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Talking Illustration: An Interview With Veteran Illustrator Garry Colby

Garry Colby is one of the most successful illustrators working today, evident by his numerous awards and many engagements for top corporations in the world. Garry’s illustrations have been featured in many award publications and competitions. His client list reads like a Chinese menu, among them, McDonalds, Hasbro, Fisher Price, Lego, Sears and Popeye's. The list goes on.

Garry took time away from his work to share with us his experiences as an illustrator and a creative professional. In our interview, Garry explains the importance of having a good rep and what it takes to be successful in the tough competitive field of illustration.

Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you make the transition from Art Director to successful Illustrator?

I was approached by several studio reps and offered a job. I chose a very talent heavy studio with a great group of young and talented artists. The studio atmosphere was a great experience.

How did it come about that you were approached by these studio reps when you were an Art Director? How did they know about your work?

I was first approached by a rep that called on me every day. He was familiar with my work and I also knew him from my first job at General Motors Photographic. I spent two years as an errand boy. But they moved my boss and gave me the whole operation - without the title or the pay. That’s the GM way. I was considered an up and coming talent at Campbell Ewald. Within a year of being a Junior Art Director I was made a Group Supervisor. When the other studios heard I might be looking I was approached by two of the other large studios. They knew me because I had used their talent on projects.

How long was it before you were first able to support yourself and your family solely on your illustration work? What were some challenges along the way?

My first job in an art studio paid well. I have been lucky to make pretty good money. I feel it took about 5 to 6 years of hard work in a studio, watching other artists, and sometimes doing a job several different ways, to start to have a level of comfort.

When you say art studio, what do you mean? Do you mean a design studio or ad agency? Or was it a studio made up of all illustrators? What type of work did the studio do?

There were about 38 of the best artists in Detroit; of course we serviced the major and some minor advertising agencies. We did a lot of car work. We had 3 to 4 incredible car illustrators, 4 to 5 great photo-retouchers. We had 4 realistic illustrators (Bart Forbes type), There were 4 to 5 several top designers, several illustrators like myself (design or stylized, and airbrush), the best key liners in Detroit (before computers), a lettering artist, a couple of comp artists (layouts and storyboards), several apprentices, a library person to help find reference, a photographer to shoot reference, a large stat department, about 15 sales people, and a production staff to direct and keep jobs moving. Of course there was office staff for taxes and paper work, things like that. It was a big operation.

Most Illustrators find it difficult to find and master one style. You have two. Is it difficult to work between the two styles? Is this something you would suggest other Illustrators try doing?

I was kind of a utility guy at the art studio. Salesmen would show me a style and ask if I could do it. I would usually say yes if it was somewhere in my area. Meaning there wasn’t another artist in the studio who was either up or capable. So I worked in many styles. Getting it down to two was the hard part. I once took my samples to an Art Director in Miami and he asked if I represented all these people. I said I am all of these people.

What do you attribute to your success?

I went to Cass Tech in Detroit and studied commercial art. Campbell Ewald trained me as an Art Director. I worked for a number of years for a large art studio in Detroit. I do a lot of drawing on my own. I work hard on having a good clip file. The internet is a great help. I keep large files of other artists, even styles I don’t do. My clip files include animals, hands and feet, figures walking, standing, sitting, etc. I think I work hard at improving my craft. I try to do my best work regardless of the money. I know artists who look at the clock and when their time is up for what they think the job is worth, quit. I can’t work that way. The tough decisions come when you have several jobs with tight deadlines. Then you have to use wisdom, and experience to prioritize work and manage your time.

How do you market yourself as an Illustrator? Do you send out mailings? What sites do you advertise on? Which annuals do you advertise in?

I have reps that do mailings, send e-mails, and run ads in Showcase, Picturebook and Workbook. I maintain a web site of my own as well as with 3 different reps and we’ve done some mailings. The sites I have my work on are childrensillustrators.com, mendolaart.com, picture-book.com, artrep1.com, neisgroup.com and finally garrycolby.com.

So you have representation. Some say it’s more difficult to get representation than it is to get clients. What advice do you have for Illustrators seeking representation? How should they approach this challenging task?

It helps if you know someone who has a rep to give you a recommendation. It helps to have a great portfolio. It is usually a combination of both. Try to get to know a rep and be persistent. Keep them updated with your new samples.

Do you feel it’s necessary to have representation in order to land the big clients such as McDonalds, Fisher Price and Hasbro?

I think the internet sometimes can help you get very large clients. A good rep can be helpful.

This is a highly competitive field. What advice do you have for Illustrators just starting out? How can they get their work and their name out there?

Get yourself a good rep.

Do you feel having a rep is really that important? Is it simply the best way to do it?

I think it may be the best way to go, however not the only way. Talent will out. The internet is a great equalizing tool - good websites - or your own. Running ads in publications such as Showcase and Workbook as I have suggested is another good route - expensive if it doesn't work. Mailing is inexpensive - about $100 plus mailing costs for post cards and being consistent with it, 6-8 a year. Also going to Art Director’s meetings or award nights to network sometimes pays off. I was Vice President of the EDA (Electronic Design Association). I did some of their mailers gratis, and did art for there website. Sometimes entering contests such as Art Directors Club of New York, or the New York Illustrator’s Annual can give you good exposure. And mailing an overprint of a successful job - you can always ask.

How has this tough economy affected you as an Illustrator? Do you have other avenues within the industry in which you supplement your income?

Yes, my work dropped to half after 9/11. I am not sure it will come back to what it was, but it has come back some. And no, I only make money from being a commercial artist.

Do you do a lot of sketching prior to working digitally? How tight are your sketches before you take them to the computer?

They’re very tight. (See images below)

Where do you look for ideas and inspiration?

My inspiration comes from various sources, Cartoon Network, foreign illustrators, Print, Workbook, Showcase, book stores, comic books and comic novels.

What artists have influenced your work?

I would say, Mad Magazine (Davis, Drucker), David Cowles, Robert Risko and most of the artists in Staake’s, Complete Book of Humorous Art. I love so many styles and I take away something good from many of them.

What’s been your favorite project to date?

Tough question, I did a poster to hang on doctors offices for kids, the product was AsaSite a pink eye medication. I seem to like jobs that have casts of thousands (very busy). I love game boards and have done several. I like the children’s publishing market.

What are you working on now?

I’m animating a character for a department store web site, a dino on a pogo stick. I have someone to do the Flash part. I also have a children’s magazine page to do - Highlights.

Illustration Pages thanks Garry Colby for sharing his wealth of knowledge acquired from his many years of experience as a successful illustrator. Please be sure to investigate more of Garry's work by visiting the sites below.

Enjoy these interviews also:
Behind the Scenes of Illustration Friday: An Interview With Illustrator, Penelope Dullaghan
An Interview with Children's Book Illustrator Korey Scott: Connecting With Children Through Art


Illustrator Garry Colby's Portfolios are on:

garrycolby.com

childrensillustrators.com

mendolaart.com

picture-book.com

neisgroup.com

artrep1.com

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