What do you
try to accomplish in your work?
I like to tell
a story that illuminates an underlying concept or
idea with humor, as simply as possible. I pay
attention to the process too. How I do it
is as important as the final product. I see
myself as a craftsman more than an artist.
I'm hired for my skill in technique whereas an
artist is more into self expression, though I
look for those opportunities too. Art is
created and appreciated at all levels.
Maybe illustration is a bit more
accessible. Maybe it's shallower than fine
art but it's connected to the deep end of the
humor so prevalent in your work?
surprise, adding the extra twist. I love
entertainment. There's not enough of it in
the world. Humor lets me say something
important without raising defenses. If I
can make you smile, then you will be more open to
my message. You might even feel
better. I know I do. If I can't go in
the front door, I like to sneak in the
What do you
see as the primary influence in your work?
period fascinates me. People had specific
jobs and some worked on the same projects for 30
years. Now that's craftsmanship -- being
good at one thing. Many were known by their
work: Mr. Tanner, Mr. Smith. Call me
Ms. Print. I wouldn't want the physical
hardships of that time. Still, our careers
are so fragmented today. My illustration,
the printmaking that is, gives me a sense of
continuity and development. I've been doing
it since middle school. Printmaking is not
over focused on one single product but on a
series of finished pieces. Each print
teaches me more about the craft and gives me a
focus for the future. Printmaking takes
years of practice to master. The jury is
still out though on whether my work has evolved
much since 3rd grade.
been drawn to representational art which is very
narrative, tied to the past. I love stories
You seem to
be saying illustrators represent other's ideas
and not their own. Still, you must bring
yourself to each piece or process, as you might
right. Illustrators are also hired for what
they can bring of themselves to each piece.
People hire me because I good at picturing the
big ideas behind each project. I love to
translate the real world into something fantastic
and imaginative. That's fun. For
example, "Recycle" is about how objects
are being transformed. The idea came in a
dream while I was sick with a fever. The
concept -- people bring in their used goods
-- that recycling them makes them into something
useful is fairly plain. Pictures that are
beyond yet somehow connected to reality excite me
and others. They give us a
departure from everyday life. Cartoons, for
example, are a springboard for the
imagination. For me, the idea of a
recycling plant -- a factory -- takes on
excitement when I picture objects coming out of
the smoke stack with people flying on those
objects. A smoke stack's output is
transformed from pollutant to useful
product. That's cool. It may not be
great art but I think it communicated with
success. My best ideas come to me when I'm
half awake. Maybe parenting three sons is
about how you got started in the field.
That's a funny
story. I loved to draw as a child and my
parents gave me how-to-draw books. We had a
dog and I decided to draw him one day. I
showed the picture to my family and was proud of
the likeness I'd rendered I might add. My
older siblings mocked me because I included the
dog's genitals. This was my first
experience with artistic persecution -- my
interpretation of art was different from
theirs. It hadn't occurred to me to leave
the genitals out. Maybe that left a deep
impression. Maybe that's the difference
between fine art and illustration. You
can't show the genitals in commercial art.
I guess I'm a conformist.
aside, how do you keep from compromising your
I do twice as
much work as required. I give the client
first what I think they need. Then they
tell me to give them what they wanted in the
first place. That's the curse of the
commercial artist I suppose.
My skill is to
interpret ideas, not just represent them.
Maybe that's why I often do two executions -- of
each piece that is. I can deal with the
rejection better that way. Some jobs give
me latitude and I can express my own style.
Editorial work tends to be that way.
Advertising on the other hand is about giving the
client what they want and need. It's more
restrictive but a nice challenge.
direction is your work taking?
As a full time
art director, I'm less concerned about my work
being salable. My personal journey has
taken on more prominence in my art. It's
more self-expressive now. I want to go back
and look at the style of past periods in art --
Egyptian and Medieval to be specific. I
want my work to reflect those times in a fresh
How do you
define style and it's importance in illustration?
are known for the consistency of their
work. It's their personal
As an art
director, what do you look for in other
that their style is suitable to the needs of the
project. What I see in advertising is
illustration not married to the product.
For example, a major car company is using a
cartoon character to sell a new car. This
can trivialize a sophisticated product.
They've spent millions on a character to give the
car appeal to baby boomers. I think that's
you describe your style?
