Scott McKowen is an illustrator, graphic designer and art director. Born and raised in Michigan, he's based in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, where he operates Punch & Judy, a design studio that creates theater posters and graphics for leading performing arts companies across North America. Scott is currently working on a series of children’s classics for Sterling Publishing, which now includes 34 titles, and has worked for Harper Collins, Penguin, Random House, St. Martins, Quirk, Tor and Marvel Comics. Scott specializes in scratchboard, an engraving medium whereby white lines are carved into a black surface with a sharp blade and was the subject of A Fine Line: Scratchboard Illustrations by Scott McKowen published by Firefly Books in 2009. He was also one of the jurors for the 53rd Communication Arts Illustration Annual.
If you have a degree in what field is it? BFA, magna cum laude, from The University of Michigan School of Art in Ann Arbor. This is the first time I’ve been asked that question in more than a decade.
Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? Learning to draw is a lifetime study. I’m 56 and maybe, hopefully, finally starting to get the hang of it. I’m pretty religious about doing life drawing once a week and I’ve recently taken a couple of anatomy courses. It’s all cumulative.
What was your first paid assignment? A theater poster for a high school production of the musical Once Upon a Mattress. I misspelled the hand-drawn title with only one “t” and had to reprint at my own expense—an excellent lesson for a beginner.
Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? Milton Glaser.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? There are many wonderful teachers in my family, but I don’t think I have the patience for that (although having summers off would be brilliant). I love type and letterforms carved in wood and stone; an assistant and graphic designer who worked with me for fifteen years shared this enthusiasm and we made a pact that one day we would withdraw from society and go off to live in the woods and learn stone carving. I’m looking forward to that.
From where do your best ideas originate? They’re often stolen (in the sense that we all take acquired information and reconfigure it). But received information is not the same as inspiration. Inspiration is a mystery; the spark comes from an ability to associate or juxtapose visual ideas in witty, unexpected ways. My wife, Christina Poddubiuk, is a theater set and costume designer with an honors English degree and she’s particularly adept at the exercise of distilling a play or novel into a visual metaphor—many of my best ideas are her inspirations, bless her.
How do you overcome a creative block? I’ll do something else for awhile, to reboot my brain, then approach it fresh. Problem-solving requires enough time for patterns to form and associations to be made. Since our imaginations are still working on problems subconsciously, even when focused on other things, highway driving works nicely: Your immediate focus is on the car in the next lane, but another part of the brain is still working away on the back burner, trying to connect the dots.
In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment. Solvent.
Do you have a personal philosophy? Whatever it is that each of us is given to do in our little span of time, we need to do it with passion, rigor and commitment to excellence. My disclaimer here is that I don’t have children, so my work/life balance is a bit skewed, but I think that spending one’s time working to create beautiful things makes for a pretty interesting life.
Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? Theater, music and opera. I do a lot of cooking. I love to travel and always carry a sketchbook. I played piano and classical guitar many years ago and would love to pick those up again.
What music are you listening to right now? J.S. Bach, Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.
What’s your favorite quote? “If it were easy, anyone could do it.” —Unknown
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? It gets harder.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? It gets harder.