Over the years I’ve been approached by illustration and design students who share an internal struggle: that they have other interests—cosplay, metalwork, bookbinding, writing, prop replication, embroidery, cobbling shoes (I kid)—and they feel the need (often encouraged by their instructors) to set aside these other “hobbies” to focus on their illustration and design skills. As if these things that they love are somehow an impediment, that they need to kill them off or they’ll never get better at the “real” discipline.
I do believe that staying on task and zeroing in on the work at hand is an important skill—maybe the most important one. As an illustrator, I always say “Illustration is easy, you just need to stare at a blank sheet of paper till the blood runs out of your ears.” In other words, don’t get up from your drawing board until you’ve finished the job, even if every fiber of your being is imploring you to leap up and see what’s in the fridge.
But speaking as someone who has always done a jillion different things, I’m a firm believer in doing all the things you love. No matter how seemingly unrelated they are, these passions can cross-pollinate. I see it happen all the time! Working hard at one thing doesn’t take away from other things, it adds to them.
Whatever it is that I’m working on, I’m constantly drawing inspiration from other interests, and getting ideas that I can use in other projects. I have one of those multi-hyphenate careers: I’m a graphic designer/illustrator/author/movie prop designer and fabricator/letterpress printer. I might be researching for a period movie prop job, and get a great idea for an illustration. Or doing an illustration might inspire some poster project, or a written humor piece. I don’t know if I could do just one thing at this point—I worry that I’d run out of ideas.
A good example of this cross-pollination is 7 ATE 9—a picture book written by Tara Lazar that I was lucky enough to illustrate. It’s a hilarious story of a private ‘I’ who is baffled by the age-old mystery of why 6 is afraid of 7 (spoiler alert—it’s because 7 ate 9!!!). When I was reading Tara’s manuscript, a vision popped into my head of 19th century wood type letters and numbers coming alive and sprouting little arms and legs and fedoras and bow ties. Luckily I have a letterpress shop full of 19th century wood type, so I was able to play around with the idea. And whaddaya know—it was just crazy enough to work!
Ross MacDonald’s illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly, and he is a contributing artist for Vanity Fair. He has written and illustrated several children’s and adult humor books.
His work was the subject of a one man retrospective at the New York Times, and has been honored by American Illustration, 3×3, Print, Communication Arts, the Society of Publication Designers, the AIGA, and the Society of Illustrators, from which he received a gold medal for book illustration in 2011.
He has also worked on many movies and television shows as an illustrator, prop designer and consultant on period design, printing, paper and documents. His work can be seen on 5 seasons of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, on the Cinemax series The Knick, and in the Tarantino movie Hateful Eight.
Born and raised in Canada, he lives in Connecticut with his wife, 2 kids, 2 dogs, 5 cats and a large collection of 19th century type and printing equipment. View his portfolio online at ross-macdonald.com.
Ross and Tara are giving away a copy of 7 ATE 9 (upon publication in May).
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.