Michael Cho is a freelance illustrator and cartoonist who lives and works in Toronto, Canada. He's been drawing all his life, and has been making a living at it for over 15 years now. Most of his time is spent working on illustration assignments for clients like the New York Times Book Review, Canadian Business Magazine, Nickelodeon, Random House and Penguin Books. He also writes and draws comics, a couple of which have won awards. He is currently working on a graphic novel of interconnected short stories and completing illustrations for an opera.
http://www.michaelcho.com - my sketchblog
http://www.illoz.com/michaelcho - my portfolio
http://www.transmission-x.com/_papercut/ - my webcomic (on hiatus)
When did you first decide to become an illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?
I've been drawing since I was 3, and I've wanted to be an illustrator since I was in the fifth grade, when my parents signed me up for a Saturday afternoon art class. There I met some instructors who were working as illustrators and that seemed like a really cool job. I took a few detours along the way and graduated art college with the aim of being a painter. However, after spending some time being broke and not being able to sell any paintings, I started taking any art related job I could find.
One day, a friend knocked on my door and told me about a theatre company that was looking for illustrators to paint some images that would be projected onto the stage. So I took my meager portfolio over there and faked my way through the drawings. And on opening night, when I saw that they had taken my gouche paintings and fabricated elements of them into stage props, I was completely floored. I used to be the guy who had to climb scaffolding and do that kind of thing, and instead I was on the other side, creating the little drawings for people to work from. After that, I decided I wanted to work as an illustrator.
Who or what inspires you?
That's a broad question. Everything inspires me -- walking on the street, books, music, other artists, etc. I remember reading a book about Hal Foster, and realizing just how integrated everything in his life was -- how well his life and art merged. Like, he would go on a trip to the middle east for a family vacation and sketch the architecture and people there for fun. Then eventually that experience and research would show up his comic strip -- Prince Valiant would go on a crusade to the holy land, for example. All that first hand experience would come out in his art. I hope to someday achieve the same kind of thing -- I want to learn how to squeeze everything I've ever experienced in life through the tip of my brush.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
I'm a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, but I studied contemporary painting there, and didn't take any illustration or design courses. So most of my illustration training is "on the job" or self taught. I got some excellent advice through-out my career from Tim Davin, one of the best art directors in Canada, who took the risk of hiring me for magazine assignments early on, and he was very helpful in his guidance.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
I don't really think about keeping 'fresh' or staying current with styles or anything like that. My aim is mainly on trying to focus and express honestly what I have to offer, rather than keeping up on trends. I usually find myself looking at older artists than checking out the new and hot ones.
What are some of your current projects?
Right now I am working on a series of illustrations for an opera in Montreal. I'm also trying finish up a long form graphic novel, on which I've been working on and off for a while now, as well as an art book of urban landscapes to be published by Drawn & Quarterly next year. Aside from that, I've completed some recent book covers for Penguin Classics and for Random House Canada.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
That's a tough one. I really can't pick a specific one that I'm proudest of. I try to give my very best on every job i do, and I don't let anything out of my studio unless I'm satisfied with it. I think the projects that I've gained the most enjoyment from are the comics that I've written and drawn myself, like in my webcomic Papercut (www.transmission-x.com/papercut). Those stories are probably the ones I feel closest to.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
I'd love to one day do a comic adaptation of Hamlet. I'll probably wait until I'm 50 or so, since the market is saturated with cheap manga adaptations of Shakespeare right now. Other than that, I'd also like to eventually figure out how to paint in watercolour -- I'm terrible at it! I can paint in gouache, and I'm ok at oil painting, but watercolours are a real weakness of mine.
Any advice to the novice illustrator?
Well, I always tell illustrators that are coming out of college to be more varied in their portfolio and find a way to love drawing everything. It's cool if you like drawing goth skeletons, but you also have to learn how to draw cars and landscapes, you know? As an illustrator, you will be asked to draw a lot of different things and you have to be good at all of it. Consistency is a professional trait. Anyone can hit a home-run once, but a pro hits them regularly, and off of all different types of pitches.
What makes an illustration successful?
A good illustration to me conveys atmosphere and shows the emotional investment of the illustrator. You can tell when something is very polished, but lacks that spark of inspiration. For me, Inspiration trumps talent.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
I change up my working process from time to time if I'm feeling burned-out. Like, I'll draw all my roughs with a marker instead of a pencil, or I'll draw standing up, or work really big or something like that. If I need a quick burst of motivation, I just look at the work of artists who've influenced me, or listen to music.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't an illustrator I would have been a..."
...broke manic-depressive. I've wanted to be an artist since I was 6 years old, so I don't have a fallback plan.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
I don't watch any TV. I catch the NewsHour on PBS online occasionally, since I only used to watch the news when I had a TV in my studio. The only thing on TV that I've really loved in the last 5 years has been "the Wire". I've watched all 5 seasons of that show a few times now -- and man, do I miss it.
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