Interview with James Mellett, Professional Illustrator

Interview with James Mellett, Professional Illustrator

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Interior Design

Using primarily gouache, James Mellett's commercial illustration work uses bright, liquid strokes of color in a form of graphic realism. As a free-lance illustrator for the past 10 years, he has worked with advertising agencies across the country and has produced 11 puzzles for White Mountain Puzzles of Jackson, NH. He has won national awards for his sports art through Beckett Publications' annual sports art contest.

James Mellett Illustration's partial client list includes: Grolier Publishing, Scott Foresman Publishing, White Mountain Puzzles, Heinz, Roadway Package Systems, Pittsburgh Penguins, Century Publishing, Silver Burdett Press, Choice VISA, Nova Chemicals, McKesson Pharmaceuticals, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and Monsanto-Round Up.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he studied art at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree. He also received an Associates Degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and he is a member of the Graphic Artists Guild and the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators.

Mr. Mellett & His Career

When and how did you decide to become an artist, an illustrator?

Although I was a good student from a school district with a great reputation, the only thing I could truly picture myself doing for the rest of my life was being an artist. I had no choice in my mind as to what I would do with my professional life. At a young age, I idolized illustrators that I saw in national magazines. I knew their names like some kids know professional athletes. I wanted to do what they were doing.

Who were your biggest inspirations for your career?

It is often thought of as a cliché but my greatest influences were my parents. My father and mother although not artists were very supportive of all of my activities. My father and mother were both teachers. Mom retired when they had the first of four boys. As the youngest son I was always following my brothers into one thing or another.

My oldest brother Mike, a Carnegie Mellon graduate in Printing Management, also is now a practicing artist. I was always trying to be as good or better than him.

I also had a great design professor in college that had an extensive library of illustration books. The books and the guidance and support of Bob Slenker at Indiana University of Pennsylvania kept me going through the college years and beyond.

Finally, the influences of my friends and peers in the business are a constant inspiration. Especially one of my best friends for the past 16 years and also an illustrator, Mark Bender. Mark is always there with advice when I have a problem with a client or a design.

What do you enjoy most about being an illustrator?

I love doing what I always dreamed of doing. The satisfaction of completing an assignment on time and successfully is very rewarding.

What are your favorite pieces of work that you have done and why?

My portraits are probably my strength. The best portrait in my graphic style is probably that of Oprah Winfrey. Sometimes, you just nail the likeness and get a beautiful illustration also. I am very happy with that piece.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

My greatest success so far has been the ability to help my wife provide for our family. I may not be the most famous or successful illustrator in the business, but I have a nice house in a good neighborhood, a great wife, and a beautiful little girl. I am more proud of them than any job I have ever completed.

The Actual Work

What do illustrators do?

The styles and clients vary for every illustrator. In general, we illustrate for magazines, books, posters, games, etc. The illustrator often fits in to the spot where the photographer can't answer the bill. Also, when maybe something a little more editorial is needed; that is often where the illustrator gets a call.

Do you consider yourself more an artist or an illustrator?

I have always considered myself an illustrator. I usually work from photo references and paint in a less traditional style. My style is realistic but I often call it graphic realism. It is not exactly fine art, but I am proud of my fine art background.

Tell us about your business as an illustrator? What do you like most, least?

The only thing I don't like about doing freelance illustration is the unpredictability of the work. I advertise and do mailings, and that helps, but there is still no guarantee that the clients will call on a consistent basis.

What are the tools of the trade for illustrators?

The tools vary depending on the media and style of your illustration. I use everything from colored pencils to airbrush at different times. My primary media is the opaque watercolor media of gouache.

What percentage of illustrators do their work on the computer versus more traditional ways?

I don't know exact figures, but, like everything else, the technology affects my profession. The styles of computer illustration are just as varied as those illustrations done by hand. The advantages I've been told to using the computer are, of course, speed, the ability to correct mistakes quickly, and the use of digital files. The digital file can be shipped by disc or by e-mail and you never have to worry about damaging your original artwork in shipping. You also, of course, never lose track of the original art. Since you never send out an original painting or drawing, you never have to worry if a client will return or lose your art.

Education Information & Advice

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about a career in illustration?

Make a decision early on whether you want to be versatile or if you want to focus on one style. There are good and bad parts to both sides. Being from Pittsburgh, I try to show versatility in my work. I mostly focus on one style, but I like to show clients my ability to illustrate all subjects.

If someone has the art talent already, should they go to art school and why?

I have always felt that a good part of my talent, and all artists' talent, cannot be taught. But, the lessons you learn from other people who are more experienced really are invaluable. You learn new techniques that maybe you would learn someday, but probably not. I would definitely recommend going to art school. Nobody knows everything. Learn from others and observe their techniques.

What factors did you consider when choosing an art school?

