Archive for the ‘master of the month’ Category

Illustrator & Writer Lisa Congdon

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

This Art Crush entry has truly been a long time coming. I first came across Lisa Congdon by way of Meighan O’Toole’s former art blog and podcast, My Love For You (which is post-worthy in its own right–it was an enormous source of inspiration for me during my college years). While I definitely gravitated to Lisa’s work on a visual level, it was her personal story that drew me in. Freelance illustration had been her second career. She didn’t start painting or making art until she was 31, and here she was, participating in museum-level shows, working with clients like Chronicle Books, and just being a genuine, successful badass. Lisa is not only someone I look up to artistically–she’s also a prime example of a human being.

Lisa’s art career was secondary, after she accumulated over a decade of experience in the education and nonprofit industries. By pure chance, she stumbled into a painting class and began making art of all kinds from that day forward–fueled by pure joy instead of the desire to succeed quickly. Having always been an avid collector, her random ephemera would find their way into countless collages as well as a series of photos, drawings and paintings that would eventually make up her A Collection A Day project. As she continued to develop her craft and share it with the ever-expanding Internet, people began to catch on. Today, she is an accomplished and prolific working artist, blogger, illustrator, public speaker and writer. Some of her most notable clients to date include The Land of Nod, The Museum of Modern Art, Harper Collins, 826 Valencia and Martha Stewart Living Magazine.

Lisa unabashedly tackles the subjects she is most passionate about, and that fearlessness is expressed effortlessly in the execution of her work. She describes herself as a “visual junkie,” and is deeply inspired by patterns, travel, architecture and vintage packaging, just to name a few. A faithful blogger, Lisa writes about her own process in addition to other artists whom she admires, as well as her life “outside the studio,” which includes swimming, biking, sewing, and traveling. In other words, she’s just making all of us look bad! (I only kid.)

One of the reasons I relate to Lisa’s work is due to the versatility and ever-evolving nature of her aesthetic. Certain characteristics like neon hues and her penchant for all things Scandinavian are mainstays, but she continues to branch out and explore all kinds of mediums (block printing and calligraphy, to name a few). These explorations fuel her work and expand her direction, which is most recently geared towards abstract painting. She’s a wonderful example of why you don’t need to narrow yourself down to one specific style (something I often grapple with).

Lisa is quite a unique artist in that she is not only a creator, but a mentor as well. Breaking into freelance illustration can be a challenging and solitary undertaking, and she continues to give her generous time to those who wish to pursue and learn more about the field through classes, speaking engagements and conferences around the country. I first met Lisa at her first Freelance Illustration class at Makeshift Society back in December 2012, and it was one of my most pivotal learning experiences to date.

Lisa recently released her new book, “Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist,” which is a revolutionary and timely answer to the starving artist stereotype. It covers all areas of the freelance artist’s domain, such as photographing fine art, finding printing services, copyright, and diversifying income. It sits on the shelf above my working desk (I like to call it my “VIP” shelf) as I reference it constantly.

On that same note, I’m very excited to be taking Lisa’s “Become A Working Artist” class through CreativeLive next week! You can follow along with the class virtually by RSVPing here.

To listen to Meighan’s podcast with Lisa, click here. I also highly recommend her feature in The Great Discontent.

Follow along with Lisa below:





Purchase Lisa’s books below:

Art, Inc.

Whatever You Are, Be A Good One

A Collection A Day

Posted by Thomas James on 09/28/14 under artists,children's art,freelance,Lettering,master of the month,typography
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Master Spotlight :: Salvador Dali

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

Salvador Dali drawn by Rama Hughes

Salvador Dali was a Spanish artist and an icon of Surrealism. Surrealism was an art movement known for dreamlike imagery. His most famous work is The Persistence of Memory, a painting of melting clocks.

Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí y Domenech was born in1904, in Figueres, Spain. The young Dali was intelligent and advanced for his age, but he got angry easily and was punished for that. His father was a lawyer and very strict. His mother though forgave his occasionally odd behavior. At an early age, Salvador was created sophisticated drawings. His parents built him an art studio, organized his first exhibition, and sent Dali to drawing school. He was an oddball a daydreamer. By the time he was fourteen years old though, he earned a public exhibition at the Municipal Theatre.

In school, Dali was influenced by numerous artists and art movements, especially Cubism, Dadaism, and the work of classical painters like Raphael and Velasquez. After school, he travelled to Paris where he met influential painters like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Rene Magritte who introduced Dali to Surrealism. His first experiments were oil paintings, small collages of dream images. His classical, detailed technique created a fantastical realism in these dreamscapes. Dali’s biggest contribution to Surrealism was a mental exercise (that he called the “paranoiac-critical method”) that helped him access his subconscious to enhance his creativity. It became a way of life for Dali, and he became a living symbol of the Surrealist movement. His most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, is also one of the best-known pieces of Surrealist art. Also called Soft Watches, the painting shows pocket watched melting in a landscape. It suggests many ideas including one that time is not rigid and that everything is destructible.

