Illustrator Profile - Scott Bakal: "Being an illustrator allows me to examine my own humanity"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 4, 2018

Scott Bakal is a Boston-based illustrator and photographer. He generally works in acrylic and ink, but adds that “Depending upon the project I’ve used watercolor, digital, graphite, spray paint and pretty much whatever else that I am interested in.” Bakal's brilliantly graphic and conceptual illustrations have graced the pages of numerous publications and book projects.

I’ve been an illustrator for 25 years. I’ve been living in Boston for the last seven years. The previous 29 years was in New York and the previous 10 years was in Connecticut. Before that, I didn’t exist.

Except for one cartooning class when I was nine or 10, my parents never gave me any intentional interaction with art that I am aware of other than providing me with paper, markers and such because they saw how much I enjoyed drawing. My first time to an art museum was the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a class trip in my first year as a college student at the School of Visual Arts.

While I was considered “the artist” throughout my elementary and high school days, it became apparent in my freshman year of college that I had quite a huge mountain to climb. I discovered some of my classmates went to a High School of Art and Design which I didn’t know existed and wished I had that sort of experience. There were so many people more advanced than me. This was both crushing but very motivating. I had a lot to make up for and since I was the first in my family to go to college, I really had to prove myself.

Not growing up in a creative family and spending so much time catching up based on trial and error certainly slowed my growth as an artist. I guess it would’ve been nice to have a bit more direction at an early age but in retrospect, that struggle instilled a pretty serious work ethic. With all the mistakes and missteps that I made, I’ve experienced enough failure in life that I don’t even blink at it anymore. I just keep figuring out what the next project is and what my next goal is and go for it.

In 2004 I went back to school to get Masters Degrees at Syracuse University and then the University of Hartford, graduating in 2007. Part of the reason I went back to school was to “start over” in a way. I had to work two or three jobs during my undergraduate years so I don’t think I got everything I could have from the program, which I felt made me a weaker artist. It seemed a good time to go back and rethink who I was as an artist.

It was a profound experience. It was a transitional period of my creative life. The ability to take what I knew about the illustration business and the opportunity to give myself time to reevaluate what I do was the best thing that could have happened. It’s been 10 years since then and the results of that time have been life altering.


I work in a studio at home.

I’m currently in a three-bedroom house and I have a basement with about nine-foot ceilings. It’s a beautiful 1910 Victorian in Boston. One of the bedrooms is my studio and I use part of the basement area as my photo studio. I love working where I live.

I’ve thought about getting a studio outside of the house but decided it’s not really necessary for me. Although working on photography projects has made me rethink an outside studio idea the last couple of years.

I’ve always kept weird hours both because of the nature of what I do and also the type of person I am, so having that kind of immediate access to a studio in the home helps maintain the flow of my life.

I’m all over the place with mediums and surfaces but the standards are Crescent 310.6 illustration board and acrylic and ink. Sometimes I paint on wood panel or canvas if it is specifically for gallery work. Depending upon the project I’ve used watercolor, digital, graphite, spray paint and pretty much whatever else that I am interested in. 

My first break with getting illustration work was my first job with ABA Banking Journal, art directed by John McLaughlin. He was the first one to hire me and I worked with him for a good three or four years. I really cut my teeth with those jobs.

The way I truly see my “big break” as an artist was when I was finally personally happy with the art I was creating. I think I was lost in what I thought clients wanted rather than exploring who I was and the visuals and ideas I was truly interested in creating. That shift in thinking and working made me more honest with myself, which transformed my work. That time working on my Masters helped me realize this.

Part of that was when I stopped thinking about illustration as merely a job and made it more a part of my personal growth. I realized, being an editorial illustrator, that I was getting all of this new information regularly. I would get articles about so many different subjects that I couldn’t help consider how these various topics affect me personally either physically or emotionally.

Being an illustrator allows me to examine my own humanity. Reading all of the subjects and content I have, I can't help but consider the social and cultural aspects of living on this planet and being human. And I get to illustrate these thoughts, ideas and considerations.

That’s what changed my work and career.

My influences are constantly changing.

Before I went to college, my influences generally were in almost chronological order: Sesame Street, Saturday morning cartoons, comic books (Archie), newspaper cartoons, Beetle Bailey and Peanuts cartoons, Weird Al Yankovic, Devo, Queen, hot rods and muscle cars, Van Gogh, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcovers, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Tim Burton (Beetlejuice in particular), Sonic Youth....

They were all major influences in some way. There was something within each of these TV shows, artists, filmmakers and musicians that have found their way into my thinking and being over the years. Maybe it’s the compositions of some of the scenes in movies, a certain color combination, an attitude, an emotion.

After college my influences continued with Piet Mondrian, Ben Shahn, Rembrandt, Paul Klee, Andy Warhol, Sophia and Francis Ford Coppola, the TV show Northern Exposure, Orson Welles, Steven Soderbergh, the Flaming Lips, Wes Anderson, Tim Walker (photographer) really is endless.

One person who I would be remiss in not mentioning who has been very influential is the late Murray Tinkelman. He was program director for my Masters in Syracuse and Hartford and we became fast friends. I learned a lot about education and much about the history of illustration through him. His advice—as well as that of his wife Carol—has been priceless.

