Illustrator Profile - Harry Campbell: "Design is very much a part of my illustration"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 26, 2015

Harry Campbell creates illustrations that are super smart, highly stylish, consistently modern, and very cool looking. His brilliantly executed and designed vector drawings have become a mainstay in countless magazines and newspapers, most notably in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I worked with Harry at both Fortune and the AARP magazine, and was always amazed at his ability to illustrate and explain deep, complex stories with simple lines and colors. Harry’s illustrations always fill their space very elegantly, whether it’s a small spot or a full-page. It was always a treat to be able to incorporate Harry’s illustrations into a magazine design, because they always make the pages look so good!

Harry’s artwork has a warm, intimate sensibility that belies the stereotype of its mechanical, Illustrator-based vector style. In fact, there’s something of an organic feel to it, in part because for the past few years he’s been incorporating hand-drawn elements into his illustrations. Harry’s years of experience as a designer are apparent both in the graceful, balanced sense of space and line in his work, as well as in the warm, smart monochromatic colors that dominate his pieces. 

In his early days as an illustrator, Harry worked in a more straight-ahead, cartoony style. Although successful, he abandoned that completely in the early 00s and created his current very different and distinctive look. Over the past dozen years he has honed and developed and expanded the quality of his work to a remarkable degree. With his work on The New York Times Op-Ed page, The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and other places, he has of late become one of the most potent and sophisticated social commentary illustrators as well, most notably with his pointed visual critiques on gun violence and gun control.

In addition to his huge editorial illustration output, Harry continues to expand his work in a wide array of other venues. He’s currently finishing a custom water tower for the Boundless Brooklyn 50 Towers show curated by Chris and SooJin Buzelli, which opens April 3 at Kikkerland Shop NYC in Manhattan. Harry is also working on a mural in Baltimore, appeared on the cover of the Society of Illustrators' Illustration 56 annual, and is creating a limited series of posters for a cyclocross race. 

My family background is very non-artistic—however my father was quite good with his hands, working with wood and such. He died when I was quite young. When I was born he was with the FBI as a special agent and prior to that a Marine, so it was a very different sort of background than me. The circumstances of my childhood certainly influenced my direction as an artist; it was my refuge. I credit my older sister Alice with encouraging me to pursue my art, buying me drawing pads, and pencils, as well as just being very supportive.

After high school I attended a community college in New Jersey and then went on to attend MICA in Baltimore. That community college had a great art department; I think it set me up quite well.

After art school I took my portfolio to New York and almost immediately abandoned plans to be an illustrator. My first job was actually at a small screen printing shop in New Jersey, where I’m from. I did everything in that place; I was the entire art department. Back then in the late 80s to early 90s, we were still using stat cameras and waxers, cutting Rubylith and using press type. I mention this as I think all that technical stuff back then influences what I do now, precision of line, that sort of thing.

Then I began working in NYC, first for a small garment company where I drew Mickey Mouse and other licensed characters all day. That “rent paying” job actually turned into a career. From that small company I advanced to the Warner Brothers Studio Store design studio, a big step up, with my own office, better pay, and a title. I enjoyed that job, designing packaging and programs for the now-defunct Warner Brothers stores, but I quit when I didn’t like what the corporate life was doing to me. So I went to Nickelodeon—a great place to work at that time. Again I did everything, but I declined a full time position because I wanted to start pursuing illustration. At that time I had developed a style that was rather “cartoony” — that’s the world I was in at Nick. I was getting lots of illustration work from Nick mag, Entertainment Weekly and others, and eventually quit the Nickelodeon job and began freelancing full time. I worked that style of illustration for years; it wasn’t really “me” but it was work and I liked being independent.

That style of mine eventually died around 9/11 and I decided to let it die. I used my free time to start drawing, primarily using Adobe Illustrator, a program I had used for years. Something happened at that point, it felt natural to me, I enjoyed it and it opened up lost of opportunities to explore illustration in a new way, and in a way that felt honest. I felt this was my work.

I am married with three children, all boys, 21, 16, and 10. My oldest is pursuing playwriting and acting in New York, the middle guy is attending the Baltimore School for the Arts, and the youngest is still a kid.

I move around a lot. I currently work in a detached garage that I renovated, about 400 square feet and very comfortable. But I do like to move around so I have rented studio places in a variety of old renovated mill buildings in Baltimore. This town is great for cheap and interesting space. I’m currently looking to make a change of some sort. I work rather Spartan-like; I don’t need much surrounding me.

I work in Illustrator, primarily using the pen tool. I do my roughs in Illustrator as well, working directly in vector. This is completely natural to me but for others may seem terribly non-intuitive. I have in recent years combined hand-drawn, more organic shapes into my work, and I sometimes do that by drawing traditionally and then scanning that and using it as a template.

