I was recently interviewed by Tobias von Aesch who is a design student at the University of Design in Düsseldorf, Germany and is doing a project for his final exam. With his permission I am posting the questions and answers here. It may be of interest to other students.
1.Your biography as an artist can be read as a story that has it all. Every year you get nominated, invited and honored with some of the most impressive prizes. How did you realize how important your work for magazines such as Time Magazine really is?
It’s interesting that my career is viewed as somehow glamorous, when in fact it’s simply work! I feel lucky to have been able to sustain a 30 year career and still contribute some of the more visible publications. I’ve always felt that illustration could function beautifully along with text and therefore maintain viability indefinitely, especially illustration having to do with social and political subject matter.
The prizes are icing on the cake!
2.Do you submit your illustrations for Awards and Prizes or do people actually call you to tell you they want to honor your work?
Well I do enter competitions like the Society of Illustrators in New York, Communication Arts in California, and American Illustration also in New York. But some of the other prizes are wonderful surprises!
3.You moved to the US to work as an illustrator. Why and how was this decision made?
When I was younger I was more restless. I actually moved to London first. My early heroes were the English illustrators, particularly ones who had graduated from the Royal College of Art, and I wanted to be part of that culture. I moved to NY later but always maintained a residence in Canada, because I didn’t know how successful I’d be in the US. I didn’t move to either place because I felt I needed to, but rather because I wanted to experience living in other countries.
4. What is the difference between the US market and the rest of the world in your opinion?
The publishing industry in the US is huge particularly in New York and there are many types of publications, so in sheer volume I’d say the US is definitely the biggest marketplace.
But there are so many interesting things going on in other countries as well.
5. What kind of development concerning illustration and graphic design do you see as a person
being established in the industry?
In my particular case I witnessed how the computer and the information age has transformed the way we work. It has affected how we do research, how we construct images, and how the images are disseminated. It’s been the biggest change since I began working.
Currently we are witnessing big changes regarding copyright and the way people view copyright and intellectual property. There’s a democratization of the media that’s currently underway. The making of art has become a more egalitarian enterprise.
This is neither good nor bad. One cannot attach morality to these types of changes.
6. What was your first job that was most important for you and made you realize you might become known to a much bigger audience than I ever expected?
I was always aware that with a large audience comes a certain responsibility. Early in my career I painted some images that were thought of as controversial and I received some nasty letters from people who were offended! I hadn’t realized prior to that that my images (and all images for that matter) could have such power!
7. Most people try to find the perfect and easiest way to become famous and wanted.
Do you think there is such a thing? How did you become an artist for Time magazine, Rolling Stone, Sony Music etc.?
Well you have to remember that I didn’t work for the larger magazines until well into my career…10 years in fact! I didn’t work for Time or Rolling Stone until later. I got a lot of rejection at the beginning and it was a struggle . Whenever someone is called an „overnight sensation“ what has often happened is that person has been working in obscurity for years before gaining any type of attention. For me it’s about the excellence of the work, and not any associated fame, but I have to say that the attention is nice too!
8. You also teach workshops and lectures at universities and institutions internationally including the Smithsonian and the Corcoran in Washington DC. What is your advice for upcoming artists that would like to work as ambitious on their career as you proved is possible?
The key question seems to be how badly someone wants to be an artist or designer. It’s much more competitive than it used to be. Most people (including me) had to endure a lot of rejection at first.
I would say it’s important to work hard to try and find ones unique visual voice. A lot of people WANT to get into the field, but few NEED to do it!
9.What was your worst experience working as an artist?
In 1995 I painted my first New Yorker magazine cover. I was thrilled! A few days later a young artist I’d never heard of falsely accused me of plagiarism. He said he had done a similar painting and that I stole his idea! He went on to sue me and the New Yorker Magazine and the proceedings lasted 4 years. We eventually won, but the experience affected me profoundly, mainly because I was innocent.
10. Did you ever have to deal with censorship by anyone? What was your reaction?
Yes, I’ve been asked to tone down nudity etc. but I think that working in print is alway a sort of balancing act between the visual statement I’m trying to make and the marketability of the magazine or book. I accept that. I’m aware of the audience so I try to speak in a visual language that’s going to be understood and not offensive, so I suppose I often censor myself. In the past few years, the industry in the US has been much more conservative than it used to be and I find it a bit more constraining.
