Illustrator Profile - Ross MacDonald: "Magazines will always be my first love"

By Robert Newman   Thursday July 16, 2015

Ross MacDonald is an illustrator, designer, book artist, letterpress operator, graphic artist, cartoonist, and more. He has created retro-styled illustrations in multiple styles and formats for an extensive list of magazines and newspapers. MacDonald is also a brilliant comic artist; his illustrated graphics have graced the pages of numerous publications and several books. And he has had a very successful second career creating what he calls “graphics props” for movies and TV shows, including the upcoming Quentin Tarantino film, Hateful Eight

“Illustration is just have to stare at a blank sheet of paper till the blood runs out of your ears,” reads a statement on MacDonald’s website. He was described by's Irene Gallo as “every art director's dream to work with,” in large part because of his ability to combine artful illustrations with a designer’s sense of graphic storytelling. MacDonald is also a talented writer. Immediately following the 2012 school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he wrote this powerfully moving commentary (MacDonald and his family live in Newtown, Connecticut, where the shootings took place).

Many years ago MacDonald created a funny parody poster with James Victore called Get Tough! Self Defense for the Graphic Arts, that quickly appeared on the walls of many art director’s offices and design studios. It’s a great example of MacDonald’s ability to engage, delight, and inform his audience, all while making great art.

My brother, who’s 10 years older than me, went to Central Technical School in Toronto to study visual arts for a couple of years. It’s the first time I realized that you could actually be a visual artist. At that time my dad was a traveling salesman and my mother worked in a shoe factory. My people are all miners and farmers. Drawing stuff for a living was an inconceivable concept.

I don’t have any formal art training. I dropped out of high school after grade 10, left home in rural Saskatchewan, and rode a bus across Canada to the big city of Toronto. I soon got work at Coach House Press—a small printing and publishing house—and later at Dreadnaught Press (which I had helped found with my brother Robert) I met a lot of artists and writers, and was encouraged to draw. I was the occasional in-house illustrator—providing graphics here and there for various print projects—brochures, flyers, broadsides. Every once in awhile something would come along that needed a graphic and if no one else wanted to do it they’d get the kid to do it. Then all the artists—who either worked there or came and went—would tell me everything I did wrong. That was my art training. I also hustled small illustration and design jobs here and there and kinda learned on the job. In the early 80s I worked as a freelancer a few times at Audience animation studio in Winnipeg. I drew layouts and backgrounds. I learned a ton from long days of just drawing drawing drawing, but also from Neil McInnes, who ran the studio. He turned me on to a lot of great illustration, taught me techniques, and a lot about the business.

I did magazine illustrations and kids books while I was working as a printer, housepainter, children’s performer, whatever—to pay the rent. I started working full time as an illustrator around 1987. Other jobs have included chicken slaughterer, soda jerk, dishwasher, papermaker, typesetter, proofreader, day laborer, construction, landscaping, building and painting television sets, prop maker, you name it.

I’m married to Lucy Handley and have two children: James, 20, and Daisy, 15.

I work in a barn on the back of my property. It’s a two-story stone and post-and-beam barn circa 1835. New siding and a roof was put on in 1929, but it was pretty ramshackle and filled with debris and raccoons when I took it over. I shoveled out the ancient crud, insulated it, and covered the interior with rough-cut boards from a local sawmill. It’s not exactly “renovated”—it’s still pretty rough, which makes it perfect for me. It has a single wood stove and it’s drafty and not well insulated, so it can be extremely cold in the winter, it bakes in the summer, and there’s lots of spiders and mice and the occasional snake, but there’s plenty of room for all the tools and stuff I accumulate to feed my many interests and obsessions, and it has a balcony and a patio where I can work outside when the weather’s nice. 

I started out doing all of my illustrations as linocuts, and I still occasionally do one. I also sometimes work in pen and brush and ink, but my main medium is colored pencil and watercolor dyes. I outline with colored pencil—very rarely do I use them for shading— and then apply watercolor. I usually work on 90 pound hot press watercolor paper so I can trace my sketches on a light table. When I do black and white line art, I usually use a black prismacolor for the line and press really hard. It kinda looks like a really rough-edged brush and ink line.

It wasn’t really so much an assignment as a moment. It was the mid-1970s. I was working at Dreadnaught Press, in the basement of a house in Toronto, hand cranking a Vandercook press when three illustrators walked in—Neal McInnes, Ken Stampnick, and Neal’s girlfriend, who went by the name Toots. Collectively they were Audience Studio, at that time located in Toronto. They were there to get a letterpress invitation printed. They saw some of the illustrations I had done—mainly small linocuts and line art —and encouraged me to put a portfolio together and take it around to show magazine art directors.