Over time, Dali became infamous for his odd behavior. He grew a famously long mustache, wore capes, and attended parties in strange clothing like wetsuits or women’s clothes. Critics said that his eccentricity overshadowed his art work. His peers organized a “trial” to expel him from the Surrealist Movement. They claimed that it was because Dali refused to take a stand against Fascism, but Dali was been famously apolitical. It is more likely that the other Surrealists were simple embarrassed by Dali’s weirdness.

During World War II, Dali and his wife lived in the United States. While he was there, the Metropolitan Musem of Art hosted a retrospective of his work. Dali wrote an autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. He moved away from Surrealism to create scientific, historical, and religious paintings. He called this period “Nuclear Mysticism.” Those paintings were famous for their technical brilliance. They incorporated geometry, optical illusions, and holography.

When he moved back to Spain, he purchased the remains of the Municipal Theatre that hosted his first show. He train formed the property into the Teatro-Museo Dali or the Dali Theatre Museum. The museum opened in 1974. It was based on Dali’s designs, and is considered the largest Surrealist structures. Right now, it contains the broadest range of work by the artist from his earliest experiments to artwork that he created in the last years of his life.

In his old age, Dali’s failing health forced him to retire from painting. He died a few years later at the age of 84.

I saw an exhibit of Dali’s work when I was pretty young, and I was disappointed to see it in person for some reason. The images I’d seen in books were so interesting and weird. The actual paintings were meticulous and more carefully created than I imagined. Now though as an artist and a teacher, I appreciate the skill and patience that went into these amazing flights of imagination.

Salvador Dali Painting

I am in the process of teaching my students about Dali right now. Besides being an incredible inspiration to them creatively, his traditional approach to painting gives me an opportunity to teach fundamental skills. In the past month, I have used his example to teach form, depth, perspective, juxtaposition, composition, and more. They’re also pretty tickled by his sense of humor and incredible quotes.

Portrait of Dali drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes

Posted by Thomas James on 09/26/14 under master of the month
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Master Spotlight :: Ezra Jack Keats

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

Ezra Jack Keats drawn by Rama Hughes

Ezra Jack Keats was a collage artist and a writer and illustrator of children’s books. His most famous book, The Snowy Day, is considered one of the most important books of the 20th century. It introduced multiculturalism into mainstream American children’s books.

Jacob Ezra Keats grew up in New York City. His family was very poor, but “Jack” loved city life. And he loved making art. He made pictures on any scraps of wood, cloth, and paper he could collect. Once, he even made a drawing right on his mom’s kitchen tabletop. She was so proud of her son that she would life up the tablecloth to show it off when friends came over. Jack’s father was discouraging though. He said that artists lived difficult lives. Nevertheless, Benjamin Katz was secretly proud of his son. He sometimes brought home tubes of paint for Jack claiming, “A starving artist swapped this for a bowl of soup.”

Jack couldn’t afford to go to art school. He studied art though by visiting the public library, reading books, going to museums, and collecting interesting things that he could use to make art. He found jobs making comic books, signs, and murals. During World War II, he served the country by designing camouflage patterns for the Army. After the war, he studied art in Paris and Japan. In reaction to anti-semitism after the war, he changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats.

When Ezra returned to New York, he pursued a career as a commercial artist. His illustrations appeared in Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, and on the jackets of popular books. His work was displayed in store windows and he received to gallery shows in 1950 and 1954.

In his unpublished autobiography, Keats wrote “I didn’t even ask to get into children’s books.” A publisher invited him to draw the first one, Jubilant for Sure, written by Elisabeth Hubbard Lansing. He traveled to rural Kentucky to sketch the locations of the story. Keats illustrated nearly 70 books by other authors. But talking with friends inspired Ezra to write his own book. He looked around for ideas and found a picture he had saved of a little African American boy. The picture inspired him to make the star of his book a black boy also. The Snowy Day became a very famous book, loved by kids and grown-ups all over the world. He went on to write more than twenty of his own books, filled with all kinds of amazing stories, interesting people, and beautiful art.

To make artwork for his books, Ezra put together bits and pieces of all the different materials he collected, like paper fans, leaves, doilies, and painted paper. He used marbled paper to make sky. He used a toothbrush to platter paint in tiny dots.

