Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
SHANON WELTMAN: Who was your first major client and how did they find you?
MICHAEL HOEWELER: My first major client was OUT Magazine, and I found them. I worked with them as an intern in the summer of 2009 when I was in between my Junior and Senior year at MICA. They gave me my first assignment while I was there. The art director at the time was Nick Vogelson, who is an incredible, amazing, design director/creative director who now started his own magazine called Document Journal. At the time that I was at OUT, I was doing a few portraits for him. He had asked me and it kind of steamrolled from there starting with that, doing portraits for OUT. It was kind of crazy because Senior year I was still doing work for OUT, I was doing work on the side of being an RA, doing desk shifts and being a full-time illustration student. It was a bit of a hectic schedule juggling all of that, but it was fun. I liked it a lot. I liked starting [my career] early, it was kind of fun to get to see what it was like to make a magazine and especially what happens behind the scenes in the art department. That was really great to see.
SW: So you were in Baltimore, but you came up to NY for the summer?
MH:: Yeah, I’m originally from Ohio, so I kind of went straight up to NY after graduation. I dropped all of my things back in Ohio and then flew into NY. Stayed with my friend Elle Perez, who is an incredible photographer, and her family up in the Bronx, that was really fun. [Laughs] That was a really good opportunity. I was up in NY for that summer and I came back to Ohio for a month in August, right before school started back again for the Senior year.
SW: So has it just been a steady stream of freelance work? What’s the longest you’ve gone since without having freelance work?
MH: Thankfully I haven’t gone without freelance work, but what happened between my Senior year and the year after graduating was like a slow start. I came out of my MICA and I came straight up to NY. I took two weeks in Ohio after I moved back home, to make my website and to prepare myself for what was going to come. I was only working with OUT at that time and Gilt Groupe. I was doing stuff for their Men’s blog. I only had those two clients to juggle with. After I graduated, moved to NY, I didn’t really find much success outside of that. I didn’t promote, so that was one of the reasons why I believe I didn’t get a lot of jobs right after school. After kind of letting the OUT and Gilt Groupe assignments build up, I think I started to have more visibility, and I think art directors were starting to see that and starting to see my work. I think that may be kind of the case with me in particular. A lot of the art directors I’ve worked for are gay men and OUT Magazine is a lifestyle magazine for gay men, so it’s really perfect, very fitting.
SW: I think that’s when I ran into you. You had been working for them for a while and then I saw you on the train.
MH: [Laughs] Yeah.
SW: You just said something really smart and I’m glad you said it too for our readers, because you are so good, but it’s true you have to promote yourself. Even if you have a steady stream of work, you have to remind the world that you exist and tell new people that you exist. I think essentially it’s like having a really great shop or restaurant. You might have quality, but if no one knows about you…
MH: Exactly, I think that’s hitting the nail on the head. I kind of ran into my career head first. I didn’t really think about the preparation a lot of my colleagues make. That takes a lot of time and is really thoughtful. I didn’t really know I was going to be doing portrait work or genre illustration like I do now. Before I graduated I was planning on being a fashion illustrator. There isn’t as much work in the fashion industry, especially high fashion. There is more in retail but still few and far between. Whereas editorial and especially the more mundane, non conceptual editorial illustration work, is more plentiful. There’s more of it because a lot of people just want some kind of creative image to accompany an article. I didn’t know I was going to do that until I got to OUT and they asked me if I could do spot portraits. Y’know being a MICA student, I had been kind of prepared for anything. I think the illustration department at MICA is really good about that. I was able to, I said sure, that’s kind of how it happened… but yeah, I didn’t self promote which is not how many people at all get their career starts. I was very fortunate too, after that first year of graduating, not having much work outside of OUT and Gilt Groupe. Then I got my first assignment with Money Magazine and that kind of introduced me to spot portraits for other financial based magazines, that are for financial audiences. Like Worth Magazine which is a luxury magazine, that’s how it started to snowball from there. Once I started doing work for people who had more visibility, that visibility became my marketing. That became the sole way that I marketed. Even since then I haven’t really self-promoted.
SW: Oh nice!
