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Elwood H. Smith: The Long-Winded Bio

Elwood H. Smith was born in Alpena, Michigan on May 23, 1941. He studied art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Institute of Design at IIT in Chicago. After spending eight years learning typography and design as an art director for a small publishing company and several advertising agencies, Elwood began his career as a full-time illustrator.

In 1976, Elwood moved to New York City, establishing himself as one of the most highly recognizable and well respected professionals in the field of illustration. His illustrations have appeared regularly in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal & The New York Times to name just a few editorial clients. He’s worked with many major advertising agencies world wide.

Elwood has done animation character development for R.O. Blechman and J.J. Sedelmaier at the Ink Tank. He is currently busy developing his own animation using Flash & Toon Boom Studio and other software.

Elwood has also written children’s books and two musicals for children with his wife & representative, Maggie Pickard and has illustrated children’s books for Viking & Klutz Press. He has been featured in Steven Heller’s Innovators of “American Illustration, The New Illustration”, published by The Society of Illustrators & many other publications.

Elwood has been playing guitar since the late ‘50’s and writing songs since the ‘70’s. During his five-year stint in Manhattan, Elwood was lead guitarist in “Ben Day and the Zipatones”, an all-artist band that included Lou Brooks, Bill Plympton and Mark Alan Stamaty. The band
appeared in two dazzling performances of the “Artists and Models Ball” for the Graphic Artists Guild. A 12-song CD, featuring Elwood’s songwriting is available on his web page. The songs are sung by John Platania (guitarist for Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Judy Collins & Chip Taylor), who produced & arranged the project.

In 1983 Elwood and Maggie moved from Manhattan to Rhinebeck, New York where they continue to live a chaotic life with Sophie, a Scottish Terrier; Girlie, an ancient feline nut-case and Luigi, the Best Cat in the World.

When did you first decide to become a graphic designer/ illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?

As noted in my bio, I worked as an art director for 8 years. During that time, I did some illustration when the opportunity arose, but most often I hired freelance illustrators to do finished art based on my layouts. Near the end of that 8-year period, I became convinced that if I didn’t immediately jump full-time into the illustration game, my courage would slip away. In addition, I was getting frustrated as an art director. I was a poor fit in the corporate world. I developed an ulcer. I wanted to draw pictures, not attend meetings arguing with account executives. So I jumped, working for a short spell for a small studio in Chicago before taking on a freelancing career. I’ve never looked back.

Who or what inspires you?

It’s easy to get stagnant. Any creative person needs stimulus and, over the years, I’ve found it in a variety of sources. In the early days, I turned to commercial art magazines like Graphis and Art Direction. Later, I left Chicago & lived for a while in the Dunes area near Michigan City, Indiana. There, I shared a studio with illustrator, Slug Signorino. He and I inspired each other as we worked on developing our personal styles. We also shared a love of jazz and Dairy Queen Buster Bars. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like eating ice cream covered with chocolate & peanuts while listening to Miles Davis.

When I moved to New York, I was stimulated by all the illustrators I met at parties & art openings. Many of them were heros, like Seymour Chwast, Milton Glazer, Paul Davis, Ed Sorel and Marshall Arisman. It was a heady time hanging out with highly creative illustrators like Guy Billout, Steven Guarnaccia and Lou Brooks and designers like Michael Doret and Chris Austopchuk. The people and the energy of New York City were crucial to my growth as an illustrator during the five years I spent living there. These days, I jump start my creativity by embracing new endeavors, like writing and learning & creating animation. My wife, rep and creative partner, Maggie Pickard is a superb fine artist & has become an excellent graphic designer. We often work together on various projects including our self-promotion material. We fuel each other’s creativity.

Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?

I spent my last two years of high school taking art classes with the best teacher a green boy in Alpena, Michigan could have possibly asked for. Her name was Nancy Feindt and she was responsible for my decision to pursue art as a career. She nurtured me and gave me the kick in the ass I needed to leave my small hometown and head to art school in a big city. In addition, I spent two years at a mediocre art school in Chicago plus I attended some evening classes at Chicago’s Institute of Design. Mostly, though, I’ve learned through observation, imitation and gobs of elbow grease.