Long story short, I did. My first portfolio was my old zippered high school binder. I stuck illustrations down onto the lined paper. I had hair down to my ass and raggedy patched jeans. Somehow, incredibly, I got in to see art directors like Robert Priest, Louis Fishauf, Rob Melbourne and others who were doing great work in what was a small but burgeoning magazine scene at that time. Even more incredibly I got assignments. So meeting those three illustrators helped me break into illustration, but it was also the first break away from my old life. I was still a teenager, and everyone I knew and lived and worked with was at least 10 years older than me. It was Toronto in the 70s. People were exploring alternative lifestyles, living in ashrams and communities, trying out new religions and beliefs. Everyone at Dreadnaught was deeply into Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and was always talking about “The Work.” Everyone was dead serious. It was very tight knit, and was about as dangerously close to being a cult as you can get without actually being one. We all lived and worked in the same house. We would sometimes take drugs and work for three days straight without stopping, with loud music blaring at top volume. And then do it again the next week.

I lived there and worked there for years, I worked all day, seven days a week for no pay. It was great in many ways—I learned a lot. I also had tons of fun, and met many great people, but I was most definitely stuck. I thought that would be my life forever. Meeting those three illustrators was like a slap on the back of the head for me. It dislodged me. They befriended me and showed me there was a whole other world out there, and for all of that I’ll be forever grateful.  

I’ve been mostly influenced by period illustration. John Tenniel, George Cruikshank, Howard Pyle, A.M. Cassandre, Walter Crane, A.B. Frost, Winsor McCay, Donn Crane, Miriam Story Hurford, Robert McCloskey, Holling C. Holling, Herblock, 40s Superman comics, old wood engravings, Japanese woodblock prints, Carl Larsson, Tex Avery and Popeye cartoons, Tintin, I could go on….  

Lily Tomlin. She’s down to earth, she’s as great as she ever was, and she doesn’t take any crap.

Sometimes when I get snowed under with deadlines, I’ll spend long days in the studio working alone. You get weird when you don’t interact with other live humans for days at a time.  

I look through books. I have shelves and shelves of books in my studio—around 80 or 90 feet of bookshelves in all—and when I want to get inspired that’s the first thing I look through. Old comic books, anthologies of old movie posters, lobby cards and pulp magazine covers, collections of ephemera, books of old cans and labels, old children’s books, boy scout and girl scout manuals, Sears catalogs from the teens through the 1940s, type specimen books. When I need to get inspired for an assignment I might spend an hour or two looking through books. It can feel like I’m wasting my time while I should be sketching, but it usually pays off by sparking some idea or taking me in a direction I might not have found otherwise.  

I consult on, design and fabricate props for movies and television. I mostly do what are called “graphics props”—books, magazines, documents, letters, forms, files, maps, paintings, graphics, signage, labels, small leather goods, etc. I’ve worked on close to 50 movies and shows. Many more if you count seasons or episodes. I worked on many episodes for all five seasons of Boardwalk Empire. I made everything from the book Bradley Cooper’s character throws out the window in Silver Linings Playbook, to the titular Book of Secrets for the second National Treasure movie, baby’s favorite book in Baby’s Day Out, Nucky Thompson’s checkbook and Arnold Rothstein’s calling card for Boardwalk, the morgue toe-tags in The Knick, the Pawnee town charter for Parks and Rec, and thousands of other props.

This past year I illustrated and designed the Red Apple Tobacco label for Quentin Tarantino’s next film, Hateful Eight. Red apple is an iconic Tarantino prop. It’s a faux brand of cigarettes or tobacco that has shown up in every one of his movies after Pulp Fiction. I spent five months working on Hateful Eight, designing and fabricating lots of props: dime novels, letters, execution paperwork, labels for cans and boxes, counter displays, cigarette packages, tobacco pouches. Most of the action takes place in an 1870s trading post/country store. For the first couple of props I worked on there was a lot of oversight, but pretty quickly the cameras started rolling and everyone got crazy busy. I already had a list of the props they needed and they left me alone to make them.

I also consulted on period writing instruments for the movie—traveling pens and inkwells – and rented them six or eight of each from my collection. Samuel L. Jackson used one of my pens and liked it so I gave it to him. It’s a cool old pocket dip pen—when you press a button on the end, the nib comes sliding out the other end, looking and sounding like a gravity knife. Kinda menacing. Perfect for a Tarantino movie.

