It was 1988. I was fresh out of Art Center and testing my design wings on a small, non-profit weekly when I first got up the nerve to call Brad Holland to see if he’d do an assignment for me. He was the biggest name in illustration and had been for quite some time so I was hoping a “Holland” in my portfolio would give my career a boost. Unfortunately, he graciously declined the job. Twenty years later he’s still at the top of his field and I finally found an opportunity to ask him again—this time with better success. (see the spread below)
The fact that Brad Holland has remained a dominant figure in illustration for so many years is remarkable in itself. But, after redefining the meaning of “illustration” when he brought his portfolio to New York in 1967, he has continued to stretch boundaries and forge new trails that new generations of artists are still eager to follow.
The New York Society of Illustrators has honored Holland with more awards than any other illustrator in their history and, in 2005, elected him to the Hall of Fame. Mark English has called Holland “the most important illustrator in America today.” As one of our featured artists this month Brad talks candidly about imitators, style, politics, and stock.
Q: What about the spread of imitators affected you the most?
A: It was like being in a Hall of Mirrors. You know, you spend all this time trying to establish your own identity, then suddenly it’s not yours any longer. It’s just a style out there. I began to feel like I was just one more guy who painted like Brad Holland.
Q: So you set out to reinvent yourself…
A: Well, I realized that if I wanted to be original again, I’d have to abandon my own style and start over.
Q: How do you reinvent yourself and still remain true to yourself?
A: I just imagined I was five and starting over—only making a couple of different decisions here and there. You know, we’re all the product of an accumulation of decisions. Little ones and big ones. Go to a bar one night instead of staying home and your whole life may be different. Same thing with style. Make a few different choices in how you draw or paint something and your style will be different, but you’ll still be you.
Q: You said you had to work hard to develop your identity. Can you explain that?
A: Sure, when I started, illustration was illustration, and the kind of work I wanted to do wasn’t.
Q: In what way?
A: Well, illustration then was very literal, and I was drawing pictures of guys with their heads on fire. Art directors weren’t sure what to make of me. The fact that I was still a teenager didn’t help either, because it led a lot of people to think I was just expressing teenage angst. I remember one guy suggested that I should stop showing my portfolio; he said I’d be more likely to get work without it—that was encouraging. Another guy advised me to get help. He said a shrink would do me more good than clients.
Q: Did you ever worry that there might be some merit to their reactions?
A: No, not really. I mean I knew I had hang-ups like everybody else, but you can usually tell the difference between art and psychosis. I mean nobody thinks Shakespeare was Jack the Ripper just because he killed off so many people in his plays.
Q: So how did you go about changing that perception?
A: I decided I’d only do my own ideas, and not anybody else’s, and I’d keep doing that until people got used to seeing the kind of pictures I wanted to do. I figured even if they rejected the work itself, they’d get used to seeing the kind of work I was doing.
Q: But if they did reject the work, how did you expect to get any of it published?
A: Good question. I used to ask myself that. Although—since I didn’t have an answer—I tried not to ask it very often. I know it doesn’t sound logical, but I had faith that it would work and in the end, it did. I took my portfolio up to Playboy magazine in Chicago one day. Dropped it off really—I couldn’t get an appointment to see the art director. So I came back to pick it up the next day, expecting to get the Bum’s Rush. Instead, in 15 minutes, my life changed.
Q: What do you think they saw in your work that others didn’t?
A: It wasn’t what they saw, it was who saw it. Playboy was probably the highest paying magazine in the world at that time. They had just moved into the old Palmolive Building on Michigan Avenue, renamed it, remodeled it: exotic interior, great art on the walls, beautiful women everywhere. It was all a bit overwhelming. You’d expect the art director to be like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Instead I met Art Paul, who turned out to be one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met in my life.
Art invited me into his big office, praised me as something new and asked me if I’d like to do work for them every month. When I told him I didn’t want to do literal ideas, he gave me a green light to do stuff that was personal—even though the normal policy at Playboy was to dictate ideas to artists. He said he wanted to get this kind of work in the magazine. And because Playboy was such a high profile publication at the time, once my work started appearing there regularly, art directors began to call me to do the same kind of stuff they had been turning down. Suddenly nobody thought I belonged on a couch any longer.
Q: You had created a demand for the kind of work you wanted to do. Had that been a conscious strategy?
A: Not really. I just stumbled up the stairs in the dark and when the lights came on, there I was.
Q: Did you consciously work at developing a style?
A: At first, yes. In fact, the work I showed Playboy was very stylized. I was influenced by graphic artists like Ben Shahn and Hokusai. But as I learned how to boil my ideas down, I learned to boil my style down too. To make it transparent. It’s like when I write, I try to get rid of “beautiful” writing. The same thing with pictures. After that my natural style began to develop.
Q: How do you define your “natural” style?
A: I just disappear into the picture and let the style define itself.
Q: Do you remember when you came to identify your style as your own?
A: Oh yeah, It was a very precise moment—like one of those clear thoughts that come to you after a long fog. I’d been working on a bunch of ink drawings for a book and I was trying to develop an approach that wasn’t as graphic as the stuff I’d been doing for Playboy. I’d spent the whole afternoon in a very bizarre situation, doodling, almost absent-mindedly, on a big manila envelope with a ball point pen. When I got home that night, I looked at this envelope covered with drawings. They seemed so unself-conscious that I knew I’d found what I’d been looking for.
Q: Your career has taken a strange turn into the political arena lately, most recently leading the fight against current orphan works legislation. Can you explain that briefly?
A: Sure. It’s an anti-copyright law. It would give any member of the public a right to infringe your work whenever he says he had looked real hard to find you but couldn’t. So—that means if ten thousand clients can find you, but one knucklehead can’t, the knucklehead gets to use your work for nothing.
