Interview with Fred Carlson, Artist

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Art

Fred Carlson, versatile veteran artist & former art educator, provides prospective art students with some really great guidance garnered from 20 years of work. A former adjunct art professor at Carnegie Mellon University, his recent client list includes Sony Music, The Wall Street Journal, and the NFL Hall of Fame.

When and how did you decide to become an artist?

These things are out of your control, really. The thing with expressing yourself in ways that involve creative behavior, i.e. making things out of inanimate objects like chalk, wood, clay or blowing into a pipe or strumming a string, these are all urges that some of us are graced with while most people are just NOT. My mother always says she never had to keep me occupied because I was always drawing in the corner of the room. This leads to trouble sometimes, like when I was asked by some kindergarten classmates to draw people going to the bathroom and I drew little scuba divers spearing the turds in the cross-section of the toilet bowl. Eventually my teacher and mom found it and I experienced punishment, but I was perfecting many artistic qualities with such an exploration: can I draw a convincing cross-section? What sort of tanks should I draw on the little scuba men? How do I discretely draw a side-view of someone squatting on the can without being obscene? Can I get a reaction from my peers to my work? These are all little thoughts that pervade the youthful artiste. I guess my decision to be an artist was made for me by God. And my grandmother who explained Calvinistically that if I didn't pursue my artistic ability to its mature conclusion as an adult I would be wasting something precious.

When and how did you decide on your focus specialties?

While at Carnegie Mellon in the early 70s in the design department I got a bit troubled by the straight graphic design curriculum where the designer, rightly so, was a "hub" of a wheel in the role of coordinating various project duties out to the "spokes" (i.e. the typesetter, the artists, the photographers, the film labs, etc). I wanted to be more responsible for a finished product artistically, and it became clear that illustrators did that somewhat in their role in the design field. I took a lot of art electives the last two years there (drawing, anatomy, painting, independent studies) and while getting a BFA in graphic design, it was more like a self-directed degree in illustration. Soon after that year (1977), Carnegie Mellon started a more officially constructed Illustration Program.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My neighbors, the Bredahls, who first paid me to stuff envelopes, shovel driveways, rake leaves, be independent business people. They helped teach me that work IS WORK and nothing is handed to you. My grandfather who was in the coal business during the depression was another example of the vagarities and rewards of being self-employed.

Artistically, my inspirations chronologically were:

  • Jack Kirby/Vince Colletta, their art for 60s/70s Thor (Marvel Comics);
  • my high school art teacher, Pat DiCosimo, who unselfishly pushed the talented into taking pride in their work and working harder than anybody - especially in the area of printmaking and drawing;
  • N.C. Wyeth;
  • Herb Olds, my drawing/anatomy teacher at Carnegie Mellon, who both revered and ripped narrative space in his work;
  • Bruce Carter, a printmaking teacher/colleague of mine at Carnegie Mellon, who blasted self-righteousness and worked a spectrum of emotional color within his black and white woodcuts;
  • Alan E. Cober;
  • Bob Heindel;
  • Bernie Fuchs;
  • Mark English;
  • Thomas B Allen;
  • ancient ones like Rembrandt; Durer; Corbet; Raphael-does anyone know who they are anymore?
  • Barry Moser, book illustrator and colleague as a guest at CMU a few times; and
  • friends like Joe Fiedler and Ilene Winn-Lederer are constant influences in a number of ways.
  • Oh, Richard Hess was gigantic to me and the whole Pushpin way of solving graphic problems was always there, whether or not it appears in my images I don't know.

Do you consider yourself more an artist or an illustrator?

It doesn't matter, really, because the whole facade between "art" and "illustration" is a relatively recent invention capitalized upon by most of the university systems and thinkers of the recent past whose main job it is to get students to come to their schools and give them scads of money with no real desire to TEACH them realities past or present or future. If "illustration" is the act of responding to commissioned assignments, I plead guilty, because all my heroes did the same thing. I am an artist because it is my way of expressing creative activity.

What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

Being independent could take lots of forms: writers, musicians, artists, insurance agents, software programmers, all face a certain amount of "alone-time" which they have to be wired in a certain way to co-exist with. So, I guess the alone-time is a reward for being able to be a free-lancer for 20 years. Solving graphic problems that mean something to me, like my CD covers or editorials for "think" publications like AMERICA or National Review give me a lot of satisfaction. However, you will NEVER get artistic satisfaction solely from the marketplace, there's not enough spiritual ROOM there. One must always drive your personal artistic vision forward through self-assigned work, and having that luxury occasionally is very gratifying.