Ezra Jack Keats won many awards, including the Caldecott Medal for the Snowy Day, and was once even given a parade by some of his fans. Today, his books are still loved by both kids and adults worldwide. From now until September 7th, you can see an exhibition of his work at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.


Portrait of Ezra Jack Keats drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes.

Posted by Thomas James on 05/02/14 under artists,master of the month
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Master Spotlight :: Rembrandt

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

Rembrandt drawn by Rama Hughes

Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch painter and printmaker. He was one of the greatest painters in European history. His most famous works include a group portrait called The Night Watch and his numerous self-portraits. Because he painted himself as honestly as possible, his self-portraits as a whole create a unique and intimate autobiography.

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in what is now the Netherlands. Even in school, he was interested in painting. He was an apprentice to two successful painters before he started his own workshop where he taught students of his own. Rembrandt’s first important work was painted for the court of The Hague. The prince noticed his painting and began to commission portraits from Rembrandt. The artist used this success to move his business to the growing city of Amsterdam where he had great success as a portrait painter. Important people used to visit his studio to see how the great artist worked and to purchase pieces for their own collections.

Rembrandt met his wife, Saskia, in Amsterdam. They married and made a home in Broadway, the Jewish quarter. He often asked his Jewish neighbors to model for him when he painted scenes from the Bible. Rembrandt also placed himself, his friends, and his family into these historic paintings. Some historians think of these cameos as “a kind of diary, an account of moments in his own life.” Some important qualities of Rembrandt’s paintings are his use of high contrast light and shadow called chiaroscuro, the informality of his subjects, and a deeply felt compassion for mankind regardless of wealth and age.

Rembrandt and his wife suffered several personal tragedies including the deaths of three children. Only their fourth child, Titus, survived to adulthood. Saskia herself died soon after her son’s birth. Rembrandt’s drawings of his wife on her death bed are among his most moving work.

Rembrandt made an excellent living as a painter, but he didn’t manage his money well. He lived beyond his means, bought expensive art, prints, and rarities. To pay his debts, he was forced to sell these treasures and his own paintings. A list of those sales gave historians an idea of how Rembrandt lived. His collections include master drawings, busts from the Roman Empire, and suits of Japanese armor. After the sale, Rembrandt moved to a more modest home and started an art dealership with his son.

Rembrandt died in 1669.

In his lifetime, Rembrandt created more than seventy self-portraits. Some show the artist posing in historical costumes or making faces at himself. His oil paintings trace his maturation from an uncertain young man, to a very successful portrait painter, to his troubled but powerful old age. As a whole, the self-portraits give a remarkably clear picture of the man, his appearance and his psychology, as revealed by his richly aged face. In a letter, Rembrandt explained what he hoped to achieve through his art, “The greatest and most natural emotion.”

Rembrandt’s work can be seen today in museums in America, England, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and, of course, the Netherlands. The most important collection is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. His home in Amsterdam was also preserved as the Rembrandt House Museum.

Aux Yeux Hagards by Rembrandt

OMG, the SELFIES, you guys! When “selfie” was declared the 2013 word of the year, I read several so-so jokes about Rembrandt’s being the original. Whatevs, I didn’t appreciate that at first. After even the slightest scrutiny though, I see what the jokesters were saying. If you take a second to see past the change in fashion, you will recognize Rembrandt as a contemporary. His painting are so fresh. His drawings are so clear. His observations of himself are so beautifully honest. You can see the man. You can feel who he is. Despite the hundreds of years that separate us. That is mastery.

Self-portrait by Rembrandt

Portrait of Rembrandt at top drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes. Etching and oil painting by the master himself.


Posted by Thomas James on 02/05/14 under artists,master of the month
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Master Spotlight :: Marc Chagall

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

Marc  Chagall drawn by Rama Hughes


Marc Chagall was named “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” As a pioneer of Modernism, he was always experimenting with new ideas and new methods of expression. Some of his most famous works include The Birthday, I and the Village, and Over the Town.

He was born in 1887 to a poor Jewish family in Russia. He was the eldest of nine children. Chagall began to display his artistic talent while studying at a secular Russian school. He began studying art seriously with Leon Bakst in St. Petersburg in 1907. It was at this time that his distinct style began to emerge. His paintings were about his childhood, a focus that would interest him for the rest of his life.

In 1910, Chagall, moved to Paris. There he painted some of his most famous paintings. He used strong and bright colors to portray the Jewish village in a dreamlike state. Fantasy, nostalgia, and religion came together in Chagall’s otherworldly images.

