Louis Ocepek - From Conventional Design to Digital and Back

From 1988 to 2008, a period of twenty years, graphic designer and illustrator Louis Ocepek designed two covers a year for the literary journal, Puerto del Sol. This highly regarded, semi-annual international literary journal, is published by the English Department at New Mexico State University. The journal is now 48 years old, and each issue contains prose, poetry, essays, and occasional visual inserts, selected by jury, from hundreds of submissions. We will be reviewing the work Louis Ocepek did on Puerto del Sol, but we will first begin with a brief background about the artist. The following has been written specifically for Illustration Pages by Louis Ocepek. This short auto biography provides insight into the exciting field of advertising during the golden age of design and sets the stage for the artist's work on the literary journal, Puerto del Sol.

Louis Ocepek: Pivotal Early Experiences that Influenced and Directed My Career

My Early Years

I was born in Detroit, Michigan, 68 years ago, in 1942. I grew up in Detroit, until the early 1950's, when my family moved to the Village of Warren, just across the Eight Mile Road made famous by Eminem. My father, Tony Ocepek, was a jazz musician, and, like many artists, he was a jack of all trades. My mother, Arnesta Mangano, was a home maker, but who also worked her whole life, and was a union shop steward.

Warren, a rural farming community, became renowned as the site of the General Motors Technical Center, a Modernist architectural masterpiece, designed by Eero Saarinen. It helped to spawn the familiar suburban explosion that ultimately robbed Detroit of much of it’s population. We lived half a mile from the center's campus of futuristic buildings, and I spent hours with my buddies, on top of a rail car, spying down on the test track, where Zora Duntov was ripping around in Corvette prototypes. Later, I was able to tour the center, marveling at the contemporary European furnishings, the abstract art, and the brightly color-coded, ceramic sheathed buildings. I mention this because it was my first brush with the idea of design, and the possibility that design could be a profession. And this realization fortunately came when I was in my impressionable teenage years. I knew early on I wanted to do that kind of work.

Over the next few years I had many more fortuitous experiences; while in high school I worked in a hardware store, through which I met designers from the Tech Center, helping them solve various problems with their exhibit designs, mixing custom paint colors, finding the right kind of hardware for display cases and so on. Although I didn't know it at the time, this was my introduction to problem solving, part of what I would do later as a graphic designer.

I also had an art teacher who insisted that his two best art students (yes, I was one of them) attend a Technical Illustrators conference in downtown Detroit. We naively followed his advice, and were given a guided tour of their exhibition, with detailed explanations about perspective, projections, drafting tools, and industrial rendering techniques. I am forever thankful to that anonymous (to me) man who so generously spent so much time with a couple of high school kids.

Here we are in art class making a really bad sculpture!

The same teacher encouraged me to make an appointment with a designer at the Tech Center, I suppose to gain some information on how to get started in this profession. I went, and again was treated so kindly, given a complete tour of the design studios (remember, I was only 16 years old!), as well as a mini-lecture on the various design disciplines. Naturally, he recommended I attend the Art Center School in California, which was largely supported by the automotive industry. To my benefit, I believe. that was out of the question for this blue-collar kid of very modest means. I had to stay in Detroit, which was a good thing.

My parents also played a major role in my prospects; my mother took my sister and I to the Detroit Institute of Arts and we attended children's theater and other cultural events. My father, as mentioned, was a big band/jazz musician in Detroit, through him we were exposed to a constant diet of jazz, and very rigorous music lessons. I also learned about woodworking, hand tools, craftsmanship and the beauty of fine materials, often traveling with him to install cabinets in suburban mansions. I also watched him build a 3-section boat and learned how to fly fish for bass.

He took me to a drafting school when I was about 11 years old, and bought me a set of drafting tools and French curves, in hopes that I would become a draftsman or blueprint reader, top jobs in Detroit. I still use them today.

Both craftsmanship and a love of jazz have impacted my work to this day.