Given your versatile history in art, it would be tough to put a one-word label on yourself. If you had to, though, what would it be? Artist, illustrator, other?

Maker of images who cared about the final result years from now.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

Greatest success: That famous utility company annual report where I got the bid over Gaadt, Cober, and McMahon (and the money was great) and worked with one of the best design firms in the country and a super client inside (which one always needs)-1988 Duquesne Light annual report cover/5 foldouts. Design: Barton Denmarsh Esteban. PR folks at Duqeusne Light: Matthews and Lucci.

Also, my recent Bill Monroe "American traveler" CD project top to bottom, start to finish, front cover portrait, interior collages from my photo collection, sign graphics, total production-it's a jewel. On Universal/MCA, by the way.

Setback: Not getting a huge series from the Patuxent Nature Center (Laurel, MD) back in 1995, after the design firm submitted all my work as "this is the artist we're going to use, give us your government money, National Park Service." They ended up getting the contract and using someone who was three times cheaper.

What are your favorite pieces of work that you have done and why?

Besides the two above under "successes," I'd have to add my art of Norman Blake(famous guitarist depicted at Foxfire Festival 1980) and the LP cover of Clyde Davenport (Cumberland Plateau fiddler) from 1987 that both got in the Society of Illustrators annual exhibits. I like my portraits I've been doing for the Wall Street Journal the past couple of years. I love the portrait of Bill Clinton that appears on my portfolio with the Designers Group/Europe. He's such a creep. I also depicted him once for National Review lecturing a class of young people in a classroom while a worm was crawling out of his "teacher's apple". I like that one a lot too.

What do illustrators do?

Work with writers, clients, marketers, book publishers, and other media companies creating commissioned artworks for eventual publication whether in print, broadcast, or web. I can't think of a more succinct way to put it.

How much are illustrators generally paid? Are they generally paid by the hour or by the work?

Either the client has a project budget that the illustrator has to accept - their assumption being that they can earn a living on the anticipated sum for the time spent on the project - or else the company wants to know what it'll cost to do the project then it's up to the artist to gauge an hourly rate that's livable or a project rate that they know is in range of what the client will pay. This is usually attainable with some knowledge of the trade which either takes years of experience to discern or usage of a concise trade publication like the Graphic Artists Guild's "Pricing and Ethical Guidelines" to gain the required immediate knowledge one seeks.

Tell us about your business. What do you like most, least?

I get nervous when I'm not busy, but I should have learned by now that things always swing back. I've survived the computer onslaught and now use that for serving certain clients. That was tough, being a naïve idiot about using computers for the good of the business, but my wife stuck with me and jammed the knowledge down my gullet while I acted like a baby about it! I love being incredibly busy. Once, 56 days in a row without a break, about 14 projects piled up -- it's amazing what comes through your fingers when you're that out of control. It's like expressionistic reaction controls you, and that's when you discover the great things you can do as an artist.

What advice can you give regarding creating & maintaining relationships with large corporate clients?

Always send your samples to people you've worked with and keep track of their job moves. Nothing or no one is static in this field. You must take responsibility for keeping your images in front of people who buy them. No one does it for you.

What are the tools of the trade you use most for your illustration work?

Watercolor dyes, graphite pencils, gouache, occasional prisma colored pencils on Strathmore 3-ply board. If I scan and e-mail originals to clients I use a Microtek 6400 scanner, Mac G3, and Adobe Photoshop software for making the files.

What percentage of illustrators and graphic designers now do their work on the computer, versus more traditional ways?

Almost every designer works with computer technology to create their jobs. Computers have made color printing amazingly affordable and they are a great production help. TV, agencies, magazines, design groups-- everyone uses computers. No comment on how the push button mentality has affected everybody's judgement aesthetically, but you asked! Illustrators are all over the map but, to some degree or other, either do the work on a computer to create an e-file, scan and send originals done in another media, or use computers for business functions like mail merging and keeping lists and writing proposals.

What are some trends that you see in the field of art that might help prospective students?

The only trend I see is that there are no trends. Television mentality has degraded all project work in a stupid direction. I would warn prospective students and practitioners to be aware of this inevitable ignorance. It basically is lessening creativity and literary thought, impacting the number and quality of available assignments.

What are some common myths about illustrators, about artists?

That we will work for free whenever asked. Artists/illustrators buy into this "worthlessness" ethic much too much, so the myth is self-inspired by our acceptance of it from the outside commissioning world. There's no reality in that notion to ask an artist to work for free or their acceptance of such a perversion.