MH: It’s been nice! I think if I do self promotion, it’s not just visibility in magazines, there’s visibility online. I try to update my Tumblr site and portfolio site as often as I can. I try to be as engaging as possible on Twitter, though I’m not that witty so… [Laughs] I’m not that good at it. The only thing else other than that, I do a lot of contacting people by email. I pitch ideas. I kind of like the social atmosphere of being in NY world of fine art and high media. I like being able to contact people with my ideas instead of just sending them a postcard of something I’ve done in the past. I’ve tried to make that my own spin on promotion.
SW: Can you give an example of that? What kind of ideas have you given someone?
MH: I haven’t done that lately. When I first started out, it was emailing somebody and saying, ‘Hey I saw this article and I saw this illustration that a company did and I really love that illustration. This is how I’d do it differently’, kind of proposing my own thought. I haven’t had much luck with that approach but it gets you in touch with people. Also, just getting in touch and saying ‘Hi, my name is… I’m interested in doing work for your site.’ The one thing that I do for magazines, that I do try to keep in mind is whether or not my work is a good fit for the publication I’m talking to; for the art director, creative director, designer, etc that I’m talking to. I think that can be the other thing you can run into with a blind postcard spree. You’re not necessarily directing your work at very particular aesthetic or company or magazine that has a very particular vision or visual identity. You kind of just run the risk as coming across as extremely left field or unrelated. Obviously, my work wouldn’t look good in a magazine that’s extremely candy colored and high-gloss. It would just come across as kind of like an old white geezer’s [Laughs] kind of attempt at understanding pop culture.
SW: That’s true, your technical ability is so spot on, but the style totally wouldn’t match YM or Seventeen or whatever.
MH: Nor many women’s magazines for that matter. I’ve tried, but I haven’t had much luck. I think I have more of a men’s audience geared style of illustration. Then again, I also kind of hate that. I try not to gender my work. [Laughs] I don’t think it’s important to, but I’ve noticed that most of the people who get in touch with me have mostly men’s interests in mind.
SW: Well, you know, people always like celebrities, you could do like a Katy Perry or Beyonce portrait if you really want to work for female magazines.
MH: [Laughs] Yeah I know, it’s tough, because it’s like trying to find the free time to do that kind of work, where I’m drawing a pop cultural icon or musician. I get the chance occasionally, but a lot of my favorite musicians are celebrities. They’re not as… I don’t have the proper word to describe it. Let’s put it this way. The last person that I drew was Bjork, so I’m not quite sure…
SW: Ah okay, so not really mainstream… [Laughs] I get what you mean, it’s kind of hard to describe.
MH: Yeah! I wouldn’t mind doing a portrait of Lady Gaga, but when I have free time my interests lie elsewhere, so…
SW: Mmhm, I suggested Katy Perry and Beyonce because I wanted to do portraits of them myself for like years. Then when I go to do work, I’m like ‘I want to do something else though…’
SW: So a few questions about your portraits… Can you kind of walk us through the process? It looks like it’s all non digital.
SW: How long does it take? How many pre sketches do you do? How big are the illustrations? Talk about them.
MH: When I start out an illustration, like a portrait, I tend to work relatively small, about 5” x 7”. The smallest I go is about 3” x 4” or so. I start by doing a tight sketch. Most of the portraits I do are pretty likeness oriented and don’t really deviate from the reference images that I am provided. Although I do try to make my own person, my own understanding or vision of the person. I’ll change their hairstyle, I’ll change their outfit, I’ll look up clothing or stuff online. I’ll look up hairstyles they’ve had in the past and kind pick a favorite, just kind of mix and match different parts of their look that I like the best or give them new things, style myself. I do a pretty tight sketch. For portraits I don’t really do a pre sketch at all. I go from that sketch, which I actually do on the watercolor paper I’ll work on; build on top of that sketch with sumi ink washes. After that, I go on top with micron pen and kind of finesse the details in some of the places I would imagine that a contour line, or some kind of line, would help convey a wrinkle, or a fold under the eye. The wrinkles that take place along the smile lines, that kind of stuff, and then I go in with Photoshop to clean it up. I don’t do too much in Photoshop, I try to keep as much of the original there as possible.
