Finding who you are as an artist is an ever-evolving, often frustrating journey of self-discovery. With every contour, color, line, and letter, we are either encouraged or dispirited. On some days, we unleash a deluge of art worthy of the finest museum. But on other days (often the very next day), we barely have the confidence to pick up a pencil or touch a keyboard.
So it’s no surprise that artists—especially illustrators—are always looking for the right combination of answers that will unlock the safe that holds the guarantee of productivity, effortlessness, acclaim, and success. With our ear to the safe, we ask: Is that the right pen? Is this the right style? Are those the right brushes? Are they the right client? Am I the right illustrator?
I’m sorry to say that there is no combination, no formula, to finding the answers. Sure, there are constants: work hard, do good work, get your work out there. But even the constants are subject to debate.
To prove to you that there’s no formula, that those who purport to have the answers (even me) only have their answers, and that we should all follow our own paths, I’ll share my artistic journey so far. If you stay with me until the end, you’ll see how personal and random and circuitous the road to being an artist really is.
“YOU WERE ALWAYS DRAWING”
My mother likes to tell this story (in her thick Italian accent): “This one time, when you were two, we were shopping at Kmart with your aunt and two-year-old cousin. He was behaving so badly. Screaming! Crying! You were quiet, drawing on a piece of paper. You looked at him. Then you looked at me and said, ‘Bad boy.’ And you went back to drawing.”
My first memory of drawing had me sitting at our kitchen table in 1984, when I was seven. I drew a sailboat and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. My oldest sister, then fifteen, helped me color in the sails. She was showing me how to use a softer touch with my color pencils. I did the left sail. She did the right one.
It won a little ribbon for a school competition. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember my art teacher or the person who gave me the ribbon (maybe the same person). Whoever they were, that little bit of praise meant something. I was good at drawing! Maybe I should keep doing it.
As a child of the ’80s, I loved Transformers. And Thundercats. And Silverhawks, He-Man, Thundarr, G.I. Joe, The NeverEnding Story, Willow, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, and on.
Nintendo launched. My friends became Link and Mario. Ryu and Mega Man. Kid Icarus and the team from Dragon Warrior.
What did these things all have in common? They were portals into new worlds. In movies, TV, and video games, I was introduced to—and fell in love with—fantasy, robots, mythology, and art. Little did I know that this exposure would help me succeed as a children’s book designer years later.
Middle school was terrible. In 1988, my family moved to a different town in Maryland—right at the start of sixth grade. I walked into a big new school knowing no one.
The teasing started with my looks. I was awkward, with big teeth, a big head, and a tall, lanky body. “DORK!” “NERD!” “FREAK!” were shouted at me (or worse, whispered to me) on a daily basis. I was teased for my name, my clothes, my hair, my ears, you name it. It was relentless, and brutal.
I had one escape from all of it: art. A piece I did (now gone) was selected for an exhibition as one of “Baltimore County’s Best.” Art was a light in an otherwise dark three years of my life.
TV continued to be an influence. A new show called The Simpsons began. And there I was, still drawing cartoon characters.
Unsurprisingly, the bullies didn’t think much of art. A bully, John A. (I still remember his last name) teased me once in art class—telling me how much of a loser I was. “At least I can draw!” I said.
“So what?!” he replied. “That won’t get you anywhere!”
“YOU’RE GOING TO CALVERT HALL”
At dinner one night, my father matter-of-factly said, “You’re going to Calvert Hall.” Calvert Hall College High School (CHC) is a prestigious private all-boys school in Baltimore County with excellent sports and art programs. It sounded great, but there was no way I was getting into one of the best private schools in Maryland. I walked into middle school as an A student, but the bullying wore on me. In the middle of seventh grade, I was carrying a failing grade in social studies. By eighth grade, I got my grades back up, but my overall middle-school record wasn’t stellar. This isn’t going to happen, I thought, as I took the entrance exams (including the art exam).
To my surprise, I got in. And I was selected for the art program. I have no doubt that art helped get me into CHC.
The art department at Calvert Hall was the size of a small airplane hangar. To this day, I have never worked in a space as big and well maintained. It made the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) studios in the ’90s look like roadside shanties. Our art teacher, Mr. J., preached fundamentals. We drew from life. Any drawing from imagination, photography, or media was forbidden. We were constantly drawing still lifes, skeletons, animal skulls, ourselves, and each other.
We had no choice in our materials. We had to use what Mr. J. instructed us to use. No pens. No markers. Photoshop wasn’t yet as ubiquitous as it is now (It had just been invented). Still, if it were, Mr. J. would have probably said, “No computers!” Through graphite and colored pencils, clay, wood, and oil paints, we were introduced to the tenets of art-making.
