Illustrator Profile - David Plunkert: "Learn to think as well as draw"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 16, 2015

David Plunkert is a visual force of nature. His editorial work has appeared in countless publications, on book covers, posters, comics books, and animation music videos, as well as in advertising campaigns. David’s work fuses an art director’s sense of scale and graphicness with an old school sensibility about technique and materials, along with some flat out great execution. He works in two main styles—what he describes as “graphic block illustrations,” and collages, which are often accompanied by hand drawn typography and other graphic elements. The theater posters that are featured in American Illustration 33, showcase the full range of David's talents: illustration, typography, art direction, and the ability to weave all those visual skills together to create a masterful whole.

Based in Baltimore, David runs Spur Design with his wife, illustrator Joyce Hesselberth. The studio creates posters, branding, books and DVD covers and much more. They turn part of their space into an occasional gallery, and have exhibited work by illustrators Harry Campbell, Steve Brodner, Dan Yaccarino, and Luba Lukova, among others.

In addition to his editorial illustration work, David has branched into books, recently publishing a graphic collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems. He’s also created two issues of Heroical, a striking, oversize graphic comic collection that was one of the outstanding items on display at the recent MoCCA Arts Festival in New York City. And working in a very different style, David created characters and drawings for a recent pair of They Might Be Giants music videos, directed by David Cowles and Jeremy Galante. The common thread in his ever-evolving and diverse range of styles is their graphic power and sense of smartness.

My dad ran a dairy processing plant, which probably explains the use of pipes and plumbing in my work. I self-published comics in high school, which landed me a summer job working at a small printing company. I went to Shepherd College (now a university) and majored in Visual Communication.

After graduating I worked as a graphic designer at a now-defunct design company where I also art directed illustrators and did some illustration myself. After freelancing for a few years (1992-94), in 1995 I co-founded Spur, a design and illustration studio, with my wife, illustrator Joyce Hesselberth. Our design and illustration clients include the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Directory of Illustration, Theatre Project, Maryland Institute College of Art, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

I have worked for a lot of magazines and newspapers. I’ve made a lot of posters. I just received two gold medals from the Society of Illustrators. I teach design and illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art on occasion. Joyce and I have three kids, two cats, and five chickens.

We purchased a 10,000 square-foot warehouse 15 years ago and it’s the place we do most of our work. In addition to having a gallery space there is room for a large library of books, printing equipment and a large morgue of collage scraps. There’s enough room that non-deadline oriented projects can be abandoned for a while and picked at when the mood hits.

I use a mix of stuff. For a typical editorial assignment I put my rough pencil sketch on a channel and use it as a template. I then drop in scanned collage and painted elements via Photoshop. I work digitally in my more graphic block style as well, but I tighten up the pencil drawing and after I’ve dropped in the color elements I start eliminating lines. 

The first straight freelance illustration job I did was a valentine series for a magazine called Mid-Atlantic Country late in 1992. It was all straight cut and paste— no Photoshop. Even though I came from a design background where I art directed illustrators, I really had no idea how an editorial illustrator operated on a day-to-day basis. That job helped clarify a few practical essentials for working efficiently like nailing down the deadline, budget, and keeping travel to a minimum.

At that time I was pretty much walking my illustration portfolio around door-to-door until I got a half dozen pieces included in American Illustration 12. After that the roof blew off and with the added help of effective mailers I stayed busy for an unbelievable number of years without worrying much about where my next assignment was coming from. It was a great time to break into the biz and learn your chops. The memorable stuff from that era was lo-fi with an emphasis on idea and concept. If there was ever a problem it was “how am I going to get all this done?”…Which is the best problem to have.

John Heartfield, Paul Rand, Seymour Chwast, George Grosz, Gary Baseman, Paul Davis, A.M Cassandre, Picasso. I could go on.

My friend Paul Sahre does everything well. His work is unfailingly smart and there's an integrity to it that goes above and beyond “a paying job.” Solving visual problems is a calling to him.

I don’t work on my own. There's a talented and helpful staff here at Spur. A personal challenge is to keep getting up and enjoy “making the doughnuts” everyday. 

