Where are you from and how long have you been illustrating?
I grew up in Stratford, Conn. and some how found my way to upstate New York and the Rochester Institute of Technology to pursue a BFA in illustration. My senior year there, one of my professors, Jay Lincoln recommended me to Paulina Garces Reid who was the Graphics Editor at the local newspaper, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. They were looking for some students to illustrate the covers of a five-part, monthly, special section on the future of Rochester.
I did one piece for them which was really well received, so I was asked to do the rest. I did another special section cover for them a few months later. During that job, I started complaining about the low fees and terms of the freelance contract and they stopped working with me. That was back in 2003, so I guess that means I've been doing this or at the very least trying for almost 8 years.
What are some of the pro's and con's of being a bearded man, in day to day life?
My rent is too damn high. I can't really afford to be wasting my money on frivolous things like razor blades and haircuts. I've noticed that when you look like Jesus, people are less likely to hassle you. The hoodlums and no-good-niks generally seem to have a crisis of conscience when ripping off Jesus and steer clear, even when you fall asleep on the subway. On the flip side, If I leave the house before showering or having coffee I tend to look homeless. People don't like standing near the guy they think is homeless when they're waiting on line for the ATM.
Tell me about running - what was your initial motivation to start, and what keeps you motivated?
I was talked into joining the track team by a friend in high school. I wasn't very good at first but stuck around because I was having fun and there were some cute girls. Over time, I got hooked. It started primarily as a social outlet, but became a way to be alone with my thoughts or to clear my head. I also got to be pretty good at it. In high school, I nearly won a state title in the 5k, but was out kicked in the last 50 meters of the race. I kept running in college.
At one point I was captain of the cross country team and an Academic All-American. I got to run across the country as a part of a relay team for the school's 175th anniversary, too. I ran nearly everyday for eight years, like anything that becomes habitual like that, it is hard to kick. It just becomes part of your routine. Plus, I've met some really amazing people through it that I probably wouldn't have otherwise, so it remains a social outlet. And it is a great way to clear the head after a tough day. That's why I keep doing it. Also, I like the idea of being able to out run the cops and/or trouble if I ever have to.
I always hear really interesting comparisons when people try to articulate what running a marathon is to them - eg. running a marathon is like writing an exam when you didnt study enough, running a marathon is like the movie Rocky (i've actually heard these) - what is running a marathon like for you?
The marathon itself is a party. All the hard stuff is done beforehand. In the months leading up to it you bust your ass. On race day, the city shuts itself down so a bunch of runners can take over the streets. People with no interest in running come out to cheer. The race is a celebration of the efforts of individuals who usually toil in anonymity. I think thats kind of cool. Afterwards you can get hammered on half a beer and people keep buying them for you.
You were an inhouse illustrator for a while, no? how was that experiece / what are some of the responsibilities of an inhouser?
I've had two jobs where I was lucky enough to do a fair amount of Illustration work.
The first was a the one-man graphics department of The Ithaca Journal, the daily newspaper in Ithaca, N.Y. I was primarily in charge of making locator maps and infographics, but for some reason I was also the "editor" of the weekly technology page. I downloaded all the content from wire services. After a while, I looked at the supplied art and decided I could do better than that. So I started creating my own art for the page. From there, I got to illustrate the covers of a few special sections and on occasion the weekly entertainment section.
I spent about two years there before moving on to The Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J. In New Jersey I was part of an eight person art department. There was still a fair amount of infographic work and page design, but I had a boss named Jerry Luciani who recognized that I had a little bit of illustration talent and was always on the lookout for work to throw my way. I did a lot of illustration work there in a relatively short amount of time. That's when my work really started to get better when I figured out what voice I wanted to speak with and how I wanted to say things. Had I not had that opportunity I think my work would have really stagnated.
The ability to do a lot of work and being forced to solve problems quickly was probably the best education I could have gotten. On the other hand, working in house does have its drawbacks. The biggest is that at the end of the day, your work doesn't belong to you. When you are a full-time employee the copyright belongs to your employer.
