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Drawn to Art: Illustrator Michael Gibbs [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine, June 2002
Cover illustration by Michael Gibbs

ILLUSTRATOR MICHAEL GIBBS KNEW HE wanted to be an artist the day he discovered famed illustrator Maxfield Parrish. He was 12, and his parents had taken him to a farmhouse auction in rural Maryland. Stashed away was the old children’s book, “The Arabian Nights,” long forgotten by its owner. For Michael, it was a treasure.

“The artwork was just stunning and really turned me- on to what was possible with illustration,” he says, never thinking he’d imagine he’d become an illustrator himself. He did fancy a career that would let him be creative, and thought he’d be a photographer, an architect or maybe an archaeologist.

Those aspirations changed freshman year at the University of Maryland. After spending four years on the honor roll at a private Catholic high school in Washington, DC, Michael admits the temptations of being 18 and away at college in the early 1970s overwhelmed him. “I pretty much spent the entire year majoring in partying and skydiving,” he says.

Michael took the next year off to think about what to do with his life. Taking pictures had become a passion, so he applied to Pratt Institute as photography major. He was accepted, but once in school had second thoughts. “The photography professors were more into teaching photojournalism, and I was into composed pictures full of light and shadow,” says Michael. ‘They hated my approach, and I have to say I wasn’t too crazy about theirs.”

The mandatory freshman curriculum required Michael to take a drawing class, though, and by the end of the term, he found his calling. Then he started to make up for years of lost time.

“I pulled 29 all-nighters, my first year as an illustration major,” admits Michael. “The next year was the same—only crazier. I remember staying up for 86 hours straight to finish an assignment.”

After his junior year, Michael ran out of money to pay for college and had to leave Pratt. He moved back to Washington and took a job in the graphics department at AT&T. He stayed for three years—just long enough to get the experience and portfolio pieces he wanted, but not so long as to become vested.

“I knew if I stayed too long, I’d get sucked into staying forever because of the promise of more perks and money,” he says. “But one spring day, something snapped. I remember it being so beautiful outside—only you couldn’t tell from my desk because the windows has this dull greenish gray film on them. I knew it was time to make the break.”
Soon after, Michael quit his job to freelance. It was a gamble, but when he arrived home after his last day of work, a call offering him his first freelance assignment was waiting on his answering machine. The client: the American Cemetery Association. “It wasn’t ‘Arabian Nights,’ but it was a start,” he admits.

More than two decades later, the phone is still ringing. Michael illustrates magazine and book covers, annual reports and
brochures for clients that include American Airlines, Ziff-Davis, Verizon, Johns Hopkins University, Sears, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, the World Bank, The New York Times, Harvard Business Journal and The Washington Post magazine.

He has received national acclaim for his work, winning awards from prestigious arts publications and organizations such as Communication Arts, Print magazine and a variety of Art Director’s Clubs throughout the U.S. He has also won a dozen awards from the Society of Illustrators in New York City.

Still, Michael considers his art to be a work in progress. “The illustration field has become so competitive that you have to keep evolving,” he says.

In fact, in recent years his style has evolved from creating traditional acrylic illustration to creating much of the artwork on his Macintosh computer with the software program Photoshop. “I like that the computer gives me tremendous versatility, letting me add found objects to the work-from antique photographs to gears to barbed wire.”

Michael has also developed several other styles, ranging from Rock Art (which has a primitive cave painting feel) to one that harkens back to the 1920s. He also has begun making handmade books that incorporate printmaking techniques and digital artwork.

His ability to constantly morph his style earns him accolades from his peers.

“Michael’s work is so unique because of the way he thinks,” says Martha Vaughan, the past president of the Washington Illustrators Club and an art teacher at Montgomery College. “I always look at his work and wonder, how did you come up with that?”

Michael says he doesn’t really know how ideas from. “But it definitely feels like they come to me, rather than me going to them. It’s very serendipitous, and it’s a little scary to realize that your livelihood depends on serendipity.”

But Michael admits to having a method. To get an idea, he usually reads an article two or three times, then lets it soak in. But to find the main point, he takes out a thick black marker and removes attributions, quotes, numbers, job titles and anything that distracts him.

“I realize this wouldn’t be popular with the writer, but eventually, I narrow the article to a single sentence, grabs a cup of hot coffee and start sketching,” he says. “Sometimes the ideas come fast, he says. Sometimes they don’t.”

But always, he strives to insight or a new meaning to the article. “I always want to convey an underlying theme, so I work to stay as far away from the literal as possible because that’s the writer’s goal. To me, the job of an illustrator is to provide an interpretation and add visual impact. That’s what I believe makes art so compelling.”

View Michael Gibbs’ work: www.MichaelGibbs.com; www.stockillustration.com.


More Elan magazine / Artist profiles Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.