I WANT TO BE AN OIL PAINTER
I can’t smell linseed oil and Damar Varnish today without thinking about high school. I took to oils immediately. It was methodical. It was physical. The palette was part playground, part laboratory, and it felt good on my arm. Oils needed planning and patience. It appealed to me. And when I signed my very first oil painting of an animal skull, cloth, and a cobalt bottle, I felt that I was an artist.
We stretched each painting from scratch. We were taught to build stretchers using 1x2’s or 2x4’s—depending on the size of the painting. When one painting was done, we started another. My second oil painting displayed a little more control and a little more personality. I thought it clever to position the green and red Christmas balls so they reflected an Italian flag in the sugar bowl. It was the first time I added an idea into an otherwise academic piece.
Sophomore and junior years were much of the same for me and my classmates: get to the art room by 7:15 in the morning, paint, get to homeroom (smelling like linseed oil) by 8:00. Due to the sheer volume of work, our personal styles emerged. I was getting more expressive in my drawing and painting.
And my palettes were getting darker.
I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to art school.
Senior year was devoted to preparing our portfolios for college. We met with representatives from all the major schools. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) expressed interest in me, but I wanted RISD. It was a decision I now see as foolish. SCAD and MCAD were cheaper, and they were (and still are) very good schools.
But it was RISD or bust, so I submitted the application, with slides of my drawings and paintings, and three originals to RISD.
I got in.
As a compromise for going to art school (instead of a “real” school), my father and I agreed that I would study architecture so that I could get a “real” job. And so, in late August 1995, my family drove away as I stood on the RISD campus.
THE DIVORCE, AND ARCHITECTURE SHMARCHITECTURE
Freshman year was a whirlwind of experiences too numerous to describe. But three things happened that would end up shaping the life I lead today: my parents divorced, I met my (still) best friend Jim, and I broke my agreement with my father.
Toward the end of freshman year, we were required to choose a major. I wanted to be an oil painter. I ditched the idea of architecture. Instead, I chose illustration. Since my parents’ attention was focused on their divorce, they didn’t really notice (or care). Through illustration, I would be able to continue my education in classical drawing and painting, as well as learn graphic design and other disciplines.
As freshman year came to an end, I had no ride back to Baltimore. My parents, ever embroiled in their divorce, simply couldn’t come and get me. But Jim offered to take me to Dover, Delaware, which was about an hour and a half from my house. I arranged for a friend to get me from there.
When we arrived in Dover, we visited his friend Sarah’s house. She had just returned from her first year at the University of Pittsburgh. Sarah and I hit it off immediately. Maybe I would have met her some other way, but my parents’ divorce and my acceptance to RISD had me sitting on a porch in the middle of Delaware on May 26, 1996, with my future wife.
A funny thing happened on my way to “doing what I love”: it didn’t work. Compared to the more impressionistic naïveté in my earlier oil paintings, my RISD work fell flat.
I was frustrated by the fact that some of the work I was doing was worse than my high-school work. Doubt crept in. Maybe I’m just not that good, I thought. What my work gained in evocation, it lost in personality. The more I was trying to paint like someone else—like my classmates, teachers, Caravaggio, you name it—the less personal painting became. There’s no better proof of this than my Velazquez copy of The Waterseller of Seville. The best painting I did all of sophomore year was of someone else’s work.
The entirety of junior year was spent in Italy as part of RISD’s European Honors Program. While I was enjoying the experiences of living in my parents’ home country, I was growing more frustrated with oil painting. None of what I did looked very good. I was grasping at straws, stylistically. I came away from the year further removed from my goal of being a painter.
Fortunately, I kept up with my observational drawing. I traveled all around Italy with a sketchbook always in hand.
Keeping a sketchbook with us at all times helps our creative journey. It helps us document the world around us in a personal way. Keep one handy. Do this, and you’ll never be wanting for inspiration.
I WANT TO BE AN EDITORIAL ILLUSTRATOR
In the summer of 1998, I took an internship at Agora Inc. in Baltimore. My job was to assist the creative director. With the Quark and Photoshop handbooks on my lap, I designed direct mail pieces, including my first book cover for a direct mail booklet called Famous Last Words: How to Get Rich, While the Media, Washington, and Wall Street Get it Wrong.
As awful as it looked, I liked the process of composing imagery for publication. It felt natural. And more importantly, it was fun. A creative door had been unlocked.
During my final year at RISD, I focused on conceptual, stylized approaches to image-making. I was introduced to the work of Brad Holland, Dave McKean, Guy Billout, Stephen Kroninger, Jordin Isip, and Romare Bearden. I found myself most drawn to Holland and Kroninger, because of their ability to express emotion in unconventional ways. And I tried my hand at it.
I wanted to say something with my art, and I finally found an outlet.
I did get back on the painting horse. I learned how to construct any palette using red, yellow, blue, and black. I went back to basics—moving away from painting like I lived in the 1600s.
Life was coming back to my oil painting. The put-it-down-and-leave-it-alone brushstrokes returned.
