December 20, 2009

Never Grow Old, Just Keep Growing

An Interview with Jack Harris, designer and illustrator

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
Click on any image to enlarge it to original size

ZN: Jack, with no omens intended here, can you take us a bit more through the timing then of the different stages of your computer skills development?
I was a beta tester on Illustrator ’88. I started working with Illustrator back then but it was horrible. There was no color preview. We used a Mac SE at the time, so you also had to deal with the postage stamp-sized screen. It was terrible.

But I loved creating the blends and getting that airbrushed look. In comparison to today, it really took a long time to get everything just right though. I don’t know if you experienced Illustrator in the digital dark ages, but back then it was almost a mathematical exercise. To create a blend, you had to calculate how many steps you needed across the linear distance you were working on. Get it right, and you had a fairly smooth blend. Get it wrong and you had a series of abrupt value changes. Not like now when you can just drag your cursor and automatically get a beautiful blend.

I started with the vector stuff in ’88 and I’ve worked with Illustrator since then. I do almost all my design in Illustrator. If I need to bring it into Photoshop along the way, then I will. Or, for example, I also design a publication every few months and obviously I design most of the pages with InDesign. But I still spend a lot of time in Illustrator for certain different types of typography and other things. Really almost everything else is designed in Illustrator. Plus, I did a lot of logo design earlier in my career – ideal work for a vector application.

ZN: You mention typography. This is one of my own personal favorite topics with design. I’m wondering then: do you think a designer can separate himself from typography?
Well, the answer to that is ‘absolutely not.’ I mean, design is words. There’s a real focus these days on what I’d call Photoshop ‘pyrotechnics’ and that sort of thing. But real design is about clarity of message which requires words and obviously leads to good typography or perhaps better said, a need for good typography to be used.

In college, because I took an emphasis on both design and illustration, it required 3 typography classes, which were just wonderful. I love type, I just think it’s beautiful. To me, each letter is a work of art by itself. Definitely then, my interest in type comes from school, using type for logos, and just really appreciating it.

I like to write myself. I don’t know how good I am, but I do write and I at least understand the importance of the word. But clearly, a designer uses good type to make something easier to read. That’s our job and a good type-face can make things even better than you could hope for. I guess that’s what led me then to this sensitivity to type.

ZN: With all the hands-on or even technological skills you have at your disposal, do you do any other kind of free-wheeling inventing in terms of methodologies?
Sure, but a lot of it is by accident. Because I still don’t know that much about how to technically paint. I’m sure you’ve heard of people that paint, then scan it into the computer, output it again and the continue to work on it. There are times when I’ve painted something and done the same thing, sometimes several times over. I don’t know if that’s all that radical but I like to try and keep it as close to the ‘human hand’ as possible at any given time. Although I still do a lot of painting on the computer. There are just times when it seems better suited to paint on the computer than by hand. Plus, it’s faster for me.

I think everything I do with the computer and painting is trying to overcome the things I don’t know about painting. In the beginning, when I started combining the two, I had never heard of anyone doing that. I started painting on the computer, outputting it and finishing it by hand. That’s no doubt pretty common now, but back in 1998 I think it was pretty unusual. Still, it just seemed like a natural extension of what I did before.

I guess then my direct answer to your question is: I don’t think I’m doing anything too unusual or too radical now. But I have done other things as well. Recently, I was doing a series of paintings and started using
spray-gesso through lace which makes a neat kind of texture as you overlap the patterns. Maybe lace isn’t the right word? I was using the kind of doilies like your grandmother used to have. Anyway, I’ve also done things like soaking paper in coffee or tea which gives a really neat surface to paint on.

ZN: Jumping back a bit again: you went back to school in 1998 to learn how to paint. What prompted you to go back to school?

I was 16 years into a career. I was 38 and we were doing really well, where I sort of felt like we had achieved what I wanted us to achieve. I mean, we had been in all the design annuals and more. You know, the kind of milestones that I thought were important when I was in school: to be well-known in the communication and graphic design world, even acknowledged by Graphis, you name it. We had won lots of awards for web-sites and multi-media presentations and I don’t know what else...

