"You can't dabble in illustration," Vicki Morgan, the illustrators' rep, said. "You have to be committed to this work and not just do it when you need some money. You're competing for every job against very talented illustrators who do nothing but illustration all day." Quite true, but Morgan and many other agents represent some artists who both do illustration and exhibit their fine artwork in galleries. It is not an easy balance to maintain, because there is often a drop-everything aspect to commercial illustration assignments that may prove disruptive to the process of creating fine art, but trade-offs are a regular feature of artists' lives.
"Sure, you have to be dedicated to illustration, and I don't want to disappoint my agent or some art director by turning down jobs or sending them in late," said painter Tom Christopher of South Salem, New York. "But, if you don't have work in front of you every minute and most illustrators don't then you can do other things." His other thing is creating paintings that are exhibited at the David Findlay Gallery in New York City. He has one-person shows there every other year, a schedule that gives him sufficient time to build up enough works to exhibit, and it helps that he is by nature prolific. "When you have your foot in two careers, you can survive when one side goes down."
Christopher received a BFA in painting in 1979 from Art Center College in Pasadena, California, and promptly moved cross-country to live and work in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where many young artists were congregating. While attempting to show and sell his work in galleries, Christopher also began to develop a commercial art portfolio. He painted pictures of tools, which he had reproduced onto postcards and then sent them to magazine art directors (whose names he found by looking through magazines at newsstands), and he also worked for the local television station WCBS as a courtroom artist. Based on a review of his quick-study courtroom work, the National Hockey League commissioned him to travel with, first, the Philadelphia Flyers and later the Soviet Red Army team, creating candid portraits for a publication the league produced. Through his postcards, he was able to generate assignments and a self-supporting career as an illustrator.
Most artists aren't as able to nurture both fledgling fine art and commercial art careers at the same time. Because of the need to support themselves, artists generally involve themselves in, say, illustration and the branch out in the fine art realm. Bruce Wolfe of Piedmont, California, dropped out of art school in 1963 in order to work at the San Francisco branch of Foote, Cone and Belding advertising agency, where he eventually became an art director, staying for ten years ("long enough to vest, then I split") before going out as a freelance illustrator. As an art director, he had come into contact with other area and regional art directors socially or professionally and could call them for work. "I also know what to charge for my work because I had spent money on illustrators," he said.
It was through people he knew that Wolfe also began to sell his paintings and sculpture, receiving commissions for sculpted portraits and, later, monumental pieces. Three galleries in California in Carmel, Mendocino, and San Francisco currently exhibit his paintings. There is an easy back-and-forth flow from illustration to fine art, in his mind, because "the who you-are kind of style in your work doesn't change that much. It's what you paint and why you paint that changes."
Another illustrator who moved into the fine are world, Dahl Taylor of Albany, New York, attended the Art Institute of Boston as a painting major but left to work as a staff artist for several daily newspapers. For them, he created editorial illustrations, courtroom sketches, and covers for special sections, as well as the layout and design for sales and marketing flyers. After a few years, Taylor moved on to an advertising agency and, in 1980, went on his own as a freelance illustrator.
"I left my job one day at a time," he said, "going from five days a week to four days, then from four days to three, then three to two, then one. Because I wanted to work freelance, I began to build a portfolio of the stuff I liked to do, which takes a while because in a local market like Albany you have to do all kinds of things, some far less interesting than others. I put lettering on trucks, I did ads for newspapers, I did brochures. After a while, I could start developing my own style, winnowing out the other stuff."
During these years, Taylor also tried to create at least two paintings per year in order that this part of his art training didn't get lost. After a number of years, he had a body of work, which was exhibited at the Rice Gallery of the Albany Institute. His paintings sold, and he also began to receive commissions for portraits and other types of work. "More and more of my income, almost half, comes from fine art now," he said. Working in both fine and commercial spheres has its benefits and drawbacks. "As an illustrator, I have experience as a custom artist, so commissions don't pose a substantially different problem for me. When I'm making a picture to sell at a gallery, I approach it the same way as I do my illustrations, gathering references and working at the same pace." In certain respects, his commercial artwork has affected positively the fine art. "Being an illustrator enhanced my skills as a picture-maker. I can build a picture."
