Renowned artist/illustrator/painter Don Bolognese joins me to talk about how it’s the designer’s talent—not the tool—that’s vital for a successful creative career. He shares interesting stories and insights from his 67-year career and how it evolved over time with changes in technology.
Don Bolognese is a graduate of The Cooper Union Art School, where he studied under some of the leading artists in New York City. Freelancing as an illustrator and calligrapher, he quickly established himself in the publishing world and the New York art scene.
Opening a print studio in Vermont, he and his wife, artist Elaine Raphael, began a long period of intensive creativity in the world of printmaking. Don’s achievements in woodcutting earned him many commissions, among them the coveted “Miracles of Christ” exhibit, a series of large woodcuts and calligraphy for the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.
Following Elaine’s passing in 2013, he began spending time teaching and working near Florence, Italy. Don drew inspiration from the Renaissance masters and their allegorical works depicting important, universal subjects using contemporary imagery. Reflecting on his time with Elaine, his daughters’ lives, Christian texts and the current political climate, he developed a novel perspective on the treatment of women in society. Over a period of two years, Don refined this perspective and successfully translated it to canvas with his masterwork, Good Friday 2019.
When he began his painting, he truly understood the huge gap between his attempts and the masters’ achievements. Nevertheless, he was so inspired by the totality of their work that he continued working. No matter the gap between the masters’ accomplishments and the artist’s desires, he knew he had no choice but to try to emulate their achievements in the context of today’s challenges.
With this painting, Don hopes to renew the centuries old tradition of the artist as social observer and critic. To that end, The Relevance Project plans to resurrect the lives and works of past and present artists who pursue a goal of being relevant to current social issues.
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Don! I am really excited to be talking to you today.
Don Bolognese: Thank you! I’m really looking forward to this opportunity because as you’ve mentioned, towards the end, I have this thing about artists as journalists.
When I was teaching at Pratt and Cooper, I would always begin by reminding the students that before 1850 there were no pictures other than those made by humans.
And as a matter of fact, if you look back carefully at the art of that’s been done over these hundreds of years before photography, you find out upon close examination that they are reflecting on society.
It was a different time and they were the only image makers around. So you can imagine there the crucial spot they held in society, which is something they lost when photography came.
This is an important thing to remember when you look at the path that art took after the middle of the 1800s.
My feeling from very young, growing up during World War II and my first commissions… I say that jokingly. But I was eight or nine years old and I could draw better than any of the other kids.
I was born with that talent. My mother was an artist. Her father was an artist in Italy. So I could draw flying tigers, tanks, and all those war machines that 9- and 10-year-old kids are fascinated by because they don’t know about the other aspects.
But that’s what I was. I’m sort of a war reporter for my friends. I could draw those machines. That was my first kind of understanding of how I could use this talent as a communication tool.
I think one of the problems we have in the contemporary art field is that we don’t understand that it was probably the first important communication tool before other things like formal languages.
All you have to do is look at the cave paintings and you can understand that urge to depict reality is almost close to breathing. It is for those who do it because how else can they inform one another?
I’ve always been interested in that and I remember when I graduated from Cooper, I did have the opportunity to go to Yale Art School, which was being formed—had formed.
Colleen: Oh, wow.
Don: I was going to get, like a lot of my classmates, a complete scholarship. But it was really a pain to find out an oriented thing. I was not interested. I wanted to get out and illustrate.
Within two years, I did have a couple of jobs. One as an art director for a small publishing house, which I left in the middle of it.
I said to my wife, Elaine, who is also an artist and fellow graduate of Cooper, I said, “I’m never going to be an illustrator if I stick to a 9-to-5 job.”
As nice as the job was and well paying, I said, “I’m quitting.” She said, “OK,” and that started my freelance career.
Eventually, Elaine came into it and we formed the Raphael and Bolognese studio.
We did a lot of work together. Primarily, in the book publishing business—mostly children’s books. We got to a point where we weren’t getting enough interesting commissions for illustration, so we decided to write our own books.
Colleen: Oh, wow.
Don: That’s what we did. We started to write our own books. We started with little picture books and then we went on to a whole thing, which I call the Illustrators Library.
It went on to explain various techniques like pen and ink, pencil, charcoal, pastel, and even printmaking.
That sort of went hand in hand with the idea that I began teaching as a per diem instructor at Pratt, and then Cooper, and then NYU. I did that for about 12-14 years until my workload was just so impossible that I couldn’t even spare a day.
But it was really a very important part of my understanding of what it is to be an artist. I think your audience may be more interested in that because contrary to the way art is presented in our society as an artifact—valuable or not, collectible or not, or whatever.
The real thing about being an artist is the process of creativity.
Colleen: Yeah, absolutely.
Don: It is the thing that makes you get up in the morning and go to bed and wake up the next morning with more ideas than you can possibly do in your lifetime. It is what keeps you interested in life.
