We were therefore privileged to have him sit on the jury that selected the work featured in this volume. In the interview that follows, Michael Weinzettl chats to the artist about his work, career, and his take on various subjects related to the art and craft of illustration.
Hi Brian, first of all many thanks for having been on the jury for this issue of 200 Best Illustrators worldwide. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became one of the top illustrators in the US?
I grew up in a small town in the central mountains of Arizona. My parents were always doing art of one form or another outside of their day jobs. I loved to make little physical creations and sculptures but never really liked drawing. My first year of college was as a music major but I found out very quickly that I was not as passionate about it as I wanted to be. I decided to find what I was passionate about. That led me to graphic design. My education at the University of Arizona in Tucson focused on the power of strong conceptual images. Over time, as a working designer, my design solutions became more and more conceptual. Eventually, this led me to illustration.
If your parents were both fine artists, that must have been a major influence on you – or, perhaps, something you rebelled against when you were younger?
It was an influence because I was surrounded with so many materials to play with but I was a shy kid and art always seemed a bit too abstract for me to get excited about. I do remember that it was a big self-esteem builder to have my parents solicit and consider my thoughts on their work.
College was great because I was exposed to so many people who were devoted and determined in their field of study. I knew I wanted to feel that way about what I was studying – and music was not it. My father suggested I take a single art class. At that first critique I felt a distinct click. I wanted to be the best visual communicator I could be.
Who were some of the artists you admired when growing up?
The single most influential was Alexander Calder. My parents took me to an exhibit of his work and I watched a short film about his sculptural circus performance over and over, determined to build similar figures. I also was moved by his work ethic – a notion that man was put on this earth to work every day.
Who are some of the artists working today whose work stands out for you?
There are too many to name – and too many who would be left out. Yet what I love about the artists I do like – that much I can tell you – is that their work surprises and inspires me. There is so much visual clutter in the world, so many people who are satisfied wearing the same coat. When I like my own work, it’s because I feel surprised and inspired. When I don’t feel that way, it is generally because I’ve fallen short.
You first came to general attention in 2000 with your cover for The Nation depicting George W. Bush as Alfred E. Neuman, the fictitious cover boy of Mad magazine. How did that come about?
It was an assignment like every other. I do recall feeling very strong concern for what a W presidency would mean to our country. The editors and I came up with the idea. At the time, it felt a bit like a cheat when I completed it. W needed shockingly little done to him to make the transformation to Neuman.
Can you tell us something about the way you work, which is initially analog, i.e. you start out with hand-drawn elements but the finished works are digital. Is that correct?
I always start with sketches. I scan them and work on top of them in PS collaging a regular family of textures and objects, morphing them into purposes other than what they were created for. I use a scan of an old chicken bone to make noses, a tin can scan to build complete figures and faces, and then always incorporate some drawn or painted elements.
What is your take on the way digital has changed the craft?
I’m in an odd spot on this subject. The truth is that I can’t do what I do with traditional mediums. I’m not using technology to simulate an analog form of painting or drawing. When I take a tiny scanned texture and twist it into a fingertip, that simply would not be possible without technology. That said, I use it in a very blunt way, without bells and whistles. My issue with a lot of digital work is that a lot of folks use it to get to a final faster when what they should be doing is using it to experiment more. Things start looking final before they should. You have at your fingertips an unlimited power to combine things in totally fresh ways. Most people use it to focus on simulating rather than exploring.
You’ve contributed covers for The New Yorker, surely a pinnacle in the career of any illustrator. How does that work? Do they provide you with a subject/concept to illustrate – something to do with current affairs, for example – or do you submit finished illustrations for them to choose from?
The New Yorker is a mystery. Period. Sometimes you are hired with others to produce a pile of sketches on a general topic or event. Other times it is just you as the creator sending out an idea that came to mind on your own. Both of mine were self-initiated. Unfortunately, I got lucky on my first submission and assumed that it was going to be a door I could kick open whenever the ideas came. There’s just too many forces outside an artist’s control to begin to even predict what is a winner and what ends up on the floor. It is a sweet ride, though, when one goes through.
Can you give us some examples of work you’re particularly proud of – or, perhaps, that presented the greatest challenges to you?
These four pieces represent different challenges for me but the one common challenge I feel with each assignment is the need to reveal something truthful about the subject. Thoughtful illustration must convey a deeper insight to the text it serves. If it does not, then it is quite possibly undermining or trivializing a sensitive subject.
What about a certain style that illustrators get known for and associated with? Is that sometimes a problem – that clients will want more of the same thing rather than new approaches you would like to try out but that might have less of your signature style?
I think that, as artists, it’s our responsibility to help a client evolve as we do. If I’m feeling like I’m walking the same path too often, I explain it to them visually by producing samples of where I’m heading in my work. I may even insert it into some of our past projects for them to better visualize. That said, I’m a big believer that ideas are more important than style, and to be known for ideas rather than a typical style means that you are much more portable.
What advice would you give young illustrators starting out? Illustration is not, I assume, an easy career path – in terms of earnings potential alone. Photographers working in advertising are generally paid far more than illustrators hired to do stuff in that very same field.
I would ask them if they feel a connection to the field and those who have come before them, or whether they just like it more than anything else they can think of. Although more people are illustrating today than ever before, not all are in it with a sense of responsibility to those among them and those who will follow. Crowdsourcing and client contests prey on ignorance of traditions that are there to preserve the value of what we do. I would tell them to make sure which race they are in – the race to the bottom or to the top? If you are doing work for cheap, then you are heading in the wrong direction. If you are competing for free T-shirts and a pat on the back, then don’t be surprised if people don’t seem to “get” your unique offerings. I suggest that you value your work and your life enough to say no to those who claim to value it but not enough to compensate you in a way that sustains your art.
What, in your opinion, are some of the advantages of illustration over photography?
I’m not sure I value that comparison. Quality is what is important. If it’s a great photo vs. a mediocre illustration, then I choose quality. Illustration feels a bit more like reading to me, while photography feels more cinematic. Apples and oranges, depending on how you want to get your point across.
Did you notice any current trends when judging the work submitted for this book? Are any of these among the things that need to be avoided?
You know, as soon as someone says, “Don’t use a bird metaphor, they are so overused,” someone does something really fresh and unexpected with one. I would say that, as often as possible, you should push for freshness.
Where do you get the inspiration for your work?
If I knew that, I’d make an app.