Illustrator Interview: Dean MacAdam

Dean MacAdam (not his original name) was born in the former USSR (Latvia) then eventually became a Canadian citizen…moved to the States…moved to Sweden and moved back to the States again, he’s “currently” a 42 year old father/illustrator, living and working in sunny San Diego, California. Some notable clients he’s worked with include: Purina, Disney, National Geographic, Entertainment Weekly, Hasbro, Nickelodeon and Burger King.

How did you get into illustration?

It started fairly early for me. When I was 13 years old I had a paper route with 50 customers in the suburbs of a medium-sized town (Sackville) in Nova Scotia, Canada. I had a customer who found out I could draw, I think by way of a drawing contest I had entered and won, which coincidentally was written about in the very newspaper I was delivering. He set up a meeting with an up and coming designer friend of his. That designer ended up giving me my first paying gigs inking a character called Mr. Buildrite for a local hardware store. Then from ages 13-18, I had freelanced for several design agencies, a T-shirt company and various other willing-to-pay clients. After high school, I received a scholarship to study graphic design in south Florida, but ultimately I gravitated back to illustration after college.

You are very creative and have amazing technical skills. Do you think one is more important than the other?

Why thank you! For the type of art that I do, I think both assets equally go hand in hand. In addition, great illustration always includes great concept, composition, color- theory and style. I find myself always striving for each one of those standards in my work. Some illustrators make it look so easy and it’s because they consistently nail all those fundamentals perfectly.

What are your main illustration tools?

I work on an iMac, and completely in Photoshop. Since I went digital in the late 90’s my set-up has always been the same, 2 monitors (one for my workspace and the second for my pallets and reference). I also use two Wacom tablets to correspond between the 2 monitors. As far as sketching, I’ll either sketch very basic thumbnails on copy paper and scan into my computer or start concepting directly in Photoshop, because I can be a bit impatient and want to quickly manipulate my ideas and throw in color right away.

You spent some time living and working in Sweden. Can you tell us about that experience? 

My time spent in Sweden was rather brief (less than 3 years). So I can’t say I worked with too many foreign companies, primarily I maintained my contacts in the States. Perhaps if I had stayed longer that would have been more important to me. But the reason I was able to live and work in Sweden and still maintain my American clients was because technology had allowed me to do that via the internet, online banking, virtual American telephone number, etc. Most of my clients had no idea that I lived abroad. One thing I loved was being up 7 hours before New York, deadlines were easier then. As far as cultural differences, I lived in central Sweden and it seemed whenever I had mentioned the fact I was an illustrator, people’s eyes glazed over, they just didn’t get how that was a real profession. I also didn’t have any artist friends in my town and felt a bit lonely creatively. When I moved to back to the States (San Diego) about 5 years ago I made it a mission of mine to seek out illustrator friends.

The thing I like most about your work are you expressive characters. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach character development?

For a period of about 4 years after college, I was the illustrator local advertising agencies hired to do multiple styles, realistic, cartoons, line art, storyboards…I seemed to be a jack of all trades but not really great of any in particular. I think this period drained me creatively. I wanted something that was my own and for some reason a funny illustrative style appealed to me the most. Perhaps it was the fact that things needn’t be perfect, perspectives can be skewed, expressions could be exaggerated, reference could be minimal, and colors could be really saturated. I also do tend to have somewhat of a “bug-eyed, big grin” approach to my work, pretty much the hallmark for expressive characters, right?

You have worked in many facets of the industry everything from editorial, digital applications to advertising and packaging. Do you have a preference?

Wow that’s a tough one, I really love them all. It’s really great to put my visual stamp on a variety of work. But I find that editorial works allows me to be most creative because art directors generally hire me to shape the mental images that a reader reads. The only draw back to editorial work is that the budgets can be quite low and your work is somewhat fleeting. Whereas work for advertising and packaging have much more shelf life, pays better to great, but can often be much more heavily art directed by a committee or a focus group. The apps I’ve worked on recently are a relatively new venue for me and I’ve loved working directly with my programmer, who in turn makes my work come to life through animation, voice-overs and sound. The difference between apps is that it’s incredibly labor intensive, projects last months or years as apposed to editorial/ad/packaging assignments that generally take several days to a month to complete.