I just sort of felt like, well, that I had set these goals and I had reached them, but then I kind of realized that they were kind of shallow goals. Sure, we were doing well financially. But I started to think back to what I really wanted to be at age 7 and that was to be a famous comic book artist. I knew THAT wasn’t happening but I really wanted to go back to what I felt was my roots. As such, I went back to school and I got my MA in Illustration. Then I kept on going and got a Masters of Fine Arts, where I finished up in 2006, I guess. In many ways, this was really a hedge against economic disaster. You know, if I ever needed to make extra money as an educator.

By then, sadly, the business had shrunk considerably. The economy after 9-11 really hurt us a lot. I mean, we went from being a company with 3 million dollars a year in billings to 1/8th of that in the course of a year. That was very painful. Business almost ceased to exist after 9-11. Literally in a day. We tried to hang on and not lay off because you hate to do that because it’s so very, very painful. But business just didn’t get better.

I mean, even after a while everyone in the US was saying ‘oh things are great’ because the stock market was going back up. But as we know now, that was all smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t helping those of us at the sort of normal, human level. Those of us that weren’t billionaires weren’t sharing in this renewed growth and optimism in any sense of the word.

In part then, I wanted to finish the degree for financial security reasons, as well as for my own self-fulfilment I guess. Plus, I thought it would give me the opportunity to teach – if I wanted to teach – at a level that was commensurate with my interests.

ZN: Looking at your various works, I am curious if you approach the process of creating a portrait of an actual person differently that say a painting for a children’s story?
If it’s a portrait, yes. If you look at any of the portraits, you can see that the focus is trying to make that person seem ‘alive’. To get that, well, to me it’s in some ways like film, I guess, where you’re trying to suspend disbelief. You’re trying to take something and to get an emotion out of it.

With the children’s illustrations, you’re looking for movement, real action. A real sense of something that’s kinetic. Having said that, I’m trying to think of the children’s stuff I display on my web-site. I’m not sure that the examples I include exhibit that really as much as I’d like! But that is becoming more apparent as I’ve worked and spoken with art directors in the field. That this sense of movement is extremely important. As such, I’ve been looking for a much more active sense, much more active pictures.

ZN: Again, looking at many of the examples you do have up, several of the children’s illustrations are very dark or very realistic. In many ways at least to me, the children’s illustrations call forth the most emotion, perhaps because they call out to some of the stronger memories I have from my own childhood (being sick, being scared, etc.).
I guess something like that isn’t approached too much differently. The children’s illustrations I have up are indeed in many ways portraits – albeit perhaps a portrait of a sick kid or something else we can all perhaps more readily identify with. For example, when I illustrated the kid with the sarcophagus, I approached that in a way where I was trying to put in a real sense of action and mystery. From that perspective, I think it has a different approach compared to the portraits.

For example, I did some illustrations one time for a book where a little white boy (during the Civil War) tries to sneak his best friend, a little black boy, out of slavery. At one point, he’s caught by bounty hunters and there’s a scene where the bad guy has a gun up to the little kid’s head. That image is as much a portrait as anything else. But I was hoping for something that at least had more ‘implied’ action. You know, getting across that the kids just been grabbed and here’s this guy trying to put a gun up to his head, that moment of intense action.

I really liked that idea for a painting. But I guess for obvious reasons that image was rejected. It was just too dark and maybe a little too real for a kid’s book.

ZN: When you are however painting portraits, what criteria do you use to decide on the level of caricaturization compared to a more realistic depiction?
I think by their personalities, first of all. Like the portraits of Mike Tyson and Osama Bin Laden are very strongly intended to be caricatures, although for very different reasons. I mean, in the case of Tyson, he is a caricature. I felt like painting him relatively ‘straight’ was keeping in line with his personality.

