No matter how well written and eloquent your text is, it only tells part of the story. Each word, sentence, paragraph must be read, parsed and understood before the concept is conveyed. Words are important, but they rely on the ability of the reader’s ability to understand and create a picture for themselves of what you are trying to say.
Pictures, on the other hand, are immediate. They have the ability to deliver information explicitly. They are unhindered by barriers of language. Photography continues to be dominant form of imagery and it’s the ideal solution as long as what you want to show is available to photograph.
But what if what you want to show doesn’t yet exist? What if what you want to show cannot even be seen? How do you frame your concept in a way that imbues it with wonder or humor or nostalgia? Illustration is capable of doing these things. Its only limited by the imagination of the illustrator.
My job is much more than decorating a page with a pretty picture. My job involves listening to your ideas and understanding everything I can about them. Through sketches I refine the parts until an image starts to form in my mind. From there I use the tools I know best to shape and create a physical picture. The final result is an image no camera could ever capture.
Growing up in a world of tomorrow
When I was five our family moved to Titusville, a little city with subdivisions sprinkled against Florida’s hot and swampy landscape. Our house sat along the eastern edge of our neighborhood and backed up to a large, dense forest. Under its towering canopy the ground was filled with ferns and palmetto. Scurrying through the detritus below were all kinds of bugs, frogs, lizards and snakes. I remember my brother and I disappearing into it for hours and hours, day after day, all summer long. Continuing east, past the forest, across Highway US 1, is the brackish lagoon known as the Indian River, and on the other side of that lagoon, sit the gargantuan launch pads of Cape Kennedy. In the nearby complex of buildings my father worked on machines that trained astronauts to land on the moon.
From our backyard we watched countless rockets arc upwards and away. Most of these launches were routine satellites that seemed to take place weekly. Nighttime launches would fill the sky with orange light and steady distant thunder. As impressive as these were they were nothing compared to the colossal Saturn V rockets, which when launched, everything– the house, the trees, even the ground would resonate with the overwhelming noise from its engines.
My world was filled with space, science fiction and comic books. And while there was so much to consume, there were few ways to express myself. So I turned to art. I drew endless pictures of spaceships, futuristic cities and planets. At school, my mind would wander away from whatever lessons were being taught and I would find myself daydreaming while doodling on my paper, only to be brusquely snatched away by the teacher who would crumple it up as she scolded me. My report cards always had comments about my obsessive drawing in class.
During the fall of my freshmen year in highschool, I saw a screening of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had remembered seeing it when I was six or seven from the back of my parents’ station wagon at a local drive-in movie theater, but I had been too young to understand any of it. Now at fourteen, I was mesmerized. Nothing had ever impressed me as much, before or since. I became obsessed with it. I became familiar with the artist, Robert McCall who illustrated the movie poster for 2001, and his body of work that chronicled the space program and speculated an imaginative, optimistic future. In 1979, I got to meet the artist while he was painting a large mural at the Johnson Space Center near Houston. Over the summer I visited several times while he painted and we spent hours talking about space, the future and about art. His advice and encouragement ended up playing a large role in my career.
From art to illustration
In 1979 I attended the University of St. Thomas to study fine art. But for me there was always a disconnect between my passion for art and seeing how I was going to make a career out of it. The road to being a successful fine artist is ambiguous at best. Most fine artists struggle with it and few are able to make it a living. But there was nothing that drove me the way art did. Fortunately, near the end of my sophomore year one of my drawing teachers brought me a several copies of Communication Arts Magazine with a suggestion that I learn more about graphic design. This sparked my interest and I threw myself into the world of graphic design. I switched schools to at the Art Institute of Houston and before I had even graduated I had my first job as a graphic designer.
After working at a few places from 1982 until 1988 I decided to freelance. In April 1988 I opened a small one-room studio in a house with five other independent artists and writers. This experience was pivotal for me because I had never been in a situation where I was surrounded by so many other creative people. I was free to experiment as much as I could, and I was in an environment with like minded people willing to share their knowledge. It was here that I started experimenting with digital art. I started out with Adobe Illustrator and soon moved through Photoshop and just about every other graphics application, most of which are now forgotten. Eventually my illustration work took over and by 1994 I decided to focus my work on illustration almost exclusively.
Back to the future
In 2007, I found myself presented with a unique opportunity. One of my clients, a small but influential graphic design firm in Houston, Herring Design, was about to lose one of their key staff illustrators, Tom McNeff, who would be retiring soon. And while my work bore little comparison to Tom’s it was clear they could both be used to serve the same role. So I went to work for Herring where I got to work alongside Tom for a few year’s before he retired. During that time and the few years I spent at Herring afterward I was able to hone my skills as a competent and mature illustrator. I relished working with such amazing talent as a team member, which gave me insights I didn’t get being an outside vendor. And with the resources and opportunities available to me I was able to develop my skills as an animator. Those skills culminated in several significant 3D animation projects that I completed in just a few short years in addition to my regular role as an illustrator.
By 2015, the founder of Herring Design, Jerry Herring had retired and his son Stephen took the helm. Not long after I found myself the only illustrator left in a studio that was facing pressure to explore more digital and interactive media. Where the studio’s body of work once necessitated a full-time illustrator, now it seemed like having one was becoming a luxury. The decision to leave Herring was a difficult one. After all, I was there for nearly ten years and it felt like home, and its staff were like family. Many of the most challenging projects I’ve ever worked on came from my time there. But working at Herring had one drawback. It closed the door to many of my longtime clients– people who I loved collaborating with. I look forward to seeing many of those old clients again, and the prospect of meeting new ones too.
It’s an interesting and challenging time to be an illustrator. Gone are the days where we got work by calling on clients in person, or placing an ad in one of several illustration (expensive) annuals. The internet has opened up a world of clients, and competition. Individual artists who work digitally have to spend a great deal of time not only learning how to use the constantly changing tools we have, but also innovative ways in which we can use them. Pushing limits is crucial to survival.