Illustrator Profile - Joe Ciardiello: "I'm probably one of three people left who still uses a Rapidograph"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 23, 2017

Joe Ciardiello is a Western New Jersey-based illustrator best known for his brilliantly-drawn portraits of jazz musicians, authors, politicians, and actors. He received the Society of Illustrators Hamilton King award in 2016 for his portraits for the book On the Snap. Ciardiello's work has appeared in countless magazines and newspapers and isn’t limited to just portraits. He creates his illustrations with Rapidograph pen and dashes of watercolor. Ciardiello explains that his extraordinary line work comes about because “I like the element of risk and the improvisational nature of direct drawing.” His work resonates with the richness of the finest jazz sax solo or master bluesman’s guitar playing. Fellow illustrator Steve Brodner says that Ciardiello’s illustrations show “the magic that is possible with line.”

I live in west central New Jersey, near the Delaware River. It’s a fairly rural and beautiful part of the state. My wife, artist Susan Blubaugh and I live in a 190-year-old house with our two cats.

I’ve been working professionally since 1974.

I was born on Staten Island, NY and lived there until 2001. My grandparents were Italian immigrants who settled on the Island, so my parents were born there as well.

My father always had an interest in drawing and wanted to be an artist, but that wasn’t an option for him. He was the youngest of four boys and his parents were determined that he be the one to get a college education. He did, and became a dentist. He still had the desire to draw (and paint in later years). Some of my earliest memories are of my dad drawing pictures while I watched, so he was probably my first influence.

I guess I’ve been drawing since about the age of four.

Television had a major impact on me as a young kid in the 1950s and early 60s. I loved the Fleischer Popeye cartoons, also the old Flash Gordon serials, the Lone Ranger (and countless other westerns), Laurel & Hardy, Superman, Abbott & Costello. I have no doubt that these shows shaped my artistic sensibilities in one way or another.

I was a pretty shy and solitary kid, not interested in sports. I went to a Catholic grammar school and lived in constant terror of the nuns, a very anxiety-producing period in my life. Making pictures was a refuge. I remember spending hours illustrating my own stories on large sheets of paper that I would then staple together to make books. When I was slightly older I took some Saturday morning painting classes from a local artist.

Then at around 12 years of age I discovered Mad magazine. Like many others, I became obsessed with the work of Mort Drucker. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to make a living as an artist of some kind, maybe a cartoonist.

I attended the High School of Art & Design in Manhattan which, coming from Catholic school was like being released from prison. Despite the two-hour commute each way by bus, ferry and subway, it was well worth it. I met my longtime pal fellow Staten Islander and artist Chris Spollen during this time and we’d often commute together. Going to that school opened me up to a diverse world well beyond what I was used to. It was the late 1960s and the culture was in the midst of a creative explosion.

I soon took up the drums and started playing in a rock band. For a couple of years art took a back seat to my musical interests. However, I never really lost my focus.

After a visit to the school from Murray Tinkelman (there to give a presentation about Parsons School of Design where he was illustration chair) I decided that I wanted to become an illustrator. I attended Parsons where I was fortunate to study with some great instructors like Jim Spanfeller, Bernie D’Andrea, Lorraine Fox and Maurice Sendak.

I graduated Parsons in 1974, receiving a BFA in 1975 after completing my studies at The New School.


My studio is an out building behind my house. I work on the second floor and Sue’s painting studio is on the ground floor. My space is cluttered with way too many art books, drawing table, flat files, my drums, stacks of CDs (yes, I still buy them), a computer and lots of artwork. I’m very comfortable spending most of my time there.

I draw with a pen, primarily a Rapidograph. I’m probably one of three people left who still use them. I also use various dip pens and Microns. I work on watercolor paper and am constantly in search of the perfect paper, which of course doesn’t exist.

On most assignments, for roughs, I’ll draw with pen on tracing paper then scan and email to the client for approval. Once OK’d I’ll put that sketch on a light box with a piece of watercolor paper over it and lightly draw in pencil. Then back at my board, I’ll redraw with pen and add watercolor, if needed. This method, although practical, leaves little up to chance. The method I much prefer (and how I work for myself) is to draw directly with pen with no preliminary sketches or pencil. I like the element of risk and the improvisational nature of direct drawing. It often requires a number of false starts, but the results are more alive and spontaneous.

The only time I use the computer is to find reference and for scanning. Most of the technical stuff or any adjustments are handled by my wife who is infinitely more tech savvy than I’ll ever be.