In my opinion, along with being an artist and being creative, is being curious and imaginative. I mean, without curiosity? Hmm. They don’t do much.
I have met in my career, artists who early on in their career have come up with something that’s very sellable, very good, and very attractive. I’m not saying it’s cheap, or anything. It’s great.
But the pressures of the business end of the illustration is that you have to repeat yourself over and over again because that’s what the public gets used to.
There were also some artists who are very well adapted to do that. They don’t mind that they’d like it. They don’t get sick to get stale.
But that was not the way Elaine and I approached it. We were constantly researching, looking back, and trying new techniques.
I had a show a couple of years ago in Manchester, Vermont, which was kind of a retrospective show and gallery. One of these pop-up things and people would come in and say, “How many artists were in your studio?,” because we had all these various media that we worked in and all these various styles.
Including the painting that you mentioned, along with a lot of woodcuts, linoleum cuts, etchings, paintings, drawings, and we had everything.
We didn’t do any sculpture. That was one area we did not get into. Mainly because the industry did not really want that.
That’s kind of the approach I’ve had and I really can’t stop working. I’m still working now.
I started this newspaper. My next thing is I want to make a film of my story, The Warhorse. It’s a story set in Renaissance Italy in 1450. It was very well reviewed.
It sold all right but when it came out it was right in the midst of the Harry Potter thing. It was just like so many other books that were just swamped by the whole Harry Potter phenomena. But at any rate, it has proved to have interest to other people in the business as a film. I’m definitely getting started on that.
Colleen: Well that’s great.
I also want to get into how we came to know each other too. I think it’s kind of funny.
Don: Well, I’m trying to remember. I think I saw you made a comment on maybe Communication Arts? Is that it?
Colleen: Yes. Well, actually what happened first… I didn’t even know that communication arts mentioned my podcast.
But I did a podcast about Canva on why designers should not hate Canva. I saw that communication arts had shared it on social media and then you emailed me, and you said that you don’t really click on things in Communication Arts emails, or something like that.
But you did click through to look at my podcast/article on the website. Then you shared all these wonderful insights in your email.
Don: Yes. In this long career that I have been talking about back in the early 1980s. Just by a freak of circumstance, my nephew, who was a prime programmer for the first computer graphics program that was done by Neil Tech.
He said, “You’re interested?” I said, “No.” Again, the curiosity took over, and he said, “Yeah. You can only come out and work at midnight,” because that’s when all these computer nerds finally go to bed.
You can because in those days, you needed a whole room of computers to get you some minuscule amount of power.
But the point was, I worked on one of the fellas, probably a handful of maybe three or four guys in the world who know anything about computer programs.
I was absolutely astounded by what they had produced. I did a couple of books. I think I’ve sent you the pictures of those books. That’s a kind of an exaggeration, Mastering the Art of Computer Illustration.
By the time it came out, it was a big coffee table book. It was obsolete, right? Because everything was happening so quickly.
Nevertheless, I did set up a studio, which is exclusively done. I had all this equipment. It was loaned to me because, in those days, it was hugely expensive.
I did the first in New York City. I did the first ad that went from my computer to the printer. In other words, that was its first day. I did it for, I think it was one of the big automobiles.
Colleen: That was 1980?
Don: When the time I got to that point like 1985-86.
However, as I’ve said to other people who asked me about it, my hands rebelled. It said, “You’re not drawing anymore, Don. You’re not doing calligraphy anymore. What’s wrong with what?”
I’m useless this they said to me, my two hands. So I decided it was—I use this term—too programmed for me.
One of the methods that we became addicted to during our time at Cooper was constant experimentation. We would experiment with media. We experimented with different tools.
When I approached computer graphics as a tool, I didn’t approach it as a thing. It was a full-fledged medium in itself and what I liked about it was its ability to make changes.
Don: That is fantastic! I eventually did a book called 2050. It was about space travel. I did it for Scholastic with two volumes.
I did a combination of real art and I’d run it to the computer and be able to make all these airbrush effects that computer graphics could give me. I always like the modulation, the Cat Obscura that it gave.
It was part of my technique, which was to always try to create form in whatever I was doing. I found the airbrush capabilities of computer graphics to be fantastic.
Colleen: Don’t you think that there are some limitations to tools?
A lot of designers think that if the client can use InDesign or Canva, or Illustrator or something else that it’s going to… it’s not going to make them a designer, right?
Using those tools is not going to make you a better designer. But I think there are limitations to the tools.
Because when your brain wants to create something a certain way and if you don’t know how to do that in the tool, then it’s going to change what you’re able to achieve.
Don: Right. Well, I would say that the tools especially the computer tools are double-edged swords. They can be fantastic when used correctly and they can be restrictive when you don’t have the imagination to go beyond it.
So it’s like any other tool. It’s no different really. The difference between, say, acrylic painting and oil painting is no different, for example.
