Here's one from the vault that has always held a sentimental place in my heart - a full page spread that appeared in Sesame Street Magazine entitled S Family's Spring Day for Children's Television Workshop.
I had just begun work as a regular contributor to Crayola Kids Magazine and had a few jobs under my belt. Around this time, the magazine stands at bookstores and grocery stores were filled with kids magazines. With a pen in hand, I jotted down the names and addresses of the art directors from the magazines I liked.
Next, I did what every illustrator is told NOT to do. I went home, folded an 8.5" x 11" color photocopy of an activity page I had done for another magazine and stuffed it into a white envelope with nothing more than the addresses on the outside and my name on the inside. When doing promotional mailers, artists should, for the most part, always send postcards. Art directors don't want to waist time opening envelopes. Most of the time they never even look at your post cards!
One week later, I get a phone call from the art director at Sesame Street Magazine in New York City. I was expecting to be commissioned for a small spot illustration or some supporting art, not a full two-page spread. Not a bad return on investment for a stamp and envelope! My contract arrived with the most whimsical cover letter:
"Sesame Street Magazine is guaranteed to be a smash hit now that you've agreed to do an illustration for it!"
There were little to no changes to the art, but there were some changes to the content as the sketches evolved. Since it's an educational magazine, the games and activities are developed and reviewed long before they reach my desk. I received a very detailed list of what to include in the illustration and how the overall feel of the page should be presented. Beyond that, the characters and style were up to me. The art was hand-painted with airbrush and gouache on bristol board. At this time, I was transitioning into digital art, but still producing a fair number of illustrations in traditional mediums. It's cute little illustration, and I hope it made the kids happy.
Original hand-painted art and the printed page as it appeared in the magazine.
Pencil sketch stages.
Redesigning An American Classic
This was my first major toy packaging commission. Until then, I was doing a lot of product rendering, concept boards, and a lot of line art. To tell this story properly, I need to start with a brief history of Silly Putty packaging.
Binney & Smith (Crayola, LLC.) acquired Silly Putty in 1977. The look pretty much stayed the way it was originally introduced in 1951, retaining it's iconic television frame and two blonde haired kids. Up until 1989, they were still producing Silly putty with this packaging. The nineties were rolling in and it was time for an update. I couldn't believe I was going to be the the guy who got to take this on! Granted, there were several attempts in the '70s at updated packaging, Silly Putty Man featured a Marvel-esque superhero fighting off space pirates and limited run holiday packaging from the early '80s. But they never radically changed the packaging for the original Silly Putty until 1992. I had just finished my studies at Syracuse University and was ready to go full-time into the world of freelancing. I had an interview for a full-time job at an ad agency in Harrisburg, PA, then the phone rang.
"Hey Joe, you wanna work on the rebranding for Silly Putty?"
"Sure!", I said. "When does it start?"
"We need the art in a couple months, gotta redesign the characters... Come in on Thursday, we'll talk about it."
"I'll be there."
I hung up the phone and cancelled my job interview. I couldn't pass this up!
Silly Putty Packaging
The first round of the redesign was Original Silly Putty, Fluorescent Silly Putty, and Glow-In-The Dark Silly Putty. The main focus was on Original Silly Putty, as it would dictate how the others were to be handled. The kids were still blonde, striped shirt, baseball cap and sun dress. I decided to make the kids' heads look like a ball of egg-shaped Silly Putty. A pattern of boomerangs was used as a nod to the 1950s origins of Silly Putty. The back was b&w line art where I was able to include my name. A year later I illustrated the packaging for Glitter Silly Putty and a stocking shaped holiday four-pack of metallic putty.
When the newly designed Silly Putty was released in 1992, I was told David Letterman held up the The Original Silly Putty package I had illustrated during one of his skits about funny warning labels, proclaiming, "Use of this product may cause extreme silliness", or something like that. I never saw the episode, so if anyone out there knows where I can see it, PLEASE LET ME KNOW!
For you collectors out there, these packages appear to be extremely rare. I have searched the internet for several years and have yet to see them posted anywhere. I've never even seen them for sale on ebay! I have quite a few of them and even some huge press sheets of uncut boards given to me by the art director at Binney & Smith. I had planned to wallpaper a room with them. Maybe someday, I will.
In 1997 the packaging was again re-designed with new characters of which I was not involved. Silly Putty continues to go through many package revisions and was inducted into the National Toy Hall Of Fame in 2001.
In 2002 I worked on some concept art for yet another redesign of Silly Putty. Three pencil sketches of rubbery aliens, goofy birds, and a dog and cat named Stretch and Bounce, never made it past the drawing board, but it was fun to work on Silly Putty again.