My father was a taskmaster; I learned that a job has to be done right, and that a job isn’t finished until it is right.  Unfortunately he died while I was in high school, and so my music career was cut short, and I had to depend on my mother, my older sister, Diane, and various other mentors for further guidance.

My College Days at Wayne State University

I attended Wayne State University in Detroit from 1960-64, and it was there that I discovered graphic design (or advertising design as it was then called). Among my many instructors was Peter Gilleran, a World War Two veteran who was a highly respected painter and illustrator. This man loved what he did; I remember him chuckling, "I can't believe they pay me to do this!" Gilleran was a liberal man who took no truck with Philistines; he was an artist of the people, much like Reginald Marsh or Fernand Léger. From him I learned the beauty of iconic graphic form, and the relationship between fine and applied art. Gilleran must have seen some promise in me, for he seemed to steer many projects my way (maybe because I was the only student willing to work hard for peanuts!). I was hungry to learn and would do just about any job that came along. For example, by agreeing to print up signs for the Art Building, I learned how to set foundry type by hand and how to operate a Chandler Price press.

These signs would have had an incredibly high cost per-piece; I should have been paid by the hour!

A highlight for me at Wayne was to have my illustrations accepted into the New York Society of Illustrators student exhibition. The assignment was to design covers for the Signet Classic series of paperbacks, a very important line of classic literature, with cover designs by a who's-who of contemporary illustration. Here are two covers from that period, the first by Saul Lambert, the other by Milton Glaser.

I traveled to New York by train, stayed at a funky hotel, and met many luminaries such as Stevan Dohanos, Paul Davis, and, most memorably, Rube Goldberg, who delivered a very humorous and irreverent dinner speech. In the days afterward, I trudged, virtually penniless, all over Manhattan, soaking up the cultural scene, even managing to get into a jazz club. As I walked around the city, I discovered political magazines such as Monocle and Evergreen Review, which were beautifully designed and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, various Push Pin Studio artists, John Alcorn, Reynold Ruffins and others. This opened my eyes to the power of design to influence social and political change, a hallmark of the 1960’s. Editorial design had smarts, drama, political punch, humor, and the sense that you were doing something positive for your world.

Another important college experience was being chosen for an internship at Campbell Ewald Advertising. I was part of a writer/designer team, as was the style back then (are you watching Madmen?). There were about six teams, and we competed for the Hershey's Chocolate account, which Campbell Ewald was angling for. An intense, very demanding experience; working under Joe Kidd, a legendary Art Director, and an equally renowned copy writer (whose name I forget), this was my baptism by fire. I learned how to defend my ideas, work with a design team, meet deadlines, and carry myself in a more professional manner. Between the trip to New York and the internship, I was growing up.

Following graduation from Wayne State University in 1964, I briefly attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as a graduate student, which, although I didn’t stay long, played a significant role in my development. Although my work was praised by my professors, I was out of place at a private art school. Most of the students I met (two of whom I had met at the New York Society of Illustrators student exhibition the previous year) were from more privileged backgrounds, and of course, even with a scholarship, it was quite expensive living in Chicago. Couple that with a feeling that I really should be working in design after having graduated from college, and just plain homesickness for Detroit, and it was clear I should drop out.  The main influences from the Chicago experience were from Ray Yoshida, a member of the Chicago Imagist aesthetic, who taught painting and had no compunction about making students stretch beyond their comfort zone, and the drawing program, which had a strongly European academic bent. Another important feature of the school was the burgeoning political activism on the part of faculty and students. It seemed there was a strike of some sort every few weeks.  The design program, however, was disappointingly remedial.

Perhaps most important influence of all, was the daily walk through the museum itself, on the way to the entrance to the school, which at that time was under the museum itself. The guards preferred that students enter from the rear of the museum, directly into the school, but if you wanted to see great art every day, you played dumb and entered at the front.

Pounding the Pavement to Begin My Working Career

I left Chicago, returned to Detroit, and started looking for design work.  In those days, there was no such thing as “portfolio design.” We stuffed everything we had ever done into a cardboard folder, tied it up with string, and hit the pavement. I had a copy of the Art Directors Club of Detroit Annual Exhibition Catalog;  I marked each of the pieces I liked, noted the name of the designer or illustrator and where they worked, and started making calls. 