I do a lot of printmaking, so I work with woodcuts and linoleum cuts. My wife did a huge amount of work in multicolored etchings. That’s a method that really takes a lot of experimentation and skill. It’s really hard to replicate yourself.
You’re always battling something—some problem with color or chemistry or something. But the point I’m making is that the challenges you get from your tool is what would make you expand.
When I was teaching, I used to jokingly say, I’m going to mark you on the weight of your sketches. In other words, the more preliminary work you did, the better the final outcome would be.
Of course, it wasn’t always true. But it was a way to make young artists understand that they had to push the envelope at all times in their work.
Now, sometimes it required just a kind of imaginative thing. Other times, like in calligraphy, for example, it required in required a disciplined approach in order to get as close as possible to work the medium to its limits.
So you have to learn in calligraphy that you have models to follow that were historical. Going way back to when calligraphy was the only writing form, the only way people could read anything was, that had been hammered, there was no type.
That produced some of the most imaginative, and shall I say, I don’t know what they were like but they provided the genesis for so much more that was to come later in typography.
But to understand letterforms, this is when I was in Rome, that was in Italy a couple of years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Trajan Column where I sent you something.
At the base of the Trajan Column is a panel of Roman alphabet, which we studied at Cooper Union. It was considered by calligraphers and typographers alike, as the primary source of our alphabet. Everything that has happened since then whether it was with Serifs, without Serifs, any kind of type design has that as its foundation.
I used to actually do Roman letters as a form of relaxation. But they are—when you look at them—they are the most quintessential, two dimensional design. Curves working against other curves. It’s just beautiful.
When I first started freelancing, I did a lot of calligraphy at Columbia Records, including The Sound of Music. I did that lettering.
Don: I did tremendous amount of study in that thing. Finally, I got to see the original a couple of years ago. It was wonderful.
Colleen: That’s amazing!
You were doing so much illustration and calligraphy, but at some point over your 67-year career, did you ever get scared by the computer coming out? Or some other thing coming out?
Today, it’s Canva, tomorrow, it’s going to be something else. Did you ever have any fear about that when that came out?
Don: Well, you know, my wife and I learned something at Cooper Union that was very valuable. What we learned was really how to use our history. How to use it not as something to look back on or a lost perfection or something like that. No, no, no.
We learn to use it as evidence of incredible experimentation on the part of those who produced what we were looking at.
You have to understand that in the art of calligraphy and book illustration, the earliest forms are almost all gone. There were only—three, four or five total manuscripts that have survived the so-called “Dark Ages”. The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospels. They are treasure troves.
I would say to all of your listeners that if you want inspiration, don’t look at what’s going on now. Look at what went on 1,000 years ago.
And I’m serious about that. Why? Because you are looking at things that were done when there was nothing to work on. This was coming from the pure imagination of gifted people who had very, very limited tools compared to what we do today.
Imagine they had to make all the tools themselves. There were no calligraphy pens sold by Speedball, or anything else.
Don: They had to grind their own ink and pigments to make ink. In the different colors that they got, they had to make their own paper, which is not paper, it was vellum—sheepskin.
It was a total immersion. That immersion does have an effect, you become married to the media that you’re working with. You can see that in a lot of the great fine artwork that’s done.
The medium is the main thing. In contemporary art, they’re not telling the story the way previous examples of art have. They are really telling you, describing their adventures with a medium, and with their imagination. So there is a difference there and you can get a lot out of it.
Most of what you can get out of is how much work they put into expanding whatever they’re doing in their painting or sculpture. It’s very valuable to know the past art scene and the present art scene but for different reasons. So we will always be alert to what was happening around.
The studios that artists had in those days—this is going back way even before the Renaissance, but certainly, it flowered during the Renaissance and thereafter as well. They did all sorts of things. They were like a real design studio.
They did not only do the big, historically remembered murals, and whatever was, was necessary for the building of a church or whatever. They did a lot of things. They would do wedding invitations. They even do invitations to formal dinners.
They were the graphic design studios that we have today only they were the only graphic design studios. I mean, everything had to be done by hand and everything was either painting or print or sculpture. Photography didn’t exist.
So you can imagine that art was a consummate experience for these artists. They lived it. They lived and breathed and existed in the studio space, along with their apprentices, some of whom were not.
It’s hard to understand this, but Leonardo and Michelangelo and all the big-name guys were once apprentices. They worked in someone else’s studio. Of course, they outgrew their master and they went on their own.
That kind of experience is I think the most necessary thing.
When Elaine and I were students at Cooper, it was not yet an accredited liberal arts college as it is now. It was just a three-year school that Peter Cooper set up in the middle of the 1800s for immigrants to work and learn about art, and engineering, and science.
But they envisioned it mostly as a thing. We benefited from the fact that not one of our teachers was a teacher. It was just a guy that work, either a photographer or an illustrator. We had had a couple of book designers as teachers.
