A Brush With Depth (Frontenac House) is a compilation of Canadian artist Rick Sealock’s “best illustrations, many behind-the-scenes stories, and hopefully helpful advice on illustration, self-promotion and reinvention that sustained a 30-year-plus freelance career and counting.” Sealock is what I refer to as a master of brutal-istic exaggeration, a practitioner of raw and untamed transgression and purveyor of surrealist absurdity—in short, a spot-on specimen of the ultra-expressionist 21st-century illustrator.
On the occasion of his new book, I’ve asked him to wax about the inspirations, influences and expectations that have gone into his oeuvre. To say he is entertaining is an understatement. Let’s read what he has to say …
What was the genesis of A Brush With Depth? Why did you give it such a self-effacing title?
It began as a dare. A double dare! Neil Petrunia, the publisher of Frontenac House and a fellow instructor at the Alberta College of Art & Design (now AUArts) “dared” me to assemble my illustration lectures and images into an art book. He saw it as being educational and inspirational, hopefully entertaining, and a way of giving something back to our profession. Fast forward 10 years and many revisions later (as I greatly misjudged how much work there would be), we had a book, but no title. We had working titles like “Smoking Chickens & Such” or “Bovines Behaving Badly,” “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Illustration, But Were Afraid to Ask,” but none that reflected the book’s personality or vibe. Was it overkill or clichéd, off the wall or banal, or both? Thus, a title for those who love my work and enjoy the depth of concepts, creativity and imagery splashed across each page or one for those who dislike my work and will enjoy the title’s implied shallowness! Everyone’s happy!
Where are you from, and what has been you career path up to now?
I was raised on the wide-open prairies and tall skies of Southern Alberta—yup, a Canada boy. There must be something in the water, as illustrators Douglas Fraser, Murray Kimber and Thom Sevalrud are all prairie boys too. Since graduating from ACAD in Calgary in 1986, my freelance foray was mainly in editorial illustration. In 1993 I began juggling my freelancing with teaching illustration at ACAD and made a seismic shift in my illustration work after a boot to the head review in “Borrowed Design.” In 2005 I moved to Ontario to teach illustration at OCADU in Toronto and at Sheridan’s FAAD program in Oakville. Currently, I’m still juggling illustrating and teaching at Sheridan, where colleagues, to name a few like Blair Drawson, Sandra Dionisi, Joe Morse, Thom Sevalrud and Carl Wiens, make it fun.
Your work is part cartoon, part emotional release, part angry sketch. How would you describe what you do?
I usually describe my work as “Fun, Manic or Quirky”; others say it’s wild and wacky, though yours implies complexity and depth, so let’s go with that!
In hindsight, I blame my upbringing, a youthful overloaded visual diet of comics, mostly MAD magazine, and Cracked. I devoured these visual brain-bashing encyclopaedias of life, savouring their imaginative satire. Beyond the pure entertainment value, I was constantly drawn to their incredible caricatures and editorializing. They raised commentary to an artform.
Mesh this with Frederic Remington and CM Russell Wild West art calendars, black velvet bullfighter paintings, and a pinch of German Irish heritage thrown into the mix, could be responsible for what I do … or damage I do?
Why does brutalism (which also enters into your imagery) appeal to you? What does it say about who you are?
To quote Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
I give people what they want, and apparently the art directors I’ve worked with want brutalism? Possibly all-nighters, shrinking budgets, and tight turnaround deadlines reinforces this?
Still, many art directors want an image with that extra zing, something energetic or wacky, humorous or manic with an underlying edge or darkness that either tickles or tackles the viewer. Again, I pay homage to Cracked and MAD magazine for their parenting. Their acerbic humor and wit lampooned and skewered everything and everyone. This indoctrination to satire and caricature, whether conscious or not, was a huge influence on many young and impressionable minds, illustrators included. As a gun-for-hire illustrator, I follow the art director’s lead, so brutalism follows me or I follow it. It’s been a happy marriage.
How do you teach? What do you tell your students: Do me? Do you? Use me to get to who you are?
I hope the latter, but it probably encompasses all your questions at one time or another, and possibly brutalism too. I teach best when I’m animated and having fun, hopefully keeping it excitably engaging. Student evaluations define it as a choreographed mayhem of flailing-arm rants, comedic standup, and drill sergeant lectures on the nature of illustration that include a repertoire of “Don’t tell me, draw it!” “Redraw, revise and refine.” “More sketches!” This constant reiteration of the importance of process work (drawing mind maps, sketches, media studies, etc.) is to further focus and communicate visual concepts and define their creativity. The discipline of generating process work to identify, interpret and distill “ideas into images” can produce breakthroughs, happy accidents or unexpected “aha!” moments that can further hone the progress of their personal visual voice.
While there is constant shifting in our industry due to today’s technology, students’ passion and curiosity to explore and challenge their visual journey still prevails. And it can be intoxicating, thrilling and scary, if the student is willing to figuratively throw themselves onto their own pen—essentially take chances and create images that they believe in and put out in the world, and the response to the image can further educate. They learn through creating and create to learn. Who wouldn’t want to draw for a living!
What do you like most about your art?
I love illustrating! I love the rush of creating something new or making a deadline under the wire. I love the unknown of what I’ll draw tomorrow. I love the journey.
I love this excerpt from the book: Although illustration possesses few secure signposts pointing the way to success, it offers enormous freedom—of medium, style and content. And on a societal level, illustrators are expected to be the seers of contemporary culture. They pick at the many threads making up our various cultures—political, social, economic, artistic, etc.—and weave them into challenging images that are both read and responded to. Illustrators have the freedom to simultaneously consume and create, and their work does exactly the same. It is a profession that draws from and adds to our cultures, with the potential to effect immense change.
What do you want others to say (or do) about it?
Hopefully say amazingly super nice things as they enjoy the book and images! Hopefully they will also say that this is a fun book on why—and how—to be an illustrator. That like other industry books it discusses business, various markets, promotion, and assessing your portfolio. On how to talk about stylistic struggles, anxiety and coping mechanisms used by illustrators. How many of the book’s showcases were inspired in student discussions when lecturing on the common fears of illustrators: What is my worth as an image maker? Is my work passable, or more? Can I accept or bounce back from winning or losing expectations? Can I sustain an illustration career? Granted, this may sound like a tough slog to a student, but all illustrators have been there, gone through it, and come out more resilient. How even seasoned illustrators at the top of their game, winning awards and accolades, are still wondering how they can create better work, if they should chase other markets or styles, or jump on the next fad, just to stay relevant. That while the book’s images are the main focus (channelling a coffee table as big as a picture book or vice versa), it’s vitally important to advocate the discipline, resilience and curiosity required to sustain a career in our industry. And yes, always be a shameless self-promoter!