Introduction by Lou Simeone
Today it is my pleasure to present the autobiography and artwork of illustrator, Ken Graning. Ken Graning's impressive career as an illustrator spans an astonishing forty six years. Below is just a fraction of the art he has created during that time. As you read through his bio you will be utterly impressed by this artist's work. Ken Graning's traditional work alone is impressive but wait until you see what he creates digitally. His digital paintings, The Persistence of Gingivitis and Galactic Landscape #1, are nothing short of brilliant. Take your time - relax - and enjoy Illustration Pages' latest piece, Illustrator Ken Granning: Multiple Personalities of an Illustration Master.
There are six or seven different artists living in my body. It has always been this way. I have no idea why. I began to paint and draw pictures at a very early age. When I was four or five years old my parents took me to the cinema and the movie was preceded by an early Mickey Mouse cartoon. I was transfixed by the little rodent and bonded with Mickey on sight. That moment changed my life. That was around 1945 or so.
We lived in Sioux City, Iowa where I was born. We lived there for the first ten years of my life. In 1950 my father took a job in Los Angeles, California and moved the family into a small rented bungalow in Altadena, California. I started drawing cartoons, many of which contained images of Mickey. In high school I was a shy reclusive nerd and spent most of my time in my room drawing pictures. After high school I joined the Air Force and was sent to Bitburg AFB in Germany where I worked in the supply room for three years. In my spare time I painted portraits of some of my fellow airmen on the sides of German beer steins to earn a little extra cash. In 1961 after leaving the Air Force I returned to my parents home and took a job as a clerk in the blueprint department of an electronic corporation in San Gabriel. I met a young lady there and we got married.
The clerical job looked like a dead end to me and I decided to get serious about my art. I learned that there was an art school in Los Angeles called Chouinard Art Institute and that Walt Disney trained his animators there in the film department. I submitted a portfolio and was accepted into the foundation program where I began to take classes in drawing, painting, and design, as well as academic classes that were required because Chouinard was an accredited school and awarded degrees.
When I walked into the door of Chouinard I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. This was a magical world for me and I loved going there. Being at Chouinard opened my eyes to the wider world of art. Chouinard had a bohemian vibe. Many of the students were wild eyed, long haired, paint covered hippies and the hallways were permeated by the aroma of oil paint and turpentine. Chouinard was considered one of the premier fine art institutes in southern California at the time and many of the students were there to study painting, sculpture, and ceramics. There was also a very respectable illustration department and I was impressed by the illustration work that I would see displayed in the hallways and classrooms in that area of the school.
I painted this rather stylized image of a rainforest under attack by a bulldozer around 1985. I used gouache on illustration board and the technique was a combination of airbrush and the rub off technique to give it a textural effect.
One of the artists living in my body is a cartoonist. This is an example of his work. This image which depicts a politically incorrect version of the Garden of Eden was created in Adobe Illustrator.
Walt Disney was a board member and could occasionally be seen wandering the halls of the school when he was there for evening board meetings. Even though my goal was to major in animation and ultimately get a job as an animator at Disney studios in Burbank, I began to rethink this plan when I saw what was being done in the illustration department. I made the decision to switch to a major in illustration and graduated with a BFA and a very avant garde illustration portfolio which contained some rather experimental illustration styles and a couple of fashion drawings. The fashion drawings were a concession to one of my instructors who taught boy-girl romantic editorial illustration which was popular in magazines like Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Day, Saturday Evening Post, and others. His last word to me after looking at my graduation portfolio were, “Ken..you have got to learn to draw a pretty girl”.
After graduating, my wife, who was originally from Michigan, and I set out for New York as this was considered to be the Mecca for illustrators at the time. On the way we decided to stop in Detroit where she had lived so she could visit with her parents and friends. Out of curiosity I did some research and discovered that there were a number of sizable art studios in town so I decided to take my book around to a few of them and get some reactions. What I got was three job offers after visiting five studios.
I decided New York could wait for a year or two while I got some actual working experience and improved my portfolio. It really needed it. People that I showed my book to were impressed by the experimental styles that I was working in at the time which were very different from the work that was being done at the time in Detroit, but in reality this work was not very sellable in the Detroit advertising market, which was primarily geared to automotive advertising, especially the car catalogs which at this time were a major market for illustrators and retouchers.
Videotape box cover illustrations. The art director on this project was Ron Rae. The medium was Prismacolor pencils on airbrush backgrounds.
In the spring of 1966 I took one of the job offers and began my illustration career at Graphic House Inc. A relatively small downtown studio with a staff of four Illustrators, two retouchers, three car illustrators, two graphic designers, a couple of keyliners a few mat room apprentices who cut mats and prepped the jobs for delivery. There were also four or five salesmen who called on the local agencies and brought in the work.
I painted this group of highly stylized folks fawning over a vintage Chevrolet around 1986. The medium was gouache on illustration board using mostly airbrush over a pre-textured background.
I set about reinventing myself. The paying jobs that the salesmen would bring me were primarily editorial which were fun to do but did not pay as well as advertising work. If one of the salesmen had asked me to paint a pretty girl standing next to a car I would have been in trouble. I guess I should have paid closer attention to my art school instructor who scolded me for not being able to do that. I earned my keep the first couple of years by cranking out T.V. storyboards. There was a never ending supply of these and they were profitable for the studio but the deadlines were brutal. I spent many a weekends and holidays working nonstop day and night to meet a Monday morning deadline.
