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As an illustrator, how often do you run into trouble merging your style of art with a client’s demands?

Bearing in mind clients are commissioning because they want a specific style, tone, or conceptual approach, you might think conflict or misunderstanding would be minimal, but things occasionally do go awry. Working with an art director to ensure an illustration ‘gets the right message across’—to perfect any number of aesthetic or conceptual aspects—is one thing (if you’re anything but flexible as an illustrator, you’re pretty much fucked) but with tight editorial deadlines being as they are, people aren’t always sitting by their phone when you’d like them to be. Whatever, deal with it, but when AWOL art directors are also the folk who don’t know what they want until they see it, then sometimes you’ve got problems. If somebody says, ‘Do whatever the hell you want, absolutely anything!’ I tend to ask if they’re ‘absolutely’ sure about that.

Illustrated magazine covers, for example, are few and far between—roll out the generic model shot or the Getty Images catalogue, no need to bother with troublesome illustrators—so it’s always great to land one, but it’s also an area where publishers like to play designer (‘Well, it’s not very aspirational’). Some magazine publishers like to talk ‘innovation and originality,’ but shit their pants when they get it… but they have to sell magazines, and the paying punter is essentially stupid, right?

Of course it’s not always the client’s fault. Have a bad day and it’s easy to let things slide. Sometimes I need a kick up the arse, and a diplomatic, friendly art editor will work wonders.

Are there topics you feel are beyond your capacities as an illustrator, or, are there topics you feel better suited to tackling than others?

Not sure about any particular topic being beyond my capacity, but then you won’t get a call in the first place if you’re not considered to be suitable for the job. It’s not so much the subject, rather the writer’s take on the subject, and I’m increasingly being asked to illustrate darker subject matter, which I relish. A client recently said she’d commissioned because my stuff was both dark and humorous. It’s a wry, dark humor, but it’s there from time to time if you look hard enough, and I’ve always said there’s no reason why 100 percent cyan can’t look sinister given the right context. Well, ok, I haven’t said it until now but you get the idea.

Agreed on the sinister cyan. What themes or subjects frequently draw your interest?

I’m really starting to enjoy the assignments where I’m asked to depict a ‘real-life’ scene or situation from, say, a news article or an editorial report. I love being asked to convey a certain mood or tone in what would otherwise be quite a mundane image—the Washington D.C. sniper illustration for Time Out London being a case in point.

That illustration in fact seems to perfectly capture the feelings of the situation—the fear, being a bit clueless, some terrible natural humanity about the shootings. Can you take us through your process after you received the assignment?

Well, the idea of a street scene viewed through the scope of a rifle was floated and I just thought, hell no, how obvious would that be? It was all about setting a mood, and although some serious shit had been going down I still wanted that ‘graphic novel’ look. As it was, I was reading an issue of 100 Bullets at the time and I’d also just watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I think that sort of seeped in there. I mean, this was the archetypally American real-life horror story, the bogeyman lurking in the shadows. I didn’t want to do a portrait of the perpetrator because the article wasn’t about that, it was about the fear and apprehension.

How much of your decision-making process while working is intellectual, and how much, let’s say, is by instinct?

It depends on the job. You have to make certain concrete decisions based on prior experience and/or knowledge; thinking laterally and bringing to bear particular, tried, and tested ways of thinking and communicating. Especially if, for example, you’re given just five hours to do as many spot images for, I dunno, a report on Human Resource marketing or whatever. The process of creating the image is where most of that instinct comes in; you know what works and what doesn’t but it’s only at certain points that you’ll sit back and evaluate what you’re doing and if it’s going in the right direction. At the end of the day, you’re not being paid to be overly self-indulgent.

Who are you influences, and who do you admire working right now? And, if not an illustrator, what would you do in another life?

Plenty of people still look down their noses at comics, but it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and maybe I will someday. Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola… pretty ‘mainstream’ names to drop, but whatever, it’s sincere and I’d be here all day if I had to think of everyone whose work has blown me away. I also do a bit of teaching and lecturing and although it often seems like one long constant battle against the forces of apathy, nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student produce work that you’d happily attach your own name to in an instant. It keeps you on your toes in more ways than you’d imagine and I love that.

The watercolor blotches in your early version of the The Days That Collapse cover seem to capture perfectly the motion of a horse running, while there’s something tantalizingly correct and maybe hateful about the dangling girl behind Martin Amis’s head in your portrait of him… how often, in your work, do you try to instill commentary on your subjects, and maybe how often does it simply rise up?

The Days That Collapse cover wasn’t necessarily about making any kind of comment about the The Grips’ music, more trying to convey the essence—I guess—of what they’re all about. Maybe that’s one and the same, but anyhow it didn’t do the job and was rejected by the band as simply not suitable for the cover, being almost too subtle for what they wanted—and they were right. I was looking into the significance of the horse in Chinese culture… totally going off on one. I insisted on using it for something to do with the band though, so it ended up accompanying a track they’d contributed to www.audikt.com.

Oh yeah. Amis. The interview was just him going on about the ‘navelization’ (I think that’s what it was) of contemporary culture; all this naked flesh on display. Although he had some valid points to make he didn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character (I’ve never read one of his books or interviews before so I have absolutely no idea what the man is about) and the whole thing had—and I may be wrong—a slightly dubious, misogynistic undercurrent. I just liked the idea of some girl, sat somewhere, wearing a really short skirt, reading his book or interview and thinking ‘horsehit!.’

I guess she’s a little annoying demon on his shoulder…
 

biopic

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). His nonfiction appears in a variety of magazines, mostly GQ. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin