Leaning back in an old wooden desk chair, the contemplative Mick Wiggins expresses discomfort with being interviewed. “I never considered myself an A-list player in this business,” he says. “I’ve simply stayed on my feet, going from one job to another. Illustrators are a funny lot—they exist at the bottom of the food chain, yet they’re highly visible. That’s my story. What else can I add?”
A lot, as it turns out. As an artist, he excels at using modern graphic technology to spin his narrative, and few have had longer or more successful careers. Wiggins has created beautiful book covers, posters and editorial illustrations for 30 years. He does not speak volumes, but his work does.
Born in 1952, Wiggins grew up in Central Florida, the son of an electrical engineer father and devoted mother. His father’s work took the family other places, too, including West Germany and Palo Alto, California, where he gained knowledge of the world.
“Like many kids, I drew a lot, copying pictures and amusing myself—but there came a point when paint-by-numbers just didn’t cut it. So I taught myself to paint.” But it wasn’t until college that he began to apply discipline to the drawing process. After high school in Orlando, Wiggins attended the University of South Florida in Tampa, graduating in 1975 with a BFA in “site-specific conceptual sculpture,” a degree that required a lot of drawing and printmaking—but not painting. He drew two early conclusions: 1) his degree wasn’t very marketable and 2) he wanted to experience the world beyond Space Age Florida. “I wanted to live,” he says. “To do that, I knew I needed to move out.” Wiggins soon followed a young woman to Martha’s Vineyard, where he spent a few years as a dishwasher, partying until daybreak and then working all day. Life was good, though his head often hurt.
FOLLOW THE SMOKE
Wiggins followed another young woman to San Francisco, landing a job at Vim’s, then one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. It was late spring 1979, and the acrid smell of smoldering fires from the White Night riots filled the air. The city was aflame with passion and rage incited by the lenient sentencing of Dan White, murderer of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
Seething San Francisco was also on the verge of an era of opportunity. IBM had introduced the world’s first personal computer and Jobs and Wozniak were starting to change the world with the Apple II. The age of digital graphic design had dawned. Wiggins, then 29, was up at first light. He landed a job as a paste-up artist for a playbill printer and realized the possibilities of a career as a commercial artist. In late 1981, he was hired as an assistant art director for a start-up periodical called PC Magazine: The Independent Guide to IBM-Standard Personal Computing. The job led to two momentous events: meeting the woman he would marry (Cheryl Woodard) and the launch of his career as an illustrator.
KNOW WHEN TO PIVOT
The first issue of PC Magazine debuted on newsstands in March 1982 with 96 pages. Woodard was responsible for advertising sales. By December 1982, PC had ballooned to 800 pages, with profits of more than $1 million per issue. The magazine was sold to Ziff Davis of New York the same month.
With the sale, PC Magazine co-founder David Brunnel, along with the staff of 40, left to launch PC World (1983) and Macworld (1984). Wiggins took on the role of assigning art director and in-house illustrator (using traditional paint methods). Then Macworld art director Bruce Charronat was given the mandate to use the new Macintosh computer exclusively for all illustrations, though nobody was doing art on computers at that time. This editorial decision pushed Wiggins into the era of digital art.
“They were heady times,” remembers Wiggins, “and stressful. The publications were huge, and everyone wanted the latest and best graphic technology used for artwork and advertising. We had the money, so I had the advantage of working with and learning from some of the best illustrators in the country.” But Wiggins was dissatisfied. “Most of the artists I dealt with then seemed to be having more fun than I was,” he says. “I was still painting, but also using the computer to make illustrations. But I wanted a change.” Wiggins began to believe he had a shot at making a living solely as a free-lance illustrator, so in the fall of 1985 he made the leap. Before long, it became evident that his digital work, created in programs like MacPaint and SuperPaint, was getting more attention than his analog painting. “Despite the relatively primitive state of software and digital hardware, I knew then that I was creatively suited to work with the computer.”
