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Mick Wiggins has worked as a freelance illustrator for nearly 30 years, mostly in the editorial and book publishing fields. He's received numerous awards, appeared in several juried art annuals, and has enjoyed a long and varied list of clients. Wiggins recently completed a series of covers for the entire John Steinbeck catalog from Penguin Classics, and his own children's book "Planes Fly," to be published in the fall of 2013.


Bobbing the Waves

How did you get started in the illustration field? While I had a 1975 BFA in Conceptual Sculpture, the degree was hardly a practical meal-ticket. After drifting a bit, I found a job in the art department of a San Francisco magazine where I learned about assigning work to local illustrators. To find out that one could actually make a real living simply by making pictures was a revelation! The illustrators I was contacting all seemed to be having a lot more fun than I was, so in 1985 I took the leap myself to full-time freelance illustration.

What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? In 1984, while art director for PCWorld magazine, our company launched MacWorld which coincided with Apple's release of the first Macintosh computer. The company lent me one of the very first Macs in order to create some graphics for their first issue, and I've been working digitally ever since.

What is the strangest assignment you’ve ever received? Designing a pair of animal tattoos for a friend who is a merchant marine. Sailors have this old custom of tattooing an image of a rooster on one leg and a pig on the other—a tradition originating from superstition: In the wreckage of old sailing ships, often the only survivors were the crated animals in the hold who would bob safely to land. Anyway, the tattoos came out great, and Sailor Andy is happy, still alive, and sailing.

What would be your dream assignment? I'd love to do some commemorative postal stamps sometime. I've several friends who have their own stamps, and I'm completely jealous!

What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? In the real world, I'd be in serious trouble. I'm quite certain that outside of getting hired as a Walmart greeter, my options would be grim. In the more attractive alternate universe—where talent is not an issue—what could be more fun than being a funky jazz drummer?

What has been inspiring you lately? Like most illustrators, I'm an omnivore when it comes to art, and seeing art—good or bad—is inspiring, no matter the genre. That said, the advent of sites like Pinterest and others is amazing; where tens of thousands of curators scour the world for the most interesting and beautiful things to post. It's like the change to indoor plumbing—I no longer have to go out with my little bucket to get water from the well. The water comes to me.

What is your biggest challenge as an illustrator? I have something I call graphic-satiation; a condition where the longer you look at something, the weirder and 'wronger' it starts to look. And even with all my little strategies of keeping my eye fresh, there's rarely an assignment where I come in after a long day and don't say "what the hell was I thinking?"

What’s your favorite quote? "All thoughts vanish into emptiness, like the imprint of a bird in the sky." —Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Which illustrator/s do you most admire and why? In terms of relating to my work, I'm repeatedly drawn to greats like Tom Purvis and the illustrators doing the British Railway posters early in the 20th century, along with a bunch of Japanese print makers from the 19th and early 20th century, such as Kozumi Kishio and Kawase Hasui. But I also like a lot of current fresh work from folks like Leo Espinosa and Paul Campion, to name just two, whose energetic and upbeat figurative work is really inspiring.

What excites you about illustration field right now? Frankly, I'm really excited that, somehow, I'm still standing in this business—having weathered the series of recessions and financial crashes of the last decade. We illustrators do kind of bob on the waves of the economy, and many of us have had a very difficult time staying with it. It's nice to see that as the overall economy has recovered; work is returning in kind.

Where do you think the field of illustration is going? There's just such a natural enjoyment of hand-wrought pictures and powerful graphics that I'm confident there'll continue to be healthy illustration markets. The editorial field will probably continue to shrink, advertising and marketing will grow, and publishing will do a bit of both. If I had the where withal, I'd invest time into animating some of my work. Moving illustrations, whether its fully animated or semi-animated, seems like a growing niche. It has traditionally been a time-consuming process, but the technology continues to improve and so should become more workable in the future.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? The usual advice is always good: draw and doodle as much as possible. Playtime is crucial, as a diet solely of commissioned work is soul-deadening—at least for me it is. A lot of my best ideas seem to come from doodling absent-mindedly. And finally, the best job magnet is simply doing good work. Do the best you can, each time. Disappointingly simple.

What's one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? In hindsight, early on I was probably too complacent with my own work, too easily satisfied and not as self-critical as I need to be to deliver my best.