Wits and Wisdom: The Illustration Spirit
Updated: May 31
I was really fortunate to have attended the university I did. In researching schools, the first thing I noticed about San Jose State University was that it had an extensive list of bachelors and masters degrees in art...not just one or two, like many other schools. Next, I noticed that the cost for tuition was significantly lower than most other state schools. And last, I read an article about some recent graduates from SJSU’s new Illustration program, which touted a 90+% job placement record. After careful consideration, I knew this was the university I wanted to go to. And that was fortunate, because it also happened to be the only college that accepted me. Boom!
While I was there, I was fortunate to study under the tutelage of great illustrator-teachers like Alice “Bunny” Carter, Courtney Granner, John Clapp, and Barron Storey. And one of the greatest things they passed on to me is what I call the Illustration Spirit. A passion for creating art for others in a way that demanded excellence in process and craftsmanship. Through them, I learned about America’s rich illustration heritage and my personal illustration “lineage” (the direct, student to teacher ancestry that connects me, through Granner and Carter, all the way back to the Father of American Illustration, Howard Pyle). I was introduced to a wide range of incredible illustrators, past and contemporary, including my favorite, the Czech artist/illustrator Alphonse Mucha. I was taught how to be a professional in the illustration industry and how to hustle. And, most importantly, I was taught the discipline and skill needed to succeed in the field I was passionate about.
Connected to the concept of the Illustration Spirit, I learned a lot about the different between fine art and commercial art. And, as an illustrator, I am planted firmly in the latter category. There is considerable overlap between fine art and illustration, but they ultimately serve different purposes and different audiences. Historically, illustrators have been looked down on by fine artists, because they are making art for a broad audience, generally unschooled in art. This is sad to me because illustration has so much to offer, to so many people. Illustration is approachable. It’s not pretentious. It may not always be provocative (that’s not my style anyway), but illustration can tell epic stories and stretch the imagination. At school, it was easy for me to become attached to the illustration profession, because I loved making art that could be consumed by anyone. I took pride in it then and I do so now.
Early in the twentieth century, storytelling illustrators like JC Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, and NC Wyeth, were incredibly influential in society for what they created. But while, for a short time, illustrators experienced significant notoriety and fame, they were, first and foremost, talented craftsmen dedicated to their trade. There was a bond between illustrators. They created tight knit schools where they shared with and mentored one another. Being an illustrator seemed like being part of a club. But not one based on popularity. Instead, membership came from drive, passion, and skill. And while most clubs close their doors to the world, this illustration club said, “Come and see what we’re doing!” I probably place too much of a romantic glamor to the profession of an illustrator, but I can’t help myself when I look back at what the great men and women of illustration accomplished.
When I left SJSU, there weren’t many opportunities for a young illustrator with a growing family. So, for a while, my career headed away from illustration, in its strictest sense. I pursued other creative, fulfilling art avenues that allowed me to pay the bills, but it wasn’t the same. Fifteen years after graduation, I am very fortunate to find myself now illustrating in an industry I love…and with an opportunity to push the Illustration Spirit in my life further.
I believe there’s a sweet spot where illustration and fine art meet. Where art is approachable, tells a story, and meant for everyone, but emphasizes the personal expression of the artist/illustrator. This is a direction I want to charge towards. It doesn’t mean avant-garde or high brow. But it does mean personal. I’ll always create art for clients (because I love helping others visualize their passions) and I’ll always have Wits End worlds to explore (because I have my own stories to tell). But I’ve also got a deep itch fueled by the Illustration Spirit that needs to be scratched. My goal? I’d like to see illustration play an influential, positive role in society, like in days past. I’d like to see universal, timeless values visualized in traditional mediums that stand the test of time. And I want to create powerful, approachable art based on history and stories that are deep and meaningful to me and relatable to the entire human race. Ambitious? Ha! Impossible? Ha! I laugh in the face of Impossible!