The times we live in and the problems people are dealing with make me pause. Although I am not a person who regularly reflects on the past, lately I have been thinking about something….my illustration days, and the importance of all those years spent creating images of everything imaginable, from romance book covers, to editorial-magazine assignments, to car and movie advertisements.
I have been a picture maker for fifty years. I started freelancing in 1971, and spent the first 28 years of my career as an illustrator. The past 22 years have been spent doing “fine art” oil paintings that are of interest to me and the galleries that represent me. When looking back on the body of work I created, I find myself acknowledging the importance of the first 28 years on the second stage of my personal journey as an Artist.
As illustrators, we were asked to draw and paint anything and everything ….and we were well compensated for it financially. Aside from the obvious money aspect of commercial art, there was, for me, a more important side to all of that work…it was a fabulous training ground for learning one’s craft. The book covers with all of the figures in them were probably the most valuable lessons. Figures are difficult because if you get them wrong it is obvious. I think what helped me the most during those Illustration years was the sheer volume of work I had to produce…hundreds of book covers with the always lurking deadlines! I rarely turned work down. I learned discipline and work ethic from my father when I was young. This was greatly enhanced by the pressure of the commercial art business. I can honestly say that I never missed a deadline in that period of my career.
One late afternoon in my studio while finishing a book cover for Bantam Books, I was cleaning up the edges with white gesso (as I always did) and accidentally tipped over a bucket of white acrylic onto the oil painting! Distraught as I was, I calmed myself and started the painting over immediately, and still delivered it on time. That was certainly a confidence builder, knowing that I could respond that way (under such pressure) and not have the job or the deadline suffer in any way. The art director never knew what I had gone through.
Creating a book cover typically went like this: First, the Art Director would send me a concept sheet describing the characters, the fashion, and the action they wanted to see on the cover. Next, I would produce several rough thumbnail sketches and call my photographer in New York to pick models and book a shoot. On the day of the shoot, I would attend, sketches in hand, and the photographer would pose the models to match my sketches — often to a tee! I would receive beautiful black and white 16×20 prints to take back to my studio as visual aids. The prints had gorgeous values. I would then create several versions of the cover sketch for the Art Director, who would approve one. I would go and finish the assignment. The sketches were pretty well worked out, so there were rarely any changes (thankfully) that had to be made on the finished painting.
During those years, I went from being a pen and ink artist (I thought drawing was always my strong suit), to all the other traditional mediums…and eventually ending up doing my first oil painting that I considered successful in 1983, a portrait of my father. That was it… I have been from that time on predominately an oil painter.
In the mid to late 1980s, while in the midst of a busy illustration career, I started showing small fine art paintings in local miniature shows. I had some success…which encouraged me to pursue that further. I continued doing illustration until the business started changing and digital was changing the business as I knew it, or cared for it. I painted my last commercial cover in 1999. At that point, I already had a couple of galleries representing me and I never looked back (except in conversation or in rare times like these that make you reflect on your life.)
For some reason, there seems to be, amongst some folks, a negative connotation with illustration, which I never understood. I can remember an Art Critic in one of the New York papers Sunday section, calling Andrew Wyeth a “mere illustrator.” I was appalled by a comment like that! All my art heroes were illustrators back then and Andrew Wyeth is an iconic American fine artist.
I know many ex-illustrators do not mention that period in their art careers, but I always embrace and remember it fondly…it was a hard job with many hours spent making deadlines, but the positive rewards far outweighed the work. I am forever thankful for the opportunity and for the success I had which enabled me to have a long career. There is still plenty to be learned on this art journey…and I really don’t know if I could be doing what I do today were it not for the years spent as an illustrator.
Thanks again to Oil Painters of America for the invitation and opportunity to do another Blog piece…it is always an honor.
Hodges Soileau OPA
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