There was always an advertising guy there too but they were all freelancers. They didn’t really work in a corporate setting. We had this kind of model that eliminated, to some degree, the fear of doing things on our own, because we saw that it was being done.
It was not, it was not a goal. It was actually an achievement. So we were very well prepared for entering the world of art, which is never an easy world.
Colleen: Definitely not.
Don: You know as well as I do that it hasn’t changed much. Nothing has changed.
Even when I was one of the only artists in New York, doing computer graphics, I will still have clients coming up to say, “Oh, that’s wonderful, But we can’t pay that much.”
You know that story, “Oh, you want to charge that much? I have a room full of stuff here I gotta pay for. I’m sorry. We can’t pay more than x.” I mean, those things never change.
Don: It happened back in the Renaissance, too. You don’t think that the military didn’t take advantage of Ponticelli? Of course, they did. But anyway, that’s another story.
Colleen: I don’t know if you’ve heard this story. I don’t know if it’s actually true.
But there’s a story that Picasso drew some woman’s portrait and that she didn’t actually commissioned him to do it. I think they were just like sitting on a bench or something.
She said, draw my portrait and he did it in a couple of minutes. Then she asked, “How much do I owe you?” and it was something crazy to her.
She says, “It only took you a couple of minutes to do that.” And he said, “No, it took me a lifetime to do that.”
Don: Yes. That’s an apocryphal story, I’m sure. I’ve heard that story with other artists there. But it is all true. It’s all true.
That’s fine on one on one basis. But when you get into corporate life, as I’m sure many of your listeners know, it’s always business. It was business for us too.
We know what we’re getting into in the publishing business, unlike the advertising business, it does not pay that well.
So what we decided early on was that we had to become authors as well because there were royalties.
And to that point, I’m still getting nice royalties from books I did 40-50 years ago.
Colleen: Wow, really?
Don: Yes, I have a contract with Amazon. They have maybe 12 to 15 books of mine that I get statements every few months on that they sell.
I think they sold them mostly as downloads. I don’t think they sold them as printed books.
One of my biggest sellers over the years has been, How to Draw Horses because not many people know how to draw horses.
Don: I can’t tell you how many illustrator friends of mine would call me and say, “I can’t do a horse in this illustration. I can’t figure out which way the legs bend.”
Colleen: That’s funny!
One thing that you said to me when we talked before you came on the podcast was—and I thought this was really interesting, so I’d love for you to explain it—you said the solutions are too easy in digital design.
Don: That’s right. That goes back to what I said earlier about the process.
It is an amazing thing that they’ve done this. But I am not going to downgrade what these computer scientists have done. That’s fantastic.
As a matter of fact, when I was asked to do it, they said—they actually use these words—they said, “We’ve done this stuff and we don’t know what it’s going to do. We’ve never had any… not one of us is an artist, so we don’t know how to best use this stuff.”
When I started working then—I did it for months, I would drive out the long—and if any of you know about the Long Island Expressway? The only time to drive it is at midnight. Anyway, I go out there to the New York Institute of Technology and I would come up with these incredible things.
They said, “You really can do that with what we did?” I said, “Yeah, you can. If you do this to it.”
So I was not impeded by that. But I will say this much. Let’s take painting for example, in computer graphics, because it’s all numerical you can—using the numbers—make any kind of combination you want. That’s true.
But on the other hand, painting, any of the acts we do physically is full of surprises that go beyond what you intend.
I think that‘s what is more under your control. When you’re working, you’re working with your hands with solid materials, like a canvas, or paint, or paper, or any of these things. When you’re working with your hands there are accidents. Some of them are good, some of them are not so good.
But it’s not the kind of thing that you have that somewhat in the digital world as well. It’s not as controllable.
I really firmly believe that all of these tools are as good as they are. They are expansive in a way, of our ability to express ourselves. There’s no doubt about that.
But they do have limitations and the limitations are very critical in the sense that they don’t make us really push our ability to create these things.
For example, I had a friend in Vermont who has a gallery and he had this painter and this couple did a lot of landscapes. But they use the same green in every painting.
I was amazed. I said, “Boy, is it boring?”
I said to myself, why don’t they use different colors? I thought that was a failing on their part as an artist. My wife with beautiful landscapes and she never did the same green twice. She never did the same color twice. It was always something different.
I think that’s a difficult thing for a machine to replicate in one’s experience—in my experience, at least. If I’m sitting down, and I have some basic greens and basic other colors, and I start fooling around with it and start playing with my modulations on… first of all, it’s much more satisfying than sitting at a keyboard. I should just leave it at that.
But anyway, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of hand on work. At the same time, I do not negate the amazing things that have come out of the digital world. It’s fine. But everything has its place.
Colleen: Well, you’ve spent 67—and I have to repeat that 67 years making a living in art. That’s phenomenal.