Your commercial work is fantastic - how did this style develop / evolve? is it deco influenced? You would probably never guess it now, but in art school, at first I was doing a lot of work like I was going to be the second coming of C.F. Payne or Ismael Roldan. At some point, I realized there were a few other people in my classes that had the same idea and they might actually be better than me. This of course got me to thinking that perhaps this might not be the best road to continue down if I want to make a living as an illustrator. I started looking around at other work.
One of the things I was drawn to was the Russian Constructivtist art, the early, pre-Stalin, propaganda. RIT's library had some great books and an amazing poster collection featuring it and I spent hours just taking as much of it in as possible. From that point on I started working more graphically, incorporating that stuff and in some cases blatantly satirizing/ripping it off in assignments. Eventually, I started looking around at more and more poster art from the early part of the 20th Century, like the WPA and WWII posters. At the same time I was discovering advertising and editorial work by artists from that era like Joseph Binder, Antonio Petruccelli, A.M. Cassandre, Paolo Garretto, Jean Carlu, Otis Shepard, Mario Puppo, John Gilroy and Frank MacIntosh.
I've noticed that your characters rarely if ever have eyes - is that saying something deeply psychological about you?
Well, when I was a younger, like five years old, I used to have these recurring dreams where I was kidnapped by people with no faces. I have no idea what that means. If there's a psychiatrist that wants to weigh in on what that means, I'd love to know what undiagnosed neuroses I suffer from. Maybe on a subconscious level that's the reason. The no eyes thing evolved out of working more graphically. At one point I had pushed the figure to a point where everything was really geometric and flat and always in profile. At that point all the detail fell off. I kind of pulled back from that a little and didn't see a reason to add a whole lot of detail back into the face. No one complained about the eyes missing and I thought it was kind of cool so I just rolled with it.
I think the generic people help drive the concept. The work becomes more about the story I'm trying to tell or the point I'm trying to get across. The time I would have spent drawing eyes and obsessing over every detail of the figure is better used to develop that concept
I see lots of baseball imagery creeping in - big fan? blue jays fan maybe?? (the 1993 verison of me is hoping you'll say the Jays)
I am a big baseball fan, a huge New York Mets fan. (To the early-1990s version of you I say, "you're welcome for David Cone") I usually have the game on while I'm working in the evening. Those west coast trips make it somewhat easier to burn the midnight oil to get work done. The baseball stuff is largely self-generated work. I'm like the six-year old that draws dinosaurs because he likes them. I'd like to think I'm doing something that's a little different form the typical sort sports related work that's out there. Of course, if there's Major League or minor league team that wants art for it's program covers or whatever, call me. I'll work with you.
Your concepts are so strong! tell me about your brainstorming process when a new job rolls in - Thanks. I never know if they're that strong. Maybe it's the nagging self doubt creeping in, but I worry that I've pushed things too far or haven't gone far enough. In art school, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher, Don Arday, who drove home the importance of having a good concept behind your work. Don had a good analogy. Illustration without a concept is like a song without lyrics and there haven't been many hit songs that were instrumentals. He was right about that, I think the last person to have an instrumental hit was Jan Hammer and that was 25 years ago. And he had a hit TV show that was partially responsible for that.
I wish I could say I'm really clever and it comes naturally, but I've got to work at it. When a job rolls in I do a lot of thumbnails. It's not unusual for me to do 40 or 50 after reading whatever source material I've been given. These aren't detailed drawings they're usually pretty small and really basic and take about a minute or two to do. If I get an idea that I like I'll mark it and keep going. I think it's important to push past the ideas that you think are good. 15 minutes later you might realize that idea isn't so good that or that it might be the obvious solution.
I think at the brainstorming stage it is helpful to get out of the studio. I like to get out of the space I usually work in. Sometimes that means going to the living room and sitting on the couch. Other times I'm on the stoop, in the park, on the subway or at the coffee shop. I think getting outside of familiar surroundings, out of the comfort zone helps. If I get stuck I'll re-read the story or synopsis and play some word association games in the margins of my sketchbook. I also try to make an effort to pick the brains of the Art Director's minds a little bit. Sometimes they have an idea that's solid or at the very least serves as a jumping off point.
now, you also work with illustrators day to day - what makes an illustrator fun to work with / NOT fun to work with?