I would have to say it would be my first job for The New York Times Op Ed page, which at the time was art directed by Steven Guarnaccia. I had begun working in this new vector line style, had done a few jobs but they were all very technical, or rather the subject matter lent itself to this approach—precise line. But with the Op Ed stuff I had to really work on concept, to try to digest some really good and rich thoughts. This was new for me, not at all something I would have done in that cartoon style I had developed earlier in my career. This was a turning point. It was personal; the first time I was able to bring my own honest thoughts and opinions and point of view to solving a visual problem. I loved it. I continued on with Steven and then Brian Rea and others at the Times, just really loved the challenge, the quick turnaround. I still love it. I think many people are familiar with the series I did after the Newtown tragedy; that body of work is directly influenced by my early Op Ed work. They were simply self-assigned opinion pieces.

I think I’m influenced by so many things, sometimes not so direct. I could be walking down the street in New York and I notice a nondescript building with beautiful lines. 

So many, but for today the person who pops into my head is my friend and fellow illustrator Leo Espinosa. The reason is change and growth. I admire people who have the guts to answer to themselves, to assess whether what they are doing is true to them. It’s what I did when I discovered this new way of working and it’s what I seek to do now, to keep changing, challenging myself, discovering new things, ways to work with figures. So Leo did that, he reinvented himself in a huge way—and his figures are incredible.

Isolation I suppose, but we all get pretty good at that. Staying motivated, trying to treat every assignment equally, trying to do good work every time, which I think is impossible. Trying to not waste time on Facebook or other social media when you should be working. I can also say all that business stuff like contracts and invoicing, but all in all I’ve worked the corporate thing and I’ve worked alone, and I prefer this world by far. 

It’s such an easy choice and I’m sure you've heard it before. What it comes down to is when I am allowed to do what I do without arbitrary direction. SooJin Buzelli would be at the top of the list for several reasons, first being she lets me explore, encourages risk taking, but also has an eye on the problem. Solve the problem and do it in a unique and personal way—that’s the best I can ever hope for in an art director. I recently tried to take a break from work as I had been quite busy, felt burnt out and work seemed stale, uninspired. I saw SooJin at an event in New York and told her of this, how I needed to break out, try something new—she immediately asked if I was free. When an art director does that it becomes more than just hiring an illustrator for an assignment. It’s a personal commitment to the craft, demonstrates a real understanding of what illustrators go through, and is simply advocacy for good work.

I tend to sometimes get real busy and just go on auto pilot, not looking at the work that influences and inspires me. If I turn to my bookshelf I can share a few things that really inspired me when I began exploring this way that I work. I have a book from Taschen—the encyclopedia of technology—just incredible machines and objects, page after page. I like things, parts, and wires and machinery. I also love anything and everything from Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, to mid-century design and architecture. I have books on eyeglasses, radios, pens, I just love everyday design, mostly from the past. This idea that I’m inspired by everything comes from being a designer at one time and reflects how a designer often collects all types of imagery to try and inspire what they are currently working on. I’d say design is very much a part of my illustration.

A piece I did for Alexandra Zsigmond at The New York Times Sunday Review. This was a piece done after the unrest in Ferguson, an article exploring whether police tend to shoot based on race. I came up with the roughs in just a few minutes; I tell people that I don’t even recall thinking about it, that the image kind of just appeared. It was a gun with two triggers, one white, one black—simple. There are of course other great assignments from the year but this stood out. I sometimes think I am known as the “gun guy” for all the pieces I’ve done on the subject of gun control. This also ties back to personal family history.

I’d have to say this would be self-assigned, a book perhaps. I just finished a New York Times cover for the Metropolitan section, so I’m already doing dream assignments. I just love getting those full page covers—they are each a dream. They’re high visibility so there's a bit of pressure, but I love that and think it’s one of the things that keeps things exciting. I would also add that there are dream jobs that I think about, some would be self-assigned, like a graphic novel or simply a book of illustrations. I did a piece a year or so ago, very Aubrey Beardsley inspired, somewhat erotic. Someone mentioned that I should do a book of them. It would also be a dream to do a New Yorker cover or a Rolling Stone cover, likenesses being something I really want to explore. I have done some but it's one of those areas that I see as exciting and a way to get excited about my work.

I think about this quite a bit as the industry is clearly changing. I do quite a few tablet-only illustrations, most recently for Macworld magazine, which has gone tablet-only. Rob Schultz, the art director there asked if they could animate the cover, which they did, and it came out great. This is something I’ve wanted to explore for a while— illustration in new mediums. I also want to be more proactive about promoting such work; I just need time and motivation. I have the motivation.

I do everything. I had a rep up until a few years ago—they handled all of the postcards and source books. Everything is changing but I think what it comes down to is being visible everywhere. I questioned the expense of entering competitions, but I think all of those things have a cumulative effect. So now I’m doing old school postcards, competitions, posting on social media, etc.

Be honest. It’s not something you can invent, meaning the way in which you work—which can be called “style.” It’s difficult and a long shot to become a successful illustrator. First develop work you like, that’s you, that’s honest, that you can live and grow with, then promote yourself and enter competitions. Most importantly, do not take connections for granted; go to the people you want to work for and be relentless in becoming visible in the illustration and design community.

See more Harry Campbell illustrations, new work, and updates:
Harry Campbell on Drawger
Harry Campbell on Behance