I hope this article gets you in the mood to go out and buy some Silly Putty. Like the package says, it's for kids aged "Four to forever". There's nothing else quite like it!
BASIC: Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code created in 1964.
BEATLES: English rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960.
“You are wasting your time, my time and the class's time. I want you out of this class.”
And so, my career as a digital artist was over and it hadn’t even begun! Now I have to tell my mom I got kicked out of my high school computer class for drawing pictures of the Beatles using advanced BASIC computer code. She wasn’t too happy about this, but she stuck up for me and went to see the principal the next day. Funny, how when a parent visits your school, things change. Seems, a student who is averaging an “A” in computer programming can’t be kicked out for “wasting his time”. In the teacher’s infinite wisdom, he made it very clear to me that computers are very serious machines that will never be used on frivolous endeavors such as art. I got back in class the next day, did only what I was supposed to do and and never drew any more pictures in the computer until many years later.
Pictured here is a young and optimistic Joe Lacey serving his time in high school as his dreams and ambitions are repressed and conformed to adapt to society's standards of acceptability.
To be honest, I first designed them by hand using pencils and graph paper. After all, it was a covert operation! I printed out a list of every number, letter and symbol that could be generated using BASIC code. I broke them up into a series of details and grey scales. Then, I filled in the graph paper blocks to make portraits of John Lennon and Paul McCartney from the Beatles' White Album.
I’ve kept the original printouts all these years. I no longer have the graph paper designs. I had George ready to go and Ringo was in the works, but, sadly, they never came to be. I think I’ll get back to work now and waste more of my time making art in the computer.
Let's Go Digital!
Print magazines were having a digital revival in the '90s. Crayola Kids Magazine, published bi-monthly by Meredith Corporation, offered a variety of art styles, games and stories for young readers. It was my first foray into this type of publication and I absolutely loved it! Every couple months, I worked on anywhere from one to three activities, spot illustrations or promotional web items.
It was also my first step into the world of digital art. I remember the day I walked into the Crayola offices and saw all the drafting tables, drafting arms and markers being pulled out and replaced with computers. I was very young and out of school, but thought, "Uh, oh... this looks like trouble." I asked everyone I worked with, "Would you like it if I got a computer and started going digital?" Crayola said "YES!", Fisher-Price said, "YES!" I thought about it and then Bob Riley, the art director at Crayola Kids called.
My phone conversation with him went something like this, "You can do the art any way you want, as long as it looks good, but we'd prefer digital if you can do it, and we need it in one month." I said, "Sure! I can do it digitally." I hung up the phone and went out and bought a Macintosh Quadra 605 computer, Photoshop, Freehand and Adobe Streamline. I had one month to figure all this out.
The game was What's Different? to be included in the upcoming dinosaur issue. Hand inked on vellum, scanned and converted to vector. The art was very simplistic compared to the art I am doing today, but at the time, there were so many obstacles, beyond frequent computer crashes, tube-styled monitors and using a mouse. On top of this, I couldn't email the file and the file had to fit on a 1.4MB floppy disc (Syquest and ZIP Drives were still out of reach). And these limitations went on for quite a few years. It was a golden age for FedEx. The job got done, I figured out how to make an illustration in the computer, I sent off my invoice, and more digital work rolled in soon after.
Bigger And Better Things!
I worked on the magazine for about five years, writing and illustrating games. Multiple computers and programs later, the illustrations were getting more complex. Some being built entirely in the computer. Many, still being hand-inked, scanned and added on from there. The ROW, ROW, ROW series as we referred to them, were some of my favorites. I became the "go-to-guy" for these, writing and illustrating about twelve in all. Here's one I always liked, 9 Shipmates In A Row.
Eventually, I began getting commissions from Sesame Street Magazine, Kid City, Scholastic, Better Homes & Gardens, and even Esquire to write and create children's magazine activities. It became the stepping stone for my future work with corporate promotional books and kids restaurant menus.
Early in my career, I did some editorial illustrations for magazines. This one was for Yankee Magazine which devoted it's pages to life in New England. The art director had seen my work on a series of Halloween illustrations and wanted three black flies that resembled vampires. Cool!