What makes a project satisfying?

I generally get really excited about a project, often times I can visualize the finished product right away. But then that’s followed by all the hours/days of second-guessing each and every stroke, color choice, composition, etc. About 3 quarters of the way I generally hate everything I’m doing…ha! But as I anxiously chug along the last details of the piece, it finally starts coming together. Then usually it takes me about a day of not looking at the final art before I know I’m happy with it. And when the client is deliriously happy with the end result, that’s when I’m finally fully satisfied.

Can you tell us about your project? 

I’m a fan of classic cars and motorcycles from the 50’s 60’s 70’s. I’m no gear-head by any means but to me they are the embodiment of beautiful 3 dimensional classic design. So earlier this year in my free time, I was inspired to try something that was a bit unrecognizable from my day to day work, I started painting my realistic interpretations of the cars and motorcycles that I love. I keep the work minimal, focusing solely on the car and not the background and each piece usually takes at least several weeks to a month to complete, they’re also quite large (some over 6 feet wide). The response so far has been great, currently I have my work featured in several galleries and stores in southern California. We’ll see how it goes, so far it’s a work in progress.

What is something new you have noticed or learned recently?

This site! Man, there’s some really great fresh new talent out there, it’s inspiring, time to step it up!

Do you have any personal goals or things you want to develop?

I’d really like to do some kid’s books in the future, but they take a lot of a time to complete. Also, taking the further.

 Is studying illustration in college worth the cost or do you recommend an alternative?

That’s hard for me to answer because prior to going to college I had several opportunities to start my career immediately with some local agencies. But fate led me to South Florida on a scholarship to study graphic design. I think college can be a great foundation, depending on the school and instructors. Everybody needs to learn the basics but I think it’s possible to also learn these basics in other ways through apprenticeship, practice, practice, practice and studying what you love. Also in 20+ years, no client has ever asked me what school I went to and what were my qualifications. The most important thing is to master your style, be reliable, keep your clients happy, keep getting more clients.

Do you have tips on developing an illustration style?

If you’re a newbie, please don’t directly copy other illustrator’s style, no respect or satisfaction will ever come from that. Yes, be inspired by many illustrators/artists/designers, study how they’ve mastered the fundamentals, then ultimately develop your own style that feels natural to you.

What makes a good conceptual illustration?

I can’t really say that I’m a “conceptual” illustrator, I tend to be more of the literal kind. But a successful “conceptual” illustration to me is thinking of things in a somewhat abstract way and communicating that visually, that’s immediately understandable to the viewer.

When are images better than words?

I guess when you want to get the point of your message out right away. We’re a visual society, we all look at the pictures in magazines before reading the article, or is that just me?

What are the three most important qualities an illustrator must have in order to succeed?

Determination, patience and business skills.

Have you ever thought about quitting illustration? Why?

Nah, illustration is a part of me, it’s the way I essentially view the world. I’m lucky to know what I wanted to be when I grew up and I did just that.

What is success to you?

Not having to go to an office and sit in traffic everyday, working in my boxer shorts, sipping a glass of wine at my desk, taking off a day or two, or three…

What do you think hinders creativity?

Laziness, complacency, feeling down, and not having an artistic support base.

Top 5 favorite things in life

My family, the undo-command in Photoshop, fresh brewed coffee, sushi and 70 degree weather.

Top 5 bands/singers
Beatles, Bob Marley and U2. Lately, Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding.

Can you suggest 3 artists or illustrators we should check out?

More about DEAN MACADAM at: Profile / Website

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 11/16/14 under artists
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