Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Michael Marsicano is an illustrator with a strong New York accent and equally strong sense of color. He uses color like a seasoned chef uses ingredients — always purposeful to emphasize the flavor of the dish being served, even garnishes have an important role. His portraits are dead-on in likeness, as are the anatomy of his illustrated animals and hands (which all artists know are difficult to master.) It’s no surprise his list of clients is so long, including local publications from all over the US, and of course the big names like NY Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and even Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Read Ray Jones’ interview with Michael to get to know this SVA grad school alumni.
RAY JONES: How would you describe your process typically?
MICHAEL MARSICANO: A lot of the work that I get hired for, are basically ink drawings I color digitally. Which is a pretty standard process nowadays. Generally I thumb things out on the computer in Photoshop, I just kind of sketch it, it’s an easier, quicker process. Then I print out very faded copies of that and little thumbnails and bring them up in pencil. Scan that in and then do a refined drawing back in Photoshop and get everything right. Then I print that out, transfer it, and then do the full drawing and inking, then scan it back in Photoshop. It’s a little more streamline than it sounds. I’d like to move totally away from it, ya know, from sketching in Photoshop, because I feel like sometimes it loses some of the tightness, but when it comes to finding compositions and stuff, drawing in Photoshop is super helpful.
RJ: So you don’t paint then? Their seems to be such a painterly quality to some of your pieces.
MM: I do… if there’s any kind of painting, it’s usually in ink washes. Everything else is pretty much colored in, or, it’s again a pretty common theme, using texture as color. So, scanning in bits and bobs of stuff, marks I’ve made and then using that to colorize as opposed to solid flat color or gradients.
RJ: Ah okay, that’s interesting.
RJ: Name a few of your favorite artist inspirations at the moment.
MM: At the moment… I just learned about this artist, Ping Zhou. She’s a gouache artist and she kind of inspired me to pick up gouache again. I was just so fascinated by the way she does it, she uses it so well. There’s also a young guy… this kid must be 20, out of Belgium, his name is Antoine Van Hertbruggen. Like…when I saw his work, he absolutely ruined my week.
MM: It was one of those artists! You know, you see them and you’re just mad at yourself for not being that good? [Laughs] Right now I try not to linger too long on these, because I know everybody can absorb things. You have to be careful a little bit, but generally speaking those are the last two illustrators that have had an effect on me. I was like, ‘wow, these guys are really fantastic.’ Also, Brecht Van Denbroucke, he’s nasty.
RJ: So let’s jump back in time a little bit here: I met you at SVA. At that point I knew for sure you were gung-ho about being an illustrator, but have you always wanted to be an illustrator?
MM: Yeah, when I was 17 and I signed up for the program [at Ringling], I only really learned about illustration as a major or field when I was filling out my college application. I mean, as a kid I always wrote stories, illustrated stories… I used to work with this kid at my elementary school. We had a business where he would go out and get kids to buy drawings from me and then we’d split the profits. It was a bad business model for me but, it was drawing literally the Batman or the Hulk and it’d be like a $1 for black and white, $2 for color. This was back in first grade so… I was always doing illustrative things, but I didn’t really know there was such a thing.
RJ: Wow, so you had an agent in first grade! [Laughs]
MM: I did! That’s the last time an agent’s wanted to handle me. [Laughs]
RJ: I saw on your site you went to Ringling [School of Art and Design]. How do you think that’s influenced your work? That’s a big paint and concept art kind of school, from what I’ve seen.
MM: Ah, I’m a little bit older than you I think. When I went there it was between 1997-2001. At the time Ringling was, and it still is, a computer animation/concept art heavy school. They were kind of at the forefront of that basically. I went there because I knew that my parents were moving to Florida. So, I ended up going there out of necessity. I was accepted to go to Pratt, but my parents, they were the ones who were paying so they were like ‘We think it’d be better if you came down.’ I figured I’d try something new. At the time, illustration was definitely second to the computer animation there, but that’s sort of where I learned the craft. I learned to use different media and stuff like that. In a lot of ways it was a technical school in that sense, but it didn’t really prepare me for anything. When the internet was becoming THE place for illustrators to showcase, I came in at the tail end of the old style of the illustration business where you have a big portfolio that you drop off, you get the directory… It was right at that switch over between the old school/old world illustration and the modern day.
RJ: When do you feel you really caught your stride as a professional? Do you still feel like you’re catching it?