Chagall visited Russia in 1914 and couldn’t go home because of the outbreak of World War I. He made a home in Vitebsk, Russia. He founded an art school there and, in 1918, he was appointed Commissar for Art. In 1920, Chagall moved to Moscow and designed stage sets for the State Jewish Chamber Theater.

In 1931, Chagall travelled to Israel with his wife, Bella, and his daughter, Ida. While there, Chagall began a series of illustrations to the Bible. He travelled, painted, and drew in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Safed. The country left a vivid impression on him. When he returned to Paris, the light and landscape of Israel were echoed in his work.

During World War II Chagall fled to the United States. Through art, he expressed his horror over the Nazi rise to power. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gave him a retrospective in 1946.

Chagall settled permanently in France in 1948 but he continued to travel and exhibit his artwork around the world. In 1951 he returned to Israel and made his first sculptures. Then he travelled to Greece and Italy. During the 1960s, he created stained-glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah University Medical Center, Jerusalem; He painted a ceiling for the Paris Opéra; He designed a window for the United Nations building in New York; He painted murals for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York; and created windows for the cathedral in Metz, France. The Louvre in Paris exhibited his work in 1967–77 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a major retrospective of his art in 1985.

Chagall died on March 28, 1985, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.

Der Spaziergang by Marc Chagall

My personal favorite of Chagall’s work is Der Spaziergang. On the simplest level, I just love the image. As a teacher though, I use it and Over the Town as examples for a very fun first grade painting project in which I introduce the students to landscapes and figure drawing.

The I and the Village by Marc Chagall

This year, I also used Chagall as our example for Modernism. Our lessons focused on Modernism as a rejection of tradition and an exploration of new ideas. In this regard, Marc Chagall is a wonderfully inspirational and liberating artist to study. His use of color, fantasy, memory, depth, design, and a variety of media can serve as launch points for innumerable lessons.

Portrait of Marc Chagall drawn by  yours truly, Rama Hughes


Posted by Thomas James on 02/03/14 under artists,master of the month
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Master Spotlight :: Maira Kalman

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

Maira Kalman by Rama Hughes

Maira Kalman is an American author, illustrator, designer, and book artist. She has written and made pictures for numerous books including Ooh-La-La Max in Love (for children) and The Principles of Uncertainty (for grown-ups).

Maira was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1949. She moved to New York City with her family when she was 4 years old. She attended the High School of Music and Art, made famous by the movie, Fame. She wanted to write short stories. So, she studied English in college at New York University.

Mrs. Kalman helped her husband, Tibor, found a graphic design company in 1979. Their studio, M&Co. was very successful. Some of their pieces can even be seen at the Museum of Modern Art. Tibor was the star and Maira was the “in house muse.” They designed album covers, magazines, film titles, clocks, umbrellas, and more. They accomplished all this while raising their two children, Lulu Bodoni and Alexander Onomatopeia.

Ms. Kalman also worked as an illustrator. In 1987, she illustrated a children’s book for David Byrne. He’s the lead singer of a band, the Talking Heads. Their book, Stay Up Late, launched her career as a book artist. A year later, she published her own book, Hey Willy, See the Pyramids. The book played with words and pictures. Kids and parents liked it so much that it started a new kind of children’s book: The expressive picture book.

A big hero of Maira Kalman’s early books was a dog poet named Max Stravinksy. Her books about Max won lots of awards. Kalman also wrote and illustrated Chicken Soup, Boots (about finding the perfect job); Next Stop Grand Central (based on murals she created for New York’s Grand Central Station); What Pete Ate From A-Z (a story about her own dog, Pete) and Fireboat (about an old fireboat that helped stop the fires in New York on Sept. 11, 2001). Each book celebrates Kalman’s love for New York City. They also tell a little bit of her own autobiography.

Before her husband died in 1999, Maira curated ‘Tiborocity’, a museum exhibition about his life’s work. She drew a beautiful story for New York Magazine about Tibor’s last days. She continued many of the projects that they began together like (un)Fashion, a book about world-wide fashion, and Colors, a magazine that Mr. Kalman founded.

Maira Kalman lives and works today in Manhattan in New York City. Her paintings are sold in galleries. She writes and draws for The New Yorker and The New York Times. She speaks on public radio. She paints murals. She designs handbags. She paints sets for dances and operas. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts. She is on the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Kalman illustrated The Elements of Style, a textbook for writers. Her illustrated blogs, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness, were published as books. In 2010 and 2011, her work was collected for exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in New York, The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. You can find her online at


New Yorker cover by Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman has been a favorite artist of my family for as long as I can remember. Her Max Deluxe was a coffee table book in my high school home and her first New Yorker covers hung framed in our kitchen. My favorite is this one (above) that I also took with me to my first apartment. Beyond being one of my favorite artists though, Ms. Kalman serves as a wonderful example in my classroom. Her work is accessible, diverse, experimental, and cross-curricular. Consider, for example, how her recent books, Looking at Lincoln and The Pursuit of Happiness, make history personal. Not to mention how her illustrations for The Elements of Style make grammar warm and beautiful. I’ll be using Maira Kalman this year to inspire the kindergartener’s coloring book, the third graders’ still-life drawings, the fifth graders’ illustration project, and the seventh graders’ political cartoons.

