Illustrator Profile - Gary Taxali: "Only do the work you love"

By Robert Newman   Thursday July 28, 2016

Gary Taxali is an illustrator and artist based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His distinctive “pop surrealism” imagery has appeared in countless magazines and publications, books, CD covers, product design, and even a series of coins created by the Royal Canadian Mint. Taxali has also had his art exhibited in galleries around the world. He’ll be part of the Cluster group show opening August 3 at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York City.

I was born in Chandigarh, India. When I was a baby, my family immigrated to Toronto. My father could draw and paint well, but he never did it as a career. He was my first and best teacher. After high school, I went to art school at The Ontario Collage of Art (now OCAD University) and studied illustration. Now I do both illustration and fine art. After a few years of working as an illustrator, I started exhibiting my work in galleries. My first solo show was in 2001 at The La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. I had a recent solo show in November 2015 at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery called “Unforget Me,” and am planning another solo show at Wanrooij Gallery in Amsterdam in the future.

My work tends to be categorized as pop art or pop surrealism. Some of the same visual language (and characters and typography) exists between my illustration and fine art work, which has fortunately brought me all kinds of interesting and exciting projects. One of the best examples of this was when I created/designed my coins for the Royal Canadian Mint. I was commissioned by the Mint to make six Gary Taxali coins (all quarters) using the themes Birthday, Wedding, New Baby, O’ Canada, Tooth Fairy, and Christmas. It was a big success for them, as well as for me. But here’s the thing: Taxali is not my original last name—it was changed 300 years ago by a Maharaja in India. My ancestor invented a coin that was difficult to counterfeit and was subsequently knighted Taxali by the Maharaja. It means, "Maker or Steward of the Mint." I always dismissed that fact about my ancestry as a humorous anecdote but when I did the coins, I knew it was more than just chance that a project so special would happen for me.

I work in my apartment as well as a separate studio. Both are located in the same building, which is just off the Junction Triangle in Toronto’s West End. My studio is a very important space to me. It has northern facing light and has no technology (by design) so I can focus on my work. I love working there and its solitude provides me with a wonderfully creative environment. 

I work in a variety of media and create works for both illustration and fine art commissions. I love painting in oil on cradled wood panels, silkscreen, collage and traditional drawing. I often work on old ephemera such as old book covers and aged papers, which is a signature part of my work.

Whether it’s commercial work for illustration clients or personal art for gallery shows or commissions, I employ a variety of methods. My work usually starts with drawings, but never with pencil. I only use pens to draw with because the original marks are the most important to me, and I like to stay committed to that line and not remove/edit them. Granted, when I am doing more complex paintings, I will use a pencil to construct a more finished drawing on the surfaces but they are always conceived at the pen stage. In my mixed media works, I will jump straight in with pens and brushes using freeform drawings (or doodles) as visual elements I incorporate into the art, juxtaposed with screen-printed elements or characters. I love using a variety of media in a single piece and to employ both spontaneous and constructed elements.

In an artist’s career, there are different career highlights that will occur.  My first big break happened when I was just starting out. I was commissioned by an ad agency in Toronto to do a painting for a Levi’s billboard for a Christmas campaign. It was on the corner of Yonge and Bloor, a very busy and central intersection in the city. I had just graduated and it was a very big project. I used that money to move to New York City where I lived for a year. When I was in NYC I met a man named Thom Corn who invited me to be in a group show in Soho called “New York Tension.” I told him I was an illustrator and he replied, “Illustration IS art!” It was his support that led me to pursue both directions and eventually land my first solo show at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles.

I’ve created many projects in my career (such as the coins for The Royal Canadian Mint) that have been wonderful highlights. Winning a Gold Medal at the Society of Illustrators was also a pretty “big break.” The artwork that won the medal was an illustration I did for a poster promoting original illustration over stock. It was particularly meaningful because of the importance of the message. That same illustration also won awards from American Illustration, Communication Arts, and was shortlisted for a Cannes Lion. I also did the album cover and inside art for Aimee Mann’s album @#%&*! Smilers which earned us a 2009 Grammy Nomination for Best Art Package—another important career highlight.

I love 1930s packaging, typography, and advertising posters, the Russian avant garde, EC Segar, The Fleischer Brothers, Ray Johnson, and Andy Warhol.  I don’t look at the work of other artists (living or dead) very much anymore, but early on, these styles, movements and artists had a big impact on me.

I derive great inspiration from film. I love the movies of Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and Jim Jarmusch. Film inspires me from an aesthetic and compositional perspective, as it’s an art that utilizes so many other art forms. Music also has a big impact on my creative inspiration. I love old 1930s Mississippi delta blues and 60s garage punk. Many of my really good friends are musicians (Holly Golightly, Aimee Mann, Danko Jones), and I find their music creatively inspiring. I can’t work without music playing—it’s as if I have a musical accompaniment on a journey as I work. In many ways, it’s like a psychological safety net; it offers comfort yet encourages the flow of creativity.
I don’t have a basis to compare my career with one that relies on the efforts of others, so I’m unaware of challenges. Being an artist is all I’ve ever done so I think the challenges another person might see, are clearly things I overlook—and likely favor. For example, I work creatively well in isolation and wouldn’t have it any other way.  In terms of the business side of things, there are the common issues that one has in running their own business that every artist faces (various deadlines, the unique needs of a certain assignments, contracts, invoices, bookkeeping, etc.). But I’ve been doing it so long that it’s just a way of life.