Illustrating, designing and fabricating a 1940s Frederick’s of Hollywood-style catalog that would appear full screen in a Martin Scorsese movie.

I had a great time working with TJ Tucker on the Bum Steers 2015 issue of Texas Monthly. It was kind of the extended version of a regular column I illustrate for them called “Meanwhile In Texas.” It’s crazy but real things that have happened in Texas, like the guy who disrobed while fleeing from the cops, the teacher who gave a lap dance to a 15 year old student in front of the class, the twin kids who beat a carjacker with a toy snake until he fled, the man in a banana suit with a machine gun who was soliciting by the highway—you can’t make this stuff up! It’s tons of hilarious nuggets, the copy and headlines are really tight and well written, and I got to pick out the ones that I liked and run with them.  

I always like seeing Yuko Shimizu and Harry Campbell’s work. They’re really smart, with great color and design. Nancy Stahl, too. She’s always doing new and different things and it’s all just so good. I’m a huge fan of Rob Dunlavey; I look at his work almost every day. Roman Muradov’s work is always astonishing. It feels familiar and utterly original at the same time. I think what all of those and other illustrators I admire have in common, is that every illustration feels like an exploration. It’s either a variation on a theme, or striking out in a new direction. 

I think I’ve always diversified to a certain extent, but magazine illustration used to be the lion’s share of my work for years. I worked on my first feature film in 1993, designing and illustrating the faux 1930s children’s book for the John Hughes production Baby’s Day Out. At the time I thought it was a fluke, but because I worked on set for six months and met a lot of people, I started getting more assignments for movies. It took off slowly, but luckily for me it really started snowballing before magazine work started tapering off. I had also done a few children’s books 12 or 14 years ago. I stopped for a while, but a few years ago I started getting back into that—writing and illustrating more books. I did a children’s book called Henry’s Hand, an adult humor book called In and Out with Dick and Jane, and have another adult humor book coming out in November 2015 called What Would Jesus Craft?. That last one is a parody of a Sunday school craft book, with 30 Jesus-themed crafts. I like to say that if Martha Stewart had a sex change, became born again, and moved to a trailer park, this is the book he would write.

I still do magazine work, but it’s a small fraction of what I used to do. Not by my choice—magazines will always be my first love.    

For illustration work, I haven’t done much to promote myself for years. Do you think that might have some correlation with the drop in magazine assignments? Back when I was actively promoting, I relied mostly on competitions and mailings. I used to self publish broadsides, posters and calendars and mail them out. That was very effective promotion, so I should probably do more of that again. I try to enter the competitions, but the deadlines always seem to come at my most busy times, so often I just barely make American Illustration. I’ve entered almost every American Illustration competition since 1990 except for two, and have been fortunate enough to get in most of them. I only entered the Society of Illustrators competition three times—once in 1988 or 89, again in 2011, when I got a gold medal, and in 2012. I've also gotten in CA and Print a few times. Those all seem like great opportunities for keeping your work visible, so I plan to enter more diligently. For books I have a great agent, Holly McGhee at Pippin Properties, so I'm covered there. For my movie prop work, word of mouth seems to get me a good amount of work.

I’ve also been on Drawger for a few years. I don’t post that often, but when I do, I'll email a link to the article to art directors and movie people that I’ve worked with. It’s almost more of an update than promotion, but it has led to some work. I also post stuff on social media. That hasn’t really seemed to turn the dial much on work, but who knows.  

Have a good backup plan. All seriousness aside—find some work that will pay the rent fairly regularly, but is flexible enough to give you time to work on promotion and assignments. Great if i’'s something semi-creative, but it doesn’t have to be. Treat illustration like another job—you gotta hustle to get work. Get your work out there, research markets, do smart, targeted, good-looking promotion. Give yourself illustration assignments if you don’t have any real ones. Self-publish things and send those out as promo. Look at other people’s work as much as you can. Look at the annuals. Read the posts on Drawger. There’s lots of great work on there, and many of the illustrators take the time to post detailed images and description of the work process.

If you work hard enough at it, it’ll start to snowball and you may eventually be able to work at it full time. 

See more Ross MacDonald illustrations, new work, and updates:
Ross MacDonald website
Get Tough! Self-Defense for the Graphic Arts, poster by Ross MacDonald & James Victore


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