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Illustrator Profile - Wesley Bedrosian: "Draw in your sketchbooks to find your visual voice"

By Robert Newman   Thursday October 26, 2017

Wesley Bedrosian is a Massachusetts-based illustrator (he lives about 30 miles west of Boston). He works in two very distinct styles: traditional pen and ink work (now done digitally), and a 3D sculptural style, which has been featured on a notable series of Newsweek covers. Bedrosian is also one of many in the illustration community who has done a stint as art director at The New York Times, an experience he describes as having “a huge impact on how I understood the illustrator’s role.”

MY LIFE:
I currently live in Hopkinton, MA with my wife and twin 7-year-old sons.

I’ve been a working illustrator for 27 years.

There are no other professional artists who I know in my family. My father, who is a nuclear engineer, dabbles in making art in his spare time. He participated in the Famous Artists correspondence school when I was very young. He used to draw super heroes for me and I would cut them out and play with them all day. At the age of six, I was making my own comic books.

I studied graphic design and illustration at Kent State University. Right after graduating I landed a job with American Greetings. It was a joy to work there but frustrating after a few years. I had no visual voice of my own and felt like an artistic chameleon. I would work in a variety of styles that imitated other artists’ works.  I left after five years to pursue a graduate degree at SVA in New York City.

After graduate school I began a freelance career. Most of my work appeared in The New York Times. I learned a lot about editorial illustration when I would work for Nicholas Blechman, who at the time was art director at The New York Times Op Ed page. One day he called me and asked if I’d like to fill in for him as art director. I immediately said yes, but wanted to make sure that I could still work on my freelance career. Nicholas arranged to have me work every other week. I would switch out with Paul Sahre, Brian Rea, and Christoph Niemann. Art directing had a huge impact on how I understood the illustrator’s role. I got to work with other professional illustrators and would notice how they handled themselves during a job. It’s the kind of education you just can’t get in art school. I realized the kinds of demands an art director deals with when collaborating with an illustrator. After filling in for Nicholas for a few months, I would come in to the office here and there to fill in when he needed. When Nicholas left, I filled in for Peter Buchanan Smith, then for Steven Guarnaccia, then for Brian Rea. Seeing different art direction styles was very inspiring. I also got to work with Sam Weber, John Hendrix, and Nora Krug when they acted as assistant art directors. Now, while this was going on, I was also approached by Steven Heller to fill in for him at The New York Times Book Review. Like my experience with everyone at The Times, working with Steven Heller was pretty amazing. And for that matter, working with fellow illustrators was pretty amazing, too. It’s not often you get to work in that way with the illustration community. To collaborate with my idols and friends and see how their brilliant minds would solve a visual problem was both inspiring and humbling.


MY WORKSPACE:

I’ve always worked from home. My studio has always been the one room in the house where the walls are covered in pictures and there are lots of interesting objects and nicknacks everywhere. I am also surrounded by books. They remind me of who I am and how I like to solve visual problems.

HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:
I currently have two styles: pen and ink and 3D.

For pen and ink I used to make the line work on paper and the color washes on a separate piece of paper. The final image was assembled in Photoshop. This took a bit of work as I had to clean up my scans. Eventually, I got a Cintiq and drew digitally right on the screen. The experience was very similar to making the art traditionally, so I enjoyed it. Also, I was able to make the work much faster. That was useful because deadlines became a lot faster, too.

My 3D style evolved from my painting style. For painting, I used maquettes as reference. My maquettes would often times be a clay sculpture. One day I happened upon a new application called ZBrush. It was like virtual clay. I could pose it and light it and simulate shadows and forms. I used it to make digital maquettes at first, but after playing with it awhile, I started making images with it directly. I thought it would be fun to make an image that was an illustration, a sculpture and a photograph. I started making portraits with this style. These were experimental projects I would do on the side which I would enter into different illustration competitions like American Illustration—and they would get in. I was still learning the software and not promoting them because I wasn’t sure I could meet a deadline. Eventually, the software got more powerful and I was able to make the portraits with enough efficiency that I started to promote them. 

Having two styles was a little scary at first. Am I the pen and ink guy? Am I the 3D sculpture guy? If I promote the new 3D style, will my other clients stop hiring me? Should I use another name for the 3D style?

I looked to illustrators like Melinda Beck and Edel Rodriguez, who have multiple styles, as my inspiration. They use one name for all of their styles, so why shouldn’t I? In the end, I got to work the way I like and have an even wider variety of clients and subjects to collaborate with.