SW: So what do you clean up? Just the sides of the paper?
MH: Kind of, I take out the background, I try to make it as free floating of an object as possible, because most of my portraits are just on a white background. I’ll kind of fade out the background in a very chunky kind of haberdasher manner. I kind of just take out the background detail, maybe I’ll brighten the white of the page, so it’s not as murky. I’ll deepen some of the dark areas to make it a little punchier. I think contrast prints very well and I’ve gotten a good response from that. Sometimes I’ll go back in and bring out some of the highlights that I may have lost, correct mistakes. Especially with sumi ink on paper, it’s unforgivable. You make one wrong move and you’ve completely destroyed your illustration. [Laughs] Thankfully that doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, Photoshop is there to have my back.
SW: Ah okay.
MH: I color my work in Photoshop, I don’t use traditional watercolor, acrylic approaches. I do sometimes, but only with fashion illustration work.
SW: What are your most and least favorite things to illustrate? Regardless of freelance, just for fun. Least favorite being something you have to do.
MH: I’ll start out with the least favorite… and this is not to bite the hand that feeds me, but drawing older white gentleman can get a little redundant. Especially when they all start looking the same. I like drawing all kinds of people and it can get a little boring to draw a very archetypal looking rich white businessman, over and over and over again. Not that it’s my least favorite thing to draw, I always find something pleasurable to focus on when I draw a person. I’ll look up what they do for a living, who they are, what they’ve contributed to the world. That kind of gives me my energy to do a portrait, the person I’m drawing, as a person, not just as a likeness. And buildings. Buildings are hard.
MH: [Laughs] I’m not very good with straight lines and I’ve got a shaky hand. As far as my favorite thing to draw? There’s so many and I think I really love drawing landscapes. I think they tend to find their way into my personal work, into the kind of pseudo narrative, pseudo fashion illustration I try to do in my spare time. Kind of just sweeping, very american looking landscapes… vast fields, big big sky scenes or skyscapes. I love drawing the ocean, I love drawing people in clothing. I know that’s kind of a general term, but I just like the way clothing fits on people. The folds that it creates when people change positions, whenever they move around. I think that’s one of the reasons I was so drawn to fashion illustration, particularly the kind of fashion illustration that I do. I put these people in extremely luxurious, expensive clothing, in extremely wild settings. Very, very natural settings, and doing slight things. The narrative is very subtle, but what they do isn’t as much of a communication of what the piece is about as is the setting or the clothing that they’re wearing. They’re all kind of married — landscapes, clothing on people, that tends to be where my sweet spot is.
SW: I can tell from looking at your work you enjoy those things. It’s just so much equal care. I can’t find your weakness. [Laughs]
MH: [Laughs] They’re there.
SW: Sure, you’re an artist, you’re human, but it’s really… you’re tricking everyone. Especially these food illustrations, I’m looking at the drinks and I’m like… that’s a photograph, right?
SW: I mean I know it’s not, but you just understand light so well.
MH: I have a lot of fun doing the food illustrations, because I get to make everything. I try to take my own photo references whenever I can. If it means dropping ten bucks for a small spot illustration of a plated meal, making the meal and taking the reference pictures myself, I’ll do it. I like the ability to work from my own reference images and I like having an experience to make me more interested in the work itself. I think that’s the general rule of thumb, especially with more mundane and genre illustration portraits. The more I can relate to it, the more I understand it, the more interested I am in drawing it. It’s not necessarily the fun fashion illustration fantasy world that I like to create in my spare time. That’s almost like a passion in comparison. I don’t believe in ‘bread and butter’ and I don’t believe in that kind of idea, ‘I do this kind of illustration to make a living.’ It may be what I do for a living, but I still derive a lot of pleasure out of it. I still enjoy doing it, even if it may seem very boring to other people. [Laughs] I would say that my weakness is definitely drawing things out of my head, in relation to that, I can’t make up things. It’s very hard for me to make things up, unless I can create a world and kind of source images or things that I’ve experienced of the past or references I have. It’s hard for me to to make things up.
