Illustrator Profile - Jacob Thomas: "Aim at being known for smart work"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 17, 2017

Jacob Thomas is a New York City-based illustrator and artist whose editorial work has appeared in numerous publications, as well as other venues including a mural in the Empire State Building. Thomas is also a prolific street artist; he says, “I’m making a lot of politically-driven work lately. I’m scared for our country.” He creates his work in a variety of styles and mediums, explaining “I paint, spray paint, silkscreen, collage, roll ink, photo collage and really do anything if it fits the idea.” An exhibit of Thomas’s personal work will be on display at the Gallery Sensei on the Lower East Side in New York City from August 30-September 11 (the opening is August 30 from 6-11pm). In September, Thomas is headed to Guangzhou, China, to work as lead illustrator/graphic designer for a shoe design and fabrication company.

Currently I live in a neighborhood called Bushwick, in Brooklyn, New York.

Drawing has been a lifelong thing but on a professional level I’ve been an illustrator for about 13 years.

I grew up with one older brother, my mom and my step dad, who I think of as dad. My parents were always very positive thinkers, which if you want to be a working artist is something I think you need to have woven into your DNA.

My mom does a lot of crafting as well. So I’m sure part of her process is tucked in my head somewhere. My brother and I used to draw all the time as kids. I always tried to mimic him. Eventually I kept up with it and he moved on to acting. He’s now a voice over actor but still doodles from time to time.

About a year out of high school I joined the Coast Guard and did law enforcement, search and rescue as well as environmental safety enforcement.

I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and received a BS in graphic design. I took the graphic design route because I wasn’t confident enough to do what I really wanted to do which was be an illustrator. I’m glad I did. It really helped me think of image making in a different way.

After I got out of the military I worked at a small print shop for about three years as a graphic designer/typesetter. I also bounced around many frame shops and art supply stores. I figured whatever I did I needed to stay close to my craft.

Eventually I realized I had to get out of Pittsburgh if I wanted to grow so I packed up and moved to New York.

I normally work in my studio in my apartment. Although as I write this I’m working at the Empire State Building creating three murals for Shutterstock in their office space. And occasionally, when I have something to say, I create art on the street via wheat paste or spray paint.

Each has their own unique qualities. Sometimes I like total silence, which my studio is good for. But I've been craving human interaction and collaboration more, so working at Shutterstock has been nice.

I normally do a terrible sketch in Photoshop. Once the concept and composition are nailed down I draw things out in ink, with a brush, scan, then collage and color in Photoshop.

That said, I also paint, spray paint, silkscreen, collage, roll ink, photo collage and really do anything if it fits the idea. For example, I painted a toilet because I felt conceptually it was the perfect metaphor for a Donald Trump portrait.

My friend Norman Huelsman, who I went to school with, started working as a designer for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I had just quit my job at the print shop and was looking for work. He was working on the school’s catalog and needed about 40 illustrations. The budget was small but it was a lot of money for me at the time.

The catalog ended up being the reason I was hired by Mark Howes, the owner of Deco Zone, a small package design company in New York.  Mark saw the potential for a different revenue stream, so I ended up essentially being an on-staff illustrator, paid to build a portfolio of work and get illustration jobs. Later I entered the Art Institute catalog into the Communication Arts Illustration Annual and got multiple pieces in as well as the cover, which just happened to be my first mainstream published work.

My mom, my brother, Norman Rockwell, Chuck Close, Mad magazine, Todd McFarlane, John Ritter, Andy Warhol, pop art, street art, hip hop, skate board culture, the Coast Guard, fist fights.

In general I’ve always been one to experience life, the good and the bad, to its fullest. The adventurer in me filters into the work.

So many people come to mind for different reasons but illustrator John Ritter hands down was and continues to be an influence in my life.

John really got me to start thinking instead of just creating art for art’s sake. He got me to stop viewing art as strictly being technique-driven, and seeing it at as an opportunity to really express my opinions.

We met at the Art Institute where he briefly taught an illustration class. I bugged him enough that he eventually became my mentor. We’ve become close friends and collaborators. In fact, under the name ARKVL we played around and created some art that only saw the pages of American Illustration.

I’m a big believer in change. Whatever my environment is, that is what I’m digesting and pouring into my art. So when I lack inspiration I read, take a walk, travel somewhere, live somewhere new, talk with friends.

I’d say rather than it strictly being a visual thing that inspires my creativity, it’s a lifestyle that I live. So learning and experiencing in general feeds my creativity.


Being your own business manager, dealing with paperwork, chasing money, not getting paid for months, chasing clients to get work, meeting deadlines, trying to stay relevant, being lonely, dealing with all tech issues, money management, taxes, art insecurities…. and on and on…. Everything is challenging but it’s also exciting.

