Where are you from and how long have you been illustrating?
I was born in Connecticut and moved to New York when I was 10. In 2009, I moved to Massachusetts. It is a whole new culture and attitude and I’ve been trying to get used to it. A great little city, though. I started in 1993.
I wanted to lead this off by congratulating you on recently being named Illustrator / Educator of the year by 3X3 Magazine!
Thank you Pete and big thanks to 3x3 Magazine for that! That was a real nice surprise.
What's your favorite part about working with students? Do you feel you learn from them as well?
I think it is a bunch of things. I get excited seeing them work their brains a bit and succeed in something. I’d like to hope that most of them are pushing themselves to try to create the smartest and best image possible and go to places that sometimes are unexpected even for themselves. They are in the place of pure discovery of who they are as artists and for me that is one of the best places to be for myself as an artist. The constant ‘eureka!’ is nice to have.
Being around the students, especially good ones that have a drive, gives me that blast of energy that I sometimes lose when I get comfortable. After so many years of making art I personally need a kick start once in a while and I discovered I get it sometimes through teaching. From something as simple as getting riled up to work to discovering what’s going on now in pop or underground culture. This affects me personally and affects my work.
The best part of it all is when a student ‘gets it’. In the last few weeks of the past semester, one of my students had a breakthrough with her work. You can see the change in the quality of her work and her excitement in doing it. She was always wishy-washy with her work and it wasn’t hitting the mark. Now, while she is still trying to work it out, it seems she broke through a wall and is currently kicking ass. That really is the best thing to see…someone succeeding.
What can you tell me about your years as a student at SVA?
It was a full-on, no sleep, work-my-ass-off scary blur. In a way, it sucked. I recollect snippets of things that happened in those four years. The reality was, I commuted an hour and change every day into New York City from Long Island and right after classes, I hopped on the train ride home to go to one of my two part time jobs. I even had a job at the school itself to bring in some cash so I can afford to eat and pay rent where I was living. While I fondly remember some closer friends I made there and a few great teachers I had like Marshall Arisman and Sal Catalano, largely I missed out on the experiences that most people I think had going through college.
It kind of sucks when I think about it because I really didn’t enjoy it much. I worked to live and tried to get my school work done at all crazy hours of the night just to get it done without really spending enough time developing my art. Most of my art development happened in the years after school.
That being said, I am glad I ended up getting a couple of Masters Degrees 10 years later (Syracuse University and University of Hartford) where I was able to go back to school and put all of my heart into being there and made some wonderful friends.
I feel like you have a bit of a legendary enthusiasm for illustration - what excites you most?
I think people should be enthusiastic about what they do in life, not just with art. Ever talk to someone about their 9 to 5 job that they are indifferent about? It’s boring. Even high negative drama is more interesting that someone that are just going through the motions and collecting a paycheck. Even if you do a crummy job, I think you should find something within it that gives you life.
I worked in a couple of supermarkets for 10 years until I was 26 to help pay for school and rent and while I had some hard times with it emotionally because I wanted to be a full time artist, I loved working there. It was cool connecting with people in that environment, having ‘regulars’ I spoke to all the time. It was good. I mean, I didn’t have anything else and it wasn’t the pinnacle of life but that’s all I had at the moment so I made it work. I don’t think my enthusiasm is about illustration specifically…it is more about making art. One of the best things in my life is to work through an idea, whether it is for an illustration job or one of my own paintings, create it and get it out there.
You're a painter, what about wrestling with traditional materials do you find most rewarding?
I love all kinds of materials. For a brief period of time, I was using Photoshop and Painter to do my work and consequently, I teach digital media every once in a while. In the end, I love the tactile and esthetic quality of an original painting, monotype or even a sketchbook drawing. Working digitally is fun but I emotionally lose something. I am not attached to it for some reason. That’s not a comment against digital work…I love it and think everyone should create art however they want. I just have this thing inside me that, for now, just needs to connect with the medium physically and make the things I do by hand. I want paint on my fingers at the end of the day. I want to run my hand across the texture of a painting. It’s just the way I am functioning right now.
Do you feel like you're still expanding your skill set as an artist (better at your job today than say, this time last year?)
I hope so! I think I am expanding and learning all the time. I’ve been doing some minor printmaking and experimenting with that. I bought some gold-leaf a few months ago that I want to use for something. I bought some really cool razor-like pens that make a great line that I started using in my sketchbook. I think about how I can get these new materials in my work and make it work for me.
Several things always strike me about your work - first the colors - how much thought goes into your palette, or is it more of a natural, gut thing?
A little bit of both. I do color studies in my sketchbook or on the margins of paintings I am working on and sometimes, I take note of a particular color combination and when I think it is appropriate, I’ll use it. I know color theory, good combination's of colors and have been mixing colors more and more rather than just using them out of the tube which I’ve always had a tendency to do since I started painting. Often times, the colors will start popping in my mind as I am doing the sketch or even reading the article and I will just follow through with that.
Second are the concepts, you work is always smart! How do you go about brainstorming / idea generating?