The problem, Taylor noted, is that his success as an illustrator may have also hindered him as a fine artist, because "you need to be fast and successful each time out. If you're not absolutely successful, art directors won't call you back. That has tightened me as a fine artist, because I know I don't take risks as much as I want."
There may also be a problem of perception for artists working in both the fine art and illustration areas. "Art directors look down on gallery artists as people who have no work experience and no sense of deadlines," Taylor said, and the fine art world sometimes attaches a stigma to those who work regularly in commercial art. "It doesn't matter to our collectors what else Tom [Christopher] does if they like the work. He could be a garbage collector," said Lindsay Findlay, director of David Findlay Gallery. However, she added that "we wouldn't promote the fact that he does illustration. We never mention it to people when talking about him." For his part, Christopher said that "I call my illustration jobs commissions because it sounds more art world."
Perceptions are not always the reality, and the stigma may be more assumed than real. Some fine art collectors first learned of Christopher's art (in both realms) from the "Absolute Christopher" advertisement for Absolute vodka, a long-running promotional campaign that features fine artists lending their styles to a commercial venue. Some art directors show a special interest in illustrators who are also gallery artists, believing the association with the high-toned world of fine art will rub off on their products. Commercial illustration and advertising must make their points quickly, and the split-second identification of art with a product or service telegraphs a sense of high quality, cachet, uniqueness, and creativity as well as a higher price tag. Advertising frequently appropriates fine art imagery: the point is to exalt, frequently with a tinge of irony, a product or subject matter by raising it to the level of art. For instance, Rice-a-Roni used a section of Vermeer's A Girl Asleep to point out that "Before Savory Classics, dinner could be a real snore," and van Gogh's Sunflowers was pictured next to a package of Flora margarine in an ad that stated "Very tasty if you've got the bread." Art is often used to add a touch of class to a product. Neiman Marcus has classified its bed-and-bath accessories in ads under the heading "Interiors as Art"; an expensive timepiece by the Movado company is billed as "the Museum Watch," and Belgium's General Bank announces that "Talent knows no frontiers" while displaying a large detail from a painting by one of that nation's most famous artists, Peter Paul Rubens. Porcher, a French company that makes bathroom fixtures, took a portion of a Matisse painting entitled Large Reclining Nude to promote "Form. As Only the French Can Express It." In the past, advertising's use of fine art has focused on appropriating styles and specific imagery of well-known, long-dead masters (Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Magritte, Michelangelo, and Grant Wood, to name a few), reflecting perhaps what the public views as art. Fewer images of the postwar world are as universally known. Increasingly, however, contemporary fine art styles (if not the particular work themselves) have found their way into advertising, suggesting that art directors are more open to gallery artists in the commercial arena and that the public's conception of art is not limited to the long ago.
As do all other illustrators, both Christopher and Taylor are reluctant to turn down assignments that come in, out of the fear that art directors may never want to use them again and because it reflects poorly on their agents, who have spent years promoting them to art directors. As a result, they simply have to put in far longer days than their colleagues who pursue only one artistic career. "In all, I work fifty-five to sixty hours a week," Taylor said. "It would be closer to forty if I just did illustration." His dual career is satisfactory to his agent, Vicki Morgan. "My agreement with her is, if I can handle whatever comes down the pike, then I can do whatever else I want." Morgan may be one of the more understanding reps in this area, as she herself was a painting student at Cooper Union, where she took courses at night while working during the day at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. She eventually took a job working for an illustrators' representative, later setting up as a rep on her own. "I said to myself at the time, and I say this to lots of young artists, What is the business of your talent? How can you make your talent earn money for you?'" Morgan said. "I found that being a rep was what I could do best. I understand what my artists want, and I know how to get it for them."
Daniel Grant is the author of a number of career development books for fine artists, including The Business of Being an Artist, How to Grow as an Artist, The Fine Artist's Career Guide and The Artist's Guide: Making It In New York City, from which this article is excerpted. Allworth Press, publisher.