Illustrator Profile - Melinda Beck: "Create art you love"

By Robert Newman   Thursday December 17, 2015

Melinda Beck is an illustrator, animator, and graphic designer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She creates artwork in a wide variety of styles, all of them smart, graphic, and remarkable in their technical accomplishment. On her website Beck breaks down her illustration styles into five categories: silhouette [this style is pictured to the right], graphic, pen and ink, children’s, and drawing. There’s a rich diversity to her work, which swings easily from delightful, colorful, and fun to powerful op-ed-style graphics. In addition to creating editorial illustration for numerous magazines and newspapers, Beck is a sophisticated letterer and has illustrated a brilliant set of book covers.

My parents were graphic designers and their studio was in our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I grew up playing with Letraset, rubber cement, and T-squares.

I majored in graphic design at RISD and started my post college life as a graphic designer. However I had two summer jobs at college that would foreshadow my career in illustration. One was at Associated Press creating graphics for newspapers across the country, such as a diagram of how an airplane crashed or a chart of how the stock market crashed. Since there was no internet, the MacDraw files would be uploaded to a satellite and then beamed to newspapers across the country.

My other job was creating over-the-shoulder graphics for The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour. It was the summer of 1987, so we watch the Iran-Contra hearings all day while using an airbrush (no color Macs yet) to create the always-needed missile, Iranian or Iraqi flag.

I learned three things from these summer jobs: I can’t stop drawing, I am a news junkie, and I enjoy tight deadlines.

I have two desks. One is very clean; on it is a computer, scanner, and printer.

I have another covered in paper where I paint, glue, cut and bend metal. When I make work I am well-organized while at the same time cutting loose and not being afraid to make a big mess.

Anything and everything: wire, string, paint, random pieces of metal I found on the street. If I can scan it I’ll use it.
I graduated from RISD’s graphic design department in 1989 into what was then referred to as “the greatest recession since the Great Depression.” In retrospect it does not really seem like that big of a deal since it was something like 10 recessions ago.

I returned to New York and moved back into my teenage bedroom in my parents’ apartment. Undeterred, with portfolio in hand I went out to look for that cool awesome design job. One hot New York summer, and 30 interviews later I got a job as a junior designer at a corporate design firm. This was a relief, but corporate design was not the most appropriate forum for my need to express my 20-something art angst. To get this out of my system I would do angry little scratch board illustrations at nights and on the weekends. My boyfriend at the time, Jordin Isip, suggested I make a portfolio and offered to drop it off with his at magazines and newspapers.

My first big break was when Paul Davis asked me to illustrate a feature article on animal experimentation for Wigwag magazine. I was hooked. For three more years I did corporate design by day and illustration at night. Sometimes I would bring my scratchboard and ink to work and then head across the street to The Village Voice and do a piece on the spot (for you). [Editor's note: Beck was a frequent illustrator for The Voice in the early 1990s when I was design director.]

I eventually had enough illustration work to quit my design job and was determined to go out on my own. Only then did I land that cool awesome design job I had wanted. So I worked at Alexander Isley Design for another two years and then finally went out on my own.

There are many illustrators’ work I admire; however I look for inspiration outside of the illustration world. For me inspiration from other illustrators can be too close to the original source and when an inspiration is interpreted from another medium like music, photography, painting or design it leads to a more interesting outcome.

Some of the artists I am currently looking at are: David Hockney, Leigh Bowery, Andy Warhol’s illustrations. Also Ben Shahn, Leon Golub, Henry Moore, August Sander, Picasso, Louise Bourgeois, and Remed.

I have always been drawn to the work of many graphic designers from the 50s-70s. It was an era where the lines between design and illustration were blurred. Some of the designers who I look at are Paul Rand, Walter Ballmer, Karl Gerstner and Karl Martens.

I look at art and design. When I am feeing motivated this means going to museums and when l am feeling lazy I surf the internet and pin what I like.

Remembering not to talk to myself when I am around other people.

I think sometimes we tend to downplay the importance of the subject matter and quality of writing in the articles as a source of inspiration. This past year I was lucky enough to illustrate two articles with beautiful writing and salient and unique content for The New York Times editorial page.

The first was art directed by Jennifer Heuer. The assignment was an editorial by Michael Eric Dyson. It was an unusual look at Adrian Peterson’s child abuse allegation and how that relates to the legacy of slavery. [Editor's note: This illustration is pictured at the beginning of this interview.]

The second illustration was art directed by Matt Dorfman; it was an editorial written by Ariel Dorfman about the effect of global warming on the glacial melt in the Andes. The story was beautifully written and had very poetic imagery.

My favorite jobs are the assignments where I am given creative freedom and have a client who is open to unusual solutions and is not afraid to take risks. Sometimes these clients can be unexpected: two examples of this were an animated spot I did for Home Shopping Network and a series of book covers I recently completed for Harlequin Romance.

I have worked with many great art directors over the past quarter century. I still work with some of the art directors who hired me when I was first out of school.

I am always impressed with how a great art director can make a really hard job with a lot of behind-the-scenes action look effortless. This includes hiring the right illustrator for the job, trusting the illustrator’s vision, teaching the client/editor to do the same (when possible), giving subtle feedback that enhances the illustrator’s art and creating a layout that works harmonically with the illustration.

Even after I quit my full time job as a graphic designer I still have design clients; I love typography and organizing information. I also do fine art, mostly group shows. I use this as an incubator to experiment with different approaches to creating imagery. I put these experiments up on my website or social media; one piece even got into American Illustration.

Part of the reason I’ve survived is that my work is constantly changing and I am always experimenting with new ways of creating imagery. When I started illustrating in 1990 times were very different, I was very different and my work was very different than it is now.

There is no one place clients look for illustrators so I do a bit of everything: postcards, emails, annuals and social media and I always try to keep my website current. However I finally did throw out my leather bound portfolio with my name embossed on the cover.

Don’t create art they you think is marketable, create art you love and find a market for it.

See more Melinda Beck illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Melinda Beck website