Columns / Insights

Unexpected Places And Unexpected Tools

Michael Sloan

Michael Sloan
If you have a degree in what field is it? I have a BFA in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design.

Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? I started to draw when I was three. My drawings improved when I started to read books that stimulated my imagination and when I traveled to Europe with my family. I didn’t start to draw from direct observation or from the human figure until I was in college. Learning to draw continues to be a never-ending process for me.

What was your first paid assignment? It was for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, and a very stressful experience. It took me several months to recuperate before I had the courage to ask for more work.

Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? M.C. Escher. I admire his intelligence, particularly how he combined his interest in mathematics with his artwork. I discovered printmaking through his work.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? I’m also a musician, so I might be performing or writing songs. It wasn’t a sure thing that I would go to art school: Up until the very last moment, I intended to go to a liberal arts college and major in English because I liked to write.

From where do your best ideas originate? My imagination. Traveling to Europe and China has had a profound impact on my work and I also get good ideas from reading books and the newspaper. Keeping up with current events has informed a lot of my work, especially my Professor Nimbus graphic novels.

How do you overcome a creative block? By being persistent: I stay at my drawing table and keep drawing. Sooner or later something always comes up.

In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment? Electrified.

Do you have a personal philosophy? Keep the balance. My artwork is only one of many parts to my life, and if one part starts to take up too much time and energy, the other parts suffer. The daily struggle to keep the balance between these parts is difficult, though they all add up to a rich, stimulating life.

Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? I play guitar and bass guitar and perform in a jazz band with other illustrators during sketch nights at The Society of Illustrators in NYC. I also love to sketch outdoors and paint in oils.

What music are you listening to right now? The classical piano compositions of Federico Mompou. They are very contemplative and great to listen to at night when my three children are asleep and I’m working upstairs.

What's your favorite quote? “You’re an artist. You can do anything.” A fellow first-year classmate in art school said this to me while I was struggling with an assignment that was pushing me beyond my comfort zone. I like the implication that creativity has no limits. If I keep an open mind I can always find a solution to a creative problem; it may not be obvious and I may have to look in some unexpected places and use some unexpected tools.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? For me, being an artist is a calling that demands a lot. My work is very connected to who I am as a person and to how I experience life. It would be hard to maintain art as a profession without this deep personal connection and inherent passion. Persistence is necessary. Chance occurrences—like dreams, something observed on a street corner or a mistake when I’m drawing—can lead to new and unexpected directions. It’s important to be open to this element of serendipity.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish I had known how unnecessary it is to get as stressed about work as I did early on. I treated every assignment as if my life depended on it. Everything has turned out just fine.
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