Most of the illustrators I've had the pleasure of working with are pretty cool people. They're usually happy to hear from me and bring tons of good ideas to the table. I'm always impressed with the work they do. Especially with very dry source material I often give them. Sometimes it makes the phone book exciting by comparison. I'm always blown away when they create something awesome out of that dreck. I haven't had too many bad experiences working with illustrators.
Once was an incident where I was looking for something very specific, which happens from time to time for various reasons. I asked for a quick sketch and got something completely different back, the illustrator thought his idea was better than mine. So actually getting him to do what I wanted was like pulling teeth. He was resistant and in the end I got the feeling his heart just wasn't in the final piece. The end result was pretty underwhelming and it didn't have to be.
I'll be the first to admit that not every idea I have is brilliant, but if you want to convince me yours is better at least give me two sketches so I can see for myself and try to convince my bosses. I can also look at that situation and think maybe I did a poor job of communicating what I wanted so maybe I'm to blame, too.
Who's work are you loving?
Its kind of strange, I see a lot of work and I look at it from two perspectives. One is for my own personal enjoyment and there is a lot of stuff I'm really impressed by and could spend hours looking at. The other is work by illustrators I might be able to hire. I wish I could hire everyone whose work I like but I can't. I've got to keep in mind the audience that the magazine reaches, which is older and more conservative. I've also got to keep in mind the tastes of my boss, the design director, as well as the taste of the editors.
In the former category is a guy like Ryan Pancoast. I've know Ryan for what seems like forever he's two years younger than me and we both graduated from Bunnell High School and RIT and were members of the same track and cross country teams. I'm absolutely blown away by his level of talent and dedication. He's one of those guys that makes it look easy. He got his work into Spectrum and SI this year for the first time and he probably will on annual basis. I'd love to throw work his way, but at the day job we don't have much need for anything in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Nor do we use a great deal of realist stuff. So I can only bestow praise upon him
In the latter category, is Chris Whetzel. I've admired his work from afar for a while. He's got some solid concepts and I like the graphic treatment and bold colors. Recently, I had a job I thought he'd be perfect for. I threw it his way and he did a really great job. I've gotten to work with him a few times since then and he's always got great ideas and cranked out some really great work. I'm really happy that worked out.
At work, I spend a good deal of time on illustrationmundo looking at people's art. There's too much interesting stuff there.
What magazines would you love to illustrate for? what magazines do you love in general?
Over the summer I went to Spain for my honeymoon. While I was there, I took a flight from Málaga to Barcelona on Vueling (they're kind of a European Jet Blue) . I was absolutely blown away by the in-flight magazine, Ling. It had some amazing photography, great illustrations, good stories and was beautifully designed. It was unlike anything I'd seen. I spent the whole flight reading it, except for the parts where I was terrified we were going to crash. It was rather turbulent flight.
I think its cool to get published. I still get a rush when I see my stuff in print. I'm not too picky about who I'll work for as long as the terms are fair.
Recently, I've been approached by a few design firms that are looking for editorial work and their clients are asking for work for hire terms. I can't say yes to that. Especially when I know that their client is a big, profitable company. The economy may be in the shitter, but a lot companies are making record profits and hoarding. They can afford to fairly compensate freelancers for their work.
how do you see the industry changing, being on both sides of the fence?
I work for a magazine. We've got a print edition, a web edition and now an iPad edition thats getting ready to launch. A few years ago there was only the magazine. The content in the magazine almost always ends up on the web and will end up in the iPad. I don't think the fees for freelancers have increased to reflect that the work is being published in three mediums.
How do we address that? In 2010 and beyond, what is the magazine? Is it the print edition only? Is it the sum of all its print and digital editions. I think its becoming the latter. I think that is going to have an impact on how we get paid. Honestly, I don't think my bosses are going to say give the illustrators an extra 40% because they're work is going into the iPad edition.
Do you approach design and illustration differently?