In my personal fine art work of course there’s no censorship at all!
11.Looking at your artwork as we can find in 200 Best Illustrators Worldwide people can see some work that deals with current political and social subjects. How do you come up with ideas for certain topics and what is your biggest influence concerning illustrations overall?
I’m witness to the world around me, and I see profound changes. I want to comment on these changes. I’m very interested in human nature, science and how technology will shape our lives in the future. And the political climate is such that there’s so much material to make pictures about!
Coming up with ideas is for me easy. I just translate my thoughts and feelings into images. Maybe there’s a scientific explanation for how artists come up with ideas. Maybe part of my brain is more developed in that area, I don’t know. But I know that I’ve always thought in visuals as a matter of course.
12.Some of the most famous magazines were your customers. What are some of the most important rules working for such as influencial magazines and agencies?
Well the rules have mainly to do with respect. Respect for the art director, respect for the editor, and most importantly respect for the reader. I also tell students that despite the fact that we make pictures, it’s important to be articulate about them and understand the context in which the image are made and utilized. And I do think that it’s important to be an informed and well rounded person.
13.What is something you would never illustrate for, product, person or company?
I feel as though I have a finite career and only so many pictures in me. I try and design my career around making art that furthers my opinions, hopefully contributes to intelligent conversation and does no harm. I wouldn’t do cigarette advertising for instance. And because of my political beliefs I refrain from working for decidedly right wing magazines.
I think that those of us who freelance are fortunate in the fact that we don’t have to make art that goes against our beliefs. Everyone draws their own line in the sand.
14.Looking at the current illustration-boom in commercials, advertising and print media do you really think there is still a possibility to stand out of the crowd? Most people stress the fact that in their opinion everything has already been seen.
Well yes of course everything has already been done in some manner. That makes it challenging! The key is to make something that may have already been addressed interesting by making it in a fresh new way. The only way to compete is to be unique and make work that is personal and authentic, not derivative. And I’m happy there is an illustration boom!
15.You also do solo shows. What do you enjoy the most, exhibitions or actually seeing people walking around with magazines and their covers drawn by you?
It’s a bit strange because I was always a shy person. I work in solitude so having my work in public places is very weird to me. It is however a good exercise to see my work up on a wall and all together in one room. It makes it better to understand where I’ve been and where I’m going. It’s fun to see people’s reactions too (when they’re positive!)
One of my favorite experiences was shopping in a clothing store in DC and seeing that a girl shopping beside me had one of my pictures tattooed on her arm. That was very strange!
16.Being an illustrator with potential and ambition, what does someone have to do to be one of the best worldwide earning your respect as well for example?
I think that tenacity and hard work are the most critical elements. Persistence is key, but the work must show some level of excellence. And open mindedness and the desire to constantly learn are also important. And of course humility and humor.
17.Do you think building a social network of illustrators in many different countries is helpful and gives you positive input or does it harm your own creativity and technique?
Yes I think it’s great to build communities. I was recently in Istanbul at an international cartoon competition. It was wonderful to meet artists from other countries and compare experiences. We all do the same thing but in different political contexts! I find it fascinating.
18.What would YOU like to see in an illustrator magazine such as this one?
I’m personally always more interested in ideas than technique. That’s what makes us unique people and artists. Our brains. So anything to do with concepts and new ideas is my preference.
19.After such impressive achievements what dream of yours is still to be fulfilled?
I think at this point I’d like to find a publisher to do an imprint of my work. Perhaps a gallery in New York that might handle me on an ongoing basis. But mainly I want to continue doing what I’m doing now, with freedom and continued opportunities.
20.Last question. Something you always wanted to say but did not dare about illustration and everybody involved:
That’s a tough one. But I think that what’s always bothered me is that illustration has been viewed by many people as not being as legitimate as fine art is, that somehow that because something is commissioned that it’s not as valid somehow, regardless of how personal the work might be. I think it’s different in Europe but that’s certainly the attitude in North America, and it bothers me a lot.