The Q&A: George Bates

By Peggy Roalf   Monday January 16, 2017

Q: Originally from New Jersey, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in Brooklyn?

A: I grew up in Brick, NJ, a South Jersey town near the ocean. Now I live and work in Brooklyn. I originally moved to New York to live in a diverse and creative environment and the creative and personal experiences I’ve had here are incredible. I’ve basically met everyone whose work I’ve ever admired in illustration, music and art and have had the good fortune to have lived in a diverse array of communities. Recently it’s been interesting to travel around the nation and world for the public art projects I’m involved with now and to see how the Brooklynization of many areas is real, for better or worse. The upside of this is a greater eye toward diversity.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper [or other analog medium] versus in the computer?

A: I have many sketchbooks. Each one serves a different purposes but they all evolve my thinking on my practice, aesthetics and intent. The balance between digital and traditional in the end is 50/50 as everything winds up being digital somehow. But how that’s accomplished is something that is maybe not so apparent from the end result. Digital is such a powerful tool that can also be used to hide how powerful it is.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: My sketchbooks. I see them as a comprehensive unit. They are a place to fail and a place to reveal. When you are working on a client’s project it’s not the time or place to fail. Surprisingly though some clients have seen the perceived sketchbook failures as otherwise and have either selected them directly or have referenced these pieces as a guiding star for a successful project. It’s a true joy when this happens. The sketchbooks have opened so many unexpected doors in my career arc as some creatives can see very clearly what they offer, but they’ve also shut a few doors as they’ve frightened some who have told me directly they are afraid to use me because they don’t know what to expect. That’s fine, I’m interested in working with people who are interested in having a clear dialogue to achieve an experience.

When I was a sophomore at Parsons, Henrik Drescher showed his work in Frank Olinsky’s class and he told us “Make every page of your sketchbook a work of art”. That day changed everything as I looked deeper into how artists sketchbooks function and how Henrik’s own books related to Peter Beard’s sketchbooks, with the broader history of artist sketchbooks informing intent and intuition to reveal meaning and aesthetics. I’ve found my way to public art as a direct result of a project director finding experimental sketchbook images of mine online and encouraging me to apply for a commission that I became a finalist for.

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

A: It’s finished when it reveals the right thing. I don’t make anything, I reveal something. For the commercial art or a site-specific commission it clearly depends upon what the brief is and how it reveals something in relation to the brief. However, the sketchbook and fine art work are an entirely different dialogue, and it is exactly that—a dialogue. Dialogues are never finished. In the course of a project it’s fascinating how drastically a direction can change during the final hours of a deadline because editors, creative directors or committees change their minds on what is important to reveal, but anyone with an illustration background is good at rising to the occasion in light of these concerns as our training really is in solving problems. Often I’m asked to make drastic changes with a few hours left on a deadline because editors have changed their minds. At these times art directors are so thankful at the ease with which I’ve performed under these demands but I’ve always seen it as part of the job. Human opinion and taste are too fickle for certainty, even with no time left on a deadline. It’s best to understand this and that it is an editor’s game.

Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A: Coffee. And, most of my time I’m alone in my studio so when I can connect with other creatives on any level it’s influential and winds up reinforcing or challenging the established whys of my work practice. I think belief exerts the most powerful daily influence though. You have to have a belief in why you are doing what you do or you are simply lost in the woods. You must have a guiding star or two especially with the shifting sands of freelance life, aggressively shifting markets due to tech’s ability to out-pace discipline and the expected upheavals in taste and opinion. So connecting with like-minded individual is key to reinforce or challenge what you value and how you value it. I started a very casual meet-up where a group of illustrators, designers, contemporary artists and a critic meet for gallery walks. The best part is that everyone who has showed up is relaxed and willing to openly discuss things they don’t know much about and also contribute to the dialogue with their own areas of expertise all while having some fun. The espresso stops along the way are quite inspiring also.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

As A child, The Wizard of Walloby Wallow, by Jack Kent. It’s a sweet and rather psychedelic tale of self-realization and -actualization.

Q: What is the best book you’ve recently read?

Recently, Blood Meridian, by Cormac MaCarthy. Hands down, the most violent book I’ve ever read. It’s considered a Western or Anti-Western novel based on real events set in the 1800’s. While reading it there were actually moments when I was thinking about how much of the story is analogous to the freelance lifestyle (I’ve never had a traditional job, I’ve only ever been a freelance Illustrator /Artist). I tell my students—freelancing is the Wild West. I don’t sugar-coat it, but I have ways of telling it gently and prepping them for avoiding pitfalls and trying to establish certainty in their practice.

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: Mixed media. Alright, I’ll play fair—I’d choose watercolor. It’s not the media where I have the most acumen but the beauty that occurs in the moments between planning and chance while you engage with the rigors of the discipline reach an aesthetic I’d love to explore further, and I’d risk my established practice on it. My brother is an amazing watercolor painter who taught me some professional tricks and techniques that I pass on to my students. I’m envious of those in my sketchbook class who take to it and get the time to really run with it.

Q: If you could spend an entire day away from work and deadlines, what would you do and where?

A: I’d go surfing with friends and family wherever waves are firing with light offshore winds. The experience of being fully immersed in nature, literally gliding across the top of the ocean under the vault of the sky, with those you have a warm disposition towards, and the thoughtful, creative, conversations and fun that flows when everyone is relaxed, fulfilled and happy, there’s nothing better than that.

Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art? 

A: The idea of plasticity and how it functions in art. This was something that my father (who was an illustrator on staff at CBS in the 1960s) explained to me when I was very young. It is such a simple concept but the depth of it revealed the power that drawing, painting, illustration and art in regard to personal intent have over photography in the visual arts. It’s something I pass on to my students, as hardly any of them have ever heard of the concept and how it applies to their personal practice and what they are learning. I was recently reading a Bridget Riley book of interviews and was happy to hear her own missive on the topic. Powerful stuff.

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: While staying in a castle in Tuscany, Italy (not a big deal, castles everywhere there), my wife and I dined next to a cozy fire eating incredible steak, regional specialties drinking perfectly decanted regional Brunello wine and grappa, all the while the friendly staff engaged with us as there was no one else around. That supper, again, there, with her.

George Bates Studio specializes in illustration, hand lettering and public art. These interests have led to collaborations with Virgin Mobile, MTV, Nickelodeon, The New York Times, the LA Times, Epic Records, David Carson and the creation of two permanently installed outdoor public art projects for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts & Design program that can be seen at 36th Street, Rockaway, Queens and Central Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn subway stations. He has also received a public art commission from the RTD FasTracks North Metro Line in Aurora, Colorado now permanently installed as of Sept 2016 and is currently working with the Charlotte Area Transit System on a public art project to be installed in 2018. 

He is a part-itme Professor of Illustration at Parsons School of Design and has previously taught in the COMD program at Pratt Institute. At Parsons he created a new course offering that addresses overall problems and shortcomings in contemporary Illustration education and training. Sketchbook Warehouse is the class he’s crafted and honed over the years to address these concerns as all of the best jobs, learning, and open doors in his diverse career arc have come directly from his sketchbook interest and explorations.

His work has been recognized by the Art Directors Club, American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Society of Publication Designers, and the Promax BDA awards.
Instagram: bates_george
Twitter: @gBatesstudio
Public Events:
Images from the Charlotte Area Transit System project are currently on display at the Museum of Illustration / Illustrators 59: Uncommissioned, Institutional, Advertising show up til Jan 29th 2017: