Success Secrets from Marshall Arisman:
- You’ll always make better pictures when the subject matter is meaningful to you. Even if it’s bowling, your enthusiasm will come out in the pictures.
- You have to go inside yourself and find your own subject matter and develop it. And then you start the process of going out and talking to people.
- Try not to think of your craft as a business. Try to think of it exclusively as “personal work.”
I went to Pratt Institute in New York City from 1956-60. Studied graphic design. Thought I liked it. Got out. Got a job at the General Motors Tech Center in Detroit, and after 3 months I realized I hated working with people. (Laughter) That in fact I didn’t like graphic design. And, I didn’t’ like solving other peoples problems.
So went to Europe, went through the Army. Got out, and kind of got into illustration backwards, meaning that I was looking for something that wasn’t a full-time job. I was looking for something that I could do alone. And so a friend of mine was freelancing, and that’s how I got in. It was an attempt to run away from everything else, I guess.
The problem with my initial portfolio was that I was trying to please everybody but me. I freelanced for three years and wasn’t making enough money to live on, so I decided it was time to make pictures about things I actually knew something about
Instead of trying to market myself as an illustrator, I did a series on guns. I was brought up in a small town, Jamestown, New York, where everybody has a gun. My brother’s been carrying a handgun since he was 15. He’s now 72 and he still tapes a handgun to the middle of his back before he goes to work everyday. (Laughter).
I realized, when I was about 28, that the things I actually had knowledge of were guns and deer, because we hunted deer and butchered deer. And because I grew up on a dairy farm, we butchered and ate cows too.
I’d never made pictures of guns. So I did a series of drawings, and they expanded into a book called, Frozen Images. And not realizing it, I had made a portfolio. And so when the book got printed I sent it to some of the art directors that I’d seen, and I suddenly started getting the sort of work that I would have done for myself.
That was one of the little ironies in life. In essence I categorized myself. Which is fine, because it was me who did it. I became known as the gun, violence, and death guy. And I’ve been busy ever since. (Laughter)
Thoughts on changes in the field of illustration:
When I was in school Robert Weaver was changing the face of illustration. I mean, illustration in the 50’s was basically dominated by women’s magazines.
So Al Parker and all those guys were basically painting pretty ladies and taking sentences right out of the story. Illustration was mostly just applying the medium to the text.
Weaver really broke the back of that idea. He began to tell two stories at the same time in his illustrations. He began to work with visual essays and actually gave me hope that the printed page could do more, I think, than paint pretty ladies, which I was not good at.
I don’t know how much of his work shows up in mine, but definitely he was the one I was looking to, to hold out hope for the printed page.
Thoughts on getting started:
You have to go inside yourself and find your own subject matter and develop it. And then you start the process of going out and talking to people. Otherwise you’re a ship out there without a sail. You’re style without content. You’re decorating pages.
When I did the interview for Communication Arts, it was what we call the ‘good ol’ days. The great thing about that time was you could see everybody. And, everybody saw everybody.
I saw Dick Gangle at Sports Illustrated and Henry Wolfe. I saw a lot of really good people. One could actually sit down and show them work, but those days are gone. Art directors don’t see people anymore.
The element of feeling you were working on something quite real, meaning you could actually talk to the people who were doing it is gone, which is a shame. It’s just more disconnected. I mean work is now gotten through websites. There was a middle period there where there were “drop off” days when people could drop off their portfolio, but now that’s kind of stopped too.
Changes in the market:
Obviously things have changed since the drop-off days. About five years ago maybe, maybe more, eight, the editorial illustration market began to take a real hit for a lot of reasons. The computer was one — Photoshop — and suddenly there was less interesting work to do in the magazines.
I chair a graduate program at a School of Visual Arts in New York, and a lot of what my students and I are doing is self-initiating more of our own projects.
Thoughts on self-initiating projects:
I have a children’s book coming out in the spring that I wrote and illustrated. I wrote a novel that I’ve illustrated that I’m trying to find a publisher for. I’m working on a book of stories about the artwork that I’ve done and whatever.
I think a lot of people are doing that, which is, in a funny way, infusing the field. People are doing toys and games and animation and stuff they never thought they would do. And part of the reason is that the editorial market is not as strong as it was, and people are just looking around for outlets.
On writing children’s books:
I’ve done two other books for the publisher, Creative Editions, but not ones I’d written. I did a book called The Wolf Who Loved Musi,c and years ago I did a Grimms’ Fairy Tales for them. The illustration in that book were really brutal. (Laughter)
In my current book, and by the way, I play the saxophone, there’s always been an urban legend that Charlie Parker was the inventor of Bebop. He played two solos at the same time. But he played at such a speed you couldn’t figure it out.
But anyway, the book is a bad joke. It’s is about a cat who plays one tune with his front paws and a second tune with his back paws at the same time and invents Bebop. (Laughter)
And what’s funny is that the publisher didn’t have a clue what Bebop was, so we got into all these funny e-mails where he started calling himself “the square.” So at the end of illustrating the book I did a 15-minute DVD based on the book. I did it only to be able to put a soundtrack with the book so that if somebody actually read the book they would have some idea what this might have sounded like.
And they’re going to put the DVD into the book, which is nice.