What do you think—and it doesn’t have to be one thing—what do you think are the biggest reasons that you’ve been able to make a successful living in art and design for so long?
Don: That’s a very good question. It’s something that we would ask ourselves. I think what it comes out of is that we were driven by the talent that we were born with.
To do this, as I said, art is a form of communication and there were some things about us human beings that cannot be said only in words.
You can produce things. Some people do it through acting or music. But we, those few of us who have this visual talent combined also with the physical dexterity… I used to play and amuse my students in calligraphy. I’d stand in front of a chalkboard, have two pieces of chalk in my left and right hands and simultaneously do calligraphy. Both left and right hand—only the left hand was done backward.
Colleen: Oh my gosh!
Don: That’s what your muscles do. They have muscle memory. If you don’t think about it. I didn’t think about it I would just do it. It would just work out like that. Their jaws would drop.
It was just a thing I discovered one day that I could do. That’s what I mean about human capability, while the digital world is full of surprises, so are we.
We should not neglect the opportunity while we have to do that.
Colleen: One thing you had said to me, briefly was that these traditional artists… you said, “At New York Tech, one of my duties as a traditional artist was to give demonstrations to the art directors club, the Society of Illustrators, etc.
The reaction was always the same, very personal and very angry, and frankly, I couldn’t blame them because their anxieties were well founded.
Entire graphic design studios were faced with two alternatives, either get out of that business or accept the inevitable and retool and retrain, which is a very costly decision that many simply could not afford.”
Don: Exactly. And that’s exactly what happened. I was amazed when we first started doing it… because when I learned my wife learned it too, so she would give at the behest of the New York Institute of Technology, that they had a rented a studio room—a big room—at the top of the Chrysler Building.
We would have art directors come up, anyone in the art field, and we would do demonstrations. They would be upset and I didn’t blame them at all. The fact of the matter is when I was starting as a freelancer, there were many… that I call businesses or disciplines that I would depend on.
I would have to send out for photostat, that was sent out for type, setting up for this for that, retouching, and all those things.
But now, what studios did we’re no longer necessary. A lot of artists who are serious artists who were sometimes making a living as best they could. Working in these, shall I say, supportive industry—supportive aspects of the graphic design field.
I mean, any young man or woman going into the graphic design field right now. What are they looking at? They’re not looking at places to work. They’re looking at computer capabilities that can expand or somehow expand and express their talents.
Because it’s all been wrapped up in that thing. I could sit down now and design a whole book from the very beginning to typography, whatever I wanted to do and actually get into the production process, as well.
Pretty closely, even including, if I wanted to do it on a very limited basis of demand printing. So in other words, I wouldn’t have to go there anymore.
Whereas when I was starting out in the business, first as an art director and then as an illustrator. I had a whole bunch of people that were supporting our work. From them, from the lowly… this is a little funny story. It was in the late 60s and I every time I needed a Photostat, I’d have to go to Manhattan to get one. So I said this is ridiculous.
So I went and looked for a second-hand Photostat machine. I’m sure none of you have ever seen what I bought. It was about eight feet long and had a fantastic lens and I will do my own photostats.
One day I was doodling and I did do this little drawing of just only a few inches big with a very fine pen. I thought I could blow this up into a story and I did.
The story became Once Upon a Mountain, it’s an anti-war story about two mountains that get the inhabitants of which they get upset with each other.
All of a sudden, a whole world opened up to me. I could blow this stuff up. I could do this and that, and I published it, and got nice reviews. It was a nice little anti-war story called “Once Upon a Mountain,” which is based on a very old folk tale.
That was one way the technology of that time increased my imagination. Getting creative enabled me to take something which is just a kernel of an idea, and turn it into a big thing.
I think when one uses, whatever tools they’re using—whether digital or otherwise—remember that in the experience of conquering the technical difficulties that are with any medium, in that pursuit, you would grow as an artist.
You grow because you have to use your imagination. You have to experiment. You have to learn what works and what doesn’t work.
I think that is why, in my opinion, digital art, whether it’s Canva, Photoshop, or something else has its limitations. It has a great kind of exciting and liberating kinds of things too.
As I mentioned before, my own experience was doing airbrush, which was so much easier than having to learn it. I know airbrush artists very well. The real airbrush artists always had a technical problem getting the right liquidity there.
They went out of business too. I know one guy who had just gotten to the point where he learned how to do traditional airbrushing, and then all of a sudden, it was gone.
He had to learn all over again. He’s a mature person and he had to do it all over again. But he’s still doing it. So that’s good.
I don’t know if that even answers your original question. But for us, it was ongoing, the introduction of new material into the old tradition. Let’s say, I use printmaking as an example because it was really one of the wonderful things that made our life very interesting. My wife who went to Cooper Union as I did, was a very good artist. In a limited time, we had to do it, an affection for printmaking.
So when she was in her 40s, she went back to the school to learn from making the Pratt graphics into the Manhattan. She worked in a couple of years.
