Featured Artist Scott Anderson Talks Artistic Education, Sensibilities, and Illustration

We’re bringing back our Featured Artists feature with a bang. Scott Anderson is not only a heck of an artist, he’s a full-time faculty member at Westmont College’s art department. He has a background in commercial art, and still takes on plenty of commissioned work (examples peppered throughout the interview, all courtesy Scott Anderson).

Anderson indulged our questions concerning being a working artist in today’s market and about maintaining your artistic sensibility when working commercially, in addition to shedding light on his own training, career path, and influences.

Osmosis Online: In a nutshell, you are a professor of art at a four-year college with a career background that includes commercial art, something you still do on a freelance basis. Is that fairly accurate? Can you describe in brief the path that you took to get there?

Scott Anderson: That’s it in a nutshell. I teach in the art department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., where I teach a range of courses depending on the semester, from Design to Digital Painting to Illustration to Figure Drawing. I also maintain a freelance career as an illustrator, working mostly in the editorial market for clients such as SF Weekly and Stocks & Commodities Magazine, among many others.

OO: What was your initial interest in art? When did you begin formal training, etc? Was that your major in college?

SA: I went to Willamette University for my undergraduate degree, and while I got a great overall liberal arts education there, the art program wasn’t the strongest. I knew upon graduating that I was going to need some more serious training if I was to make it as an illustrator, and so I began researching various art schools. While in the middle of that process, I read an article in the now-defunct Step by Step Graphics Magazine about the Illustration Academy, then based in Liberty, Missouri. I was pretty intrigued, so I called the phone number listed for the program and was shocked when it was answered by John English, the director of the Academy and a highly regarded illustrator in his own right. I was definitely star struck to be talking directly to him. We probably spoke for about twenty minutes, and in that conversation, he convinced me this was the program I was looking for. And he was right. I attended a five week session in ’97, did the entire nine week program in ’98, and then was invited by John to crash for two weeks in ’99 at minimal cost. I learned everything I know about image making from those three consecutive summers. I can’t speak highly enough about that program, which is still going today. I was extremely honored to be one of their guest alumni instructors in 2005 and again in 2008. It’s just an outstanding program that has produced some major talent—Sterling Hundley, Robin Eley, and Francis Vallejo, to name just a few.

After the Illustration Academy, I had been freelancing for a few years and teaching as an adjunct instructor, and enjoyed teaching enough that I figured I should get my master’s degree so I could potentially secure a tenure-track position. I began at the Independent Study Degree Program at Syracuse University, headed by famed illustrator, Murray Tinkelman, and after gaining my master’s in illustration there in 2004, I was relieved when Murray moved the program over to the University of Hartford, where it was immediately granted full MFA status (Master of Fine Arts, the terminal degree for those in the studio arts) and after one more year of work I received my full MFA in illustration.

OO: Do you have thoughts on differences between attending a 4-year university to study art vs. say an art school/visual design/or even one of those comic book/cartooning schools?

SA: It all depends on the school and what the area of interest is for the student. The good news for artists is this: you really don’t need a degree at all; it all comes down to your portfolio. With the exception of my teaching job (and that truly is the one exception), no one has ever asked or cared about my education. When I’m commissioned to create an illustration, or when I sell a painting in a gallery, it’s based solely on the strength of my work. So, the bottom line for artists is to get the best training you can, wherever that may be, whether at a four-year university or a specialty program.

That said, I think a liberal arts education is essential for any artist. If you don’t know some history and literature, you’re simply not going to have a large enough well of metaphors and knowledge that can be called upon to give your work meaning and richness. I’ve met artists who have incredible technique but such a limited worldview that their work is lacking for it.

OO: Can you discuss some of your influences, whether fine art or pop art?

SA: I’m a voracious consumer/fan/student of art and images, so this could go on for pages and pages, but I’ll try to limit myself. Among illustrators, my biggest influences would be Gary Kelley, J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Greg Manchess, Steve Rude, and Roberto Parada. I love many, many other artists, including artists such as Daniel Adel, Moebius, Kent Williams, Dave McKean, Phil Hale, Jon Foster, and more, but the initial list are really the ones whom I think can be seen in my own style. From the world of fine art, my favorite would easily be John Singer Sargent. I made a trip to Boston in 1999, back when I was flat broke, to see the massive retrospective of his work that was held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—it was my own personal trip to Mecca. I pored over his paintings for three straight days and it had an overwhelming impact on me. Other artists that I love and study from the world of fine art would be Nicolai Fechin (specifically his drawings), Joaquin Sorolla, Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

I should also make mention of a few specific mentors who have really shaped how I approach picture-making. Several of them were instructors at the Illustration Academy: the aforementioned Gary Kelley, who for my money is still the best working illustrator today, but also Chris Payne, Brent Watkinson, John English, and his father, Mark English. Mark is the living legend of the Academy, and I got to work as the Academy “slave” in 1998, which meant I set up the studio for demos, made sure the instructors had Cokes and little things like that, and it also meant that I was able to assist Mark with a few things at his home studio, such as taking photos of his work for an upcoming gallery show. Mark is a man of few words, but right at the end of my nine weeks that summer in 1999, we really connected and it just meant the world to me. He gave me a painting that hangs in my office at Westmont and is one of my most treasured possessions.