MM: It’s weird, because if you said to me 10 years ago this is what my career would be like, I would be so excited. I would think I was so established. Obviously when you’re in it, you’re experiencing it in the moment and don’t feel grandiose or anything. So, I try to remind myself that things are going well. I still don’t feel like I’ve really hit my stride. Whereas I love the editorial work, I haven’t been getting a whole lot of it in the past couple of years. I feel like there’s been a certain look in illustration that I’m not really a part of yet and I’m trying to find a new way to work right now. I love the puzzle solving of editorial and there’s not a whole lot of it going around. There’s just less than what there used to be, but I do feel that that’s the stuff I enjoy doing the most and I’m a little under the radar for the art directors I would like to work with. I’m really trying to find the truest form of what it is I do, that is both satisfying and commodifiable, you know?
RJ: I hear you, it’s strange. You can be neck deep in the industry before you realize you’re actually doing anything, in the industry… [laughs].
MM: This, I think is the affliction of the modern day commercial artist. It’s that, everybody now along with having an artistic identity, we all have online identities. Everyone puts their best foot forward online, especially illustrators. So, when you have a tweet deck open, you see a stream of everybody’s recent projects, it’s easy to feel like, ‘wow man, I wish I had what they have.’ You’re not seeing their shit jobs, you’re not seeing them losing stuff, getting the job killed in the sketch process. You have to be aware that – the jobs I get are unique to me and even though they are not exactly the same as the people I’m aspiring to, that doesn’t necessarily dictate my success or my failure.
RJ: And with the nature of the internet, literally overnight, couple months, who knows… you blow up. Catch a big wave of projects…
MM: Absolutely! On the other hand you have to realize that it’s also very fickle. Especially nowadays, people aren’t as invested in imagery, in a lot of ways. Basically, if you think about the currency of the internet, you have Twitter and a retweet from somebody you admire is very very high, then you have likes on Facebook from just about anybody, friends, family, doesn’t mean much. Then you have an Instagram like, which is nothing. It’s literally a scroll of images and all you have to do is double tap your thumb and that somehow….validates. [Laughs] You learn to know the hierarchy, the ranks, the wealth of people’s engagement in social networks. It’s interesting, it’s like there’s weird rules that apply online that have nothing to do with real life, but we treat it like it is. I also realize that somebody liking a photo doesn’t mean they’re invested in it. It’s very easy to just double tap something as you’re scrolling through.
RJ: I had an art school teacher that once said, “Everybody has like a 7 second attention span.” I think it’s a lot less now, I’m pretty sure everyone has a 2 second attention span. Scroll scroll, like it, move on, scroll scroll, like it move on.
MM: Yeah, I’ve heard people say we see more imagery in a day then people saw in six months, back before the Industrial Revolution. So, imagery is cheap in a lot of ways. That doesn’t mean that people don’t appreciate looking at it, they just aren’t looking at things for as long of a time. There’s so many more people who are creating work now, creating content. Being good isn’t the only thing you have to do now, you really have to be unique. That is a tough thing. It’s tough to not feel like you’re being a derivative bore, because there’s so many people. I don’t know how many times somebody got called because I wasn’t available for a job. I know that I’ve gotten calls when there “A” choice wasn’t available. They go, ‘oh I’ve got somebody who can do something similar.’ The thing it seems like you gotta do, is create work that is unique to you, that somehow stands out, that nobody else can do. That may be the challenge of an artist. Be true to yourself, but be completely unique. It’s not easy.
RJ: You’re from NY originally, correct? How would you say your experience as a New Yorker has informed your illustration work? How has it helped?
MM: A lot of people come to this city and they kind of get run over by it. Especially kids who are gonna come here for art school. It’s a big adjustment if you’re coming from a smaller town or another country. There’s that adjustment. I was able to hit the ground running as a kid. In middle school I was taking drawing classes at FIT and down at the museums. In some respects I feel like I had a little bit of a leg up there, adjusting to the city. But other than that, I don’t really feel like a NY-centric artist or even illustrator really… but, I was very open to a lot of things by default by being here that take some people a year or while to adjust to. Though I think that’s the same for anybody who has the benefit of being local.
RJ: This is the final question. What has been the most pop culturally influential movie from your childhood and why?
MM: Probably “Time Bandits”. I saw Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” when I was a little boy. There’s this time traveling group of bandits, who are like dwarves, and they travel all throughout time because they were the creators of the universe. They stole a map from the Supreme Being, which allowed them to go throughout history and to rob people. So they’re in the middle ages, they’re in the modern day, they’re during Napoleon’s time and back during Archimedes. It was Terry Gilliam, so it’s got that grand [Monty] Python-esqe imagery. I loved the fact that it jumped all over, it had styles from everything. In a lot of ways it’s like the internet is now, you can literally scroll through a Tumblr feed and see images from all periods of time and take whatever you need from it. Like all the images we see, we take a little bit from it, even if not directly. I was always fascinated with how this movie took place in ten different time periods, if you’ve seen any of Terry Gilliam’s films, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s one of my favorites.