We were doing some nice things and we had a little press in our apartment studio in New York City. It was not adequate to where her vision was.
I went on and bought this huge press, handmade press. It was a fortune. We also had this farm in Vermont, a little farmhouse that we’ve gotten and we had it delivered up there.
In the studio, we had up there, she started doing big prints. It was like an explosion of creativity. But they were dependent on this beautiful machine, which was a very basic machine going back centuries.
So it wasn’t a traditional thing but the challenges of doing it, whether it was the etching process, or the engraving process, or the printing process.
Other processes are involved in doing the print, by the way, and you learn a tremendous amount. I should say you have to learn a tremendous amount.
It also expanded her or I should say deepened her level of expression. Etchings are beautiful. So the marriage of artists with tool is essential.
One of the things that I worry about with digital media is that it replicates these things. I mean, you’ve seen what I’ve seen.
You take a photograph and you can run it through all these programs that turn it into woodcut or this and that. It gave a feeling that it was an impressionist painting.
That’s kind of interesting for their Do-It-Yourself people, who are not artists, which, by the way, was another great fear that I encountered.
People say to me—our clients can do it. They won’t need us anymore. They don’t need us anymore.
The copywriter gets a hold of one of these things. He doesn’t need me to create an ad for him anymore. You can do this.
Colleen: So they thought that it was going to turn them into a designer because they could use the…?
Don: Right. It doesn’t work that way.
But certainly for some people that was adequate enough. You could say, “Who the hell needs a client like that anyway?” But sometimes you need bread and butter clients.
Let’s face it, we all want to start to make a living in this business. I’m grateful for the fact that in publishing, it was a little, although, again, did not pay that well. It gave us a good living. I mean, it was fine. We weren’t starving.
And the point was, it gave us a much greater opportunity to do interesting things, including from our inception.
When you’re working in a design studio that does mostly advertising for corporate, you’re not doing a lot, you’re not in there at the creative beginnings of things. You’re doing it there to carry through something that someone else has built.
For us, we were able to start, we started with our own thing. All we had to do was convince a publisher or an editor or an art director that they should publish this thing.
That was the big thing. But we managed to have a career that went on for six decades. We’re still doing things that were original, and that did sell and are still alive, as I said, on Amazon. For those who want to buy them.
I think I can also attribute that to the fact that we never relaxed.
I have some friends also in Brookings who have done very well. But they did the same thing for 40-50 years, same style. And that same style was very successful.
Every year, you have a new bunch of readers. So it didn’t necessarily mean anything that the style was the same because it wasn’t the same population to who we are selling it to. But it was very sellable, which we just could never do.
I was doing a line of books for a very well-known publisher. But finally, the stuff I was getting was so boring and so repetitive that I turned it down, I’m not doing it anymore.
One little thing that I take credit for in the publishing business is if they look back on the books that were printed back in the 60s and 70s, you don’t find too many children’s books, which are full color, because it was very expensive.
I was very busy doing that. Has anyone out there ever tried to do a separated piece of artwork? It’s got a challenging thing. I challenge you to do full-color separated pieces of artwork, which I had to do sometimes because of price constriction. All I had to do was to break it down into four plates. So I did that.
But then came some sort of revolution. All of a sudden, books can be done full colored and can be done economically. It was just one line of books that I did. That was a very big line and we had a lot of books in there that were like two or three colored books.
They wanted them to be turned into full color. So they asked me to do the first one. I did a book that I was very successful with. I think there were black and two colors that I turned it into a full color job. What I did was to take the black plate, and I just printed it on a very good Xerox printer on a very good watercolor paper.
I just colored the things in but they asked me to do that. Then they had all the other illustrators do that. I did read the book, and it’s still selling well.
So I was part of that revolution, where the book industry decided, “Hey, we’ve got to be competitive. Everything is full color now.”
We got to turn some of our old good sellers that were only in black and white or black and white and in one or two colors into something more exciting and more acceptable. They did a lot of them then.
Colleen: I was thinking, the ways of getting clients too have changed so much over the years.
You and I were working well before social media getting into this business too and you were saying you publish your own books, but what other kinds of things were you doing to get clients?
Were you showing art in a gallery and were you approaching publishers? How was that working?
Don: Oh no, never.
We tried showing art in a gallery early on in our careers. But let me just tell you something, you know the old expression of one rotten apple will ruin all the bunch?
The same thing is true for a gallery show. If you have a group show, and you have one or two that are really horrific. That’s all people will remember. You don’t remember the good stuff.
So after one or two experiences like that, we said, never more. Forget it.
We’re too busy working in our field, and we want to do all and we just drop that whole thing. Besides we like being illustrators. It was more fun.
Colleen: How are you getting new clients over the years?
Don: Well, in publishing, it’s easy. Because once you get a book published, that’s your portfolio. So that’s what we did.
