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
Silly Putty 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, 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! The fluorescent Silly Putty package had a cameo in the Seinfeld episode The Big Salad which aired on September 29, 1994.
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!
I produce illustrations and creative idea solutions for toys, packaging, publishing and advertising. I'm also a writer and fine art painter.
• MFA, Syracuse University