Once again, I am indebted to the designers who took their time sifting through my scraps of work. Some even went into the back room and called out their fellow workers to have a look-see. I’m sure much of the work was junk, but they saw some potential, and even though they had nothing available, they generously passed me along to someone else who might be interested. In just a few days I had worked my way through the best studios (this was a golden age of design in Detroit) and was directed to the Fisher Building, a magnificent Art Deco skyscraper in the New Center area north of downtown.

I interviewed at a major studio there, I believe it was Skidmore-Sahratian and, even though it was late in the day, they pointed me to a new studio on the 16th floor, that was touting itself as the first “graphic design” studio in Detroit.

The studio was John F. McNamara’s; the owner was a very successful automotive illustrator, who with his brother had operated one of the largest studios in the city. He decided to open his own shop, and took a handful of the best people with him. It’s significant that he used the term graphic design, as that was, even in 1965, a relatively new term, imported from Europe, implying a spread of work beyond just advertising. In fact, one of the interview questions was “What is Graphic Design?” Because I had studied “Advertising Design” I didn’t have a ready answer, so I opted for Plan B, which was to simply say, “I don’t know, but I’m willing to learn.”

It apparently worked, as I was hired the next morning. The studio was bare-bones, a few drafting tables, and basic studio equipment like a Lucigraph ( a Luci as we called it) for tracing, enlarging and reducing, and a stat camera for repro quality positive and negative copies. I became what was called an “apprentice,” which meant you did all the work the established designers were too expensive to do. This was perfect for me, to work beside designers like Chuck Wilkinson, Tom Sincavitch, Tony Nelson, Nelson Greer, Frank Bozzo and others, was the best thing that could have happened. I was part of a team, I was assisting on major projects, and every day I learned something new. My first project was to help design studio and storage furniture for the workrooms. I had taken drafting courses in high school, and rendering courses at Wayne State, so I had some inkling of what was required. McNamara had a carpenter on call; I drew up plans on graph paper, and the next thing I knew, furniture came up on the freight elevator. One of the first things I learned was to make sure the furniture would fit into the elevator! A good introduction to modular design.

Above you can see the typical work setup; That's Chuck Wilkinson at his drafting table - notice the can of Comet Cleanser on the taboret; after every project we put all the tools in the sink and gave them a thorough cleaning. Good for the tools and for the mind.

Two Wilkinson collages above.

One of Wilkinson's spot illustrations.

We had a good chuckle over the missing reflection of the oars in Chuck’s boating illustration above.

... and one of his studies.

Chuck Wilkinson passed away in December 2010.

This was a pivotal point in my development. Working with Wilkinson, I learned how to prepare an illustration; research, editing, preparing a panel for painting, using drafting tools, presentation sketches, meeting with account executives and clients, mounting and flapping artwork, etc.. In addition to all this, typography was central to our work; at that time, we had to “comp” type by hand to simulate typeset copy, mark up manuscripts, proof tissues of the typesetting, and produce elaborate mechanical boards for the printer.  Here’s a classic mechanical produced by a “keyline” artist. All the crop marks and keylines are drawn by hand. A masterly piece of work.

At some point I guess the powers that be decided I was going to work out, so I was ceremoniously gifted with a type specimen book. This was major, as they were expensive to produce and were personally kept up to date by our type rep. I think the statement of purpose is quite meaningful and indicative of the reverence attached to good typographic design. Each page has detailed type specing information for each point size of each font... amazing.

I did a lot of research at the Detroit Public Library, which had a “scrap” collection of every conceivable subject and image. Imagine, there was a person whose sole job was to cut out images and articles for the collection. Pre-Google! We also used the Polaroid camera, which was the equivalent of today's digital camera; quick turnaround. I recall driving around playgrounds with Chuck, taking reference photographs for a project. Here are a few of my pieces from the mid 60’s.

