Illustrator Profile - Jody Hewgill: "My goal is to constantly challenge myself creatively"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 10, 2016

Jody Hewgill is a Toronto-based illustrator who has been contributing brilliant sparkling images to countless magazines, books, and publications for the past 25 years. Much of Hewgill’s editorial work includes bright, vibrant portraits of celebrities and entertainers—she was awarded a gold medal last year by the Society of Illustrators for a piece that appeared in Entertainment Weekly—but she also creates powerful conceptual work as well. In addition to editorial work, Hewgill has illustrated book covers, posters, and commercial work, and she also teaches in the illustration program at the Ontario College of Design University (OCAD U). She continues to refine and develop her painting style and has a boundless enthusiasm for her work. “I’m more energized and passionate about illustration now than ever before,” says Hewgill. “I think THIS is the golden age of illustration.”

I live in Toronto, Ontario, and have been working as an illustrator for 27 years.

Last year at ICON8, it seemed like every guest speaker or panelist talked about early influences by artistic parents or grandparents, and I remember feeling like it’s amazing I became an artist at all, given my lack of artistic heritage. My parents were jocks, without any claims to artistic genes, and were completely mystified by their middle child who drew all time. When I was around eight years old my father bought a fastener company in Montreal, which included a small art store, that supplied nearby advertising agencies. My father would take me to the office on Saturdays to catch up on his paperwork and he would let me choose any art supplies from the store. Lunch would follow at a nearby pub, where I would draw the clientele on the paper placemats, while everyone sat at the bar watching football on the TV.

I was a self-initiated entrepreneur even as a teenager. One summer was spent knocking on doors and asking neighbors if they wanted a drawing of their home: $50 for b/w, $75 for ink and watercolor. I think I had about 10 commissions that summer. When I was 17 I was commissioned to illustrate clothing and household items for Pier One’s newspaper ads. Those were my first published illustrations.

I studied design basics for two years at Dawson College in Montréal, in a program then called Commercial Art. I had a wonderful sculpture instructor named Myles Tyrrell who was one of Henry Moore’s apprentices. It took me years to recognize his influence on how I define the figure. I then moved to Toronto to study at the OCAD U, where I am a part-time, tenure-track assistant professor. After graduating, I spent my first two years working as an in-house illustrator/marker renderer for the packaging design firm Caverhill Russell, under the tutelage of creative head Bob Russell.

One of my early freelance assignments was illustrating a campaign for AIDS awareness. The art director worked out of his apartment, and he would fit in reviewing sketches with me between appointments with other “clients.” By our second meeting it finally dawned on my naïve self that he was also a prostitute.

My studio occupies the entire third floor of our Victorian home, with my drawing table looking out onto the tree-lined street. We live in the Annex, a vibrant community in the heart of downtown Toronto where many authors, actors, and musicians live. I still haven’t bumped into one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, but I frequently pass Jane Jacobs’ house (now given a heritage designation). It’s a very short walking distance to book and record stores, such as The Beguiling, an amazing comics and graphic novel shop. During the summer months my husband Balvis Rubess and I work as much as possible from our cabin on the lake. Balvis worked many years as a professional illustrator (notably The Pop-up Book of Phobias). He has now combined his illustration chops with his design and photography skills to create award-winning motion design and animation. At the Cabin, I set up my easel in the screened-in porch, which is a few feet from the shore. I am a budding naturalist; I enjoy walks in the forest to search for wildflowers and observe wildlife. I like to collect insects (found already dead, but intact).  I incorporated this passion in my self-portrait that was created for The Taschen 100 Illustrators book.

I generally work traditionally: graphite sketches, color pencil or digital color comps, with final art executed in acrylics. When art director Rob Story commissioned me to do silkscreen posters for the Austin, Texas Moontower Comedy Fest, I was interested in the challenge to be limited to three colors, plus black, and work with mostly flat areas. I enjoyed revisiting my former pen and ink style that dominated my portfolio after graduating from OCAD.

I didn’t actively pursue portrait assignments; it evolved organically over time.

My first published portrait was of Andrea Bocelli, commissioned for the Grammys.  On a trip to NYC, my husband Balvis Rubess introduced me to Gail Anderson, who was the deputy art director at Rolling Stone magazine, and not long after that meeting she called me to do a portrait of D’Angelo for the review section. I was at once both thrilled and completely terrified. Gail was supportive and reassuring. She helped immensely in relieving my first-time jitters. I was also extremely fortunate to have a feature article on my work published in Communication Arts magazine in 1996. At the time I was in shock and disbelief at the immense honor and, as I was also just getting started painting in acrylics, the spotlight felt a little premature.

In high school I was very much influenced by Arthur Rackham, and album cover art. When I was studying at art college, I was in awe of the work by Blair Drawson, Paul Davis, Jack Unruh, and Yvonne Gilbert. During those formative years as a budding illustrator, I found inspiration in diverse creative material: Diego Rivera’s constructed compositions, Picasso’s early blue period, Modigliani’s exaggerated figures, Tamara de Lempicka’s theatrical gazes, Martha Graham’s expressive gestures, and author Ian McEwan’s narrative tension. As a younger illustrator I looked at other visual works for inspiration, but as I get older I find I’m more interested in finding inspiration from prose, plays, film, and life experiences, and turn to my sketchbook and body of work for visual cues.

I admire intelligence and wit.

Ellen Weinstein is one of the sharpest people I know; her wit is expressed magnificently through her work. As president of ICON8 she brought in excellent speakers, whose talks continue to resonate with me:

Paula Scher’s keynote talk at ICON8, reflections on her career and work for The Public Theater was immensely poignant.