Design and illustration are pretty intertwined. For me, the process isn't exactly the same, but I hope the results are. I like stuff thats clean, bright, bold, organized. In a perfect world, that's what I would achieve with my work whether its design or illustration. When I'm designing pages, in the back of my head I always have an idea of how I'd like my art to appear in context and I try to give other art that same treatment. When you are working with magazine or newspaper pages you're somewhat limited by the design. Not all of us get to do the kick ass stuff that Bloomberg BusinessWeek is doing.
Whats the best part about living in NY?
The food. There is no shortage of unbelievable food, from the street vendors to the restaurants that won't let me in. If I didn't run I'd probably be 300 lbs.
You've heroically survived leukemia, how has that experience changed you?
I can't give blood and I can't be an organ donor. Other than that, I hope that it hasn't changed me too much.
Being diagnosed was a little surreal. When you're 28, the last thing you never expect to hear is that you have cancer. However, at the same time it was a little bit of a relief. For months leading up to that, it was difficult for me to run, I was losing weight, I was having vision problems and I was getting these huge bruises for no reason. It was good to know that there was one reason why this is happening. I think it shook up my friends and family pretty good at first.
I think my wife, who was then my fiance, was particularly shaken. We were supposed to be planning a wedding and now we're not sure if I'm going to live to see our wedding. I think my parents had a hard time, too, as they were in the middle of moving 600 miles away. No one wants to see that sort of thing happen to their children. That was hard to watch that. I did my best to remind them that I'm still the same person I've always been.
It was a little weird to be in a hospital and to be cracking jokes and making light of the situation when everyone is coming in and in a very serious mood. I don't think it took long for them to realize I was going to be okay. There was never a doubt in my mind that I'd beat this. Thankfully, what I have is treatable. I take a couple of pills in the morning and another at night. The most difficult thing is that I have to take it on an empty stomach. That means waking up taking my meds and waiting an hour for coffee and breakfast. That's what I have to put up with. There's no chemotherapy or radiation treatment or anything like that. I have to go to the doctor for blood tests pretty regularly, but thats not bad. There are a lot of people who have it worse than me. Part of the human experience is dealing with unpleasant situations, this just happens to be mine.
A little over a year later my blood levels are normal. There's no sign of the leukemia in my bone marrow and the residual leukemic blood cells are disappearing. It isn't in remission yet, but it's close. I feel great though. I ran the New York City Marathon a few weeks ago. At this time last year it was a struggle to run just a couple of miles. I think I'm going to be okay and thats good because there are a lot of things I want to do with my life. If anyone is moved by my story the best thing they can do is register as a bone marrow donor.
More info on that can be found at http://www.dkmsamericas.org/ and http://www.marrow.org/ All that is required is that you get your cheeks swabbed. If you're a match they pull the marrow out of your hip. It hurts but no worse than getting teeth pulled. You'll be recovered after a day or two.
What advice would others going through a similar experience?
When I was in the hospital all I wanted was for things to return to normal. I guess to the caregivers and friends and family try to give those who are sick as much normality as possible. Don't read too much into things if they're tired or cranky. Be supportive of the things they want to do. No one wants to sit around waiting to die or feel like an object of pity.
Top 5 albums right now?
I'm the wrong person to ask that. My brother is the one in the family with the musical chops and taste. He usually loads up my iPod when he visits from San Diego. Right now I'm enjoying the Delta Spirt. When I'm working I've usually got the satellite radio on. I'm usually on SiriusXMU unless Ron & Fez are on.
Any advice for new illustrators coming into the industry?
For those coming out of school, I'd recommend getting a full-time job design job at first. There's a lot to be learned working at a magazine or publisher, graphic design firm, ad agency, etc. The steady paycheck and benefits are extra nice because life doesn't put itself on hold while your trying to make it as an illustrator. Bills, like student loans, need to get paid. Big life changing events will happen. Some of them will be unexpected. Work hard, learn the business and save money so that you're prepared to work for yourself.
Any advice for the older / established ones? I'm in no position to do that. Those who have made a living doing this as well as those who are still trying have my admiration.
All images copyright John W Tomac - to see more of John's work, check out his website: http://www.johnwtomac.com/ - Thanks John for a great interview!