The minute we got a book published or even got working on it, I’d take it around to another publisher and say, “Hey, we’re doing this series I’m at. When do you think you should do a series like that?”
I remember, in the 1980s. when there were all sorts of things going on with the video—television and everything else. Publishers were losing a grip on children, so to speak.
There was Sesame Street, or whatever it was going on. We sat down more than once, and said, look, let’s do something that they can’t get otherwise. Let’s do it as a series because we won’t have to work that hard for each book. If you can sell a customer—a publisher—on a series of four or five or six books? It would be great. And we did.
There are a few series for Scholastic, for Harpers, and a few other mainstream publishers. They were happy to do that because it’s easier to sell a series than it is to sell a single title.
In other words, we had to be nimble as well, not only in our artwork but in our approach to the business end of it.
Colleen: There was something you said in your email. This is kind of going back to when you’re talking about calligraphy earlier, but you said, and talking about the computer doing a really good job of replicating.
You said that really great Calligraphy is like the performance of a violin virtuoso, even the most complicated, even the most accomplished technique is entirely forgettable without the presence of soul.
Don: That is absolutely true.
When I went out, to show my portfolio, I did not show everything. Because people—hello art directors out there. Are you listening? You’re kind of fixated on the latest problem you’re having.
This is funny. I remember I’ve done a lot of work for this one publishing company a very good editor. I was doing a series on ancient, ancient civilizations. (Egypt, Greece and Rome.)
So it came to the Roman one and I had the scene in the arena, showing how the Romans would import all these animals that have been part of a big thing.
They’d be killed by people. It’s horrible but they would do that. Among them were elephants. She turned to me and said, “Don, have you ever drawn an elephant?” I thought that was so funny because she’d known my work for years. I said, “The truth of the matter is, I had never drawn an elephant.” Okay, I said, “of course, I could draw anything.”
But that is sort of a state of mind that is in a lot of art directors’ heads. That they have to get specifically something.
You’ll see a lot of portfolios of commercial illustrators, they focus on that. So they get to know that they have a niche. But that was anathema to us. We did not want to be considered a niche kind of artist. We wanted to take on anything that came up.
We didn’t accept everything, but we just knew that we could. One of the ways of doing it was to do a series. In a drawing series, I had to do How to draw horses, but how to draw spaceships.
Colleen: Totally different.
Don: Totally different.
Colleen: Well, that’s actually interesting.
You did not want to have a niche. I speak about how important niches are because there are so many graphic designers or web developers out there. How are you going to stand out?
Don: That’s right. Well, you know, I went at Cooper Union and there were some really great people who graduated at Cooper Union.
One we just lost—Milton Glaser of Push Pin Studios and I did work for them. When I first got out of school I did some, film strips, I think. Film strips are very big in those days.
Milton Glaser did a lot to become great. He’s a very good draftsman. But he was a terrific designer. He took a lot of chances and so didn’t seem across.
And so did John Alcorn, who is a great designer. What they learned from Cooper Union was you don’t stop experimenting.
Don’t take the first solution that comes into your head, even though that may be the one you go back to and use. Just keep pushing it. See what happens.
I think if I had anything to say to your audience, I would say, forget about what the business that you’re in is requiring. Look at it in every different way you can. That’s all I can say.
I know that in advertising, the demands are much more precise than they are in publishing. But even in publishing, there were times—I had one or two instances, where I could not argue.
It was either a question of if I did the change, or they would just not produce the work. I had one or two times when I had to do that. I did it the best I could. But nevertheless, it was not something that I would have done on my own. I had very few instances like that. Thank God!
Colleen: We never got into the fun questions in the beginning. I wanted to run through that really quickly.
Do you eat the heel of the bread or toss it?
Don: I never. Because if it gets stale I would just grind it up and use it as bread crumbs, which I use in my Italian cooking.
Colleen: Oh, what a great idea! Oh, my husband just made these wonderful croutons the other day, and he hates croutons normally, but he took bread and he just roll.
He crumbled it up to big croutons, but then put some olive oil, salt and pepper on it. Oh, it was so good. So good. I would never eat boxed croutons again.
Don: Exactly. That’s the point, right?
I think the most important thing that I wanted to get through to your audience was the idea that the essential aspect of becoming an artist is being creative and experimenting.
I used to get a kick out of art directors who say to me, “So what’s it going to look like?”
What do you mean what’s it going to look like? You know what I can do. But it wouldn’t be very creative if I can tell you what it’s going to look like. Because I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
That’s the essence of creativity, you don’t know what you’re going to make until it’s made. That’s a process.
I’m sure that in many cases, even with the book business, what we came up with was not what maybe they were thinking about. But they were happy with it.
In many cases, it’s very successful, both financially and with awards. But the fact that I’m still working is an example of the fact that that approach must be good.
The other thing that I really wanted to do and I’m very glad that we’re doing this. After my wife died, I did something I thought it was a real tribute to what she had done.
