1. Where are you from and how long have you been illustrating?
Well, originally I am from the very small town by the name of Mt. Solon in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I would place the population around 1500 or so. Picture tons of cows and fields in every direction. It was a great place to grow up as a child, and my brother and I had many an adventure in "the sticks." But needless to say, as I grew into a teenager I felt the urge to see what else was in the world. So I moved up to Philadelphia and went to the University of the Arts from 1999-2003. It took me a while to muster up the courage to actively pursue an illustration career, and I worked mostly non-art jobs, then in-house design and illustration jobs until 2008. That’s when I bit the bullet and said “let’s give this a shot.” And here we are, solely freelancing for a little over a year and a half.

2. How did you like your time at University of the Arts? Did you feel prepared for real world upon graduation?

Honestly, my opinion on my school experience changes depending on what mood I am in when you ask me. Well, today I am in great mood! Those formulative years at UARTs are the greatest time of my life (so far). As you can imagine, it was a very “country mouse in the city” scenario for the first few months, but I met amazing friends who really pushed me to be a better artist. UARTs is set up in a manner that all students take a “foundation year” and then three years with in a major. Now, I was pretty set on becoming a two-dimensional artist before even entering the school so a lot of the first year felt like a waste of time.
Making wooden sculptures and such were things just getting in the way of drawing cartoons. But on the other hand, that first year was when I got my first real taste of observational drawing; all of my experience up to that point was mostly drawing out of my head. And then on top of that, the illustration major really pushed drawing in the sophomore and junior years; I thoroughly enjoyed anatomy class under sculptor Sabin Howard and more observational drawing under Roger Roth. However, during that time I was not feeling that I was being prepared adequately in terms conception/ideation, and so I honestly had a rocky patch in junior and senior year with a lot of disagreement with faculty.
It really got to the point where I was doing my own thing and critiquing myself more earnestly than I felt the faculty or my fellow students were. And honestly, I was putting out garbage and I knew it. Senior year turned things around though, and I felt I had a great teacher in Megan Berkheiser. With a focus on a concept-driven portfolio, I feel I really found a good path that year.
So now I see that the department’s method is to get you drawing and painting well and THEN to get your ideation technique in order. I guess I was ready to do it all at once and got impatient! In hindsight, the program does a good job of preparing students. Mark Tocchet has set up a great learning environment, and I don’t think anyone can come out of that program and say that they were not prepared with the knowledge needed to perform as a professional illustrator.
Business practice is covered extensively as well as art and concepting skills. They even have a class for seniors taught by visiting working artists like Tim O’Brien (acceptance upon portfolio review). Can it get any more “real world” than that? But I have to be honest, I didn’t take that class; I didn’t even submit my portfolio as that was during the period of time where I was being an idiot ☺
Anyway, the illustration program finishes with “Portfolio Day” at the Society of Illustrators in NYC! It’s a day of showing your portfolio to visiting art directors that students and faculty contact beforehand. That was actually where I got my first freelance gig way back in 2003. So in summation, the illustration program at UARTs teaches you how to draw and paint, how to think and conceptualize, how to run a business, and they even try to get you a job! Good stuff!
3. So, you love drawing - and it really does show! What do you think is your favorite subject matter to draw?
Ha, recently I am lacking in drawing time due to projects. But I make myself do it almost every day by saying “somebody is drawing or painting right now and getting better than you” or “(blank artist) isn’t watching tv. He is working.” That gets me up from the couch. In terms of subject matter, I love to draw the figure. And to narrow it down even more, I love to draw the female portrait. It is actually my weakest area and so I try to draw it as much as possible. But I really love to draw anything. Drawing “tech” is always a blast! By tech, I mean anything mechanical.
My girlfriend is getting her Master’s in Metal at SUNY, and I often sit in her studio drawing all sorts of mechanical stuff like compressors, and there seem to be pipes and gauges everywhere. I try to draw a broad range of everything so I have some knowledge of how things should look when I need to draw it for an illustration; its just fueling that library in your head while also working on observation skills. I also like to just experiment in drawing. Trying new materials is a fun drawing in itself regardless of the subject! Recently, I am trying to more evenly balance observational drawing and imaginative drawing; that has been really exciting!
My love of drawing is a bit of a problem though. I tend to really render out my sketches for an assignment. Fellow illustrators say that it is a waste of time that I could be working on other commissions. But what can I say, I enjoy drawing them so much I want to fully realize the idea and I like having a finished drawing! I’m an addict! Financially, I’m sure this is not the best practice, but I think that extra really makes a good impression!