By some miracle, I was awarded a medal in the Art Directors annual exhibition, I believe for the Thoreau portrait (above).

Importantly, Wilkinson, Sincavitch and I also had a strong interest in fine art. Wilkinson had studied with Richard Lindner, who was primarily a painter, but who also did illustrations for Fortune Magazine. We would “go to coffee” with a few art books and magazines, and spend considerable time looking at art, discussing ideas, and visiting galleries in the Fisher Building. The account executives were sent out to herd us back to work. We later convinced McNamara that we should have his carpenter make several four-foot-square gessoed wood panels, so that each member of the studio who was willing, could make an abstract painting for the studio. I think this idea that we were artists as well as designers elevated our self image and added a certain spark to our daily grind.

The big thing in art at this time was Pop Art, and I was very influenced by the print shows I saw at galleries in the Fisher Building and at the J.L. Hudson department store gallery. Eager to get something printed, I was encouraged to look for freelance work outside the studio. My first printed piece (below) was an illustration about the Detroit Tigers premier baseball player, Al Kaline, which appeared in the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine.

Collage seems to have been a popular medium, probably because of Warhol,  Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, and the other Pop artists. Below is a nice example by Ed Stopke, a designer who showed his fine-art work in galleries.

As I became a better draughtsman, I moved away from collage and towards more painterly techniques.  A very important lesson I had to learn was not just how to draw, but how to draw for design. I learned a lot about this by looking at the work of artists such as Heinz Edelmann, Tadanori Yokoo, Richard Lindner, Jim Flora, and Polish designers Roman Cieślewicz, and Jan Lenica.

The idea that there could be a cross-over between fine art and design, was a Modernist, European concept, that would come to greatly influence the design field. Although many designers “in the trenches” thought this was simply an elitist concept, I took it to heart and eventually decided to again pursue a graduate degree, where I hoped to further integrate my interests in art and design.

Well, I suppose that’s more than enough about my background. In summary, I received a graduate degree at the University of Iowa, and I launched into a long career as an artist, designer and professor.  Below are a few illustrations from the years before I started the Puerto del Sol project. They're just a few examples of my design and illustration work from 1968 to 1988, prior to my work on the Puerto covers. Along with design work I made prints, paintings and sculpture, which is another story.

Above is a screen printed poster for a peace fair in Montana, designed with my good friend, designer and artist Walter Jule. We drove from Bozeman, Montana to Billings, just to find circus photographs. We copied these, re-screened them for photo screen printing, worked up the design, added spot colors, and then printed the edition.

The Steel Cat (pictured above) is a gouache illustration for a short story by John Collier.

This illustration for the company, Freightliner, was done in watercolor, photographed on 4 x 5 film, and reproduced as a five or six foot wide airbrushed graphic on canvas. As this was done in the late 1970’s, this is a very early example of using a computer to directly generate imagery. The canvas was on a huge drum, about 12 feet in length, and the airbrush nozzles were controlled by a laser scanner, which scanned the 4 x 5 transparency. I deliberately used lots of gradients, which I thought would work well with airbrushing. I later had to fill in a few areas that were too subtle for the scanning. Because the scanning drum was so wide, it was more economical to have two paintings done at once, as we were paying for the same amount of time and materials. The two paintings were cut apart, framed, and used at the Freightliner headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

The illustration above, titled Summer by the Sea, is a gouache and acrylic illustration used on a poster for a summer program in the arts at Cannon Beach, Oregon. It was included in one of the Graphis poster annuals.

This Nutcracker poster illustration was for a performance by the Montana Motion Dance Company. It was color separated directly on a process camera, which captured incredible detail.


Tomorrow on Illustration Pages we'll launch right into the work Louis Ocepek created for the Puerto del Sol journal covers.


  1. What an amazing interview... thank you for sharing!

  2. Glad you're enjoying it, Jess. You'll find the next segment about Louis Ocepek just as interesting - no doubt. He's going to go into great detail about how he completed the Puerto del Sol journal covers before computers were introduced into illustration and design. Really interesting.


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