Q: That’s a fairly dramatic change to the law.
A: Well yeah. First, who wants to be so easy to find that any knucklehead can find you? And second, there may be lots of people you don’t want to find you. Think “Danish Political Cartoonists.” I mean we all want to be found by clients we want to work with, but this law says you can forfeit your work if you don’t make yourself available to everybody in the country.
Q: Who’s behind the law, if you can tell?
A: It started with a small group of legal scholars who want to make the public a generous gift of other people’s property. They cooked up the legislative scheme. But it’s being backed by big internet companies like Google, whose business model depends on giving the public free access to other people’s work. This bill would do the trick for them.
Q: I know this has taken an enormous amount of your own time, energy, and money. What motivated you to take on this role?
A: Nature abhors a vacuum, I suppose. And, since nobody was doing anything to oppose the bill, it just seemed like somebody ought to do something.
Q: How did you find out about it?
A: Cynthia Turner is the one who did—she’s a medical illustrator. She found the Notice of Inquiry on the Copyright Office website in 2005. She called it to my attention. Actually, I wrote the first article about it back in 2002—although I didn’t know then it was going to be called orphaned work. I’d been writing some satirical articles about Postmodernism—and I recognized the movement to undermine copyright as a species of that. When Cynthia and I started, we were pretty much alone in opposing the bill. The last I looked, there are now 81 organizations against it and nearly half a million artists.
Q: You mean not just visual artists, but artists, writers, photographers, songwriters, musicians, etc.
A: Right, and we’ve been presenting it to Congress as a small business issue. A private property issue. Because the bill would force you to put your work, contractual information, client contact information—all that stuff—into giant, privately-owned commercial databases. If an infringer can’t find your work in the databases, it would be a potential orphan. And that means anything: professional paintings, family snapshots, home videos. Published stuff, unpublished stuff. Anything you’ve ever put on the internet. It’d all be available to use as an “orphaned” work. The law professors have sold Congress on the idea that if we don’t register every single picture we’ve ever done, it proves we don’t have any commercial interest in it.
Q: How would these registries work?
A: Who knows. It’s all been negotiated in secret with lobbyists. I suspect they’d operate pretty much like stock houses, promoting themselves as one stop shopping centers for art. If you’ve registered your work with them, they’d probably charge you maintenance fees and commissions for clearing your work. If you’re a publisher or art director, they’d probably charge you search fees. If you’re an infringer, they’d charge you a search fee and issue orphan certificates for all the unregistered work you’d like to infringe.
Q: Why should art directors care about the this bill?
A: Because popular art depends on visionary art directors just as much as it does on artists and designers. I can’t imagine living in a culture where people think that creativity is a matter of ripping off somebody’s work, photoshopping it a little and calling the process a “paradigm shift.” Collage may be a form of art, but art isn’t a form of collage.
Q: Are you still able to find time at your drawing table – or easel, whichever?
A: Oh sure.
Q: And you’re still taking assignments?
A: Of course. I just finished 23 paintings for Harrah’s in Las Vegas and 10 for a restaurant in Zurich. I’m finishing a picture for Vanity Fair and starting two posters.
Q: You’ve been a vocal critic of the stock industry and have kept your existing work out of the secondary rights marketplace until now.
A: Well—actually that’s not true. I began selling secondary rights to my work in 1978. That’s when the Copyright law changed. Before that, publishers usually owned the rights to the pictures you did for them and people hardly ever talked about secondary rights. In fact, a lot of people thought it was unethical to license work to one client that you had done for another.
Q: And you didn’t think it was unethical?
A: No, not if the pictures were yours—and assuming there was no conflict of interest, of course. I mean I was very careful about how I did it. But see, I had always done my own ideas—if I had been working from an art director’s sketches, that might have been different. But they were my pictures, so I figured I had every right to treat them as a body of work. Of course that was before stock houses entered the picture. When they did, I opposed them.
A: Because they were selling pictures like potato chips. A few years ago, the head of one stock house said they were only giving clients what they wanted. He said times have changed and art directors now see illustration as a disposable commodity. Well, if that’s the way they think about the work they’re selling—and the people they’re selling it to, it poisons the whole field. I don’t care if you’re painting a picture or painting a house.
Q: So what led you to finally give buyers access to your archives again?
A: Well as I said, I’ve always done it, but I’ve always treated it as part of the big picture. For example, the paintings I just finished for Harrah’s began as a stock request. They wanted 28 paintings from the archive. But I thought they’d be better served if I did mostly new things. So we worked out a deal: five pictures from the archive, as a kind of template for the project; then I did 23 new paintings to go with them. The archival work gave them a specific idea about how the series would look—something they might not have gotten from pencil sketches—but it allowed me to give the series the right feel, the right mood. The ideas, the colors, the composition were all tailored to fit the architectural space, not cropped or stretched or photoshopped to fit.
But now, having said that, I know that what you’re really asking is why I’ve put some of my work with Profile.
Look, you know I’m opposed to any kind of art supermarket. But that’s not what you’re doing here. I think artists made a big mistake giving their work to stock houses. But they did it and it was clear even ten years ago that we’d have to live with the consequences. I wrote then that we’d all have to steer into the skid—find new ways to work with clients.
So two years ago, when you called with this idea of starting an archive that art directors would find useful without—what shall we say—treating the work as a disposable commodity, I thought you sounded like somebody we should try working with. You’ve been very responsive to all our suggestions.
I should add—just for the record—that I don’t have any stake of any kind in your business. I just respect what you’re trying to do and I hope you’re very successful.
Brad Holland’s website:
Brad Holland’s stock archive:
Brad Holland at illoz:
All images copyright © 2008 Brad Holland. All rights reserved.