New York Times illustration by Maira Kalman

Portrait of Maira Kalman drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes

Posted by Thomas James on 11/01/13 under master of the month
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Master Spotlight Hayao Miyazaki

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

Hayao Miyazaki by Rama Hughes

Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese animator, comic book artist, and director of anime. Anime are animated cartoon films. His most famous movies are My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

Hayao was born in Tokyo. He wanted to be a mangaka, or comic book artist. In high school, Hayao “fell in love” with the heroine of The Tale of the White Serpent. The animated film inspired him to study animation. In college, he joined the Children’s Literature Research Club. It was the “closest thing to a comics club in those days.”

Upon graduation, he got a job as an in-between artist at Toei Animation. He was first noticed for his work on Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon. He didn’t like the ending. So, he pitched his own idea which was accepted and featured in the finished film. Over the next few years, Miyazaki played an important role in the creation of numerous Toei films like Hols: Prince of the Sun, Puss in Boots, Flying Phantom Ship, Animal Treasure Island, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

In the 1970s, Miyazaki worked on television shows for several animation studios. He collaborated with his mentor, Isao Takahata, to create a cartoon about Pippi Longstocking, the famous Swedish children’s book heroine. When Pippi’s creator refused the idea, Hayao adapted it to create Panda! Go, Panda! A cartoon about a red-headed girl adopted by a panda bear. He went on to direct Future Boy Conan, an adaptation of another favorite children’s book. His directorial debut was The Castle of Cagliostro, a sequel. His first original film was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, based on his own manga or comic book series. These early cartoons established some of Miyazaki’s most enduring themes: pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, morally ambiguous characters, and a fascination with flight.

The success of these early projects allowed Miyazaki to organize his own animation company, Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki named the studio with the Italian word for wind. His purpose was to “Blow a new wind through the anime industry.” Their first film was Castle in the Sky about two orphans in search of a magical castle. My Neighbor Totoro is about two girls who discover forest spirits in their backyard. The largest Totoro became the symbol for Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s Delivery Service told the story of a young girl who goes to the big city to become a witch.

Princess Mononoke was the studio’s breakout success. Its conflict between animal spirits and industrial humans allowed Miyazaki to explore ecological themes within an exciting fantasy world. The movie won Japan’s award for Best Picture. But Miyazaki had drawn 80,000 of the cartoon’s frames himself. He was exhausted by the process, and announced that Princess Mononoke would be his final film.

During this semi-retirement, Miyazaki spent time with some friends and their daughters. One of these girls inspired his next movie. Spirited Away is about a young girl who must rescue her parents from a bizarre spirit world. The film elaborates of Miyazaki’s philosophy of good and evil. “In Spirited Away,” Miyazaki said, “The heroine is thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together. She manages not because she has destroyed the ‘evil’, but because she has acquired the ability to survive.” The movie was Miyazaki’s greatest success. It won the Japanese Academy Prize, a Golden Bear from the Berlin Flim Festival, and an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It is still considered one of the best films of the 2000s.

Miyazaki came out of retirement to help his studio complete Howl’s Moving Castle. His son, Goro, directed Tales from Earthsea based on some of Hayao’s favorite novels. During a vacation by the sea, Miyazaki kept sketchbooks and was inspired to direct another movie. Ponyo was a modern day adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Miyazaki used no computer animation for the film at all. “It will be the director’s challenge to express the sea and its waves with freehand drawing.” Miyazaki co-wrote Studio Ghibli’s next films, The Secret World of Arrietty (based on Mary Norton’s novel, The Borrowers) and From up on Poppy Hill.

In 2013, Miyazaki completed his final film. The Wind Rises, and announced his retirement from animation. He told reporters that he is “quite serious” this time. He explained that an animator’s life as “quite strenuous” and he believes he is getting too old for the business. He is contributing to his son’s next film, but he plans to pursue new goals like working on the Studio Ghibli Museum. During a recent interview, he explained the purpose of his work: “I wanted to convey the message to children that this life is worth living.”