I admire so many creative people for different reasons. At the moment I would put Matt Mahurin in that category. I’ve been looking at his work for over 20 years and was initially inspired by him in the very early 90s with his paintings. Recently, I’ve been re-inspired because of the new things I am personally exploring with film and photography. Matt has done illustration work, gallery, photography, music videos, animation, films, documentaries, TV and more. Matt is inspiring and is someone who I respect and eventually became pals with. It’s motivating to see someone tackle so many different areas of creativity and now that we’re friends, its good to occasionally talk to him about our ideas and different projects.

Nature. People. Life. There is so much going on in the world that I have a hard time not being inspired by something.

I have no problem working on my own. I’ve always worked that way.

I’m currently in my 40s; if things go well, I figure I have about another 40 years to get things done. That’s if I don’t get cancer or some other disease or get hit by a bus. The challenge working alone is there is simply not enough time to finish everything I want to do by myself.

Illustration: I enjoyed creating the art for the Call For Entries poster for the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. I was given free reign, so what’s not to love? I spent a lot of time working out how the idea was going to play out, from the poster to the award trophies. I also took a step back to my childhood, and while I’ve been experimenting with it in my sketchbook for years, it was the first time I used my vintage Spirographs in a finished piece. I spent days working on the painting and when it came time to work on the halo, I had to do it on the original art. Anyone has ever used a Spirograph knows how unstable the gears are, and if you’re not careful, can easily slip. I did about 30 tests prior to working on the final.

Photography: Photographing my friend and artist Victoria Maxfield for my personal project IlloDocs. The final photographs I used are some of my most favorite shots I’ve ever taken, especially the portrait. The lighting and moments just worked out well. It was actually a big step forward for me as a photographer. Recently, I was honored that one of the photos in the series was selected to be in Luerzer’s Archive 200 Best Photographers annual.

Starting out, I think we all have these dreams about working for top clients. The year I started out, I had three publications I wanted to work for: The New York Times, Playboy and Rolling Stone. I’ve worked for two of them except for Rolling Stone.

Over time, it became less and less important which client I worked with but who the people I work with are. I work regularly for some amazing art directors who work for publications that no one ever heard of.

I still wouldn’t mind doing a job for Rolling Stone.

My favorite art directors are the ones that are generally hands off and/or people I trust and who trust me.

I have absolutely loved working with Irene Gallo of Tor Books, Mike DiIoia, who has worked for Boating, Penthouse, Discover and many others, Greg Klee of the Boston Globe, Stephanie Glaros, Dana Einsidler and Lisa Kelsey of Family Circle, SooJin Buzelli, Len Small,former AD of Nautilus, and Bryan Gray, to name a few. They not only know how to work with illustrators but they also seem to be in love with illustration. And they are amazing humans as well.

I was approached recently to be a concept artist for a game. I’ve never done work like that before. We’re at the beginning stages of it so I probably just jinxed the entire project. I can’t talk about it more than that but it is incredibly exciting to think that the look of my work will be the basis of a game.

I’ve done work in most types of markets; editorial, books, textbooks, Young Adult, advertising, TV spots, on and on.

I am currently building a portfolio of photography. It’s slow moving because I am busy with my own client work and teaching illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, but this year I plan to put more serious effort into it.

For the next two years, I will be serving on the board for the ICON10 Conference, which will be happening in Detroit in 2018.

Being a teacher helps me stay current. While I give students information about how to be an illustrator through my experience, they are constantly showing me new artists and tools that they’re using that I’ve never seen or used before. I never close myself off and always try exploring a new way of working or doing things. With the students, it’s a mutual exchange which is incredibly inspiring.

I think it is important to be part of a community as well. I volunteered for many years at the Society of Illustrators Chairing the Student Show which was wonderful, and as I mentioned, I’m getting back into it with ICON. It is a great way to meet new people and learn something new.

I mail out postcards and I print custom books every year or so for my clients and select potential clients. Pretty old school. I also send out email blasts and I use various social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

When I started promoting myself prior to digital communications, it was only print-based and it was very costly. Now that promotion has been democratized because of the digital medium, everyone can have their own website and presence in the world, which makes it much harder to stand out. This is why I still do traditional promotions—postcard mailers, printed promotion books and things like that. I create something that isn’t ephemeral like an email, something tangible that they can collect or pass along.

I promote with the goal of making my work seen in as many areas as possible. I have no idea what form of promotion is more successful than another but’s the collective activity that adds up.

Inspiration and opportunities are created, not found.

It is important for artists to create the work they want to make instead of waiting for someone to ask them for it. Make the plan, make the work, and get it out there.

Believe in yourself and your work. Don’t get too hooked on creating work for a market or whatever you think is fashionable at the moment. Following trends only makes your work look like whatever else is out there. Art Buyers, in part, are hiring you for your vision. 

It is also important to look outside the illustration industry for inspiration for your work. Read, do something creatively different, see a show. All of these things can have a profound effect on you creatively and possibly take you in directions you never thought about.

See more Scott Bakal illustrations, new work and updates:
Scott Bakal website
Instagram: @scottbakal
Twitter: @scottbakal


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