4. How long have you been working digitally - did you find it at all (initially) in contrast to mark making with a pencil or was it completely natural?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was “natural;” there was a definite learning curve! Hmmm, I as I stated previously, UARTs stressed drawing and painting to a point and then you sort of felt your way into the medium in which you were most comfortable. For me, that was watercolor/gouache as I had E.B. Louis (watercolorist extroardinare) for my painting class. So there I was in junior year drawing in ink and coloring with washes. Initially it worked well as I was working very realistically, but as I started to think more graphically, watercolor was just getting in the way. There I was trying to get a flat even wash when I could just fill in the color in Photoshop.
Luckily, Mark Tocchet taught a class in which one demo was to do color comps in Photoshop so I had an idea of what could be done digitally. It was at the beginning of senior year (1998) that I “went digital.” I consider in pretty much self –taught and believe me, there was a great deal of struggle that first year.
Working digitally is definitely a different beast from drawing and painting. I like that I can be an absolute perfectionist in my digital work, but I still get a thrill out of a happy accident in an ink painting as well. And I honestly feel working in one makes the other stronger; everyone says working digitally needs to be built on a foundation of drawing and painting, but I feel experience in digital work can also make one a better “analog” artist.
5. Your work with Mountain Dew is awesome, you must of been psyched about getting that call! How is working on an Ad project different from an editorial one?
Ha ha! I actually thought that email was a bunch of baloney! I was sarcastically thinking “Yeah, right. I’ll bet this is totally legit.” Then it turned out it was. I actually worked with Tracy Locke Design on that project. Advertising work is SO different that editorial. The major difference it seems is that they had a concept pretty fleshed out before even contacting me; they even had mock-ups and references for me! The focus was on my “look,” and so I really enjoyed being to spend hours upon hours just really drawing my heart out. Even drawing revisions was enjoyable. That is another big difference: it seems that advertising jobs have a longer deadline that you usual editorial commission. Working with the folks at Tracy Locke was very enjoyable and pretty much effortless. I was bummed that we did not move into the last two posters of the project due to the budget being killed. But I hope to do more advertising work in the future as it’s a nice balance conceptual work. Hint hint, advertising art directors!

6. Im a really big fan of your ... almost tongue in cheek metaphors, whats your brainstorming sessions like?
Well Pete, I think that my girlfriend could answer that question better than me. I’m sure she would say something like “Chris comes up with like 20 ideas and hates them all. Then he sits and pounds his head with his fist while yelling ‘C’mon, think you idiot!’ until he comes up with ideas that he calls ‘the it.”
I typically try to refuse the easy concepts and really get beyond them to the ones that make you say “Ah ha! That’s it!” You just know that one concept that really nails the essence of the commission. My typical process is to thumbnail concepts as they come to me; I also write down phrases that come to mind as I’m mulling it over. In all of this, it may seem like I’m building up a concept, but I am really boiling down to the essence of the article. The goal is to find an idea that is easily understood by a viewer and is also relatable to the viewer. I am not one of those artists who uses metaphors like “the bird represents a child and a cage represents poor education” or something like that; my goal with my illustrations is to convey the message of the article without NEEDING the article to explain it. As for the “tongue in cheek” aspect, I guess that just my personality coming through. I am a sarcastic-in-a-sweet-way kind of guy. Also, a lot of the assignments I get are about serious or non-exciting subject matter, and I try to make it fun or exciting for the viewer while still solving the problem.