Totoro study by Hayao Miyazaki

My students lit up when I presented Miyazaki as our master of the month. Few of them knew who he was but almost all of them knew and loved his movies. He is, of course, a perfect example for my sixth graders’ animation lessons. I was excited to share his watercolor studies for my students who are watercoloring. But my favorite Miyazaki lessons are his philosophies and encouragement. Besides his words on his retirement (that life is worth living), his movies are full of inspiration. Whispers of the Heart is practically a manifesto for young artists. A grandfatherly figure encourages a young writer by comparing her to an unpolished stone. “When you first become an artist,” He says, “You are like that rock. You are in a raw, natural state, with hidden gems inside. You have to dig down deep and find the emeralds tucked away inside you. And that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve found your gems, you have to polish them. It takes a lot of hard work.” When she finally delivers her first novel to him, he commends her and criticizes her. Understandably, she melts down in tears. It is such a genuine portrayal of the artistic process and of human emotion. (The movie itself is one of Miyazaki’s rough gems, but worth a viewing to see how he honed his own craft.)


Spirted Away was my first favorite Miyazaki movie. I vividly remember the afternoon that I first saw it. For those two hours I was transported into that world, and it is the only film that I have ever described as breathtaking. As extraordinary as the spirit world was though, I was most impressed by the ordinary moments that the movie noticed and took the time to animate. How Chihiro taps her toe when she puts her sneakers on. How she loses her balance on the stairs. Most of Miyazaki’s movies take the time to show us these things. Because of that, they do more than entertain me. They help me see my own life more clearly and with more curiosity.

Portrait of Hayao Miyazaki drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes

Posted by Thomas James on 10/09/13 under master of the month
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Master Spotlight – Leonardo da Vinci

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


Leonardo da Vinci is one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most talented person ever to have lived. His excellence in many different arts and sciences exemplified him as the definitive Renaissance Man. His most famous painting is La Gioconda, a portrait better known as the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo was born Italy in 1452 during an artistic and scientific revival called the Renaissance. Little is known about his childhood but he kept journals and he did write down some of his memories. When he was fourteen, Leonardo became an apprentice to one of the most famous artists of his day, Verrocchio. Leonardo received a wonderful education there. When he was twenty, Leonardo qualified as a master in the guild of artists and doctors of medicine. Leonardo became famous as a painter, a scientist, and an engineer.

In search of new challenges and big bucks, Leonardo entered the service of the Duke of Milan. The Duke kept Leonardo busy painting and sculpting and designing elaborate court festivals, but he also put Leonardo to work creating weapons, buildings and machinery. Alas, Leonardo’s interests were so broad that he rarely finished what he started. He left dozens of paintings and projects unfinished.

Nonetheless, Leonardo’s paintings became famous for the inventive techniques that he used to apply paint, his detailed knowledge of anatomy, light, botany and geology, his interest in the way in which humans show emotion with their faces and their gestures, and the way that he arranged the people and objects in his art work. All these qualities come together in his most famous paintings.

Leonardo’s studies in science are as impressive and innovative as his artistic work. Leonardo actually anticipated many discoveries of modern times. In anatomy, he studied the circulation of the blood and the action of the eye. He made discoveries in meteorology and geology, learned the effect of the moon on the tides, foreshadowed modern conceptions of continent formation, and guessed the nature of fossil shells. He was one of the originators of the science of hydraulics, the study of water in motion; his design for the canals are still used today. He invented a large number of ingenious machines, many potentially useful, among them an underwater diving suit. His flying devices, although not practical, embodied sound principles of aerodynamics.

His approach to science was observational: he tried to understand things by describing them in the utmost detail. Leonardo closely observed and recorded the effects of age and of human emotion on the human body. As a successful artist, he was given permission to dissect human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and later at hospitals in Milan and Rome. He drew many studies of the human skeleton and its parts, as well as muscles and sinews, the heart and vascular system, and other internal organs.

Leonardo also worked as an engineer. His journals include a vast number of inventions, both practical and impractical. They include musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, a steam cannon, a submarine, and shoes for walking on water! He even devised working bridges and hang gliders.

After an invasion by the French, Leonardo traveled throughout Italy for a number of employers. He worked as a military engineer. He also designed a bridge to span the “golden horn” in Constantinople and he re- ceived a job painting the “Battle of Anghiari.” He wound up working in Rome but, when his patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, passed away; King Francis I of France invited Leonardo to become Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect of the King. Leonardo passed away in the king’s arms in 1519.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

The last time Leonardo was our master of the month, my students did a pretty amazing job drawing their own versions of the Mona Lisa. This year, I’m using the master to launch a year of design, invention, and innovation projects. What I like most about da Vinci though are his studies of water. I haven’t seen a LOT of them, but I love the idea of one of the greatest artists of history watching the motion of water for that long.