Rather than one big break, it’s been more like a series of opportunities. I was lucky to have my first illustration published while still a student at Parsons. It was a black and white spot for Crawdaddy magazine. Right after I graduated, I took my portfolio around and almost immediately started getting some work. Penthouse magazine hired me to do spots each issue.

Shortly after that I got my first kids book to illustrate for Putnam and things just continued from there. I was also lucky to get my first piece accepted into the Society of Illustrators annual during my last year at Parsons.

An important  turning point came in the late 80s-early 90s after a number of years doing unsatisfying work and feeling burnt out. Art director and friend Patrick Flynn, knowing my interest in jazz, suggested collaborating on a project of B&W portraits of jazz musicians. He connected me with writer/musician John Kruth who wrote poems to accompany my drawings. The result was a small independently published book (designed by Patrick) called “Like Jazz.” As I sent out copies of the book, doors began to open for me that were previously closed. I became a regular contributor to both Jazziz magazine and Playboy Japan.

Others assignments followed: The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone. I also illustrated a series of Blues CDs for Capitol Records and an ad campaign for American Express. It was a busy time.


My major influences have been:
Jim Spanfeller, who as a teacher, mentor and friend, gave me an appreciation for line and the joy of drawing in an expressive and personal way.

Alan E. Cober, who I never studied with, but learned much the same thing through his inspiring work.

Leonard Baskin, one of the greatest artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Also, Egon Schiele, Milton Glaser, Robert Andrew Parker, Picasso (etchings), Ralph Steadman, David Levine, Ed Sorel, Jack Unruh, I could go on.

If I were to pick one person that I admired most it would have to be Robert Andrew Parker. Painter, illustrator, printmaker, teacher, sculptor and jazz drummer, he is a curious, smart, funny, and remarkably creative man who at 89 is still productive. I’m very fortunate to have had a long friendship with Bob.

For inspiration I look at the work of artists I admire in books, online, in galleries and museums.

I also find inspiration in music, watching films, or just taking a walk along the river.


I’d say the biggest challenge to working on my own has been self-discipline. I tend to be a procrastinator and social media does not help.

A favorite recent assignment was for Audubon magazine. They do a back page called “The Illustrated Aviary" where each issue a different illustrator is asked to interpret one of John James Audubon’s paintings, "Birds of America.” Creative Director Kevin Fisher is wonderful to work with and gave me the freedom to choose a bird and create the piece without a preliminary sketch.

Also, this past year three books came out that I illustrated back to back. John Aubrey’s Brief Lives for Folio Society, The Devil’s Sinkhole for University of Texas Press and On the Snap for an independent publisher in the UK. For that book, I did a series of portraits for which I received the Hamilton King Award from the Society of Illustrators.

A dream assignment would be anything with a big budget and complete freedom.

Actually, I’d love to have a book of my own work published. Perhaps a book of my Spaghetti Journal project or portraits of musicians?


I’ve worked with many great art directors over the years. However, I would have to mention two that stand out for me. First would be Patrick Flynn who I’ve had a working relationship and friendship with dating back to the late 70s. From The Runner magazine to The New York Times to The Progressive and up to The Baffler, Patrick has been a champion of illustration. He may not have had the greatest budgets, but he gave you total freedom and always respected the artist. As a result, he got the best work from the people he hired.

Next would be Nicholas Blechman. When he was art directing the Times Book Review, he trusted me enough to allow me to create portraits the way I preferred, drawn directly with no preliminary sketches. I’m grateful to have had that opportunity.

This is a tough one; there are so many illustrators working today whose work I admire and many are my friends. I can’t mention them all, but here are a few: Steve Brodner, Barry Blitt, John Cuneo, Tim Bower, Henrik Drescher, Philip Burke, Anita Kunz, David Hughes, Oscar Grillo, Mark Ulriksen, Blair Thornley, Jeff Decoster, Maira Kalman, Victor Juhasz, Drew Friedman.

Most of my work has been either in editorial or books with the occasional advertising job. It’s pretty much been traditional markets.

Going forward I could see more emphasis on books, prints and possibly gallery exhibits.


I just do what I do. I love to draw and I’ve been around long enough that there is some familiarity with my work. I’m happy to still be in the game.

These days my promotion is pretty much social media: Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. I also try to do an email newsletter to clients every few months. For years I used to send postcard mailers and might still do that on a rare occasion. I’m also on Drawger and illoz and still enter the illustration annuals (SOI, AI, CA).

Figure out what you really love to do, do it to the best of your ability and then get it out there in front of people. Enter annuals, use social media, direct mail, self-publish, whatever it takes.

See more Joe Ciardiello illustrations, new work and updates:
Joe Ciardiello website
Instagram: @joeciardiello