As a kid living near Upstate New York, I was more than familiar with the nuisance of little black gnats that would swarm around everyone's heads. Summer happiness was dictated by the outbreak or lack thereof of these horrible little monsters. Kids pretty much wore baseball caps all summer. The best solution, besides spraying yourself with insect repellent, was to burn punks. Punks were basically incense on long thin sticks that resembled pond water cattails. I used to light two or three of them and stick them on top of my baseball cap where they would burn and encircle my head with a fine smoky mist that created an impenetrable barrier against the flying gnat armies! I thought I looked pretty darn cool! But, then, I was just a dopey little kid. The only time I have ever seen them mentioned in print was in the autobiography Moe Howard & The Three Stooges. Moe talks about "burning punk" to keep away the gnats. Moe knew what he was doing.
Well, finally onto the art! It was commissioned as three small spot illustrations for a side article called "New England By The Numbers". The article listed numeric facts about the black fly population in New England. Seems they have a problem with gnats, too. Maybe they just need to burn some punk?
I remember the day I received an email inquiring if I would be interested in taking on an assignment to illustrate a poster about "The Dimensions Of Computational Fluency". At first I thought, "What is this?" and then I thought, "There's no way I want to take this job!" But then I read further and discovered that the poster was going to be a circus tent with clowns, animals and performers! How cool! A chance to take a very serious and often dry subject such as math and make it visually appealing to grade school kids. Of course I accepted the job!
The poster is a 16" x 21" stapled pull-out inside a quarterly classroom magazine for the National Council Of Teachers Of Mathematics. The basic layout for the poster was supplied by the client and followed an established design for computational fluency. Sometimes, it's really nice to have a structure in place while working out the look of an illustration, especially when it involves technical issues. Other times, it can be challenging or even burdensome. In this case, it just made my work a lot easier, so I was grateful to have it.
I started with a very small thumbnail sketch just to get thinking about it. I often do more thinking than rough sketching and like to have a solid visual in my head before I start any serious sketching. Next I did a rough sketch on tracing paper in marker. Marker? It's one of the few times I ever did a rough sketch using marker. Not sure why, but there it is!
I sent the marker sketch to the Senior Designer at The Magazine Group in Washington, D.C. and it was approved with a few minor changes, primarily the banner at the top. I thought a big waving banner with the words FLEXIBILITY, ACCURACY, and EFFICIENCY would look neat being hit by the spot lights. This was nixed, for good reasons. The new layout with each word inside the light beams was a lot better! There were a few character changes, clowns were to be less "hobo" looking, and gender and racial representations were discussed. I was ready to work on the tight pencil sketch.
The tight pencil sketch went through with no changes that I can recall and I was ready to create the flat color layout in vector using Adobe Illustrator. I make flat vector art for two reasons: 1) It gives me a close to finished look in color and layout that I can send to the client for approval, prior to starting the painting. 2) I can create each piece of the illustration in layers and easily move or scale things as needed without any destruction of the images that can occur in Adobe Photoshop when painting with pixels. The final art was digitally rendered using Photoshop.
You can click through the gallery of images below to see the progression of the art.
I was really happy with the final production. The printing came out spot-on and the colors were incredibly accurate. The Dimensions Of Computational Fluency math poster was a big challenge, but a very rewarding project to work on and I'm not clowning around, either!
• Publisher: The Magazine Group of Washington, D.C. • Senior Designer: Janelle Welch.
• Poster front design: Janie Schielack and Tim Boerst. • Illustration: Joe Lacey.
On a side note, shortly after I had completed the poster, I was contacted by a music band in Spain called La Herejia asking if they could use one of my clowns for their new CD "Malabares". Since I owned the rights to the images, I agreed. Funny where things end up. A veces, la vida es un circo ambulante.
The Model Magic™ Wizard was designed for Crayola's Air Dry Model Magic™ Modeling Compound. I wanted him to be very whimsical with a "chunky" look as if he were sculpted from clay. I first intended to make him out of real clay and have him photographed, but the art director said that wouldn't work. I'll talk more about that later.
I looked at a lot of older illustrators for inspiration. Andrew Loomis, who wrote many art instruction books, and Vernon Grant, the illustrator famous for his gnome characters as well as the creator of Kellogg's Snap!, Crackle! and Pop!® were two obvious influences. I didn't go though a lot of exploration and he sort of "magically" happened and was approved with no changes. Wow! that was easy! Or at least that's what I thought.
So, why not make him out of clay? It is Model Magic™ after all? Well, the package was produced quite a few years ago and the flexographic printing process had it's limitations. Printing the art onto a plastic/foil bag and with limited colors was the reason he became a painted illustration.
Below is the original packaging and a digitally restored version using a scan of the first unused painting. The printed package is taken from a second painting I did. The stars on his hat are dimensional looking and his beard is fuller. The second painting was never returned to me, and that's why It's not featured here. I most likely didn't want to destroy the first painting by over-painting it. Unfortunately, the new wizard printed a bit murky.