In the case of the Bin Laden piece, well, I’ve had a lot of people react very unfavorably to this piece. Some just think I’ve painted him in a way that he is too sympathetic, even though this was not my intention at all. I mean, he’s caricatured simply because people see him already in a certain way. In so many ways, he’s bigger than life albeit for a very evil reason. It’s just that many people simply don’t think of him as human. Instead, I caricatured him looking somewhat... well, let’s say I didn’t do it in what I think was an obvious way. I didn’t paint him looking like Satan or something, because people already see him that way. There’s no point in trying to do it that way. Instead, I tried painting him relatively straight and have people project into him their own point of view.

Unfortunately, a lot of people projected into it this idea that I had tried to make Bin Laden look compassionate. But that wasn’t it at all. My point is simply: people already hate him. There’s no point in trying to make him look like more of a bad guy, because he already is THE bad guy.

ZN: Looking at your political paintings: John McCain’s portrait is an obvious caricature, but with Hillary Clinton, I’m not sure. She seems to be slightly ‘swollen’ and with the strong orange background, I find myself thinking she looks like the spokesperson for Pumpkin Growers of America. Then again, Barack Obama is just, well, there.
Each of those are very calculated political statements on my part. During the last election, I really felt strongly about Obama, I was a little bit ambivalent about Mrs. Clinton and McCain, well... Though I will say that I actually liked McCain from his 2000 run for the Presidency. Back then I though he was really out to do the right thing. Then in 2008, he was just basically a straw man. He was in search of a brain in the worst kind of way.

I’m very political, and my wife and I are both very politically active. These were therefore paintings that I approached very much in order to express my own political views.

ZN: What is the difference in your approach to a children’s book vs. something like ‘Packed with Poisons’? Granted, I’m sure my own kids would much prefer the latter to a good, ‘innocent’ bed-time story...
Yeah, for little boys, the ‘Poisons’ book was great. And in this case – well, let me preface my answer by saying I love animals. But I have a horrible fear of spiders so painting those was really no fun.

I would say though that in terms of my approach, the biggest difference is really a practical one. The poisonous animals project required a lot of research. I think I had 9 months to complete my work and literally 6 months of that was spent doing nothing else but research. Which is really not all that much fun. it’s not really what I want to do. On the other hand, with an illustration for a story, okay, there may be some research involved – but for the most part you’re just getting in there and trying to make a great picture.

ZN: Looking back again – whether it was 40 or 42 years ago is really immaterial – but did you have any main influences in terms of starting out in illustration? For example, you wrote a few years back a
really nice review of the career of Andrew Loomis. Was he a major influence on you?
I wasn’t influenced by him, no. I discovered Andrew Loomis in my Masters program, I had never heard of him before that. I actually learned of him through a couple of different people from the comics side of my life. They first introduced me and I became more and more interested in both him and his work, which is how he became the subject of my paper.

But my real influences – probably starting at age 14, I guess – came about when a friend of the family gave me a book on
J.C. Leyendecker. I copied his work over and over for years. I just love it, even to this day. It’s realistic but it’s also very stylized and graphic. His work was always a huge influence.

I don’t know though if you can look at my work and say that you can see that, but that was all I thought about when I drew a picture, was his work. I was influenced I guess a little bit as well by Norman Rockwell. Well, maybe. Although I like the stylized work of Leyendecker much better. He would be for me the proverbial ‘One’ really and I still admire his work so much. A definitive book of his work is pretty much always open in my studio.

As far as influences from the comics world go, well, definitely
Jack ‘King’ Kirby for sure. Kirby was and still is the greatest. At one point, I had quite a few of his originals, before they were worth anything, many of which I’ve given some of these away over the years as gifts. But his work with things like the Fantastic Four and especially the very early part of his run at DC were huge for me, especially ‘The Demon’ (ZN: ditto).

And Jack Kirby also just seemed to be a great person, too, even though I never met him. Plus, I just think that he – and now his family, too – never got the credit he was due. Especially now when you see how much money these franchises bring in. I guess though that everybody, every comic book artists says at some point that Kirby influenced them.

