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Toronto-based Joe Morse is an illustrator and educator who works dangerously—donning a gas mask, chemical gloves and coveralls, he creates his work with oil paint and solvents.

Joe's distinctive approach and powerful graphic images have won over 150 international awards and his art is in numerous collections worldwide including filmmaker Spike Lee's. His work has been used on everything from billboards to coins and his clients include Universal Pictures, Nike, Coca Cola, MLB, the NBA, LandRover, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Runners World and The Times of London. Lernerbooks recently published Play Ball, Jackie!, a picture book illustrated by Joe and written by Stephen Krensky, that tells the story of Jackie Robinson's first game as a Dodger.

Joe's lectured on his work in the US, Europe and Canada and directs the Bachelor of Applied Arts Illustration program at Sheridan Institute.

02.21.12

Roused from Complacency and Cynicism

If you have a degree in what field is it? I have a diploma in fine art/printmaking from Ontario College of Art. I also received grants to study in Italy, Mexico and Japan.

Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? Drawing was important from very early on in my life. My mom would buy thick jumbo pads of paper and I would pore over my brothers collections of MAD magazine and Spider-Man comics. A tip for you parents: Throw out coloring books and let your kids make their own lines.

What was your first paid assignment? It was an ad for Audi for a newspaper insert. The client wanted a full standing classical male nude with fig leaf. The copy associated the car with the drawing. A terrible idea and I was also clueless about quoting the job; it wasn’t a very auspicious beginning.

Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? Robert Rauschenberg. His work exists in “the gap between art and life” and never fails to rouse me from complacency and cynicism.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? An author of some kind... If I wasn’t using pictures, I would still need a platform to express ideas.

From where do your best ideas originate? From Christoph Niemann. Actually, my best ideas begin in research, but reside in my creative approach. I explore as much about the subject as possible, then I put all of the research away and I begin to draw. I draw anything and everything that comes to mind—literal and lateral.

How do you overcome a creative block? Actually, I have a technique that seems to work well. After all my research and sketches, if I’m still staring at all of the notes, pictures and jottings and no answer is swimming up to the surface, I move forward on other projects, get things moving elsewhere and give no time or energy to the problem—except to think about it. When I return to the problem later the knot is no longer so tightly wound and I’ll usually find an answer.

In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment. Curiosity. Illustration is great for people with short attention spans (okay maybe not book illustrators). Each assignment has me researching subjects as new and diverse as glial cells and 1950s fedoras.

Do you have a personal philosophy? Yes, I guess that's why I use a journal, “Prisons and Coloring Books,” on my website to preach the gospel of drawing. If we taught kids art as an essential subject like reading and writing then maybe education wouldn't crush every creative bone in their bodies.

Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? For the first six years of my illustration career I kept my “illustrator” work very separate from my “artist” work. I eventually found I wasn’t doing either very well, so I decided to do art that is illustration, and it’s worked out well.

What music are you listening to right now? I can’t listen to music when I’m working on ideas and roughs, but when it’s time to paint I usually turn to intensity and, for some reason, the 1990s, best exemplified in the album Decksdrumsandrockandroll by the Propellerheads.

What’s your favorite quote Marshall McLuhan’s “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” He described the World Wide Web 30 years before it happened but what I liked best about him is that he admitted that even he didn’t always agree with himself.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? The profession has been changed by technology but the fundamental value that an illustrator brings to a creative project remains the same. As Steve Brodner said, “illustrators are not just a trained wrist.” Technique, style and trends blend and blur with time, but a truly thoughtful and engaged mind never goes out of fashion. We make pictures in a world drenched in visuals; make work that is authentic and personal, bring meaning to what you do.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wasn’t trained as an illustrator so I think my earliest approach was as though I worked in a visual retail store, where the customer is always right. But you must satisfy yourself and the client, so that the work represents the best of you. It’s up to each of us to make the best work possible and to challenge ourselves no matter what the job is.