Water study by Leonardo DaVinci

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by yours truly, Rama Hughes.

Posted by Thomas James on 08/20/13 under master of the month

Artist Spotlight – Stefan Sagmeister

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

Stefan Sagmeister drawn by Rama Hughes

Stefan Sagmeister is an Austrian graphic designer who lives and works in New York. He is best know for his work with AIGA and musicians like David Byrne and Lou Reed.

Stefan was born in Bregenz, Austria. His parents own a retail fashion business. He went to an engineering school before an illustration project inspired him to study graphic design. He hoped to attend the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, but “just about everybody was better at drawing than I was.” So, he enrolled in a private art school and was accepted to the University on his second try. While there, he created posters for a local theatre and for a campaign to save a music hall from demolition. He graduated with a first class degree and a prize from the City of Vienna.
Sagmeister earned a Fulbright scholarship to study design at the Pratt Institute in New York. Humor emerged as a powerful strength in his work. When a friend from Austria came to visit, Sagmeister postered the neighbourhood with a picture of his friend under the words “Dear Girls! Please be nice to Reini.”

Sagmeister returned to Austria for its compulsory military service. As a conscientious objector, he was allowed to work in a refugee center. Upon completion of his service, he moved to Hong Kong to work for the Leo Burnett ad agency. Then back to New York to work for Tibor Kalman at M&Co. It was Stefan’s dream to work for Tibor. He called and wrote the designer persistently until Tibor sponsored his green card application. When M&Co. closed a few months later, Stefan used a pair of nude self-portraits to announce the launch of his own studio, Sagmeister Inc.

To pursue work that he enjoyed, Sagmeister followed Kalman’s advice and kept his firm very small: just himself, a designer, and an intern. His first clients were himself, his brother, and a girlfriend for whom he created one dollar business cards on one dollar bills. He earned his first Grammy nomination designing a CD cover for his friend’s album, Mountains of Madness. He was soon hired to design albums for Lou Reed, David Byrne, and the Rolling Stones. He also created powerful pro bono work like his posters for AIGA.

Throughout his career, Sagmeister has courted controversy with his use of sly, shocking images. For an award show in Hong Kong, he rankled conservative ad agencies with a traditional Cantonese image adapted to include four naked butts. For an AIGA poster, he carved the text for the ad into his own torso. When he partnered with Jessica Walsh, they announced their new company (Sagmeister & Walsh) with another pair of nude self-portraits. His response to controversy might be summed up by one of his beautiful visualized maxims: “Trying to look good limits my life.”

In 2000, Sagmeister took a year off to work on experimental projects and a book, Sagmeister: Made You Look: Another Self-Indulgent Design Monograph (practically everything we have ever designed including the bad stuff.) The bad stuff included some CD-ROMs for which he chided himself, “Don’t take any more bad jobs.”

Stefan Sagmeister’s first museum show, The Happy Show, can be seen now at the MOCA Design Center in Los Angeles. The show uses installations, infographics, sculpture, print, and film to communicate Sagmeister’s discoveries from his own compelling pursuit of happiness. He also shared his wisdom in a series of TED talks title “Happiness by Design,” “The Power of Time Off,” and “7 Rules for Making More Happiness.” They are viewable online at

Photos of Sagmeister's Happy Talk

Stefan Sagmeister’s images are a little too racy for my conservative school, but I’m excited to share his work with YOU as our first master of the month of the summer. My wife introduced me to his videos after she heard him speak at Alt Summit. It turns out that she, he, me, and Illustration Friday founder, Penelope, are all included in the same book, An Illustrated Life. I like his work, but I didn’t LOVE it until I saw his Happy Show here in L.A. If the installations didn’t include so many sexy diagrams, I would certainly send all my students there. In lieu of that, I recommend it to you. The show promises NOT to make you happy, but that’s a calculated introduction “because low expectations are a good strategy.” If you have the opportunity, do enjoy.

Portrait of Stefan Sagmeister drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes.

Posted by Thomas James on 06/16/13 under artists,master of the month

Master Spotlight : Charles Schulz

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

Charles Schulz drawn by Rama Hughes

Charles Schulz was an American cartoonist, best known for his comic strip, Peanuts.

Charles Monroe Schulz was born in 1922 in St. Paul, Minnesota. His uncle nicknamed him “Sparky” after a character in a comic strip. “Someday, Charles,” His kindergarten teacher told him, “You’re going to be an artist.” His first published work was a drawing of his dog, Spike, that he sent to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Spike ate pins and tacks and was the inspiration for Schluz’s iconic cartoon dog, Snoopy. Sparky was shy as a teenager, and his feelings were hurt when his drawings were rejected from the school yearbook. 60 years later, a statue of Snoopy was erected at the school.

