Q&A with Top Illustrator Elwood Smith

The following article appears in the February 11, 2011 issue of Roll magazine. Thanks to Tom Grasso for permission to repost!

Q&A with top illustrator Elwood Smith: “Elwood’s World” at the Norman Rockwell Museum
by Ross Rice

Artwork by Elwood Smith. ©Elwood Smith. All rights reserved.

Artwork by Elwood Smith. ©Elwood Smith. All rights reserved.


That could change for Elwood starting this year, with a special retrospective showing at The Norman Rockwell Museum, in nearby Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “Elwood’s World”—which opens February 19 and runs through May, before going on national tour—offers a rare glimpse at the 50-year evolution of a master craftsman with a cornucopia of original drawings and watercolors, complete with some of his recent animations. His work—which marries contemporary social observations with 40s/50s Sunday comic visual style, infused with humor ranging from wry to sly—should be instantly recognizable to all who view it. Admit it, you’ve seen these funny looking little guys before, haven’t you?

We at Roll have had the pleasure of interviewing Elwood before, in 2007, and found ourselves soon becoming good friends with him and his wife artist/creative partner Maggie Pickard. Since then he’s graced our cover annually with a special holiday theme (thanks again, Elwood!). So when we heard about this show at the Rockwell, well, we just had to make sure we helped get the word out about it. Unfortunately, we all got snowed in on interview day, so we had to do this one on the phone…

This is a pretty big year for you coming up starting with this show at the Norman Rockwell Museum and subsequent tour. Can you tell us a bit about what the show covers, and how it came about?

Though it is a retrospective, it’s not going to be all encompassing. I wanted to keep the early part of the thing short, and have the bulk of my work from the time since I moved to the Hudson Valley. I’ve had some personal fine art shows, and many group shows, but never a one-man show of my commercial work. I’ll turn 70 in May of this year. And I thought: I’d like to have something around my 70th birthday…just in case I’m not around too much longer.

Maggie and I really liked the people at the Norman Rockwell Museum, so I sent a carefully composed email to (NRM deputy director/curator) Stephanie Plunkett, telling her that of all the places I thought of where I would most like to have this show, the Rockwell was my top choice. I know there’s a certain amount of chutzpah in doing that, but I thought that if I didn’t do it, it might not occur to them to ask me in! She wrote back quickly to tell me they would be happy to do it.

Though you have vastly different approaches, you definitely share with Rockwell the ability to tell a larger story with a single image. You’ve mentioned previously enjoying his work as a kid. Was he an influence on you as you developed your craft?

He really was. I never thought of having somebody who would really be a mentor, or “art hero,” whatever term is being used. There were people who influenced me over the years, people I honored and loved, but I’ve sort of gone my own way.

As I look back, when I was a young kid I sorted out those early comics into a hierarchy, with Walt Kelly’s Pogo right at the top. I think any creative person does that—it didn’t take long before I started rating everything. I didn’t have anybody else giving me guidance, like when you read Shakespeare in high school, and (the teacher) tells you why something is great.

When writing some words about the upcoming show, I was recently looking at some Rockwell covers—Saturday Evening Post. There are some really great illustrators who did those covers, but I was right then, and I feel right now, that Rockwell was the top dog. If you look closely, the way that he composed, the way each hand, each gesture….one could say he was too particular. But for a young person, I couldn’t have had a better role model. He set a high standard for construction, composition, beautiful drawing.

The other way he was great was—as you mentioned—his storytelling. It’s just amazing, his painting…he worked from photographs he took himself, almost always using “local yokels” instead of professional models. He was an influence in quite a few ways.

OK, here’s a stupid question, but one that bears repeating anyhow. You’re stylistic approach clearly comes from “old-school” Sunday comics like Krazy Kat, Barney Google, and Pogo. You studied cartooning at an art school in Chicago. Yet you are now considered an “illustrator.” So at what point does a cartoonist become an illustrator?

Well, that’s not a stupid question. If fact, I’m often referred to as a cartoonist, someone even once said I was a “New Yorker cartoonist,” and I had to say, “well, I’ve drawn for The New York Times, not The New Yorker. And I’m really not a cartoonist,” which is when they got really embarrassed!

Nancy Boyer Feindt (Elwood’s hometown high school art teacher, Alpena, Michigan) was one who found the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts cartoon program for me, because at that time I wanted to be a cartoonist. The instructor there had done a comic strip, had minor success, but was not a good teacher. Really nice guy, but he didn’t infuse us with any energy; he’d give an assignment, then just sit there and doze off.

When I finished school there, I needed a job, and in those days the main job people got (coming out of art school) was working for studios. They would hire illustrators, cartoonists, airbrush artists, and that’s how you started out, doing your cartoons in your spare time. I went around from place to place, in Chicago, still working at the supermarket, getting desperate. I landed a job about an hour northwest of Chicago, assistant to the assistant art director. Worked there for a year and a half, and was up for the draft. I joined the National Guard, went through basic training and all that stuff, and when I got back, worked there a little more.

But I wanted to be closer to the big city. By then I was getting the Push Pin Graphic (periodical) from Push Pin Studios, the premier studio with Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast. It kinda blew my socks off! They did these funny illustrations but there wasn’t much cartoon-style stuff. When I saw this stuff, I thought: I gotta get in the sea, I gotta start getting my feet wet.

So I got a job in Chicago at Marshall Fields department store, and it was the worst six months I ever spent at a job. (Elwood proceeds to describe an almost Dickensian cubicle hell scenario, complete with low pay, hard deadlines and sadistic overseers.)