What is your degree in?

BFA Graphic Design, 1977, Carnegie Mellon University

What did you like and dislike about your art education?

My electives were all in the art department at Carnegie Mellon, and the people I chose to take were great (see influences). There was not particularly any sympathy with illustrators, and this negativity, I believe, hurt and frustrated and cut off some decent talent that would have been great illustrators if encouraged the right way. My degree being in Design, came from the Design Department and the courses in methodology, typography, and independent study were super. Some of my dislikes of ruling pen exercises and shop course model building were my own problems. They were all worthwhile now that I look back on it.

What factors did you consider when choosing a school of art/art department?

Reputation, achievements of graduates, financial aid (CMU was very generous with me), electives available. These were all important.

Was your art education worth it for you? Why?

I suppose it was. I only had student loans for 2-3 years, and I was through with that end of things. I guess my career itself owes a lot to that training ground, and I'd be the first to acknowledge that. I question the cost/reward demands nowadays in art/design education; it seems people have incredible loan amounts to repay with no way to be sure that their chosen field at the start of a career can possibly float that obligation. The bottom line is YOU MUST BE INCREDIBLY DEDICATED AND FOCUSED WITHOUT DISTRACTION to make your education successful and eventually, your professional existence.

If someone has the art talent already, should they go to art school and why?

The talent will either be there or not already. Very few folks have the maturity to hit the field without the process training, education, learning how to deal with people, etc. I guess considering the costs of higher education some people with "talent" shouldn't go to art school if they actually believe they can make it with a vo-tech or high school education. Some young people with computers these days can do great things with no input from the "outside" education structure.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in art?

I've said it before, I guess. WORK HARD and then WORK HARDER. Evaluate the rewards honestly and decide whether to stick with it or not.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the 5 most respected and prestigious art schools/art departments in the world that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools? What are the best schools in the USA for the specialty of illustration and graphic design?

I suppose both Art Center in Los Angeles and School of Visual Arts (NYC) have good track records with people I've noticed in the 70s through the 90s but its really up in the air now. Ringling (Sarasota) has good folks and good guest speakers, and Penn State and CMU and Cincinnati have good design programs. Kansas, as well, in illustration.

When is it a good idea to go after a graduate degree in art?

Only if you want to teach fulltime. It doesn't do anything for getting additional business in the commercial world.

When is a career art school best and when is a college degree in art the best?

I can't say that - that's a function of the student's desire and intellectual needs, as well as the faculty's competence.

What advice can you give to prospective art students before they begin their education?

Talk to professionals in the field to see whether you really would want to do this for your career, or to find out more about which schools have serious teachers, both fulltime and guest programs.

What should art students try to get out of art school?

Something that squashes immaturity and poor taste out of their high school mentalities, and a desire to create work that withstands the test of time.

What factors should prospective art students consider when choosing their school?

Don't overspend if you're not serious. Consider practical narrative courses first, with elective choices which contribute to your own individuality. The accessibility of the faculty should be paramount as well: too many schools publicize their faculty's professional resumes, and, once you get there, you can never see them since they're always commuting as a part-timer and don't have on campus space or offices.

What are skills that really help all artists succeed regardless of their specialty?

Original vision; an enduring respect for history and the masters; work ethic; a professional detachment from your work which can enable you to grow both aesthetically and commercially (and you teach yourself); a healthy non-arrogant appreciation when things work out and a healthy stick-to-it-iveness when things are not working out.

In your opinion, what are the 10 hottest art careers for the new decade?

Movie special effects, computer animation, agency/marketing art direction, fashion/product design, website and cyberspace design and animation, self-published projects (books, magazines, newspapers possibly web-centered). I can't think of anything that I looked at in the late 60s as "hot" anymore.

What are the best ways to find a job as an artist?

Get your samples around and don't take "No" for an answer when interviewing.

What ways can graduating art students gain an advantage?

Talk to pros, this website is a good way to gain valuable information.

How is the job market for art professionals? What percent of them are 100% freelance?

The job market is OK for creatives with intense training in specific software, which is a production mentality that often overrides a person's creative ability. Young job seekers should be prepared to show amazing technical competence as well as unique original thinking that can interface with a prospective company's client problems. Is this difficult? Yes, but the thinking of hiring companies is very narrow. They do, however, crave talent that expresses sacrificial desire to work with others and shows a non-typical high work ethic.

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