There is no easy answer to that question. I’ve been asked that before. I don’t know. I mean, sometimes, the image just pops in my head…sometimes without barely a thought behind it and it just works. I think that is because I connect with whatever I am painting on a personal level immediately. Maybe it is something I’ve experienced and thought about so it just naturally flows right out. Other times, I am caught in a quagmire of bullshit and I am drowning in it. Sketch after sketch…idea after idea…days go by and nothing…complete crap. What sucks even more are deadlines when I fall into that rut. As an example, I thought about that horizon line and cut tree stump tangent for my Deforestation piece for weeks before the rest of the painting came together because I had to figure out how to say exactly what I wanted it to. With a deadline, there is no luxury of ‘all the time I need’.
What perks in life do men with mustaches enjoy that us non-mustached men will never know?
It’s a secret!
What’s with this resurgence of mustaches? People are even having ‘stache’ parties. I’ll be turning 40 in January and 10 years ago, it seemed like I was able to really start growing a goatee properly which is what I have now. I guess I was a late bloomer. The thing is, even with the facial hair, people often think I am in my early 30’s and surprisingly, more than have think I am still in my late 20’s. If I shaved this off, my guess is that people at the movie theaters will start asking where’s my Mommy when I go see a Rated R film.
Are you a vinyl collector? - if yes, any great finds recently? - if no, maybe just some good album recommendations!
Oh man, I used to be. I still have a few picture discs, singles and a couple of prized vinyls. I sold most of mine off about a decade ago. I still have the original pressing of Pink Floyd The Wall…still sealed! I had the original 1,000 limited pressing of Nirvana’s Sliver single. I bought it for $7. I sold it for nearly $100 in the late 90’s. Much of my collection was like that. When I think back, I get sad that I don’t have my collection around to show off or anything. At the same time, I guess it is good to purge things in life once in a while. Every so many years I get into this kick where for a couple of weeks, I gut the hell out of my apartment and start tossing out everything…clothes, books, and stuff I built up over the last few years. It’s good, like a rebirth. I like minimalism.
Album recommendations? I’ve got tons and always looking out for cool new experimental and interesting stuff. Send over some ideas.
I was in Washington Square Park last summer and listened to a band playing there and bought their CD. Really good jazz. Baby Soda: http://www.myspace.com/babysodaband
Another cool band that many people haven’t heard of is Iceland’s Quarashi, especially their first album. They’re sort of defunked but it never gets old to me. For interesting electronic stuff I love Amon Tobin…and to uplift your heart and soul, there’s always the Polyphonic Spree.
Your work has won many awards and is featured in all the annuals, how important is this recognition?
I would be lying if I didn’t say it wasn’t such a kick to see my name on the list of artists that got into a show. I went through so many years not being accepted that the first year I started getting into annuals, it was a totally blissful experience. Especially winning the Silver Medal from the Society…that was a pretty cool personal achievement. After that, I took it in stride. I didn’t know if I would ever get into shows again and while a part of me would be pretty sad, a part of me would just live with it. I did without for so many years and anyway I wouldn’t have a choice. Even if I didn’t win the awards, I would still be making art. The importance of the recognition is a sliding scale between good business practice and personal achievement.
Where do you see your work in 5 - 10 years down the line?
I am in between personal projects so I am not sure what the next few years will bring. I would like to think I will still be illustrating and being part of gallery shows. I am at the beginning stages of getting a project or two going that I’ve been thinking about and toying with for a couple of years so I will follow my nose in that direction.
What are you reading right now?
I just got a copy of the Artists Against the War book that was made from the exhibition that happened a couple of years ago at the Society of Illustrators. I read the New York Times. I bought Animal Farm and 1984. I should probably get started reading them. What usually happens is when I start reading books like Animal Farm, I’ll get some new annuals, magazines or new Communication Arts and I’ll get derailed.
Why should everyone live in NY at least once?
I don’t know if they should. I do think living a few years in New York gives someone a whole new set of life experience that would be hard to replicate anywhere else. If nothing else, for the art business, it might be smart to be nearby.
Any advice for new illustrators trying to get their foot in the door?
I’ve been thinking about that ‘foot in the door’ phrase relating to illustration for a while. I’ve been thinking about what that means. It sounds like eventually you’ll be promoted and get a great salary and health insurance. Illustration and art making doesn’t really work like that. You will always be looking for the next show and always looking for the next assignment.
Maybe it’ll seem like it gets easier but the reality is, I still send out postcards by the thousands like I did when I first started, I still have to do the networking thing and business goes up and down. My advice would be to just keep working hard at what you do, make it the best art you can and don’t bullshit yourself and be critical of your work and make the best stuff possible.
Any advice for the older / established ones?
When baking, you should marinate the chicken overnight and cook slowly at 250 degrees for 2-3 hours. It gives the chicken a nice flavor and the meat will fall off the bone. Serve with wild rice and an oak stored chardonnay.
All images copyright Scott Bakal
Big thanks to you Scott for such a great interview!
To see more of Scott's beautiful work, come check out his website: www.scottbakal.com or his blog at Drawger: http://drawger.com/scottbakal/ or his blogspot: http://scottbakal.blogspot.com/ - Thanks Scott!!