It was an exciting time for illustration.
Before technology swept over the graphic arts like a tsunami, when a magazine, a book publisher or ad agency needed art, they commissioned the art from an illustrator.
My career began as a twenty year old freelancer in Chicago, beating the pavement with my portfolio of samples and trying to convince art directors at magazines and small ad agencies to give me a shot at an assignment. The Art Directors at the magazines were the most accessible and the most amenable to giving an untested entity a chance. The one major magazine based in Chicago that used a lot of illustration was Playboy. These assignments were for small spot art to accompany their quirky editorials. They needed a provocative image that told the story, asked a question, or conveyed an idea. It was great fun to come up with these little concepts but more importantly, these assignments provided an opportunity to develop the conceptual thinking that would prove crucial as the course of my career unfolded.
Needing to supplement my freelance income, I landed a job as a staff illustrator in one of Chicago’s last major full service art and photography firms, Jack O’Grady Studios. It was a large commercial studio that produced illustration and photography for ad agencies and design companies. My large office/studio was on the fiftieth floor of a building that overlooked Michigan Avenue, (Chicago’s “Park Avenue”) it was like I had “arrived”.
I was on a floor with 10 other illustrators and some were terrific old pros. Most of them could work in several styles and could bang out a great looking piece with amazing speed… it was quite the education. The studio’s sales reps would promise their clients the moon by tomorrow so I was continually working on crash deadlines.
Then just when my illustrator staff job plus my freelance assignments were to the point of sustaining me, a unique opportunity arose and the direction of my career took a new and exciting turn.
“The Illustrator’s Workshop” was a month-long intensive seminar being offered by a group of the top “super-star” illustrators of the day. Everyone with a serious desire to be an illustrator would have killed for one-on-one time with these artists. Acceptance to the workshop was by a portfolio review that would pick thirty people in total. Portfolios poured in from all around the country and mine was among them. It seemed like an endless wait to know if I had been chosen. Finally, when the acceptance letter arrived, I packed a trunk with art supplies and headed east for Marymount College Tarrytown, New York.
The seminar was set-up to create a “real world” working experience. The famous guys were the “clients” that gave out three assignments to be accomplished in the time that we were there. I presented sketches, got their feedback and then, with approval, moved on to the final piece. A lot of learning and some great insights were the result, but the real kicker was at the end of the seminar when you had the chance to sit down with each one of them individually to discuss your work. Through those interviews, one message came through loud and clear… the New York market was where my career could expand and flourish.
Among the first important assignments were magazine covers. First BusinessWeek, and TV Guide, then later on, it was Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and National Wildlife.
The magazine covers were great for me because they provided another opportunity for me to be conceptual. If it was Newsweek, they would initially commission three illustrators to come up with concept sketches. They would call on Monday, give the cover line and the thrust of what they wanted the cover to convey. I would then launch into “think” mode for next two days, racking my brain for ”the best idea” and deliver the concept sketches for their Wednesday morning cover meeting. After review, if they chose one of my ideas, I would get two additional days to produce the final art.
It was definitely a pressure-cooker and all involved felt it. If the cover story was hot news, there was no time for screw-ups so the magazine staff was on edge, calling each day to offer assistance and to check on how the illustration was coming. Once, I was working to meet my deadline for the Newsweek cover “Israel in Torment” and the doorbell rang. There was a messenger from Newsweek holding a covered birdcage. The illustration I was working on depicted a dead dove lying on an Israeli flag, symbolizing the tremendous turmoil in the region. As the messenger handed me the cage, he informed me that inside were two doves, sent just in case I needed to kill one to use it for reference. Needless to say, I committed no bird murders and it was somehow all the more satisfying when it earned “Cover of the Year” and a spot in the Newsweek Hall of Fame.
The high visibility of the magazines provided inroads for my agent to get assignments from the major advertising agencies and I found myself working on campaigns for Phizer, British Airways, Miller Brewery, New York Newsday, General Foods, and the U.S. Postal Service, just to name a few. These assignments were lucrative but, Mr. Bruck, a Savvy businessman, held to the idea that the real bread and butter of the commercial art industry was in publishing. He established relationships with publishing Art Directors that were willing to coach his cadre of illustrators. Bruce Hall at Dell books was one such AD whose advice was crucial to my learning what comprised a successful book cover. That art direction is largely responsible for the success I’ve had in publishing.
At one point, I was getting assignments from most of the major New York publishers in the genre of Horror & Occult and it was great fun! The imperative for the art on those covers was always to be arresting, bazaar, and even shocking! My wife, my children, and my neighbors were all used as models and through the magic of art, they were
transformed into vampires, the possessed, and the undead. The leap from all of this over to the romance genre happened because I was working with Simon and Schuster on the chilling V.C.Andrews “Flowers in the Attic” series when the Art Director at Penguin Books, George Cornell, saw the covers and had the idea to give me a romance assignment about a women who was in love with a ghost. I had never done a romance before but, I guess he thought I would bring a dark quality to it. He was evidently pleased as it resulted in a flow of assignments that involved making covers for Penguin’s hottest new project.
Around the time that famous romance cover model “Fabio” was using his success to expand into lucrative TV commercials… “I can’t believe it’s not butter”, Penguin got the idea of finding and marketing the “next Fabio”. They sent out scouts to comb the U.S. gyms and beaches for the perfect male and finally hit pay dirt in Miami. They created a series of books for him using the moniker, “The Topaz Man”, and a groundbreaking, unprecedented, promotion was underway. All of the photo shoots were well attended; the Art Director, Penguin’s publicist, the “Topaz Man’s” publicist, a slew of assistants, and of course, myself. Ultimately, the “Topaz Man” was a commercial success, with fan clubs and TV spots while it simultaneously provided a wave of romance cover assignments for me.
The process of creating a romance book cover begins with a photo shoot. There are several photographers in New York that have made shooting for illustrators their specialty and having shot with all of them, the one photographer who stands above the rest is Michel Legrou. He’s a feisty Frenchman who in addition to being an excellent photographer, see’s with the eye of an artist. We work together on lighting to create the right mood and enhance the features of the models, once the camera angle is determined, we direct the shoots together, calling out instructions to the models from behind the camera. It’s fun, but a bit nerve racking as the results determine the difficulty I’ll have creating a successful cover out of it.
Initially, creating romance cover art was just another interesting aspect to my career but, over time, it has developed into more of a passion. Something more akin to a classical art form than to commercial art, it provides an opportunity to focus on the subtleties of mood and emotion, the drape of the heroine’s dress or the wind as it passes through the Hero’s hair. I truly love this genre and it has been very satisfying to play a role in keeping the fantasy alive!
An illustrator creates imagery designed to convey ideas. My career provided the opportunity to develop the conceptual skills necessary for the next step in my artistic journey... to use sculpture as a means to express my ideas about the human experience!