Wendy MacNaughton, who I also met at ICON8. Because she found she was too busy to take every assignment, she developed a graph to help her evaluate if an assignment would be worthwhile, using the four key components that sum up an assignment: passion, money, people and publicity.  

Patti Smith is a creative icon. I have listened to her being interviewed several times. She has a keen understanding of the importance to nurture and preserve her creativity.

I teach my students that observation is an essential skill and a powerful tool for an illustrator. Instead of researching photographs and images online, get out of the studio and pay attention to everything that surrounds you. I find inspiration on my daily walks with my dog Betty. If we are in the country, I like to take photos of patterns found in nature, and on our urban walks, it’s about drinking in the sights and sounds around me. Balvis and I have an extensive art book collection. I also have a ridiculously huge magazine collection. I have always had a passion for print; I still prefer it to the digital editions. My guilty pleasure is surfing Instagram; it’s a virtual candy store of visual delights.

Working alone is not for everyone, I happen to find it blissful. But getting feedback is important.

Balvis is my sounding board and critical eye. When I show him a completed piece he does not shower me with false platitudes, but will tell me honestly when something needs to be refined or adjusted. Despite not wanting to hear these comments late at night when I think I’m done, he is always right, and I’m grateful for the feedback to push that piece the extra distance.

My most memorable recent assignment is the editorial illustration that I created for Entertainment Weekly’s film of the year Before Midnight by Richard Linklater. That image garnered a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators last year. I was delighted that design director Kory Kennedy supported my idea of depicting the fated lovers, Celine and Jesse, in the aftermath of a vitriolic argument, with knives strewn all over, several of which were protruding from the characters. I chose to depict the entire scene in a surreal pink, to evoke a romantic setting subverting a battle scene; to imply love is a battlefield. Also, I’m currently working on a series of paintings for a gallery show.

Having the opportunity to work on so many wonderful assignments over the many years has been a dream and a blessing. I am a huge fan of The New Yorker covers, that would be a dream job, as well as a fashion merchandise/campaign collaboration. I drool over James Jean’s collaboration with Prada and Gary Baseman’s collaboration with Coach.

I have had the pleasure of working with many superb art directors, too many to name. My ideal collaboration is where we have a dialogue about the material at hand, discuss visual tone and direction and then I am given creative latitude to interpret. A few examples of great collaborations: working with Maggie Boland and Neil Archer Roan on Arena Stage posters. Both Maggie and Neill were marketing directors (at different intervals); they didn’t art direct the pictorial elements of my sketches, but were instrumental in the initial stages of ideation, where we discussed tone and message for the posters. Most unexpected brief: from art director Ingrid Shields, then for Standpoint magazine UK, “make him (Putin) look dodgy.” How could I go wrong with that directive?

I have immense respect for anyone who takes risks; this is an area that I feel needs improvement in my own work. A few illustrators who seem fearless to me are: Jason Holley, Marco Wagner, Jeffrey Decoster, Jon Han, and JooHee Yoon to name just a few.

I have worked on a wide variety of assignments: advertising, institutional collateral, packaging, interior retail murals, theatre posters, books, animation, art, fashion, product design, CD covers, etc. I have also collaborated on a short animation featuring my work for Windstar Cruises, with Balvis Rubess.

I like to incorporate new elements into my work, including a variety of decorative elements, a different color palette, and subtle shifts in my painting approach, such as a more refined technique vs the very early stipple brushwork. These aren’t radical changes, but when I look at the arc of my work from the beginning there is quite an evolution in the process. I try to avoid repeating myself. An example is my recent portrait of Elton John for Rolling Stone magazine—it is the most brightly colored and lavishly detailed piece I have ever produced. I haven’t actively pursued alternative endeavors, but I am open to unconventional projects when they are presented to me. For example, jewelry designer Rachel Abroms commissioned me to illustrate a series of Greek gods and goddesses for her Mthology line. The images were used in the packaging as well as used as templates for the metal embossed charms. Another unconventional assignment was being asked to be a guest host aboard the Windstar. Windstar Cruises commissioned me to illustrate their sailing atlas twice, and over those years I developed a wonderful working relationship with the marketing team. I was thrilled when they asked if I would be interested in doing a presentation of my work onboard the ship, and host dinner with a few of the guests.

I have used all forms of self-promotion at various times: a rep, sourcebooks, emailers, purchased contact lists, etc. I am terribly lax with promotion, I always have the best intentions, but I am consistently busy, so often I’m too preoccupied with work at hand. However my suggestion for students would be to do print promotions supported by a website, entering competitions, and posting on social media.

Try to remember to look at the long view. The creative journey is an evolutionary process that each person should embark on at their own pace. I don’t believe there’s any specific timeline to reach certain goals. It’s important to network and build bridges; that means treating the assignment, the creative team and yourself with respect. It’s also about your level of commitment; what you put in is what you get out of it. My personal goal is to constantly challenge myself creatively. It’s not about the quantity of jobs completed.

I’m a late bloomer. I was brazen enough to go backpacking throughout Morocco at 19, but it took me forever to get the courage to show my portfolio to NYC art directors. As artists one of our biggest nemeses is self-doubt. Receiving my first award from Communication Arts early in my career put some air under my wings; it gave me validation that I was on the right track. Receiving a gold medal last year from the Society of Illustrators after 26 years of illustrating was profoundly meaningful to me. It’s not easy sustaining such a long career, but I’m more energized and passionate about illustration now than ever before. I think THIS is the golden age of illustration. The bar of excellence keeps being raised and the plethora of talented illustrators keep inspiring me to reach further.

See more Jody Hewgill illustrations, new work, and updates:
Jody Hewgill Website
Fine art site
Instagram @jhewgill
Illustrated self portrait


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