor of the River Front Times, who instilled a deep respect for the craft of writing and the responsibility artists have in representing those words in images. As an editorial illustrator its too easy to sit alone in your studio and forget that an entire journalistic process has taken place before you were involved and will continue after your image is finished. When handled sensitively, an image can bring an entire new depth to the connection between the writer and reader. When not, our images have the potential to derail or undermine that relationship. I think that would have been hard to learn and really appreciate had I not been an AD first.
It also has some practical advantages. I’ve heard all those crazy and sometimes irrational comments that AD’s have to field from Editors. When I send in sketches I usually offer a simple one or two line pitch that I think will address issues that I think they may be facing. I also like to suggest headlines if there hasn’t been one written yet. It helps me distill the text down to a concise idea and it lets the eds know where my head is at on the story.
3. I have been looking at your illustrations… They are very simple, graphic, and you know right away what they are about, and yet, solutions are very unexpected and surprising. We want to peek into your brain. How do those smart ideas come to you, and how easy or hard it is to come up with a perfect solution for a topic?
People are probably tired of hearing me say this, but it all starts with empathy. Or maybe it’s just that to me an image that shows empathy looks smart, i don’t know. It basically comes down to two things. A desire to try and find a different way to say something visually, and a respect for the text you are illustrating. I don’t know anyone who nails it every time. I sure as hell don’t. But I try every time. I guess I just really do hold a high value of my limited time in the world. I really want my work to be significant.
I can tell you, though, that I’m not an idea factory, that’s for sure. I’m not great at coming-up with a huge number of sketches. I typically hand in just a couple, or even just one, but I feel very good about the ones I do send. I’ve never been good at sending in every idea that comes to mind regardless of the quality. If I want an AD to pick a more original approach, the last thing I’m going to do is show them the lame cliche ideas that come to mind during the process of find a great idea.
I also think that my images are simple because my training as an AD made it a necessity. I just didn’t have time to create big elaborate scenes when layouts had to be done very quickly. It forced me to distill down images to the bare necessities. Or maybe it’s that I’m just too lazy. I have great admiration for people who really excel at those types of complex images, but I’m horrible at it.
4. A lot of your illustration deals with heavy social topics. I am curious to know if these projects come to you randomly or because you are a socially aware person in general. I’ve read that your mother was always into volunteering, and used to take you with her to drug rehabs when you were small?
One thing that I think illustrators really need to remember and act on is the reality that you usually get the style and subject matter in your work that others have seen from previous work. If folks see me doing a strong image about child abuse then there’s a good chance that I’ll make their short list when they assign a topic that they see as similar, so you tend to get put into a box if you are not careful. I also think that AD’s are under a lot of pressure when assigning issues that are tricky and delicate. They want to know that the artist isn’t going to trivialize or sensationalize the topic, so again, if they’ve seen that you have that ability you are going to get more of that work. I do plenty of other types of assignments, but I have to admit that social topics really bring me a lot of satisfaction.
I was raised by parents who didn’t have a lot of money to give so they gave their time instead. They would take us along when they did volunteer work at drug rehab centers and inner-city preschools. It felt special to me. I felt like they trusted us enough to take something good from the experience. As I mentioned before, I think it really instilled this notion that ones’ life should be significant.
5. Can you also share a bit about your creative process? It seems like they are done on the computer, and bit of photo collage…? but otherwise, it is a huge mystery!
My process is all over the place. It’s an anything-goes type of collage that ends-up digital. I always start with a drawing on tracing paper. I scan it into Photoshop and work directly over it. Sometimes the sketch line makes it into the final, sometimes not. I have a large archive of scanned textures and painted swatches that often are worked into the backgrounds. But mostly I’m scanning little bits of textures right out of old magazines. I make human faces out of the smooth gradations that I’ve scanned from a 1930′s tin can advertisement. It’s not collage as you would usually think of it. I make human noses out of scanned chicken drumstick, human eyes from old nasa photos from space. I generally take a small piece of a scanned object and repurpose it to become an entirely different object. What this does is give me all the great and unexpected artifacts from scanning printed materials, but without it appearing as a photo collage. It’s an unusual hybrid – it’s not paint, drawn, photocollaged or vector. It’s kind of all of them. I’m sure you’re totally scratching your head now but I promise that it’s still a mystery to me too. I almost never know HOW I’m going to execute an image until I start.
I’m also a sucker for lush color.
6. What’s on your horizon?
For years I’ve been doing the occasional animation project. I did a TV spot for Teva shoes and a spot for the TRUTH anit-smoking campaign. I want to do more with animation. The real problem for me is that animation isn’t just about learning After Effects and making stuff move. Animation is the polar opposite to what I do in print. In print I take this complex thing and distill it down into one iconic moment. Animation feels like a more gradual revealing of an idea, combining many scenes, compositions, as well as sound, to create a complete dramatic arc. It’s daunting, but exciting.
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