A few months ago, I was commissioned to create artwork for the amazing Chef Thomas Keller, who runs the famous 3-Michelin-star restaurant The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Anthony Bourdain called his restaurant, “the best restaurant in the world…period.” The artwork was created for Chef Keller’s publication, Finesse. He was so happy with the art, he purchased the original. If that wasn’t an honor enough, the art also won awards both at the Society of Illustrators and American Illustration. I’m in the process of doing another commission for Chef Keller, which is very exciting. I hope to dine in his restaurant soon.

I’m so grateful for the career I have that I’ve done all my dream assignments tenfold. I’ve been very lucky to have worked on projects for clients that I wanted to work for (such as every major magazine), as well as new ones that became dream assignments such doing art for about 50 wine labels for the Bonny Doon Vineyard, writing and illustrating a kid’s book (This is Silly for Scholastic), coins for The Royal Canadian Mint, and Aimee Mann’s album cover and art. I am lucky that I work with a great gallery in NYC (the Jonathan LeVine Gallery) and now Wanrooij Gallery in Amsterdam. I hope to do more sculptural works and public art in the future.

I loved working with Chip Kidd on the cover of Batman Black and White.  It was a series he did with various artists for Marvel where he sent each of us a blank cover and requested a personal take on the topic. It was immense fun, although rather daunting because I screen-printed the art on the existing cover that had the title and a blank space for the art.  It was as one-shot deal and thankfully, it worked out! Chip was very happy with the art, as was I. He has remarkable vision and is very respectful of the artists he works with.

There are so many great illustrators I am proud to call friends and colleagues. Among so many others, I love the work of Roman Klonek, Alain Pilon, Yuko Shimizu, Gerard DuBois, Christoph Niemann, Paul Dallas, Marc Burckhardt, Greg Mably, Stephen Kroninger, Victor Juhasz, and Greg Clarke. They all bring a great original voice to illustration yet create their work with amazing craft and technique.

I’m fortunate to have worked in many different areas besides traditional illustration projects. My sister, Vandana Taxali, is my agent and lawyer, as well as a partner on so many creative projects. We have worked together on a line of silk pocket squares of my art for Harry Rosen, the largest national men’s retailer in Canada. We are currently working on a line of cuff links, too. I’ve done cuff links already, for Hobbs and Kent in NYC, but this will be our own line. I also have created many toys under my company Chump Toys, for myself as well as in licensing deals for Kid Robot and Chapters Indigo in Canada. I have licensed many designs, artwork and characters for cushions, tea cups, tea towels, as well as a textile for the Textile Museum of Canada. I also teach part time at OCAD University in Toronto where I am a tenured associate professor in the illustration program.

The very nature of being an artist in 2016 dictates working in realms beyond the traditional scope of magazine pages and gallery walls. My career now mostly consists of working in the fine art realm. I show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in NYC.  I have done three solo shows there (my last one was in November 2015). I also started working with a gallery in Amsterdam called The Wanrooij Gallery and will do a solo show there next year. In terms of new clients, I think showing in galleries has resulted in people reaching out to me for unique projects due to the crossover nature of illustration and fine art. For example, the City of Toronto reached out to me last year and commissioned me to create a design to wrap around the traffic boxes that control the lights at various intersections.  A lot of projects are branded with me as the artist, so it’s not simply providing them with art that can be used, but it’s a creative collaboration that highlights my take on things. This is very exciting, and I think it’s part of the new paradigm of the way a lot of art is commissioned. Most recently I was asked to create a painting on an existing blank brain sculpture for Baycrest. They are involved in creating awareness and raising funds for research about Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia. My “brain” will be up at Nathan Philips Square (Toronto’s City Hall) for the duration of the summer of 2016. It was launched at a press conference with Toronto mayor John Tory. It’s all very exciting!

The illustration work I do is a great form of promotion because it has a very large reach. Social media is terrific, and I utilize Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to show my new work, process, and photos of events, shows, and signings. I also have a blog on my web site. I enter illustration contests, because I think everything counts in promotion, and I also love supporting the illustration community. My sister and agent, Vandana Taxali, has brought me amazing projects, such as the public art, as well as the fashion line we have together. She’s also a lawyer, so her legal advice through her firm Entcounsel and contract help has resulted in creating new avenues of licensing. While I am busy in my studio working, she’s out creating collaborations and closing business deals.

The most important thing I would advise students or aspiring creative professionals is to only do the work you love. I cannot stress how important this is. Everyone thinks that to take the money and run is a practical means to an end, but that line of thinking is a practical means to hating your job. If you only put work out there that you truly love and are passionate about it will only be then that you will create a foundation for a successful career. Personal work is essential too. It is the only time you can truly experiment and try daring things that no client can judge you for. This dosage should be taken once a week for a healthy and prosperous career as a graphic artist. A lot of illustrators like to complain about the industry and fear competition, but being an artist is a fabulous job. It is a wonderful means to launch your creative exploits and have other channels open up to you. With illustration, I’ve taken on projects creating children’s books, animation, wine labels, toys, fine art shows, greeting cards, record covers, shopping bags, etc. The list goes on and on.

See more Gary Taxali illustration, new work and updates:
Gary Taxali website
Fine art
Twitter: @garytaxali
Instagram: @taxaliS