After that, I worked at an advertising agency for awhile, and then another. But I knew if I didn’t jump into illustration at that time, that I maybe wouldn’t be able to do it. So it was at that point that (the ad agency) let me stay on and use that space, and do layouts off and on. Then I worked for another studio—an actual illustration studio—for a short time before I started freelancing. I’ve been doing that ever since.

Was this the point where you developed your signature old-school comic style, with the deceptively simple line work, round eyeballs, little hands and feet?

Finding a style is very natural to some people, but I was the opposite. And I never had, or never could find one, or didn’t trust myself. And at the time I’m talking about was when I first started illustrating. I was starting to be influenced by Push Pin, and then (the animated Beatles movie) Yellow Submarine came out, those big splashy colors.

It took me a long time to get the style you now know as the Elwood Smith style. I moved to New York City in 1976. I would say it was ‘77 or ’78 when I just didn’t like the style I had, which was more of a cross-hatchy style. And then I re-discovered the old comics, and started buying up originals and old, slightly falling apart hard covered comics of the 30s and 40s. And studied them, even buying the kind of pens they had. I became a really intense fan of that stuff; in a way, that was full circle because that was the stuff that I absorbed as a kid, but did not utilize until 1978, when I really started to get a handle on how to do that. And then that style morphed over the years, (starting with) the big Barney Google feet, big shnozzes, then over time the hands and feet became smaller.

We’ve listed above a sample of your many illustration clients since you made the New York City move, and it’s actually hard to find someone you HAVEN’T drawn for. So tell me, how does a young swashbuckling illustrator take Manhattan, start the ball rolling the way you were able to?

Well, I did it myself at first. But the first couple of years, well, I really hate—I’m being verbose with you right now—but I really hate cold calling. I would have to write down exactly what I was going to say; I would get so frightened, I would get confused. So those first years, they were agony when I had to call.

The surprise for me was when I went out to see these people, the New York people were sweethearts! They cautioned me in Chicago, saying “those New York art directors are gonna eat you for breakfast.” But they were all—OK, there were a few not—but almost all of them would look at my work. And when I first went out there in ’76 I didn’t take any of my published work, because I had my new style. It was all strictly original art put in one of those heavy portfolios you carry around, each one framed carefully. And they would look through it and would give me work, or they were often very generous….almost always they would crank their Rolodex, write down three or four people, whom I’d then go see.

And it took off. I would just be who I was, and people liked that, they were used to reps coming in with a whole sales pitch.

Recently, you’ve been getting more into computer animations using various Flash programs, and collaborations with 3D animator Brian Hoard. Is this the next step in your development, the “animated illustration?”

I did my first animation in Photoshop, just taking a bunch of images and make them work as a bunch of cells, and brought them into iMovie, connecting them. It was fairly crude. I read a lot online about animation, what makes it work, and then I got Toon Boom Studio’s animation program.

I love working with somebody else (like Brian), because they get to do all the hard work! I met Brian was I was working with Toon Boom. The people in Canada who make that program didn’t have very good tutorials, so you would rely on the chat room where you’d talk with (others using the program), one of them was Brian, and he helped me a lot. (At one point) he said to me, “you know, I don’t have that many ideas, and I love your work. If you’d be willing to do the work, I’d be willing to do the animation.” I always have a basketful of ideas, so I said “yeah!”

I think one of the things that’s kept me young and sort of vibrant in this business is a sense of curiosity, of “what is this?” I love the computer. A lot of people my age damn the computer, “it doesn’t have any soul.” I just made animations because it seemed to be interesting. Maggie likes me to make them because they’re promo tools. But right now if I could retire, I would make those little films and animations, I would just do things that tickled my fancy.

So—other than of course the Rockwell exhibit—how are things today in the real “Elwood’s World?”

I‘m busy on a kid’s book assignment I’m working on. And before we came up with the “Elwood’s World” show at the Rockwell Museum, Maggie and I got together with an old friend (and designer) Nancy Davis, and created “Elwood’s World” online, a place people can come, play games, buy merchandise. We recently signed with King Features, who has the world’s largest licensing division. We’ve been feeding them newer original work, plus Maggie’s been going into the vaults; right now the cauldron is bubbling, we’re stirring it. And it could tip over and burn our feet.

As you said earlier, you turn 70 this year, and I swear you—and Maggie too—look at least 15 years younger. Though I suspect your youthfulness is the result of a relentless sense of humor, how about you let us in on your secret…

I have to say first that I’m very lucky that I don’t have any major health ailments—gonna knock on the pencil wood here. Things are going well now, but on the turn of a dime you can have misfortune. So first I have to say that the thing that’s really been great is I’ve reached this very ripe age, and gotten to accomplish a lot of what I wanted to. I have a full head of hair, and it’s dark. Which makes a lot of people think that I’m younger.

I have moments of despair, but I would say in the main that I try to keep the glass half full, and I have a real enthusiasm for learning, it’s really fun. And one thing I have to say (is important) is having dear friends, who make your life so much better. I know it sounds kinda New Age-y—and I loathe New Age-y stuff—but it’s the idea of community. I feel a real affection for my close and more distant friends. It feels good, keeps you lively.

That four and a half mile daily walk probably doesn’t hurt either…

Yeah, and I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for Maggie! I don’t like exercise at all. But you know you need it.

Original article: www.rollmagazine.com/feb11/articles/art.php

Print This Post Print This Post