Two other mentors of note: Steve Rude, whom I met by chance at a figure painting class, and who was kind enough to invite me to come to his home studio to paint and hang out. That began a friendship that continues to this day, and I’m grateful to Steve for how he has invested in me. And lastly, I got to work with legendary science fiction illustrator Vin DiFate while in grad school, and he is simply one of the best art teachers on the planet, particularly when it comes to composition. A wonderful artist and a wonderful guy.

OO: Is there an easy way to parse between fine art and commercial art? Is it mostly intent?

SA: Big question there, and tough to reduce to a concise answer, but I’ll give it a shot. There’s no question that they’re fundamentally different: illustrations are generally by definition commissioned works, meaning you’re answering to someone else’s problem or brief. Whereas fine art tends to be generated by the artist, and for that sole reason is continually viewed as “purer.” I don’t have any patience for that kind of silly prejudice. The history of classics of fine art is full of commissioned works, and we don’t degrade them for their commissioned origins. On the flip side, there is some pretty intense navel-gazing that can happen in gallery work, because artists run the risk of only ever creating imagery that they know they can do well with.

Personally, I like the fact that commissioned work sets up a creative challenge: how do I make an image that (A) solves the problem for the client, (B) pleases my own aesthetic, and (C) succeeds as a strong image in its own right, regardless of context? It’s not easy, but I relish that challenge with every assignment. There’s no question in my mind that eventually I will know the exact things I want to obsessively pursue on my own, and indeed, the migration of illustrators to gallery art in their later years is a common one. But for now, I’m content with having my feet planted in illustration and my toe dipped in the waters of gallery art.

OO: How has being a professor informed your view of art vs. when you were working commercially?

SA: That’s a really good question, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I imagine at the very least, it has made me really codify my approach to making images. It’s certainly been a source of inspiration—there are few things more invigorating than seeing when a student really nails it on a concept or final piece.

OO: What are some of the primary challenges when approaching a magazine cover?

SA: The biggest challenge would be making an image that will solve the conceptual problem of the headline or cover subject, while still maintaining a poster-like punch that will make it jump out on the stands. When a magazine or periodical gives me a cover, I feel a responsibility to make that cover look compelling so that they’ll sell copies. From a composition standpoint, you have to account for the type that will be accompanying your image. On occasion, this can mean an image that when viewed solely by itself, looks a little unbalanced, but when viewed in the context of the printed cover, locks into place perfectly.

OO: What opportunities, if any, has the rise of the Internet meant for you personally? For a working artist in general?

SA: It’s been the ultimate game-changer, hasn’t it? It used to be that illustrators had to buy pages in expensive directories in order to have a prayer of being seen by art directors. Now, if you have a solid, clean website, your work can be passed around virally by any number of sites. For example: I had the good fortune to see some key J.C. Leyendecker paintings up close and personal in 2009, and finally got around late last year to posting the detail shots on my blog. It got mentions from two highly influential illustration blogs, and my site stats went through the roof. Now, make no mistake here: the viewers were coming to see Leyendecker, not me! But still, I definitely doubled my ongoing blog audience from that single post. So from that viewpoint, one could argue that the Internet has been the greatest thing to happen to artists since the advent of tubed paint.

For fine artists, it’s also been a boon towards cultivating an audience as well as making sales. I know that top galleries send out jpegs of their artists work to key collectors via email, which is why you can encounter some shows on opening night where all the work is already sold before the doors even open.

I’m just scratching the surface here.

OO: Is encouraging children to get into art as easy as sticking a crayon in their hands, or what further steps — and at what stages — should parents do more (and what?)

SA: I wish I knew, and if any of your readers know the answer, please email me! As a parent now of a toddler and a soon-to-be toddler, I want very much to encourage them in art without pressuring them. It’s a tough line to walk—my daughter, who is two and a half, has caught on to the fact that her daddy draws and paints, and I’ve been noticing that almost every time she draws now, if I’m around, she asks me to draw something for her. I’m overjoyed to draw for my kid, but I’ve noticed that when she asks me to, she tends to not draw anymore once I’ve done something for her. So that’s worrisome, that I’m accidentally stifling her own creativity.

I do think there’s danger in trying to push academic training too early on a kid. When I was in high school, I was in love with drawing and drew every night in my sketchbook, because it was fun and I got a lot of positive attention from it. By college, I was finally mature enough to want direct, academic training so I could get better and achieve my goals, but had it come earlier, I wonder if it would have turned me off to art.

Probably the best thing any parent can do is to offer the space and opportunity for your child to create, and to not dash their dreams if your child expresses an interest in pursuing art professionally, as so many practically-minded parents do.

Sage advice for many disciplines! We’d like to thank Scott Anderson for his time and well-considered answers. If you’d like to learn more about Anderson or see more of his work, please visit his Web site.


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