In the early 1980s I was living in Berkeley working as a freelance graphic designer. I hit a very rough patch, rough enough that I had to sit back and figure out what to do career-wise. I saw my choices as getting a job, re-dedicating myself to my freelance design business and really digging in on marketing or “taking some classes” to increase and improve my skill level. What ended up happening is that in 1987 at age 35 I went back to school full-time at what was then the Academy of Art College (now “University”) in San Francisco for three years and earned a BFA Illustration in 1989. While I had intended to focus on graphic design and also take some illustration classes (a relative and a friend had both trained as illustrators there so I knew it was a good program), within a few weeks I knew Illustration was what I wanted since I had FINALLY found the art field where traditional drawing skills were still highly valued.
I had up to nine hours of drawing a week. It was a struggle to undo all the tics and faulty perceptions I’d built up trying to teach myself and, in fact, had become so frustrated that I didn’t draw at all, other than for work-related jobs, for close to ten years. But class after class I just kept going, drawing after drawing. I never won any awards, but at the end I had the knowledge and skills to keep improving. Within a few years I felt that I could finally say that I knew how to draw.
In the Illustration Department we had to do an illustration a week, every week. The first semester required us to use first pen and ink and also gouache. Below you’ll see some of the initial exercises we did. I was one of the very few who liked gouache and I was interested in greeting card work, much of which was painted in that media at the time, so I stayed with it all through school. The second semester was watercolor and dyes like Dr. Martin’s. From the third semester on we could use the media of our choice.
Among my favorite classes was one taught by Stan Fleming, who did storyboarding for quite a few LucasFilms, including at least of of the Indiana Jones movies. He would come to class in his leather Indie jacket, to our delight. Our assignments were movie-based, like doing a storyboard for Ghostbusters or object designs for a fantasy movie, and a lot of fun. Another favorite instructor was Dennis Ziemienski, who is now a nationally-known fine artist, but became a well-known illustrator for, among other things, his Elmore Leonard book covers. All his assignments were based on actual jobs that he’d done. He also brought in guest critiquers. For me the memorable one was Neil Shakery from the legendary design firm Pentagram. I’ve posted three images below, for a children’s magazine, from the assignment he critiqued. I encountered him downstairs afterwords and he took a minute to tell me how much he liked what I’d done. That meant a lot to me, as you can imagine. We also had guest speakers who included Robert Heindel and Drew Struzan.
So here’s a trip down my illustration memory lane:
As you can see, I took advantage of the opportunity to try all kinds of styles and approaches. Next time I’ll share some of the work I did after graduation for my professional portfolio.