Another influence would be a kind of weird one. I don’t know if you’ve heard of
George Wunder, but he too over for Milton Caniff on ‘Terry and the Pirates’ when Caniff left to do ‘Steve Canyon’. But Wunder had this very, very strange drawing style. I mean, my wife just thinks it’s absolutely one of the ugliest things she’s ever seen. But he was a virtuoso inker, he did just incredible inking. I think I have about 30 or 35 originals of his and I love how bizarre the drawing is. I don’t know how he did it, it’s such an uncontrolled style. it’s definitely nothing like Kirby, who sort of designed his illustrations. Wunder just seems like he’s somebody that couldn’t draw that well, but he could ink incredibly well. I just think it’s beautiful even if it is peculiar looking.

ZN: What moved you to co-author the book, ‘
Vector Graphics and Illustration: A Master Class in Digital Image-making’?
Steven Withrow, who has done other books as well on the subject of illustration, actually called Charley Parker and asked if he knew anyone who knew anything about Illustrator, so he recommended me. I guess there’s not really an interesting story in that regard in terms of how I got involved.

Doing the book itself was really a [long pause, even for Jack]... it wasn’t any fun, I’ll say that. The amount of work required and the compensation for doing that were so out of whack, that I really got frustrated as I went along. When we started the thing and agreed on a price to do it, I didn’t have any idea that I’d be doing what I did there. Which was essentially illustrating AND demonstrating every aspect of that program. It was much more involved than I could have ever anticipated.

Now that it’s done and I have a year or 2 years, I guess, distance from finishing it, I’m really glad that I did it. But boy, it was a chore. Still, it’s cool to know that I have a couple of colleagues that use it in their classrooms.

It’s like this: one of the frustrations of doing it is that it was really supposed to be for beginners and just an introduction to this stuff. But as we went along it got changed to like it says in the title: ‘A Master Class ...’. But it was never supposed to be anything close to being intended for a ‘master’s class’. It was really just supposed to help people get started off. And sure, it starts off that way and describes what the differences are between a bitmap and vector graphics. That was really supposed to be it’s job, to make a strong differentiation between the two forms and show what vectors could do differently to bitmaps. But it ended up being a feature-by-feature demonstration essentially of Illustrator.

ZN: But it still seems to be quite popular.
Yeah, it does. I’m really glad that people use it and find it useful. I’m proud of it. Again, I’m glad that we did it. It’s just... it’s one of those things that the process was somewhat painful, I guess. When you spend a year and a half doing something, you’d like the process to be somewhat more enjoyable.

ZN: Looking at your ‘professional’ ventures, what were your main targets in forming Eureka in 1987?
Eureka was actually born after 2001. The actual design firm that we founded and started was called ‘Orbit Integrated’. We had a large staff and a very different kind of focus that I couldn’t do anymore without the resources we had within that organization. However, like I said, sadly that company essentially ceased to exist after 9-11. So I decided to change things and refocus more on an area I thought we could compete in more readily. Where Orbit did full branding campaigns and very, very large web-sites and programs, we just couldn’t keep doing that and weren’t able to it anymore, even if we wanted to.

Instead, we wanted to focus on what I felt was my strongest suit which was good ideas that were applied with real imagination. The concept of applied imagination actually comes from a book by
Alex F. Osborne, who was really the guy that kind of originated the whole idea of brain-storming. He was an account executive that kind of set up the rules of brainstorming in the 1950’s and really set up the process of formal idea generation within an ad agency. In fact he wrote a book called ‘Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving’.

Our concept was that the company would just focus on great ideas. That’s what prompted Eureka: the smaller size and the desire – and need – to re-focus.

ZN: I’m curious then: how does one go about selling great ideas?
I hope by demonstration. If we’re not able to do that, they we’re really in trouble! In terms of our ‘sales pitch’, well, my wife Lisa does a lot of networking basically. When you get right down to it – and I’m sure everyone experiences this as well in their own endeavours – everything is based on relationships. It’s no mystery.

It doesn’t matter then what I say about the work we do, it’s more important that we have the relationships that we have built. Lisa is simply a master relationship builder and that’s really the secret behind any kind of success we’ve ever had. She is gregarious and friendly and she’s just a really nice person. And that comes across whenever she meets people.