I'd say mine
is light, not somber or super realistic. I
hope it speaks for itself.
you love to illustrate?
I'd love to
illustrate stories for adults much like those
done for children, like Maurice Sendak's
work. I'd like to illustrate adult themes
appropriate for any age. I think that
allows for a greater range of expression.
I'd love to illustrate events in history, the
stories not yet told. The ones off the
beaten path. My great grandfather owned a
saw mill in the Finger Lake region. He
lived a very interesting life as an inventor,
property owner, builder. He'd float timber
down the lake to the mill. I wanted to
illustrate his life as a story of local and
Why do you
think it is important to be interested in the
subject of your work?
interested, it will sustain me through the
execution of the piece. In "Great
Grandpa Hoag" I did a lot of research.
I looked at old photos and the style of dress at
that time. I interviewed relatives and
noted the style of art back then to get a sense
of color and composition. "Great
Grandpa Hoag" tells about the creative roots
in my family. He was independent and
enterprising. When I look at the picture, I
remember him even though we never met. I
suppose it's only a portrait of someone who lived
long ago but it's very personal to me. I
did it right after the death of my mother, during
a time of personal examination. It gave me
a way to grieve and opened up my relationship
with my father.
that piece translate to your commercial work?
That's a hard
question but a good one. There's a
difference between my full time paid work and my
personal work. The former requires a
certain objectivity. "Great Grandpa
Hoag" was a subtractive print. I'd
carve away material and print a color, carve away
more, print another color, and so on. When
I was done I couldn't print anymore. To
rework the block until nothing is left took a lot
of careful planning but presented many surprises
along the way. It was the first piece like
that for me. I only had 10 chances to get
what I wanted. The process involved loss
and made it more precious than a multi-block
print. I guess it's like life: time,
subtraction and leaving an impression. I'm
sure it's helped my commercial work but it's hard
to put into words.
artists inspire you?
He was into process. All his pictures were
thought out but look spontaneous. You might
say he was deliberate, something I try to
be. I see his subject as light-hearted and
his themes narrative. He chose the common
man which made him quite the iconoclast of his
time, when everyone else was doing the
superlative -- religious, angelic stuff.
His concept of God was not in the angelic but
portrayed in the pedestrian. Joseph became
the next door neighbor and the milk maid was
Mary. They were real people becoming
been a high point in your career?
question. I like to be outdoors. I'm
not the artist then. My attempts are only
muddy footprints compared to the real thing -- a
bird dropping on the windshield of life you might
say. It's satisfying but not that
you consider significant?
The dying beauty of Fall. The seasons'
constant palette that can't be reproduced.
Everything else seems insignificant to me.
God gave me a desire to create. I do it on
two dimensional paper. All my
representations seem shallow and small,
the computer change that?
paint. I can dabble with photography.
I have access to new avenues of expression.
I can create new worlds and experiment with
multi-media: sound, motion, 3-D.
Still, I can lose touch with the real world if
I'm not careful. That can be a
danger. I don't want to get away from real
people and nature. My husband is fond of
quoting a famous poet who writes of real toads in
imaginary gardens. If the computer helps me
do that, then all right.
important is it to market yourself?
I'd say it's
50% of the job. It's important to make and
maintain contacts. Running a business is a
business itself but most of us hate to do
it. We want to make art, not
commerce. Understanding clients can
generate good business though and makes me a
would you give to would-be illustrators?
Most of us
struggle to make a living. We do it because
we can't bear not to. I'd say not too many
illustrators are wealthy. If you're serious
about the field, live in a major city -- where
they buy illustration. Once you're
established you can move if you want. Maybe
the world wide web will change that.
Anyway, we're a dime a dozen so set yourself
apart -- turn around assignments on time, be
aggressive in selling yourself, listen to your
client. Be open to others opinions and pay
attention to criticism as well as praise.
Take advantage of the web -- it's a great way to
provide access to your portfolio. But take
the time to develop a good site -- one that's
simple and fast. Don't neglect direct
marketing -- post cards, personal calls, tear
sheets, follow-up contacts with potential and
former clients. Send out samples to
magazines who use your style -- they're more
likely to try new artists. Study other
illustrator's styles and let your own
evolve. Don't get into a rut -- take some
Answers © Barbara Cote, 1997