This is an illustration of a 1939 Packard.
I started thinking, "Hey Ken...you didn’t go to art school to learn to do story boards", so I started focusing on more realistic styles and even dabbled with car painting. All of the work in my art school portfolio was painted in acrylics which worked well with my experimental styles but the consistency of the paint did not feel right to me when I tried to paint realistically so I switched to gouache. I liked the feel of gouache but gouache takes some practice because it is opaque water color and it’s easy to overwork, and it also dries down to a slightly different value than it appears on the palette when its wet, so you have to anticipate what it will look like on the board when its dry.
In addition to my studio work I had cultivated a freelance client, Detroit Magazine, which was a supplemental magazine that was printed by the Detroit Free Press and distributed with the Sunday news. The work was editorial and didn’t pay much but the exposure offset the low prices and people started to take notice of my work. One day I got a phone call from the studio manager of McNamara Studio, a direct competitor to Graphic House and a considerably larger studio. He inquired if I would be interested in taking a position at McNamaras as a staff illustrator. I told him I might be interested and he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. A bidding war ensued when I told my boss at Graphic House that I had an offer to change studios. After going back and forth for about a week, McNamara won the war and I made the move.
McNamara had a much larger sales staff which improved my position in the market place and I began to attract higher profile jobs, including a series of illustrations that I did in 1972 for Playboy Magazine. At this point I was becoming a player in the local illustration industry. The pace at McNamara was hectic and exciting, but after a couple of years I decided that I missed the intimacy of the smaller studio and returned to Graphic House. I had left on good terms and they were happy to have me back. I stayed at Graphic House for four more years and then decided that if I was ever going to make any serious money I would need to go freelance. I had developed relationships with a number of local art reps and felt that I would be able to attract enough work to stay busy on my own.
In 1976 I hung out my shingle and set up a studio in my home. I also cultivated relationships with out of town reps to broaden my base and with this network I was able to keep busy for the remainder of my illustration career. Also in 1976 I received a phone call from the head of the Graphic Communication Department at what was then called the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. He asked if I would have any interest in teaching illustration as a member of the adjunct faculty at C.C.S. With some trepidation (I wasn’t trained for that) I accepted. I began teaching experimental illustration, two classes per week, and after a period of time discovered that I enjoyed doing that so I continued teaching for the next 25 years.
This somewhat stylized panorama of African animals was painted with gouache on black museum board. I seed black board because I wanted to achieve a luminous effect by working from dark to light out of black.
In the mid 1980s the business began to change. Powerful computers began to appear in art studios and ad agencies. These machines could paint and draw pictures and ad agencies began to hire artists who could run these computers thus eliminating the necessity to farm out a lot of the work to outside studios and freelancers. My client base began to erode and the volume of work began to decline dramatically. For some time, in addition to my illustration work, I had been painting non commercial work such as landscapes, animal themes and other subject matter that interested me and was directed at the gallery fine art market. I stepped up the pace and made the decision to slowly phase out of illustration and into the fine arts.
I also made an important transition in my illustration work at about this same time. When the computers started taking over the business I viewed them with suspicion. Actually I was in total denial. It was a machine! I don’t get along well with machines and I was intimidated by the learning curve involved in going digital. At Center for Creative studies, classrooms began to appear that were full of computers. The students sitting in front of these computers appeared to be in a catatonic state, but the images on the monitors began to interest me. There was an evening class being offered in the extension department that involved creating art elements traditionally with paint, pencils and brushes and then scanning these elements into computers and manipulating them in Photoshop - I signed up.
It was as if someone handed Emeril Lagasse the master key to the Food Giant supermarket chain. I bonded immediately. I bought a Mac and began creating images using Photoshop as a painting and photo manipulation tool. I also taught myself Adobe Illustrator, Quark Express, which I have since replaced with InDesign, Adobe Dimensions and Fractal Painter. Later I added Adobe Go Live so that I could design and publish my own websites.
This is the ultimate example of the law of unexpected consequences. In the 12 or so years since I went digital I have created several bodies of digital work that are distinctly different from my traditional painting work, although when viewed as a whole I believe there are common threads that connect it all together. The foundation of my work such as basic drawing skills, how I design and compose graphic elements and shapes, (I had an instructor at Chouinard who used to scream at me “shape..Graning..shape!) my color palette, and my basic concepts, apply equally to my digital work and traditional painting.
I am now in the 46th year of my art career. My body wants to slow down but my mind won’t let it, so I drag myself out of bed (its a bit like unfolding a rusty lawn chair that needs a lot of WD40 to get it going) and go to my studio. Sometimes people ask me if I think about retiring. I’m reminded of a quote that I saw on the wall of a friends studio one day. “Old artists never retire, they just lose their perspective”.
A special thank you to Ken Graning from Illustration Pages for taking us through this wonderful journey of his work. Please be sure to visit Ken Graning's websites to see more of his art.
Ken Graning's Website
Ken Graning on Etsy
Ken Graning on Cafepress
Ken Graning on Art Exchange
Also a special thank you to Ron Rae who is an invaluable contributor to Illustration Pages.