I was happy with the design and was hoping that he would become the official Model Magic™ mascot. But he was used only once and for a very brief time. But, his debut opened and closed on this one package. Still, he holds a good place in my heart and the job was a lot of fun. It's nice to finally see him looking his best! He's a happy little guy.
To see more of my art, please visit my website.
This is a product I designed and illustrated for Crayola quite a few years ago. It's one that I really like and had a lot of fun working on. Color and Stamp Mix-Up Monsters was small rackable set of eight high quality rubber stamps featuring zany monsters with interchangeable heads and bodies. The set also came with four washable markers and two background sheets for stamping.
Everything was hand illustrated. The box art above was done in gouache on bristol board. The inkings for the stamps were probably done on vellum with brush or maybe an art pen. I can't remember, and they don't appear to be in my possession anymore.
The set was always planned with four characters, but I designed five of them. Surprised I didn't have to design twelve! Depending upon the project, I either do one design or quite a few. All the extra concept work is used for market testing or simply to have a variety to pick from. And, of course, my favorite character, a burly-looking pig monster with horns and fur was not chosen. *Insert sad-faced emoji here. Oh, well, seems that's the way it goes! Most of the characters made it through with few changes. You can see the original sketches below. I also designed and illustrated a matching set called Color and Stamp Dinosaurs.
Don't confuse Crayola's Color and Stamp Mix-Up Monsters with Crayola's Monster Mix-Ups, a big rubbing plate kit. I designed that one too and will be posting it for Halloween.
To see more of my art, please visit my website.
Whenever I work with a client, I like to pick up old product catalogs to see what they were making years ago. It's a nice way to make a connection to the past and see where my work fits into the company's history. These two books, Wilton Sugar Mold Ideas and Wilton's Wonderland of Cake Decorating Supplies were gifts I sent to the Creative Director at Wilton. I may have to get my own copies. What was I thinking?! There's so much fun art in these books! I could post every page, but here's a few of the ones that really impressed me.
My services with Wilton over the years have been in product development, creative exploration and production design. Much of my work has made it into production as single items or as major parts of full product lines. I'll be posting more of my work for Wilton at a later date, but in the meantime, here's a couple cupcake products that I designed.
To see more of my art, please visit my website.
A Look at Vernon Grant's Promotional Books for Kids
You may not know him by name, but you know his work. Vernon Grant (April 26, 1902 – July 9, 1990) is the creator of the Kellogg’s characters Snap! Crackle! and Pop! In 1938, Life magazine called him "America's favorite children's artist." Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, his illustrations appeared on major magazines, cereal boxes, advertising and collectible premiums such as posters and books. It's these premiums which first made me aware of this great illustrator. I hope you enjoy this very brief introduction to the art of Vernon Grant.
Years ago I found a small Kellogg's Rice Krispies flip book at an antique market. "Fold yourself a lot of pictures" it read. It delivered on that promise. I was impressed by the whimsical art and the cleverness of the booklet. I bought it. There was a very distinctive signature on it - "Vernon Grant". I thought, "This is a guy I need to see more of." I love promotional giveaways and Grant's are among the best. Since then, I have added to this collection and am always looking for more of Grant's premiums.
Then I found Flibbity Jibbit, a promotional kids book that told the tale of a key-keeper, a king, and a little bird named Flibbity Jibbit. Their journey to find the key to unlock the door that held Junket's Rennet Powder for the king's custard party is told by Grant in an illustrated 32 page fairy tale. It was adorable! It also made me want to make some custard. I guess advertising really does work!
Grant's style is very economical and not overly rendered. He often makes use of three color tones to create volume with a dark, middle, and light. But more importantly, his drawings have character. A lamp is not just a lamp, it's full of personality. It feels as if even a shoe can be your friend in Vernon Grant's world.
His compositions make use of circles and solid shapes. Buildings and backgrounds can be bold and abstract in nature, similar to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s and 1930s, creating a world full of dream-like twists and turns. He utilizes classic design principles of color and tone to keep the viewer focused on the center of interest. A signature look of his work is the use of solid color backgrounds, often black.
Today, these commercial premiums are in the form of activity books, not story books, with puzzles, games and coloring pages replacing story driven themes.
I'll be posting an article and samples of my work in this field of illustration sometime soon. In the meantime, to see a small selection of my illustrated kids premiums and books, please visit my website.
BOOKS I RECOMMEND
All the images are from my personal collection.
I produce illustrations and creative idea solutions for toys, packaging, publishing and advertising. I'm also a painter and educator with an MFA from Syracuse university.