Illustrator Profile - Victor Juhasz: "Stay curious"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 13, 2017

Victor Juhasz is an Upstate New York-based illustrator and visual reporter. His editorial work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. For many years Juhasz has had a high-profile gig illustrating the politics column for Rolling Stone, skewering political figures of all kinds with perception and wit. His recent cover of RS, Trump the Destroyer, made a giant splash on social media. A relentless visual journalist, he has also spent a good amount of time embedded with military troops and documenting their activities. As part of the Joe Bonham project, Juhasz visits VA and military hospitals to illustrate wounded soldiers.

I was born in 1954, in Newark, New Jersey. I graduate from Parsons School of Design in 1975. I’m married, with three sons and five grandchildren.

I live with my wife, Terri Cole, in a rehabbed 1820 Greek Revival house in a little town called Stephentown, upstate near Albany, that also has a beautiful post and beam barn that was converted to my studio.

World War II was less than a decade over when I was born. It was quite fresh in memories. Both my parents were immigrants from war-torn Europe; their families displaced from their homes. My mother was a survivor of the Soviet concentration camps. It was not a peaceful house. My parents fought constantly and bitterly. Even so, within all that turbulence, and maybe because of it, I grew up with a love of history. My earliest drawings that I can remember were of war, of huge battles. The paintings and drawings from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars that were in those American Heritage books mesmerized me. I worked hard to copy them. My first shrink also pointed out that it was my way of coping with the anxiety over the battles between my folks. I was a very nervous kid. The other earliest influences were the brilliant cartoons of the Fleischer Brothers (Popeye, Betty Boop, Koko the Clown), and the gang at Warner-Looney Tunes, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson. This was the beginning for me of feelings torn between slapstick cartoon humor and realism.

I wrote a post on about my father when he died. He had dreams of becoming a commercial artist but stopped his correspondence course with the Famous Artists School because of illness, and more likely lack of support from my mother. He spent the rest of his working life in a factory. My father may have sequestered his suitcase full of assignments to the attic never to look at them again, but as a kid I discovered it while doing some exploration in the darker recesses of that unfinished space in the house. I would oftentimes go upstairs, pull the suitcase from the shadows, open it in the light coming through one of the small windows and look at all he did. I would devour the over 20 instructional books that made up the course, study his assignments, the commentary and corrections on overlays from his instructors, and compare their corrections to what he had done. It completely fascinated and awed me. There was something almost magical about this hidden world and in an unconscious way these repeated visits to his abandoned studies were planting the seeds of inspiration to a future decision about my own life. Neither one of us was aware of it at the time but a torch was being passed and I was to bring to fruition what he couldn’t. 

I put myself through art school working in a steel cutting and perforating factory in Garwood, NJ. Also parked cars, worked in a hospital kitchen. None of these non-artistic endeavors would I trade given the opportunity to do it all over again. They kept me grounded, aware of a whole different world out there, and reminded me of my good fortune being able to draw.

My good fortune was having an art class introduced to my high school by the time I was a junior/senior and an instructor, Nick Florio, who saw a potential in me that I never imagined past doing drawings for the school paper and caricatures of the student of the week. It was already spring in my senior year and he asked me what I planned to do after graduation, and my answer was something along the lines of being a cross country truck driver. He eye-rolled before there even was a term for it and took me to the administration to fill out applications to art schools. Parsons accepted me. The rest is history. I'll never forget that kick in the pants.

I started working as an illustrator in 1974 while still a student at Parsons. My first job was an Op-Ed for The New York Times for George Delmerico.

My wife and I split our time between an apartment in the East Village and the house upstate in the woods. I have a compact work area in the apartment. It’s doable and pretty well laid out but it’s still cramped. The space a barn studio provides is clearly preferable. Tons of books, northern skylights, easels, different drawing tables, room to roam—and the level of disorder and clutter is up to me. It remains a work in progress as I try to improve the space efficiency. As soon as we moved upstate I established large gardens to grow fruits and vegetables. I enjoy my opportunities to meditate with the blueberries, blackberries, currants, broccoli, beets, squashes and other greens. Sometimes a hard day cultivating a garden is better than even a good day at the drawing table.

I began my career working in pen/ink, pencils, some watercolor. It hasn’t changed that radically over four decades. These days I work up sketches in pen or pencils, don’t often provide color comps and instead rely on the effectiveness of the idea. I also assume the client trusts that I won’t fuck things up. The most dynamic stage is the sketch stage where constriction is of no concern. The sketches have a special freedom to them that is difficult to replicate once I am fully aware of the layout dimensions. The sketches have beautiful flaws. I used to be very confident in pen/ink, but that’s gradually diminished over the years. My impossible to find #1 Spencerians don’t see much action anymore. There’s too much thinking and breath holding with pen nibs. I have much greater confidence sketching and finishing a piece with Uniball Micros. The point is delicate enough and the unending ink flow allows the scribbling and searching to proceed unabated.

In the beginning of my career I worked on solid Bristol paper, wonderful pencil sketches over which I would try to repeat the loose quality with the crow quill and ink. Idiotic. How can one repeat a Zen moment which is what sketching is about?  It took a long long time for me to realize and appreciate the value of good bond paper, transparent enough to place over unsatisfactory drawings, edit what I don’t like and keep what I do. It maintains a sense of freshness. Often an approved sketch is good enough to bring to finish.

The second great epiphany was learning I could dry mount that bond paper and keep it from wrinkling up when wet with watercolors. Learned that from Stephen Alcorn, who informed me that was how Ed Sorel did his finishes. A head slap moment. Over the decades my confidence in color and application has grown so that it works in conjunction with the drawing and not as merely a fill. I’m appreciating more and more the potentials of gouache which can jump back and forth between transparency and various degrees of opaque. Working occasionally on a Cintiq with brush apps created by Kyle Webster has added some dimension to my Luddite attitudes about tech.