I hate to say this but I was somewhat handicapped by my ability to pay. I was forced to go to a more affordable college. I talked with many of my teachers in high school and did a little research and decided on IUP. A number of the faculty members of my high school art department were Indiana graduates, and they helped me decide. I guess I will never know if another University could have taught me more, but I really enjoyed my years at IUP.

What factors should prospective art students consider when choosing their school?

The school has to be right for your goals. If you, as a student, want a career in graphic design, then look around and find the best college or school for what you want to be. Use this web site to research, ask around, and find out where others you respect got their education. A fine artist would probably not want the more design-oriented school. Find what is right for you.

What did you like and dislike about your art school?

I attended two different schools to study art. I received my bachelor of fine arts degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), a medium-sized, state university in a small-town atmosphere (Indiana, PA, is the birthplace of the actor Jimmy Stewart). It was a great college atmosphere and a lot of fun. The faculty was fabulous and the environment was very diversified for a smaller, affordable university. I studied drawing, graphic design, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and jewelry. We also took numerous hours of art history. The art history studies were tough at the time, but now I know the importance of studying the past. The artists you look at and admire influence your work in many ways. Sometimes you don't even realize the full impact of the museum visit or history book. The styles and techniques filter into your work whether you realize it or not. Over the years I've seen fellow students and past faculty in local and national shows and have always been proud of IUP and the talent that was and is still there.

I also attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP) as part of the college affiliate program. The education at AIP was quite different from my perspective. I feel you had to get out of AIP what you wanted to. To be specific, there were a lot of young people with a lot of different career goals, so not all classes were perfect for everyone. I, of course, wanted someday to be an illustrator, so I tried to pick the brain of those teachers I thought would help me most. The experience was also much more focused on the graphic design end of the art spectrum. This was also very good for me because, as I said before, at the time I was not interested in the fine art end as much as the design and illustration profession.

How did you fund your art education?

I used summer employment at a nearby spaghetti factory, a large paper route in a local wealthy neighborhood, and the usual college loans to pay for my education. I also had the support of my parents when things got tight.

What is your advice to students wanting to get financial aid for art school?

Talk to the financial advisors at the college or school, as well as the counselors at your high school. I know there are scholarships of all kinds out there. You may have to search for them, but that could also help.

When is it a good idea to go after a graduate degree in art?

I have never thought of going for a graduate degree. Mostly because I have always been working. Once I started a family, and got all the other bills that marriage and family include, it honestly never entered my mind. I'm sure in the future, if I were to get into education, I would want to get another degree. Right now, it would not be helpful to the advancement of my career.

What advice can you give to prospective art students before they begin their education?

Try to decide early on where you want to end up. Don't just flounder around art school. Try to focus and learn as much as possible. Find what will help you to reach your career goals. I'm not suggesting all work and no play; just try to stay on the path towards the career you want.

What should art students try to get out of art school?

Like I've said a number of times, get out all you can from your professors. Most of them love to teach and will be more than willing to give advice and guidance. Their experience could be very valuable.

Job Information & Advice

How much are illustrators generally paid? Are they generally paid by the hour or by the work?

I, personally, am paid by the project. As with any profession, some make more money than others. The pay depends mostly on the client's budget. Advertising clients often have larger budgets than, say, publishing - but not always. The success or fame of the illustrator also factors into the equation. Those illustrators that win numerous awards and are more in demand, in turn, demand more money for their time.

What advice can you give to people who want to succeed as a freelance illustrator?

Stick with it, the career is very rewarding, personally. The successes some times are slow to come and the recognition isn't always there but the personal satisfaction is wonderful.

What are skills that really help all artists succeed regardless of their specialty?

This is going to sound corny, but you have to love this career. You can't let failure bring you down. Just like anything, not everyone will love everything that you produce. As an illustrator, I put out the advertising that I feel best shows my abilities. Sometimes, clients call and are just thrilled that I'm available, and they love my style and my samples. What an ego boost when this happens! Other times the phone doesn't ring, and you wonder if you chose the right job. You have to hang in there, adjust and stick it out. It is very satisfying when things are going well.

What advice can you give to graduating art students looking to be illustrators on how to find and get the best job?

I'm not sure how many companies still have illustrators on staff. I think in most cases you have to go out on your own. Put a good portfolio together, maybe get a web site, put together some mailings and hope for the best. Again it is a lot of work and you're probably going to have some tough spells, but keep working and don't lose your confidence. If you have the guts to go it alone then you probably already have the confidence in your work. Don't lose that pride in knowing that you're good.

The Industry

What are some trends that you see in the art industry, and especially in illustration?

This is a hard question to answer because it is greatly affected by the trends in style, advertising, and design. The hot styles come and go, like any other trends. The great illustrators, like Gary Kelley, Brad Holland, C. F. Payne, for example, continue to adjust their work slightly and continue to flourish. Every artist's goal is to keep busy, in spite of the changing marketplace.

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