ZN: She’s not standing there with another PostIt note for you, is she?
No, no, that’s my own answer and it’s definitely sincere and from the heart!

It really is true, though. Her sister, Linda, also worked with us for about 6 years and she’s the same way. She’s just great with people. In many ways, I guess you could probably consider me to be the dancing monkey around here that does some design work – which they are still able to sell somehow.

ZN: On your ‘corporate’ web-site, you state that when the company was founded, that you ‘believed firmly in three things: the power of integrated marketing communications, the value of great ideas, and the potential of technology.’ How well do you think you and your team have been able to stick with these ideals?
I think really, really well. Especially up until I’d say just after the Y2K ‘crisis’ where our technological interests really had a tremendous impact on what we did and what we recommended to people relative to their web-sites. Back then we were always one step ahead of other companies in terms of what we understood about the technology, which really gave us a competitive edge. Just as when I started the business, my knowledge, understanding and passion for the technology gave me an edge because I was the only person out there working on a computer. This served very well until everybody else caught up.

Now though I think one of the things I try to get across with Eureka is that it’s not enough to have the technology: you need to have the imagination to use it as well. Anybody today could take a course in Photoshop and create nice blends or use (and abuse) endless filters. But it takes something much more involved than that to do anything meaningful with it!

It’s just gotten to the point though where technology in and of itself – even the knowledge of the technology – really doesn’t matter that much anymore.

ZN: And that’s why it boils down to great ideas?
I think so. At some point or another, the software and the hardware and all of that kind of stuff becomes self-limiting. If I don’t have a good idea, it doesn’t matter how shiny I can make something.

ZN: How have you managed over the years then to balance your professional interests with your own personal creative targets?
Hm, not very well. I haven’t gotten nearly as much ‘creative stuff’ done as I would have liked. But really, usually I’ve managed to balance the two pretty well. I work a long day and I do try to schedule the day between the two things: you know, work until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on design, eat something, and then go back and work on an illustration.

I think it’s basically the same way we all try to organize our lives. You do what you kind of have to do and then you set that aside and do what you want to do. I try to strike then as much of a balance as I can. Unfortunately, in the last year I haven’t been successful at that. But again, in order to try and make up for that, I’ve been taking some painting classes so that I’m forced to set aside that time. I’m also hoping that in the process I’ll actually learn how to paint.

ZN: Jack, one last question: If you had to chose between your different ‘lives’ – that is, between being a globe-trotting creative director, a well-recognized illustrator, or a respected instructor in your region – which would you choose and why?
I’d definitely choose to be the illustrator. I mean, I just love the idea of telling stories. I’ve always been a story-teller. It seems to run in my family, too, because my brother’s a writer, as is my daughter. I just love that process.

Add to that then my love for experiencing the tactile process as well, of actually working on a piece of paper and painting or drawing. That’s really all I’ve ever thought of and wanted to do.


Jack Harris is a member of the Society of Illustrators with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, an MA from Syracuse University and an MFA from Hartford Art School. Despite appearances, he is not a professional student. Throughout his 25 years or so of illustration, he has worked with a number of 3D and drawing applications, ranging from Maya, Cinema4D, Strata, Illustrator, Photoshop, Painter and anything else he could get his eager hands on. These days he is trying to learn (ha!) ‘real’ painting with oils on real paper, complimented of course by his wealth of knowledge and experience with the high-tech bits as well. We could also fill another half-page with a list of his clients and accomplishments, but we have to leave you something to search for when you visit
his site.

If Jack could leave you with anything, it would be that he remains dedicated to his one true professional love, illustration, and to his private love, his very supportive, beautiful and frighteningly good-hearing wife Lisa. Together they run Eureka and have somewhere during this wild ride also managed to produce two very talented children. When Jack is not working – whatever that might possibly entail – he likes to paint robots. Ziggy Nixon is pushing him in fact to get some of these up on the Internet as well, because quite frankly, if the office blocks YourTubesRTied, then looking at robots all day is in our humble opinion about the best way to make it through the week.


All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Jack Harris, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. For further details to illustrations, commercially available pieces, and much more, please visit .

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