Ross MacDonald is an illustrator, designer, author and letterpress printer. His illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and he's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair.
He's written and illustrated several children's books, most recently In and Out with Dick and Jane, a Loving Parody with James Victore. His work was the subject of a one man retrospective at the New York Times and has been recognized by American Illustration, 3x3, Print, Communication Arts, AIGA and a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators.
Ross also works on movies as an illustrator, prop-maker and consultant on period design, printing and documents.
Born and raised in Canada, he lives in Connecticut with his wife, two kids, two dogs, four cats and a large collection of nineteenth century type and print equipment.
Don't Stop Punching
If you have a degree in what field is it? Not even a high school diploma. When I was sixteen, I left home and got a job as a soda jerk and dishwasher in an ice cream parlor. With my career taking off like that, I was far too busy to even consider going to college.
Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? I feel like I’m still trying to learn how to draw. I drew a lot as a kid, though. Other kids liked what I drew, so that encouraged me to keep doing it, and then it became the thing I did. Some kids were good at hockey or baseball, but I could draw a fair to middling horse. Somewhere along the way I found out that I really liked drawing so I did it every chance I got and eventually figured out how to get paid to do it.
What was your first paid assignment? In 1974, when I was 17, I illustrated a children’s book called All the Bees and All the Keys by James Reaney. At the time I thought I was being hired because the publisher really loved my drawings, saw some promise in my early efforts and was willing to give me the break that would launch me on a burgeoning career. I quickly realized I was hired because I was willing to work for next to nothing. Coincidentally, that was their budget.
Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? There’s so much amazingly good work out there that I change my mind every five minutes. But I’d have to say that Brad Holland is someone I’ve always admired; his work has always blown me away. He seems to keep pushing himself and trying new things and he's made a huge contribution to the field of illustration and illustrators in general.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t become an illustrator I’d have ended up in jail, or working in a potash mine. If I had to stop doing it right now, I’d probably try to do more writing.
From where do your best ideas originate? I wish I knew. It seems pretty random. Sometimes great ideas are coming thick and fast, other times it’s more of a struggle.
How do you overcome a creative block? I always say, illustration is easy; you just have to stare at a blank sheet of paper ’til the blood runs out of your ears. Sometimes you just have to sit your ass down and draw and draw and sketch and doodle and not get up until you find a good idea in all of your scribbles. If that doesn’t work, I repeatedly lift something very heavy and try again.
In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment. Aroused.
Do you have a personal philosophy? Don’t stop punching. George Chuvalo told me that years ago; he’s a boxer who was never knocked down in almost one hundred fights, including two against Muhammad Ali.
Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? I write occasionally (humor and children’s books); I also design and make graphic props for movies (books, documents, maps, letters) and have a letterpress shop with two presses and several hundred fonts of wood and metal type.
What music are you listening to right now? Imelda May, The Black Keys and ’30s big band music.
What’s your favorite quote? I’m not sure who said it, but “If it’s big and ugly, it’s not big enough.”
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Make it more of a life than a profession. Learn everything you can about the history of illustration, design and printing (it’ll take you places you'll otherwise never find on your own). Learn how to do things with your hands. Style is ephemeral, good ideas last.
What's one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? How to draw.