My big break was probably that first assignment for The New York Times, and those that followed while I was still a student. I had actual proof in my portfolio that I could work under pressure when I graduated. I think our careers are composed of many big breaks because our creative lives are pretty fluid.

As mentioned before, the classic cartoons from the golden era. It instilled a kind of snobbery about craft and drawing. I hated the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that started replacing the Warner Brothers and Fleischer masterpieces on TV and can hardly tolerate what my grandkids watch nowadays. Luckily, their fathers were heavily exposed to the gems when they were growing up and they pass it on.

When I was still a kid I first came across the original Mad magazines at an older kid’s house. Mind blowing. Craft, artistry, outrageous inside humor and sights gags galore mashed into every panel. Kurtzman, Elder, Wood, Davis, etc.. Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields. Getting older and discovering the caricatures of David Levine for the New York Review of Books at the town library, the glory days of the National Lampoon, Rick Meyerowitz (a beautiful print of his Mona Gorilla hangs in the house), Ralph Steadman for Ramparts and Rolling Stone, Tomi Ungerer and of course Ed Sorel, who to my eyes most succinctly achieved that level of flow and immediacy in line work that became a benchmark for me.

The representational/realism side started with those great historical paintings of battles. Later on, as a teenager I was mesmerized by the courtroom work of Howard Brodie for CBS-TV: the trials of the Chicago 7, Lt. Calley, Manson, Watergate, to name a few. Consummate, deep, drawing chops. Energetic marks on paper that looked like visualized jazz. There was nothing like him. I wanted to do that as well, because I so loved drawing. I posted a memory about him in when he died. I owned a copy of the James Jones book, WWII, and had been exposed to Howard well before I made the connection between his career as a combat artist and the court work. Everything fell into place when I met him at the Hinckley trial back in ’82 and I was doing courtroom work for the Washington Post. In that Jones book was also the work of Kerr Eby, who takes my breath away as well. The seeds of doing visual documentation with the military were planted.

You can add Grosz, Dix, Homer, Daumier, Goya, Dore, Grandville, Bellows and the Ash Can school from the world of fine art. DeKooning, Diebenkorn, Matisse—simply because they inspire.

Procrastination. Its root is insecurity. Worst kind of assignment is one with a long deadline. Too much time to think how I can screw up.

I’ve done some real bang up pieces for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice over the past year. The illustration of Trump groping Liberty for RS got a lot of attention and lost some “friends” on Facebook. I also did an eight-day mission last September on a Navy LHD-5 amphibious assault ship off the Atlantic with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Great fun.

To cover something political on location with Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone, a la Thompson/Steadman, instead of just doing it all from the studio. Or to be embedded with a Marine unit on an extended mission, having already done Air Force and Army.

I started out my career doing both studio work and courtroom drawing for the local ABC-TV. After my first wife died in ’83, I dropped the courtroom work to focus on raising three little kids and opted to be a studio artist full time. Luckily the studio was always in the house. There was a very fleeting affair with courtroom work last year but it’s a very different world from the one I left in the early 80s. In 2011 I was invited by a former Marine combat artist, Mike Fay, to be part of a group of military and civilian artists, The Joe Bonham Project, who visited hospitals like Bethesda/Walter Reed to draw and document soldiers and Marines wounded on the front lines, many very seriously. The Society of Illustrators occasionally visits the VA Hospital in Manhattan on holidays and we do portraits of the patients. I enjoyed a dream gig with a Broadway producer, the late Mort Swinsky, for almost a decade. He would send me and my wife, Terri, to see his plays and then commission me to create an image for him. It allowed me to play with techniques I normally wouldn’t be associated with.

The last 10 years have provided me with a number of opportunities to use my skills for visual documentation—reportage. It’s less a reimagining than a return to an old creative flame. Health and good fortune allowing I still have 20 years or so to add to that portfolio. The work with the military has been one very satisfying outlet. Documenting the work of Foundation Rwanda back in 2013 planted the seed to do more such assignments with NGOs. The refugee crisis is very current now. I have a dream of hooking up with Team Rubicon, which is an organization composed of veterans going into disaster zones to help the local populace rebuild and recover from the destruction.

I’m still plugging away with Agency Access doing e-promos of pieces to a select market of potential clients. I send postcard mailers. Since the late 70s I’ve done an annual Christmas card that I send to clients and potential clients. I submit entries to some of the annual exhibitions, like the Society of Illustrators. Up until about 2016 I was frequently contributing process posts on published work to, but the time and energy to put together a readable posting for Drawger slowly got siphoned off to Facebook and Instagram. Having said that, I dedicated a few days to a couple of extensive posts for Drawger in February and will continue to post more again. I’m also looking into putting together small books via Smartpress or Photos on My Mac, focusing on particular topics. I honestly don’t know what's working right now. It seems like illustrators need at the minimum two of us; one to do the actual illustration and the other to work full time at social media and promotion.

Be very careful about what’s trending or hot and be aware of what everyone is emulating. Pretty soon it just starts looking generic. Your reference points and influences should extend further and deeper than what’s happening currently. The deeper the cultural immersion (literature, history, art, music), the deeper the well and the richer and more personal will be your vision. With each passing day new and remarkable apps come on the market that could in some way make you as an illustrator irrelevant. What apps can’t do is replace your creative soul, your thinking process—that’s what you will always be able to bring to the table. Stay curious. It prevents aging of the worst sort.

See more Victor Juhasz illustrations, new work and updates:
Victor Juhasz website
Instagram: @juhaszillustration