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Illustrator Profile - Michael Hirshon: "A lot of work starts in my sketchbook"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 31, 2017

Michael Hirshon is a Madison, Wisconsin-based illustrator. Although he creates his illustrations with a Wacom tablet and scanned-in backgrounds, his drawing has a hand-done, mid-century feel. It's smart and well-crafted, with a great sense of visual storytelling. In addition to working for a wide array of magazines and newspapers, Hirshon has been creating illustrations for a variety of brands, including popcorn and dog toy packaging.

MY LIFE:
I’ve worked for six years as a full-time freelance illustrator and I’m currently doing so from Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve worked as a web designer, graphic designer, and copywriter, but illustration is, by far, the most enjoyable of the bunch.

There’s a thread of being artistic running through my family. My grandmother was a painter and my grandfather, father, and brother are photographers. My parents also like to hang their art salon-style, so I grew up literally surrounded by pictures. I think that might have had an effect on me. I have a BFA in Communication Design from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay from the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I also have extensive doodling experience from Spanish and Math classes throughout high school.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
For editorial work, I typically make my line work with a Wacom tablet. A lot of work starts in my sketchbook, though, drawn with cheap but wonderful Uni-ball pens. I like the line quality the pens give me, and I’m also able to mimic it with my tablet (for last minute revisions to the drawing). I color my pieces in Photoshop, where I also overlay my textures. These are typically either photos of dirty walls I’ve taken over the years, or scans of painted paper.

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m a very lucky illustrator. Shortly before graduating college, I was contacted by American Express to do a window sticker for the city of St. Louis. They’d searched “St. Louis illustrator” on Google and eventually found my website.

It was the first assignment I ever got, and also one of the biggest I’ve ever had. It paid my rent long enough for me to give a career in illustration a real shot—by the time the money ran out, I’d sent out a few hundred promo postcards.

MY INFLUENCES:
My two biggest influences are John Hendrix and Doug B. Dowd—incredible illustrators, and professors at Washington University. John taught me everything I know about coming up with concepts, as well as how to navigate the industry. Doug helped me discover where my talents lay and how to cultivate my visual voice. I’ve also been influenced a lot by illustrators like Robert Weaver and Al Parker, as well as Cubism, and Italian Futurism.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
If I find an illustrator whose work I really like, I follow their blog. The result is an aggregated feed—that’s my daily inspiration. I also read a ton of magazines…and by read, I mean look at the illustrations.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
There is no reliable source of immediate feedback—many times I spend days working in a vacuum, only to find out I’ve been going in the wrong direction. Trusting your instincts can get you very far, but it can’t always get you all the way.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
I’ve been working with a great company called Bullymake; they offer subscriptions for monthly boxes of dog toys and treats. I’ve designed their packaging, illustrated their promotional materials, and tweaked their brand identity. Drawing dogs never gets old; I enjoy cracking myself up with drawings of dogs with their heads stuck in pumpkinsor tangled up in Christmas lights. The reference photos I’ve found are amazing.

DREAM ASSIGNMENT:
My dream is for some brave magazine editor to pay me to travel to an exotic place and document the experience through drawing and writing. Commissions like these used to be commonplace in illustration, and it bums me out that now photographers get to have all the fun. Most of my personal work is on-location drawing; it would be nice to get paid to do it.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
Edel Rodriguez amazes me with how varied and prolific and consistently powerful his work is—seeing his constant experimentation and growth via social media is a real inspiration. Then there’s Dushan Milic—whenever I look at his illustrations, I want to be a better illustrator. His work is filled with surprises and I find myself captivated by his colors and compositions and the quality of his line work.

OTHER WORK:
Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself illustrating outside of the conventional magazine and newspaper circuit. I’ve done illustrations for the aforementioned dog toy company, packaging for an Indian-spiced popcorn company, and portraits for an interview podcast

I’ve found illustration work coming from avenues I never would’ve considered as a student: Save-the-dates for weddings, custom maps, and books for self-publishers with disposable income. I also do a good deal of fan art, which generates a lot of print sales and lets me explore a totally different visual style.

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
I used to send out postcards, and they worked well, but they were too much hassle. I’ve since switched to email marketing, which feels less personal but works way better. It’s nice having the analytics to tell you whether or not you’re actually reaching your target. I’m pretty sure at least half my postcards are lying, still sealed in their envelopes, in a landfill somewhere.

I would say 85% of my work comes from email marketing. The rest comes from happy surprises via web portfolios or word-of-mouth.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Art directors are generally very friendly folks who will happily meet with new illustrators that ask them nicely. They might give you some great advice on how to make your portfolio more stronger, or maybe even commission some work. Every meeting I’ve ever had with an art director has been an overwhelmingly positive and worthwhile experience.

See more Michael Hirshon illustrations, new work and updates:
Michael Hirshon website
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Instagram: @michaelhirshon
Email: mike@hirshon.net



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