Illustrator Profile - Jeffrey Decoster: "I use any media at hand that will get the job done"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 30, 2016

Jeffrey Decoster is an illustrator based in Pasadena, California. He creates striking images with pencils, paints, and “any media at hand that will get the job done.” Decoster has done editorial illustrations for The New Yorker, Eight By Eight, Time, The New York Times and many more; much of his work deals with complex issues such as mental illness and domestic violence. Decoster is a highly-decorated artist, with four gold medals from the Society of Illustrators and 19 consecutive appearances in the American Illustration annual.

I grew up in Connecticut but have spent most of my adult life in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Currently, I live in a small cottage in Pasadena and I work at home, though I’m looking for a larger separate studio so I can spill paint again and spread my work all over the floor. The simple and unencumbered nature of my daily routine allows me certain esoteric pursuits like doing drawings around my house of nothing special in particular, with my own feet in the foreground, which I satirically refer to as “selfies.” An example of a simple joy in life is playing chess on my porch with an old friend, a tattoo artist named Graham Chaffee, and arguing about whether Picasso was really all that great (I say yes!).

My mother was an artist, specifically a ceramic artist, and my father has always been creative with his hobbies, which have included elaborate model train installations and eccentric word-working projects. They populated our house with many beautiful paintings, prints, ceramics, and sculptures which I’m sure were influential in formulating my aesthetic sense. There was a Paul Klee reproduction that I remember clearly as a child, and I still look to his work for inspiration.

I went to Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio. My drawing professor was a former Division One linebacker with a square jaw, prominent brow, and stern look that would make your pen shake if it weren’t for the fact that he was the most gentle and even-tempered soul. He made the most exquisitely beautiful and delicate oil paintings. I noted the relationship between a person’s character and the art that they make.

My friend Lou Beach prefers a studio that looks like a tornado-ravaged mobile home park. He has inspired me to loosen up a little with my workspace and make a mess. Here is proof that I’m doing just that.

I start by making a sketch usually as a collage in Photoshop made from photo reference, and/or existing drawings. If I get a job that needs a drawing of a kangaroo, I'll Google “kangaroo” and then spend the next three hours reading about every mammal known to man that employs pouch gestation as an evolutionary tactic. Then I’ll check YouTube to see if they drew a pouch on the Tasmanian Devil in Looney Tunes, which they should have, but alas, no, they did not. Once a sketch is approved, I’ll organize my colored pencil collection or something similar, and then finally set about to draw or paint the separate elements on paper and scan them into the computer. I will use any media at hand that will get the job done, but lately I’ve been painting with gouache. The final step is to simply assemble the image, and at this point I should be done, but rather than go drink Irish Whiskey with my Irish friend Grady McFerrin (who incidentally smokes a pipe with tobacco he keeps in a pouch), I’ll opt instead to keep working on endless color variations saved by the snapshot button in the history palette until all hours of the night—eventually choosing the version I created right before I could have gone out drinking with Grady.

I did a painting of a giant blue head with orange flames shooting out of the top for a poetry festival in San Francisco. The tag line was “Poetry is a Mind on Fire.” It was reproduced five feet high for bus shelters and was all over the city. I was on the street somewhere in North Beach meeting friends for lunch and a designer/art director, whom I had not previously met, joined us, coincidentally near a bus stop, and asked if I had any printed samples of my work to show him. I pointed right next to him and said, “Well, there's that.”

Early on I was inspired by Jim Dine, mostly for the physicality of his work, and the way a drawing would self-demonstrate how it was made, with certain areas left unfinished or destroyed as a record of its making. In one of the first drawing classes I ever taught I brought in an electric sander to demonstrate the way Dine would fearlessly rework an image. My students were horrified (even before I stuck the kneaded erasers in my ears for noise protection). It’s natural to convey meaning though iconography and symbols, but I’ve tried to use process as a signifier in my work as well. A non-linear way of working can also bring chance, accident, and irrationality into play, which can yield results that go beyond the limitations of my own imagination. Even as I work more “cleanly” or digitally, there are still ways to incorporate these ideas.

I admire persons who can do things I could never do. So I’m going to say standup comics and Cal Tech science nerds. They’re both sending probes into hostile environments. Louis C.K. has to make people laugh while navigating the heckler’s veto, and (just down the street from me at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) there are scientists navigating the Kuper Belt to land spaceships on comets. The guy with the JPL badge standing in front of me at Starbucks is bouncing drivable robots onto the surface of a planet 249 million miles away while I’m figuring out how to use the smudge tool in Photoshop.