OLD LESSONS STILL APPLY
Artist representative Jacqueline Dedell of New York, meanwhile, was also cultivating her interest in digital artwork. “I was hungry to enter the digital age. I viewed digital as the future of everything,” she says. She often traveled to California to look for digital artists to add to her portfolio and to bring to the pages of American Showcase (one of the preeminent workbooks of the era, owned and published by her husband, Ira Shapiro). At the time, she points out, the Internet did not exist and the CD-ROM was in its infancy. “When I first saw Wiggins’s work, I knew it was unique,” Dedell recalls. For the most part, digital art then was almost entirely compositions of images and color blocks. It often looked bit-mapped, contrived. Not Wiggins’s art: “His reminded me of Swiss poster art from the 1960s for PKZ Clothing, with an old-school quality that no one else was producing. It was modern yet hauntingly nostalgic.” Wiggins did not have the technological advantages of today’s digital artists, but he had a vision: to use digital tools to create art in the old style. It was counter-revolutionary. “Early on,” Wiggins says, “I resisted the urge to ape traditional painting methods.” In fact, the technology prevented it. Software developers were trying to make tools that imitated watercolor and other traditional painting techniques, with limited success. Consequently, much digital artwork appeared derivative and clunky. His work, notes Dedell, “had depth of narrative. It could have been a painting, but an artist using a machine produced it. This stunned me.” Wiggins signed with Dedell in 1987. They collaborated for the next 20 years.
“It was challenging to find a distinctive and authentic voice with the tools at hand,” Wiggins says. “I experimented as I went along, letting the market pull my development as I evolved toward my current style—a dusty, vintage feel that is rooted in my love of early twentieth-century United Kingdom travel posters and Japanese woodcut traditions.”
EMBRACE THE CRAFT
Wiggins’s work and popularity rests on his devotion to one core principle: he puts the client—not himself—first. “I compare what I do to the craft of cabinet making. I am paid to create something functional and enduring. The craftsman strives for every assignment to be well-made and beautiful. While I have not always been successful, it has never been because of a lack of effort or desire on my part.”
Wiggins’s process is labor intensive. First, he reads the material and then he takes out tracing paper and starts doodling, creating rough thumbnails. If required, he researches reference materials, chiefly online, or consults his personal library. Using Photoshop and a Wacom drawing tablet, “I play with the composition before I determine specific imagery, exploring point of view, foreground, background and their relationship to the size and shape of the assigned space.” Next, promising sketches are scanned and further developed, and sketch fragments are combined into one drawing that he sends to the art director.
“Depending on the client,” he says, “sketches may be very tight or loose. Book folks prefer tight representations, whereas magazines and newspaper editors are accustomed to loose presentations.” The approved sketch is then further developed. Unless told otherwise, Wiggins extensively explores colors and contrast, “revising, sometimes extensively, all the way to the end.”
“While I usually have a sense of the direction that I’m taking, I know from experience I’m likely to stumble on better ideas as I experiment, digress and explore. This can lead to dozens of variations from which I must eventually choose. Once an image is 75 percent or so resolved, I send it in for review and comments.”
FOLLOW YOUR HEART
For illustrators, perhaps the most coveted work remains book jacket design. Book covers endure; spot art for editorial does not. Even modern digital books must show up with a jacket, and Wiggins’s do, with coat and tie.
One of his most ardent supporters is Paul Buckley, vice president/executive creative director at Penguin Books. Buckley has the authority to choose any illustrator on earth for Penguin titles and he often picks Wiggins.
"When talent is that solid, age is irrelevant,” Buckley says. “Wiggins never disappoints. I send him a manuscript. He reads it. Sometimes we discuss the direction the editor, publisher or I want him to explore but sometimes we don’t. I wait to see Wiggins’s thinking. He has a brilliant mind and I like to see what he envisions without the influence of outside opinion.”
With wisdom comes trust; with trust, freedom; with freedom, joy. Wiggins has joy. In 2009, he and Cheryl left the Bay Area to be near their daughter, her husband and their two grandchildren, Honey and Maggie, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their son, Leo, a recent college grad, lives in Southern California. They are close.
Far removed from their “heady” days of red-hot media and culture-altering technology—and the expense and traffic of San Francisco—Mick and Cheryl Wiggins are happy. He commutes to his studio on foot. She is an accountant. They have ample time to enjoy family and Wiggins has plenty of illustration work. “This is what I do,” he says, showing me a book cover he is working on for the British division of Random House. “At this stage in my career, I can do nothing else. That’s my story.”
And what a good story it is. Someone should write the book—he could illustrate it. ca