I finally cared less about the end result and focused more on being in the moment, allowing the process to lead me—not some preconceived vision. But my focus was on a new goal.
Putting down the paintbrush and picking up a blade and rubber cement, I pursued the idea of composited imagery as illustration. Kroninger’s work was a heavy influence. We were introduced to the idea that our work could show up in magazines. And we would get paid for it. I picked up my first print job for Brown University’s magazine, The College Hill Independent.
I loved the process. I was convinced: I wanted to be an editorial illustrator.
I’M A . . . BOOK DESIGNER?
Toward the end of senior year, I decided to get a full-time design position to help support my editorial illustration career. My internship a year prior had given me the idea that book design was possible. A few weeks before graduation, I landed a job as a design assistant for Simon & Schuster. On June 10, 1999, Sarah and I drove to New York to start our lives. On June 14, I walked into the Simon & Schuster offices.
Frankly, I didn’t know what kinds of books I would be working on. At the time, it didn’t really matter. I had a salary and benefits, and that was enough. My responsibilities—before the days of PDF attachments, thumb drives, and Google—included writing letters to artists (on paper), walking physical art to licensors and studios, organizing archives of transparencies, reviewing physical portfolios, and designing books.
The first children’s book I designed was a Blue’s Clues board book. Something finally clicked. The lightbulb turned on. The switch was flipped. Book design and art direction felt right. Seemingly everything I had learned—all the work put into drawing, painting, illustrating (in a myriad of media), critique, art history, and even cartoon watching—led me to a career as a book designer and art director.
Perhaps art direction shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. I was the annoying kid in critiques, always with something to say. My teacher, Fred Lynch, even called it out once, saying I was a “worthy critic”.
I was creatively fulfilled. As a result, freelance illustration and oil painting were all but abandoned.
Most of what I designed early on were licensed properties, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Wild Thornberrys, G.I. Joe, SpongeBob SquarePants, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and on and on. Shows I watched as a kid were now popular properties for which I art directed and designed publishing programs! At Simon & Schuster and now at Penguin, I work on every kind of children’s book for every kind of child with every kind of illustrator. Today, I’d love to tell my eight-year-old self that one day he would art direct Brian Froud for a series of books about The Dark Crystal. Or that he’d work on books about fantasy and robots and mythology and art.
He would never believe it.
I did manage to illustrate two board books: Mister Doodle: C Is for City and Mister Doodle: A Color for Sketch.
The author had seen my drawings and wanted me to create the art in pen and ink—a medium I’d played with in my sketchbooks for years, but never considered as my “style.” Pen-and-ink illustration as a means to publication wasn’t ever in “the plan,” but I did the books anyway.
They were a success. Because of their success, I was invited to speak at the Apple Store in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and at schools and bookstores. I never would have guessed that a pen-and-ink stick figure would be my first foray into children’s book illustration.
I never planned to make books a career. But life doesn’t always fit these neat little scripts we imagine for ourselves. There is no script. Sure, we have ideas, we have plans. But it’s vital that we allow for changes to these plans. I don’t have to tell you how often life interferes. Life doesn’t always cooperate. Some would say, it rarely cooperates. But we roll with it, because life’s gems are usually found where you least expect them.
I could have ended this article on the word “them.” But in 2012, a funny thing happened on my way to a bodega to pick up orange juice: I smelled clove oil.
I used to smell clove oil in the painting studios at RISD. It triggered something. I missed oil painting! In the thirteen years since RISD, I made exactly two paintings. My sister-in-law asked for a landscape of the Mongaup River in upstate New York.
And I painted a portrait of my wife and newborn son.
Interestingly, I noticed that the hiatus helped. Maturity helped. With maturity came patience and perspective. And, above all, I no longer cared about painting like someone else.
Graduate school had been on my mind for a while. A graduate degree would open doors to teaching, and it would force me to get back to painting and illustrating. So I enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Master of Fine Arts in Illustration program—a three-year program for working professionals.
At FIT, I managed to finally carve out the time I needed to paint. And I finally found my oil painting “style.” The secret: I ignored style, and I just painted.
And more than thirty years after winning my first ribbon in second grade, a piece I made on taking my kids to school was accepted in the Society of Illustrators exhibition, Illustrators 58.
The compositing I’d discovered years ago finally feels natural. With so many self-imposed roadblocks (or excuses) removed, I’ve been able to produce work that I’m happy with. My piece on racism, The Problem We All Live With, was accepted in Communication Arts’ 2016 exhibition.
AND ON AND ON
It’s been a wild ride, creatively. I’m positive there will be other twists, turns, ups, and downs. But I understand, as I hope you understand, that that’s the life of an artist. The road to self-discovery isn’t straight.
I invite you to continue the conversation and share your creative journey in the comments below. My hope is that the next time you feel stuck or uninspired or uneasy about who you are as an artist, you will try to loosen your grip on how it’s “supposed to go,” and let your creative journey lead you.