MY FIRST BIG BREAK:

Like many other artists, my first big break was working with Steven Heller at The New York Times Book Review. I brought my portfolio to his office; he rifled through it rather quickly. I was sure he didn’t like it much. After he finished looking at it he asked if I could make a sketch for him for a last-minute job. I got a sketch approved and turned in the finish the next day. He started using me regularly. One day he gave me a cover. Very exciting. I did a painting of a family from the dust bowl era. A month or so later, I got a call from someone who wanted to buy it. I made the deal over the phone and went to Steve’s office to retrieve the original painting. He looked around but couldn’t find it. He was very concerned and while looking for it, he gave me another cover to work on. In the end, I went back to my studio with my painting (which he did find) and another cover assignment. 

Another break: When I was starting out, I worked mostly for The New York Times. I had a number of black and white images that I wanted to send to potential clients. When I was at SVA, I learned how to bind books. So I hand bound 80 or so hard cover books of my commissioned work and sketch drawings, which I sent to art directors. I remember getting work from three or four art directors at the Wall Street Journal as well The Washington Post and many others. Almost overnight, I started getting enough commissions that I could stop doing temp jobs to pay the bills—a great feeling. 

MY MAJOR INFLUENCES:
My work is influenced by Alan Cober, Edward Gorey, Marshall Arisman, Brad Holland, Mort Drucker, pulp art, Ron MuekMark Tansey, Magritte, Guy Billout, Al Hirschfeld, Windsor McKay, Botticelli, Grant Wood, Durer, Lucien Freud, Houdon, N.C. Wyeth, Disney.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
There are so many people I admire and have learned from. My many mentors include Marshall Arisman, Carl Titolo, Steven Guarnaccia, Paul Davis, and Steven Heller.


MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:

I keep many sketchbooks, which allow me to play and doodle. Sketching is important because there’s no deadline and you can work honestly and selfishly. When a job comes up, I try to see how some of my favorite sketchbook images could fit into the context of the assignment. Often I get very unique inventive solutions that way. A real thrill is to get a sketch published. That first happened to me years ago when I sent New York Times Op Ed art director Nicholas Blechman a sketchbook image and he asked if he could publish it, as-is, for a story about global warming.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Working at home took a lot of practice at first. Deciding when you’re at home and when you’re at work becomes a rather grey area. I get a little less time to work in my studio compared to when I was single. Now with a family and work schedule, my time in the studio is precious.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
My favorite assignment this year was a portrait I did of Donald Trump for Newsweek. No one thought he’d win and my cover shows him drifting off into the abyss of space. My, how the news can change on a dime.


DREAM ASSIGNMENT:

I feel like I’ve done far more than I ever thought possible. When I was in grad school at SVA, my biggest dream was to some day get published in The New York Times, even if only just once. I never thought I’d be a regular contributor and also art direct there. As well, I never thought I’d be a magazine cover guy. I mostly stay very open to possibilities and say yes to jobs that feel like a challenge outside my comfort zone.

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR:
For the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of working with Robert Priest. He found me, actually, and was the first person to hire me for my 3D style. I did some portraits for his soccer magazine, Eight by Eight. They were great fun and it was a joy to work on with Robert. Then one day he asked if I’d like to do a Newsweek cover. I made a number of covers with Robert and got those images into competitions. Robert is an art director who I really love to collaborate with. It feels almost effortless but I know it’s not. That’s what it’s like when you get to work with someone of his caliber.

SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:
There are so many people making beautiful inspiring work that I can’t even begin to list them. I will say that I am lucky to still be in touch with my close friends from grad school at SVA. Stephen Savage, Andy Rash and Riccardo Vecchio are valued collaborators and life-long friends. I don’t know what it would be like to work in this business completely alone. We can lean on each other, especially since we go back to before we were working illustrators. It’s like we grew up together.


OTHER WORK:

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching while working as a freelance illustrator. First at SVA in New York and now at MassArt in Boston. I’ve also conducted an annual book binding workshop at SVA for their MFAI program for several years.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
My 3D style is a direct result of my noodling with technology and turning my personal work into my professional illustration. Recently I’ve been experimenting with animating my 3D images. 

HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:
Currently I send out postcards and emails. I enter personal work into competitions. I also like to attend networking events like the American Illustration opening and ICON conference.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
Draw in your sketchbooks to find your visual voice. The most honest work you make happens when there is no looming deadline or expectation from a client. There’s no greater feeling than to get hired to do the kind of work you enjoy making. It took me years to figure out what I liked to make. It’s still hard work, but so much more enjoyable.

See more Wesley Bedrosian illustrations, new work and updates:
Wesley Bedrosian website
iSpot
Instagram: @wbedrosian
Twitter: @WBedrosian
My 3D process is described in an interview here.



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