There is a YouTube clip of Stevie Nicks singing Rhiannon live in 1976 where at some point (4:13, precisely) she just says “bye!” and departs reality for some otherworldly creative space. You can see her eyes glaze over and she's in it as if in a religious trance (possibly pharmaceutically enhanced, but nevertheless...). To witness her vocal frenzy build is to feel the gathering of energy in the chest region (probably corresponding to some chakra which I know nothing about), like a Tesla machine winding up, until it reaches criticality, ascends, and POW!—shoots out of the top of your head like a thunderbolt.

I volunteered for a short while at an institution in San Francisco for mentally disabled adults. There was one fellow who was painting a seascape with waves, sailboats, dolphins, seagulls etc. in hues of blue and green. It was magical. I’m greatly moved by art that is purely joyful and lacks self-consciousness. He said he had not been to the beach, which was just over the hill. I asked him to show me his other paintings and he had a perfect stack of them in a closet about as high as my chest. I started leafing through them to discover they all looked very similar. In fact, they were identical. He’d been painting the same painting over and over again every day for a decade. This experience taught me something new about the mysterious power of art.

I thought it would be great being my own boss, but at some point I realized that still doesn’t prevent you from hating your own boss. To prevent that, I make an effort to put on some sunscreen, get outdoors and cast some shadows. It’s good exercise to get your pupils to contract and dilate. I walk and watch people go about their business on the street, or hike way up in the mountains above Pasadena. I love working on my own, but I’ve always wondered about my artist friends who are couples, like Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher. I have a rosy picture of such couples not only helping each other with their art but also giving each other shoulder rubs throughout the day. That’s got to be pretty nice.

I really enjoyed working on a piece for a German magazine called Hohe Luft, which is a magazine that deals with philosophical question. I referenced a zen concept—chopping wood and carrying water—which is about being content and focused on simple ordinary tasks. This was an assignment where the subject I was illustrating also provided the instructions by which I should complete it.

I would like to create artwork to cover the surface of the world’s largest dirigible.

I’ve been enjoying working with Robert Priest lately, making portraits of soccer (football) players for his Eight by Eight magazine. We’ve agreed on a very straightforward, in-your-face approach, trying to convey the aggressiveness and passion of the players. I’ve honestly not seen my work paired with cooler type treatments. He’s one of those designers that makes my work look better than it would otherwise, through his artfulness in bringing type and image together in a cohesive spread.

I’ve mentioned some of my favorite illustrators above but would add John Hersey, Calef Brown, Rob Dunlavey, Henrik Drescher, and Karen Barbour. What I admire about them is that they aren’t handcuffed to strict observational drawing; rather their work comes from a more internal imaginative space, and they aren’t afraid to make raw, calligraphic pictures, which is something I aspire to. I would also like to mention Philip Burke and Jack Unruh whose work always thrills me and who have been very generous and kind towards me in the few times I’ve been lucky enough to meet them.

I’m working privately in sketchbooks on different series of images that explore simple motifs. One is a series of head paintings that are rather rough and primitive and are meant to completely dispense with academic rules and the need to be clever conceptually. They’re not supposed to be illustrational, but nevertheless they have worked their way into a few recent assignments. The results look a bit frightening but I’m having great fun doing them.

I try to let go of my own or any other artist’s past aesthetic formulas, and let the visual problem of the day dictate a method, which in turn dictates the form. For instance, faster deadlines might require a more calligraphic drawing approach, or necessitate working digitally. Similarly, the dwindling print/editorial environment has me exploring different categories of usage. I don’t resist these forces but rather look to see how they might shape my work going forward.

There is an intrinsic conflict for an illustrator as they evolve in their work, because one wants to expand, try new things and not be reduced to a typecast, while clients understandably prefer a steady target. I don’t have an answer to that problem but I try to adhere to Joseph Campbell’s advice about following one’s bliss, and let the chips fall.

I think it’s very important but unfortunately I’ve neglected it. When I get an assignment I try to make the most striking image I can, because that’s really my only means of self-promotion. Otherwise, I’ve been fortunate to get my work in the annuals, and to win a few awards. Social media is obviously a great way to share your work but I have really mixed feelings about dropping too far into that rabbit hole, so my participation is sporadic.

Go to as many art museums as you can and spend a lot of time looking at the paintings. Try to resist posing with them or taking their pictures. They are trying to speak to you in the present moment, face to face, not sometime later or mediated through optics inferior to your own two eyeballs.

Read (by humble suggestion): Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters by Robert Beverly Hale. The zen book will help you with your drawing and the drawing book will help you with your ability to pay attention.

See more Jeffrey Decoster illustrations, new work, and updates:
Jeffrey Decoster website
Instagram: @jeffrey_decoster



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