Sparky studied art through a correspondence course from Art Instruction, Inc. After serving in World War II, he took a job at the school reviewing and grading student lessons. While working at the school, Schulz fell in love with a coworker. Donna Mae Brown turned down Charles Schulz when he proposed to her. In comics, she became the Little Red-Haired Girl, the unrequited love of Peanuts’ protagonist, Charlie Brown.

Schulz created several cartoons before he created Peanuts. The Saturday Evening Post published seventeen of his one-panel gag cartoons. His first weekly cartoon was a series of gags called Li’l Folks. Charlie Brown appeared there for the first time. The character was based on Charles Schulz but named after another teacher at Art Instruction, Inc. Schulz attempted to syndicate Li’l Folks, but his best offer fell through. Soon after, he started making four-panel comic strips. Peanuts appeared in seven newspapers later that year. Schulz earned $90 a week from its publication.

Schulz created other illustrations and comic strips, but he abandoned those projects as the popularity of Peanuts grew and grew. The strip was eventually published in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. Schulz drew almost 18,000 comic strips. With merchandise and product endorsements, the artist earned $30 million to $40 million dollars a year. The comic strip was developed into Emmy-winning cartoon specials and a Tony-winning musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Original artwork from the strip was shown in museums around the world including the Louvre in France where Sparky received a gala reception and the Order des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. Snoopy, as the official mascot of Nasa, even went to the moon! The command module and the lunar excursion module on the Apollo 10 mission were named Charlie Brown and Snoopy. In all this time, Schulz took only one vacation, a five week break to celebrate his 75th birthday.

By the 1980’s, Charles “Sparky” Schulz was one of the highest paid entertainers in America “right up there with Oprah and Michael Jackson. “By these standards, he was the most successful visual artist of all time. He lived off the earnings of his comic strip, and used much of the rest of his income for philanthropy. He and his wife, Jean, funded libraries, museums, airports, and other worthy causes. When a local ice rink was closed near their home, Schulz purchased the rink and turned it into a world-class ice arena for local families. He often ate there, drove the zamboni, and even played hockey in the seniors’ hockey league.

Despite enormous success and a happy family, Schulz was often lonely, depressed and plagued by panic attacks. By sharing his personal anxieties through a popular comic strip though, he provided humor and comfort to the rest of the world. Schulz himself compared his panic to that of a dog ”running frantically down the road pursuing the family car.” The dog ”is not really being left behind,” he said, ”but for that moment in his limited understanding, he is being left alone forever.” The simplicity of Peanuts made these depths accessible. And Schulz’s comic strips have since been studied by scholars, poets, philosophers, and, of course, other artists. In Arthur Asa Berger’s assessment, Snoopy is ”an existential hero in every sense of the term,” a dog who ”strives, with dogged persistence and unyielding courage, to overcome what seems to be his fate — that he is a dog.”

Near the end of his life, Schulz suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His tremors were so bad at times that he had to steady himself against his desk to continue drawing his comics. Over the next ten years, his health deteriorated until he could no longer read or see clearly. He announced his retirement reluctantly, and died on February 12, 2000, the day before his final comic strip was published. Two days before his death, Charles “Sparky” Schulz was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that the United States Government can bestow. A few months later, he was honored by more than 100 cartoonists who incorporated his characters into their cartoons. In August 2002, The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center opened in Santa Rosa, California, two blocks from the artist’s former studio.

Panel from Peanuts by Charles Schulz

When I was a kid, Peanuts was too slow and talky for me. As I have grown up though, I have come to appreciate the work of Charles Schulz. It doesn’t make me laugh as much as it moves me and even comforts me sometimes. The first strip that caught my attention was one of Charlie Brown’s “Sometimes I lie awake at night” setups. I don’t remember the punchline, but there have been a few of them. (Schulz actually said “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day without repeating himself.”) When I read that comic and suddenly knew that other people were up late with their thoughts and fear, I felt some relief. I felt not so alone. To this day, I think of Charlie Brown when some sticky thought has me up at three in the morning.

Scene from Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz

Last month, one of my students asked “Why are all the famous artists crazy or drunks or whatever?” It inspired a weeks-long conversation. Schulz is my closing argument. His life’s work demonstrates that artists can be authentic, successful, and kind.

Portrait of Charles Schulz drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes

Posted by Thomas James on 05/14/13 under artists,master of the month


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