7. How has your work been evolving the past few years? what direction do you see it heading? Man, that is a great question, Pete! I think its really important to be continually pushing yourself. Otherwise, you’ll get bored and burn out. Realizing you are getting close to that is very important to keeping yourself excited about this career. Personally, I find being immersed in some type of artistic community is very inspirational and makes me want to evolve. Although I consider myself a professional, I am a member of the Visual Literacy Program as a way to continue to learn and find inspiration. Faculty includes Sterling Hundley and George Pratt among other greats, and there are a ton of talented folks enrolled in the online community.
I don’t agree with everything that is taught, but I take what I need to grow as an artist, and I try to be open-minded to new techniques and approaches to making images. I also recently set up an illustration group called The Illostop Collective that consists of a blog of our work and a private discussion forum where we talk candidly about projects, experiments, influences, and anything else. I really see things like this as making me address the need to evolve simply to keep up with all the great work I keep seeing!
I am actually starting to push my digital work in a direction that I think will still be similar but different as I am becoming very re-interested in painting, both traditional and digital. So I am exploring how I can take my current techniques (which I see as more of a printmaking approach) and bring in some painterly aspects and vice versa. None of this is “portfolio-ready”, but I think I may be working a bit differently in two or three years.
I am also trying to address the issue that I am always more of a fan of my sketch than of my final image, and I am trying to figure out how to bring some aspect of my initial drawing into the final art that I think is getting lost.
The direction I HOPE to head in is one that successfully addresses and combines what goes on in my computer with what goes on in my sketchbooks and on my drafting table.

8. Do you have any dream clients you've yet to work with?
I was actually just thinking about that this morning. I would love to do something for Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated. Any comic book covers would be a ton of fun as well. In thinking about it though, I though” well, what my dream job would be is to be commissioned to cover an event through drawings like they used to assign back in the day.” That would be awesome. I guess I was born about 60 years too late, though!
But since we probably won’t see a time machine in the span of my life, I will have to say that my dream client is myself in that I would love to do a creator-owned project like a graphic novel or illustrated manuscript. It is slowly in the works so I guess I’m working my dream job!

9. any advice for new illustrators?
Do you mean students entering the field or folks in a similar position to myself having been in the field a short amount of time? To students, I would say start getting ready NOW. Start saving money for those mailers and your studio, and don’t be afraid to spend money!
You have to get your work in front of clients so don’t just put your work on a website and not promote! I try to add two pieces to my website every month as well as to blog about them and any other events like gallery shows or items like this interview! Also, try and talk to working illustrators and learn from them. And of course, always be working on new material to add to that website that you are actively promoting! I would say 1/2 of my job is actually making images; the rest of the time is occupied with the business of promoting, client relation, networking, and financial chores.
I guess all of that can apply to new illustrators as well. An addendum would be to always be kind, courteous, and professional. ALWAYS meet the deadline, and always do your absolute best. Try to deliver more than is expected. And be gracious for any assignment, especially in this economy!

10. any advice for older / established ones?
Well, I guess I would say to be open to us new guys. Please don’t see us as beneath you or as competition. Share your knowledge, and I think folks in that class might even be able to learn a thing or two from us fresh faces. We all need to get along and depend upon each other; we need to unite as a single entity if we are going to have a voice that carries weight and can unlock stagnant budgets, protect our artwork from things like Orphan Works, and continue to provide content in a world where its very easy to license stock art or photography. None of that will happen if we don’t communicate.
Thanks Chris, It was great to hear about your practice :)
All images copyright of Chris Whetzel.
To see more of Chris' work go here: http://www.chris-whetzel.com
or here: www.chris-whetzel.blogspot.com


  1. Amazing interview Chris! And very well done again Pete.

  2. best interview yet! great artist