It’s like you jump off a cliff and right away you’re thinking “OH SHIT, I’M FALLING!” Then a little time passes and you think “I’M FREE, I’M FLYING!” But then more time passes and you’re back to “SHIT, I’M FALLING!”  On any given day I flip flop between those two sentiments.

I was hired by Razia Meyer at Shutterstock—a wonderful woman who wears many hats there. She also just had her first child in the middle of the project. I highly respect her capability to handle so many things at once.

Razia hired me to create two murals for Shutterstock’s Wonderland-themed game room, in their office at the Empire State Building. I have such love for NYC that I jumped at the chance to come paint in such an iconic landmark. They pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, which was great. When I finished they hired me again for a third mural in their elevator bank.

My dream assignment would be any assignment with an enormous budget, extremely high visibility, and endless creative freedom all the while working with awesome people.

I notice young artists tend to go after specific clients almost like they’re collecting baseball cards, but I am grateful for anyone who pays me enough to support my art-making habit.

Kory Kennedy. For whatever reason,  I just really got along with him. We worked a lot on Entertainment Weekly together. We also worked together on a piece for Runner’s World and Revolver magazine.

Also Adolfo Valle (now an illustrator) was great to work with at Newsweek. We did many covers together; a few made it to print. He was always so positive even though the deadlines were ridiculous. A lot of the time I’d get the call Thursday and need it done by Friday. But to get a cover approved I basically had to do an almost finished piece in a few hours. It was quick work but I like that kind of pace.

Yuko Shimizu is probably the hardest working illustrator I know. Her life is art. I have a lot of respect for that woman.

I also have always admired Ralph Steadman. He’s epic.

John Ritter, Jillian Tamaki, Tomer Hanuka, Sam Weber, Marcus Chin, John Hendrix, James Jean, Jennifer Daniel (so witty, Jennifer always sort of intimidated me lol) and so many that I won’t do it justice. But these names stand out to me because it’s work I've followed and grew with as an illustrator—and frankly as an adult, too. We’re in a similar age group and they were or are New Yorkers (except John Ritter; he was from San Francisco), so for whatever reason I connected with that. When I see their art it takes me back to a simpler time. Art has a romance to it like that sometimes.

I think I’ve touched in just about every industry in terms of how my art has been used. But personally I’m making a lot of politically-driven work lately. I’m scared for our country.

I think for the longest time I stayed away from showing my street art side because I feared what that would do to my commercial work. But then I started feeling that IF I had something WORTH SAYING then I need to follow that.

Ultimately I found that when you stop worrying about what you look like, that’s exactly the time you get the projects you really want because you’re putting that energy out into the world. Eventually if you’re honest enough with yourself then you’ll end up where you honestly want to be.

I email, socialize at parties, call art directors directly, online portfolio sites, do interviews for TV or radio or print, gallery shows, and I mail postcards, posters or sometimes original art. Occasionally I feel like I have something worthy of judging in a competition, then I get swamped with work and forget to enter anything. Thank god that the AD entered my piece into AI35!

Focus on making good work. Don’t use anyone’s opinion as a bible for how to create art. Listen to yourself instead.

Make your weaknesses your strengths.

The little details make the big picture. They ARE the big picture.

Once you begin to succeed be humble, you’ve just scratched the surface on your potential. Focus the effort on being a better artist. Exposure is a must, but it’s not making you a better artist. Only you can do that for yourself.

Once you have 15 solid pieces of art, on a nicely designed website, go pro. Whether you do it now or later, you will fail at something, many times. Better to get over it now.

If you don't have contacts buy a list. Put your art in front of this list of people. Be nice. Take their advice but remember you’re the artist. Meet the deadline. Repeat. Grow.

The biggest question I get from younger artists: “Is it important to have a style?”

In my opinion your brain IS your style. All of the decision making that goes into the art—color, editing, genre etc.—slowly starts to form a pattern the more you create. And everything you do in life changes your brain, which will affect that decision- making process. So the real answer to that question is, it’s important to have experiences rather than to wrestle your images into a genre.

Personally I feel it’s better to aim at being known for smart work, rather than a genre. Meaning that it's great if you’re a comic book artist or a realism junkie or whatever—but intelligent art makes more of an impact than just technique alone.

See more Jacob Thomas illustration, new work and updates:
Jacob Thomas illustration website
Street art/gallery
Instagram (illustration): @jthomasillustration
Instagram (street art/gallery): @jacobthomasart
Interview with Al Jazeera America
DNA Info interview


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