I greatly enjoy working with Nicholas Blechman at The New York Times Book Review. We did a cover a few years back about Hedy Lemarr that turned out nice. Nicholas also will ask for stuff to shift around so that the illustration and the type can be a more organic whole, which is tough to do in a newspaper but it makes me feel useful. I’m not sure if the current New York Times redesign allows for this sort of play but that kind of integration makes print distinctive from its online counterpart where the art is just in a window.

I look at folk art and outsider art frequently. I look at kids’ drawings. The computer has been a great tool for cutting out production steps but a certain amount of the hand play has been lost. I love looking at paintings in museums but I want to see the process so I tend towards more graphic works by Ben Shahn, Picasso, or Miro.

Toss up between illustrating a book on Edgar Allan Poe and doing the character designs for They Might be Giants posters and videos. [Editor’s note: see below.]

That’s a tough one because there are mundane aspects to different jobs that I think are cool. I think something like those big Halloween Masks that Charles Andersen did for Target a few years back would be a dream assignment. I’d love to do a large-scale permanent mural in a train station or airport. On a more intimate scale I would love to do a great series of illustrated book covers.

I think being an art director/designer makes me more informed of how illustration fits into the “thing.” By “thing” I mean poster, animation, newspaper, magazine, etc. Illustration is one other thing in a designer’s quiver with photography and type to solve a visual communication problem. I suspect that a sketch is way more likely to get approved btw if the art director shows it to the editor in context on the page or with the cover dress as opposed to on its own.

On the flip side... working as an illustrator has made me a more laid back art director. You generally get better work from people if you give them space to do their thing and getting pleasantly surprised is the best part of working with a talented illustrator.

Paul Sahre brought my work to the attention of John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. John responded positively to a few loose, naïve pictures I was working on, and that became the basis of the look of the various projects I’ve worked on for them.

I was creating a set of screen-printed posters for the band, and the same characters created for the posters were expanded upon and used in the video for the song “Music Jail,” which was part of TMBG’s Dial-A-Song Project. Both that and the next video I worked on, “Let Me Tell You About My Operation,” were directed by David Cowles and Jeremy Galante.

It’s a little unexpected that I’m not doing collages for them but I’m more than happy to shake it up and do something different and strange that possibly better suits the TMBG POV. It’s more of a creative R&D process or an artistic collaboration than it is the typical client-illustrator/designer relationship.

The characters that I’m drawing are wacky and not dissimilar to the more surreal characters that might pop up in 1930s era animated cartoons.

The big challenge was (like any student book report) getting very familiar with the material in a short span of time. Poe’s work is atmospheric and emotionally intense and my work tends to be conceptual with a reliance on humor and visual wit. So some amount of stretching was required to do the man justice but still have it look like my work. There was a benefit to Poe’s work being all short fiction and poems in that it allowed me to not worry about boring the reader with too many illustrations that set up the beginning and middle of a story. I could get quickly to the punch and each new story would be a brand new set-up.

The book was designed to be translated into multiple languages, which means that the titles and text had to be created to allow for varying language lengths and changes to only one printing plate. Fortunately the book is exquisitely printed with quite a few bells and whistles that include printing on the exterior edge of the pages and a special debossed cover.

I’ve done several self-directed projects in an effort to try new things visually, which tends to lead to new clients. I started a quirky super-hero anthology comic a few years back called Heroical which has gotten some buzz. I do experimental posters for Theatre Project each year and as an ongoing body of work those have landed me clients including book publishers, non-profits, and independent film posters.

I enter competitions, keep an updated blog, and mail out promos. I just added a Tumblr. I use Twitter and Facebook to promote new work. I have advertised in the Directory of Illustration for several years. I think it’s all important for getting work. I don’t see work coming from any one source. I love making print promotions and I still think they work great.

Learn to think as well as draw. Have fun with it but learn to embrace what seem like dull topics on the surface and make them exciting visually or at least compelling.

See more David Plunkert illustrations, new work, and updates:
David Plunkert Website
Twitter: @plunkert

Spur Design