What’s interesting to Marshall about illustration:
The stories that surround the artwork are always more interesting to me than the artwork itself. And it’s been a luxury frankly, to be able to spend most of my life making pictures about things I’m interested in. And they generate all kinds of other things. I feel lucky about all that. I’ve had the time to do it. I mean I don’t know what it is I’ve done, but I’ve had the time to do it.
There’s an interesting difference between the work I do for myself and the work I’ll do for a magazine. The stuff I do for myself tends to generate stuff that I can then apply in a magazine illustration. But because of the timing of the illustration I don’t really have time to explore something in any depth. Does that make sense?
So my personal work becomes the well, if you will.
Marshall’s work schedule these days:
I’m at the School of Visual Arts two days a week. I do about one illustration a month. I don’t look for more work. I don’t have an agent either. And the rest of the time I’m pursuing my own obsessions. It’s a good life. (Laughter)
The keys to success:
If you’re lucky, and you go back to yourself and you start talking about yourself, you suddenly find out that there’s a connection there between you and other people.
Communication is part of the fun, right? It’s just so good when people respond, and say, “I know exactly what you mean” or “These pictures mean something to me.” That’s the nice communication.
It’s also the nice thing about being into print. All kinds of people are looking at it and I don’t have a clue who they are. It’s part of the fun, I think.
Thoughts on fine art versus illustration:
Every gallery I’ve ever had has said, “You’ve ruined your fine art career by doing illustration. You got too well known and everybody thinks you’re an illustrator…” which in this society is still a tainted word. When fine art critics want to punish a painter they called them an illustrator.
Marshall’s thoughts on having a representative:
I had three grips early on in my career. But it wasn’t the rep’s fault. They were trying to get me work. But, they were getting me work I didn’t want to do, that I couldn’t relate to. So after three of those people, I thought, “the problem isn’t theirs, the problem is mine.” I realized I was better off listening to myself when somebody called me, and trying not to think of my work as a business.
His toughest, most difficult realization:
I killed the creative spirit in my own mother. Watching this process was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. My mother was a folk artist and made sheep out of bread dough that were her masterpieces. In an effort to bring her more income I marketed her abilities to the Smithsonian gift shop. The sheep sold out on the first order and they re-ordered. After designing a logo, tags invoices and opening a bank account for my mother I called her to find out how it was going. “Don’t ever interfere with my life again” my mother said. “I am so sick of making sheep that I could scream.” My mother never made anything again. The issue was never resolved. The morale is: Do not foll around with the creative process.
On attending conferences:
I’ve attended a few. Less lately though, because the conferences are getting less creative-process-based and more business-based, which I frankly understand. But business is an area that interests me less than the creative process.
Marshall’s tips on building a career:
Make a list of things you have knowledge of, whether it’s bowling or drinking coffee or dogs, and make pictures from that list. Don’t tell yourself it’s a portfolio, but show it to people.
You’ll always make better pictures when the subject matter is meaningful to you. Even if it’s bowling, your enthusiasm will come out in the pictures.
On getting good clients:
Over the years I’ve worked for basically the same 10 people. I started with Fred Woodward when he was an assistant art director at the Dallas Times Herald. And when he went to Texas Monthly, I worked for him there. And then he went to Rolling Stone and I worked for him there.
I mean my mailing list is 50. It isn’t 5,000!
Thoughts on advertising for new business:
Every time I’ve taken out an ad, and I’ve taken a couple in books like the Blackbook and the Workbook, I never got anything back. I sort of knew that going in.
Somehow what I’m doing is very thin slice of the pie, and not generally applicable, which is fine. I don’t have any problem with that.
How illustration has changed:
It’s not really a depressing time. But, if you talk to old-time illustrators, they’re all depressed. These are people who were booked up six months in advance. People who never had to pick up a pencil unless the phone rang. People who made more money every year with the same style for 30 years, and it looked like it was going to go on forever.
But it hasn’t. And those people are bitter. And that’s a shame. But that’s not what it’s about anymore. One of the ironies for me is that the very group of people who are trained to tell stories, the illustrators, never told their own stories.
They applied themselves to somebody else’s text. And that’s OK as long as the art director was very clear which illustrator belongs to that text. But most of the time, that’s not the case.
The less defined the art director is with a point of view, the broader perspective you’re going to get, and those general assignments are not going to take you anywhere.
Marshall’s thoughts the new directions of illustration:
I don’t know if it’ll ever come back again where someone can spend 30 years with the same style, working continuously, making more money every year as an illustrator. I think those days are gone.
But what’s replacing that is quite exciting. People are doing graphic novels and comic books. People are creating games and whatever. And what’s generating that, is that freelancing editorial work, which was the mainstay of illustration for most illustrators, is not a market that they can rely on totally anymore.
They’re doing some freelance. And, they’re patching it together with everything else, doing Flash animation and all kinds of things.
Some good stuffs being done.
About Marshall Arisman:
The paintings and drawings of Marshall Arisman have been widely exhibited, both internationally and nationally. His work may be seen in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, at the National Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as in many private and corporate collections.
Chairman of the M.F.A. degree program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Marshall Arisman was the first American invited to exhibit his artwork in mainland China. His series, “Sacred Monkeys,” appeared at the Guang Dong Museum of Art in April 1999.
Mr. Arisman is the subject of a full-length documentary film directed by Tony Silver titled “Facing the Audience: The Arts of Marshall Arisman.” The film will have its premier showing at the 2002 Santa Barbara Film Festival.