SW: Oh, that would make sense, visually… looking at these mangoes, I’m like, these mangoes are right in front of me, right? Your brain understands just by looking at it. I know that sounds like a simple concept, but I’ve recently come to the understanding that not everyone sees the same. Our brains don’t all respond the same. I thought that some people were just trying harder. [Laughs]
MH: I know, right?
SW: I didn’t know it’d be, like, you’re actually more advanced ‘up there’.
MH: I think for me, I try to trust exactly what I see. That’s kind of my golden rule of drawing, what my eyes see is what I believe it is. If I look at a papaya and I see a Papaya with a capital P and a trademark, it’s not going to look like how the papaya looks in real life. So I try to draw what I see exactly, without idealizing it. I like that approach, embracing the imperfections. I do that with my portraits too, I try to embrace imperfection as means of communicating a likeness.
SW: What do you listen to and how do you setup your environment when you make work?
MH: I like to listen to the news or news sources, so I’ll put on the Rachel Maddow show or I’ll listen to a Vice documentary, I’ll try to listen to NPR’s news programs. I like it, because I’m learning about what’s happening in the world around me without the attention that music kind of draws me into. In the same vein I also can’t only listen to music, I can’t only listen to the news, because it can get a little boring. I really love listening to music. I listen to music when I can, but sometimes I want very quiet sounds in the background. Kind of ambient noises so I can focus on what I’m doing. Especially if what I’m doing requires a lot of focus. If I can kind of zone out in the illustration I’m working on, I’ll listen to bands and music. I like Bjork. I’ve been really into Sun Kil Moon’s new album lately and kind of getting into his back catalog. I listen to Little Dragon a lot, I’m very excited for the new record out on my birthday.
SW: Yay! That’s an awesome present.
MH: Right? Like, a band you like releases an album near your birthday, it’s like ‘yes! I can spoil myself.’
I keep my environment pretty neat and tidy. I kind of have this trolley set up with my inks, with my water, my pencils and pens all set up. Then I have a desk that, I guess is a trestle or trundle desk? I can’t remember the name for it. Where I can kind of lower the front of it so that it’s on an axis or angle. As much of a 45 degree angle as possible, so I’m not always leaning over my desk to see what I’m doing, and what I see is parallel to my eyes as much as possible. Then I have a second monitor setup on my desk so my computer doesn’t fall over on the desk leaning at an angle. I have what I’m looking at, my reference images, on the screen. It’s a small room, but I like to keep it as neat as possible. When I see clutter, mess in my room while I’m working, it makes me very anxious for some reason. [Laughs]
SW: That’s interesting, some people have no reaction to clutter and other people just can’t do it.
MH: [Laughs] Yeah my desk has to be almost pristine, it has to feel like the only thing I can focus on on the desk is what I’m doing. Just the piece itself.
SW: Last question. What has been the most iconic NY experience you’ve had?
MH: Oh god, that’s so hard. I want to talk it out… The experience of living in this city is exactly what being a NYer means. In some ways, never leaving my apartment and kind of being sequestered in my studio space feels very NY. Let’s see though… I think most of the experiences that I think I’ve had that remind me most of the NY trademark, that kind of 90s Ghostbusters NY understanding I had of the city before I came here, kind of comes from when I was dating. When I first moved to the city and I was dating, just going to different places in Brooklyn. Just going out, meeting a guy that was a theatre kid and going out on a date in the Upper West Side near Lincoln Center. Talking about plays and musicals, which I’m not as interested in, but learning new things all the while. Going out on a date with a very, very hip kid that was an interior designer living in East Williamsburg, never hearing the end of all the things he hated about NY… those kind of experiences are typified in mind as the NY experience. When I first came here I lived in an apartment with two other people from MICA, Ken D’Amato and Heather Donahue, incredible artists. We lived in a small railroad style apartment in Queens, near the M train. Literally three feet from the M train. Ken and I had to share a bedroom, which was awesome because he was like a brother. It was just really fun. You’d wake up at 4 in the morning because your entire apartment is rattling, the train is going by. It almost felt like, exactly like I said before, those scenes of NY from sitcoms and Seinfeld or whatever, that you believed before you ever came here. Growing up in Ohio that was definitely my opinion. I feel like living next to a subway platform is very NY.