She liked teaching young people. She would do it just in an ad hoc way. They come into the studio, and they’re watching work. We had grandchildren, and she put them to work, doing all sorts of artwork and they loved it.
She was a kind of a stealth teacher. She never was overbearing and she just gave them plenty of opportunities to do the things they wanted to do. They had really good examples because of her work and my work. They could see that quality is quality no matter what style you’re using.
I wanted to continue that. So I did the Elaine Foundation Art Fund. What we do has stopped because of COVID but we will be very successful doing these drawing workshops.
I think one of the things I’ve noticed lately with some young illustrators that when people ask me to look at it.
What I find a little disturbing is that they are imitating some of these latest trends. I don’t know how to even describe it—current fantasy type of stuff that is very rendered. They look boring to me and they look unimaginative to me.
But that’s what they’re doing and I don’t think that’s a good way to start your life as an artist. You have to start with what you have. It’s not going to be great but you have to work on it. You have to continue to do it. You also have to find models that you like.
As I said earlier, do not look at what your peers are doing.
Go back in history. If you’re an illustrator, look at the history of illustration. If you’re a painter, look at the history of painting. If you’re in type, go to the early examples of type and how they develop.
Look at the traditions of things because that’s where you’ll find the building blocks for your own style.
If you work only from what your peers are doing, and what’s popular, you’ll just never get beyond that. You’ll just be, at best, an imitation of the most successful of what you’re doing.
That may work. It may be rewarding in the short term, but it’s going to make your life boring.
I remember, occasionally, when I would go to alumni things and meet artists who were graduates of whatever school and have retired. I asked what are they doing now.
They said they have worked in studios, mostly in advertising. One said, “Oh. I don’t touch Illustration. I just do something else.”
I said to myself, that’s too bad because that was a natural talent they had but they had spent so many years in a sense, suffocating, editing that talent to fit the needs of a client.
When I first graduated, I was recommended to a company that you probably haven’t heard of. They were the Container Corporation of America.
And back in the 1950s, it was a global corporation and their ads were so great, we’d all look at them. They would commission great art—fine art for their ads.
They were just like, “we’re above it all. Now, we’re a global company and we do all the packages for the world.”
My first job out of school—out of Cooper—was as a designer, and one of their plants out in Philadelphia. What they offered their clients was more or less free, the design was free. They made their money in the packaging, not in the design work.
They did a lot of towel boxes. For the first few months, my wife and I—because I got her involved in it too.—we did towel designs and everything like that.
But I ran afoul of the art directors because I was a pain in the ass. We had a focus group and they said green is out. I said, “You’re going to take the green out of a towel box, really?”
I can’t use green in my design for towels but you have flowers and stuff like that. I said, that’s ridiculous and I refuse to bend. So what they did was to assign me to do comps of 6.5 type on medicine bottles.
Colleen: Ugh! Oh, no!
Don: I used to come home and tell my wife, I said, “You know, my head shook all day because they had to keep my hands steady. I was doing 6.5 type comps.”
In those days, everything was done by hand. There was no computer to help with that.
Colleen: Yeah. Oh, gosh!
Don: Finally, they got fed up with me and I got the proverbial, “Don, I want to meet you in the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.”
Colleen: Oh, no!
Don: You know what that meant. So I left there we went and moved back and came back to New York.
I had two job offers one for a pharmaceutical ad agency. In those days, the pharmaceutical advertising business was a class act in advertising. The other job was as a publisher, a small publisher, but a very prestigious publisher.
I took the art director job as the publisher, which lasted only about, maybe a year. Few months after my first child was born that’s when I told my wife I can’t do this anymore.
I was 22 years old and I was already an art director and I could have probably gone right up the ladder in different big publishers and so on.
But no. I was not liking the work that was coming back because we can do that better.
So I said, “Don, you better put your mouth where your… you better put your drawing hand where your mouth is.”
I think the only way I could do that though, the way the industry was constructed, you could not become a freelance illustrator. You’re not going to become a full-time illustrator unless you’re on freelance. I admired the work of N.C. Wyeth calibre work from the 30s. So, kinda way to go but freelance. So I did. Never look back as the saying goes.
Colleen: So amazing. Such a career.
Where can listeners find the foundation?
Don: Yes, it’s livingforacause.org.
Colleen: This has been really great and I’m really grateful that you came on.
You’re like a design celebrity in this space. It’s really been an honor to talk to you on the podcast.
Don: Really? Thank you for the opportunity.
I do really feel at this stage in my life, that I would like to help any other young artists or even older artists who are looking for encouragement.
I have a biography I’m working on, it’s called Art is Life. My wife had a favorite expression, either she came up with or she found it, “Art is life and life is art.” Think about it.
Colleen: Yeah. Those are great words to end with too.
Don: Thank you, Colleen. I really do appreciate this opportunity.