Friday, March 21, 2008

It is the 21st Century (Pt. 1)

For one of my assignments in an illustration course I took last quarter, I was asked to interview a contemporary illustrator about their work, the current illustration market, to what they attribute their success at "breaking in," etc. I ended up interviewing two artists by e-mail: Jillian Tamaki and John Phillips. I've admired the work of both of these fine people for some time, and it was a pleasure to be able to hear what they had to say.

John Phillips is an alum of SCAD's illustration program who graduated a few years back. I wanted to talk with a talented person who had been through SCAD's illustration program and see what his or her post graduation experiences had been as far as finding work, and have long been impressed with the meticulous craftsmanship and quiet beauty of his work. Samples of his work may be found at

What led to your decision to work in illustration?

When I went to school in Charleston, I noticed lots of street art -wheatpasting, tags, paintings done on newspaper scraps and hung up. Artists like Kevin Taylor and Shepard Fairey were based in Charleston, and after seeing their work I began painting on anything I could find -newspapers, wooden boards, sheet metal from air-conditioning vents, stonewalls of downtown buildings, you name it. I eventually came to a pointwhere I wasn't going to class anymore. The whole idea of college was depressing to me, in a way - still is. I was staying up all night working on a dozen things at once, not sleeping - a housemate of mine told me about a friend of his who had just been accepted to SCAD, and I knew I had to get there. I took my portfolio to a review and got a scholarship. Before I knew it, I was enrolled and living in Turner House on the bottomfloor, 021.

What does an average workday in your life consist of?

I work full-time at a weekly newspaper in Mount Pleasant, SC - The Moultrie News. I'm a graphic artist, which is just another word for graphic designer. I don't illustrate anything here, aside from the occasional filler ad. I might design a dozen or more ads in a day, and I do the layout for the Moultrie News and the MUSC Catalyst newspapers. We are also going to the internet in March, and I'll be in charge of uploading and managing the ad content and graphic side of things for our site.

What historical artists have been most influential to you? What contemporary artists?

Warhol, Jasper Johns, Red Grooms, Basquiat - Early on, Van Gogh was my favorite painter. You won't find too many things about his paintings that aren't the absolute truth. Everything from his brush strokes to the subject matter. Colors and perspective were the only things he really manipulated, and even that was more about emotion than anything else. Emotions can be tricky, though. Contemporary art is little more than decoration, and I try to stay way from that. It's not always easy to do.

Describe your style of illustration and your work in general, in your own words.

Style is a flaw. You can be any style you want, as long as you can force yourself to be flawed. Some have to try harder than others, but this was never difficult for me. You have to pattern yourself after someone, but the important thing is not to simply imitate what another person is doing, but to be exposed to everything that artist has been exposed to. Parts of my work are very concise and calculated, while others are totally visceral and spur-of-the-moment. It's a purely unconscious thing for me, and I can't explain it any better than that.

Throughout your career as an illustrator, has your method, style, or way of working gone through any major changes?

Everything I've done has changed and remains the same, all at once. The most important thing an artist can do is keep moving. Don't ever let yourself believe that you've arrived anywhere. I've worked on everything from dorm room floors to industrial drafting tables. There really isn't much difference between the two.

How have changes in your life affected your work over time?

It's impossible for someone like me to create something that isn't affected by my life, whether in a complete or insignificant way.

Out of all the pieces you've created, do you have any favorites?

My earlier ink drawings were successful in more ways than my laterwork is. I wasn't relying on any kind of reference, and I was working in a more intuitive way. It's not easy to explain how you create an ink drawing without any planning or prior sketching. Most of those earlier ink drawings were done by just putting the brush and ink to the paper and moving my arm - not thinking about anything.

What goals do you have for your work, and for yourself as an artist?

Wherever you look in the arts today, you won't find anyone saying much, if anything. Painting is decorative, illustration is trite, musicis formulaic and songwriting is all but inconsequential. I'd like to make something that breaks new ground, or picks up where earlier artists left off - bridge the gap, maybe.

Do you think your experience at SCAD was an adequate preparation for a career as an illustrator? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. My time at SCAD was an exercise in the harsh reality of self-motivation and suppressed ambition. No one pushed me harder than I pushed myself, and that would have been a large enough problem had it not been for a complete lack of any communal or competitive drive from my friends or anyone else. Basically, ever professor I had assured me that I would be getting lots of work right out of school, which was untrue, forany number of reasons.

What is the best advice you can give to a student preparing to enter the field of illustration?

Advice is one of those things that might help some people and hurt others, but I would try to find steady work long before you graduate. Finding work as an illustrator is extremely difficult, no matter how much of a knockout your portfolio is.

What is the best part of being an illustrator? What is the worst--and how do you deal with it?

The best part of any line of work is that if you enjoy doing it and you're good at it, to do it for a living is rather surreal. Conversely, if you can't find work, it can make you question your own abilities. You constantly have to balance those two ideas. If you can't, you won't make it.

What do you think of the current illustration market / industry?

If you look at the work today, you get an overwhelming sense that it's just too much and not enough. Early on, ideas were held above anything else. Towards the 80's, technical flare was given more weight. Now, it seems the market isn't too concerned with what anything says or how it looks, either. As long as something appeals to people on a grandscale, it'll work. It can't stay that way forever, though.

What do you think about illustration representatives / agents? Have you / do you use one?

I tried to get an agent right out of school. I must have contacted twenty or thirty. They either told me my work wasn't commercial enough,or that I would have to keep trying. This is a hard thing to grasp when you hear one thing from professors and something entirely different from those who can help you get somewhere with your work. Now, more than ever, you probably need an agent to be successful, and that wasn't the case a few years ago. Getting an agent is very difficult, though.

What does it take for a young illustrator to be successful today?

Success is relative. I wouldn't say that I'm a successful illustrator yet. The only way to make it is to keep trying new ways of getting where you want to be. If one way doesn't work, don't keep trying it over and over. Approach it in a new way, and keep going. If you want anything to work, you have to work at it. It's not going to happen all by itself, even if you feel that it's your destiny, fate, or whatever else to be there. If you want something badly enough, and you don't give up, you will make it.

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