Illustrator Profile - Guy Billout: "I see myself as a lonely craftsman"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 30, 2015

Guy Billout has been a powerful presence in the illustration world for over 45 years. In 1969, new to the States and inexperienced as a professional, he gathered together a set of illustrations and showed them to Milton Glaser, the design director of New York magazine. Glaser loved the pieces, and soon ran the entire portfolio. Billout’s range and style has grown exponentially since, and he remains one of the most significant image makers working today.

Billout’s illustrations are beautiful, elegant, and serene; with lush colors and exquisite craftmanship. The style and technique belies the surreal, almost psychedelic aspect to his work. Billout’s images live in an alternate universe, a parallel dream world out of a science fiction novel (or movie) where something is always out of kilter. He combines the strength of his artfulness with an uncanny ability to tell stories and express complicated concepts through illustration. Billout is a masterful visual storyteller, and it’s no surprise that he has created a brilliant series of children’s (and other) books, as well as illustrating countless covers and insides for what seems like every publication in the business.

Most significantly, for many years Billout created a standalone page in The Atlantic magazine. This was a defining series, which Billout considers his best work. These magnificent pieces dealt with issues of life, humanity, and the world at large, designed and illustrated with deep intelligence and wit.

Billout's recent work, which was featured in a show this past year in France, is more straightforward, without his trademark “visual pun.” A number of these illustrations were showcased in American Illustration 33. He continues to develop and grow his work, publish frequently in magazines and newspapers, and create new book concepts. All these years after walking into the New York magazine office, Billout remains as vital and exciting as ever.

There was nobody involved in the arts in my family background; I entered art school because of some obvious ability in drawing. Should I have been a good student in high school, it is not certain that I would have embraced an artistic career.

I studied art for advertising in an art school in Burgundy, and after graduating moved to Paris to work in advertising agencies as a graphic designer. Six years later, in 1969, I became an illustrator in New York.

I live in southern Connecticut with my wife Linda, after being a Manhattanite for many years.

When I draw on paper, I do so on a table facing the rising sun. When I move to the computer to do the coloring in another part of the studio, I could be in a cave.

When I am given a story written by someone else, I always go through the fear of failing to achieve “the perfect solution.” I have none of this when I become an author of my own book or story.

My first illustrations were done with watercolors and brush, then I discovered the airbrush. After many years, I gradually adopted the amazing Photoshop. Now I think of coming back to the skill that was imposed for good practice in art school: gouache and brush.

When I decided to come to New York, I planned to present myself as a graphic designer. A friend and fellow worker pointed out that I wasn’t an exceptional designer, and recommended that I become an illustrator instead. Since I had no experience in the field, I had to improvise a portfolio, which was the illustrated story of a young artist and his obsession with America. I presented the portfolio to Milton Glaser, the art director of New York magazine, who published it in its entirety a few months after my arrival.

As soon as I entered art school, three artists became my heroes: Raymond Savignac, a French poster artist, André François, a Romanian/French illustrator, and Ronald Searle, a British cartoonist. These artists shared the ability to come up with very smart, easy-to- understand concepts, magnificently served with an immediately recognizable style. It is years later that I realized the influence of the comic strips I was devouring when I was about 12. Hergé, the creator of Tintin, was my favorite; the “clear line” style he invented, combined with beautiful colors, and intelligent narratives, turned out to be my very first art education.

I would say someone whose work I can’t emulate. Someone like Stendhal, who made me discover literature when I was 16, with the power to describe the complexity of human emotions. Or in cinema, where the director, in contrast with a writer, is confronted with the reality of actors. I was still in art school when the French New Wave started, with François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, etc. I believe that it is in watching movies that I received my “éducation sentimentale,” as well as part of my art education.

As an illustrator, I see myself as a lonely craftsman, having to make an effort to leave the coziness of the studio. Being a teacher and engaged with young people helps me to be more than a daydreamer.

When I became a freelancer, not speaking English, and being slow in making social connections, loneliness was an issue at times. I could be buried into my work for days, not speaking to anyone. I then discovered public radio. Some of the genial, offbeat hosts of the station WBAI became my media friends.

Doodling on paper, and if I get stuck, l look at illustration annuals, because the flow of images in unrelated topics, forces the brain to shift gears.

I created some new work for a show in France. I just followed my interest in architecture, without coming up with any concept, or visual pun, which has become too much of a niche. Interestingly, this change created discomfort for some of the people who knew my work. [Editor's note: four of these images are featured in American Illustration 33.]

My dream assignment is having total freedom, but I didn’t know that until Harlin Quist, a small children’s book publisher, who created controversy for being against the sentimentality of many children’s books, approached me and proposed that I write and illustrate the story of my choice. To my own surprise, I had none of the anxiety I experience with regular assignments; in a few weeks I came up with the wordless story of a boy waiting for a school bus and imagining catastrophes in order to not go to school.

A few years later, Judy Garlan, the art director at The Atlantic Magazine, gave me a full page, in full color, with total editorial freedom, which ran every other month for 24 years. I consider this body of work my best, along with my children’s books.

Along with Milton Glaser and Judy Garlan, as mentioned before, there is Bob Ciano, the art director who gave me my first assignment for Redbook magazine, and Rita Marshall, the art director of Creative Editions, with whom I did my most recent children’s books.

These art directors have in common their conviction in the role of illustration, and their ability to stand as equal to their editors. It is extremely inspirational to work with professionals who trust your ability to do the job.

As mentioned before, it was the offer of total freedom by a small publisher that changed everything. I discovered that I could do more than illustrating stories written by somebody else. There is no equal to the satisfaction of being an author, but despite awards and good reviews, my royalties have always been meager. One of the reasons for this is that being so involved in my editorial work, I didn’t devote time to the promotion of my books.

As a beginner, I called art directors, and without exception they had time to meet me in person. Now a young artist shows her work on the internet. In the past 20 years, I have observed the eroding power of art directors, while editors seem to have the last word on everything, including visual matters. Despite all the complaints one can make about the state of affairs for illustration, I am amazed by the good work young illustrators manage to put out.

To be true, I made little effort to specifically adapt to the industry changes; it is already difficult enough to reinvent myself by taking chances with my own work.

I run a page in the Workbook, and enter the calls for entries of American Illustration, 3x3, Communication Arts, and the Society of Illustrators.

In my experience, most art students are involved in pleasing everyone around them. They are dumbfounded when I tell them to trust the doodles they do for fun in their personal sketchbooks.

See more Guy Billout illustrations, new work, and updates:
Guy Billout website
A collection of Guy Billout's illustrations for The Atlantic