Illustrator Profile - Joe Morse: "My biggest passion is drawing"

By Robert Newman   Thursday May 5, 2016

Joe Morse is a Toronto-based illustrator who has created powerful, graphic artwork for numerous publications, as well as commercial and advertising work for clients such as Nike and Coca Cola. Morse has illustrated several children’s books, including Casey at the Bat and Play Ball, Jackie, and recently created the cover and inside illustrations for a new edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (one of which is pictured top, right). He originally worked in oil paint, but eventually “moved indoors and to watercolor.” Morse’s work has a graphic fluidity that serves him well on the many sports illustrations he’s created, but is equally at home with a more detailed approach to portraits—and some smart conceptual illustrations, too. In addition to his extensive illustration work, Morse serves as coordinator of the Bachelor of Illustration program at Sheridan College.

I was brought up in Windsor, Ontario, a border town across the river from Detroit. I am the youngest of seven children and I think making art was my way of standing out from the crowd that was my family. I graduated from college in Fine Arts and Printmaking in Toronto, where I still live and work. Upon graduation, I won travel grants to study in Italy, Mexico and Japan.

I have been working for many years and I have worked in everything from a dark basement and a freezing garage to a custom-designed factory loft live/work space with my wife, the artist/designer Lorraine Tuson. Originally my workspaces were designed around my incredibly toxic process. I had been using oil paint with a slew of solvents. So an exterior space with an air exchange system was devised. But trudging out in a gas mask and pipeline worker coveralls in the middle of winter and painting with winter gloves with the fingertips cut off while being blasted by frigid air became less than ideal.

So I have moved indoors and to watercolor. My work is painted in monochrome first and then scanned and colored in Photoshop. With two teens and directing an illustration degree program at Sheridan College, I work mostly at night. I adapt my space based on the work I am doing.

I think you make your “big breaks” and then there is that right time, right place... My big break began when I started to make paintings about popular culture. I had been working for about seven years as an illustrator in editorial and educational publishing and at the time I saw illustration as just a way to make an income. My Art (yes, with a capital A) was my creative focus. But the 1990s was a decade that challenged me as an artist to respond to and be involved in popular culture. I developed a guerrilla gallery and showed 27 large-format monochromatic paintings. I attracted great media coverage and I decided to stop the division between artist and illustrator. I had found a way to make images that connected to popular culture and illustration was a path to both source and deliver visual images into the culture.

When I graduated from college in the early 80s illustration was just becoming relevant beyond being a commercial job. I remember one of my Fine Art classmates asking me, “How does it feel to prostitute yourself?”, when I mentioned I was illustrating. Today that comment seems ridiculous. I entered some of my new work into the American Illustration 13 annual competition. Two pieces were accepted and the week the annual launched I was commissioned to do a record review in Rolling Stone magazine. But here comes the big break, because after the RS piece I went months without work; my work was garnering interest but as a monochrome it was difficult to commission. The AI13 annual, sitting in a bookshop in London, England was picked up by Dutch creative director Erik Kessels from KesselsKramer in Amsterdam. He soon commissioned me for a Nike poster campaign in nine European countries and 33 cities. I added small areas of graphic color and from there my work grew in every marketplace worldwide.

The what has been travel. It has been a key to developing my work with extended stays living in Florence, San Miguel de Allende and Osaka. Each trip became a step in the path I took as an artist and then as an illustrator.

The who is Lorraine Tuson. I first worked with the art director Lorraine Tuson as an illustrator in educational publishing. Her working method is so rigorous and focused on research and experimentation. She has never pulled a punch in her critique of my work and it is invaluable to have an artist you trust and respect as a partner.

Erik Kessels—he is a friend that I have known for nearly 20 years. He is constantly awake, he sees things most of us miss. He is a noted creative director, collector, curator, artist and speaker. He co-founded an incredibly successful communications agency in Amsterdam whose work and work ethos is centered on putting the creative first. As they say on their website, “KK blurs the lines between commerce, culture, content and collaboration.” This isn’t some hollow design speak but plain to see as you step into their office—a de-listed 19th Century church with a two-story wood fort and diving board. He is coming to do a workshop with my 3rd year illustration students on a project he calls the Embarrassment Show. It will be memorable.

