Like every artist and illustrator, I have a wealth of unfinished work and unfulfilled visions of characters and worlds that might have been. Beyond commercial jobs that get "killed" mid stream or never make it into production, there's all the personal work that has sat in folders and boxes for years. I look back on some of this stuff and wonder why I abandoned them. So, here's a short-lived vision that only made it to the rough concept stages - Spy Guy.
About eighteen years ago, I had planned to do five toy boxes and two scene illustrations for a character called Spy Guy, but they never got past the preliminary tonal studies. I was watching a lot of Gerry Anderson puppet TV shows at the time (Captain Scarlet and Stingray). I was also collecting quite a few vintage 1970s G.I. JOE Adventure Team toys by Hasbro. The cool ones with the fuzzy hair and Kung-Fu Grip™! I was also thinking of them as science fiction book covers. But in any case, they were always meant to be concept work and a chance to try something different.
I posed myself and my brother John with trench coats and toy water guns. I worked out quite a few concepts, but only have one sketch and two tonal studies left. I think I threw the ones I didn't like away. I need to stop doing that! So, I get the art to this point but wasn't getting a lot of positive feedback on the idea and most people were confused as to why I wanted to even do this style of art. I was also busy with paid commercial work and, well, life gets in the way and my focus moved to something else.
The Spy Guy series is one of these personal projects I regret never completing. The lesson I learned is, stick to your vision no matter what anyone else says. I don't know if I will ever revisit this concept again as I have more than enough OTHER unfinished paintings to finish! I'll try to get them done soon.
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.
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.
I ended up painting him twice. The first painting had more tones and textures and felt more like a basic character. The art director felt he needed to look like he was made out of solid white clay with more dimensional elements on his hat. Even with this direction, I pushed it a bit to include a few more darks around the face just to keep the character from fading out.
Below is the original packaging and a digitally restored version using a scan of the second unused painting. Despite all the concerns about the limited printing capabilities, the new wizard printed still ended up printing a bit dark and murky.
I was hoping that he would become the official Model Magic™ mascot. But he was used only once and for a very brief time. 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 in this restored version! 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.
Just Like Daddy & Mommy
The box sizes, shapes and general layouts were all pretty much determined prior to me working on the sketches. The project moved along smoothly and I did not have to do too many explorations for the look of the kids. The girl was by far the most challenging. She had to scrub her toes, wear a robe, be in the bath and still read very similar to the boy. I think the whole job was done in about two to three weeks.
Bath Time Fun! Hidden Picture Game
The boxes were a pretty good size, so I suggested that a picture game would work nicely on each box. The layout really lent itself to this. It also gave added play value to each kit. I designed a bathtub themed hidden picture game that would be appropriate for little kids. Each has the same game, but the games are color coordinated to match the boxes. And, whenever I get the chance, I like to put a dachshund or two into my illustrations!
Harcourt Books Robot Illustrations
Each picture started out with rough thumbnail sketches. The book covers were 3/4 page wraps - a full cover with spine and about 1/3 of the art wrapping around the back of the book. This always adds a challenge, as I can't let important elements fall off the main page, I have to be aware of the title placement and the spine needs to be kept clean of detail.
When the thumbnails are approved, I draw tight pencil sketches. I like sketching by hand on paper. It's often quicker than trying to sketch on a digital tablet (although, depending upon the illustration, I sometimes do just that). The sketch is scanned and used as a guide to make the flat color vector art in Adobe Illustrator. I send a screenshot to the art director to see what the colors will be, but more importantly the positioning of the illustrated elements. Sometimes, there are unexpected changes in size or direction. It can be very easy to move or scale the vector art to correct these changes.
The final art is painted digitally using Adobe Photoshop. For these illustrations I used a WACOM digital tablet. It would be near impossible to this kind of art using a computer mouse, never mind the damage you will do to your hands and wrists! Today, I use an interactive pen display and "paint" directly on the screen.
Digital painting is a lot like traditional airbrush. I select areas to paint, adjust spray pressure, and manually apply the digital paint using a stylus. I try to avoid using too many preset textures and effects, trying to keep the art looking as hand painted as possible. The art is either sent of flat or with editable layers still intact, depending upon the client's needs.
Nothing beats a robot that looks like it was made out a tin can or three cardboard boxes! This is why so much of my inspiration comes form older toys, movies and TV shows. The trick is to make it look updated without being derivative.
My original vision for The Wacky What's-It Machine was inspired by Ideal's Mr. Machine with little alien helpers. I loved it! The art directors did not. I was sad. So, the second one was more of a Wizard Of Oz inspired robot with munchkin styled aliens. I loved it! They did not. Again, I was sad. OK, third time's the charm. Let's think Robbie The Robot from Forbidden Planet. Yay! That one worked! They loved it! Everyone was happy and I was able to go onto the finished painting.
The machine is a Dr. Seuss Meets The Wacky Races with a touch of Rube Goldberg sc-ifi tossed in for good measure. I wish this had been turned into a toy! Illustrating all these crazy and colorful gears and gadgets got me ready for the Crayola factory themed Maker Kits that I illustrated several years later.
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.