How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?

As I said above, I keep an open mind and I’m willing to try on new hats, like expanding my musical interests & developing my skills in animation. Some of my contemporaries shun the computer, but I embrace it. I’m no tech head, so I buy the manuals or pop over to and plug away, learning enough about the necessary software to use it as a creative tool. I love my dual processor G5. I can sit here in my small studio & create soundtracks for my animation projects using the symphonic loops available in Apple’s GarageBand and mix everything up, adding mandolin or sound clips from exotic instruments. All this would have been impossible before the availability of computers without a huge outlay of cash and a large studio filled with recording equipment. These are the best of times for creative people. I’m like a greedy pig, wallowing in the riches.

My animation doesn’t inform my illustration directly, but it does keep my battery charged.

What are some of your current projects?

In the process of learning animation, I worked up some short animation projects (most are on my site), but I soon became bored with reinventing the wheel. Don’t get me wrong, I love the old masters of animation and Disney’s earliest animator, Ub Iwerks’ stuff, as far as I’m concerned, is as good as it gets. I am delighted by the best 3D stuff like “The Incredibles”. The more traditional “Triplets of Belleville” is a masterpiece. But my time is limited and I finally
concluded that I have no interest in pursuing conventional animation. When, two years ago, I attended my first animation festival, The Ottawa International Animation Festival, I discovered the amazing Gianluigi Toccafondo. His masterpiece, “La Piccola Russia”, completely bowled me over and changed forever my view of animation. At the festival, I finally met in person another of my animation heros, Chris Hinton. These two masters blew the doors wide open for me and, though my new stuff won’t ape their work, Chris and Gianluigi have inspired me to take this art form as far my talent will allow. Without commerical considerations. Without compromise.

To see a short clip from Chris Hinton's amazing animation,"Nibbles" go here:

and click on Directors along the left side. Click on Chris Hinton's name and it'll be the opening animation.

To view a RealOne Player movie of Gianluigi Toccafondo's "La Piccola Russia", click on this link:


It’s a pale version of what I viewed in Ottawa, but it’s still amazing.

About my latest project: It’s a short animation, built upon a seven-minute composition I created using GarageBand and sound clips from many sources. It’s not really a “true” animation, but more of a visual collage. I’m using still images, live action clips, animation clips and anything else the stew needs to attain the specific flavor I’m after.

I make my living doing illustration assignments, but whenever I can I work on my personal animation projects.

Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?

My favorite project is the animation I’m currently working on. I’m especially fond of my last finished animation, “Little Green Monkey”, which is on my site. My earliest animations were created using Toon Boom Studio and, then, Macromedia Flash, but Green Monkey was done by creating hundreds of individual drawings on watercolor paper, adding watercolor washes, scanning each image and finally assembling them into a movie. My new project will contain clips created the same way and it’ll also feature the Green Monkey. When it’s finally done, I’ll let everyone on this site know where to view it.

Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?

Oh, yeah, tons! I’m a slow learner, so I hope I’ve been handed a long, long life. I am currently learning Apple’s Motion 2 to composite my new project and add special effects. I’m sure I’ll run into all kinds of things that will intrigue me as I continue to pursue animation.

Any advice to the novice designer/ illustrator?

Just the usual suspects. Believe in yourself, keep your standards high and work your ass off. Mainly, keep an OPEN MIND. Let curiosity rule your life!

What makes a designed piece or illustration successful?

It’s successful to the client if it sells. And to the creator if it satisfies the soul.

What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?

I keep the inner fire burning by fueling my curiosity. We all have to decide for ourselves how best to do that.

And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?

I have no idea. The Simpsons? But, on cable, it’s no contest: HBO’s “Deadwood”.

Related Link:

Recent Work:

1 comment:

I_R_Dad said...

Sweet! I LOVE Elwood's stuff!

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