I am inspired by ideas. I read from a wide array of subjects: politics, art theory, science and tech, philosophy, and design. I follow feeds like Jason Hirschhorn’s @mediaredef, the Niemann Lab and check out The New York Times and daily. Teaching and being surrounded by young artists eight months a year kinda helps as well. It is teaching in my life drawing classes that I find the most inspiration. This is the frontline of how we see and engage visually with the real/physical world and I find my lessons teaching me constantly about my illustrative approach.

It isn’t the challenge of working alone, which I completely love, but rather the central difficulty/value of being an illustrator—the sole set of hands to express all the ideas that flow out of you. Difficult in that you can’t do everything you want to do, but valuable in that you are truly engaged in the work you do. There is something powerful in conceptualizing and realizing your ideas. I also find that my ideas are built through the process of drawing and sketching. Ideas don’t drop into my brain, or appear in word lists or brainstorms but rather come out of the hand making marks on paper.

Universal Pictures wanted to celebrate their, “best year ever” and so they commissioned a number of illustrators to create individual movie posters for 200 executives. I completed nine of the portraits.

My biggest passion is drawing. I have been teaching life drawing for 25 years and I want to write and illustrate a book that places drawing at the center of an educated person’s life. I am convinced that drawing should be a central practice that every kid should learn in school like math and reading.

I have worked with some great people over the years but I have to recognize the art director that has given me consistently challenging work for the past 20 years, Tom Brown. My first assignment for him was a portrait of Clint Eastwood for Men’s Journal and from then on as his work centered on magazine redesign and new magazines he would connect me to his projects. Presently, I do a column in ThinkMoney magazine that he designs for TDAmeritrade.

Here’s a question that can lose you some friends and seeing as I live with an illustrator/artist... But I think I will be safe in mentioning just one person...Christoph Niemann. Christoph embodies the best of what illustrators should be—articulate, visually witty, interdisciplinary, damn good person (so important). And this is just a bonus characteristic—good with kids (years ago he came to my house armed with masks that he proceeded to work on with my then two young kids).

I direct the Bachelor program in Illustration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. The program is focused on the porous nature of media with traditional drawing and painting and cutting edge technology informing the student approach.

I have been working on a personal painting project that I hope to show at KKOutlet in the UK.

I have always explored a variety of media to keep me inspired and push my approach to making images. Some of these experiments have resulted in illustration jobs. For the past six years I have worked in small sketchbooks with ballpoint pen whenever I was in a meeting or waiting during one of my kids’ after school classes. T.J. Tucker, the AD of Texas Monthly saw one of my books and this led to a regular Books column in the magazine. I have completed four illustrated book projects over the last number of years from Casey at the Bat to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which has broadened my work to express both the nuanced power of collective narrative images as well as the singular graphic image for editorial or advertising work.

I have used everything in my career but now it is competitions and commissioned work that are my best promotion. I am repped by Heflinreps in the US and Killingtonarts in the UK. I don’t use social media enough, but I believe the opportunity to engage with clients and use social tools as a business approach is critical today. Promotion is also about getting called again by a client. That is why it is so important to develop a rapport with clients and ensure the working relationship is great.

There is a secret you should know. You need to satisfy yourself first and the client second. Let me explain. If you do work you love, it will be great work. If you do your best, your client will be well-served. Start from the premise that your best is what they need and fight for that. (We don’t always win.)

How to get work? Be interesting and interested. Get involved with other creatives, collaborate and connect, do things that widen your circle, listen well and be nice. Many artists are introverts (me included) but your work is your inner extrovert and it needs to be seen, shared and talked about.

Illustrators are the true interdisciplinary and multimedia artists of popular culture, we are the directors, actors and authors of the stories we create. Don’t get lost in technique. It is not a question of pixel or paint today but rather a vast and exciting unexplored landscape that illustrators have before them.

See more Joe Morse illustrations, new work, and updates:
Joe Morse website
Twitter: @joemorsedraws
Instagram: @eyedropdaily
Dribbble: Joe Morse


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